After my husband and I began to collaborate on another blog titled Our Eyes Upon Missouri, we discovered people like to read about food and drink, but we don't consider ourselves food critics. We’re food reporters. We write about places that provide decent, good, and great food; we never write about those places we visit if the food cannot be described with one of those three adjectives. But no food reporter can discriminate for the reader without using language more specific than "decent, good, and great." We need specific, concrete and figurative language. So today's post is about helping readers experience food and drink through words? The lesson can be applied to any subject, of course.
First--and I repeat--word choices must be both as specific and concrete as possible. "Decent, good and great" are not sufficient. Even the word "spice" is too broad and imprecise.
Is the spice delivered by cayenne? Then the spice doesn’t affect the tongue; it instead tickles and sometimes scratches the back of the throat, depending upon the intensity of its use. It's the preferred chile for chili recipes because of the secondary burst of flavor delivered after the diner swallows a spoonful.
On the other hand, if jalapeno delivers the spice, then the tongue and mouth take notice. Depending upon the intensity and amount, a person may gasp. Tears may well in his eyes, and when he can speak again, he may beg for milk, bread, tortilla chips, or even water, the least helpful choice.
Today’s jalapenos vary wildly and widely in intensity. Some are bred to be mild, and these are spooned over nachos at sports arenas and movie theaters. Buyers don’t expect these jalapenos to make them cough or gag. In other places, however, the jalapeno-laden food may require a warning label. I know the ones grown locally do.
If a ghost, habanero, or African Bird’s Eye pepper delivers the spice, diners may not even register the smoky qualities inherent in a good ghost pepper or the sweet-hot blend of some habaneros. The burn is just too intense to discern other flavors. Diners may break out in a sweat under the eyes and across the forehead. A strong, fresh curry can have the same effect.
Writers must therefore be as precise about the type of spice in use as is humanly possible. They can help readers by specifying the pepper and the nature of its heat.
Writers can also describe the nature of the heat not only with precise language, but figurative language as well. Consider words useful for spicy food and drink: piquant, savory, hot, spicy, and zesty. Choosing the most appropriate word will add precision. For example:
When asked for her Thai-spice preference, she asked for a -1 on a scale from +1 to +5 and was rewarded with a piquant pineapple yellow curry over rice.
Comparing a food or drinks spicy qualities to something else widely known will help even more. For example:
When presented with a local vintner’s latest wine, he detected the sharp, hot scent of fresh tar on a flat roof. The first sip suggested the grapes grew to maturity in a Nascar crew pit.
Read Calvin Trillin’s essays about food.
Recall the most bland food you’ve ever encountered. Now make a reader taste it.
Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
Al Griffin provided photos of peppers and peppery food.