Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Cliche Project: Words and Phrases Food Writers Should Stop Using (an ongoing project)

You know how every movie that comes out is either "Wickedly Funny!" or "A Taut Psychological Thriller!"? I suppose movie critics can be excused a little--their job has been around for quite a while, and there are a lot of movies, and they have to review them all, and most don't even deserve their own adverb-adjective combination. But food writers? Food writing as recognized genre is a recent phenomenon. What's more, food writers can, at least to some degree, choose their subjects--when you're a film critic, you're largely limited to what's out and what's coming out, with an occasional foray back into the classics. Food writers can write about cooking at home, restaurants old and new, entire cities, countries, cuisines, ethnicities, baking, ingredients, laws governing importation of szechuan peppercorns...and so on. A meal prepared at home using Thanksgiving leftovers can give rise to a 40-page treatise on immigration and land-use for chrissakes. The short version: there's a lot of material, and not a lot of stricture. Argue if you want, but that's what I think.

So why, why, WHY must I continue to read the same 7 descriptions of dishes, no matter whether I'm reading a blog entry, a review of a new restaurant or a cookbook-memoir? Writers: if you are at all passionate about what you do--and not just about the meals themselves, but about your written product--here is the somewhat-annotated list of words and phrases to avoid. I hope you find it rich and flavorful.

1. "Rich and flavorful," or any combination of these two words. The only exception is the use of "rich" alone as a negative (e.g., "The soup was almost too rich--like a chicken custard.") Saying a food is "flavorful" is like saying that a painting is "full of different colors"--it tells me nothing, except that the thing was not bland. Even if that's what you mean it to do, find a better word. I'm not telling you any; go find them. The dictionary is your friend.

2. "Mouth feel." Do I need to explain this one? It's the worst phrase ever invented, not to mention one of the most over-used in food writing. It evokes the most disgusting imagery to me and at the same time makes me giggle. It sounds like what a dentist gives you when he probes around. Mmm...dentist porn. Mouth feel, indeed. If you must use it, for g-d's sake at least add the proper hyphen.

3. "Unctuous." Just in case you thought I wasn't going to include anything on this list that I actually use--here's my own sacrifice. Man, I like this word. I like it a lot. It's onomatopoetic, it's a little obscure, it's fun to say...and it's USED IN EVERY PIECE I READ ABOUT A FRENCH RESTAURANT. Sushi, too. I'm not saying that "unctuous" can't make a comeback after some much-needed downtime, but for now, give it up. I know: it's going to be hard to avoid both "unctuous" and "rich," but I have faith in you.

4. "Spiked." With this one, I'm not calling for a global cut-back. No, this one is personal. Perhaps personal to two writers, but still cabined fairly tightly. For some reason, this word gets used most often in connection with Asian foods--something Thai is "spiked with chili and lime," for example. Like number 3, I do like this one. But if you think it might be your personal crutch, please try to get off it. Save some good words for the rest of us.

5. "Flavor profile." What the !$%#! is a "flavor profile"?! Is it not just the thing's taste? "This steak's flavor profile is cowwy, with more than hint of char." Pardon? We "profile" foods now? "All right--all you foods who fit the flavor profile, over here against this wall and spread 'em!" This phrase is like legalese for food writers: unnecessarily high-flung and distancing for the reader. Lose it.

6. "Wafting."

7. "To die for." Reader babette sent this one, and I agree. With the 1980's behind most of us, we can afford to let this gem go, can't we? I'm willing to let it in on a limited basis, and only when used in really clever ways, but then that goes for everything on this list. Unless you're reviewing the first sushi restaurant in Sidney, Nebraska, in which case use liberally. In a similar vein, lucille writes in to request that "yummy" be limited to use by those aged 3 years and under. Seems fair to me. It's phrases like these two that, if you think about it, give rise to places like The Cheesecake Factory, that trade on the idea of decadence ("Yummy chocolate cheesecake to die for!") and deliver the mediocrest of mediocre food. Shame people for using these words and you'll be doing your part to close The Cheesecake Factory. Think about it.

8. "The bar scene" a/k/a "The scene at the bar." In L.A., this is going to be a hard one to avoid. I'm not saying you can't refer to what goes on at the bar when you're reviewing a place, nor that you can't say that the vibe in a place is more bar than restaurant. What you cannot do is use this shortcut that makes you sounds like someone hopelessly out of touch, whether you mean it in a positive or negative sense. You may very well be that far-removed from the folks at the bar, but you shouldn't let your readers know it.

9. "Melts in your mouth" or "melt-in-your-mouth." That's right--more phrases implying yummy decadence to die for that I'm taking away from you! Be strong. Unless something actually does melt in your mouth, I don't want to hear that it does.

10. "Bursting with..." Similar to #9: unless we're talking about roe or a very few other foods that actually burst when one bites them (ok, or when they're cooked or prepared), please leave this description for the kids. They're too young to know any better; we aren't.

Feel free to write in and suggest additions. If they ring true to me, in they'll go. Like the title says, this is an ongoing project.

If this writing thing ever goes anywhere, I have a feeling I'm going to regret this list.


Anonymous Babette said...

Definitely agree on "mouth feel." Although I haven't heard it in connection with eating tongue, the notion inspires giggles, here. Also, I gag on "to die for."

12:32 PM  
Anonymous lucille said...

Love these. Please help stamp out "yummy" from anyone over the age of 3.

5:45 PM  
Blogger MEalCentric said...

Guilty, guilty, guilty. I am what I am.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous c said...

I hear you about "spiked." And I think I know who you are talking about. Ha!

In the same vein, the term "delectable delicacies" drives me bozo bonkers. It's often used to describe Chinese food, and, what's worse, the writer frequently gasps in the next breath about how they ate everything for less than $10 - drinks, tips included.

It's a cute alliteration, but when it's used to describe such mundane things as charsui pork, the whole panoply of Chinese cooking is cheapened. Truffle is a delicacy. So is fugu. But there is nothing delicate, nor are there delicacy qualities, in a side of barbecue pork even if it's spiked with XO sauce.

I have my own not-so-overused alliterations, which I use to describe the things I encounter frequently:

- soothingly seductive (pho)
- gleeful gluttony (thick crust pizza)
- vaunted vapidity (single malt scotch)

11:20 AM  
Blogger dwg said...

isn't "vaunted vapidity" the state you're hoping for AFTER drinking the scotch? or is that "dazzling dizziness?"

12:30 PM  
Anonymous c said...

vaunted vapidity isn't meant as a compliment to single malt scotch, so no.

we'll talk if it's a blended scotch like Johnny Walker Black Label, in which case it's a ticklish tipple that leaves me blissfully buoyant.

but we're getting off topic...

1:42 PM  
Blogger sarah said...

i loooooooooooooooove deliciously delectable alliteration.

you guys are so mean.


7:09 PM  

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