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Want to be a Food Writer? Read This.

I write about food because it’s what I know. Momma brought me into the kitchen from a young age and showed me how to flour a pan, chop an onion. The meals at the tables of my grandmothers were what I looked forward to most all year long. Because they tasted good, but also because they took me away from the sadness and anxiety I felt at my own family table which more often than not was full of emotional abuse, yelling, and hastily consumed fare I’d inhale before retreating back to the sanctity of my room. When I read Michael Ruhlman’s, “Soul of a Chef”, I remembered the women in my life who showed me what food could be. I knew it was part of my mission in life to share that with other people through what I could do best.

Someone told me years ago it’s never good to assume because it makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. I howled with laughter then filed it away for later. In my former life as an English teacher I used the phrase often, sending my students into peals of laughter because I dared say the word “ass” in the classroom.

The phrase rings true, particularly in the realm of food writing. When I started this venture a decade ago, I made many assumptions. I’d make gobs of money writing about a topic I loved. I’d be able to make a living doing only writing. Everyone I met would be as enthusiastic, hopeful, and good-hearted and passionate as I was, and most importantly, this was it. This was the job I was meant to do and I’d never do anything else.

Of course, I made an ass of myself. None of these things turned out true, not even a one. So here I am. Setting the record straight. Not to complain, I love what I do. I’ve just noticed a few things. I’m here to educate. I can’t speak for every food writer out there, just myself. I’d never assume to believe my experiences speak for all. But they are mine. And as such, I felt the need to record them.

Assumptions About Food Writers:

I Only Do Food Writing, Nothing Else.
If you take only one thing away from this piece, know this. If you’ve met a food writer, you can assume, yes, by all means, assume they are dancing as fast as they can. They are probably holding down 15 jobs, all of them somehow related to food, in order to make one measly paycheck. Writing doesn’t pay. We’re not all Anthony Bourdain. Primarily, they might be developing a cookbook, or a memoir, or some other food-related book with all that entails, including developing an author platform with which to promote said cookbook, and probably updating a blog, a Facebook, an Instagram, and a Twitter account to promote it as well.

Other jobs they might be doing? Probably for little to no pay? Could include (but certainly not limited to): *

  • Working a full-time job as a ________________ (fill in the blank)**
  • Judging food contests**
  • Podcasting**
  • Teaching cooking classes
  • Conducting food workshops out of your house
  • Public speaking on food-related issues at events**
  • Writing short, 50-word blurbs about food trends for any publication that will have them, often for no money, just “exposure” (which often isn’t anything at all). **
  • Writing that isn’t related to their primary goal, whatever that may be. This includes not writing about food.
  • Developing menus for restaurants and corporations
  • Developing and tasting recipes for restaurants and corporations
  • Working as a chef, hostess, bartender, or line cook
  • Hosting food-related events
  • Reviewing restaurants**
  • Hosting food demonstrations at grocery stores
  • Volunteering to help chefs at a major food event by washing dishes**
  • Working as a food photographer for blogs, publications, etc.
  • Freelance editing
  • Public relations/social media for the food and beverage industry
  • Consulting work for non-profits in food and economic development
  • Consulting work for food trucks and other small food-related businesses
  • Teaching food history
  • Publishing culinary and beverage magazines
  • Participating in TV and radio segments about food and beverages**
  • Teaching wine classes
  • Acting as a Compliance Officer for the Sensible Seafood Program

If it’s related to food, a food writer has probably done it.

I Love Food. All the Time.
Never. Not even close. I must be one of the few food writers who can’t eat. Not like I used to. I look at a menu with dread and think, “Okay, what won’t make me sick?” Yep, this food writer has stomach issues. I blame middle age. When I began I could inhale half a bucket of fried chicken without blinking. Now? One breast and maybe a bite of leg and I’m stuffed. Any more than that and it won’t be pretty. You should’ve seen me at my first (and last) fried chicken judging. It was like The Green Mile with a dry sponge waiting for me at the end of the line.

