Reichl Says She's Not A Food Writer

Dec 202009
 

ruthreichl-798678I had the privilege of interviewing Ruth Reichl  recently. She’s been a restaurant reviewer, memoirist, a cookbook writer, recipe developer and former editor of Gourmet. One thing she has never been, she says, is a food writer.

When I asked her to define food writing, I got this response:

“I find food writer a pejorative term. I’m a writer. I don’t only write about food. It’s like saying woman artist. You’re either an artist or you’re not. I would  hope that anybody who writes about food is a good writer, and that’s the important part.

“One of the real problems with food writing is there are so many people who aren’t writers, they think the topic is so interesting in itself it doesn’t matter if you’re not a great writer.

“I have never wanted anyone to call me a food writer. I have taken food as my subject as a long time but hopefully I can write about other things as well.”

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling yourself a food writer, just as there are business writers and science writers. It’s about expertise. 

What do you think? Is “food writer” a pejorative term?

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  34 Responses to “Reichl Says She's Not A Food Writer”

  1. As I’ve mentioned in my tweet, I don’t think “food writer” is pejorative, rather it sounds limiting.

  2. Reichl makes an interesting point. I’m not sure whether she’s being literal, or a bit controversial in the interest of stating a particular case. I do feel sort of boxed in when thinking of the term “food writer.” Is Neal Stephenson a science fiction writer? A fiction writer? A cyberpunk writer? A historical fiction writer? Or maybe he’s a writer who writes about different topics under different circumstances. I think the latter is more freeing.

  3. What a lousy answer! People can specialize in all kinds of things, and just because you specialize in something does not mean you are not good at the category in general.

    For example, photographers who specialize in nature photography will call themselves Nature Photographers. While nothing about the label indicates they are not a good photographer, perhaps they are lousy at taking portrait shots of babies. That does not mean they are still not great photographers. The label simply indicates that they specialize in what they do best (or like the most).

    A food writer may be great at writing about food, but may not be a good fiction writer, for example. That does not make him or her a bad writer. And to think that labeling someone by what they specialize in in some way demeans or lessens their credibility in general is just plain silly, and some perverse logic at best.

    Likewise, just because one is a “food writer” does not in any way mean they can’t be good at writing about anything else. Where does that logic come from?

    I am not sure why it bothers her, but it seems odd that the (past) editor of a food magazine would not understand what “Food Writer” means, and somehow think just by calling them (or her) such a thing all of a sudden indicated they are sub-standard writers. What?

    I suspect she was exposed to a lot of bad writers in her past job, who, at the time, called themselves “food writers” so she carries that bad association with her that “food writers” are bad writers in general. Again, just bad logic.

    She was a food writer! If she can write other things, good for her. But that did not make her any less of a food writer.

    • Julie, yes, I guess saying you’re a food writer implies you do no other kind of writing.

      Shelly, definitely being a “writer” is more freeing. But it’s also a more general term.

      Owen, wow, this really got you going. I agree that she is a food writer. I also don’t get her point that people who are bad writers call themselves food writers, and therefore she should not.

  4. Just because you are a good writer, you are not necessarily a good food writer. I disagree with her.

  5. Heavens, no! My snobometer detects a little, well, snobbery here. To drag out (and paraphrase) a well-quoted statement from M. F. K. Fisher: when I write about food, I’m writing about everything.

    Thanks for sharing Reichl’s comments.

  6. I can certainly see her point but to me it’s about debating semantics. I think we use it as a point of clarification, to get straight to the source. Why say basketball player when we can say athlete? Why say surgeon when we can say doctor? I see nothing pejorative with the term food writer whatsoever.

    • Matt, yes, in writing, we’re supposed to be specific, hence “kitchen” not “room.” And “food writer” not “writer.”

      Tamara, I hadn’t thought of that. I recall the times she asked famous writers to write essays in Gourmet that were not about food, and I wondered what they were doing in the magazine.

      Cynthia, yes, in reverse, food writing can be connected to any topic. It’s the most general topic of all.

  7. I think she has a point but the analogy is not right. An artist specializes in one media or subject. Not everyone is a Picasso or a Michelangelo. But there are still painters and sculptors who toil away in semi-obscurity, for the love of the subject, the art, the craft. In the same way, not everyone can be a Ruth Reichl or a Dianne Jacob. But there are still writers who toil away in semi-obscurity for the love of the subject: food. We may not have all the skills of a good writer yet, but that shouldn’t belittle our expression or desire.

