Action Verbs and Similes Make Food Writing Sing

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Pete Wells, dining editor of the New York Times

Sometimes I read a piece of food writing that sings with energy and imagination. Such was the case in  a recent piece by Pete Wells in the New York Times Sunday magazine.

Titled “A Young Boy Fishes for Dinner,” it makes use of a dizzying number of action verbs to propel the story forward ( in bold face below), and similes  that made me smile ( in italics) with their inventiveness.

Similes compare two unlike things, often using “like” or “as.”  A while ago I held a contest on writing them. Below, notice how Wells dispensed with either “like” or “as” in the first simile.

I won’t paste the whole story in here, but I sure loved the way it began:

“First we’ll get the grill going hotter than a blacksmith’s forge. We’ll strip the papery wrappers from the tomatillos and lay them above the coals alongside planks of onion and a chili pepper, maybe two. I’ll flip the vegetables as they sear, and as usual, the tongs won’t be long enough to keep my hands from scorching like bare feet on the beach parking lot. The onions will char, then the peppers. The tomatillos will fight the heat, blistering in anger and spitting juice at the hissing coals, then they’ll give up and collapse in on themselves. They go back indoors, into the blender.

“Quickly, before the coals dim, I’ll chop the peppers and onions and a bunch of cilantro. Stir it all together, and there’s a salsa. Now to cook the fish. It’s a bluefish, an entire side, big enough to feed the whole family and some stray friends. Onto the grill it goes, skin up. We’ll close the lid so the smoke insinuates itself into the oily fillet. Turn it once. My sons will hover like thirsty mosquitoes. Now it will be time to spoon grilled salsa verde over our dinner, the freshest bluefish we’ve ever eaten and the first one landed by Dexter, our proud 6-year-old.”

Now, take a look at a 200-word sample of your own work. Let’s do a little math here. Wells employed more than 20 action verbs, over one every 10 words. And three similes.

How does your writing compare? Is it heavier on the adjectives? I see just a few here, including papery, oily, stray, freshest.

If you’ve got a great example of your own power writing, lay a little sample on me. If not, simply admire a how a pro crafts a first person piece.


  1. says

    Great example of similes and action verbs in action, Dianne. These are aspects of my writing I plan to examine (and improve, I hope) in the near future.

  2. says

    “I adore eggplant, brilliant, deep violet skin like the darkest of garnets or a rich, ruby red wine. Voluptuous eggplants, firm, dense and curvaceous, hinting of Old World decadence and gorgeous, fleshy women draped sensually across red velvet sofas. Slice through them and breath in the fresh scent, stare at the white, white flesh. I love touching these gorgeous beings, ogling them, stroking them and cooking them. I have been dreaming of a luscious Eggplant Parmesan, the eggplant thinly sliced and flash fried snuggling down deep in a thick, heady, fragrant tomato sauce, layered between meltingly hot, gooey cheese.”

    Well, maybe not as many action verbs as Mr. Wells, but I get a thrill out of describing, finding just the right words and expressions and verbs to describe what’s going on in my head. I am the queen of adjectives and similes, they are my playground. I also know that food writing has to be active and descriptive since we are trying to describe something that touches all the senses yet we only have our words on a page or on a screen to activate the reader’s senses, getting him/her to hear, see, smell, taste, feel.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Jamie, for playing along. I see lots of active verbs in your example. I love the sensuousness of “gorgeous, fleshy women draped sensually across re velvet sofas.”

  3. says

    Loved that passage! Thanks for this, Dianne. Of course I had to go check my own blog entries. Hmmm. . . not quite 200 words, not quite as many “action” verbs, but I count 18 verbs and one simile in 172 words (and believe it or not, this was actually a post about biscuits and tofu scramble):

    The close friendship between my buddy Sterlin and me was soldered back in high school, when we first discovered that we were the only two girls in the entire school who had never had a boyfriend (well, I guess there was “BB,” too, but we figured that sleeping with the entire senior class had to count for something).

    This revelation prompted an immediate sense of community between us, after which we spent endless hours (in the way that only teenagers can) on the telephone, musing about why we didn’t have a boyfriend, how much we wished we could have a boyfriend, what we would do if we ever got a boyfriend, and what it was other girls like BB had that we didn’t, allowing them to seemingly conjure streams of drooling boys trailing behind them like empty cans tied to a “Just Married” car bumper. Entirely unjustly, we thought, these girls enjoyed a surfeit of boyfriends, while we had to make do with an unrequited crush on our French teacher, Mr. Krauser.

    • diannejacob says

      So typical of what I went through in high school too, Ricki. You’ve captured it perfectly. I love the ending with the crush on your French teacher, and the snarky mention of BB.

  4. Christine says

    What I also appreciate about the Pete Wells sample is the use of personification in the sentence, “The tomatillos will fight the heat, blistering in anger and spitting juice at the hissing coals, then they’ll give up and collapse in on themselves.”

