Who is the Best Food Writer Today?

Oct 202009
 

images-1While looking through my book, Will Write for Food, over the weekend, I was struck by the writers I quoted just a few years ago, all newspaper and magazine writers and cookbook authors. Certainly they were the big names in print food writing.

But that was then and this is now. So now I’m going around asking: “Who is the ultimate food writer today?”

On a cemetery walk with blogger and cookbook author Romney Steele, we decided it’s not a simple answer, depending on how you define success and food writing. Later she named cookbook authors Jane and Michael Stern, John T. Edge, and Deborah Madison; then  bestselling author Michael Pollan and Tom Philpott for food politics and science. Are these last two truly food writers?

What about from a commercial perspective? The only cookbooks I’ve seen on bestseller lists lately are Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (sorry, she’s dead) and  Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. I’m disqualifying cookbooks by celebrities and celebrity chefs who would not call themselves food writers, like Rachel Ray and Paula Deen, and Hungry Girl author Lisa Lillien. Does this mean Julie Powell is America’s most successful food writer?

Yesterday, over herbal chai tea with blogger Tara Weaver, I posed the question. Commercially speaking, she offered New York Times writer Mark Bittman as a candidate, a newspaperman who has also mastered the cookbook bestseller lists and blogging.

But she’d rather look at success through the writing. This is where the conversation turned to bloggers, to her friends at Orangette and Gluten-Free Girl, beautiful writers like herself. Tara says she does most of her reading online today, not in books. Are bloggers the best food writers?

I’m still thinking about the answer. I’m interested in knowing what you think. Who gets your vote, and why?

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  44 Responses to “Who is the Best Food Writer Today?”

  1. My top two are Ruth Reichl and Molly Wizenberg. Their words and recipes are smooth like butter and go down just as easy.

  2. How do you define good food writing? Is the emphasis on the food or the writing? Does the best food writer develop the best recipes or write the prettiest prose? If you think about it, M.F.K. Fisher was probably the best food blogger before food blogging existed. I don’t know about the best, but good food writers engage me with their crisp writing and intrepid–yet knowledgeable–exploration of food.

  3. David Lebovitz (Yes, gasp—a blogger!) I laugh out loud with every post. When I was a young suburban girl, I would read Herb Caen in the SF Chronicle. He was hilarious and made me feel like I was part of San Francisco’s “in crowd.” David Lebovitz does the same thing for me with Paris. I feel like I’m part of the Paris food scene when I read each post.

  4. I don’t know about commercial success, but I would not hesitate to nominate the husband/wife pair Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, authors of a number of travel-centered cookbooks, as well as Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, as the best, currently writing food writers. Their books are anecdotal without bloviating, and their recipes are generally thought-provoking and reliable.

  5. This is an intricate question, I think with not a real answer. To say that Julie Powell is a great food writer is far different than saying she’s merely a successful one. Honestly, this has got to be subjective just like “who is the greatest mystery novelist today?” is subjective. I’m sure if you try to quantify it by scoring writers in different categories then you could come up with the “best” writer based on that criteria but then something, a certain je ne sais quoi, might be missing from their otherwise superb writing that turns others off. Or vice-versa. People seem to swoon over Nigella’s writing while it gives me a headache despite its merits. This seems to be along the lines of picking the best dish… a matter of taste in my humble opinion. But a really interesting question…

  6. I love Sam Sifton reviews for the NYT.

  7. Having just finished Molly Wizenburg’s book for the second time, I can say she’s certainly up there on the list. I also like Tara, and while I can’t wait for her book, I too do most of my reading online.

    From the “favorites” category of my Reader: I always look forward to Kari’s posts on Anticiplate. Luisa Weiss of The Wednesday Chef and Tara from Seven Spoons have some of the most thoughtful blogs out there, and Carol Blymire always cracks me up. Rochelle Bilow’s blog is like reading a diary, and I wish more people knew about her.

    • Thanks for your comments. So for most of you, it’s about the quality of the writing itself, and the food is secondary. You love the stories, the laughs, the thought-provoking prose.

      Shelly asks a good question: Is it about the quality of the recipe or the quality of the prose? Hey, why not both? And to you and Aleta, MFK is brilliant but I’m looking for people writing today.

      Drinksnob, I had to look up “bloviating.” It means “to speak pompously and excessively.” I love that! I’m going to work it into my writing somewhere.

      It would be easy, as you say, Marzipan, to have categories: best cookbook writer, best blogger, best restaurant reviewer. I was hoping for a gut response. Like me, you are having trouble naming just one person.

      Interesting that some of you named Ruth Reichl. I thought of her as a choice also. Her last book was not about food, though, and lately she has been better known as an editor.

      • To be honest, I find the concept of “best food writer” difficult. There are great talents in every artistic field, and every society has its artistic giants that loom in the minds of those who try to create. I think it would be easier to name writers one likes a lot, rather than “the best.” Each writer is different, and communicates in a different way. I like David Lebovitz’s writing and I like Luisa Weiss’ writing, Which is the “best?” I don’t know, they’re each doing the same thing (ostensibly) but in a very different way.

  8. Hi Dianne,
    It’s like asking what is the best restaurant in xx city? I think the question should be who are the top 10 food writers today? Or maybe the question should be divided into categories: blogs, newspapers, cookbooks, memoirs, etc. There are so many of them, and here are some who inspire me constantly: Amanda Hesser, Melissa Clark, Jane & Michael Stern, David Leite, Alan Richman, David Lebovitz (cracks me laughing), Dorie Greenspan (is my favorite recipe writer), Luisa Weiss has a beautiful blog, Michael Rhulman, this list is long… so many talented people! Cheers to them! And to you! Your book Will Write For Food was a great companion while writing my first cookbook.

  9. Michael Pollan is certainly a food writer, and also one of the best, as is Mark Bittman. Publishing a cook book is only one element of many to consider: there are terrific writers (R. W. Apple, for example) who never wrote a cook book, and cook book authors who do not write about food (or, at least, not very well), just recipes.

    It all comes down to whether or not the writer is a good writer, first and foremost. Then all that matters is whether they write about food in any capacity at all – eating, cooking, buying, producing, selling, marketing – well, you get the picture. So I suggest David Karp, Dan O’Brien, and Ari Weinzweig.

  10. Having a taste for humor, I would nominate A.A. Gill of the London Times; however, too little of his restaurant reviews concern the restaurants being reviewed. Alex Witchel, who writes on much else besides food for the New York Times, is just wonderful (…the chicken that was raised on a farm near Petaluma where it not only roamed free but read Aeschylus in the original Greek…”).

  11. I think Ruth Riechl is a contender. She’s a beautiful writer who sees food as a metaphor for life. Few bloggers, even the most popular, are writers with the depth of MFK Fisher. Many are amusing but few are memorable writers.

  12. Jonathan Gold

  13. Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly.

  14. I hope you are planning to do a recap of everyone’s answers, and I see a new blog post on what makes a writer is..

    Fascinated by everyone’s answers, some seemingly the obvious choices-or at least whom I’d vote for, and some, I’m like “who are they? Never heard of them.” R.W. Apple of course is gone as some of the other great, prosaic writers-MFK Fisher, for example. Do we have people like them in our midst? Ruth Reichl rings the bell there..

    Are writers having to be more expansive, more of multi-taskers at this point? Blogger, cook, writer, kitchen sweeper? Leticia’s list is a familiar one and I can agree they are all great writers, but she says, the “list is long”, but pray tell, I’m so curious. I’m a big fan of the British writers-yes–and I do think we can argue that Michael Pollan IS a food writer or NO he’s not. None-the-less, if food writing is moving in a new direction, then I’d say he is certainly in the mix. I think Ruth Reichl opened those doors in Gourmet, but she also got a lot of finger waving for that move too.

    It’s funny, I don’t think of bloggers so much as being food writers; not sure why or maybe it’s just that I haven’t thought about it too deeply-certainly David L is a great writer, funny, et all and he both blogs and writes cookbooks and is super popular.

    Lots of questions, here Dianne-more food for thought as they say.

    • It’s interesting that you don’t think of bloggers so much as being food writers. I started my food blog specifically to provide myself a framework in which I could write about food. I’ve been writing since the age of six, studied English literature in college and earn my living as a technical writer. (Hmm… is there a theme here? :)) Blogging gave me a way to write and publish directly to anyone who happens along my URL. I do feel that the immediacy of blogging can affect food writing published on blogs. Blog posts might be more prone to typos, they might be less organized or run on too long. All that is the result of a platform that enables immediate publishing and no editing. (Incidentally, I’ve seen plenty of food articles in newspapers with typos, sloppy grammar, cliched writing.) On the other hand, I think that a good writer can push the limits of any medium. That’s one reason I post so infrequently on my blog… it takes me hours to write, rewrite, edit and proof each post. Other bloggers may choose to do just a little light proofing instead and post more frequently. That doesn’t mean their writing is any worse, only that they have, y’know, a life, and a paying job, and maybe kids, and a kitchen to clean. I sometimes wish I could be a little less uptight about my own posts and update my blog more frequently too.

      My point is that yes, absolutely food bloggers are food writers. I’ve read some excellent food pieces on blogs, and some really atrocious food writing in magazines. The only difference is distribution, old media versus new media. I think limiting one’s experience of food writing to the most commercially successful, widely published writers is unfortunate.

      • Megan – Why yes, excellent observation, we have chosen all white women, haven’t we? And men, for that matter. I’ll bet that everyone on the list below is white, except for Madhur Jaffrey. There are a representative number of Jews. Otherwise, WASP World! What does that say about us? What does that say about publishing?

        I appreciate your vote for Edna Lewis, but I’m looking for living food writers, so I can’t count her.

        Shelly, I do think food bloggers are food writers. I hope I haven’t said anywhere that I do not. I know what you mean about time consuming. But that’s what writing is all about. It takes a long time to get it right. And with blogs, there’s all the visual elements to master as well. It can certainly be overwhelming.

  15. I’m going to say John T. Edge. I also enjoy reading Michael Ruhlman.

  16. Interesting query. I have two absolute favorites, one who has been mentioned, Ruth Reichl and one who has not. I absolutely love reading anything by Madhur Jaffrey, like Reichl, she has a knack for remembering in her writing that food is a sensual experience. I can see, feel, smell and taste the food they are both writing about. They are able to convey an atmosphere in their writings so it feels like I’m sitting with them as they weave their essays.

  17. The purpose of buy zithromax this website is to.

    well I just spent a bunch of time I should be unpacking and a million other things, reading Carol Blymire and Rochelle Bilow recommended here.
    Wonderful!
    I’ll come back for more bites soon.
    My non-blogging favs are Laurie Colwin, MFK, the food guy at vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten and Alex Witchel.
    It’s the writing and the passion that’s the draw. The subject..an afterthought

  18. This is fun! My favorite food writing weaves in strong threads of memoir and humor, so Ruth Reichl, Molly Wizenberg and David Lebovitz are some of my favorites among those already mentioned.

    I’d like to throw Francis Lam into the mix as well. His articles often haunt me for weeks.

  19. I have to give a nod to Nigel Slater. You sense his love of food and appreciation of the wonder in the mundane.

    • Whoa. I had to start a list to keep up. So far Reichl and Lebovitz lead. I hope this doesn’t look like a popularity contest. Most of the comments have been well reasoned and thought out. Re Reichl and Lebovitz, I adore them. Sometimes I get mad at myself for liking such mass market commercial successes, because I think I should love writers who are more obscure. Well, like Nani, I haven’t heard of some of the writers mentioned below, or barely know them, so I’ve got lots of fun research ahead.

      Shelly, I agree that each writer is different. I guess it’s what’s within us that makes us love them. Julie is attracted to sensuous writing, Parisbreakfasts to the craftsmanship and the passion, Carolyn to personal insights and humor. Is one attraction better or more valid than another? No.

      Nani, you don’t think of bloggers as great writers. Many people share this thought. But somehow, a blogger is topping my small list. Re new directions, yes, there’s more writing than ever before about food and politics, environment, farmers, science, history, etc. We are a nation obsessed with food in all arenas. And you ask if writers have to do it all — book, blog, freelance, etc. I’d say only if they want to, and if they love it and it’s working for them.

      • Nani didn’t say she doesn’t “think of bloggers as great writers,” (as you noted above) she said she doesn’t think of “bloggers so much as being food writers.” There is a very big difference between those two statements…

        Personally, I dislike all questions of “who is the best ___?” as it’s not really possible to answer them. Best implies that it’s something only one person can be. That one person is better than all the rest, which I really don’t believe is the case. There is no such thing as a perfect writer. If that were the case, then writing prizes would not be given out consistently every single year. They would be awarded once and not again until that person that received the award died.

        I do believe that there are talented writers and good writers and successful ones or favorite ones, but I honestly think that when trying to judge what stands out above others, the emphasis should be on the work, not the writer. The “best” writers are also perfectly capable of writing pieces that are not very good (or of never writing anything ever again), but a good piece of writing will never be anything less.

  20. Reading through everyone’s comments it seems like we all know what makes a good food writer, regardless of content (memoir, cookbook, etc) and medium (print or blog). It’s the ability to engage the reader and transport us into their world with a masterful use of words, whether to learn or discuss an issue (as Michael Pollan does) or to explore a new culture (like Madhur Jaffrey and David Lebovitz) or a particular period in time (Ruth Reichl’s memoirs). I think the principles of good writing apply regardless of categories although it is tempting to get caught up in them.

    My list of favorite writers seems to grow every so often but the regulars: Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz, Sam Sifton and Francis Lam.

