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.