Bon Appétit: How Food Writing Fed My Fiction

Aaron Hamburger

In class, Corinne slashed and burned my lyrical lemon ode to a single paragraph:

“A lemon is a small oblong citrus fruit that fits neatly in the palm of my hand. Its waxy, slightly bumpy and bright yellow skin has flecks of green on the stem end. Underneath the zesty skin is the pith, a white bitter membrane surrounding the pulpy center. I like to split the fruit in half crosswise, revealing two bright yellow wheels of tangy, juicy flesh.”

“No one has time to read three paragraphs about a lemon,” she said. “Get to the point. It’s just a lemon.”

Corinne’s straight talk and focus on the audience rather than the artist was a shock to me and many of us in the class, who felt a deep aesthetic attachment to their odes to peaches, eggplants, and apples. But for Corinne, our brilliance wasn’t the point. The integrity of our subject and the needs of our audience were. We served the audience, not the other way around.

Lesson 2: It’s your fault if a reader misunderstands your recipe!
I hoped to do better on our next assignment: writing a recipe using our base ingredient. I created a recipe for limoncello cupcakes, iced with a lemon–cream cheese frosting and filled with limoncello-flavored custard. I even made a batch of the cupcakes for the other students to sample as we edited the recipe in class, which was three pages long and had a list of twenty-four ingredients, as well as eleven steps to follow.

“Good cupcake,” said Corinne as I passed out copies of my work. 

I smiled, then proudly began reading the directions aloud.

“Stop, stop, stop!” Corinne yelled. “You’re making my head ache. No one is going to do all this, ever! You’ve got twenty-four ingredients. For one recipe! Can’t any of them be combined? Like, why do you use cake flour and regular flour? Who has cake flour at home? Where do you even find cake flour in the supermarket? And superfine sugar? Can’t you just use the regular kind? It’s annoying to buy an ingredient that you use for just one
recipe. And what’s this? Make the lemon curd a day in advance and allow it to set in your refrigerator…oh, please. Like if I want to make cupcakes, I want to make cupcakes now, damn it. I don’t feel like waiting overnight.”

In addition to larding up my recipe with single-use ingredients, I had also neglected to begin the recipe by calling for the type and size of vessel needed (i.e., “In the large bowl of a mixer”). I had listed the ingredients at random, rather than in the order they were used in the recipe. Another sin was calling for sugar in the ingredients, but failing to specify that some of it would go in the cake while some would go in the frosting. And when exactly did I plan to warn my readers that they would need to preheat their ovens?

Once again I was experiencing culture shock. I came from the world of literary fiction, where what I wrote was my world, created by me, me, me. Let readers be damned if they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow what I was saying. It was the reader’s fault, not mine, if I was being difficult. 

But in food writing, there was the reverse side of artistic freedom to consider. Yes, I had the freedom to write any way I wanted, but I also had to account for the freedom of my readers to read and even misread my work any way that they wanted, and perhaps write a nasty letter to my editor complaining that my recipe “didn’t work.” 

As I rewrote my recipe, I thought about my fiction and wondered where my poetic turns of phrase might lead readers astray. Maybe my sentences were beautiful, but were they in the right order? And even if my details were carefully chosen, were all of them necessary? Were they included to help my reader make sense of the world I was describing or simply to show off my own virtuosity like my three-page, eleven-step, twenty-four-ingredient cupcake?

Lesson 3: It takes more than food to make a meal. 
Our final assignment was a restaurant review. Together, our class visited a Pan-Asian restaurant in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. As the food came out, we traded bites of various dishes and chatted about what we liked and didn’t like and why. Most of our conversation then and afterward focused on what we were eating. So did our reviews.