Bad Times for Food Writers Could Make Food Writing Better

Get two food writers together and what do we do? Bitch about the state of our jobs.

My buddy Jason* thought freelancers would cover his deadlines while he was out of the country, but guess what? His publication’s freelance budget was cut. So Jason was having to scramble, eating in a dozen places in the week before he was to fly out on vacation. He took a breath when he told me over drinks a couple of weeks ago.

A few days ago, over drinks with Caroline, a similar sense of exasperation hung over the bar, thick as clove cigarettes. “I don’t even know if I care about food anymore—it’s just part of who I am as a writer, but not the whole thing. I don’t want it defining me, you know?” I knew.

A few months ago it was Lauren, fired from her longtime job as a magazine’s food editor, not knowing what the hell she was going to do next. Then it was Nate, who left the security of a staff writer’s salary—not huge, but it came with benefits, and Nate has a toddler—to go back to freelancing, where, for the writers who are exceptionally talented, $300 is the going rate for a short feature. “It’s like stepping off a cliff,” Nate said. “But I feel like I’ve got to do it.” He could no longer take being in a job just because it was a job, one of the rare steady-paying gigs for a food writer.

Am I part of the generation that has to arrange the profession of food writing in its casket prior to burial? To tidy everything up, making sure its eyebrows are trimmed and it’s got a peaceful half-smile on its lips before the coffin lid is screwed down for eternity?

Five months ago I resisted that idea. In some ways, food writing has never been more vibrant than it is now: There have never been more voices rising to talk about small-bore neighborhood bistros on Chowhound or Yelp, or exhuming old family stories to frame, say, a recipe for carrot cake on a personal food blog. We’re a culture that won’t shut up about food, which has been disastrous for the writers choosing to make it our trade. Newspaper budgets hitting new bottoms, corporate priorities shifting with the latest numbers—even if you have a solid gig at the moment, you feel you're never more than a red-pencil-slash-through-a-budget-line away from crisis.

Going out with my food writer friends, I feel like we’re all 82, bitching about the cost of our medications, the latest small pleasure the doctor’s made us give up, or how our kids are moving to Orlando and who’s gonna clear the sludge out of our rain gutters now?

But the good part about not knowing when your oxygen tank is going to cut out and leave you gasping—well, the line is still flowing. And while you’ve still got an assignment, a paycheck, or a deadline, then—fuck it—you’ve got to squeeze the most out of it. Be truer to an experience, go deeper with an interview, try to pluck the last dog-eared cliché out of your writing.

The morning after beers with Caroline, she sent an email to soften the bitching critique of her job. She repeated all the things that sucked about it, only as a prelude to this: “When I'm working on a cool project, everything still feels exciting and fresh. Day by day, it's the freelance way.”

Getting paid to write about food is an exercise in living like it matters, for as long as it lasts. How many of us are lucky enough to say that?

*I made all these names up so nobody'd be mad at me.

Photo by Flickr member NS Newsflash under Creative Commons

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