06 December 2010

Food Writing 101: On Vocabulary -- A Love Letter/Bitch Session, by Denveater & MC Slim JB (Part 1 of 2)

[Here's another in a series of joint essays by me and my friend and fellow food writer Ruth Tobias of Denver food blog Denveater, where this piece also runs. Ruth conceived of this piece, so she's the "I" here; my contributions are noted explicitly.]

Every so often, some Chowhound starts a particularly juicy, funny, & unnerving thread (like this one) about foodie terminology that either tickles or rankles — usually the latter (including “foodie” itself). Without meaning to come off like a Teen Talk Barbie, I can’t help but whine a bit as I read them about the fact that "food writing is hard!" insofar as there are only so many words to describe the sensation of taste. Play it safe, & you’re bound to bore everyone out of their skulls, yourself included; jazz it up, and you’re sure to raise the howling specter of Restaurant Girl, the New York Daily News’s infamous erstwhile critic whose prose prompted my Boston-based food-critic pal MC Slim JB to host what remains one of my favorite snark-parties ever on the boards. A taste of Danyelle Freeman’s work:

"Even better, the homemade ravioli look like a store-bought sheet straight from a box. It's a deceptive maneuver with criminally delicious returns: Each doughy pocket gets plumped with a vivacious mix of four cheeses and spackled with a silky lettuce sauce."

Still, preferring the sound of laughter, however derisive, to that of steady snoring, I know I err on the side of exuberant overwriting myself. Slim agrees: “My food writing tends towards the rococo, especially when I’m trying to communicate emotions inspired by food. If you want to go beyond food reporting (‘Here’s what was served, how it looked, the ingredient list’) and give readers a flavor of the experience of pleasure in eating, it’s tough not get a little florid at times.”

Slim goes on: “The reality is that writing, not just food writing, truly is hard, even for people who ostensibly have the tools. For example, the notorious Ms. Freeman went to Harvard, wrote for the fourth-largest daily in the US, understands grammar and syntax, and has a high-SAT-score vocabulary. Nevertheless, she’s just an appalling writer, almost unreadable in her awfulness. But she’s an extreme example. The sins that offend us daily are more garden-variety: crimes against diction, thudding clichés, unnecessary neologisms. You don’t have to be Restaurant-Girl-horrendous to make us wince, eye-roll, or wish you’d done one more revision: just use hackneyed, empty phrases like cooked to perfection’.”

Words, we recognize, are like anything else we humans use to communicate who we are & where we stand—gestures, clothing, hairstyles: they’re a matter of taste (in the broad sense), which means not everyone is going to like them. Hence, while we’ve been dishing for years on our own pet phrases—haters be damned!—as well as the clunkers & clichés that make us cringe, we don’t agree on everything. All part of the fun learning curve.

Here, then, is our signed manifesto/confession/defense.

Words MC Slim JB Loves

Says Slim, “I’m not offering these as Words Food Writers Should Use, just examples of Words I Love. I culled these from the sixty professional pieces I wrote this year. I sweat hard over word choice; few editorial decisions annoy me more than the substitution of an insipid, ninth-grade-reading-level word for one I painstakingly chose for its dense or allusive or narrow meaning. Saying a flavor is assaultive is not the same as calling it strong or intense.”

Describing qualities of food: toothsome (properly used to describe a certain texture, typically of pasta), luscious,velvety, zippy, lusty, miserly, parsimonious, prosaic, lyrical, zingy, bedecked, cunning, vivid, eye-goggling,acerbic, insipid, high-craft, icky-sweet

Describing a venue or its atmosphere: dumpy, seedy, ramshackle, a hog trough, boîte, hell-hole, soigné,crepuscular, dingy, gouging, a swindle, frippery, glowing, low-fuss, glossy, faux glamour, theme-parky,kitschy, hokey

Describing servers and chefs: convivial, stony, sassy, sweet-natured, cherubic, toque, seminal

Describing customers: food nerd (my coinage to replace foodie), white-bread, inky-hipster, multi-culti, philistine, nutbag, ding-dong

Intensifiers (positive): dizzying, ravishing, rough-and-ready, beguiling, righteous, serviceable, precious, gobsmacking, jaw-dropping, breathtaking

Intensifiers (negative): shameless, harrowing, appalling, sullied, dubious, benighted, fraudulent, egregious, grotesque, bastardized, grating

Slim, in reviewing this list: “Pretentious? Possibly, though I’ll defend foreign words like recherché when English doesn’t have pithy equivalents. Forcing you to consult dictionary.com? Occasionally, though I never choose a fifty-cent word when the nickel one will suffice; nobody likes a showoff. [Except me.—Denveater] Saying precisely, pungently what I mean? That’s the ultimate goal, the rationale behind every word choice.”

Words Denveater Loves

Boîte. Yeah, yeah, yeah, French throwaways are pretentious. But the English equivalent, “nightclub,” is a snooze. And where would you rather be—in the tiny, twinkling café, drinking wine & eating cheese by candlelight to the stylings of a beret-topped guitarist, that “boîte” evokes, or in the strobe-lit slaughterhouse of a “nightclub,” surrounded by screaming, stumbling, puking also-ran-tweens? Exactly.

Crispy. Slim’s right (see Part 2); crisp does the trick. But the diminutive -y suffix is just so damn cute, taking me back to Prague circa 1998, where the bathrooms were marked Toilety

Eatery. Why this term strikes people as cutesy is beyond me—it’s really about as straightforwardly all-purpose as they come. Not every place that serves food is a café (which implies a degree of informality) or even a restaurant (Italians, at least, reserve ristorante for a high-end establishment), much less a taqueria/trattoria/tapas bar/bistro/barbecue shack/izakaya et cetera. But they’re all eateries.

Gastropub. I get the complaints, but I don’t agree with the complaints. The word was coined in the UK more than a decade ago under perfectly reasonable circumstances: to convey the fact that the word “pub” no longer needed be synonymous with “greasy grub” whose sole purpose was to absorb alcohol as quickly & unremarkably as possible. A chef-led movement toward food that was deceptively simple rather than merely honest, hearty, & every bit as delicious as the ales & ciders they accompanied was underway; that movement has turned out to be a revolution, & its stateside variant is to be applauded. Accordingly, the prefix “gastro” strikes me as sensible; those who object to it on the grounds that it reminds them of stomach ailments then must also do away with “gastronomy,” a word that dates back to 4th century Greece. The fact is, eating doesn’t begin & end with the mouth; it involves the whole digestive system. If Americans accepted that more readily—the processes and consequences of food intake—maybe we’d be in better shape.

Quaff. Okay, it’s a little goofy, but we English speakers have far too few opportunities to use the letter “q.” And the fact that its coinage dates back to 1523 speaks to its antiquated appeal: it makes me think of toddies & wassail & other such festive bygones.

Succulent. A sexy alternative to “moist” or “juicy.” Some people say you shouldn’t use $2 words when 10-cent words are available; I say those people are linguistic cheapskates. (Slim excepted.)

Unctuous. It’s true that the word has negative connotations—but only when used in its figurative sense, to mean “ingratiating.” Used in its literal sense, as a synonym for “oily” or “fatty,” it’s not unpleasant to me; in fact, unlike its synonyms, it suggests a softness or smoothness that may have to do with the fact that unction is a healing ritual. Think of it, then, as implying that butter makes you better, & slather it on!

Part 2, on Words We Hate, is here.