A Tasty Bit of Writing

There’s a scene I love in an old book I love, Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Hillary, the  humble, clumsy old priest, has returned, on a cold, gray day, to his cold, gray home. And there he finds a cold, gray dinner, left for him by his housekeeper, who has the night off.

Hilary’s spirits plummet even further when he sees the plate with its gray, sodden potatoes. There are greasy chunks of sausage, much the same color. The meat and potatoes are held together by thick, damp pie crust.  Hillary, whose arthritis aches in the cold, takes the unappealing meal into his study, where he lights a fire and waits to warm up and prays for the spirit to eat the food and be thankful for it.

And then Jim Maloney pounds at the door. Jim is the very man Hillary’s been out looking for–a gallant little Irishman whose talent extends from acting to engineering to being a dab hand with food. Hillary ushers Jim into his study, where the visitor takes in the situation at a glance. He asks the priest’s permission to take that plate into the kitchen. Hillary, of course, says yes.

And Jim searches cupboards and chops  and heats and improvises, and then he comes out with a meal transformed. He has minced and fried and made the ugly meal into a kind of farmer’s breakfast, an omelet deluxe, with a steaming mug of tea and buttered toast on the side. It smells wonderful, and Hillary’s pains are, now, not so bad. As he tucks into the appetizing dinner, Hillary feels that there IS hope, that things CAN change, and then he is able to help Jim, who is badly in need of spiritual mending.

Goudge could have just told us Hillary was discouraged, deeply and heartily discouraged, and that he suddenly began to recover his native optimism and joy. Instead she revealed the plunge into the depths and the breaking through into the light by writing about Hillary’s meal.


One of my favorite professors once told our British lit class that United States writers don’t write food very well. And writing food well was important, he maintained. A passage with food written well takes the reader there in ways that description of other sorts just can’t do.  I began, after that, to notice food in my reading.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith shows us how Francie and Neeley Nolan’s mother makes dinner special at the end of the week:

Saturday supper was a red-letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot catsup. These meatballs had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

Such a humble meal to be so anticipated! Smith wraps a whole world of revelation into that little passage. She shows us that the Nolans are poor, and that the little pleasures are terribly important. She shows us that the mama is tough and resourceful. Taking the things on hand and morphing them into something special. Giving that Saturday night treat a funny, outlandish name to make the eating even more pleasing. Smith reveals that Francie and Neeley are loyal and grateful, hungry children thoroughly satisfied with their treat.

Madeleine L’Engle is a master at writing food. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mother simmers stews on the Bunsen burner and brings her family together around the old, scarred table, warmed by steaming portions, steeped in the smells of rich gravy and tender vegetables, safe in their homely kitchen–unaware of the dangers outside. When she ventures into those dangers–travels through time and space to rescue her father,–the enemy feeds Meg food that, while it offers a brief illusion of lovely smells and nutritious goodness, is as flat and tasteless as sand.

We know the falseness of Meg’s enemy through the food that he feeds her; we know the love of her family through the meals that they share.

In one of Anne Tyler’s books, she writes about a cautious widower who makes a pot of chili on Sunday, and measures and freezes six tupper-wared portions–dinners to last him through each night of the week. Think of what we know about that careful man from what his meticulous, repetitive meal planning.

(I think my professor, yea, those many years ago, may have been right…then. But since then, the United States has gone from being a nation that embraces Spam to being a nation that embraces flavor and freshness and diversity. That growth, I think, shows in the writing of modern US writers.)


Writing food can help us, as wordsmiths, to show our readers what we need them to see.

Think: the passing of a juicy peach between lovers.

Think: the gluttony of a lonely woman healing her hurts with Twinkies and Hohos.

Think: the unsated hungers of a lonely child denied enough food, and savory food, to eat.

Humble, everyday meals tell one story. Lavish banquets tell another. A breakfast shared by newlyweds lets us see an intimate, budding tale.

Traditional family foods tell a lot about the family that eats them. What a person eats by herself with no one to share the meal tells us a lot about that person.

