So you want to be a food writer? This is good news. It means you have put your hand on the door. Now push it open and consider all your options. You must decide whether you want to be a newspaper columnist or write for a consumer magazine like Cook’s Illustrated or Saveur or a trade journal, such as Nation’s Restaurant News or Pizza Today, The Progressive Grocer or Chef: The Professional Magazine for Chefs.
Perhaps you’d like to compose profiles of famous chefs or write press releases for restaurants or commodities boards. You might dream of being a world traveler who rhapsodizes about food in far away places. Do you yearn to become a restaurant reviewer or write a cookbook? These are just a few among many destinations to consider.
Many food writers are specialists: Jane and Michael Stern wrote about the kind of food found at roadside cafés and diners. Jeffrey Steingarten writes lengthy, scholarly analysis on such subjects as the salt consumption of the Yanomamo Indians living in Brazil. He is a wonderfully entertaining and informative writer who found a permanent home at Vogue, of all places. Mark Kurlansky writes books with such titles as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History. Calvin Trillin writes about food in every publication under the sun from The New Yorker and The Nation to Modern Maturity. He has the one thing every food writer needs — the talent to see what others see but make his view distinctively different from others. Even the unwelcome sight of Brussels sprouts at a buffet in a London restaurant provoked his ire. Turning to his wife Alice, he said, “The English have a lot to answer for.” Calvin Trillin has the rare ability to engage and inform his reader and make them chuckle too.
Publishing is not an easy field to get into. The competition is ferocious. You don’t have to be as good as the next person — you have to be a whole lot better. But have courage. Remember even the great writers had to find a way to wriggle their toe through a seemingly closed door. And there is always something new to explore.
Our views on what to eat and when and where to eat are constantly shifting. The task of the writer is to ferret out all these interesting highways and byways and report on the findings to a reader. For a skilled writer, this means not to millions of readers, but to the one single reader who the author has in mind.
Food writers must constantly ask questions. Why do people eat Jell-O? Why have cheap bourbon sales have plummeted while simultaneously the cost of expensive vodka has soared? Who types the Ms on the M & Ms? Why does the crime rate plummet on Thanksgiving Day? Answer: Everyone is at home eating turkey and gravy.
If you passionately want to be a food writer — and you must be passionate about this — you will find a magazine that will provide a home for your work. But this will happen only if you suggest a topic that will interest the specific demographic profile of its subscribers.
In addition to being a foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief, the late R. W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. of the New York Times transformed himself into a prolific food columnist. He needed no new credentials. He just added his interest in food to his ability to write well. He said: “If you’re going to write about food you have to travel, you have to eat, otherwise you are forced into the position of sounding like where you live is the center of the universe, and that’s not healthy. It’s no more healthy than writing about foreign affairs while sitting in Washington D.C., never getting other perspectives, or writing about presidential campaigns and never getting off the plane and talking to people. I write about food the way I write about foreign policy.”