When people hear I’m a food writer, I can watch as their imaginations bubble up like a shaken soda can with a mythical version of what my work entails.
Whether I am writing about tea for Saveur, restaurant racism for The Atlantic, or developing cocktail-flavored Jell-O shots for Allrecipes, my life tends to deviate from the public’s Hollywood-tinted adaptation.
They envision me waving my hands and casting judgment over restaurants, my magical declarations changing the fate of a business. Or they imagine evenings getting wined and dined—for free—by the city’s best restaurants. And when I cook, at home, surely I spend hours slaving over a hot stove to create multi-course meals for Thursday night dinner and Netflix.
The truth is more like a scoop that rolled off the ice cream cone: at first enticing and exciting, but with an unglamorous twist. I do most of my work from my couch, and when I do head out into the world, it’s quietly, quickly, and at least somewhat surreptitiously. In reality, what I do on a daily basis has as much to do with how people imagine food writing as picking up McDonald’s for lunch does with cooking.
But every time I tell people what I do for a living, I see the same slow smile and wide-eyed incredulity at what they imagine my life as a food writer to be like. Here are the five most common thought bubbles I have to pop.
1. They have me mixed up with Anton Ego
Anton Ego, the villain of Disney’s Ratatouille, is the archetypical food critic, an all-powerful culinary judge, jury, and executioner. In Chef, Jon Favreau’s nemesis is the all-powerful Oliver Platt, and most recently, in Burnt, Bradley Cooper battles the faceless Michelin inspectors. But this type of critic makes a better plot device than career path.
Not only do critics’ voices not hold the same sway they once did to make or break a restaurant (in fact, only a handful of this type of reviewer still exist, most notably Pete Wells at The New York Times), but food criticism is a tiny—and shrinking—portion of the genre practiced by a select few.
Food writing covers culture, trends, travel, sustainability, class issues, and almost anything else: as part of everyday life, food touches everything we do. So does food writing.
2. They think it’s all caviar canapés and Champagne soirées
The second question people ask me about food writing is “Do you get a lot of free food?” My stock reply, “Yes, but the free food is rarely the good food,” covers only part of the truth.
Press events and parties tend to be most useful for finding out which restaurant has the best PR people, not the best food. It’s safe to say the more a restaurant promotes itself with free food, the less good the food. Spots where the chef is head down and focused on creating culinary masterpieces (be they $5 bowls of Vietnamese noodle soup or 10-course tasting menus) don’t tend need or want to hand out free food in attempts to Botox their reputation.
The best food writing comes when you pound the pavement and finding the unsung heroes of the industry, often by the people too busy working hard to be fêting the media.
3. They think it’s all about the food
Sometimes people stop listening halfway through when I tell them about my job. They hear food writer, but fail to remember the writing part.
My job, sadly, is not just eating or cooking—it’s mostly writing. That deep butt groove in my writing spot on the couch didn’t come from clinking glasses with winemakers. It came from hours spent alone with my computer (and sometimes even with my pants on), trying to pick the right word, find the right source to interview, trying to see if—just maybe—there’s a deeper meaning to your kale smoothie.
4. They see me as a Fear Factor contestant
Remember how the second-most-asked question was about free food? Well, the first is “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”
But what’s weird to you and me is someone else’s comfort food. As food writers, the bulk of our job is to help readers understand what they’re eating and why it’s important (and to whom). It’s not to shock you with our abilities to stomach un-cleaned pig intestine in Laos. Remember that cheese is rotten milk, and to someone else that is the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten.
It’s the equivalent of hearing that somebody just finished dinner at The French Laundry (one of the most expensive, best-reviewed, and hardest-to-get-into restaurants in the country) and asking them, “Was the napkin soft?” Yes, it relates—and yet it has absolutely nothing to do with my actual job.
5. They think I must have been born under a lucky star
Yes, I’m glad that I don’t have to work in a dangerous coal mine or come home smelling like used fryer oil, but luck had only a little to do with me having such a job that I am so passionate about.
Like most people doing a job that incites envy, it took a lot of work and a lot of hustle. The likelihood of any of my regular gigs falling apart looms larger than a Cracker Barrel breakfast, given the state of the industry—and keeping my writing out there and selling requires hustling harder than a hot dog salesman on a slow night at the ballpark.
But I do it because I love food. Not in a fat-kid-loves-cake way (though maybe that, too), but because it is central to everybody’s life. In fact, you think about food at least every few waking hours. My role as a food writer is to help those thoughts be the best part of your day.