The Very Recent Food Writing Past: Gourmet Magazine, May She Rest In Peace.
From the tone of the Culintro Future of Food Journalism panel I was on recently, you’d think that the field was in the midst of a depression. (Check out this recap by the Village Voice’s Rebecca Marx.) Yes, the panelists agreed that attention spans are shrinking, as are writer pay rates, not to mention the fact that the democratization of food writing brought by sites like Yelp and a proliferation of dilettante food blogs makes it that much harder for every link in the food chain, from chefs and restaurateurs to editors and readers, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But a few weeks ago, a similar panel I moderated at the first annual Edible Institute in Santa Fe was decidedly uplifting. The brainchild of Edible San Francisco publisher (and former Saute Wednesday blogger) Bruce Cole, the Edible Institute coincided with the annual meeting of Edible publishers. Open to the public, the Institute’s sessions brought together a pretty unique mix–as far as conferences go–of farmers, bloggers, agribiz execs, chefs and other voices to share their vision for our collective food community.
There was a panel on the Southwest Foodshed that featured a Native American farmer who brought many in the audience to tears when he performed a corn seed blessing on stage (getting down on his knees to kiss the ground). A chili farmer noted that neighbors often deride him for keeping a home garden: “‘Why are you growing beans?,’ he said they ask him, ‘you can buy them for 89 cents a pound.’ The value of those beans.” he always replies, “is they are from my land. And they are resilient and they are strong and they make us strong.”
The author Lisa Hamilton interviewed the very quote-worthy Georgia rancher Will Harris (Using chemical fertilizer is sort of like pissing in your pants to stay warm, he said. It’s a good short term strategy, but pretty dumb in the long term). And Maise Greenwalt from BonAppetit Management Company spoke about how that foodservice provider has been able to increase its local food buying, cut out unsustainable seafood offerings and pay disenfranchised Florida tomato growers a fair wage, when its competitors have said it was impossible.
North Dakota farmer Fred Kirschenmann, also a professor at Iowa State University and the head of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester, delivered the keynote and argued that the country is in the midst of its 5th great gardening revolution–the earlier ones were during World War II, the Depression, World War I, and during the economic crisis of the late 1800s when the Mayor of Detroit coined the phrase potato patch. The urge of more people to grow their own is evidence of how people are injecting an interest in food into their lives, their families and their communities. And he noted that part of what has brought a food revolution into season is the way food has invaded the media landscape, through networks like Edible Communities.
Which brings us back to food writing. For the Sante Fe panel called “Communicating SOLE Food Messages: How Journalists are Telling Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical Stories,” I was joined on stage by Jane Black, staff writer at the Washington Post food section, Tom Philpott (a full-time farmer in the Blue Ridge Mountains) who also writes about food for Grist.org., Samuel Fromartz, the author of Organic, Inc., and Elissa Altman of The Huffington Post and Poor Man’s Feast blog.
The important context for this is that more people feel that food is the solution. That is, they see food as the way to change the world around them. As a result, food writers carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. People don’t learn how to eat from doctors and nutritionists anymore, they learn from Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.
In this sense, food writers today have more in common with Upton Sinclair than with Maureen Dowd, or with restaurant reviewers, for that matter. That is, food writers are required to keep the bigger context in mind; are required to shine a light not just on a restaurant’s service or noise level, but on how the foods got to the plate. Weaving in issues of sustainability and ethics must be done tactfully and artfully, but it must be done.
In fact, there’s a world of possibilities for food writers to cross over into politics and health and environmental reporting. When Jane Black joined the Post, she imagined her pieces showing up on the news pages and weekend politics pages, and they have. Elissa Altman said she uses easy-to-follow, wallet-friendly recipes as a sort of gateway drug to entice readers to consider deeper issues of America’s food communities; by demystifying cooking, she hopes to get people that much more involved in the food world around them. Philpott writes about the inequities of global trade and corporate irresponsibility, but through food. And at the Edibles, we peek into culture and sociology just as often as we do taste.
So it’s still a bright future for food writing as far as we’re concerned, perhaps more so than ever.