Bon Appétit: How Food Writing Fed My Fiction

Aaron Hamburger
From the May/June 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Once upon a time—about ten years ago—I believed I could eke out a living writing fiction, book reviews, and essays about life and literature. And perhaps, in the world of ten years ago, that might almost have been possible.

Fast-forward to the age of the iPad. These days, it seems harder than ever to sell a book to a major publisher if yours isn’t a household name. Literary journals are folding or moving online, which means they don’t even pay in contributor copies anymore. Many newspapers and magazines have reduced or eliminated their book review sections, thus ceding the role of book critic to the reader comments on sites like Amazon and Goodreads.

It became increasingly clear to me that I ought to consider branching out into some new markets. With that in mind, I signed up for a class in food writing at New York University. I’ve always loved food—eating it, cooking it, and reading about it—so I thought that once I mastered the basics of the genre, I could easily make the transition from fiction writing to food writing. 

I quickly learned that I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Being a serious, full-time food writer is a career in its own right, which requires not only a way with words but also a masterful knowledge of gastronomy. 

Yet my exploration of food writing was not for naught. In fact, trying my hand at a new genre taught me a few lessons about the one I’d been practicing for years. 

Lesson 1: A teaspoon of magic goes a long way. 
On the first day of class, our instructor, chef and cookbook author Corinne Trang, gave what I thought was a fairly straightforward assignment: Pick a fruit or vegetable and describe it. One student chose a peach. Another went for an eggplant. I decided on a lemon.

A lemon: bright yellow, oval-shaped fruit with waxy skin. Easy enough, right?

“Look again,” said Corinne. “Is the color of the skin uniform or does it change at the tip where it was attached to the tree? Think about the texture, the weight of it in your hand. Is the skin smooth or rough? Does it have bumps? Is it gummy or taut? Are there any bruises on it? If I slice it open, what’s it like inside? Don’t just tell me it smells good or tastes good. Is it sour, sweet? Faintly floral? Does the flavor have layers to it on your tongue? And how did that fruit or vegetable get into your palm? How did it grow? Was it picked or did it fall off the tree? Is it fresh? How can I tell if it’s ripe? And how might I use it in a recipe?” 

I felt as if I were being whisked back to Creative Writing 101, except that in the fiction workshops I’d taken, we’d talked mostly about character, plot, and maybe a bit about setting. If we talked about objects—casually referred to as “telling details”—we did so mostly in terms of scenery. Rarely had we examined objects with such intensity. Never, as far as I could recall, had we thought of an object as a process, with a life in its own right whose properties evolve over time. 

For homework we had to buy a piece of the fruit we’d chosen, sit with it, and then redo our description. As I sat at my kitchen table with my lemon, squeezed it, smelled it, cut it in half and ran my finger across the surface, I felt gloriously inspired. It was as if I had never seen a lemon before, never appreciated its radiant glory. And so I eagerly composed three gushing paragraphs about my lemon, which I described as “bright golden yellow, with a dimple of pale orange on one side, and flecks of green at the tip where it had been picked.” I mentioned the feel of the fruit in my hand, the fragrant shavings of zest that would fall to the counter after I ran a Microplane rasp over the skin. I sliced the fruit in half and claimed that it smelled like “honey-scented soap.” 

As I worked I experienced a renewed sense of magic in the writing process, the power of black ink marks to shape themselves into lemons, peaches, or any object I could see, smell, hear, taste, or touch. I couldn’t wait to turn back to my fiction and pad it with lush descriptions, in which the life of each object would be fully explored.