Liveblog: Fortify Your Culinary Prose

Liveblog

Welcome to the liveblog of BlogHerFood '11, Voice track, Fortify Your Culinary Prose

Panelists:

Nancy Baggett, Kitchen Lane

Note: Scroll down to the bottom of this liveblog for the attachment, or go to Kitchen Lane for the Seven Steps to Tastier Food Writing handout (it's in the February archives).

David Leite, www.leitesculinaria.com

1. DIVE RIGHT INTO YOUR STORY

NANCY: I started out in the writing biz when computers were just invented. I came up in J-school where we were taught to avoid "throat clearing" -- starting with stuff that really isn't relevant. Editors when they know a writer has that problem, will go in and chop off the first couple of sentences.

DAVID: Reads from "Savior on a Stick":

“June 1988. I stood on the front porch of my friend Patty’s Arlington, Texas, home with suitcases in hand, not unlike Felix Unger in the opening credits of “The Odd Fellow.” Like him, I was being thrown out–not out of a tiny Upper East Side classic six–but rather a sprawling six-bedroom casa, complete with pool, three-car garage, automatic sprinkler system, and, what I would miss most, a freezer full of corn dogs. As Patty’s husband–a bowling ball with legs who had skin like tobacco-colored crepe paper–put it, I was an “unnecessary risk.”

Patty and her husband, Dan, were getting divorced. While he was shacking up with his dental assistant, I was living non-conjugally with his wife and three kids after I had, for the nth time, denounced New York City. The greater Dallas area was my new home, I told myself, and I embraced it with all the excitement and innocence of Kennedy in 1963.”

NANCY: David covers a lot of information in about 2 paragraphs. We jump in and know where and when it is. Nothing's non-relevant. It's called Savior on a Stick -- a deliberate choice of literary devices: alliteration and reference ("Savior on a Stick" makes you think of Jesus on a cross). Do ever wonder, "Why does David win awards?" It's because he works on his craft and literary devices that enrich the reader's experience. You can blog and never use them and be fine, but if you want to punch your prose it will help.

DAVID: There's a lot of backstory here. Michael Procopio of Food for the Thoughtless was with me in New York; I had just lost a lot of weight and all the guys in Chelsea were paying attention to me. I was fed up with how shallow everyone was, and felt drawn to my friends' spiritual center, which was how the story came about and eventually how I ended up stuck in godforsaken Arlington, TX. I was living with a 20something woman, former twirling champion who had gained weight and twirled on the couch. So the story was really all about fat and weight, but a lot of those details that got me there weren't necessary. Michael helped me with a major lop-off, because none of that backstory worked.

DAVID: Imagine walking down the hallway and hearing "I dragged the body into a closet." It could be benign, the body of a car or whatever, but you want to hear it. Don't go on too long without explaining to the reader -- it's called burying the lede and confuses the reader, they'll get frustrated and feel tricked that there's no real body. Tantalize, then deliver pretty close to the top.

NANCY: Novelists have an expression -- "start with the dead horse in the living room." Leap right in with the most interesting part and interweave the key details when you have them hooked. David used an adverb which would have been hard for me: "non-conjugally" -- it says it all.

2. USE STRONG, ACTIVE VERBS

NANCY: The human mind picks up really well to strong, active verbs.

Example: "Flying High" by Natalie McLean of Nat Decants, who's won a La Dame D'Escoffier Award (read at http://http://goo.gl/UoxIv, PW: Dames).

“Under heavy fire, we run for the chopper. Grey clouds roil overhead as the wind whips our faces. The ground man signals us to scramble in, but then stops and waves for us to turn around. As we do, we’re blinded by white flashes.

We’re not being fired at though ... The shotgun blasts are automatic “bird bangers” to scare birds away from the fields of Niagara grapevines around us.

This isn’t Bahgdad, but it is war.”

This is not a war story; it's about visiting a vineyard in Ontario where the winemakers are in constant battle with birds and other wildlife. She's using a "conceit," or extended metaphor, to power her story. I chose it for the verbs: clouds "roil," we "scramble" -- a very creative, tantalizing choice of verbs.

