Being that travel is effectively a perpetual exercise in ungraceful, humbling discovery, travel writers are often put in the position of writing about stuff that they knew little or nothing about before the trip. Moreover, the editorial understanding for these assignments is that the new experience or activity will be illustrated in the final article in a way suggesting that the travel writer gleaned a rather unlikely degree of expertise after only glancing time engaged in the new experience or activity. The exception is when it all goes extravagantly wrong, a la Bill Bryson, in which case wallowing in one’s ignorance and haplessness to further the tale and entertainment value is perfectly acceptable, encouraged even.
With a lot of rudimentary questions and follow-up research, the writer should be able to come off sounding like, at the very least, a passing authority on the new experience or activity, whether it be describing an albatross watching tour, firing a gun or being shoved into a helicopter for a day of “ultimate fly fishing.”
Food, alas, is another story. Intelligently writing about food requires hard-won knowledge and a vocabulary so immense that it’s quite literally a composite foreign language. One needs a working knowledge of French, Spanish, and Italian just to decipher a menu at a midrange restaurant these days, never mind the sadistic places that are intentionally composing menu language that make you feel like it’s your first trip outside your village in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea.
But we travel writers can’t get by writing about kebabs and French fries all the time, so here’s a few tips for writing about food when you don’t know squat about the food in question.
1. Talk around the words you don’t know – I satisfied my university Spanish proficiency oral exit exam by using this trick. I think I got through the whole thing using only three tenses. It was pretty badass.
Whether the name of the foodstuff in question was never provided or you were too drunk to take good notes, rather than incriminating yourself by using derpy phrases like “green crap” and “some kind of fish,” circumvent that knowledge gap with creative evasion.
Example: a forgotten three line description of locally sourced, obscurely prepared, exotic fish can be transformed into “I’d barely caught my breath from the chicken, before the fish course: a multi-colored festival of subtly flavored amazingness that caused my eyes to well up with tears of joy and my companions to emit noises that could have replaced the audio track of a porn film. Next was the fillet mignon, which was…”
See? What kind of fish was it? Who cares? The reader was transported to a place where stupid, unnecessary details are irrelevant and you pick up the thread (ideally) where your drunk notes made enough sense to resume writing in an authoritative tone.
2. Replace complicated terminology with evocative adjectives and metaphors – This is one of my favorite tools, because not only do I bail myself out of exposing my ignorance and/or lazy note-taking, but I paradoxically make myself look super clever by getting all transcendent and shit to fill the hole.
Example: a complicated description of beef that you blanked on while writing the review can be changed to “A cut of beef the size of a baby’s head, emitting a thundering protein signature so powerful that it could’ve made a seismometer spontaneously combust. ”
3. Make shit up – We couldn’t get away with this 10 years ago, but ever since eccentric, narcissistic chefs started inventing words and shamelessly printing them on their menus, forcing people to meekly ask their server to translate these pretend terms into English, there’s no reason writers can’t get away with the same thing. Most people won’t call you out on this practice for fear of exposing their food illiteracy, so just go for it.
However, this trick should be used judiciously. If too many strings of nonsensical words appear in your copy, the jig’s up.
A japerittio of pork.
Swathed in a pallia of mustard.
The piedeblanche of the quail, draunche in its own juices.
And so forth.
And that’s how you write about food when you don’t know squat about the food. Employed correctly, these tricks could have you writing food reviews for Bon Appetit in no time. Or you could cough up money for classes, read a mountain of books and waste pointless energy worrying about mixing up “simmered” and “sautéed” (whatever that is).