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Describing the taste of food


I’m asking about this not because I have a tendency to do so myself, but rather because I find it unusually aggravating when I come across it in other people’s works. I’m wondering if this sort of thing is acceptable, and if people like it. I’ll give a couple examples.

I unwrapped a candy and put it in my mouth. The sweet flavor of green apple ran wild on my tongue.

And here’s one more.

She found a bag of food they had brought with them and picked out a pomegranate, then opened it and picked out some seeds. The seeds exploded with juice when they touched her tongue and made her feel less hungry.

(I didn’t write these.) My question: is this considered a bad writing habit, or is it all a matter of opinion?

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4 answers


Is this bad writing? Yes. A great description should be precise and evocative. Food neither runs wild not explodes (both would have unpleasant consequences for the eater). They are just the wrong words to capture the intensity of a flavor and the surprise that you feel when you experience that flavour for the first time.

The problem, of course, is that that experience is ineffable. We don't have words that capture it. The best on can really do is to refer a similar experience, like the first time you bit into a jalapeno.

In fact, there are a lot of experience that are hard to capture in words. We don't have words for what music sounds like, only to describe a few of its gross characteristics like pitch and beat. The formal language of wine, while it may work for trained somaliers, sounds like gibberish to most ordinary wine drinkers.

This is what makes writing challenging. A writer tries to capture an experience for which we don't actually have words. The effective techniques for doing this don't consist in gross comparatives like explosions or running wild, but in the subtle evocation of the reader's prior experiences. Want to describe a taste that is both sweet and spicy? Say it was like eating a peach dipped in hot sauce.

Writing is about telling stories that evoke memories. Good writing pulls feeling and emotions and experiences out of the reader. Bad writing tries to force them in. Great writing makes you look past the words and taste the experience on your tongue. Bad writing throws the words in your face and you remember the words themselves because they evoke nothing.

It may be a matter of opinion whether a particular set of words evoke an experience or not, particularly since we all have different stocks of experiences and different triggers that evoke them. But the principle, I would submit, is not a matter of opinion but of craft. And I cannot imagine who would have the memory of an actual taste experience evoked by the clumsy words in the examples you give.

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The examples you bring are of food taste described badly, as @MarkBaker explains in great detail. Those descriptions fail to evoke what they're supposed to evoke, and instead take your mind to all kinds of unintended places.

But should food be described at all? Why shouldn't it? We describe sights, sounds, smells - why not taste then?

Of course, we do not describe everything our character sees, smells and hears. We describe only that which is important. And we avoid redundancies - if the character sees children playing, there's no need to also mention that the sound of their playing is heard (unless there's some additional information there, like the specific words of the children's song, if that happens to be important to the story).

That, I believe, is why you feel those descriptions are unnecessary: if the character eats a candy, we know what candies taste like. The same for pomegranates. The description of tastes is redundant. But imagine a scene where a character tries to identify by taste the ingredients of a dish. He might recognise for instance the heat of a pepper of some sort, the delicate citrus smell of kaffir lime, the particular sweetish tang of ginger... Or a character tasting some new fruit for the first time - they'd compare it to other tastes they are familiar with. Medjool dates, for instance, might be like a mouthful of honey, overwhelming in its sweetness.

But even that is not the key. Following a discussion with @MarkBaker in the comments, the specific taste is less important and less evocative than the emotions it connects to. If the taste evokes no emotion, if it doesn't connect to anything meaningful, why do we need that description there? Your examples, at least as you provide them, connect to nothing. They might try to evoke a taste, but the taste evokes nothing. Why is it there? Connected emotions might be quite varied: seduction, curiosity, home - think of Marcel Proust's madeleine, for instance. Describing the taste is not a goal, but a stepping stone to something else.

As an example, you might recall this scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

The Queen took from somewhere among her wrappings a very small bottle which looked as if it were made of copper. Then, holding out her arm, she let one drop fall from it on the snow beside the sledge. Edmund saw the drop for a second in mid-air, shining like a diamond. But the moment it touched the snow there was a hissing sound and there stood a jewelled cup fill of something that steamed. The dwarf immediately took this and handed it to Edmund with a bow and a smile; not a very nice smile. Edmund felt much better as he began to sup the hot drink. It was something he had never tasted before, very sweet and foamy and creamy, and it warmed him right down to his toes.
"It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating", said the Queen presently. "What would you like best to eat?"
"Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty," said Edmund.
The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter 4 - "Turkish Delight". My bold emphasis.

