Imagine cutting a fresh lemon with a sharp knife, and letting the juices ooze out all over the cutting board. Then visualize bringing a slice of the lemon to your mouth, and letting your teeth sink into the soft flesh, allowing the tang to enliven your taste buds.
Did you find yourself salivating a bit just reading those words? Descriptions of taste evoke an immediate response in the reader. In this post, I’ll provide some ideas to help you open to your sense of taste. Being in touch with this sense will enable you to be better at adding sensory taste details to your writing.
Some authors provide their readers with detailed descriptions of their main character’s love affair with food, and of course, taste. Mystery writer Donna Leon is one of them. In her novels, she includes vivid descriptions of the Italian foods enjoyed by her main character, Commissario Guido Brunetti. In fact, she even wrote Brunetti’s Cookbook, co-authored with Roberta Pianaro (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009) so that readers could enjoy the Venetian foods they read about in her novels; dishes such as Penne Rigate with Beans and Bacon, Pork Stew with Porcini and Polenta, Tagliatelle with Peppers and Tomatoes. Are your taste buds watering?
Taste can also be metaphoric. A character can “taste” a setting or an emotion they are feeling. By describing these aspects through the sense of taste, the reader can understand how the character feels, without being told.
Our tongues can distinguish five tastes. (i). Of course, dishes often contain more than one of these tastes. I’ve included a few examples for each. Can you think of at least two additional foods for each category?
- sweet – honey, sugar
- sour – lemon, tamarind
- salty – dried seaweed, soy sauce
- bitter – coffee, olives
- savoury or umami – aged cheeses, soy sauce
Most people are familiar with the first four, but umami requires requires some explanation. It is described as “savoury or meaty and can be tasted in cheese and soy sauce.” (ii) “It takes its name from the Japanese word for “taste”, and was identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Tokyo chemist who pinpointed it as the savoury flavour imparted by foods rich in chemicals including glutamate.” (iii)
By experiencing a broader range of tastes, you’ll be better able to describe taste in your writing.
- follow food blogs – even if you don’t make all of the dishes you encounter, you can salivate over the photographs and imagine what each dish would taste like
- try restaurants that feature flavour-packed foods you’ve never tried – Ethiopian, Korean, Moroccan, Vietnamese
- the next time you are in a grocery store, buy a food you’ve never tasted. Eat your first bite mindfully so that you can fully experience the taste
I was recently attracted by the exotic appearance of this dragon fruit, with its bright fuchsia-coloured skin with green nodules that resemble dragon scales. The interior was soft with the texture of kiwi, and filled with tiny black seeds that yield a bit of texture to the bite. The flavour was slightly sweet and very mild – almost no taste at all. A new taste experience.
TIPS for adding the sense of taste to your work:
- use taste to make a setting seem real – tells us how the air tastes by the ocean, or what a back alley tastes like
- let us get to know a character through the types of foods they love. What is their favourite comfort food? Describe the taste in detail
- tell us about the sensuality of a relationship through food and taste. Consider a character feeding a lover spoonfuls of a mousse-filled chocolate cake
- evoke a character’s memory of childhood – what did that first bite of a mud pie taste like?
- have a character remember tastes from their past that remind them of a family member long gone – the memory of their mother’s pot roast, or grandmother’s sugar cookies
- break a long stretch of dialogue with a taste cue – maybe a character bites into a veal sandwich piled high with fried onions and roasted vegetables, the juices dripping down his chin, as he pauses to experience the intense flavours, before continuing his rant
Here are some exercises to help you open to your sense of taste.
#1 – Describing Taste
This exercise gives you practice describing the way foods taste. Read over the following list. How would you describe the taste of each food? I’ve given my own example for the first one:
- watermelon – tastes like a mixture of rosewater and honey
- cod liver oil
- freshly baked bread
- cough syrup
- burnt toast
- a dill pickle
#2 – Metaphoric Taste
While many of our associations with taste are related to the sensory experience of what we ingest, we can also “taste” feelings. Think of an actual situation in which you’ve experienced the following feelings, then describe them in terms of taste:
- betrayal by someone you trusted
#3 – Feasting and Writing with Others – Sharing the Experience
Why not gather some writer friends, and enjoy feasting and writing!
- organize a meal that includes tasty appetizers, a flavourful main dish and a decadent dessert
- invite the writers to do a short freewrite (maybe 5 – 7 minutes) after each course. The writing can be prompted by the flavours and should include as much sensuous description as possible
- over tea or coffee, invite the writers to read some of their writing aloud
- the writers will benefit from hearing the varied descriptions of the same meal, as experienced by others
Do you love the taste of food? Do you often include descriptions of taste in your writing? I’d like to hear more about your experiences.
Until next time,
To read Part 1 in this series (Visual), CLICK HERE.
To read Part 2 in this series (Sound), CLICK HERE.
Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, April 27, 2014. We hope you can join us.
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All photographs in this post are by Janis McCallen.