Are There Any Good Food Writers?

A peculiar conversation has developed in one little corner of the food blogosphere, which has led to another chat, and another beyond that. At issue are questions on whether good food writers, good food writing, and readers of such people and things exist. The comment that sparked this forum: “I honestly can’t think of another single writer who writes about food in a truly interesting, engaging and entertaining way.”

Of course good food writing—great food writing—exists. So do the writers and readers. Both way back when and now. MFK Fisher, Monique Truong, Calvin Trillin, David Foster Wallace, Nicole Mones, KT Achaya, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Diana Abu Jaber. Want witty, interesting, engaging and entertaining? Please read Francis Lam. (Lists go on and on and on, and I haven’t even begun to pimp my own editors.) But I suspect most of us are beyond these questions of quality. So I want to focus on another notion that was raised in the aforementioned conversations:

Food writing is easy.

Well, it can be. Done well, it is not. Like any serious journalism or scholarship, food writing is what the writer puts into it. If a writer thinks food writing is easy, chances are his or her stories reflect no great difficulty—no nuance, irony, craftsmanship, dedication or investigation (a.k.a., reporting by the old-school journalistic definition of the word). Thank goodness we have a lot of writers who recognize this and channel their efforts into their work.

Certainly, not all food stories (or food blogs) are meant to be works of journalism. And that’s perfectly fine. But good bloggers who write for the pure love of food, family and friends put enormous effort into their recipes, reviews, photos and research into what goes on the dinner table. That’s not easy.

Neither is writing (food or otherwise) when it’s a calling. A passion. Some of the best food writing surfaces among non-food writers and reporters who write and report well—period. On any topic. Simple as that. These people know their stuff. (The late, great Hemingway, Halberstam, Kapuscinski? How about Rani Manicka?) The stories these writers produce? There is nothing simple or easy about them.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Are There Any Good Food Writers?

  1. Karen,
    A great topic-wish I’d thought of it! It made me think about my own favourite cookery authors and books. Very few would be called professional chefs and I usually only buy those books as reference for my work. My favourites are those who give more than just a recipe, they connect food with a time and/or place which makes you realise just how fundamentally important our food culture is. From England I would have to say Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson followed by Simon Hopkinson. They all had/have a unique way of describing food which takes you back to a time long since passed.
    I would suggest at least 95% of food blogs are written by amateurs but that’s ok. Personally, I am happy to read something which isn’t gramatically perfect but reflects that person’s love of food and life. I say that but when I read back whatever I have written I know it contains compositional errors which a writer or editor would end up turning inside out and I find it somewhat annoying. Trouble is I don’t know how to fix it.
    That’s why I am a chef!

  2. Easy????

    Writing is the hardest part of my job. Facing the blank computer screen, willing words onto them? Hard. Editing, cutting, pasting, forcing my thoughts into beautifully crafted, clear sentences? Hard.

    The difficult doesn’t change, whether the topic is migration in a globalized economy or a certain crab curry. Most days, it’s all I can do not to curl up in bed with my pillow over my head rather than face my daily writing.

    I agree with you: anyone who thinks writing is easy must not be particularly good at it. And some of us who struggle aren’t that perfect either.

  3. >>If a writer thinks food writing is easy, chances are his or her stories reflect no great difficulty—no nuance, irony, craftsmanship, dedication or investigation (a.k.a., reporting by the old-school journalistic definition of the word). <<

    Thank you. That’s just how I wanted to respond to that comment – which shocked me, really, considering the stack of ‘must-read-but-haven’t-gotten-to’ books and articles on food I have sitting on the corner of my desk. You’ve done it much better than I could have.

    Writing abt food easy? I’ve never found it ‘easy’ to write about anything…

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I fully agree: writing is painfully hard.

    This morning I happened to grab this summer’s issue of Edible Santa Fe and opened to a story by Heidi Yorkshire on MFK Fisher. “The greatest food writer of all was not a food writer at all. Her books are filled with stories, not recipes; her ingredients are people and emotions, not flour and sugar.”

    Yes. I think these are the ingredients to any great writing, food or otherwise.

    Robyn, it seems we both have massive stacks of “must-read-but-haven’t-gotten-to” books and articles on food, and I know other people who do as well. I think that says something about the abundance and availability of great food writing. It’s out there. Perhaps now more than ever. Of course, there’s more crap, too. But I think we’re all capable of weeding through it to find the gems.

  5. Some of my favorite food writing is in restaurant reviews. Michael Bauer in San Francisco is great. When well written, you really get a sense of the place, and I really like how they can separate the soggy side dish from the brilliant entree, and keep their assessment of the service, decor, etc apart, yet tie the whole experience together to accord the restaurant stars.
    When a place is charging $20-35 for an entree, they are also consumer advocates, and can let you know if its really worth it. The only thing better than a good meal is a good meal that’s a value!

  6. Writing well, food or otherwise, isn’t what i would call “easy”. Blogging is. I think when the two come together is different for every reader. What works for me might not work for someone else. I think where food writing, particularly food blogging has helped is to introduce innumerable people to experiences, flavors, sensations that they might never have gotten the chance to experience. The writing quality? It’s like the old adage “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” Or to relate it to the NASCAR nation “if you don’t like what’s on TV, turn the channel”!

  7. Thanks, a!

    Matt, I agree with you on restaurant reviewing, which is another type of writing that proves extremely difficult when done well. It is no easy task to engage readers with lively descriptions of a meal, the restaurant’s atmosphere and its service while simultaneously depicting the whole scene in a wider scope. Great reviewers succeed in this. It’s a talent and well-honed craft.

    bb, what I most love about a magazine such as The New Yorker is the writers’ ability to capture my attention with essays on subjects that had never before caught my interest. But you’re right—what’s great and interesting for one person is not necessarily so for another.

  8. I just finished a fantastic new little book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Runnning by Haruki Murakami. If you’re a writer or a runner or both—or if you simply enjoy his writings—this is a book for you. I just wanted to give you a little snippet. His thoughts on the strength and endurance it takes to write:

    “The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you.” —Haruki Murakami

  9. Hi there, you topic of this post has drawn my attention to read further. I am a new food blogger. I never like writing but somehow I find it easier and more inspiring to write when it comes to something I like and have experience. It’s hard to know if I am writing something worth reading or not as food bloggers, most of them I think are writing independently on their own and do not have editors or other people proof-reading their posts before publishing.

  10. Janet, thanks for writing. I agree entirely, it’s always easier to write about something we have experience with. I understand, too, the general distaste for writing—some days I have no desire to do it. I can see from your blog that you must be doing something right. Your combination of words and photos gives me an appetite!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *