Advice for Food Writers

Photo credit: Justin Stach

The buzz not long ago came from the keyboard of Amanda Hesser, a former food writer for The New York Times, who proved with a click of the mouse that controversy gets people reading, Tweeting, Facebooking, and just plain screaming.

Or sniffling.

Ah yes, that last one.  I hate to say, is what almost happened to me. What a tear-jerker! If Amanda Hesser now struggles to be paid for writing about food, where does that leave the rest of us still dreaming about the big checks weighing down the postperson’s mailbag? (Tongue in cheek.)

Ms. Hesser’s piece – Advice for Future Food Writers – oozes with nostalgia and grief and regret: all those paying markets dead, thanks to the Internet and free content, mush served up by bloggers … . She recalls the days when food writers pulled in $2.00 a WORD! Can you imagine? (No.)

Some of her advice rings true, such as writing usually does not pay the bills. Well, yeah. But when has it ever? Most successful writers wear many hats and fit the dictionary description of Jack-of-All-Trades. Some teach, like Ms. Hesser’s conversations on food writing, going for $50 a pop per person.*

Opt instead for the school of hard knocks and dirty knuckles, she suggests.

To succeed in today’s meager food-writing market, you must be hands-on, raising heirloom tomatoes on your tiny New York balcony, fighting hungry pigeons savaging the fruits of your labor (and wallet). Or if you find yourself running fast from the angry bees swarming from the hives you’ve set up in your backyard, you’ve got a platform (I hate that word). That sort of thing.

In other words, according to Ms. Hesser, the halcyon days of  food “observers” left the station a while ago. Writers still standing on that “platform” need to hop the express  “doers” train and head toward the “lived experienced.”

Ms. Hesser shoves food writers into a category that is, frankly, faddish. She slots food writing into the popular themes of the day: sustainability, organic farming, the evil food system, computer technology. Forget journalism school or cooking school, she says. Hey, open a chain of small slaughterhouses.

I don’t see much about the act of writing, except this “Everyone who can write well is now welcome to.”

“Live life” is what Hesser wants to say, if you want to write. She’s correct about that, but there’s a price to be paid for living a life filled with hard physical labor. Working in food – whether it be farming or restaurant work or canning or slaughtering animals – will suck out your very marrow.

And it’s hard. Really hard. At the end of a day cooking on the line or digging organic potatoes, believe me, you’re usually not going to own the energy to think deeply, much less write, about your day in prose that captures the feeling of sweat rolling down your spine and past the elastic of your underwear.

In the past, few people could read. Even fewer could write. They lived mostly agrarian lives until the Industrial Revolution shoveled them into factories and mines, where they tasted their sweat  along with the coffee from their lunch bucket. That hard work deprived them daily of the artistic impulse. It’s not a wonder that most of the creative legacy – literature, art, music – that you love so much now came about because of the leisure afforded the wealthy class, leisure ensured by the labor of the farmer, the miner, the cook, the laundress, the nanny. That wealth sometimes also supported the innovative efforts of promising artists and writers.

Patronage, they called it, or what you might call grants today. (It might be helpful if this system of patronage reached a little further and came with a deeper pocket.)

Writers owe it to the world to tell good stories, using their wordy skills to make the world a better place.

People still need the beauty of heart-felt language, the poetics that help them get through the night, the transcendence brought about by the well-turned phrase, the insights carved out of the all-too fleeting quiet moments. Those times come so seldom even under the best of circumstances in today’s world. They must be treasured.

All the diverse experience, all the food-related work in the world will not make you a good storyteller, much less a good writer.  I fear that the urging of influential voices like Ms. Hesser’s, and that of the market itself and the “doer” culture, will starve writers of the solitude and silence and energy and practice that feed meaningful writing.

The money might never come, but the words will remain. Not so the furrow or the tomato.


* Food Writing 2.0 with Amanda Hesser (A conversation with Ms. Hesser: “In this conversation, we discuss the various forms open to food writers today, the shift in journalistic ethics and best practices and the future of food writing in the United States.”)

The following links document the reaction to Ms. Hesser’s comments:

Advice for Future Food Writers (Amanda Hesser)

Is Professional Food Writing Dead? (Bon Appetit Blog)

My Own Advice for Future Food Writer (Anna Roth)

What Amanda Hesser Got Wrong (John Birdsall)

Advice to future cookbook authors (or why opening your own abattoir is not a necessary step in a food writing career.) (Trish Deseine) This also includes a refreshing list for further reading, mostly composed of non-American writers.
Photo credit: Mary Beth Gritto Rigby
© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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