The Sights, Sounds and Smells of Writing About Food

Thursday, November 08, 2018
My love for avocados runs deep.

Have you ever read a book by an author (and not a cookbook) where the food was so perfectly described it made your mouth water? That’s how I’ve always felt reading novels by Pat Conroy—I can feel the texture of the shrimp and grits upon my tongue; smell the Old Bay seasoning as it swirls out of a pot of seafood gumbo.

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with food (well, I’ve loved it more than I’ve hated it!) and because I read so many cookbooks and recipes in my own day-to-day life, I often overlook food as a central point in my writing. While reading a book of essays recently, I started brainstorming a series of essays I could write centered around food.

One of the first memories I have is sitting in my Hispanic grandmother’s kitchen, watching her grind spices and homemade salsa with an authentic mortar and pestle. She was constantly rolling out the dough for homemade flour tortillas, which my cousins and I would slather with butter while yelling out for more. The little kitchen where she worked was always hot, and beads of perspiration would roll down her face because she and my grandfather didn’t have central air conditioning. On the stove at all times would be a saute pan with Mexican rice, bubbling with crushed tomatoes, onions and cumin. Or the pinto beans that she would carefully sort by hand, throwing out the bad ones and soaking the rest overnight before making a special pot the next day, mixed in with a little Crisco. While she worked, she would have her little black and white television set playing the soap operas “Days of Our Lives” and “The Young and the Restless,” and occasionally I would hear her gasp with surprise or cluck her tongue at the shenanigans of the characters.

There are many ways you can write about food. You can write about a favorite childhood memory involving food like I did above, or make a list of some of your go-to comfort foods and what they say about you. Or a food you will never eat again because that’s what you ate right before a stomach virus you thought would certainly kill you. Or weave food into a story or novel you’re writing. I have a character in one of my young adult novels that has sensory processing disorder, so there are certain food textures she can’t tolerate. She decides to start preparing foods she can tolerate as a way to work through some of her anxiety issues, and discovers a fascinating new hobby.

Now it's your turn. What are some ways you’ve used the sights, sounds and smells of food in your writing? Or, just describe your favorite comfort food in two to three sentences in the comments below. I’d love to hear your stories!

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and editor who still adores Mexican food to this day, and she also makes a mean guacamole. She’s looking forward to visiting her grandparents (who are now in their mid-80s) in Texas over the holidays, and sees more food writing in her future. Visit her website at


Margo Dill said...

Currently, in my WIP, I have a scene where my main character and her love interest like to go to a local Chinese restaurant. It was fun to write that scene! I love Chinese food, and so working in a spicy dish with a cold ice tea or everyone's favorite, beef broccoli, over an important conversation added a fun level to the writing and hopefully for the reader, too.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Ahhh...great reminder! Part of my NaNo memoir takes place in Mexico, where there always seems to be outdoor cooking and smoke curling from a grill. That's the midway point in my memoir, but the prologue is also in Mexico, and then flashes back to when I first met my boyfriend. Since I'm only on chapter 4, I haven't gotten a chance to write about food that much, but I have included a lot of drinks and other... um, food substitutes that stimulate the senses. Honestly, I don't think I ate much back then in my teens and only weighed 96 pounds. But I've noticed that in almost every essay I write lately there is food in there! Pickled lotus root has come up a lot, and it's delicious. You just reminded me that I did make my mom's Japanese curry rice for my boyfriend one night, and it would be a nice scene to include to show the times when things were good between us. So thank you! :)

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