DAVID: I am very passionate about strong verbs. I think adjectives and adverbs can weaken a story unless they're really well chosen (I have a weakness for the Britishism "thrumpingly"). Judith Jones told me "never use a verb unless you tell the reader what's going on in the pot, plate, etc). For my book (The New Portuguese Table (buy it) I did a sense exercise:

Instead of just using the word "dump," I dumped potatoes into a pan and listened until I found the onomatopoetic verb that worked: "plonked." Dried beans "clatter." The verb tells you that if an ingredient "clatters," it's supposed to be dry and hard. "Plonk" has more moisture. "Plop the batter" tells you it's thick; "pour" tells you it's think. Verbs like this move the action along.

NANCY: Avoid the passive voice. If "the vegetables were prepared," something is being done to the subject. The subject isn't acting. Writers and editors and writing coaches will tell you that active voice is more direct and powers the story along.

NANCY: Reserve the passive voice for something like "the president was shot by an unknown assailant" -- in which the president is way more important than the shooter. In this instance "an unknown assailant shot the president."

DAVID: Do not use the verb "to be" -- that's how I learned. Don't use am, is, are, was, were.

DAVID: Another purposeful passive: "My grandmother was never taught to read." I fought a copy editor on that -- it's not that she never learned; it's that she was never taught. It was a system failure and I needed the sentence, and her, to be passive.

3. CHOOSE TOPICS YOU'RE PASSIONATE ABOUT

DAVID: That desire to say "This is what I experienced; this is what I was doing" is the most important element. If you're not interested, your readers will never be interested, especially on blogs.

NANCY: If you're paid by mainstream media, you're told what to write unless you have the liberty to pitch. But as a blogger you get to pick what you want to write.

Example: Rick Bragg, the NYT reporter who got booted b/c he didn't credit his stringers. He's got a fantastic book called . This man grew up in abject poverty; his piece "Dinner Rites" for Food & Wine might sound a little cornball to some but it's really his voice and his passion.

"Corn is a science, maybe even an art. Pick it too soon and you waste it because there will not be enough on the cob to shave off even with the sharpest, oldest butcher knife, and people who grew up poor cannot live with themselves if they waste food. Pick it too late and all it's fit for is hogs. But pick it just right, Lord God Almighty, and it's a reason to live."

NANCY: An excellent example of writing that is about who you are. It uses literary devices -- the deliberate repetition of "pick it too …" strengthens the piece and mirrors the Goldilocks story. Be careful to keep repetition strong because it can turn boring on you.

NANCY: I wrote a post called "Everything I Don't Like and Nothing That I Do Like."

“Pigs’ feet should be declared unfit for human consumption. I’ll start simply by mentioning that though human and dog feet can reek, they’re roses compared to hogs’ feet on the funkiness scale. To mask the noxious odor and tenderize the tough tissue of these porker appendages, people usually boil them in a strong vinegar brine, but this is as helpful as dousing the living creatures with perfume. Moreover, the boiling yields a gelatinous texture and ghastly, pungent odor that lurks in the house and continues to punch you in the nose for days. …. I would probably starve if I had nothing to eat but these dead ringers for really rank pickled tennis shoes.”

DAVID: You can write passionately about something you hate. It's passion. Love, hate, injustice -- just feel that rocket energy. It can be about toast -- a guy blogged on our site about how he loves toast and his wife can't make it.

NANCY : This one has a couple of literary devices: "tenderize the tough tissue" is deliberate alliteration; "porker appendages" is funny deliberately to soften the rant; "odor that continues to punch you in the nose for days" is personification; "ringers for really rank pickled tennis shoes" is alliteration and hyperbole.

4. ACTUALLY DESCRIBE THE FOOD YOU'RE WRITING ABOUT

DAVID: Food writers will describe the room, the waiter, the bowl, the kitchen, the dog wanting to eat it -- but they won't write what it looks, tastes, feels like. That's hard.

DAVID: Here's your assignment. Take the first letter of your last name and find a raw ingredient -- you cannot cook it. Get a notebook, put it in. I'm L - "lima beans." Describe what it looks, feels, smells, sounds like. One of them got avocado -- and described it as "an alligator's head." Then go to the next letter -- for me, that would be M.