  21. Funny nobody has mentioned Anthony Bourdain. I realize you are all discussing serious writers, but Tony is hands-down among the best food writers out there…he just has a different angle of approach, and I respect that.

  22. Jonathan Gold
    For Pete’s sake. And for all our sakes. Brilliant. Insightful. Hilarious. Thought-provoking. I could go on. Have you read his work? If not, you should. We should stop here if I can only vote for one master of words.

    Francis Lam
    For his unexpected and soul-moving way of seeing and articulating his experience with food and all things related.

    Michael Pollan
    For what should be obvious reasons.

    Tom Philpott
    For his sharp insights, good intentions, relentless reporting and sometimes brash assertions about sustainable and upstanding topics. He’s also a farmer and a cook and his approach to things green picks up where Gourmet left off. This is perhaps a premature mention, but consider it a vote of confidence. See what I mean @ http://www.grist.org/member/1554

    Judy Rodgers
    For her lyrical, eloquent way with words and ingredients, found only—to my knowledge—in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Perhaps that disqualifies her.

    • Katie, yes you’re right, Bourdain has no votes. Maybe because he has not come out with a book lately. People think of him more as a TV celeb in the last few years?

      Alejandra, yes, good clarification about Nani. It is troubling to ask who is the best, and you make some good points. Of course, it is about the best writing, not the best person. The best writing is awarded every year by several organizations: the Association for Food Journalists, the James Beard awards, the International Association of Culinary Professionals cookbook awards, and the Bert Greene Award for Food Journalism.

      Renee, great choices. I don’t think Philpott is a premature mention at all. I am a big fan. And no, Judy Rogers is not disqualified for only having written for publication once.

  23. Diane-In thinking about your question, I couldn’t help but think about the post you did a while back on food memoirs and white women. As I was racking my brain about my favorite food writers today, most were white women: Molly Wizenburg’s at the top along with Amanda Hesser, Ruth Reichel, bloggers like Deb Perelman (Smitten Kitten) and others. However, I do also love Edna Lewis. She’s rad and Southern. I think you’re smart to identify the undeniable change that’s happening in online media. It’s exciting and uncertain all at the same time. Thought-provoking post, as usual.

  24. I’m loving this ongoing writer list-
    I just discovered A.A. Gill of the London Times, thanks very much and rediscovered Molly W.
    I meant Amanda Hesser above..
    Keep em coming please.
    This is better than snacking on chocolate.

  25. My husband, an editor at Wired magazine, contributed an essay to Grant Achatz’s dazzling cookbook Alinea (Ten Speed Press, 2008). Alinea is also the name of Achatz’s Chicago restaurant, where he’s a master and forerunner of molecular gastronomy.

    My husband had written about the chef before, and was thrilled to be asked to contribute to the cookbook. When he found out who else would be writing essays, he was bowled over: Jeffrey Steingarten and Michael Ruhlman. Nice company to keep for one’s debut into the cookbook realm!

    So to answer the question you’ve posed, I’d say my hubbie, Mark McClusky, is the best food writer out there. Though I’m a bit biased.

  26. I guess as you are an American the names you cite are mostly American. I would cite Claudia Roden and Nigel Slater as a great food writers.
    Is a food writer somebody that does recipes? Or someone who writes about food more generally?
    I read blogs, but I get bored of just recipes. I get bored also of hearing how perfectly all their food turns out.
    In my food blogging, I attempt to interject humour and vulnerability, ups and down, mistakes as well successes.
    But I still need books…

    • Yes, this is a provincial crowd, I’m afraid. But I’m so happy to hear from a Brit, and I love your blog, and Roden and Slater are excellent choices.

      Yes, food writing is much more than recipe writing, although a good recipe is a thing of beauty.

  27. Thanks Dianne and it’s nice to see your blog cover wider subjects…
    I’m writing out recipes at the moment myself, I’ve been rather slack on that subject and it’s very enjoyable, but I must get the measurements right…cups or grams or ounces?

    • This is another topic, but…

      I I like to include ounces in the ingredients list sometimes (ex. a 12-ounce can) in addition to cups. Re grams, now that people from all over the world can read our blogs, we need both systems. But must we do the conversions by hand, or is there a piece of software for that? And does it get messy to include? Maybe this needs a separate blog post.

  28. Just wondering if you have seen this cookbook
    The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl and if you have what do you think about it?
    I have heard so many wonderful things about the cookbook but I live in the same area that Pioneer Woman is from. I have read her blog for a long time and made several of her recipes and I’ve loved them all! Let me know what you think about Pioneer Woman.

  29. Hi, I applaud your blog for informing people, very interesting article, keep up it coming :)

  30. Jonathan Gold, of course.

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