What I Learned about Food Writing at IACP

Jun 142011

Around My French Table won this year's IACP award for Best Cookbook of 2011.

Now that you’ve read about my social life at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Austin, you should know that I learned something too. Here are highlights from some of the sessions I attended:

1. Writing. At a session on The Craft of Food Writing featuring speakers Antonia Allegra, head of The Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier; The Washington Post‘s Food Editor Joe Yonan; and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, Allegra handed out a list of the job titles for food writers, including

  • culinary anthropologist
  • culinary historian
  • food scientist
  • food market economy writer
  • indexer
  • industry researcher
  • public relations writer
  • television script writer, and
  • video food writer.

Yonan said he runs 52 freelance pieces a year, and gets pitched 30 queries a day. When it comes to first person narrative, pitches that focuses on how food tastes makes him crazy. “Get me out of the inside of your mouth,” he implored. “Write about how food has turned you into what you’ve become. Food writing often involves memory and nostalgia, and food that means something to you, in crucial times in your life.”

He recommended the book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing to sharpen writing skills. “More than anything, your goal is clarity.”

Greenspan spoke about recipes as “what we do to pass along tradition, keep customs alive, transmit what we discover, and preserve culinary information.” She said our one responsibility to readers is to be accurate, “no matter how boring that might be.” In the headnote, she tells about taste, texture, and perhaps a technique. She teaches about an ingredient or a custom. She likes to tell a story. “Place a recipe in a culture, tradition, country, or ritual. Associate it with a person or an experience.

Finally, Greenspan said, the best thing we can do is “encourage the cook to make (the recipe) part of his or her own story, to understand how to adapt it, and how they can then own the food. Recipes can be a glimpse into a place they dream of going.”

Only 20 % of content came from the blog.

2. Blog-to-Book. In an “Experts are In” session with blogger Hank Shaw and Greenspan, Shaw, a former news reporter, spoke of a “relentless level of professionalism” on his blog. “The only successful blogs are when you open a vein,” he said. “People want to read you.” For his new book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, 80 percent of the material is original.

As to when they post, “I always post on either Sunday or Monday,” says Hank. “Most people read blogs at work, they want something fresh when they get in.” Never blog on Saturdays, he advises. And overall, he says it’s better to write less often than more often and badly. Greenspan, on the other hand, posts when inspiration strikes her, often triggered by a photograph. She referred to her blog as a monster. “It’s like having a dragon in your house that’s always hungry.”

The authors saw a trend coming and jumped on it, with sales of 1.2 million copies.

3. Cookbooks. Who says the cookbook is dead? Rux Martin, senior executive editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said in a session called “The Ever-Expanding Cookbook” that, despite rumors to the contrary, the printed cookbook is alive and well. She had her best year ever in 2010. One of the books she edited, Hello Cupcake!, sold 1.2 million copies. What’s New Cupcake! has sold 600,000…so far.

  49 Responses to “What I Learned about Food Writing at IACP”

  1. I like the “get me out of the inside of your mouth” quote. Taste is subjective, but experience and impact can be shared.

    • Isn’t that great? I LOVED that quote. So many writers think it’s only about describing how food tastes.

      • That quote is my favorite line in this post. I find the best food writing or what I am drawn to and come back to are people who tell stories and capture the big picture, not going on about a certain taste. Nate, I totally agree that taste is subjective and the experience is the string that ties us together.

  2. Some great tips here, thanks Dianne. Dorie’s mention of placing the recipe in a culture, tradition or ritual particularly resonates for me. It was just that quality in Claudia Roden’s work that hooked me on her writing and, subsequently, Middle Eastern food.

    • Claudia Roden is one of my favorite authors. I think Dorie Greenspan is becoming another.

  3. Great article and fab. real quotes too. I like Dorie Greenspan.
    She is a sharp shooter.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • You’re welcome Mona. It’s hard to sum everything up in one blog post — I could go on and on. But then, if I did no one would read it!

  4. Interesting about when to blog. My blogs tend to be quite in depth about food in Provence and they take quite a long time to write, so I blog less often, but sometimes I feel that people don’t even want to read, just look at photos, I suppose the thing is to try and do some lighter posts mixed in between the more lengthy ones.

    • Yes, that is a good strategy and a great way to avoid reader fatigue. My theory is that you have to mix it up, just as you need to moderate your sentences to keep them from all being the same length.

  5. Dianne, I love reading all your posts, social or substantive! This was once again, informative and useful. I especially liked Dorie’s comment about the dragon in the house. Have a hard time posting regularly, but also agree with Hank Shaw: I want it to be good (or at least decent) and I post about 99% original content, so it takes longer, as do the photos.