Here the descriptions of taste do not feel gross or unnecessary, do they? But they do not evoke the specific exact taste of Turkish Delight. Instead, they evoke the experience of Edmund eating Turkish Delight - the Queen seduces Edmund with something very enjoyable. And we are seduced right along with him, desiring to taste the magical treat for ourselves.

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Is this considered a bad writing habit, or is it all a matter of opinion?

I consider it mediocre writing. I don't think it is possible to write actual taste experiences, at best you can refer to things your readers may remember having done, or compare things they should remember.

I'll agree with Mark Baker, food doesn't run wild, or explode.

When you find primary sensations difficult to describe, what a writer can focus on instead is the effects those sensations have upon the person's thinking and feeling, the memories and emotions evoked. From your examples:

I unwrapped a candy and put it in my mouth. Green apple. Not my favorite, but it immediately reminded me of Julia, my classmate in fourth grade before she moved.

She found a bag of food they had brought with them and picked out a pomegranate. Pomegranates were such a project to eat, getting them open and picking out seeds, a few at a time. She liked the taste and she felt less hungry, but she thought it wasn't so much the calories consumed, but that the effort of dismantling it distracted her from being hungry. Maybe she was more bored than hungry. Either way, she conquered the pomegranate, and felt satisfied.

Complex scenes we can describe as composed of many simpler details, and people can imagine them. We typically cannot do the same with flavors and other direct sensations. A steak tastes like a steak, milk chocolate tastes like milk chocolate.

In cases where you can't really describe what somebody is tasting; you may be able to compare it to another taste, but often what you can do instead is describe how it makes them feel, what it makes them think or remember. And I personally stick to the most common taste expressions I think all readers have had (sweet, sour, peppery, etc). Beyond that, I'd rather focus on the mental and emotional life of the character.

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I pretty much agree with what's been stated about the examples you gave.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, usually focuses on evoking emotions in the reader. We often read fiction because we want to feel something. The emotions felt by the reader can be based on the reader's memories, but they don't necessarily have to be. For example, a large portion of mystery readers probably haven't been threatened at gunpoint. (The emotions you're trying to evoke in the reader do have to be based on something that the reader can somehow relate to, though. To someone who doesn't know what a gun is and what it represents, the fact that someone is pointing one at another person carries little significance.)

There's a good number of times when trying to be more specific, or using bombastic words, simply has the opposite effect. Food that explodes? (I wouldn't want to eat that!) Eating seeds makes the character less hungry? (Isn't that often the point of eating?) The food runs wild? (Just how fresh is this steak, Mister?)

A snippet from something I'm working on in my spare time:

As I sat down, [the hostess] was cutting thin slices out of a large, juicy looking and delicious smelling steak, accompanied by mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. [...] I reached for one of the glasses and some water. The water turned out to be quite cold, and tasted wonderful.

When I took my first bite, I had to refrain from letting out an "oh my God"; that had to be the best meat I had ever eaten. The steak was at once juicy and tender on the one hand, and heavy and lean on the other. [...]

Now, obviously I'm somewhat biased, but notice something here? I don't actually describe any of the tastes. (And no, that's not in the parts that I omitted, either.) That part is entirely up to the reader's imagination. I do spend a moment describing the texture of the food, but not the taste. What we get instead is a glimpse into the POV character's mind, and the emotional reactions of that character, upon taking that first bite. While the food is obviously present, it's not the sole focal point of the scene.

Consider the snippet above and that which Galastel posted from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. What emotions do those two trigger in you? Now compare those to the two snippets you included in your question; what emotions do those trigger in you? How do the emotions compare?

Because, again, that's what you're usually ultimately going for in fiction writing: emotions on the part of the reader. Basically, if something you've written doesn't evoke emotions in you, then why do you expect the reader to care more about what happens?

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