Describing a food: The good, the bad, and the ugly
I love the deliciousness of certain words—the way something as ordinary as chocolate can take on an entire new personality when dressed up with adjectives like warm, rich, thick, gooey, chilled, creamy, or frothy.
Such descriptive words bring everyday foods to life.
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Magazine writers, cookbook editors, food bloggers, and restaurant reviewers are experts at describing a food. They definitely know the value of a well-turned phrase! Using appetizing words like simmering, hearty, robust, browned, and spicy, they tempt the reader to try a new recipe or visit an out-of-the-way cafe with enticing offerings like these:
The cake looked like a homespun masterpiece. It was fluffy as a pillow, toasty brown, and shot through with plum-colored swirls. Serious Eats
This cream of mushroom soup hasn’t lost one jot of its butter-laden, cognac-kissed suavity. “Soup” is too prosaic a term for the pungent, earthy silkiness in every bowlful. Fungi beg for the honor of giving their lives this way. 239 Best Dishes to Eat in Philly
Plump shrimp, sautéed with chile flakes and served with a salad of oyster mushrooms, cucumber and corn, turned out to be everything I wanted on a Saturday morning: fresh, vibrant and crunchy, with just enough spicy zing to wake me up. Salma Abdelnour, Best Restaurant Dishes of 2007
A wild array of textures—the shattering, airy crunch of meringue at the edges, and the softer one of toasted almonds, with rolling bubbles and pockets skittering across the surface. They’re more relaxed than a Florentine, more lightweight than a brittle. And they’re altogether really lovely over a cup of coffee with an old friend. Food52
I could marinate in these all day. Pun intended.
Ah, but it’s also possible to describe a food—even one you normally like—in a way that totally robs the joy of eating it. Or to describe “iffy” foods like okra, black licorice, or liver and onions that are popular enough with some folks, but we just can’t abide ’em.
“Yucky Foods Worth a Second Taste” tells why some people don’t like—among other foods—tomatoes. Given the description, I can understand why! To me, a good tomato is ripe, sweet, and juicy. But as the article explains, the “slimy, jellylike substance around the seeds, thin skin, [and] grainy pulp” send some people running from this salad staple.
Whoa. Almost had the same effect on me.
And last week, a friend’s Facebook status lamented the horrors of a recent fast food experience. She complained:
Just had the worst breakfast [I have] *ever* had. Ever. I love Sausage McMuffins and went for Burger King’s knock off. Imagine an English muffin soaked in artificial butter oil, toasted, assembled with a spongy egg-like substance, cheese whiz or something, and a sausage puck. Now, wait a few hours, microwave until completely indestructible, and serve to an unsuspecting consumer. It was malevolently bad.
Melanie’s description has had its effect. Off to BK, anyone?
And this description of how to eat raw oysters, though intended to set the novice at ease, sure doesn’t inspire me to rush out to my nearest oyster bar!
Stay calm when faced with a half-dozen to a dozen barnacled, irregular and slimy oysters set on your party’s table. If you’re an oyster eating novice, attempt to suppress the look of horror at not only the aesthetics of the shellfish, but how you’re going to manage extracting the oysters from their watery home.
And the Ugly
Then there’s just plain ugly food. You know the kind I’m talking about: Undercooked. Overcooked. Burned. Mystery meat lurking in an old margarine tub at the back of the fridge. An unnamed vegetable weeping at the bottom of the crisper. The leftover cup of grayish, congealed gravy. Things sprouting fur and fuzz.
The stuff no one wants to—or should ever—eat.
Some people are experts at describing a food that’s ugly. In children’s literature, Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl pretty much top the list. Silverstein’s poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” contains some of the very best of “worst food” descriptions you’ll find! Adjectives like grisly, gloppy, withered, rubbery, curdled, and moldy perfectly describe a food that, to put it kindly, is beyond its prime. Here’s an excerpt:
. . . Prune pits, peach pits, orange peels,
Gloppy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans, and tangerines,
Crusts of black-burned buttered toast,
Grisly bits of beefy roast.
The garbage rolled on down the halls,
It raised the roof, it broke the walls,
I mean, greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Blobs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from old bologna,
Rubbery, blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk, and crusts of pie,
Rotting melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat. . .
It’s a fun poem! Hope you’re inspired to read the whole thing.
So there you have it—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of describing a food. Have I whetted your appetite for descriptive writing? If so, I challenge you and your kiddos to grab a food from the refrigerator, study it carefully, and come up with a list of words to describe it—for better or for worse. And if you’re brave enough, leave a comment sharing your lists with us. We’re hungry to read them!
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If you’re looking for curriculum to help your students write more descriptively, consider WriteShop Primary Book C for grades 2-3, WriteShop Junior Book D for grades 3-4 (or even grade 5) and WriteShop I for grades 6-10. WriteShop I has a great lesson on describing a food, but each of these levels offers several lessons on concrete description that will draw out the best in your young writers and make their writing sparkle with interesting, colorful vocabulary.