I have always loved food – and writing. I spent last year researching food journalism and this month I started teaching it – at Europe’s first food journalism course, at the Haaga Helia University of Applied Sciences, in Finland.
Journalists, chefs, food bloggers, professional recipe developers, and one restaurant owner, attend lectures on investigative food journalism and food trends, workshops in creative food writing, recipe writing and food photography. And next week we will visit McDonalds.
Food is a great topic and more and more journalists are writing about it. Every writer has some kind of a relationship with it – some more passionate than others.
“It’s like sex, everybody loves it,” is how Elisabeth Raether, the food correspondent of ZEITmagazin (the weekly magazine of the German newspaper Die Zeit) described the popularity of food in the media to me.
So what does it take to turn a passion into expertise? Loads of knowledge for starters.
A good food journalist knows how the food industry and the restaurant business work. They understand the food chain and what ‘sustainable agriculture’ and cronut mean.
You don’t need to be a cook, but it helps to know how to cook, as well as a wide knowledge about ingredients.
Of course it depends on what kind of food journalism you want to do. There is an ever increasing number of choices: recipes, news, first person essays, cookbooks, investigative food journalism, human-interest stories, articles about food legislation, environment or write about food trends and phenomenons?
To become a food journalist, you usually need an education from a culinary school or a journalism school. On top of that, there are a few other skills that every food writer needs.
1.“Show, don’t tell”. Dianne Jacob, a writing coach and author, says in her guidebook Will Write For Food: “Don’t tell readers you didn’t like sitting at the table with your dad. Show them what it was like. Put them at the table with you.” You need to be the eyes, the ears, the nose and also the mouth for your reader, to bring him/her inside the scene. Was there somebody humming in the kitchen? Did the chair creak as you sat at the table? Was the macaroni casserole just a bit burned on the sides, but weren’t those just the crispy spots that you were craving for?”
2. Adjectives. As a food journalist you need to have a large palette of tastes but just as wide palette of adjectives. Words to describe – not just the taste – but the whole feeling that you get from a dish or an ingredient: the texture of it, the looks, the smell and the emotion. A tip: forget the words good and delicious.
3. Curiosity. Try the food and the ingredients you’ve never tried before, go into kitchens, visit a farm or a food factory and talk with people involved in the food chain. It’s important not to be ashamed to ask if you don’t know or understand something, especially if you don’t have a background from a culinary school or experience working in a restaurant.
Just the simple question “how is this made?” can give a dish or an ingredient a whole new perspective. And that is also being honest with your reader. If you don’t know something, they probably don’t either. Curiosity will take you to places and bring dishes in front of you that you didn’t even know existed.
4. Check the facts. Really. For example, if you are doing a story about the Chinese fortune cookies, don’t assume that they are originally Chinese (they’re not). So don’t assume anything. When writing about nutrition, be careful: do you know how to read scientific research? Can you link to similar research done before? Do you really know what you are writing about or should you call an expert? If the statistics say that dried oregano is a good source of fibre, think about how small a normal dose of dried oregano is before declaring it a winner in your Where to get Fibre story. Yes, I’ve seen that happen.
5. Create your own voice, your own style. This is the only way to stand out. Start it by writing as you speak, not how you think you should write. You want to be a person that readers can relate to and a person they trust and feel they know. So you need to bring them into your life, share something human. The audience is not there just to hear about your grandma’s juicy meatballs or your perfect cakes, the everyday life gives more texture to your writing, write about your failures also.
6.Get a life. As respected Finnish restaurant critic, Anna Paljakka, once told me, you need to live the kind of life that gives you something to write about. This is the best tip for a food journalist that I’ve ever heard.
pic credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Dennis Wong