Food writing between bites

Want to share your love of fine cuisine and flair for description? Follow these tips.
By Bharti Kirchner | Published: November 24, 2015


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It’s been said that we write to experience life twice. If so, then food writing must double our dining pleasure. At the computer, you picture a treat you’ve just indulged in – dense, creamy, pale green pistachio gelato. How best to share the moment with the reader? In coming up with appropriate words and phrases, you relive the gelato’s silky note, the crunchy texture of the nuts, and the chilly sensation on your palate. Already you’ve been rewarded by this exercise.

Who can join the food genre? If you’re a home cook whose flan quickly disappears from the table, a foodie who’ll trek miles in search of a perfect plate of puttanesca, or an armchair cook who devours cookbooks like novels, you’re a potential candidate. You’ll need a love of fine cuisine, an eye for detail, a flair for description and a creative spirit. Along with flavor, aroma and an enchanted palate, you’ll get a sense of satisfaction, as well as additional income.

Passion, the key ingredient to food writing

Although hours spent in the kitchen count, perhaps the most important requirement is your passion. Your readers will be engaged only to the extent that you’re excited about your topic. Such excitement shines through in your ideas, the words and phrases you choose, the way you link the sentences together and the atmosphere you create.

Passion and curiosity are what led me to this field. A longtime enthusiastic cook, I went on to teach cooking classes. Shortly thereafter, I fulfilled a childhood dream by making the transition to writing food articles for magazines. Once I’d acquired sufficient clips and developed a measure of confidence, I tried my hand at writing cookbooks. The sensual nature of food writing and the awareness of place that often accompanies it  eventually pointed me in the direction of fiction. Although these days fiction is my major preoccupation, I still regularly produce articles and essays about food.

A feast of form and content

Few topics draw as much attention as food, and the readership is vast. With the current globalized nature of dining, you have a cornucopia of cuisines to select from. You also have many options as to the form and content of a piece. The two most common article types found in culinary magazines are: a brief introduction to the chosen topic followed by one or more recipes, and a step-by-step pictorial demonstration of a cooking technique accompanied by explanatory text.

Also popular are restaurant reviews, which appear in newspapers, city magazines, travel magazines and weeklies. They often provide an entrée for the novice food writer. You get a certain delicious, almost illicit, thrill in getting paid to write about that perfect hideaway no one knows about yet. In your review, you comment on the dishes, service, price and ambience of the establishment and also reveal your personal preferences, thus bringing your total dining experience alive for the reader.

Yet another category is a memoir-style personal essay – an opinion piece, really – about a food topic that somehow affects you. In it, you can reminisce about a romantic meal or even a disastrous meal, describing how you felt and reacted. Or you can do a scholarly study, for example, on the impact of globalization on local agriculture. Other opportunities include profiling a chef, food purveyor or celebrity cook. You might also try starting your own food blog, but be aware that the field is overcrowded.

No matter which category you choose, remember that the public’s taste in food undergoes frequent changes. One year it’s acai berry, another year it’s rambutan. That being the case, you must not only keep yourself up to date, but be quick to spot emerging trends. Read magazines and newspaper food sections, attend wine-tasting events, speak with experts and eat out often.

The pyramid of food magazines

Food writing sidebar kirchnerIn going the freelance route, what marketing options do you have? Fortunately, most culinary publications are open to queries from freelancers. At the top are upscale glossies, such as Saveur, that dedicate themselves to food and libations. These well-paying markets can be tough to break into, although an exciting query letter and a portfolio of clips will go a long way toward opening doors.

Below the top of the pyramid lie a number of unrelated outlets that are hunting for fresh ideas. Food insinuates itself into almost all aspects of life, and so you’ll find food-associated pieces being featured in magazines that are extremely varied: gardening, women’s lifestyle, men’s interest, airline, backpacking, yoga, martial arts, psychology, fitness and sports. If you have expertise in health and/or nutrition, chances are you’ll find additional opportunities here.

Travel and food have a symbiotic relationship, and you’d do well to investigate this area. Here’s an example: Finding a vegetarian eatery in Mazatlán, Mexico, was not only a pleasant discovery for me, but it also gave me a chance to spin a travel narrative. “A walking tour of Mazatlán” was published in Mexico Today.

Got an idea on the front burner?

Your idea must be appropriate to the readership of the publication you’re targeting. Study the archive to make sure the topic hasn’t been covered recently. Once you’re satisfied, narrow the topic down to a manageable size, then come up with a unique angle. Take, for example, orzo. Your angle might be alternative ways to use this ingredient. Besides the usual soups and salads, it can be used to make a pilaf or added to a frittata for an intriguing texture.

Note that editors prefer queries to completed manuscripts. E-mail a one-page pitch (preferably with Web links for your published clips, if you have any), explaining your idea, why it’s needed, and why you’re the best person to write it. Follow all the usual rules of a query letter, and add one or more sample recipes. (See more on recipe writing below.)

Be aware of the seasonal needs of many publications. Food is closely connected with major holidays – Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, for example – and editors predictably feature how-to pieces for entertaining on these occasions. Submit a query well in advance, at least six months before the holiday.

Recipes for success

Recipes are at the heart of a food piece. Write a recipe in the standard format (found in cookbooks and magazine articles), using step-by-step instructions. Make sure to thoroughly test it. Experienced food editors can detect a potential problem with a recipe simply by eyeballing it. Many organizations also have test kitchens for this purpose.

Before submitting a query, study a publication’s guidelines (usually posted on its website) for information such as type and length of articles, fee structure, payment cycle and rights acquired. If you can’t easily find guidelines, use a search engine and type in the title and “writer’s guidelines” or “submission guidelines.”

What if you don’t like to putter around the kitchen, stirring and chopping? What if you yearn to do a narrative piece, historical or research-oriented? What if kitchen design is your specialty? Check out Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and Alimentum: The Literature of Food. These magazines and other similar titles welcome in-depth articles about a dish, an ingredient, a place or a food personality and are open to the viewpoint of a non-cook. Some offer issues with a particular theme, such as Paris bistros. Others invite poems, photography and artwork.

Many anthologies send out a call for food-essay submissions. Recently I responded to one such call from an organization named Writers Abroad. My story, “Kimchi and Chrysanthemum,” was published in its Foreign Flavours anthology.

A food writer’s day is filled with appetizing diversions and pleasant surprises. You might spend hours at a farmers market – mingling, sampling, interacting, and collecting material for an article. Or you might create a new crab bisque recipe in the privacy of your kitchen. And in writing your piece, you can delight in the related sensory experiences once again.

Bharti Kirchner is the author of four cookbooks. Her latest novel is Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.

*This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Writer.

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