  8. It sounds like somebody taking a shot at the bloggers for making life difficult for her to the tune of Gourmet’s cancelation…

  9. What a grump! What’s wrong with identifying one’s expertise? If I’m pitching an editor, I’m not going to say I’m a “writer.” I’m going to identify myself as someone with expertise in the publication’s universe.

    • Good point, Howard. You’re more likely to get the assignment if you have expertise.

      Robert, yes, I bet she was thinking of bloggers when she talked about people who can’t write. I’m not sure they were responsible for Gourmet’s close, though.

      Nate, “not everyone can be a Dianne Jacob!” That made me laugh. Passion counts for a lot in writing — it can make a mediocre writer read better. And food lovers are nothing if not passionate.

  10. Another local writer, Molly Watson, said something similar recently. “I just happen to be a writer who writes about food,” or something to that effect. I’d never really thought about it before.

    I suppose for business terms it makes sense to define your niche, but when it comes to folks who aren’t part of the industry, I just say I’m a writer.

  11. I don’t think Food Writer is a pejorative term. I have always been proud to call myself a Food Writer but also hesitant since I’ve never published anything in print (web published only & I am a professionally trained Chef), and I have worried about people not considering me to be an expert in the area because of it. I do understand the point that Ruth has made and its very interesting to me as someone who is struggling right now on how to brand myself.

    I’m starting to consider myself to be more a “Lifestyle Writer” because I too write about other things besides food, although Food is my first love and main subject of choice. This brings to mind that never ending question of “Who is a Food Writer and what makes them an expert in food”. Is it the blogger, is it only the trained professionals, is it those who have been published?

  12. I see “food writer” as a pejorative term connected with Ruth’s comment that many non-writers think they can write about food. The proliferation of food writing on the internet has made a crowded space of “great writers” and “food writers”. True writers deserve their recognition.

    • Rosemary, many non-writers think they can write about anything. Why not food?

      Your comment reminds me of a post I did asking who are the best food writers of today. Guess who won? Ruth Reichl, tied with David Lebovitz.

      Heather, definitely you do not have to be a print writer to be a good writer. That is an outdated point of view.

      Stephanie, yes, to Howard’s point: maybe it’s only relevant in business to define yourself more specifically as a food writer.

  13. I agree with Ruth…why limit yourself to a title? The word food, itself is a cliche… It just sounds boring. That brings up another subject: what is a foodie? I love everything about food, but please don’t refer to me as a foodie. It’s like calling me a twirp!

  14. I don’t think it’s pejorative. It’s merely descriptive and only as limiting as you choose to make it.

    Reichl is wrong when she equates calling herself a food writer with calling herself a woman artist. Gender has nothing to do with writing, but food is a niche. Do food photographers feel limited by the adjective “food”? Isn’t it just a way of setting themselves apart by listing an expertise? Photographing food requires different knowledge and equipment than shooting sports, wildlife, landscape or portraits. Sure they is carry-over but would you hire papparazzi to take the photos for your cookbook?

    “Writer” is a very broad term and just because you do one area well does NOT mean you do them all justice. I call myself a food writer, a blogger, a playwright, an essayist and a travel writer, but I do NOT call myself a tech writer, medical writer, investigative reporter or health writer. One day I hope to add fiction writer to my list.

  15. Owen said: “Likewise, just because one is a “food writer” does not in any way mean they can’t be good at writing about anything else. Where does that logic come from?”

    I think that logic comes from a particular stereotype in western society. There is a perception that food writers are frivolous writers at best, poor lazy writers at worst. The very idea of food as a valid topic of writing and discussion is, in many circles, seen as twee, or not at all serious. Like something a bored hausfrau does in lieu of knitting tea kettle cozies.

    It wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t allowed in chefs whites. For that matter, it wasn’t that long ago that women writers, irrespective of their topic of choice, were derided as being frivolous and flighty.

    • Shelly, yes, maybe that’s what she was getting at. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      Charmian, maybe gender does have something to do with writing. See Shelly’s comment above.

  16. Wow, honestly, when I tell people I’m a writer, they look bored. When I tell them I’m a FOOD writer, they’re immediately excited, animated, and eager to learn more about my career. Simple as that. This holds doubly true for women. Sorry — but it’s true.