DAVID: Why do you do this? Because you're FOOD WRITERS. If you get an assignment from a publication with a long lead time you will not be able to cover it for the assignment. A bowl is a bowl is a bowl but you can't eat a quince in July. I expect all of your works to be sent to me david@leitesculinaria.com in 3 days (fixing the room with Evil Teacher Eye). Thank you.

NANCY: If you do a cookbook, it's prohibitive to have everything photographed. If you're lucky, it will be 50%; it's usually 25-30%. That means when the reader turns to that page, she only knows what you tell her. "Mouth-watering" only tells her that you like it; it doesn't give her anything that helps them decide whether THEY like it. It's not piquant, it's not bland, it's not spicy or green. I was taught to use only one "delicious" per book.

NANCY: David doesn't like adjectives; I think the right adjective can work for you, but you have to be careful to not be trite. I picture "mouthwatering" to mean drooling; but it's also trite. John Kessler did a search once and found "mouthwatering" is the most-used culinary adjective. So I never use it.

DAVID: In his post How to Make Caviar on his blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, Hank Shaw uses the fantastic phrase "Pop Rocks for adults."

"Caviar has always had a hold on me. It is a mysterious ingredient, almost otherworldy; the individual eggs look like jewels from an alien planet. Caviar tastes briny and vaguely floral, and the textural surprise of the pop in your mouth has led more than one writer to liken it to pop rocks for adults.”

NANCY: I also like "otherworldly" and "from an alien planet" -- a great description.

NANCY: Lorraine Elliott of Not Quite Nigella. Lorainne's very chatty and true to her voice. Here she doesn't describe chai but she describes her experience with it vividly. She uses a literary device: assonance (rhyming) "try my chai." She describes what it was like.

I’m not a huge fan of hot drinks in glasses and it always seems so counter-intuitive to serve a hot drink in a glass without a handle but it seems most places are insistent on serving lattes like this.

5. WRITE LIKE YOURSELF. EXPRESS WHAT YOU THINK AND AT LEAST SOME OF WHO YOU ARE

DAVID: This is the crux of blogging. Michael Procopio of Food for the Thoughtless is a great example. All of you could write about boiling water. I don't care about boiling water; I care about how YOU boil water. Ree Drummond The Pioneer Woman is a great example -- she writes about being a mother from the perspective of her own quirky life. I came up in the print world, and realized that the traditional writer's distance wasn't working. I brought my partner in and referred to him as The One Who Brings Me Love, Joy and Happiness, aka The One. Now I get cards addressed to David Leite and The One. You can't beat that. Don't be journalists, but use journalistic technique to tell me about your life.

NANCY: You probably know Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. The feel of her blog is friendly, down to earth, approachable. She doesn't do "mainstream" cooking, but her writing style is so approachable you're willing to go buy ingredients like buckwheat groats. This example doesn't have high powered literary devices but it's got great, specific details. She's developed a huge following because you know what you're getting, an "old shoe" kind of comfortable.

“When I go to flea markets or stop by a neighborhood garage sale, I always find myself rummaging through weathered cardboard boxes looking for cookie cutters. Vintage ones, distinctive ones. You might imagine I have drawers full of them, but that's not actually true. I have two small shoe-box sized containers of cookie cutters. That's it. It doesn't actually feel like a lot to someone who loves to roll and stamp cookies as much as I do, but the good ones are hard to come by. Beyond shape, I have a fondness for metal cutters with sharp edges, and good structure. Shapes that can cut cleanly through a currant or dried cranberry if need be.”

NANCY: Alan Richman is the opposite -- he's a curmudgeon. You expect to get punched in the mouth when you read him.

“I never stopped trying to find excellent food. I searched. I asked. If you think it's hard to find somebody in an airport who will give you an honest answer as to why your flight is delayed, try to find somebody who can cook an honest meal. By the end of my quest, I had consumed exactly five food items—not five meals—that tasted pretty good…. Starbucks's coffee was consistently good, but its croissants were right up there with the very worst airport food, much of which involved bread. So terrible is the bread, in fact, that I devised a theory, admittedly hard to prove, that the air in airports somehow mimics the air in microwave ovens, which turns conventional breadstuffs (and probably the people who eat them) rubbery and dry....”

