Language and Appetite: How to Write a Sexy Recipe

Study of Two Pears, an oil painting I did which now hangs in Zack's Restaurant in Fairbanks

Reading a good recipe inspires my taste buds in much the same way that naughty pictures can inspire, um… carnal desire. I’m going to stay away from the idea of food porn for now, since I think the visual representation, while not in a category by itself, is a category that deserves a post of its own. The connection between language and food interests me more because it’s less obvious. Recipes and menu descriptions come to mind first since they are the most common intersection of food and language.  A well written recipe has a unique, hunger inducing manner of delivering clear and tempting instructions.  And menu descriptions, if well written, can inspire the wanton purchase of appetizers, main fare, expensive wine, desserts, and aperitifs.  The importance of the well wrought word is obvious to both restaurateurs and cookbook editors alike.

The most basic recipe writing strategies can be found in places like those found on the Association of Food Journalist’s website in an article by Judith Evans. She notes that some common conventions for food writing are as follows:

Here are some common conventions for recipe writing:
  • List ingredients in the order that they are used.
  • Make sure that all ingredients used are listed, and, conversely, that all ingredients listed are used.
  • Don’t abbreviate. (1 teaspoon, not 1 tsp.)
  • Use exact amounts. (1/2 cup basil leaves, not a handful.)
  • Be precise, and pay attention to wording. 1 cup chopped basil means you chop the basil, then measure it. 1 cup basil, chopped, means you measure, then chop. The difference is significant.
  • Call for the measurements that cooks commonly use (1/4 cup water, not 2 ounces; 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, not 1/8 cup.)
  • Be as specific as possible. (Canned pineapple packed in juice — or light syrup, or heavy syrup — not just canned pineapple.) If an ingredient needs to be at room temperature or drained, say so.
  • Be specific about package sizes, and be sure that the sizes and products called for are still available. (Package sizes change frequently.)
  • In the directions, be concise but use full sentences.
  • Be specific about pan sizes, cooking temperature and any other essential details.
  • Don’t assume that readers understand cooking terms such as “cream” or “dredge.” Instead, define them: “beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy” or “coat fish lightly with flour.”
  • When appropriate, give a range of cooking times and provide a way to determine when the food is done. (Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until golden brown.)
  • Provide the number of servings that the recipe yields.
  • If you adapted the recipe from another source, give credit.

Ultimately a recipe should be more than a set of instructions. A truly good meal is bound to the narrative surrounding it, whether the narrative is supplied by the chef, waiter, or good dinner companions who know how to weave a yarn.  Inspired language and artful food both begin where a good kiss begins: in the mouth and with an awareness of who will be consuming what you’re offering, an awareness that all good poets have, using gustatory sensations to elicit a certain response in the reader. Some poets evoke the sensual connections between consuming a lover and consuming a meal, like the poem “Appetite” by Rynn Williams, or the braided rope of sense memory and language housed in a poem like “Corned Beef and Cabbage” by George Bilgere.  While corned beef and cabbage isn’t exactly sexy, it certainly reveals the combined power of food and language.

If you’re looking to write a sexy recipe, you must talk of your food as you would a lover.  For a good example of this try Jennifer Locke Whethem over at Foodsexlit. She often shares her recipes in seductive prose form:

Photo by Jennifer Locke Whethem

“I sliced the figs in half, then topped them with a bit of goat cheese, wrapped them in the prosciutto, then slipped the little beauties under the broiler until the outer layer crisped.

There is no foodgasm like the first explosion of these little morsels in your mouth: the sweetness of the fig, the tang of the goat cheese, and the salt of the prosciutto is a menage a trois of flavors.  The textures are a brilliant tripling as well: the crunch of the seeds of the fig, the creamy softness of the cheese, the crispness of the thin, thin meat.

Eating them is a sensual, if messy, experience– your fingers coated with hot grease, the molten cheese dripping, juice exploding in your mouth.  ”These are naughty,” our host, Dicken, said appreciatively.”