How does someone who does this for a living cope? By tasting. Small bites of as much as I can handle. Limiting fats. Limiting meats. Taking a lot of Prilosec beforehand and packing the Pepcid and Mylanta in her purse. Is it a 10-course Chef’s Tasting? Fast the day before. Pray a lot. The consequences suck, but I’m like a gambler who can’t help putting her entire life savings on 22 Black at the roulette wheel. I just love it too much to give up.

I Think About Food And Nothing Else.
Nope. There’s a lot going on in my brain. I’m obsessed with fashion, art, movies, television, 1970’s Soul, 1950’s R&B (particularly the raunchy stuff), roadside attractions, vintage sideshows, tiki culture, diners, and vintage cookbooks. I wish folks sometimes asked me about that stuff too, instead of always wondering where and what they should eat. But I get it. They want the best recipe for Brussels sprouts. Trust me, I don’t know.

I Take Pictures of Every Meal.
I don’t. Sometimes I just want to be off the clock. To remember what it was like when this was a passion instead of a job. Call the Waaambulance.

I Eat Out 8 Days a Week.
I wish. Food writing doesn’t pay. So yeah, no.

I Never Pay.
I made a promise to myself I’d never be one of those people who accept free food in exchange for a favorable review. I promote experiences after the fact. Experiences that move me, shape me, cause me to think, “Wow! I love where I live.” I’ve had the good fortune to know dozens of chefs, food purveyors, growers, bakers, vinters, cider masters, you name it. From time to time I get invited to events, or a nice amuse-bouche will make its way to my table for which I’m forever grateful. These I accept. To do otherwise would be an insult to the folks kind enough to open their doors and hearts and kitchens. My Momma raised me better than that. And I always pay. This is their living.

I Love the Attention. And I’m A Workaholic.
Quite the opposite. As a rabid ambivert I hate and dread eating out. Yeah, wah, wah, wah, look at the poor food writer who hates when folks pay her some attention. I’m not saying that. I’d just rather be incognito because it’s easier on my social anxiety. This is the one huge thing I didn’t anticipate at all. I thought I’d spend my days in my artist garret, waxing poetic about cheese. Not have to actually *gasp* TALK to anyone. To continually face my fears every time I dine out. It’s never just “going out to eat” anymore because when you’re a food writer in a small town, it’s hard to eat out unrecognized, especially when you’ve become acquainted with more than half the chefs in town. Most of the time I wish I could just sink into a big wig, hat, and sunglasses so I can enjoy my dining experience without heart palpitations and worry I’ll say something so fucking stupid I won’t be welcome back. But food writers are never off the clock. Ever. You have to work hard to enjoy your meal without thinking of how you can write, Instagram, Facebook, and Hootsuite blast every person known to man about how good it is. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s a pretty sweet gig. But it’s that old argument. Should you turn your passion, your hobby, into a career? Will you still love it after you’ve done so? Some days I’m not sure.

I Must Have A Cookbook Coming Out Soon.
Nope. I can honestly say with absolute certainty this will never happen. The thought of coming up with a saleable concept, then testing out hundreds of recipes, spending thousands of hours perfecting said recipes, makes me want to hurl.

I Will Judge You. Because I’m A Snob.
This is definitely my most hated assumption. I cannot tell you the amount of times a family member or friend has gone into conniption fits because they want to take me out to eat, but they’re worried about the place they picked. That it’s not good enough for the food writer. Please. I’ll eat a dirty water hot dog if I know it’s good. If I were 10 years younger, I’d have two. I didn’t start this journey to write exclusively about places with Michelin stars. If you’re taking me there, you must think the food is pretty great. So I will probably think it’s pretty great too. I’m not picky. I’ve never seen a menu that didn’t have something on it that appealed.

I Cook A Gourmet Meal Every Night.
I’m so lazy it’s embarrassing. Often I’m so exhausted at the end of the day dinner ends up being cottage cheese on Triscuits. In fact, that’s probably what I’ll be eating tonight. Around here, we “pick” for dinner and eat in front of the television way too fucking often. The last big fancy meal I cooked? Thanksgiving. And it wasn’t even fancy.

