Eating your words

FOOD FOR THOUGHT Meryl Streep as food writer Julia Child in Julie & Julia.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT Meryl Streep as food writer Julia Child in Julie & Julia.

I FELL into food writing when the publisher of a magazine I worked for sacked the food writer and asked me to take over.

I never knew the reason, but I learned overnight that food, and the media that goes with it, is one of the most hotly contested and controversial sectors of the media industry.

Food took the baton from home renovation about a decade ago and became the Next Big Thing.

We might think readers and audiences are interested in politics and current affairs, but I’m here to tell you such subjects attract mere crumbs compared to the millions who devour food media in some form.

It’s no mystery – food is primal, like shelter (the drive behind home renovation’s popularity).

As a result of my two-year stint on the food pages, I learned a few tips about how to keep serving up the flavour in food writing.

Purple Prose will free you to write with flare

If you stop and really digest food writing, even at its best, it’s a form of Purple Prose, because this overblown, flowery language comes into its own when applied to food. A reader cannot taste the food when it’s just words and a photo on the page, so the food writer must use heightened language to impart the flavour. It’s been achieved to great effect in the wine tasting industry for centuries, with all those: “Top notes of autumn leaves”, and: “A nosey bouquet with bursts of citrus” superlatives. Abandon all notions of literary genius and invent new ways to describe the experience of taste.

Many chefs will try to tell you they invented Apple Pie

Chefs are the food industry’s gods, with their own celebrity hierarchy. A chef’s recipes are often closely guarded secrets, but the more ambitious will expect cries of “How Original!” when they reveal their secret ingredient in pumpkin soup, or their special take on fish and chips. Truth is, celebrity chefs rip one another off all the time, because staple recipes are like the fairy tales behind all archetypal stories, in that they belong to us all. Give credit where it’s due, but expect fireworks if you leave a chef’s name off her recipe for baked potatoes.  

Now and again you’ll strike an expert who blows you away

Mine was a sales rep for one of Australia’s largest and most successful wine growers, who welcomed journalists to a wine tasting evening at a top-notch restaurant attended by the region’s literati. I was ready to make notes on the rep’s welcome address, preparing for the usual platitudes, but the guy simply ripped the cork out of the bottle, poured himself a glass, drank it in front of the expectant crowd, exhaled and said in his genuine French accent: “With wine this good, you can say nussing!”. It was a refreshing lack of bullshit.

Recipes are full of mistakes

Even Aunty Eileen’s jam recipe will have errors in it when she wrote it down for your mum’s book of recipe clips. When transposing recipes, particularly the method, imagine making it yourself, because there is every chance there is something missing, or too much of this or that. Be vigilant, and expect plenty of communication from irate readers about faulty recipes. Clever food editors generate enormous readerships from recipe correction feedback. Everyone’s a food expert in their own kitchen, remember? Let ‘em tell you off a little and they’ll spread the word about you.

FOOD FAKE Styling often goes to extremes.
TASTY FAKE Styling often goes to extremes.

Food styling is fakery

It’s true, French fries in fast food commercials are turmeric-rubbed polystyrene. Remember, the reader cannot taste a photograph, it only has to look sumptuous. There are staple stand-ins for everything, from lobster (mashed potato) to rabbit (chicken), especially on the limited styling budgets provided by the majority of lifestyle titles. Food styling is about heightened sense of flavour and freshness, and a quick spritz from a water bottle is often the last nuance before photography begins. 

Stay ahead of the season

In this paddock-to-plate world of food media, it’s essential to pre-empt the seasonal availability of certain ingredients – when mushrooms are on the shelves, it’s really too late to be writing about them, because they’ll be out of season before long. Food media is attached to the marketplace, and the marketplace pre-empts itself all the time. Stay ahead of the game. Work captured this year might be best released a month before the earliest season next year.

Don’t be afraid to keep it simple

WRITE REGARDLESSFood is a little like art, in that people know what they like and like what they know. You can recommend all the activated almonds and moon-harvested saffron you want, but if winter’s coming people might want to be inspired by a few old favourite comfort foods. Never confuse diet and nutritional content with food writing. Food is fantasy. Diet is cold hard fact. People don’t read lifestyle titles for the facts, they want to indulge a little.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, regardless!

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