    It’s a device I like to employ in my food writing, too, but one I am careful with. Imagining food alive creates interest and draws a reader in, but I don’t want them to be grossed out with a description of food that sounds too close to being human. I try to prevent my readers from feeling like cannibals whenever I can.

    This sentence by Pete Wells struck a good balance. I almost felt sorry for the tomatillos by the end of the sentence.

    • diannejacob says

      Hah! I didn’t think about personification. That technique can get a little too cutesy, and sometimes makes me squeamish, as you point out.

  5. says

    The Pulitzer folks won’t be calling me anytime soon with this piece, but I think I actually did all right with my verbs and similes!

    “Given that I’m allotted about 45 seconds from the time we make it downstairs until my lovable little folks start clamoring to be served breakfast you’d think I’d formulate some kind of breakfast plan to make things easier. Instead, I look a bit like Taz from Looney Tunes, spinning around the kitchen, transferring items from the fridge and pantry to the toaster oven, to the microwave, to the kitchen island, finally to the table, kids in their booster and high chair, bibs on…and I finally take a seat. Whew!”

    Love these tips, Dianne – I’ll definitely have them top of my mind when I sit down for my next post.

  6. says

    This is a nice follow up to various exercises in your book Diane. Pete brings tomatillos to life while I like Jamie’s sensual approach to describing eggplant. As I work towards power writing, this is what I’d like to share now and appreciate feedback!

    Saturday morning landed early. Mike slipped out unnoticed like a satellite crossing the sky, drove to Fort Ross, and was back in time for coffee. Quicker than usual, he tagged three abalone and stumbled upon the largest mussels I’d ever seen. He reported visibility so immense he could see the bottom on his free dive. The second day’s Russian Gulch dive was like looking for a seed in a bowl of oatmeal; tricky due to minimal visibility.

    • diannejacob says

      “Like looking for a seed in a bowl of oatmeal!” That captures the murkiness of the water instantly for me. “Tagged” and “stumbled” are great action verbs.

  7. says

    A recent headnote using some active verbs. Also, used noun forms of several adjectives–creaminess, bitterness.

    Mocha and white chocolate are another of those match-made-in-heaven baking combinations. For some reason, mocha and white chocolate marry even better than dark and white chocolates. The white chocolate creaminess smooths the coffee bitterness, while at the same time the coffee flavor boosts the appeal of the chocolate. These treats taste vaguely like café au lait, only more complex and satisfying.

    • diannejacob says

      I like the use of “smooths” and “boosts,” Nancy. Thanks for participating. I still think of, with fondness, a class you taught on food writing at IACP. Still have the handouts somewhere.

  8. says

    That Pete Wells example give me a lot to think about in my own writing. Action words, action words, action words. While it is nowhere near the caliber of the Pete Wells’ passage, I did have fun writing this one. Critique welcomed here.

    “This afternoon it rained in Salt Lake City. I do not mean light, sprinkling rain which urges you to frolic in puddles. I mean the kind of rain that prompts men with white beards to build large wooden boats and round up animals two-by-two. When it first started, the boys and I cuddled together by the front window to watch the show. As sheets of rain blew past our window and three-quarters of the street was covered in a river of fast-flowing mud and water, I started to become a little concerned. I went into the garage to check on the canoe that my husband was buffing last weekend. Floatable device – check. Lifejackets – check. Just before I called for all hands on deck, the rain thankfully started to slow to a mere shower and the drains were able to swallow the overflow of water.”

    • diannejacob says

      Fun! You definitely got into the spirit of it, particularly with the word “frolic.” I liked the ark reference.

      Watch for passive terms like “was covered,” and “the drains were able to swallow.” Make them more active. A river of fast-flowing mud and water covered the street. The drains swallowed.

    • Karen says

      I can just picture this scene – your descriptions are so vivid. I was once staring out a window in SLC watching the torrents pelt the streets with drops as big as pancakes! I made my way to SLC and a new life after I slogged through four years in New Orleans in school. The Professor for whom I tolled as a note transcriber was from Salt Lake City. He called me into his office one day and made me swear on a stack of Philosophy 101 Term Papers that I would never, ever disregard a sudden Spring storm. He painted a picture of the four-lane wide streets teeming with automobiles and chuck-wagons flailing their way across the Valley. I never forgot that! Thanks for the trip that you sent me on across the pages of yesteryear! I am still coming up for air as the memories eddy around me.

  9. says

    Dianne, your post on the importance of verbs got me to thinking about the importance of adjectives and adverbs in producing powerful prose–which I’ve sometimes heard were overused and not very effective. I’ve just put up a post which I think disputes this. It certainly seems to when one is writing headnotes. Would love your comments/thoughts on this.


  1. […] Dianne Jacob is one of the most thoughtful people I know. For years now she has dispensed wise advice to writers who want to be heard. This woman knows writing, publishing, and how to tell a good story. I love anyone who grows excited about the use of action verbs. […]