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?

Jul 292009
 

julia1David Leite told me I should not rant on this blog. Then he emailed me a 1400-word rant about food writers who are bitter about the success of food blogger Julie Powell and the coming movie based on her book, and of course I got worked up.

Powell wrote Julie & Julia, about a year of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The upcoming movie, Julie & Julia, is based on Julie’s book and My Life in France, a memoir of Julia Child written by her nephew.

There’s a lot of sour grapes from traditional food writers about how food bloggers are being taken seriously, and hand-wringing about how Julia Child wouldn’t be taken seriously today. As the movie release date approaches this weekend,  the carping increases. David pointed me to Virginia Willis’ blog post and comments as an example.

Here’s the drift of the comments going around and my response. Thanks to David for inspiring me.

1. Julia Child could not get a cookbook published today because she doesn’t have a platform. Rubbish. Publishers still publish books from authors with small platforms. They are also still taken by excellent writing.  If Child was around today, she’d probably start a a blog to help her with her platform. Maybe she’d have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, because she was always accessible to the adoring public, including us food writers. When she died just about everyone I knew had a story about the time they met her.

images2. Julia Child wouldn’t get a TV show today because she’s an accomplished cook. I agree. That wouldn’t be the main reason she’d get the job. But she was also a supreme entertainer, and — hello! That’s what television is all about. The Food Network makes no secret of it. Maybe the fact that she was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef would come third in her list of qualities, after excellent content.

Perhaps the old guard of food writers sees themselves in this victim version of Julia Child, the skilled chef whose talents are not appreciated. But Child would never be a victim. She’d be more like Judith Jones, her editor, who started a blog to promote her new book. These seasoned food writers also dismiss a newcomer like Julie Powell, which leads me to the third comment making the rounds…

3. Julie Powell has no right to be so successful because she’s a) “not a serious (read: formally trained) cook,” b) only a blogger, and c) the Julie/Julia Project was a publicity stunt.

Let’s look at these charges individually. Regarding a), Of course she wasn’t a serious cook. She was learning how to cook by cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking for a year.

Re b), She might have only been a blogger but her idea and writing were good enough to be serialized on Salon.com and led to a 6-figure book advance. And the editor didn’t care that she was not professionally trained.

And re c),  I don’t think she ever dreamed that her idea would lead to a book and a movie. We’re a celebrity culture, she was young and attractive, she had a great idea, and once Amanda Hesser wrote about her in the New York Times in 2003, the calls from literary agents and the whole circus began.

Julia2Ironically, Mastering the Art of French Cooking will now sell all over again to younger audiences inspired by the movie. I was a little shocked to see that Knopf put Merryl Streep on the cover. Talk about art imitating life. So Julia Child can sell a book today, even if she looks like Merryl Streep. Julie Powell’s book relaunched this month as well, with a new cover showing scenes from the movie.

I’m going to watch the movie with a bunch of gal pals and enjoy myself. I’ve adored screenwriter Nora Ephron since the 1970s, when she became the first woman to have a column in Esquire magazine, then considered nirvana for serious non-fiction writers. And even though I’ve been a print writer for more than three decades, I’m not bitter. It’s a new world in publishing. I’m just trying to keep up.

P.S. If you need any more proof of the decreasing power of print journalism, here’s an account of Sony’s first-class treatment of food bloggers prior to the movie opening. So far her post has generated 90 comments, none snarky. Thanks to David Lebovitz for the tip. And here’s the Matt Bites  interview with all three stars.