So You Want to Be a Food Writer
There is a certain kind of food writer, whose work is a labor of love. Their kitchen is the heart of their home, and their work consists of telling of the glories of good cookery. This is not the kind of food writer I am talking about. That kind of food writer produces cookbooks, recipes, household tips, and helpful guides to telling ramps from scallions. Such a person likely learned to cook from their mother or grandmother and is likely passing these lessons down to their own children. They spend much time in their kitchens, which means those kitchens are big, which in turn suggests the existence of a fairly large house. That likely means a family, and all too often, a relatively comfortable existence, their unpredictable income being supplemented by a spouse with an actual job. I am writing here about the other kind.
Always broke, always bloated. No insurance. Lives in a hovel or shanty, getting by on cheap rum and ramen noodles. Most of the time a pauper, except when they go to sleep, gorged with foie gras, on an unmade bed. They tend to live alone. Tend to be overweight. Hard drinkers, potheads. Former line cook and journalism washouts, bristling with resentment. First a wide-eyed gastronaut, later an enervated voluptuary. These kind of food writers are my people; I understand them. And I can give them, when in their larval form, direction on how to bloom and blossom.
This won’t necessarily make them happy. The work keeps them away from home, which they often reckon as a plus. During my first marriage, I would have been willing to take a five-hour bus ride to try a mango I heard was good. But food writing is more than free liquor and the pleasure of seeing one’s name in print, although those are certainly very valuable things. Beneath its squalid surface is a selfless and not ignoble urge: to tell people about great food, in the most personal way, expressively and evocatively; It’s not so much a career path as a vocation. Born food writers of this kind are celebrants, evangelists, missionaries. It’s not enough for them to know about some obscure gamey dumpling or marinated songbird; they need to tell everybody else about it, in their own voice. And they would like to get paid for doing that.
That’s hard, but easier now than it used to be. Thanks to the creation of the medium in front of you, writers no longer have to send fruit baskets to all-powerful editors, or pray that a pro-bono column in some smudgy zine or alternative weekly will attract the notion of a higher being. It does happen sometimes; a random guy named Jim Leff wrote a photocopied, stapled newsletter which he snailmailed to subscribers, and he ended up inventing the online food media. More often though, it doesn’t: I wrote a column for a wretched paper called the West Side Spirit for two years, both under my own name and as “Casper Gutman,” a forerunner of my later “Mr. Cutlets” persona. Gutman was a formerly powerful restaurant critic who, in old age, had been reduced to penury, and driven to writing about street-cart kebabs in a column called “The Impoverished Gourmand.” Nobody read it and it didn’t get me any work, so I left New York and ended up marrying a woman I wasn’t attracted to. On the other hand, my counterpart at an equally wretched weekly, the New York Press, ended up as the restaurant critic of the New York Times. So things have a way of not working out. Ten years later, after my inevitable divorce, I moved back to New York and wrote a cheap book for an obscure press that almost nobody read. But the people that did read it liked it, and good things started to happen. I remain as amazed as anybody that things fell my way. By that time I was in my mid-thirties and had given up hope of escaping the shadow of hereditary failure which seemed my sure lot. As Sonny says in “A Bronx Tale,” “there’s nothing sadder than wasted talent.” I cried when I saw that, because I knew it was true, and I knew it was true for me. But then I wrote a book for $500 and my dream came true. I doubt it would or could happen again; like Jim Leff, I was there at the right place and the right time. But maybe someone out there, some unhappy person right now reading Medium, sitting at a desk surrounded by cups of old coffee and tax warrants and a vague dark cloud of hope, thinks that, somehow, this might be the right time and place for them. For that person, I have some tips that may or may not help.
Seven Ways to Find Work as a Food Writer
Find a niche. There is no room in the world for somebody whose subject is “food.” At least somebody who isn’t a celebrity, an ex-rock musician, or a person who already has a job at a magazine or newspaper. The subject is broad and so generic that it is necessarily colorless and dull. And anyway, nobody can know enough about “food” to have anything worth reading. Get a niche. Indian food. Weird street food. Barbecue. Insects. Foraged and fermented weeds. Whatever. Then, when an editor wants something on that subject, they will have a reason to reach for you.
Take great pictures. This is 2014. Nobody wants to read about what something looks like. They want to see what it looks like. And they want to see it at its best. It will be the images that attract readers to your work, that build up your Twitter and Instagram followings, that make people who have jobs want to read your work. It’s hard to shlep a good DSLR camera with you everywhere, but if you have one, take that. If you don’t, use a phone with a good camera and the best camera apps (I like Camara FV-5 Lite and Google Camera). I never put something up without photoshopping the hell out of it either.
Be a good reader. I was going to say, “Be a good writer,” but that’s useless, because if you don’t know what good writing is, you won’t know what bad writing is, and won’t be able to recognize it when it comes leaking out of you. Nobody can ever be a good writer that isn’t a good reader, because they are basically the same thing. It doesn’t even have to be food writing. My favorite writers are a discredited Victorian historian, an insane New Yorker critic, a blind Argentine librarian, and a Russian fop. None of them are food writers, but having their voices in my mind gave my own voice a something to build on. Plus, reading books makes you smarter, which is always good.
Write everything out. Whole sentences. The right words. A beginning, a middle, an end. It doesn’t matter where. Write out blog posts. Write out tweets. Write out Facebook posts. Write texts, if there is time. And do it often, as often as you possibly can. Get your reps.
Write a book. It doesn’t even matter if anybody reads it. It can even be an e-book. But it’s better if it is print, even if the shoddiest small press publishes it. Somebody who has written a book is a somebody, and presumably an expert. Remember, if you say you’re an expert, who makes you an expert, at least to somebody who doesn’t know any better.
Get in the back door. This one really is key. You can go to journalism school, write for ten years, and still not get into New York. Or TIME. Or any number of other legitimate print outlets. But their websites have a bottomless appetite for content, and you can embed yourself within the the sanctuary of a major brand by writing online there for almost nothing. This gives you an immense boost in legitimacy and can even lead to a promotion from new media to old, if someone should happen to be poisoned.
Shmooze. This is one of the ugliest realities of being an outsider; you will sicken yourself with syncophancy, flattery, false friendship. Even someone like myself, with neither shame nor any personal honor, cringes at it. The problem, though, is that it works. If you get into parties and events, or any other place there are likely to be big ballers in the publishing world, do your utmost to say hello to them, make conversation, drop the name of your blog. Don’t come on too strong, though, or they will despise you. I was recently at a book event and some lady imposed herself on me and passed in a matter of minutes from someone I wanted to help to someone I wanted to die. Don’t monopolize their time, don’t give them your card, don’t be weird. Make sure you look good, too. I lost many chances, I think, by wearing stained clothing or having stuff in my teeth.
There are probably some other tips and tricks that you can use, but those are the ones I know, or think I know. They are unlikely to do you any good, but you can try, at least. Nobody can stop you from writing; they can only deny you the chance to be read, to be paid, to feel good about yourself, to do the thing you might be best at. You can do that here, at Medium, like I do, or on some Tumblr page or scrawled in feces on the wall of your cell. Just keep trying. There is nothing sadder than wasted talent.