What is Food Writing?

What is food writing? I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, since I was part of a panel of food journalists at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. It was for an Introduction to Hospitality class with about 70 students.

Besides myself, there was Mike Dunne, former restaurant critic and wine writer for The Sacramento Bee; Robin Nichols of The Stockton Record newspaper; Daniel Moznett, producer of the cooking show Bringing it Home; and Deana Hansen, publisher of d’vine Wine and Visitors Guide. The class is taught by industry veteran Tracey Berkner, who co-owns the lovely Taste restaurant in Plymouth.

We each introduced ourselves and talked a bit about what we do in the world of food journalism. The students were assigned to write five questions each and it was an open Q&A forum. While some students asked insightful questions, I was dismayed by how many asked about restaurant reviewing. I think it’s a big misperception that if you’re a food writer, you review restaurants. So I want to put in a plug for the diversity of food writing that’s out there–especially for people looking into work in the food industry. It’s not all restaurants and celebrity cooks!

In the photo above, I gathered magazines and books that I had on hand. They include food essays, food science, recipe writing, fiction writing, food activism, children’s books, and nutrition writing. Practically any genre that you can think of is open to people interested in food writing. I’ll admit that I’m a bit obsessed with books–especially anything having to do with food and cooking. I love to read about history, the biographies of chefs and other food lovers, and even resource books (my copy of Food Lover’s Companion is dogeared and soft from being used so much). When I was in cooking school, I would visit the library every Friday and take out 4 or 5 books to read over the weekend. Granted, it was the Culinary Institute of America library, stuffed with food writing of all kinds, so I tried to choose a wide variety to learn as much as possible. Even small libraries usually have a collection of cookbooks to thumb through.

Now, in addition to books and magazines, there are thousands of blogs (here’s just a short list), television shows, and movies based on food. Each of those has to be written by someone, and they’re such different kinds of food writing that people specialize in genres. You can’t just go from being a children’s book author to being a restaurant critic or screenplay author. Each kind of writing is for a different audience, which affects the length of the piece you write, the vocabulary you use (will they understand chef terms, for example), and whether or not you need to do background research. Is the subject funny? Scholarly? Confessional? Instructive?

Food is an emotionally driven subject, so food writing is as well. What does it take to be a chef? How many kinds of chiles are there? Where does that meat you eat come from? What do they cook in Iceland? All of these are things to learn about and write about and read. Get out there and find some answers in food writing.

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