Take a bite out of food writing

Food journalism has never been hotter. How can new writers find a place at the table?
By Julia Rappaport | Published: November 18, 2016


food writing

 

When Devra First started out in journalism, the coveted beat was rock ’n roll.

This was the ’90s, after all, before food blogs (or any blogs, really), Yelp, Instagram, or Top Chef.

It was before chefs were the new rock stars.

“Food journalism was barely even a thing then,” says First, food editor for the Boston Globe, who started her career covering the arts. “But I always loved food, and at some point I started wanting to write about food.”

After joining the Globe on the arts beat, she befriended the paper’s food editor and started writing for her as much as she could. “It really was a ‘write what you love’ thing,” says First, who grew up in what she describes as “a food house.” “Food was a big part of my life, and through that, I saw that food could be a lens on many facets of society – on family. I started to want to write more and more about eating and cooking and restaurants.”

First did what many successful writers do – and what she herself recommends that new writers trying to break into media do: She wrote about what she found interesting, and she made herself indispensable to an editor, pitching constantly and about whatever the editor wanted her to. First also got lucky: She broke in on the ground floor of what today has become a booming – some may say saturated – market: food journalism.

 

On the rise

It would be impossible to count the number of food blogs, cookbooks, and food memoirs in existence today, not to mention the magazines devoted to the way we eat, newspaper sections detailing the latest food trends, and websites constantly covering the best breakfast sandwiches, five new takes on nachos, and what we’ll find in Tom Brady’s fridge. It’s pretty safe to say that food has never been trendier.

It’s a trend that’s visible in print and online, in restaurants and on Facebook feeds, even in the classroom. “Enrollment in our program grew quickly starting around 2010 and has held steady for a number of years now,” Barbara Rotger, academic program manager at Boston University’s Gastronomy Program, wrote in an email. Started by acclaimed chefs Jacques Pepin and Julia Child in the ’90s, it was one of the first food studies programs in the country. Today the program offers courses on food marketing, history, and anthropology (Archeology of Food in Ancient Times, anyone?), as well as a popular food writing course, which Rotger says always fills up. And the program isn’t the only kid on the block anymore. The Association for the Study of Food and Society counts 40 food studies programs worldwide on its website.

 

Breaking in

But just because food journalism is “having a moment” doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do what First did and break in.

“It’s a fertile time,” the food editor says. “The market is saturated, but at the same time, there’s more demand for the content.”

Courtney Hollands, editor at the bimonthly, cheese-focused Culture magazine, agrees. “Today, if you have a special interest or a passion, there’s a publication for that,” Hollands says. She can easily rattle off a lengthy list of magazine and website titles similarly devoted to niche food trends, from whiskey to beer, breakfast to gluten-free diets. “If you just read the headlines, it can be daunting to get into the field,” she says. “But I like to be positive. There are so many different entry points now.”

Her words of advice are to start with the fundamentals: “You need a solid foundation in writing and journalism no matter what you’re covering,” says Hollands, who began her own career covering hard news for the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts, and has done stints in virtually every aspect of media (producing digital news, covering fashion, and working as an editor at Boston magazine). She didn’t land in food journalism until her 30s, when she took the job at Culture. In addition to getting a reporting/writing foundation, Hollands also stresses the importance of networking to anyone hoping to get a foot into the food journalism (or any journalism) world. “Talk to people who have different jobs in the field. Get a sense of where you might be a good fit,” she says. “If you have someone whose work you admire, call them and ask to meet for lunch or coffee. Nine times out of 10, they’ll say yes.”

 

Build the network

It was thanks to networking that Keith Pandolfi, former senior features editor at the mega-popular website Serious Eats, found himself – in his 40s – with an assignment for his first piece of food writing. While an editor at This Old House magazine, Pandolfi found himself chatting with a guest at a cocktail party about the way his dad had cooked – adamantly alone, and with gusto – while Pandolfi was growing up. “Write that for me,” the guest, an editor at Saveur, said. Two years after the resulting essay came out, an editorial position opened at the magazine and Pandolfi made the switch.