I’m More Than Willing To Promote Whatever You’ve Got. For Free.
Have I mentioned food writing doesn’t pay? I’ll promote to a point to gather readers and listeners, but a girl’s got to eat. Even if what she eats makes her sick. Offer me something in exchange and I’ll consider the situation. Anything. I love barter and do it as much as I can because I live among artists, musicians, and start-up entrepreneurs. But don’t assume I’m dying to rave about your new Summer Kids’ Menu just because it’s there. Give me credit as a professional. And if your product/restaurant/festival is crap? Forget it. I’m not a whore. Yet.

I’m Uber Healthy.
You’re kidding, right? I just finished off a bag of Salsa Verde Doritos, which you can’t even find on the East Coast. I had to order them from Amazon. Keebler butter cookies are my newest obsession (2 with coffee every morning), and the last weight I lifted was my 16-pound cat. Hmm, I may have just figured out my stomach issues.

Just re-read all these and boy, it sounds complain-ey. Trust me, I don’t mean to be. I don’t write about these assumptions to whinge about my lot. I love my chosen career and wouldn’t trade it for anything. But folks who don’t do it themselves often assume we live glamorous, uncomplicated lives filled with foie gras, champagne and unlimited amounts of oysters and truffles. I simply want to teach any future food writers out there it isn’t all free bacon and beer. Just like any career, it’s a job that must be tended, suffered through, endured, celebrated, and griped about. Even so, it’s better than almost all of the 60+ other jobs I’ve done in my life. One of the best.

We work hard. And we love what we do. Remember that. It’s one thing you can definitely assume.

*An amazing amount of food writers were generous enough to share their varied and multitudinous job titles for this article. I’d like to thank Scott Alves Barton, Mollie Cox Bryan, Sheri Castle, Simon Davidson, Patrick Evans-Hylton, Kat Kinsman, Ronni Lundy, Robey Martin, Kendra Bailey Morris, John Park, Leni Sorensen, Nicole Taylor, and Michael Twitty for their guidance, expertise, and valuable input with this section. Long live food writing!
**I’ve done this.

Josh Ozersky Rest in Peace.

Photo Credit: Ozersky.tv

Photo Credit: Ozersky.tv

Returned home from a Pittsburgh jaunt to learn of the passing of food writer Josh Ozersky. Ozersky died suddenly while in Chicago to cover the 2015 James Beard Awards. A tragic loss for his family, friends, and the international food writing community.

Forty-seven. Exactly my age. Actually, I turned 48 last week but it’s close enough for government work. I don’t usually take up writing space to talk about current events, but this one hit me pretty hard. And not just because we share a birth year.

I’m pretty old fashioned when it comes to food writing, preferring to gather my information and steal style tips from the standard bearers, folks like Ruhlman, Buford, Bourdain, Mitchell, Fisher. I prefer books. I like to hold words in hand, feeling their heft and weight instead of searching out obscure food journals, or running down listicles of “Best Burgers in the South…” websites. I’m lazy like that. So I’m a newcomer to Ozersky’s work, discovering it only last year. But what weight, what heft. In his piece Consider the Food Writer, he boldly states eminent food writer MFK Fisher is a hack, a fraud, declaring her work too flowery, too elitist, too white-women-at-a-garden-party frilly to fully reflect our changing, growing, diverse food world. Which made me stand up and take notice, becoming more aware of how I contribute to the problem. It struck a chord. So often food writing chooses to skate along the surface of delicious and cheesy and luscious and gooey, forgetting it can also be caustic and rotten and triggering.

The piece affected me so much I dedicated my most recent podcast to it. Local food writer Simon Davidson and I spoke at length about whether Ozersky was right. And while we didn’t come to any real conclusions, opening the conversation felt valuable and worthy and right and like the start of something important.

Ozersky left us three months after the MFK Fisher piece published. This feels significant. As if he’s thrown down the gauntlet and challenged the rest of us to take it up. To keep going, but not just skate across the surface of food writing, rather digging deep, attempting with each passing sentence to get to the heart of the matter. Not just to present recipes, tips, tricks, and lists, but to get honest. Utterly, brutally honest. To present the ugly, the dirty, the pathos and the unhealthy in addition to the things that make our tummy rumble.

