Tapping out a future in food writing

Future_food _writing

The future of food writing is technology driven and exciting (iStockphoto)

When a friend sent me the article Advice for Future Food Writers by Amanda Hesser I read it, thanked her for passing on the website link, then went to stick my head in the oven.

Okay, that last bit isn’t true. The oven is electric (gas stove top, thankfully). And it’s not as if Hesser’s argument – that it’s virtually impossible to make a living as a food writer and only going to get worse – was any great revelation.

I have an inside view of the media industry. I write full-time for a national newspaper, (occasionally covering food). I’ve seen staff cuts, pay freezes and slashed freelance budgets first hand.

Like a good risotto, full-time food writing gigs are few and far between. In Australia it’s a thimble-sized industry and the key roles are closely guarded (hogged, you could say), so landing one of those is about as likely as getting a ticket to Heston Blumenthal’s sellout show in Sydney next month if you’ve only just got round to trying (that’d be me).

Hesser’s point that a budding food writer today shouldn’t rely on writing as their “bread and butter” (nice use of a culinary phrase) and pursue other interests in the food industry wasn’t a new concept to me, either.

I’ve had that very same conversation with myself many times. I’ve berated myself about it as I’ve beaten egg whites into soft peaks, I’ve pondered possible part-time jobs in the food industry as I’ve pummeled spices in the mortar and pestle, and i’ve coached myself to think positive as I’ve caressed stock into creamy risotto in figure of eight swirls.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The concept of a job for life is well past its use-by date. And we’re constantly being told that workers will increasingly have a number of different careers – not just jobs – in their working lives.

I was one step ahead of Hesser. I already knew all this. Tell me something I don’t know, lady. I promptly pushed Hesser’s article to the back of my mind.

But one thing kept resurfacing: Hesser’s suggestion that opening a network of small slaughterhouses may be a business opportunity to consider when creating our own “personally crafted career” in the food industry. It wasn’t the only suggestion she made.

“Get your hands dirty,” she said. “Wash dishes in a restaurant. Work on a farm. Get a job in a food factory. Assist a commercial fisherman. Intern at a start-up.”

Yeah, right! I understand what Hesser is trying to do: encourage wannabe food writers to think outside the square, meet a need in the industry that is undergoing immense change, and get experience of a different kind. And her advice is specifically aimed at those who have just graduated from college.

I also understand that people, aspiring food writers included, need a reality check from time to time. But what about those of us with mortgages and families, a cat that keeps falling off rooftops and ending up with various limbs in a cast (my vet bills are ludicrous), or no entrepreneurial bent whatsoever?

I’m not being a defeatist. I’m being a realist. And the stark reality is that in uncertain economic times – the very same times that have massacred the media industry – few inexperienced business people are going to quit a job and open a slaughterhouse, or wash dishes in a restaurant.

Hesser offers other advice that is perhaps more realistic for financially constrained/non-risk takers, or non-entrepreneurial types: don’t eat the same meal twice, broaden your skills (take a photography class), or write a blog. I like where Hesser is going with this. This is achievable stuff when you have bills to pay and a job that you can’t just quit.

That’s where i’m focusing my efforts. I’m a member of an organic community garden, i’m organising voluntary work with a food-related not-for-profit, and i attend as many food-related events as possible – cooking classes, writer festivals, international speakers. I mightn’t have a ticket to “Heston Live”, but i’m booked in for Michael Pollan’s gig at the Sydney Opera House in July.

I stockpile my spare time with as many food-related activities as possible. At least it gives me something to blog about. For me, for now, that’s sufficient. I get my food fix beyond my full-time job.

But I do think there is a future in food writing, and a healthy one at that. The profession’s parameters, however, will be different from in the past. They’re already much broader. We have the web to thank for that. I’ve been involved in some of the best informed debates on food issues via blogs. Blogs are fluid, live and potential launchpads into extended writing careers.

Innovative bloggers are still getting book deals. Sydney born Victoria (Tori) Haschka, who writes the eatori blog, will have a collection of recipes and stories gathered from around the world published hopefully in 2013.

The web has also given food writers far more international reach. They are no longer largely confined to their own back yard when it comes to pitching to editors. The lovely Amanda from Lambs’ Ears and Honey is now the Australian correspondent for the international food chronicle Rambling Epicure. She’s an inspiration to the rest of us to look further afield.