    Everyone can relate to food, so it tends to pique people’s interest when they have a connection to the topic of your expertise. I just don’t get the controversy.

    I have never, ever considered food writing twee, though I do like that word very much and am sorry I don’t use it more often.

  17. I see nothing wrong with the term although I do understand Ruth’s “woman artist” reference. Most people love food, so “food writer” sounds more interesting than “writer” – especially if you are explaining to someone what you do for a living (or as a hobby!)

    People are very sensitive when it comes to titles – the term “foodie” comes to mind. I loathe that term. It just sounds so obnoxious to me, but others have no problem with it!

    • Erika, I’m with you. I would hate to be called a foodie. But I don’t mind being called a food writer at all.

      Cheryl, yes “twee” has limited application, so how fun to use it! Interesting about how people are excited about your career choice. It is a good one, I must agree.

  18. My thoughts EXACTLY. Being a good writer, number one, is what really matters. Only then can you write well about food.

  19. I, too, love the word “twee,” almost as much as I HATE “pejorative.” To me, the word itself fits the definition.

    Reichl defined her priorities in her memoir, “Tender at the Bone.” She said, “I learned early that the most important thing in life is s good story.” And she tells a spellbinding one – usually about some aspect of our most common denominator: food. When we don’t know what else to do, we cook – we take food. We take it to births, and we take it to deaths. And the M.F.K. analogy was great: writing about food IS writing about everything else. Reichl has shown that, too – her memoirs are about food, family, love, lust, sex, travel, fear, triumph and failure.

    But whether she likes it or not, like M.F.K., she will go down in history as a great food writer – unless she is working on a musical I don’t know about.

    • Tracey, that’s funny! I believe she is working on yet another memoir, not a musical. Wouldn’t that be a riot!

      As I said below, when I asked about favorite food writers, readers answered Ruth. Maybe she’d feel pigeonholed to know that. But we all adore her writing, so how awful can it be?

      Amelia, yes, at least, that was the thinking in journalism, where I had to write about crime, fires, city council meetings — whatever came up, whether I knew anything about it or not.

  20. Ruth did sound a bit tetchy. I think that there is a prejudice as Shelly mentioned. And I agree that most people find food writing more interesting than say writing about medical equipment, but along with Cheryl, I think that is because we all eat. I love Ruth’s writing (and the word twee as well), but am a bit dismayed by the negativity.

  21. Food is, of all things, the most sensuous: it is one of those rare things that touches and excites each of our senses. And how talented the person who can capture and put down on paper (or a computer screen) the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound all at once, evoking memories in the reader and getting them begging for more. Being a food writer, a writer who is talented enough to write about something so special as food, inspiring desire and titillating the senses, is something to be proud of! And I agree that if one can successfully write about food then one can absolutely consider oneself an excellent writer.

    I also agree with what has been said, in any profession one specializes. This doesn’t mean that the person can’t do something in another area of the same profession, it simply means that person has specialized, has expertise, even has a particular passion for the subject. I find nothing wrong with this.

    And I know that writing about food, whether directly or indirectly, is what brings out the best in me and the best of my writing. Why would Ms. Reichl not be proud of this? Her food-related memoirs are stunning!

    • Jamie, well said. I take it she doesn’t even want to be known as a memoirist — odd because she’s written three and is, I believe, working on her fourth.

  22. Of course being a good writer is the key, but Ruth has enjoyed enough success that she might well feel it’s limiting or pejorative to be referred to as a “food writer.” However, I don’t yet have the name recognition that she does. It helps people to immediately understand that my core expertise is around food. Once I have their attention I can explain the other topics I also write about for various clients.

    In the future I hope to be recognized as a good writer, who often writes about food, or enjoys writing about culinary matters, but yes, first and foremost, a good writer.

  23. […] you passionately want to be a food writer — and you must be passionate about this crazy idea — you will find an outlet that will provide […]

  24. […] * Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet magazine who presided over the demise of that publication, wrote several well-received food-centric memoirs (Tender at the Bone, etc.).  The quote comes from an interview with Dianne Jacob. […]

  25. […] * Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet magazine who presided over the demise of that publication, wrote several well-received food-centric memoirs (Tender at the Bone, etc.).  The quote comes from an interview with Dianne Jacob. […]

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