And the food itself gives writers abundant opportunities to set the scene. The scents of food–oh, a good writer makes those scents lift off the page and tickle our nostrils. There are textures and tastes to explore and explain, and there’s the way the food looks on the plate. There’s the plate itself. There’s the place the food is eaten, and the company it’s eaten in–huddled together over the fire, digging potatoes out of hot coals with a stick, passing them back and forth and then eating them–who could resist?–steaming, tongue-burning, hot. Or sitting stiffly on uncomfortable chairs at a long banquet table where thin people, who complain of sporting an extra pound or two, place tiny spoonsful of food on their plates, then push it, listlessly, around with their forks.


Show, don’t tell, the wise ones warn us. And weaving food into our writing–letting the meal or the snack or the sip of wine open the curtain and reveal the truth–is one great way to do that.Can the food you write show your world to hungry readers?

Happy blogging, friends!

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The Revel is in the Details

Write a descriptive essay about the place you do your school work, I would tell my students. They would sigh, and they would labor, and they would hand in papers.

Jared’s essay might look like this:

My desk is four feet long and two feet wide. It is made of wood with metal legs. On top of it is my laptop, and a cup full of pens and pencils. I have a chair that is padded and has wheels.

A vague and sterile picture forms in my mind. So I go back to the writer.

Where is your working space, I ask him. Is it in your room?

No! Jared says, shocked–as if I should know exactly where he works. It’s in a corner of the family room.

Wow, I say. That’s open. Is it noisy?

Oh YEAH, he says. My sister always has the TV on, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time. And my mother comes through and yells at her every fifteen minutes because she hasn’t done her homework.

Now I’m starting to see the edges of this space more clearly. Does it have a window? I ask.

NO, he says; it’s in a corner with no windows, and it’s dark. I only have one of those cheap little lamps from Dollar General, the short kind that shines on your hands and only takes a 40 watt bulb. I have to slide my books under there to read them.

Is it cramped? I ask, the picture getting more and more clear.

Oh my gosh, says Jared. I have to climb over my dad’s lounge chair, practically, to get into my chair. Which is on wheels, but it doesn’t matter, because once I’m in the chair I can’t really move. So usually, what I do is, I wait until everyone goes to bed, and that’s when I do my best work. At midnight, when my sister shuts up, finally, and the house is quiet.

NOW I get it; there’s a clear picture of Jared’s working space. (Poor Jared! I think.)

Write down, I tell him, those things you just told me about the corner and the noise and the cramped space and the light.

He shrugs, like I’m a little but wacky, but he does it. And he writes a clear, rich description. We ditch the details about the size and components of the desk, and what is left creates a vivid picture of a very particular space.


It’s not the number of details; it is the importance of them that we have to consider.


If I’m writing about what the kitchen’s like when I’m baking for Thanksgiving, I want to give an impression of the holiday bustle and feeling. I might talk about the flour drifting off the counter, the marble rolling pin (it was my mama’s) lolling next to the ceramic pie pan, which is waiting for the bottom shell to be rolled out and crimped. I’ll talk about smells–the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the rich roasting smell of pumpkin pie filling. The turkey’s thawing in my big roaster, and the Ohio State game is blaring from the family room. My husband slips in every twenty minutes or so–he is notorious for (yuck!) eating raw pie crust. The holiday baking kitchen is cluttered and warm and fragrant. I don’t have to mention the brand of my oven or the materials my counter-tops are made of to create that feeling in my reader’s mind.

If I’m writing to impress though–well, to start, I’d be writing about someone else’s kitchen. If I wanted to show a kitchen that was high end, I’d talk about marble counter-tops and stainless appliances and travertine tile. I’d mention that the stove-top had eight burners, that the wall-mounted ovens were double, that one could fit eight diners around the marble-topped island. I’d be creating a picture of an entirely different kitchen (and trust me, that IS entirely different from mine). And I’d be writing it with a completely different purpose in mind.

Writing descriptively means picking just the right details. It means closing our eyes and saying, When I think of graduation day, what do I hear? The roar of a crowd, the murmur of a mother, the pounding beat of “Pomp and Circumstance”? Whose face do I see? What do I feel–the scratch of the polyester, the heat of the sun baking the back of my neck?

Often just an image or a scent or a mention of the kind of framed art that hangs on the wall can evoke the picture we want to create. ‘Black leather swivel chair’ suggests one kind of office. ‘Cheap fake panelling’ gives us another office setting entirely.

We should revel in the details, but we don’t have to use too many. We just have to–and sometimes this is the hard part–use the ones that count.

Happy blogging, my friends!

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#creative writing