Victoria and Amanda may be in the minority, but technology enables any food writer to get up, close and personal with readers. Smart phones, iPads and electronic readers are increasingly the reader’s weapons of choice. E-books, e-zines, and apps are the writer’s ammunition.

I’m not implying that food writing is a battle ground but it’s certainly increasingly competitive, which means good food writing out there will only get better. To get noticed food writers will need standout ideas and a unique voice, which should make for some good reading. The future of food writing is not bleak, it’s exciting.

Get typing.

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32 Comments

Filed under Reflections

32 responses to “Tapping out a future in food writing

  1. And when you can write as well as you do, then nothing can be that grim. Doing what you love always comes with risks- but hopefully the sweetest of rewards. Great piece. x Tori

  2. A thoughtful post as always! Yes, it’s harder to get noticed these days, but the opportunity is still there. It’s great you’re putting in the effort. I’ve got my blog, but sometimes I feel like I should be doing more.

    • Hi, Leaf. I’m not sure that i put in much effort! I really just do what i enjoy doing, which is usually something that revolves around food – growing it in my veggie patch, cooking, going off in search of ingredients, discovering new cultures through food. Usually my food adventures inspire an article – which either post on my blog, or pitch to the newspaper i write for.
      Either way, it gets published. And i’m happy with the balance – and the creative freedom – i’ve created for myself.
      Blogging is a wonderful outlet. i only wish i had time to post more frequently. I beat myself up about that a fair bit. But there are only so many hours in the day!

  3. Rachel, thanks so much for your kind words. And what wonderfully positive take on a discussion which has grown some very serious legs and is being carried on around the world. Technology and popular media have changed the face of food writing making competition fierce and raising standards. I think you are right – there is some very good reading coming our way.

    • Thanks Amanda and congratulations – you’re achieving great things.
      I finished my article feeling quite excited about what lies ahead, not just for myself, but for the food writing industry in general. I hope my premonition is write – that some good reading is heading in our direction – because there’s nothing i like better than a good food-related article or book! Happy reading/writing, Amanda.

  4. Here I sit in my little study in Canberra, reading your wonderful words (and congratulations BTW Amanda!) and I know exactly what you mean. You know, Canberra is such a small place and with only one newspaper to speak of, writing gigs are few and far between. I wrote a column for a subsidiary of that paper for close to a decade and was dropped like the proverbial hot paper after a change in ownership. However, that little gig also led to my being elected to the steering committee that formed the ACT Writers Centre (no apostrophe!), a post I held for four years. This also led to a weekly ABC radio segment talking about food and cooking (with James Valentine, among others), which also lasted for four years. And that led to my being head hunted to set up a cooking school at a fresh produce market and I was concurrently contracted to manage the market and organise all the promotions. Both of which I did for a decade. The highlight of my career was to bring Rick Stein to Canberra (he was one of many ‘stars’ I welcomed to my home town). And all of the above led to invitations to various soirees, including Tasting Australia on several occasions; and the opportunity to rub shoulders with some amazing people, famous and not so.

    What I am getting at, Rachel, is one little thing can lead to another, so hang in there. Keep at it. It is exciting, especially in this brave new world of the internet, blogs and social networking! Hey, without it, I wouldn’t have met you all!

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response Lizzy. That’s a truly inspirational food writing/gigging career. And i guess it’s the kind of career that Amanda Hesser is talking about – a multi-faceted food career. You’ve been there, done that. You’re one step ahead of Hesser, too!
    But seriously, it shows that doors open, networks are formed, and bonds are made – with fellow bloggers, no less – if you pursue what you really want to do.
    I think i’m quite happy with the balance i’ve created – writing the odd food-related piece for work, blogging, and pursuing lots of food-filled hobbies.
    Sometimes you have to sit back and look at what you have, to realise it’s actually pretty good.

  6. I really enjoyed this article. I agree that it is hard to make a (full-time) living at food writing, especially in Australia, but I also agree that the playing field is much more level nowadays and technology has given us international opportunities that just won’t available before. (And btw, congrats, Amanda!)
    I started my blog – The Hungry Australian – last June as a way of forcing me to write regularly and get back into work after taking a few years off to raise my kids.
    Since then I’ve become the Dining Down Under columnist for HonestCooking.com, had my articles about Australian food and producers published in Sumptuous magazine and I’ve just been appointed the Australian & New Zealand Food Guide for About.com, part of the New York Times Company. I’ll be producing 8 recipes, articles and reviews for my own section each month, for a whole new readership.
    I’m enormously grateful for all the opportunities and friendships I’ve made since I started blogging. I don’t know how this journey will end but I have to say I’m having a great time pursuing my twin loves of writing and food. And I firmly believe that when you do work you love, work your butt off, and are generous with your time and knowledge, that good things will follow.

