Best Food Writing Anthologies And Blogs

So, of course, I had noticed these anthologies of the Best Food Writing of whatever year, edited by Holly Hugues, when they first appeared annually starting in 2000.

But I hadn’t really read any of them until this May when I picked up the fifth anniversary edition, Best Food Writing 2004 while I was in Tennessee tending my aunt while she tended my uncle who was in the hospital.

Whenever I read an anthology, I always read the editor’s introduction; over the years, I have found that much of what goes into any given anthology depends upon what is in and on the editor’s mind at the time the collection is put together. Thus, an introduction can serve as a quick and dirty overview of the editor’s selection processes, preferences and prejudices.

I hadn’t read the Holly Hughes’ introduction to the 2004 edition in the bookstore–in fact, I didn’t browse the book at all–and it is a good thing that I was lax in my usual critical pre-purchase perusal.

Because if I had read the introduction, I would never have bought the book, which would mean that I would miss out on some fine essays and rollicking remembrances.

What was it in the introduction that would cause me to ditch the book, unread, right there in the bookstore?

It was this little jab the editor took at the food bloggers:

“…A plethora of food-themed weblogs have sprung up on the Internet with tempting names like chocolateandzucchini.com, meathenge.com, mylatesupper.com, iwashustreallyveryhungry.com, and nicecupofteaandasitdown.com. They’re just what you’d expect from internet writing–sloppy, unflitered, ungrammatical, self-involved prose (folks, don’t give up your day jobs)–but all the same, isn’t it curious that there’s such a large community of people out there who have so much time to think about food?” (pp xiv)

She goes on to ruminate on what a food writer is, what food writing is and why humans like it so much, but the first time I read the introduction, those words were lost on me as my brain had already seized up and slammed into my forehead when it came to that snarky little aside, “(folks, don’t give up your day jobs.)”

At that point, I had only been blogging for about three months, but for those months, I had endeavored to put up at least one post a day, for anywhere from five to seven days a week.

That is a lot of writing, for those who don’t engage in this sort of thing.

And here was this woman tossing aside all of the work that I had done, and all the work the other bloggers do, with casual wave of her hand and an insult thrown in just to add to the injury.

Ironically, one of the pieces chosen to grace the pages of the anthology was a wry and rather cheeky critique of food magazine’s editorial ideas of what makes for a dinner party menu that isn’t hell for the typical cook to execute, written by none other than food-blogger turned “real writer,” Julie Powell. The piece appeared in the pages of the New York Times–and honestly, I read it long before I knew who Julie Powell was or what her Julie/Julia Project had been, and I remember laughing aloud at the way she satirized the silly fusion menus one can find in some food magazines. Her first person antics as she dashes hither and yon in search of obscure ingredients made me giggle when I read them in the New York Times, but when I saw the piece in Hughes’ anthology, I gritted my teeth.

Not at Julie Powell, but at Holly Hughes.

Apparently, because Julie Powell got a book contract, and started writing for the New York Times, that made her a “real writer,” worthy of respect and above casual insults.

Yet, the only difference between Powell and say, Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini was a book deal. It didn’t matter that Clotilde and many other food bloggers had been feted in the media around the world, it didn’t matter that Clotilde herself was working on a book proposal at the behest of a New York publisher, what mattered to Hughes was that Powell had “made it” and the rest of the food bloggers “better not quit our day jobs.”

That cheap shot nearly kept me from bothering to pick up this year’s edition of Best of Food Writing, but seeing that pieces by Robb Walsh and Diana Abu-Jaber were included induced me to take up the book and peek cautiously inside at the introduction.

I wanted to see if Hughes had retained her snippy attitude toward food bloggers.

I found that her frosty disdain for food bloggers had thawed a great deal in the course of a year.