“I came to food writing very accidentally, but what I realized through that is that you don’t have to be a food writer to write about food,” he says. “Food writing is just storytelling. It doesn’t matter what your background is. As long as you can put a story together, know about narrative structure, you can be a food writer.”

What does matter, according to the New York-based Pandolfi, is the ability to pitch well. (See “Tips for pitching food stories.”) “Show me you can write well in your pitch,” he says, emphasizing that this is especially true for new writers who may not have a body of published clips. “The worst thing is when I get a pitch that is just, I want to write about xyz. I need an outline. I want to know how the story will look and what I will be able to take away from it.”

After three years at Saveur, Pandolfi made the switch to digital. And though he still loves print, he is grateful for all of the opportunities working on the web opened up – both for himself and for those looking to break into the field. “Before,” he says, referencing the days when magazines like Gourmet (which shuttered amidst much public dismay in 2009) still existed, “there were only a handful of magazines to write for. Now, there are so many markets. That’s one thing that digital did.”

Take, for example, Cook’s Science, the first web-only magazine from America’s Test Kitchen (known for its cookbooks, public television and radio shows, and popular food magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country). The site, which launched in July and is accepting pitches, combines narrative, scientific journalism with recipes that are accessible to home cooks. And, in a significant departure from other America’s Test Kitchen publications, all of its articles, videos, and recipes are entirely free for readers.

“When I started my career, the epitome of food writing was print. In college, I plastered the walls of my kitchen with pages ripped out of Gourmet. I taped them to the wall,” says the site’s executive editor, Molly Birnbaum, who has also written books about the science of cooking for America’s Test Kitchen and a food memoir about her love of food and a car accident that left her without a sense of smell. “Over the past 10 years, things have gone increasingly digital. At the same time, what falls under the umbrella of food writing has expanded pretty significantly. It’s not just recipes and journalistic pieces and essays any longer. There are interactive multimedia pieces, pieces that capture experiences with food, pieces about the world of celebrity chefs. There is so much more content now, and so many more ways to read and interact with that content.” And this, Birnbaum says, is an opportunity for anyone interested in writing about food.

“There are just so many outlets to write for,” says Birnbaum, whose own memoir grew out of a personal blog. “You can always create an opportunity to write about what you want to write about.”

 

Creating opportunity

That is just what worked for Marian Bull, a full-time, New York City-based freelancer whose writing has appeared in publications like Time Inc.’s new breakfast-focused site Extra Crispy, the David Chang-created quarterly Lucky Peach, and Cherry Bomb, a biannual magazine that focuses on women and food. Bull credits her entry into food journalism to a blog she started while working as an IT consultant in North Carolina after graduating college in 2010. “It was just as unsexy as it sounds,” she says of the gig. Miserable at work, Bull spent much of her time in the office secretly browsing food blogs. An avid home cook, she decided to start her own, though she figured her only readers would be friends and family. Eventually she quit her job and took seven months to travel across India, southeast Asia, and western Europe, blogging the whole way about what she saw and ate. The trip opened Bull’s eyes to her love of writing and, after returning to the States, she applied for an internship at Food52, the website started by well-known former New York Times food writers Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. Without any traditional published clips to her name, Bull used her blog posts as writing samples and landed the internship, which then led to a full-time job at the company. She later went to work on the digital side at Saveur before leaving to go freelance in order to focus more on her writing.

Bull says that for new writers, it’s helpful to be able to pitch digital outlets. “It’s not as easy to get print work,” she admits. “I started in the digital world, like a lot of people my age. And there’s more space there.” Though digital is often where the work is, Bull still does love placing her work on the actual page. “With print, it can feel like you have more time to produce what you’re working on, and often there is a more thorough editing process,” she says. “Then again, there is something to the instant gratification of writing a piece and seeing it live a week later.”

At the end of the day, no matter your interest (cheese, science, food, or travel), there is likely a publication somewhere looking for a good story to run. Sometimes the best thing to do is just start. “Sure the market is saturated,” says the Globe’s First, “but it doesn’t matter. If writing is something you really want to do, you’ll find a way to do it.”

For more, see our tips on pitching food stories.

 

Julia Rappaport is the managing editor of a Northeast food and cooking magazine. You can follow her at @Julia_Rappaport.

 

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