    • Congratulations Christina. It sounds like you are on a roll!
      I love hearing about writers who get successful breaks in the food industry – it gives the whe discussion a positive & inspirational spin.
      Keep up the good work and I look forward to following your writing.

  7. foodbridge

    The market is saturated with food writers and there is no need for more. Many readers are not looking for elegant prose but recipes, advice and community, what blogs offer for free. I’ve gone back to work and blog as a hobby. Landing a writing gig now is as easy as becoming an A list actor, possible, but not very likely.

  8. Ed

    Funny I’m speaking to a postgraduate class on this very topic today and made the same points at the recent Walkleys freelance convention. The point isn’t that there is no future to food writing but ut’s unlikely many people can make a full time living out of it, even seasoned hands with weekly review columns.
    I’ve always combined it with better paid financial journalism and nowadays with consultancy.
    Oh and if anyone wants tostart up that small slaughterhouse thereis huge demand even here.

    • And maybe we shouldn’t wish to make a living out of something we love, in case we come to dislike it!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It doesn’t sound like this is particularly new problem. A case of a shrinking market over many years, perhaps.

  9. Thank you for this article! I read Amandas article a few weeks ago and although I found it interesting and honest, it too made my heart sink a little. I am not sure where this blog will take me and I certainly don’t expect to make a living out of it. But there is more I can do- I have developed a love for writing, maybe I might take a few classes to improve on that :)

  10. Rachel, this is a relief to read. I also read Amanda Hesser’s article and considered putting my head in the oven. But her advice to go live on a farm or become a fisherwoman isn’t really practically for me. Instead, I’ve been thinking about opening an in-home restaurant. It would be a way to cook, to bring people together and would give me something unique to write about… all without having to leave home or give up my day job. Let’s see what happens….

  11. Great post Rachel. There’s hope for us all.

  12. Really loved this piece – lots to think about :)
    Thanks x

    • It’s an interesting topic, isn’t it?
      And a fellow journalist that i was talking to last night raised the point about there being a difference between food writing and food journalism, which further fuels the debate.

      • Which would you rather do, Rachel? Writing or journalism? Just as a side issue, I have to say there wasn’t such a thing as blogging when I started writing. And I am staggered by the sheer number of blogs worldwide!

  13. I’d probably have to say journalism, Lizzy. Once a journo, also a journo. But i love the freedom of being able to write what i want, when i want … and for being able to write about something as simple as a thought.

    • Writing is amazing in that sense, isn’t it, Rachel. You know, there are some people who cannot string words together… I worked with someone like that once. However, she could sew and knit beautifully, and I am hopeless at that! But I would much rather write!

      • I used to do a lot a creative writing when I was younger, but don’t seem to find the time for it these days. Wish I did. I remember days of being lost in words!

  14. Such a thoughtful article Rachel and one that has probably crossed many bloggers’ minds when they’ve wondered whether they could leave their jobs and make their writing passion a full time existence. Personally I can’t fathom how I could possibly take that leap and simulatenously avoid going back to a student lifestyle. Like you said, we have financial committments to uphold. The way I make it work is to keep my full time professional job which supports the lifestyle I want and dabble in blogging and writing on the side. That way I can continue to yearn for writer’s lifestyle, but not take it up full time and end up hating it because I can’t actually afford to eat what I want to write about.

  15. Very thoughtful post, Rachel but it sounds you’re already on the right path – already writing food features – even if not full time. Just hang in there and don’t despair.

  16. Hi Rachel, you may wonder why I’m so late to the party with this one, but I’ve just finished the Grad Certif in Food Writing course at Adelaide Uni and was looking for articles about food writing to give me ideas about what/where/how do I go from here. We also read the Amanda Hesser article (very discouraging) in the course. I have no expectation of making anything like a full time career out of food writing, am quite happy to go on with my blog (Epicurean Epistles) and try and place a few articles here and there if I’m lucky enough to strike the right place at the right time! Thanks for your article – it makes a lot of sense.

    • Thanks Anne – glad you liked it. I remember finding Amanda Hesser’s article very discouraging, too. You’ve just got to remember why you write … we all have different reasons and motivations.

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