By Laura D’Alessandro
Food is universal. M.F.K. Fisher, a great American food writer, once described food writing as intimately tied to human life because food is a basic human need. It therefore touches all aspects of life. It is both an essential and an indulgence. It can gather people together and divide nations.
When Debbie Moose first started as a journalist in the early 1980s, she had no plans to write about food. Moose is the president of the Association of Food Journalists. She was pulled off the news desk in her second newspaper job and asked to be the food editor where she learned just what Fisher had proclaimed.
Once coveted salaries for food writers are down in the dumps (above) while big brands dominate the food magazine scene (below). Circulation numbers are in millions.
“I quickly discovered that you can write about anything when writing about food — love, history, science, humor, social issues, useful information. And that everyone likes to talk about food,” Moose says. “I was hooked.”
Thus, the stories behind food endure because food itself is such a powerful window into human life.
But, in 2013, the tragic story of the news media endures, as well,. According to a recent Pew report, newsrooms throughout the world are stripping down beyond the bare essentials, newspaper staffs are at record lows and magazines are continuing to lose ad revenue.
While the average editor on today’s news desk might consider a piece of food writing unworthy of a small staff’s limited time, many journalists continue to produce it.
Mark Bittman, the former Minimalist columnist for the New York Times, recently released a book and started a new column at the paper. Another New York Times food writer, Michael Moss, who has won the Pulitzer Prize, published a best-seller about the food industry in early 2013. Harpers Magazine recently commissioned immersion journalist Ted Conover to spend time in a meat processing factory and write an expose.
But that’s the big league. If journalism students have a hard time finding jobs as general assignment reporters after graduation, writers looking to fill a niche have it even worse. Niche publications were in decline in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report. And chances are, if there’s a niche to fill, someone is already filling it for free — look at food blogs.
Blogging has created a wealth of free content on the web, food-related and otherwise. For some food writers, self-publishing about food online has been a huge success. In 2005, Julie Powell published a book about cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Powell’s book turned into a blockbuster.
But Powell may have been one of the lucky few able to strike when the iron was hot, says Amanda Hesser, a former New York times food writer who now owns the recipe website Food 52. The web has since been flooded by food writers. The path to success as a food writer is forced to evolve again, Hesser wrote in a 2012 piece giving advice to food writers.
Blogging is only one piece of several avenues that today’s aspiring food writers need to pursue, she said.
“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer,” she wrote. “And I think it’s only going to get worse.”
Hesser had to change her advice to food writers in 2012, compared to the emails she answered five years ago, to reflect the industry’s challenges. But Hesser’s own passion for food writing clearly remains strong. Her website is preparing to launch a product store.