Well chosen words like “topped,” “wrapped,” and “slipped” are good places to start.  Of course, Whethem is less than subtle with “foodgasm” and “menage a trois of flavors” but that’s the fun of her approach.  And don’t even get me started on the description of the experience.

The ancient Romans had a decidedly more malleable approach to sexuality than your typical American, and the approach to food appears to have been similarly flexible.  Consider the following recipe from Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome by Apicius, an ancient cookbook which has recently been translated for the first time into English by Joseph Dommers Vehling:

It appears that "Rose Pie" looked like this when Heston Blumenthal cooked it. Compare this photo to the comparably more appetizing recipe in written form.

#136 Rose Pie, Rose Custard (or Pudding), or Patina de Rosis

Take roses fresh from the flower bed, strip off the leaves, remove the white [from the petals], and put them in the mortar; pour over some broth and rub fine.  Add a glass of broth and strain the juice through the colander.  [This done] take 4 [cooked calf’s] brains, skin them and remove the nerves; crush 8 scruples of pepper moistened with the juice and rub [with the brains]; thereupon break 8 eggs, add 1 glass of wine, 1 glass of raisin wine and a little oil.  Meanwhile grease a pan, place it in the hot ashes [or in a hot bath] and pour in the above material. When the mixture is cooked in the bain maris sprinkle it with pulverized pepper and serve it forth.

With phrases like “fresh from the flower bed” and “strip off” and “remove the nerves,” it’s not only my tastebuds that are interested but, well, other parts of me are interested as well.

But these days, it seems chefs, cookbook authors, and other ambitious foodies have gone overboard. Those chicken strips have now become “hand-breaded breast of locally raised hen, rolled in a light Italian style breading and dusted with sea salt and fresh-cracked peppercorns. Served with a ramequin of whole grain dijon infused with honey.”  Really? That’s not sexy. It’s pretentious.  Sexy is the carefully chosen adjective for an ingredient, and even sexier is the well placed verb in the instructions.

To whit, Harold McGee, a decidedly unpretentious writer, in his On Food and Cooking, recounts one of the first recipes for Ice Cream:

Neige de fleurs d’orange (“Snow of Orange Flowers”)

You must take sweet cream, and put thereto two handfuls of powdered sugar, and take petals of orange flowers and mince them small, and put them in your cream…and put all into a pot, and put your pot in a wine cooler; and you must take ice, crush it well and put a bed of it with a handful of salt at the bottom of the cooler before putting in the pot…. And you must continue putting a layer of ice and a handful of salt, until the cooler is full and the pot covered, and you must put it in the coolest place you can find, and you must shake it from time to time for fear it will freeze into a solid lump of ice. It will take about two hours.

Nouveau confiturier, 1682

Now, if that doesn’t get your, ahem, juices flowing, then you are one cold, dead fish.  All told, writing a sexy recipe takes more than your average foodie vocabulary; it takes a deep understanding of language and a willingness to bare your soul.  So turn up the heat, get naked, and teach me how to cook something sexy.


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3 thoughts on “Language and Appetite: How to Write a Sexy Recipe

  • Jean

    I find abit annoying to call abit of sauce made from the meat juices, etc., “jus”.

    It’s nearly amusing if one has grown up from babyhood on an ethnic cuisine to see several decades later how things are renamed for North American marketability. ie. a savoury steamed egg dish (I will blog one day about this) in Chinese cuisine (which you won’t find in hardly in restaurants here in North America), can be called savoury custard instead.

    As for erotic gustatory language…haven’t yet engaged in that. I would surprise some of my readers. Sigh. Probably sound dull here. 🙂

  • Nicole

    I have admired that painting at Zack’s many times. I’m just heading out from work when I discovered your site on Blogher. I just wanted to drop a note to say “Hi” from another Fairbanks Food Blogger.