Getting food writing to pass the taste test is no easy task: Ian McMillan

If you cook something or somebody cooks something for you or (happy days of recent memory) you go to a cafe and a plate of food is presented to your table and the food is good, then your first reaction once you’ve started eating it turns out to be something at the very edge of language; in other words, you go Mmmm. And then you go Mmmm. And then, even though you shouldn’t speak with your mouth full, you go “this is really good” and then you go back to going Mmmm.

Poet Ian McMillan

And if you watch food programmes on the TV the judges and professional chefs all go Mmmm as well, before they start giving us their nuanced appreciation of the dish in hand. There are variations in the Mmmm, too; an experienced Mmmm listener like me can tell if the Mmmm is tentative or wholehearted, or is asking a few subtle questions of the chef that will be articulated later.

Ah yes, articulated later. That’s the thing: if you want to write about food then you have to take a few steps beyond the Mmmm. Food and wine writers, like the ones employed by The Yorkshire Post, do a great job of this, managing to convey what the flavour of something is without just saying, as I would, that it tasted nice. They must reach for similes and metaphors and comparisons. It’s a difficult job, but the writing really sings when it’s done just right.

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Beyond the journalism and the non-fiction and the memoir, though, what about trying to write about food in a novel or a short story without the descriptive writing overwhelming the plot? How can that be done?

Again, it’s not easy. Imagine that you’re writing a story set in 1960s Barnsley; a man in his twenties who still lives with his widowed mam has decided to go and seek his fortune in That London and he decides to break the bad news as his mam is serving up the Yorkshires for the Sunday dinner. The puddings would be compared to gold medals or full moons. The gravy would be like a brown river. A warm brown river in a jug. By now the plot is well and truly overwhelmed, if you ask me. The mam, pale and thin in a flowery pinny, says: 
“Here you are, Jimmy; Yorkshire puddings just like your grandma would have made”, thus introducing the elements of history and tradition that are useful when you’re writing about food because that can remind the reader of the Yorkshires his grandma would have made. Mind you, maybe their grandma’s Yorkshires were like offcuts of carpet. The man in the story takes a bite of Yorkshire pudding and says: “Lovely. Now, mam, there’s summat I’ve got to tell you…” There is a pause during which a better writer than me would describe the gravy glugging like mystic rain from the jug to the lad’s mam’s plate. The mam looks up and says “Mmmmmm?”

Now that’s just a copout, McMillan!

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