    I wanted to go to IACP but missed it this year….so I hope to meet you along the way, maybe NYC next year. Thanks again for this blog, I am an avid fan!

    • Thank you so much, Sally. I could relate to Dorie’s comment too. A good blog post takes a long time, whether you’re just ruminating on what to say, or writing it. Hank says he thinks about it for 4-5 days, then writes his post in about 90 minutes.

      • That’s so good to hear, since I usually have to ponder for about a week before figuring out an angle. When I finally get to writing it, sometimes it holds surprises! On the other hand, sometimes it’s a quick and dirty recipe. It’s always so helpful (and often reassuring) to discover others’ processes. Many thanks.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I am very happy to hear that cookbooks are alive and doing well.

    • Yes me too. I can’t stand the idea that print cookbooks will one day go away, replaced by electronic devices.

  7. One of the things I loved about the Craft of Writing session (and there was so much to love about that excellent session) is that Dorie talked about recipe writing as part of the craft of writing. I loved that! I have never been in a writing session where recipe writing has been given time and space and position among the other parts of food writing. It made me love Dorie even more!

    • She was all over that conference — in two sessions and an “Experts are In” panel, not to mention her own food trailer across the street. How could anyone not adore her?

      I often want to talk about recipes at conferences, and worry that people will be bored. I can learn from Dorie.

      • I was at that Craft of Writing session and also really enjoyed the bits about recipe writing. In fact, we were able to talk about it at length when Dorie went around the room with the other speakers at the individual tables. How awesome was that??! She had some insight for me as did Toni Allegra on ethnic foods recipe writing. Thanks for this post and thanks for including 3 of the sessions you went to.

        • Hi Shef! I liked how each speaker went around to the tables so you got some individual time with them. In a big room, doing so made the teaching feel more personal.

      • I was thrilled to meet Dorie and hear hear teach at the conference. She is as wise as she is adorable. After her section on recipe writing, I talked with her at the break and showed her an unreadable scrap of paper with crazy notes, in black smeared pen. It was my note from a recipe I developed for a post I wanted to write on the plane to Austin. She just smiled, because she understood! I’m so glad her book won book of the year. It is marvelous. And I was one of many who voted for it! She is amazing.

        • I saw that note! I loved how it was all smeared and hard to read. But you knew what it meant.

  8. Thank you for sharing this! I’m currently reading your book Will Write For Food and your advice is helping me immensely. I’ve been a professional writer for (sigh) two decades, but I’m writing my first cookbook now, and I’m realizing I have a lot to learn. I love it, but man! it is humbling. And exciting. And terrifying. And fun.

    Love your blog. LOVING your book so much. Thanks for sitting on my shoulder and helping me get better.

    • Oh this is too much Melissa. Thank you for the kind words. All the adjectives you listed apply to my feelings about writing too.

  9. So much food for thought in this post Dianne. So much.

    • Thanks Winnie. There was a lot more to report on, but as you know, blog posts can go on too long.

  10. These sound like great sessions. Thanks for sharing. I especially always appreciate the resource suggestions. I will have to check the book out and as suggested, try writing with it. Thanks again!

    • You’re welcome, Kelly. I had not heard of that book either before Joe mentioned it. I’ll have to check it out too.

  11. Very informative and helpful post.
    Joe’s quote is dead on.
    One job description is missing from Allegra’s list: recipe developer.
    Coming from a writing background, I never realized how much I would need to rely on my ability to adapt favorites or devise new recipes Of course not every food writer includes original recipes in his or her work, but for many of us it is required.

    I know early on in my blogging I decided to focus on original recipes. which has shaped much of what I do.

    • Her list was much longer and included recipe developers — I just listed the ones that were more unusual.

      Most food writing is still about writing recipes, so you are smart to focus on that as a freelancer and blogger. There are lots of recipe writers, however, who are not writers. They get hired by corporations and by big upcoming cookbook authors who are not cooks.

  12. Dianne,

    This post is jam packed with valuable information. I can’t thank you enough for sharing. I especially relate to Hank Shaw’s quote, “The only successful blogs are when you open a vein. People want to read you.” I consider myself an author who writes about food more than a food writer. My posts contain stories about food memories and food impressions. It seems that people like me to make them cry. My posts that tug at heartstrings always get the most comments and are shared the most.

    • Wow, Jackie. That hit me in the gut: It seems that people like me to make them cry.” What a legacy. But yes, it’s considered successful if you can get people’s emotions to rise.

