Over the past couple of years, I’ve had readers contact me about getting involved in food writing and how I started out. Let me be clear: I kind of accidentally fell into food writing. I mean, I love food and writing so getting an opportunity to write for a legit food site was a very happy accident. I’ve sort of been on an ongoing adventure of eating clean, buying and eating local when I can, and this opportunity kind of happened around the same time.
Sometimes they say when you ask the Universe a question or more precisely, put your intentions out there, that sometimes It answers. That was the case with me. I had my newly minted MFA (and pending student loan payments) and I knew I wanted to do a bit of free-lance writing. I just had no idea how to get started. You know how you ask people in certain industries, how they got a job and they say with extreme smugness; it’s all about networking? Right. Well I accidentally networked it seems, because a friend who I originally met at a conference and again later as a classmate contacted me and and said she needed writers and thought of me since she was familiar with my writing. It kind of literally fell in my lap (but I would never tell anyone to sit back and wait for something, so really once again, my advice is useless when it comes to my own life).
Also, how hard could this be? I ate food everyday, watched cooking shows ALL the time and I even have photos posing in front of a vintage AGA cooker (stove) we came across in a cheese store in VT. We’ve even been known to plan vacations around our favorites eateries — so again, how hard could this be? Just write about food, right? Easy.
I had pitched a short article (it was my probation if you will) about a local eatery I had just discovered. I was nervous talking to the owner, because he was kind of serious and I felt like I didn’t really have any credentials that legitimized me as a writer (you know, except the eight years I had spent earning my writing degree). I was also nervous because I’m an introvert and meeting new people brings a bit of anxiety for me as well. I carried a pen and a notebook, dressed professionally (that’s right, I wore a smart blazer like those lovely ladies on the Great British Baking Show) and my phone, thinking I would more than likely just record our conversation and thresh out the article as I played it back.
That would have been brilliant, only he refused to allow me to record us and seemed a bit suspicious that I would even have the audacity to ask to record him. It felt like we were starting off on the wrong foot. In my trying-not-to-panic mode I had a very important epiphany; I was interviewing someone who was passionate about their work — the way I was passionate about my writing. Also, this wasn’t just a fun hobby, but their actual livelihood depended on it. They had figured out a way to earn a living off what they loved doing just as I was searching for a way to make writing my career. Once I made that connection, I realized I wasn’t interviewing someone, I was having a conversation about creativity and following dreams. Once I recognized that I found that I really enjoyed interviewing the owners or chefs of these establishments. I only ever brought a few written questions, because I often discovered that the more we spoke, the more that I was engaged and asking questions not because it was necessary for the article, but because I was curious and having fun.
Also, food writing isn’t just about the food – and really there is only so many ways to describe taste. It’s about the people, the culture, the atmosphere, the history. Every doughnut, latte, and souffle has a story. Think of it from a writing perspective; every chapter of a novel has a reason for existing; it builds the story. The menu is the baker/owner/chef’s novel and each offering listed is a chapter that tells a piece of a story.
I also have a few self-imposed rules. First, I always eat in a place first as a customer and then if I am moved, I pitch the story to my editor and then set up an interview. It is important to me that I experience a place as a patron first because for obvious reasons, it is the fairest way to approach an article.
Second, when I do my interviews, I always make sure to buy something and be firm about the fact that I am indeed planning to pay. It makes it less awkward, but also these are small businesses and I want to support them (and I’m getting paid to write about it). In very rare instances where I have to bring my son along, I order first, pay and then ask to meet with the owner so that there will be no obligations for them to feel like they owe me.
Third, I never write bad reviews. My writing mentor once passed this advice on to me when I was working on book reviews. She said we didn’t need to tear each other down. If something wasn’t good, people would figure that out on their own. Besides, this is what Yelp and other review sites are for (I will post a future article on how Yelp can get is in trouble). I can recall about three articles I scrapped, because I was disappointed by the food (but more usually the service or the owner). In the end, these places will suffer because they lack something (probably passion) and I really don’t need to be part of that.
Fourth, I never write about what I don’t know and this includes beer, wine, and sushi (duh). I pass up those stories because I know I’m not the writer to do it justice (and remember these stories effect people’s livelihoods so I owe it to them to write honestly). I could easily cover any latte story in multiple states, but I don’t like beer. Yes, I know. it’s sad and yes, it was a pain in college too. The closest I came to covering it was when I sampled a chai brewed with beer hops. You just have to accept your strengths and while that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expand your expertise, it does mean that you need to understand your own limits. It’s okay to say no.
I’ve taken a break from freelancing this past year for many reasons (spoilers! I’ll disclose them in other posts), but I will say that writing these articles never felt like work. It was the closest I’ve been to earning money off of something that was FUN and something that almost seemed ridiculous to me to even get paid for (because again, did I mention how much I enjoyed writing them?!). I’m open to exploring other writing platforms, including hopefully securing agent for my novel and maybe trying to keep up with some regular blog posts. This is probably the least focused blog site out there, it’s, but I genuinely appreciate that you’re reading it, contacting me with messages, and hopefully enjoying it.
Cheers, to new writing adventures!
*Food writing actually requires a great deal of research. My experience has included learning different cuts of meats, ingredients, styles of cooking, roasts of coffee, types of alternate milks. It’s endless and fascinating!