Sofia Perez: What Constitutes Good Food Writing?

Sofia Perez: What Constitutes Good Food Writing?

What constitutes good food writing?  As a food writer for several publications, and as someone with some professional cooking experience, I’ve been thinking about this topic recently. I have invited several food writers such as Sofia Perez, editor-at-large for Saveur, to share their thoughts in this limited-run series of posts.

It seems like everyone is a foodie these days with an opinion. I’m all for free speech, but I’m more interested in good writing (technically and creatively) with a distinct point of view about food. With the ease of online publishing and food-based sites that harvest comments and “reviews,” it’s hard to find and recognize good food writing. Of course, “good” is a qualitative term relative to one’s taste.

Back to the question:  What constitutes good writing? In what forms can people find it – reviews, opinion columns, profiles, and travel pieces? Does food writing matter as a source of information or is it more entertainment? How informed or inquisitive should a food writer be in their capacity as a blogger or paid writer? Being a foodie (a term I dislike) has become a democratized lifestyle and expression of a person’s interest that’s ubiquitous today. Similarly, “food writer” as a title has become slung around as carelessly as “chef.”

To address some of these questions and ideas, I invited Sofia Perez to comment. She is a freelance writer and editor-at-large for Saveur who writes about food, wine, the environment, and books. She’s also currently working on her first book, a historical novel about the Spanish Civil War. In addition to her freelance writing, she has also taught a food-writing class at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education. You can learn more about her work at www.sofia-perez.com.

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Sofia Perez

Sofia PerezWhen I teach my food-writing class, I always start off by telling my students to broaden their definition of food writing, to include everything from restaurant reviews, trendspotting, and recipe-focused articles to personal essays and historical pieces, and a million things in between. It can be a challenge to make general statements about such a broad area, but here goes:

Early on in my career, I remember going to a panel discussion on food writing, and one of the panelists (I can’t remember who) made the point that there’s no such thing as a food writer. If we’re any good at what we do, we’re writers and journalists first, and we just happen to cover the subject of food. I agree with this. There is a lot (and I mean a lot) of crappy writing about food out there–pieces that betray the writer’s ignorance about the subject and his/her laziness and lack of due diligence when it comes to research. But it’s also true that there’s a lot of sub-par writing about sports, travel, the economy, etc. The pieces that grab me, regardless of the topic, are the ones that are well-written and insightful — particularly when they have a distinct point of view, as you mentioned.

I’m especially drawn to food articles that have a human element. It’s fine to publish a feature on potatoes, but I find it much more interesting to read a piece on the role the potato places in a particular culture’s cuisine. Or the story behind one person’s potato recipe, which is based on the way her grandfather taught her, and can be traced back to a technique he learned in the old country for XYZ reason, etc. Food is a subject that is inextricably linked to our humanity, and the pieces that make that connection between the two are the ones I gravitate toward. A great example is the writing of my dear friend, Maureen Abood, whose excellent blog “Rose Water & Orange Blossoms” is as much about her own life and that of her extended family and friends as it is about Lebanese-American cuisine. http://www.maureenabood.com (For a good example, see this post: http://www.maureenabood.com/2011/07/27/are-you-a-coosa/)

Regarding the question of entertainment, articles about food can be purely voyeuristic and sybaritic, but they can also be service-oriented (restaurant reviews or pieces on how to shop for, store, and cook a particular ingredient), investigative (an examination of our meat supply or what is behind the USDA organic label), educational (Mark Kurlansky’s books on salt and cod), or philosophical (David Foster Wallace’s article in Gourmet on the ethics of cooking and eating lobsters).

Through it all, the “entertainment” factor, if you will, is part of the equation, but it’s merely a matter of how well the articles are written and how compellingly the story is told. I can sit down and read a novel for the pure enjoyment of it, and find it entertaining, but that doesn’t preclude it from also illuminating some issue or historical event or place, and providing me with a new way of seeing the world that I wasn’t expecting when I started to read it.

In terms of how informed a writer should be (and I make no distinction between blogger or writers who work for other outlets — a good writer should be able to write for any medium, period), I would say this: It is the duty of a writer/journalist to know what he or she is writing about. I’m currently writing a novel, but even though it is fiction, I have done a great deal of research to make sure that the historical details are accurate and ring true to those who are familiar with the time and place about which I’m writing. Of course historical fiction demands this more than other genres, but even a writer of escapist crime dramas has to nail the veracity of the cops’ dialogue or the description of the coroner’s tools, for example. If he or she doesn’t bother to do that, readers will pick up on it and be turned off.

It is the duty of a writer/journalist to know what he or she is writing about.