In the last paragraph of her introduction she writes, “This doesn’t mean, though, that passionate amateurs shouldn’t be invited to the table. At the end of this book, you’ll find a sampling of excerpts from various food-oriented Weblogs (a.k.a. blogs) I’ve found on the Internet. After days and days of browsing through blogs, I can say that there’s a lot of sloppy writing out there, but there’s also some very good stuff, full of a refreshing curiousity and excitement about food. These people are writing about food–shopping for it, cooking it, eating it–because they love food. And that’s what makes all the best food writers such a pleasure to read.” (pp xii)

Whoa.

That isn’t a complete reversal of opinion, but it is pretty damned close.

Somewhere in the course of a year, food blogs went from being an object of scorn to something worth browsing through because the authors of them -love food.-

What could have caused such a dramatic change of opinion?

I don’t know. It could be the knowledge that Powell’s blog in book form was coming out this year, with a lot of planned hoopla and fanfare. It could be the continued positive media coverage of the food blogosphere.

Or, it could be a simple softening of an editor’s attitude toward “unfiltered” media because she realized that blogs and bloggers were not going to just disappear–in fact–they were rising in popularity.

Let me explain–because “filtered media” is a bit of jargon that not every reader is going to get.

Traditional media–print, radio, film and television, have “filters” in the form of editors, publishers, producers, directors, stations and studios. These “filters” act in different ways to take the creative output of the writer and through successive stages, change it in various ways to improve upon it, change its form, or otherwise make it more “palatable” to the market or audience for which it is intended. Filters are necessary in traditional media, because, like it or not, the truth is, writing is a commodity in the media, and although a writer is the one who produces that commodity without which the media would cease to exist–they are not considered competent to make that commodity fit for public consumption.

That is the job of editors.

Editors (and in television and film, producers) are the first line of defense in the traditional media against a “bad” product. In the print media, that means a product that doesn’t sell in the form of books, newspapers or magazines. In the radio and television industry, that is a product that doesn’t bring in ad revenuw, and in the film industry, that is a film which sells no tickets.

Do you see where I am going with this?

Blogs, by and large, are unfiltered, in the sense, that they are produced solely by the writer. There is no editor shaping the author’s words into a more marketable form, nor is there an ad department doing market analyses and selling ad space.

In the blogosphere–it is all about the writer. The author calls the shots, and she can write about whatever she likes, in whatever way she likes without worrying about what an editor can and will say about it.

That is bound to make an editor feel a tad bit nervous–knowing that there are folks out there who are writing their hearts out on a subject that is her bread and butter–but they don’t give a fig what she thinks about what they write.

They aren’t writing for her.

They are writing for themselves and their readers–a group which grows by leaps and bounds every day. They are writing because they want to–not because they are getting paid to do it. They are writing for the sheer joy of it, because they love food, they are knowlegeable about it and they have ideas they want to convey to the public.

Perhaps last year, Hughes was confident that blogs were just a fad that would fade, and so she felt comfortable slinging barbs without worrying where they might fall.

But this year, when the food blogging commmunity just kept growing, and more than one food blogger had a book on the way, she rethought her position and realized that perhaps folks who write without worrying about money and what editors thought of them might have something interesting and useful to say, and so she took another look.

It could be any of these reasons, or none of them; I don’t really know why Hughes’ tune changed so drastically.

But I am glad it did–because next year–she may have quite a few seasoned bloggers–folks who have been writing nearly every day for several years–submitting some polished work for her to review that never saw a “filter,” and yet still managed to be passionate, witty, and full of the juice that makes for great food writing and reading.

I think that would be just awesome–the traditional media supporting the new media–and vice versa–working together, rather than against each other.

Because the truth of it is–even professional food writers don’t get rich writing about apples, restaurants or sustainable agriculture. The folks who get paid to write about food are primarily doing it because it is what they are passionate about–it is what they love.

They are in the same boat as we bloggers, only they get paid to do it.

It doesn’t make them better than us, only different.

Maybe Holly Hughes figured that out.