DAVID: Jeffrey Steingarten told me "When you write you're not writing you; you're writing the persona of you. Who you see on the page is me personified. I'm their curmudgeon who goes from a place of not knowing to knowing." When Steingarten wrote about the best fat for frying, he knew it would be horse fat but he wrote about it from a point of not knowing to fit his persona. Alan Richman told me, "I'm the guy who nothing good happens to." Everyone writes about babies and husbands and croissants, but how you write about it makes you different.

NANCY: Barry Estabrook who just won a Beard Award for his blog, Politics of the Plate. (DAVID: I officially hate him). He's very activist, and this is almost in an A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift style. It's all very deadpan, just as people took the irony seriously in Proposal. It's controlled rage. A great contrast again in voice.

“Last week, I attended tomato school.
Sitting in a room at a packing plant near Immokalee in southwest Florida with about 50 migrant laborers, I learned that I had a right to earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, could take regular breaks in a shady area provided by the farm—including a lunch break. I was told exactly what constituted a full bucket of tomatoes when I was working on a “piece,” or per-bucket basis. For some of my work, I would get an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes I picked—which amounted to a 50-percent raise...”

6. ALWAYS EDIT YOUR WORK; IF POSSIBLE, AFTER YOU LET IT GET COLD

DAVID: Savior on a Stick took me several days. Some pieces took me a week. Let your work get cold; you'll think "this is the most genius piece of writing I've ever put down" at the time -- but read it later and you'll go "this is a piece of ca-ca." It's one of the most important things you can do. The great thing is that you can revise old work. I do it constantly. You think I'm a genius writer? I'm a very good rewriter.

DAVID: Read out loud. If you stumble on something over and over, a couple of things are probably happening. There's likely to be a syntactic error somewhere; and you're being inauthentic. Look at it. It's not right. Do not give it to your partner to read. They'll either fawn over ca-ca or critique everything. Find a great reviewer or read it yourself.

NANCY: I belonged to a writers' group for 30 years; we've grown from hardly published at all to multipublished over the years. You don't get "that's nice" -- you get real critique. If you can bond with a group, either live or online, meet regularly; anyone can read. You get to be a better listener too. Get it torn apart; your perspective is too personal. I just rewrote the intro to a new cookbook and realized I was long-winded. If you can boil down what you originally wrote -- I don't write economically to start with. Change sentences you wrote passive or redundant. Reduce by a third and you'll find it powerful. If you have a meandering style and it works for you.

DAVID: Leite's Culinaria is a group blog; we're open to submissions (no promises). We go through several rounds of edit and rewrite until I am happy that is clear, right and memorable because it was well edited and considered. I've gotten 5 writers into The Best Food Writing.

NANCY: "The Smoky Trail to a Great Bacon" by Times writer RW (Johnny) Apple:

"SIN is in, gastronomically speaking. Which is why I found myself pulling up to Nueske's Hillcrest Farm, about 65 miles west of Green Bay, at midmorning one crystalline day in January, with the car's digital thermometer stuck at 5 implacable degrees below zero. I was there in pursuit of postgraduate studies in bacon."

NANCY: The adjective "crystalline" is perfect. I never would have thought of it. And "postgraduate studies in bacon" -- so clever. That's why he's Johnny Apple.

7. TRY LITERARY DEVICES

Hyperbole, foreshadowing, alliteration, assonance, simile, metaphor, personification, parallelism.

DAVID: When I moved from advertising to food writing I thought I was hot shit. But all I could do was short copy starting with "And" or "but." I hired a copy editor at great expense for the first few articles. She took me through sentence by sentence and told me "understand that you are a weak writer." I got Grammar for Dummies and Writing for Dummies and made up for all the attention I didn't pay in English class in ninth grade. I tell my students to get Grammar for Dummies. It's nice to know what the hell you're doing.

