Sunday, January 20, 2013

5 Delectable Descriptions

I'm the sort of person who skims description if it gets too long or seems too pointless to the story, but there is one kind of description I read over and over again.  I love reading about food, seeing it prepared, tasting it.  It adds a whole different dimension to writing.  

And so I have assembled a list of my personal five favorite food descriptions, all of them found oddly enough in children or YA books.  (Is it because I just have stronger memories of food when I was younger or does adult fiction neglect the sense of taste?)  Here they are in descending order, with my own attempt at food description at the end, so you can see how I stack up.

5.  A Feast of Soups from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Susanne Collins

(This passage evokes all my fantasies of going to one of those four-star restaurants and sampling everything on the menu.  All the different colors and textures and flavors.  I just want to keep reading and reading.)

"OK, no more than one bite of each dish," I say.  My resolve is almost immediately broken at the first table, which has twenty or so soups, when I encounter a creamy pumpkin brew sprinkled with slivered nuts and tiny black seeds.  "I could just eat this all night!" I exclaim.  But I don't.  I weaken again at a clear green broth that I can only describe as tasting like spring time, and again when I try a frothy pink soup dotted with raspberries.

4.   Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

(There are very few descriptions that can be tasty, disgusting, humorous, and magical all at the same time.  J. K. Rowling pulls this off nicely.  The sheer variety is wonderful, especially for a curious taster like me, who wants to try everything at least once.)

"You want to be careful with those," Ron warned Harry.  "When they say every flavor, they mean every flavor--you know, you get all the ordinary ones like chocolate and peppermint and marmalade, but then you can get spinach and liver and tripe.  George reckons he had a booger-flavored one once."

Ron picked up a green bean, locked at it carefully, and bit into a corner.

"Bleaaargh--see?  Sprouts."

3. Dinner with the Beavers from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

(I love how Mr. Lewis is so enthusiastic about this fish, he wants to pop into the book and eat it himself.  When I was a kid, I hated fish, yet somehow he convinced me that if I had dinner with the Beavers, I'd be scraping my plate clean.  It's fresh, wholesome, comforting description.)

Just as the frying pan was nicely hissing Peter and Mr Beaver came in with the fish which Mr Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air.  You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how very much the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr Beaver said, "Now we're nearly ready."  Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot [...].  There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought--and I agree with them--that there's nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.

2.  Chocolate Stories from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

(Do I even have to explain why this is on my list?  Roald Dahl took all the lusciousness of candy, combined it with his deep imagination, and layered on the description.  While the whole book is wonderful, this paragraph nicely summerizes the fantasical flavors in one condensed passage.)

"And then again," Grandpa Joe went on, speaking very slowly now so that Charlie wouldn't miss a word, "Mr. Willy Wonka can make marshmallows that taste of violets, and rich caramels that change color every ten seconds as you suck on them, and little feathery sweets that melt away deliciously the moment you put them between your lips.  He can make chewing gum that never loses its taste, and candy balloons that you can blow up to enormous sizes before you pop them with a pin and gobble them up.  And by a most secret method he can make lovely blue bird's egg with black spots on them and when you put one of these in your mouth, it gradually gets smaller and smaller until suddenly there is nothing left except a tiny little pink sugary bird sitting on the tip of your tongue.

1. Pig Tails from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

(Actually, anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder qualifies.  Anyone can make chocolate sound good.  It takes a real wordsmith to make me drool over headcheese and bear.  I chose this passage in particular because the author took something I would normally find disgusting and not only made it seem delicious, but fun as well.)

Pa skinned it for them carefully and into the large end he thrust a sharpened stick.  Ma opened the front of the cook stove and raked hot coals out into the iron hearth.  Then Laura and Mary took turns holding the pig's tail over the coals.

It sizzled and fried and drops of fat dripped off it and blazed on the coals.  Ma sprinkled it with salt.  Their hands and their faces got very hot, and Laura burned her finger, but she was so excited she did not care[...].

At last it was done.  It was nicely browned all over, and how good it smelled.  They carried it into the yard to cool it, and even before it was cool enough they began tasting it and burning their tongues.

They ate every little bit of meat off the bones and then they gave the bones to [the dog] Jack.

Bonus: My Attempt Describing Food

(This comes from Chapter 15 of the novel I'm currently writing, called The Changelings.  I've tried to learn from the masters, even if I'm not quite at their level yet.)

Amber took her to the kitchen.  Fire pits lined the floor and filled the air with smoke.  Sylvie coughed.  Massive chains and hooks hung down from the ceiling, suspending huge, bubbling cauldrons just over the fire.  Ku Rokai cooks with sweaty faces stirred and shouted to each other for more garlic, more salt.  They didn't seem to mind the presence of Amber, who maneuvered 
around them and dipped a ladle into a pot.

"Smoked salmon chowder.  Delicious.  I get my serving before they add so much salt.  Would you like it?"

"I don't really care for fish," Sylvie said.

"No?  Then maybe fried meat and vegetables.  Simple."

Amber danced around the kitchen, plucking up ingredients and handing them to Sylvie.  Soon Sylvie's arms were filled with leeks, carrots, and a half a squash, as well as the canteen of salmon chowder.

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