One of the great friendships of my life began at a food writing conference. For the entertainment following a luncheon, the organizers had brought in a gospel choir, and the mainly middle-aged, mainly pasty lot of us were up on our feet, clapping and dancing to the music. The guy beside me, John Kessler, clapped and stepped completely out of time with the rhythm, and as he did so he called out “LAWD GOD … give me another word for crunchy!”
Kessler is the restaurant critic at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and we've been friends ever since. I recount this story whenever the issue of overused food words comes up — not because I want the option of saying “mouthwatering” as much as I damn well please, but to point out that there are some words that are hard to avoid. In fact, it's one of the hardest parts of food writing. None of us is above the problem: Read any critic long enough, and certain words or turns of phrase will come up over and over.
There is a long and noble tradition of sports writing cliches, and a less explored but just as venerable history of music writing cliches. So it's no surprise that food writers, in all our navel-gazing glory, would start to compile lists of overused words and phrases in our own genre. Last week, Grub Street compiled a list of “food cliches we should toss out forever.” It also started a Twitter competition to compose a sentence using food cliches tagged #bannedfoodwords, which many people used to throw out suggestions for things no one should ever write again.
I should mention here that the Grub Street post was very similar to two pieces Amy Scattergood wrote here in 2010. And many of the words Amy came up with, as well as the ones Grub Street bans, are truly awful words. “Sammies” is infantile idiocy. And some are just bad writing — “cooked to perfection” has no meaning, really. You might as well say “good.” (Now THAT'S a word many editors I've had have literally banned. I had one editor who banned the word “is.” There's a discussion I'd like to read about.)
But I also take issue with some of the banned words on these lists. Eatery? OK, fine, but only if you want to see the word “restaurant” 75 billion times in one paragraph. Some of them are just icky words — mouth feel, for instance, is kinda gross. It also describes a very particular thing: the texture of food while it is inside your mouth. I personally would stay away from it because it's overused and I don't like the sound of it, but is condemning an entire concept really helpful?
Other words on these lists pertain not to the unimaginative food writer but to concepts in food that exist out there in the world that we don't like. “Foodie” is the ultimate example of this. It describes something — in fact, it describes us. We're so uncomfortable with the idea that we can be classified this way that we hate the very word. I hate the word. I shy away from using it. But I know it describes a real thing I don't like. It's an ugly word and an uglier concept, but it exists in the world. Not saying it won't change that.
“Velvety,” “silky,” “pillowy” and “meltingly tender” are all on the list. And they're all pretty useful to describe a sensation or texture. And they're all overused. Because there really aren't that many ways to say something is smooth and tender and good. I'm not saying we shouldn't strive for those new ways to say something, but that can be just as annoying. “The soup slid across my tongue like the lightest of liquid cashmere.” Gross. Is “silky mouthful” really that much worse?
I was also surprised by the word “fusion” on the Grub Street list. Fusion is a thing. It describes a style of cooking. That style of cooking — mushing things together that had no business being on the same plate — was popular at a certain point in time. It got a reputation as being crap, and now chefs who have learned how to meld cultures in ways that are popular hate having their food called fusion.
Or, to put it another way, foodies hate fusion.
Which is fair enough. That doesn't mean the word itself should cease to exist. It just means we need another word that means “good fusion.” Wasabi mashed potatoes will always be fusion, and we should call it that.
The Twitter suggestions were even more restrictive. “Folded in,” “sustainable,” “honest” and “pop” were all nominated.
The ultimate food cliche is a list of things on a food blog. My favorite #bannedfoodwords tweet may have come from Jason Bell who said, “Do we really need another one? Can we ban these lists?”
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