The Saveur piece he wrote about his father exemplifies this. I cried when I read it, because since I started this journey I’ve been trying to figure out where I fit. What my point is. He knew already. So strongly. Where I’ve been dancing around food and memoir and maybe putting in some ugly memories in between the grand and graceful, here he was boldly doing so. And daring you to look. Long and hard. It’s an important piece and I urge you to read it. It’s an example of what great writing is, not just great food writing. It shows what this industry could be if we could ever get past the headlines.

I’m sorry I never met him. But I’m grateful we still have his words. Because great writing, writing that stands the test of time, makes you uncomfortable. It’s not all gooey cheese strings, beautifully carved radish roses and drippy chocolate sauce. People cut themselves, burn themselves, hate themselves. Have allergies. Fail gloriously. Get triggered when they smell almonds, or garlic, or bread. Have no money to even eat. There’s room in food writing for the ugly. Josh Ozersky showed us that.

“But food writing is more than free liquor and the pleasure of seeing one’s name in print, although those are certainly very valuable things. Beneath its squalid surface is a selfless and not ignoble urge: to tell people about great food, in the most personal way, expressively and evocatively; It’s not so much a career path as a vocation. Born food writers of this kind are celebrants, evangelists, missionaries.” —Josh Ozersky

Amen, brother.

Episode 7 of Edacious – Food Talk for Gluttons.

11070961_917469298304925_243279824965475478_nNew episode up now! Available at Edacious – Food Talk for Gluttons, on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and your regular podcast outlets. Food Writer C. Simon Davidson’s passion for food began young, ordering an extra appetizer at dinner when the rest of the family was ordering dessert. His website, The Charlottesville 29, is a hall of fame of sorts for restaurants in our area. Named after the road slicing through our community, it names the top 29 restaurants in our area – an impossible task given the circumstances, and one Simon is happy to tackle. In this discussion we talk about the challenges and rewards of being a food writer in Charlottesville, and the changes and growing pains the food writing industry is encountering because of the explosion of interest in recent years.

An engaging discussion for anyone who loves restaurants! What do famous restaurant reviewers like Tom Sietsema do to ensure chefs don’t recognize them? How does Simon’s “Five Finds on Friday” column promote community and conversations around food in Charlottesville? How did a lawyer find a passion for food and turn it into a rewarding side career as a food writer? What’s the reasoning behind Simon’s belief that “…a rising tide lifts all boats?” Is a favorite restaurant in town about to close? And may have closed by the time this airs? Listen now to find out!

Food Writing Discussed During the Episode:

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway eats his way through Paris. A food writing classic.

Chicken of the Trees by Mike Sula – Award-winning piece about why eating the urban squirrel makes perfect sense.

Consider the Food Writer by Josh Ozersky – Was MFK Fischer a hack? Does food writing need to undergo a major shift? You decide.

Food for the Thoughtless – one of my favorite food writers, Michael Procopio

How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread  – Chef Marc Vetri of Philadelphia’s Vetri, Osteria, and numerous other restaurants laments the state of food writing.

On Food Writing – A Response to Marc Vetri by C. Simon Davidson – Charlottesville food writer and star of Episode 7 responds, wondering if the state of food writing is as bad as all that. Great read!

Plated Stories – Jamie Schler and Ilva Beretta create gorgeous words and photographs that revolve around a single theme.

Remembrance of Things Lost – Is recording every minute of our lives on a device affecting the way we remember things? Walter Kirn thinks so. Thought-provoking and timely.

The Soul of a Chef – The one that started it all for me. I read this book and thought, “I could do that.” Michael Ruhlman presents three stories, about Chef Thomas Keller, Chef Michael Symon, and his own journey through cooking school. A fascinating look behind the scenes. Ruhlman is the most talented food writer working today.

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food by Michael Moss – Why Cheetos rock. Hard.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Rachel Khong – The life and times of Chef Jeremy Fox. Published in Lucky Peach, my personal favorite food publication.

Up at the Old Hotel – If there’s one writer in this world I dream of being, it’s Joseph Mitchell. His collection of essays from his 50+ years at The New Yorker is stunning. And his food pieces bring to life a time long past. They never fail to amaze me. Read them.

This episode is sponsored by In A Flash Laser.

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