So any writer who is writing for a readership and not just his/her own diary has a responsibility to do the homework and research. As writers, all we do is chronicle a landscape (be it real or fictional, internal or external), and if a writer can’t be bothered to get the details right, why should I as a reader bother to read it? This responsibility becomes even more acute when we are talking about people’s livelihoods (as in a restaurant review or a profile of a chef, farmer, or food business), or a service piece. The latter pieces may not be as sexy as a food essay, but they can be extremely important to the reader. When the person who’s cooking his first Thanksgiving turkey decides to following the instructions offered in a published article, online or otherwise, he is going to expect that the writer got the details right and that none of his guests is about to get food poisoning because he was directed to leave the thawed bird out on the counter overnight.

Democratization can be a wonderful thing. During the age of print domination, we tended to hear from the usual suspects, and many writers had a hard time breaking through, myself included. The great boon of technology means that there is now a place for new voices. But it’s important to realize that that freedom comes with a price. Everyone eats, and so everyone has an opinion about food, but although we’re all entitled to our opinions, simply having a thought or opinion doesn’t automatically make you a writer or journalist. Writing and reporting are skills that are honed over time and with experience. And once someone crosses from the land of opinion into the territory of fact, he/she has a responsibility to be accurate and know what he/she is talking about. Democratization does not let you off the hook. And the reality that folks are increasingly relying on Wikipedia or web sources as their primary material (which, as a former research editor, makes me shudder) means that we all have an even greater responsibility to avoid putting out inaccurate information that will then get repeated endlessly in the online echo chamber.

Feast of Saint Joseph at Anthony’s

Feast of Saint Joseph at Anthony’s

anthonys
Last Sunday I headed to Anthony’s Restaurant and Lounge to shoot a photograph for an upcoming recipe that will be posted on www.kcoriginals.com beginning in April 2012. Anthony Spino, a tall gregarious guy with shaggy hair, full beard, and contagious smile, greeted me when I entered the restaurant located at 701 Grand. As the manager, he showed me around the restaurant full of people celebrating the Feast of Saint Joseph.

Generations of Italian-Americans and other people from the community gathered for this annual feast traditionally held on or around March 19. This local event was a fundraiser for Children’s Mercy Hospital and St. Jude’s. The celebration recognizes the patron saint that heard the prayers of villagers and brought rain to an area of Sicily suffering famine during a long drought in the Middle Ages.

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st joseph cake

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Anthony explains that the saint helped the poor and needy and this feast was to honor him. Traditional food served for the feast includes bread, fava beans, seafood (during Lent), fig cookies and other pastries. Many families from the community brought the trays of homemade pastries that covered tables inside the restaurant. The kitchen at Anthony’s was busy dishing out plates of pasta.

anthonys egg

I photographed a frosia, a Sicilian omelet made with vegetables and thickened with bread crumbs, for my KC Originals assignment. Afterward, Anthony invited me to stay, eat, and visit. Since the restaurant was packed, we sat outside on a patio where his father Anthony “Butch” Spino, Jr., uncle, and other older men passed the time with a smoke and a beer as they told stories of yesteryear’s working class laborers.

Food has always been about more than filling my belly, pleasing my senses, and documenting every detail. I’ve always connected food to family, community, local economy, the people that grow and prepare food, social connections, traditions, customs, and geography. Rarely do I have the opportunity to write about these interconnected subjects at length in my freelance writing. This meal was a simple but powerful reminder of these associations.

Eating a plate of spaghetti with red sauce, sardines, and cauliflower was a new taste experience for me. I listened to the stories, chiding, and laughter. I watched friends, neighbors, and children walk up to greet others, exchange kisses on the cheek, and pay respect. I smiled as Anthony kidded with a young boy near our table. I remembered the Perniciaro family that once lived on my street in my mom’s neighborhood when I was growing up. Sons Joe and little Anthony Perniciaro were cherub-cheeked boys like this kid.

Butch Spino told me that the Feast of St. Joseph used to be celebrated in homes years ago and families would visit each other. This relaxed moment on a Sunday afternoon reminded me that, like a church, a restaurant serves as a gathering place where people can interrupt their busy lives, emerge from the insular cocoon of the home, and join together as a community. It was a pleasure to watch old friends and family reconnect.

This gathering was authentic Slow Food without the feel of belonging to a club. Food, tradition observed, people making the effort to connect, and giving back to the community are potent ingredients for savoring a rich life.
Above: (From left) father Anthony “Butch” Spino, Jr., name unknown, Anthony Spino, mother Theresa Spino, brother Vito Spino, name unknown.

anthonys family sm