Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Guess What? I’m a Food Writer! A review of "Will Write for Food" by Dianne Jacob

Some people set out to be food writers. They write a business plan, craft their branding message, call their accountant, save the receipts, and print up the business cards. That would not be me. Five years ago I was just a girl who liked bakeries…a lot. So I started a blog and reviewed every single bakery in Boston (the blog is still up, here). I had no advertisers, no affiliates, I didn’t save receipts or print business cards or make a penny. I just liked bakeries….a lot. And I was already an editor and writer, so waxing poetic about scones was like playtime for me. It turns out, a lot of other people wanted to know where to eat in Boston too, and the blog had 50,000 visitors during the three years it was active.

When I moved back to California and started this blog, I knew food was (and always will be) the thing I wanted to talk about. But it wasn’t until I was leafing through a housemate's magazine (Food & Home), drooling over a picture of roast salmon and spring potatoes, that I thought, “I can write just as well as this.” To me, being published used to have a heavy mystique, like only those who have been granted a gold star by the foodie gods are allowed to write about food. But something kept prodding me to try Food & Home. So I emailed the editor, told him about my blogging experience, and asked if I could write a piece about food in Santa Barbara. The editor turned out to be a lovely man who gave me a shot at a 60-word piece on a Pimm's cocktail. I agonized over every word. And it was far from perfect. It didn’t even occur to me to include a quote from the bartender. But I listened to the editor’s feedback and the next issue he gave me a bigger assignment, and the issue after that two assignments. And after a year, he offered me a column about my food adventures in downtown Santa Barbara. Each issue that comes out, I am like a kid at Halloween, emptying my candy out of the plastic pumpkin and catching a sugar high. It truly is a thrill to see something I have conceived and written out in print. And I hope it always will be. 

Why am I mentioning this here? For two reasons. First, it only recently occurred to me that I’m a food writer, five years in. And second, the reason I realized it is that I read Will Write for Food, by Dianne Jacob, and it changed my entire perspective on what it is that I do and how I can do it better. A good buddy of mine saw the book on a trip to San Francisco and brought it back for me. It is described as “The complete guide to writing cookbooks, blogs, memoir, recipes, and more.” I will admit, I thought, “I bet none of this applies to me.” But Anthony Bourdain praises the book as “A concise, illustrative, and eminently useful guide to the nuts and bolts of professional food writing.” And being as he is an unhinged foodie assassin, I take the chef’s opinion seriously. 

So, why did this book blow my sugar-addled mind?

I have been participating in a craft and a profession without realizing that is what I was doing. I described myself as a foodie to friends, or possibly a blogger, but only recently as a food writer. And the more I say it, the happier I am. It is like spending your life in the ocean with a fish tail and string of pearls, only to find out that what you are is called a mermaid. And there are mermaid associations you can join, and ways to up your mermaid game. 

Here are the things I took from her book: 
*There are gods in the pantheon of food writing, and most of them I’d never heard of, because it never occurred to me to seek out books of food writing. I read cookbooks from front to back and delight in them, but I had no idea about M.F.K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, Laurie Colwin, or even James Beard…the tribe is immense, and I didn’t even know I had a tribe until now. It didn’t occur to me that Julia Child counts not only as a chef, but as a food writer. I’ve cooked no more than five Nigella Lawson recipes in my life, but I have read and re-read each and every cookbook of hers with delight and abandon. I never cooked a single tart from Tarts With Tops On by Tamasin Day-Lewis, but I devoured every word in it. Do I want to read Blue Trout and Black truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure? The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life? God, yes! My reading list for the next year is now stocked with Dianne Jacob’s recommendations for food classics.

*She gives a lot of solid advice on food blogging, the highs and lows of it, the logistics of it, how to pick a title for your blog, what to write about. What I really appreciate is that she treats blogging as a part of food writing without qualification…I didn’t realize I had a blogger’s inferiority complex until now, but I do. Blogging is self-publishing. Anyone can do it. Anyone with ten dollars and access to a computer can say they are a blogger. But I now embrace the idea that if you are blogging about food on a regular basis, you are a food writer, period. The advice on how personal to be, how often to post, what kind of voice to adopt is all quite good and very practical as well.

*Dianne has a good section on freelance writing, which is what I do. And I’d like to do more of it. So I was hanging on every word as she guided me through the process of picking topics, querying editors, and finding the right market.

*I put a lot of thought into my reviews. Every restaurant is somebody’s baby, and I think very carefully before I say something unflattering about that baby. But reading about professional food writers testing a restaurant three or four times to be sure they have a clear picture of the food, and the work that goes into developing the palate and culinary sensibility, I now realize that a fork and enthusiasm are certainly needed, but there is a lot more to learn in this craft I’ve stumbled into.

*One of the key points she makes is that food writing is writing. I know, duh. But really, if you are a not a good writer, why in the world would you drag a bunch of innocent turnips and celery root into your mediocre prose? So learn to write well, if you don’t already know how.

*There is a large section of the book about writing cookbooks, developing recipes, and the different ways to make a living by the spatula and pen. Hell will freeze into a devilishly tasty granita before I come up with a recipe worth printing, so I didn’t linger in those chapters. But if you’re a cook with a lot of good ideas, it’s a section worth reading. 

*Bringing Home the Bacon. This chapter was really helpful, because it talks about the many paying gigs out there: columnist, recipe developer, ghost writer, cooking-class teacher, etc. I appreciate that she is upfront about the difficulty in making a full-time living in this field, and she encourages us to branch out and create multiple revenue streams.

*There are others out there! The appendix is worth the price of the book alone. I didn’t know that there are associations for food writers, writing workshops for foodies, entire conferences for food writers…there’s no need for Mario Batali to descend on fluttering wings and bless you with his orange crocs…you just have to sign up. So I’m going to sign up! If I have to pick one thing to thank Dianne Jacob for, it is the roundup of resources in the appendix.

Which is to say that this book, in my opinion, is an essential road map for food writers, and I'm so glad that I lucked into it. The Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond says, “I wish I’d read Dianne’s book before I started a tiny little food blog on a whim a few years ago. For current and aspiring food writers, it’s positively dripping with helpful advice and information.” Amen, Ree, Amen.

If you'd like to learn more about Dianne, you can visit her website here.

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