DAVID: Know your devices; use them sparingly and wisely. You are an orchestra leader and these devices are the instruments in your orchestra. You are the master making the choices. Don't just write willy nilly and fail to understand how you created it. Knowledge of yourself as a writer is the best thing to understand.

NANCY: Dianne Jacobs of Will Write for Food is here -- she talks a lot about how to edit your work. John T. Edge is also a good one to look up. The greatest thing that David said is that he wasn't a good writer. I too have had prose that was lying dead and I didn't know what to

DAVID: Anne Lammott in Bird by Bird encourages "shitty first drafts." Please, I urge you to do this. You have a chance to write a less shitty second draft and move up through lessening degrees of ca-ca to something nice. I used to wait from a visitation from the angels to write the perfect sentence. I wrote one draft but that one draft took months to write.

NANCY: I used to write that way too. It's not productive.

DIANNE JACOBS: If you're facing writer's block, lower your standards. Keep waiting to write perfection it'll never happen.

CHRIS: I have a technical adjective question about predicate adjectives. Is it better to precede the noun ("firm ganache from the fridge") or be predicate ("the ganache should be firm").

NANCY: You can be creative and create an adjective -- the order doesn't really matter but it's best to make the verb do the heavy lifting.

DAVID: Vary what you're doing. Don't rely on adjectives but you need them to describe food. Use before and after; mix it up. Don't use passive. Listen for echoes (repeated adjectives) and get rid of them.

NANCY: Echoes are very common -- we writers keep hanging on to a word. I have a piece about herbs in Eating Well and the editor punched up something I did. Try describing why thyme tastes different from dill or the difference between marjoram and oregano. The editor put in "bewitching" twice and I wanted it once.

DAVID: I would have said "Herbs can bewitch a dish."

DIANNE JACOBS: I disagree about having your partner read your work. I'm an editor so I tell myself my work is caca right away. I have trained my partner about how to comment on my work so it's useful and I have trained myself how to respond. It's important to not react defensively. It helps me and I encourage you to do that.

DAVID: My husband cowers in the corner when I ask him to read something.

NANCY: You can train people to tell you what they think of the food you make and that's very important.

KATY CARTER of KATY SHE COOKS: Do you have tips on how to not be paralyzed by perfection?

DAVID: Get over it.

NANCY: Sit down, set a timer and just write for 5 minutes. No one gets to see it. You have the luxury of what in your own natural writing style you like and don't like and can be in tune with it later on. I know I'm too wordy naturally. I even lapse into the passive!

KATY: Do you have a limit on how many times you try?

DAVID: There comes a point where you have to let it go out there gimpy. Or put it away and look again in a month. My first piece for Bon Appetit went in as written. The second one needed a million rewrites. Give yourself a time and give yourself an activity: "All I have to do is write 150 words, or just describe the room, or the food." Is your perfectionism a result of not knowing the tools or is it self-punitive? I talk more about my writing with my therapist than I do anything else.

ILKE MCALILEY of ILKE'S KITCHEN: When I started blogging I equated post length with success. When I got a job at NPR, I was given a 400 word limit. A journalist told me that's the pitfall of all bloggers -- we have all this online space and no quota. We don't need to cut and cut and cut. Do you have a rule of thumb for post length for bloggers?

DAVID: You have to write enough to get your point across. Dianne and I disagree tremendously on post length. I often need 1,000 words to get my point across. That's different from "bloggorhea" -- just writing and writing and writing. You need a beginning middle and end. We love stories as a society. It's less a word limit than a structure.

NANCY: Go ahead and write whatever length you want and then cut. There may even be a whole paragraph that's good, but not that germane to the point.

MICHAEL PROCOPIO: What can you tell us about writer's instinct?

DAVID: Instinct will only get you so far. You need training and craft to take that instinct farther. You're always going to be in an instinctual rut if that's all you have. You need to take the instinct and be brilliant craft.

NANCY: Keep learning and growing your entire career. If you feel like you know it all it's over. What do you like to read, by other writers and by yourself? Ask yourself WHY you like it.

Read the full handout at Nancy's blog, Kitchen Lane. And thank you to David and Nancy!

Liveblogger: Julie Ross Godar, Managing Editor, BlogHer.com

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