14 Comments

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  1. Barbara:

    Holly Hughes sounds like the food world’s answer to American Library Association’s current bugaboo, Michael Gorman. Gorman is vehemently opposed to blogs and blogging, and not above taking frequent cheap shots at librarians who blog. Some of the things he says are truly horrifying; sadly, unlike Hughes, he’s showing no inclination to mellow.

    Maybe Hughes got a few irritated letters from bloggers after the 2004 edition?

    Comment by Kris — November 22, 2005 #

  2. In my view, the writers of food magazines are more sold out. If you read some food magazines, the recipes are like advertisements to brand products, it’s as if the marketing team asking the writers to push these products onto the readers. Ethics, if there aren’t any in mainstream journalism, how can one expect they exist in food journalism? I think they are more afraid about their livelihood getting lost.

    Comment by Indira — November 22, 2005 #

  3. Hi Barbara – Here in San Diego, most food reviewers will never, ever print a negative review. I’m pretty sure it’s because of pressures that don’t effect most food bloggers – advertisers, etc. A Gentleman name Jay Porter runs a Restaurant called the Linkery here, and has his own food blog. One day he did a post on his opinion of these Restaurant reviews. I immediately made a comment asking for his opinions on Food Bloggers, and his response was rather interesting:
    http://thelinkery.com/blog/index.php?p=39#comments

    Most of us who do Food Blogging do so out of love for food and have no ulterior motives. Not having to depend on what you call “filters”, or other pressures allow for a good amount of honesty, even though I’m sure that many have an ax to grind. With that said, I don’t consider myself a Food Writer or Reviewer, I’m a Food Eater…..

    Comment by Kirk — November 22, 2005 #

  4. Kris–thanks for your thoughts. Recently, Parke over at US Food Policy noted that some institutions of higher learning had dim views of junior faculty members who blogged–it must be going around.

    I don’t get it. I mean, I guess if folks were “telling tales out of school” or some such, that professional peers might get antsy, but when someone is blogging about non-personal things like library science, the economics of food and such, why the heck should anyone care?

    Indira–I have written for magazines–not food magazines, but magazines on the subject of spirituality. I hesitate to say that food magazine writers are more “sold out,” but I do know that magazine writers are often cautioned by editors on what they say about products that are advertised in the publication.

    Let me tell you–it is hard to write an honest book review for crappy books put out by the company that pays for the full-color back-page ad in the magazine you are writing for!

    So–while it isn’t a sell-out per se on the writer’s part–it does make it harder to be perfectly, one-hundred percent candid on some subjects.

    Kirk–thank you for that link! That is a great little conversation.

    I consider myself a writer–I have been such since high school. I write all the time–sometimes even for money–but not always.

    To me–the money doesn’t matter–what matters is that I write well, on subjects that mean something to me, and that I connect with readers.

    Blogging has really opened me up to the idea of food writing–because food and writing are two of the subjects I am most passionate about in the world. (And that is saying a lot–because I get pretty het up about a lot of subjects!)

    It is nice, through this blog to have my two most beloved subjects come together in a way which also seems to connect to other writers, readers, cooks, and eaters!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 23, 2005 #

  5. Spectacular post … provocative, conversational, read ‘cover to cover’. Many thanks for your OWN contributions and inspirations … Alanna

    Comment by AK — November 23, 2005 #

  6. I think a fair amount of people, Holly Hughes included, make a huge mistake in regard to blogs.

    Just like one cannot read only one or two chapters of a book and give a critical opinion of the thing, one cannot read one or two posts of a blog author and provide a relevant critical analysis.

    Though grammar and spelling are important, my belief is that “voice’ is far more important when it comes to blog writing. There’s no possible way a reader can get a feel for a blog writer with only cursory glances.

    Blogs are best when enjoyed over time. My hope is that people like Ms. Hughes start realizing that blogs are not books or magazines and need to be held to different standards.

