Food writing has become such an immensely popular activity that is attracting hordes of enthusiasts. This is ironic, for in days gone by female journalists who may have wanted to write about politics or finance were instead relegated to the low-status feature pages of their newspapers and told to write about hats and shoes or casseroles and puddings. But before I go on, I must mention the obvious — that I, too, am among the many who write an online food column, so I have a pretty good idea why writing about food has its appeals.
You can write or blog from anywhere
Food writing has taken on a cachet, an activity perceived as glamorous and exciting by both men and women, and while jobs in newspapers dwindle for all writers, anyone with a computer can set up shop as a food blogger. Even a cursory glance at the Internet’s food sites will confirm that professional writers and amateurs alike are beavering away, writing and photographing what they are eating, where they ate it, and providing information, opinions and recipes for the world to see.
To add to this traffic, food writing classes and workshops are springing up, guaranteeing that even more people will be food blogging in the future.
There is a lot to say about food
Writers are finding that food has enormous scope that includes writing about fresh produce, travel, nutrition, agriculture, recipes, restaurant reviews, personal anecdotes and more. So, for instance, sensualists can describe the texture and flavor of an ingredient or dish, an effective approach when writing about an unfamiliar food.
Traveling, eating and writing — an enticing combination
This is why writers comb the earth in search of a new place and cuisine to write about that is not already saturated with food writing.
To be able to travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who fancy being sent on expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world in order to eat, write about the food, and then get paid for it. Alas, those jobs are hard to find.
Eating for health is a hot topic
Another big topic is healthy eating, a subject that used to be of interest only to professional nutritionists and dieticians whose writing ran the risk of being repetitive and boring.
But these days, with so much conflicting information around about food and health, what to eat has become controversial and relevant, and writers are adding their voices to such disagreements. Some, for instance, are convinced that avoiding gluten is good for us and others go further by insisting that the avoidance of all grains entirely will make us feel better and lose weight. At the same time, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health informs us that eating more whole grains is associated with up to 15% lower mortality — particularly from cardiovascular disease. Such controversies are fodder for food writers interested in diet and health.
Big public policy issues such as sustainable agriculture, genetically engineered seed and the humane treatment of livestock are juicy topics for writers, as are the more intimate and nostalgic stories about what Grandma used to cook, the sort of reminiscence that routinely shows up at holidays.
Eating invites the personal
Everyone eats, and that may explain why so many identify as experts on food and want to express themselves through writing about it. Indeed, a whole literary genre, the food memoir, has sprung up whereas before, M.F.K. Fisher pretty much had a monopoly on this territory. The risk in this kind of writing is that fascination with one’s own food memories will not necessarily pique the interest of others, unless the writing is superb and the perspective as offbeat as Fisher’s tended to be.
Food in culture and history is fascinating
Another huge approach to food writing is to treat food as a lens that allows writers to comment on a period in history or on the culture at large. For instance, I am interested in the social roles assigned to men and women at a given time, so I notice who does what, and in the case of food, who cooks, who eats and who serves.
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Everyone knows that men were traditionally the professional chefs working in restaurants and hotels while women used to do all of the everyday home cooking. But this arrangement has changed because of a shift in American culture. With wives these days holding down full-time jobs, sometimes as professional chefs, home cooking — what used to be seen as a task fit only for women or for sissies — has now become an acceptable activity for regular dudes.
Similar observations are being explored by graduate students turning out Ph.D. dissertations that put food at the center of their research. Although the audience for academic writing is limited, popular writing, especially when it shows up on the Internet, can reach millions. Our hope, of course, is that the number of readers will increase and keep pace with the mounting numbers of food writers looking for an audience.
Main photo: To travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who dream of expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal