58. The Taste of Language

Food as Art ©2016 Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

I enjoy visiting fine dining restaurants, which I do with a group of friends once a month. Although I am retired, they are active in the travel and tourism industry and need to keep up to date on venues to recommend. My wife and I simply enjoy seeing them and sharing a special evening.

Fine dining and fun dining help make a destination special. Knowing that there are places that serve perfectly prepared and presented cuisine is important to many visitors. On our own, we look for lesser-known restaurants that serve unique dishes made with local ingredients. But how do we find them? One source is TripAdvisor.

You can find reviews of the fine and the fun there, as well as just about every place on the island that has a kitchen, a table, and a menu. If you have the patience, you can read the opinions of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of individuals.

Therein lies the rub. It’s hard to write well about food, even if you are reasonably knowledgeable about it. I am the son of a restaurateur and the father of a chef. I collect (and read) cookbooks and enjoy cooking and baking — something I do almost daily, to my wife’s great delight.

A good friend, an award-winning consulting chef, goes crazy in my kitchen when he visits: he rarely sees an amateur with such an array of exotic herbs and spices, including a dozen growing in my kitchen garden.

For several years I worked as a writer at a major advertising agency. I created copy about such intangibles as the smell of perfume. Yet I hesitate to write about food. It is difficult to do well and easy to do poorly.

I cringe at many of the TripAdvisor reviews: “Best pizza (or substitute steak/hamburger/foie gras/lechón asado, or anything else) in Puerto Rico.” Is it possible for one person to try them all? Is this statement ever believable?

Or this, “The best seafood mofongo in Eastern Puerto Rico.” The restaurant in question was in the north of Puerto Rico, which takes a dollop of credibility away from the reviewer.

And finally, this: “Fantastically unbelievable.” This was one of more than 3,000 hyperbolic reviews of a top San Juan restaurant. They are undoubtedly right — thousands of people can’t be wrong.

But of the several hundred I read, not one attempted to communicate why the food was fantastically unbelievable. How, exactly did it taste? What made it different or better that any other similar combination of ingredients at a similar place?

As writers, we can describe what we see, hear, touch and smell. Is there a limit to language when it comes to the sense of taste? Can’t words capture flavor?

The devil is in the details. In any piece of writing, superlatives — unsubstantiated superlatives — are useless. Generalities are useless. Gushing is useless. If you find a fantastically unbelievable little restaurant by all means tell me about it. But use words that help me see, hear, touch, smell and taste the food.

That is the most spectacular advice in the entire universe for writing about food and everything else!