Food Writing Exercises

As the spring semester approaches, I'm doing my best to plan for the small seminar I'll be teaching called Eating and Memory (described previously in this post).

Because I got such helpful feedback and guidance last time (thanks, SW!) when I asked for help, I figured I'd try it again, this time with less a focus on readings than on writing exercises.

I'm trying to structure each class around some sharing, reading, and writing, and so would like to have a whole bank of writing exercises to rely on as I put together the class schedule.

I have some early ideas, but would really love more of them from any of you who like to write, teach writing, have taken great writing classes, or just have ideas about how to spur good writing, particularly in the genre of creative nonfiction.

Some of what I've come up with so far:
  • Try to write a portrait of a person by describing a food, a meal, or an eating experience.
  • Try to write a portrait of a place by describing a food, a meal, or an eating experience. 
  • Look at the food [apple? Oreo cookie? Chex mix?) in front of you]. Write your associations, memories, ideas, descriptions for 3 minutes, based on sight only. Now smell it, and write about that. Now pick it up and move it around in your hands. Write. Now bite into it. Write.
  • Spend ten minutes writing a short story based on the title _______. "In Grandma's Kitchen," or "Craving the Food of Childhood" or "The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie I've Ever Had.
  • List the contents of your refrigerator (either in your dorm room, or at home) . Choose two or three items and write a story about why they are in your refrigerator.
  •  Look at the food [again, what options?] in front of you. Describe it from the perspective of a elderly woman whose husband has just died, but do so without mentioning the husband explicitly. Now describe it from the perspective of a new father. Now from the perspective of a chef on his first day on the job out of culinary school.


  1. Neat ideas! I can see each of those exercises producing some interesting material. What are the goals for the exercises?

  2. That's a good question, &rew, and one I should spend some more time thinking about for sure. I guess the goals are two-fold: to get the students comfortable with the practice of writing creative nonfiction in general, and to get them to begin to reflect on the strong emotional and sensual connections between food memories and understandings of identity. The final project of the class will be to produce a story (written or audio-recorded) based on conversations with family members that captures some larger set of themes through a focus on food. Does that clarify? How might the goals I set shape the kind of exercises I employ?

  3. Nice, yeah that clarifies for sure. This is going to be a great course!

    I mean, there are so many ways that, in my opinion, the goals of a course should shape the exercises teachers choose. Ultimately, the exercises should challenge students but give them some preparation for the largest "assessment." Not that assessment is the goal itself, but that the assessment chosen (in this case, the final project) itself embodies a set of skills or lessons that the students are learning and practicing. So if the exercises build up to the assessment, then the students are always the target of the course. You've clearly identified those and the final project sounds great.

    I think all of the bulleted items above get the students practicing creative non-fiction. In my opinion, of the bulleted list above, bullets 3, 4, and 5 seem to prepare the students well for writing about food, family, memory, and identity. You might think of changing "person" to "family member" for bullet 1. I suppose, too, much of the ways students imagine creative writing around food and memory will emerge from the reading selections you prepare for them, which you've already thought about.

    If one of the options for the final project is an audio recorded story, maybe one of the exercises would be to listen to podcasts about food/memory/identity--or something non-food related that gets to the interesting way the story is told. Or, to stay on the non-written story front, to get the students to do impromptu stories (like picking from random themes on slips of paper stuffed in a jar or something).

    Maybe an exercise could just be a written assignment about how they've learned about food. Ask them to write down the first 5 things they think about when you say food. And then try to trace the histories of these associations--who or what in their lives has shaped their image of food, the one that is so ingrained in them it immediately pops into memory when the slightest prompt is given.

    Or an exercise about storytelling. Who are good story tellers and why? They could bring in an artifact from their lives that reflects, for them, the art of story telling. And then, in class, you could go around the circle and have them share the artifacts--and then those become points of reference for everyone who is on this journey of becoming good creative story tellers. (This is like newschool show and tell!).

    I hope some of this is useful! Good luck! This sounds like so much fun!

  4. So insightful and, yes, useful! I'm adding your entire comment to my notes for the class, and will keep you posted about what develops. Oh, and let me know if you think of any great audio stories or podcasts that might best display the power of good storytelling.


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