  13. Great notes Dianne. That first session was really fantastic. One of my notes from Joe Yonan is this – he shared that today food writing is more valued. Our most powerful writing comes from what we have strong feelings about, what we know best, who we’ve met, our family, our background, our memories. Marry our interest with our journalistic intentions. Food as an experience and about the people around the food, sometimes us, sometimes those people we are with. Evocative of an experience, not just an object. Food that means something to us, food that changes us, food that meets a need in our life. What great advice for writing about food!

    In the round table sessions I was with ad networks, so I really appreciate the comment from Hank Shaw, that people want to read us. I struggle with that one. Really? Me?

    Your point 3…we planned to be there and are sorry we missed it. We were out with friends until an hour I am way too old for!

    • Oh yes, lots of good partying at IACP. I was so happy to meet you and Kent, finally, and spend time with you.

      Food writing is more valued today, I agree. In the last 10 years, food writing has moved from the food section to the front page, if it’s about politics, policy, or trends. If you read my earlier post from IACP, it may also be because at the top, the writers are men.

      • Of course I read your post ! I read them all, several times :) The all “men at the top” is bothersome. I guess both good, if it elevates food writing, and not so good, if it’s not balanced with the voices of talented female writers or if they are overlooked or not taken seriously because they are women.

        • You are funny, Sally! Female writers do well in cookbooks, but in newspapers and magazines, it’s men, men, men at the top.

          • First time visitor to your blog, and boy, did I learn a lot from this one post! Really enjoyed it. I’ve always read cooking magazines and cookbooks like novels, so yes, it’s the stories and customs and culture that I crave for. They inspire me to try the local flavor when I travel.

            As for men at the top – when I was a kid, I’ve always wondered why women cooks at home, and men cook at restaurants.

          • Welcome! I hope you’ll come back and read more.

            As for your comment about men, in the case of journalism, women are out there competing with men. They just don’t get the same assignments.

  14. I’ll have to look into culinary historian, which probably has about as many openings as “famous food blogger.”
    But so fun.
    I’ve been reading MFK fisher all afternoon and who doesn’t love some culinary history?

    • You can get on a free listserv of culinary historians and academics if you’re curious. What a glorious pleasure to read MFK in the afternoon. I envy you.

      • I must confess…I have never read MKF and want to. I’ve looked at the book list and do not know where to start. Will someone please suggest? Would be good to take on vacation in a few weeks. Thanks.

        • Start with The Gastronomical Me, a memoir. The foreword in it is one of her most-quoted pieces of writing, very moving and beautiful.

  15. Thanks for the notes. I’ve also been watching a few of the sessions again at home. Love the #IACP Virtual Conference Pass. It’s amazing what I missed the first time! http://iacp.wmbly.com/

  16. I am seriously relieved to know that someone that people listen to (meaning- not me!) expressed my very strong sentiments about food writers telling me how food will feel and taste in my mouth. It makes my skin seriously crawl to hear food writers say things like “…party in your mouth” or “the taste will explode in your mouth” but worse than that are the ones that go something like this: “this (whatever) will flow across your tongue like…” I just lost my appetite for the next week cause people’s tongues are not tasty, mine included. Whew. Now I just have to hope that all the food writers that were there with you really did listen.

    • That’s a lovely idea but I don’t think so, Angelina. Teachers (and parents and therapists) have to keep repeating their messages over and over. That’s how it works!

  17. I will have to look into the culinary anthropologist field. I never new such a thing existed. This is probably why I love Bizzare Foods w/Andrew Zimmern and No Reservations w/Anthony Bourdain. They both present the history and cultural aspects of food that brings a sense of global community with seeing varied traditions of cooking and ingredients.

    Thank you for sharing your experience at the conference and knowledge on this site and in the book. It’s greatly appreciated.

    • My pleasure, LaToya. Lots of anthropology professors study food too, in addition to TV celebrities. I love No Reservations too.

  18. I so enjoy coming to read you. And love the way Dorie speaks to us with her anecdotes as well as her recipes; wish I could write like that.

    • Oh thank you, Rita. Dorie has honed her writing skills over the years of writing, writing, writing. That’s what it takes. I wish I could write like that too!

  19. I wasn’t able to attend the IACP but have listened to some of the conference via Livestream and have learned a tremendous amount. Between blogging and writing my first cookbook it gave me some great ideas and insight. Now to purchase your book to help me with the guts of my book.

    Thanks to my linkedin group they mentioned your website after I just ordered your book. It will be nice to have you at my fingertips now.

    Thanks ahead of time,


    • Well, whatever your Linked In group is, please thank them on my behalf, Vicki. I thought the Livestream was a great alternative to attending the conference. I’m glad you got something out of it.

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