Food Writing Is Not Dead

Amanda Hesser was the Internet’s Debbie Downer Tuesday in a post that aimed to get real with aspiring food writers. Hesser’s advice went something like this: Get out now. After a decade of magazine fails, newspaper food section budgets drying up, and a mounting crapload of free content on the Web, Hesser solemnly announced that food writing—the paid, professional kind—is now officially dead.

If anybody should be qualified to call the time of death, it’s Hesser. She was a New York Times food staffer, wrote the foodie chick-lit epic Cooking for Mr. Latte, and cofounded the influential food site food52. Hesser says she used to give thoughtful career advice to strangers pinging her for help on how to walk a career path like hers, but those days are over. Nowadays, Hesser responds with the tough-love message she shared with everybody on Tuesday: “I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer. Except for a very small group of people … it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse.”

On Twitter, people responded as if Hesser had announced that Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras, and the Aspen Food & Wine Classic had all been canceled this year. Kim Severson, the New York Times Atlanta bureau chief who used to write about food full-time, tweeted for every past, present, and wannabe food writer in America: “Today's Buzzkill Award goes to .... @amandahesser, who argues that food writing as a career is dead.”

Hesser is right. Nobody I know who writes about food is pulling down a salary anywhere near the take-home of an experienced Subaru mechanic. Any dinner table I find myself at where there are two or more food writers and at least one empty bottle of Syrah, the talk always comes around to how bleak everybody’s future looks.

But here’s where Hesser is wrong: Except for a golden age that lasted maybe a couple of decades at most in only a handful of mostly New York–based publications, food writing was always a shitty way to make a living. The great women food writers of the 20th century—Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, and Jane Grigson—never supported themselves from their books and articles (David’s family was rich, Fisher helped support herself in the 1940s by writing gags for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movies, and Grigson’s husband had a distinguished academic career). Maybe only Julia Child ever figured out how to make bank, but that was never simply from writing alone.

Richard Olney lived like a hermit, foraging herbs on Provençal hillsides. James Beard joked about whoring himself out for product endorsements—even his popular syndicated newspaper column couldn’t keep the lights on at the Beard House.

And remember: Before Beard and Craig Claiborne broke the gender barrier in American food writing, newspaper food sections were penned by lady home economists who’d perfected a pretty dull grade of service journalism. How much money do you think women home ec writers made in the 1950s? Not enough to keep meatloaf on the table. Not from a single salary.

And like one of my CHOW colleagues pointed out, it was rare even in professional food writing’s golden age for somebody to start out self-consciously as a food writer. Pulitzer winner Jonathan Gold started out as a proofreader, then wrote about music. The late, great R.W. Apple Jr. worked for decades as a New York Times foreign correspondent before reporting on food. In most dailies, working for the food section was a reward for paying your dues after years pounding a beat on the city or business desk, not something you planned for in college. Thinking of food writing as a career track is a pretty recent aberration, and one exclusive to elite media centers.

In fact, thinking you can make a comfortable salary from any aspect of food, from farming to cooking to writing about the people who farm and cook, is a recent aberration. As a guy who cooked professionally for 15 years, then spent a couple more writing restaurant reviews for a daily newspaper in the suburbs of San Francisco, believe me: I know.

In the end, Hesser’s lament reads as less an apocalyptic tale of the death of food writing—which by any objective reading is far better these days than in the golden age when a handful of editors held sway—than a sigh of nostalgia for the Good Old Days at the New York Times.

Hesser saves any useful advice for the end of Tuesday’s post: “Better to see writing as part of a more personally-crafted career that will allow you to pursue an array of interests—and a career that you will need to treat in an entrepreneurial way, inventing and reinventing what you do along the way. Your lifestyle may still not be that lavish, but it will at least be yours to shape. You will have the chance to have a much more varied and engaging career; I wish mine had begun this way.”

After being a journalist for so many years, she should know better than to bury the lede like that. To everybody who writes about food, from amateur blogger to freelance alt-weekly restaurant critic to website food editor, Hesser’s parting regret should have sounded an epic chord of optimism. It could have been the sound of food writing’s new golden age just clearing its throat.

Image source: Flickr member trozbo under Creative Commons

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