    Comment by Kate Hopkins — November 23, 2005 #

  7. Blogs are as individual as the people who write them–some are better than others. They can be seen as a forum for discussion (those that allow comments) and an exchange of ideas. In a book or a magazine, the communication is all one-way. Food folk, and those who love to eat, love to talk back (when our mouths aren’t full).

    Comment by yourauntjudy — November 23, 2005 #

  8. Thank you, Alanna–I am glad you enjoy my contributions!

    Kate–I pretty much agree with you: most blogs are not written in the same way that magazine or newspaper articles are. Nor do they exactly serve the same function.

    I admit that, because of my training in journalism, most of my blog entries are more structured and longer than blog entries “should” be–in large part because that is a function of how I write.

    Blogs are a different medium entirely–and they serve purposes that differ greatly from the purposes served by modern print media. Magazines and newspapers inform, entertain and to a very limited extent, provide a forum for ideas that originate outside of the publishing industry.

    Blogs do much more than that–they inform and entertain, of course, but they also actually provide a real forum for voices outside of the publishing industry. Blogs are democratic; the traditional print media at this point, are capitalistic machines spouting the ideals of democracy while worshipping the bottom line–money.

    That said–I cannot help but have sympathy with Hughes when she points out that some blogs are self-indulgent screeds with lots of spelling errors and grammar that would make a high school English teacher pull out her hair and fall upon a letter opener in despair. Those shortcomings sometimes bug me, too–but again–I used to work as a copyeditor, so my fingers twitch at the keyboard out of reflex whenever I catch a typo or a bit of bizzaro sentence structure.

    In general I agree with you that voice is one of the most important facets to a blog, and should be seen as more important than a typo that appears every now and then.

    Hey, Aunt Judy!

    You are right–blogs allow discussion–give and take–and that is what makes them of great value to me. Like political bloggers, food bloggers are an opinionated bunch, and it is great to see the action when a bunch of folks jump in after a post and the opinions (and fur) start to fly.

    And the best thing about blogs is this–even if someone is expounding about on the uses and abuses of aspic with their mouth full–we cannot see them.

    Unless, of course, they post a picture with the comment. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 23, 2005 #

  9. I loved this post. I read blogs for so many reasons, but now I see one of those reasons is exactly what you say…they have no filters. I go to blogs to hear voices the mainstream media would never bother to pick up on, I go to blogs to see what “real” people are doing. It is what is so great about them in the first place.

    I do so wish I had that woman’s email, I would direct her to some great posts, this one included.

    Or, to Digital Dish!

    Oh, and did I miss it or did you list the blog entries she included? I know there was one by Eddie at Deep End Dining…

    Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful and well thought out post.

    Comment by Rachael — November 24, 2005 #

  10. I’ll keep it short & sweet (as I must edit myself, LOL). Great post. Thank you. : )

    Comment by farmgirl — November 26, 2005 #

  11. No, I didn’t mention in this post what blogs she featured in her anthology.

    One thing that bugged me is that she ghettoized the blog posts at the very end of the anthology, instead of including them sprinkled throughout the anthology in the topical chapters as she did with all the other articles and essays.

    I didn’t appreciate that, one bit–it means that while she does see that some bloggers really do have something worthy to say, she still doesn’t think that what they say is of equal importance as what magazine or newspaper writers have to say.

    And you are all welcome for the post–I will probably have more to say on the topic at some point soon.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 28, 2005 #

  12. Thanks, again, for another excellent post!

    Comment by Mixed Masala — December 24, 2005 #

  13. thank you Barbara. I am so grateful for you putting down these thoughts, I would never have gotten an overall view otherwise.
    I think Catherin from food musing was one of the people who got into the book. She was really surprised. She didnt submit it – just found herself in there.

    Comment by sam — March 11, 2006 #

  14. You are welcome, Sam–I am pretty pleased with what I wrote here, particularly in light of the Cheese Sammich Kerfluffle….

    Comment by Barbara — March 12, 2006 #

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