Monday, January 10, 2011

How To Write A Food Essay

[Ed. Note: This was written one day when I had sat down to write, poised my fingers over the keyboard and just sat there staring at my screen, suddenly devoid of anything to say. As a farce, I decided to start writing a food essay about how to write a food essay. This was the result and hopefully it will be a nice way to put a smile on your face on this bright Monday morning.]

The problem with writing good food essays is that they aren't something you can just crank out, like restaurant reviews.

With restaurant reviews, you basically spend a paragraph or two explaining how you came to know about a restaurant (the "set-up"). This leads into a paragraph about how to find and contact the restaurant. From there you basically spend the remainder of the review walking through the time you initially walk up to the front door until you leave some ninety to one hundred twenty minutes later, hopefully sated and happy. At the end of this epicurean odyssey, you spend a paragraph recapping some of the major points, make a recommendation and end with as pithy a quip as is possible. Et voila! A food blog entry is born.

Essays are different though. While the progression of a meal from start to finish provides a natural and effective way to lead readers from point A to point B, an essay must do the same without the benefits of visual stimulus, such as pictures, or the natural timeline of a meal. As a writer, I need to come up with a topic that I can not only expound upon for several paragraphs, but also have to think of a logical conclusion to neatly tie up the progression of my ramblings. Too add insult to injury, I additionally have to figure out a way to steer you from the premise to the conclusion.

On top of the simple mechanics of writing an essay, there is also the question of style. Should I be funny? Or serious? Do I treat my topic with reverence or insincerity? Often it isn't what you say in an essay that makes it valuable, but how you say it. For instance, when describing how a particular bite of food tastes, I could say, "The food was hot and it tasted good." Or, I could say, "Upon taking the first bite of what would turn out to be many, I was surprised and delighted that not only had the entrée arrived at the table with steam rising and swirling above the plate, but that as I chewed and released all of the flavor compounds onto my tongue, I was rewarded with a well balanced and at the same time nuanced and complex set of flavors." Wordy? Absolutely. More interesting to read than the first version? I suppose it depends on the readers interest level and tolerance for florid language.

Of course, always present in the back of my mind is my audience. In an only slightly twisted version of the timeless question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" ever present in my writing is, "If I write a food essay but nobody ever reads it, then why am I sitting here thinking about writing it in the first place?" Grappling with these issues is enough to cause serious writer's block. Once you've blocked, it can be hard to get the words flowing once again.

So you've picked a topic, a conclusion that you are working toward and a style or voice in which your exposition will express itself. What's next? Time for the essay to begin. Personally, I like to find someplace quiet. While I am able to successfully zone out and focus my entire attention on what I am writing, I have been known on occasion to simply start taking dictation from the conversations going on around me. If I'm not in a naturally quiet environment (and there are surprisingly few these days), I do the next best thing: cue up music with no English words on the Pandora app for my Android phone. If I can understand it, I will tend to write it down. Piano music works well. As does Techno dance music. Opera is especially good.

As with many of the restaurant reviews that I do, the hardest part I find is getting that opening paragraph written. A lot of people have a hard time getting that first sentence. Because I am attempting to achieve both an interesting opening as well as a bridge to the rest of the article, I try and provide a personal connection between myself, the restaurant, and the reader. A food essay will work in much the same way, only there is generally no restaurant involved and the topic may or may not be something the reader tends to care about. It is my job as the author to provide a hook that will keep the reader thoroughly invested until he or she reaches the end.

Another problem that I often have to look out for when writing an essay is what I like to call the "wandering middle." In attempting to connect the start with the finish, I have to make sure that my paragraphs take a logical and sensible path without too many detours in the middle. Nothing is worse than starting an article believing it is about one topic and halfway through realizing that you just wasted thirty to sixty seconds of your life wandering off in a direction that has no relevance to either the premise or the conclusion. I know when I come across essays like this on-line, I will read the first sentence of the following paragraphs to see if the author gets back on topic. If not, I, as I'm sure many of you out there, will simply cut my losses and move on.

The other vice I try and stay away from is being too preachy. While it is great to have a viewpoint and I hope I never stop learning new tidbits of information, I never want to come across as superior by belittling or showing disdain for the topic about which I am writing. Criticism is fine in my book, but negativity is right out. I always try and have balance on whatever topic about which I write. Too often I have been humbled by someone wiser than myself and I've come to realize along the way that if I have to take the lumps for something uninformed that I wrote, so be it.

Alright. So now we have a topic, a premise, a conclusion, points about what style or voice will be used to express the essay, and admonitions about staying on topic and not being preachy. With all of these considerations and rules being taken under advisement, is it any wonder that an essay will ever spring forth from mind to keyboard? I find it fascinating that the human mind can still organize thoughts into a coherent stream of characters, words, and sentences that articulates a writer's point of view such that someone else can pick it up, decipher it, and complete the knowledge transfer.

I suppose, in the end, the trick to writing a good food essay, or really any essay for that matter, is to know when you've reached a significantly satisfying conclusion and simply put the pen down.


EmAManda said...

I enjoyed your essay.

Janice said...

As a reader, I can tell great effort and care has been put forth in your writing.The polished end result is always lovely.
The grammar police would be all over my blog. I cheat and use as many photos as possible. Sometimes people just want that eye candy.
Everyone has their own approach to blogging. I like yours.

Tino said...

@EmAManda, @Janice: Thanks so much for the kind words. I do like to mix it up every now and again and it's great to know that people enjoy more than just my restaurant reviews.

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