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Pairing food and writing: What Micaela Surdi learned at ‘Tasty Words’

Micaela Surdi

Micaela Surdi

A big thanks to everyone who came to Tasty Words, our delicious writing workshop hosted by food writer Leslie Kelly at the beautiful Sorrento Hotel.

Micaela Surdi summed up her experience and we thought we’d share.

Stay tuned for more SPJ Presents events!

Take it away, Micaela …

I woke up this morning and I can’t even begin to culminate what took root last night at the SPJ Presents…Tasty Words: A Food Writing Workshop.

I had heard about this event from a friend, and in celebration of food and writing, I bought a ticket! The event would include lessons from food writer Leslie Kelly and a tasting menu full of bites with different flavors and textures. Throughout the 45-minute commute I imagined what a special night I would have learning about food, writing, and pairing them together.

I arrived at the Sorrento Hotel and made my way to the Fireside Room. I was immediately connected with my friend and filled with ease to see a familiar face welcoming me into the room. She introduced me to professionals in communications, journalism, education, and media, overflowing my brain and heart with passion, humor, inspiration and new ideas.

Then, I saw Leslie Kelly.

Have you ever heard of Leslie Kelly? Beyond my love for the “Make Cornbread, Not War” shirt she was sporting last night, I am in love with her writing. She is a full time freelance food and wine writer as well as a regular contributor to Seattle Magazine,, and Zagat Seattle. Did I mention she’s worked as a restaurant critic for three-metro newspapers, too? (Spokane Spokesman-Review, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and Seattle PI.) She is the Jackie Chan of writing in my book.

The tastings soon began to present themselves. Our plates celebrated Oyster & Absinthe, Confit Lamb Shank/Sage Grits/Pickled Chanterelles, Spice Roasted Beets/Bergamot Oil/Toasted Holmquist Hazelnuts, Seared Duck Breast/Chard/Walnut Conserve, and Grilled Shrimp/Romesco/Smoked Almonds.

To be honest, I probably had grits two times in my life, had never heard of chanterelles let alone pickling them, bergamot oil sounded German but what do I know, toasted holmquist was alien to my palate — as was walnut conserve and romesco. You could say I was swimming in a sea of the unknown with every bite I took, genuinely mistaking the confit lamb shank for the seared duck breast, but I was turning into a giddy, confused and hungry wannabe food critic.

I had scribbled down in my fancy notepad that the beets were “bright”, the grits creamy with a way of making me feel at home, safe, and warm. They made me think of my mom.

Then, Leslie began speaking. Her insight put me on a road to learning the nuances of food writing, and how details and senses translate into other aspects of writing. She emphasized that we should all remain curious, whether it’s why a certain food tastes a certain way, or where the food came from, and to always, always, always ask questions.

One would ask questions through becoming a master in the art of conversation. So having curiosity leads to questions, which eventually unravel into conversation.

Asking yourself what your impression and thoughts are about a certain dish is an easy first step to practicing curiosity, Leslie said. For example, the grits. What is the story behind the grits? Where is the recipe from? How did the chefs prepare it? Is there cream in the grits?

“Food has great stories to tell,” Leslie said.

She narrowed in on being very descriptive versus being witty. Thinking of what a certain dish reminds you of instead of using cliches can be extremely helpful when writing about food. Going to the creativity gym and exercising your creative muscles is an absolute must when it comes to writing. One could exercise creativity by doing a number of different things, but it all begins with taking yourself out of your box, looking at things in a different way.

When you exercise writing every day (free hand! with a pen!) you will keep the creative juices flowing, Leslie said. These are all simple and easy first steps to learning how details and senses translate into other aspects of writing.

She emphasized how important it is to fact check, double check, and read out loud. Have a peer editor? You need to get one, she said.

Leslie closed in explaining her genuine interest and appreciation for high end and low end food. “Go out, and experience all different food.” And then ask yourself, “What was my experience? Why did I come? What did I learn?” Telling your experience involves emotions and will help your writing skills blossom.

As the event came to a close, I felt energized, hopeful, inspired and recharged. With new connections, fresh conversations, delicious food, and above all Leslie Kelly, I could easily call it the highlight of my week.

Until next time!

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