In this five-part column, Hannah Howard explores the senses from a craft perspective
I am the adjective queen, and I deployed every single fitting one in service of these cheeses: tangy, buttery, gooey, runny, creamy, luscious, savory. Decadent, milky, luxurious, silky, fresh, and . . . and then somewhere around cheese number seventeen, I lost steam. There were the double-creams and triple-creams. There were the Camemberts and the robiolas. They were all a little different, but dozens of descriptions in, they all started to sound the same. The unthinkable happened: I had run out of words.
The senses are a way into experiencing the present moment fully. Attention can transform the world around you. Meditation starts with paying attention to our breath. Therapy starts with paying attention to how you feel. Writing starts with paying attention too.
The senses are also a nifty, powerful writing tool. Don’t know where to begin? Start with something you or a character can see, like a bird out the window. Then listen to it sing, the rustle of its wings, the quiet after it flies away.
There’s a mindfulness practice of eating a single raisin very, very slowly. What does the raisin look like and smell like? What does its craggy, slippery skin feel like against your fingers, and then against your tongue? The point of the raisin meditation is to take something small and totally unremarkable—a raisin—and experience it intentionally, through your senses. Try it. You don’t need a raisin; it could be anything at all.
Writing starts with paying attention too.
I know I can move through whole days on autopilot, checking things off my list and going, going, going. I can forget about breakfast until I start to feel a little bit lightheaded, then scarf whatever I find in my fridge. (I never forget about coffee, however.) Connecting with my senses means slowing down. What does that coffee taste like? How is it different, because of the bean or the moment, from every other morning I’ve reached for a cup? What is it about the warmth of the mug in my hand, the bitterness down my throat, that signals a new day has begun?
In writing that seeks to tell a story rather than sell a product—literary rather than commercial—there is rarely a need to describe seventeen cheeses that are really not all thatdifferent. Still, writing about taste is hard. There are two main ways to convey flavor. The first is to employ adjectives, which, back to that unctuous, velvety cheese, only take us so far. This is why sommeliers have a whole language of wine lingo, bouquets of oak and butter, and terms like body, structure, and grip. At the end of the day, wine is simply fermented grapes. Sommeliers have a difficult job: to help each bottle tell the story of its vineyards, its flavors, and its soul.
The second way to write about taste is to compare one thing to another. Back to the example of a snooty sommelier, who could go on about that sauvignon blanc’s notes of juicy ripe peach or passion fruit or cat pee. Or she might explain that Beaujolais reminds her of the forest floor after a rainstorm, or a smoldering campfire.
The flavor-simile move can be quite powerful. Taking a whiff of that ruby wine could transport you back to your very first camping trip, marshmallows on a stick, haunting ghost stories, wrapped in a dizzying blanket of the starry sky above.
There are limitations inherent here too. Maybe it doesn’t resonate at all. Maybe you grew up in the city and have no interest in nature or forest floors. Maybe you’ve never tasted passion fruit. Maybe you don’t have a cat. A reader may nod knowingly at our references, might feel the things we hope they will feel, or they may come up cold.
If the writing really works, it doesn’t matter. In Michelle Zauner’s gorgeous essay “Crying in H Mart,” she captures profound grief over losing her mother through a trip to a Korean grocery store. Before I read the essay, I wasn’t familiar with samgyupsal or ppeong-twigi, but I didn’t have to be. Through voice, feeling, and sense of place, these foods come alive on the page. They are part of a constellation of memory and a vividly rendered world. The food becomes more than just the food. It becomes a character, alive, a vector for meaning.
When you get it right, it’s something like the magic of a perfect meal, a perfect bite. It starts with our taste buds and reaches right to our heartstrings. Bitter, salty, sour, astringent, sweet, pungent, umami, and joy.
Hannah Howard is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen and the forthcoming book Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Hannah writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.