Sunday, September 09, 2007

On Foodwriting - an article. (First published in Me Magazine Sept 2007)

A Recipe For Success!
Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal gives ME all the ingredients one would need to be a good food writer!

Article from Femina a few years into Foodwriting
Whenever I introduce myself as a food writer, I am usually asked “What’s a food writer?”

I recall the first time the question came my way. I simply blurted out the obvious, “A food writer is someone who writes about food.” And then went on to elaborate on the kind of articles I wrote and the magazines they had been published in. But the episode comes back to me. After all, how would you answer that question right now? Good question!

Even Wikipedia, the online source of information on almost anything, does not seem to have an answer. But, it does say that, “Food is any substance consumed by living organisms, including liquid drinks. It is the main source of energy and of nutrition for animals, and is usually of animal or plant origin.” Writing is defined as, “a process which may refer to two activities: the inscribing characters on a medium, with the intention of forming words and other lingual constructs that represent language and record information, or the creation of information to be conveyed through written language.”

So ‘food writing’ could be defined as, “the inscribing characters on a medium, with the intention of forming words and other lingual constructs that represent language and record information, or the creation of information on the subject of any substance consumed by living organisms, including liquid drinks to be conveyed through written language.”

Umm, I think I will stick with ‘Food writing is writing on food’. I can hear you go, “Duh!”, but try having to explain what you do once a day (at the very least) to a PR rep for a restaurant, a publication or just about anyone else, and you will sympathise.

This is because food writing is still, to a large extent, an undefined sector in the publishing industry in India.

On the global scale, food writing has come into its own. Categorised under the larger umbrella of writing in general, it has its niche and covers everything from articles for print and web to books related to food. It encompasses subjects ranging from food (and drink) production to consumption. That said, there are branches within food writing. Some food writers choose to stick to certain areas like restaurant criticism (in which case they would be restaurant critics) or wine (in which case they would be wine writers or wine critics).

Conversely, food writing is an undefined, unrecognized sector in the publishing industry in India. There are less than a handful of food writers around, no formal training courses, and even today few publications recognise food writers as specialist writers. In fact, food writing in the true sense of the word is unexplored. And books on food are at a very rudimentary stage of evolution. Food writing has a long way to go toward achieving the cult status it enjoys in the West. So each step of my journey has been one of learning as I went along.

So, does one need to have a specific background or training in order to be a successful food writer?

It will come as a surprise, but most food writers and critics ended up in this field after working in other areas of writing or in another career altogether… Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue, was a lawyer in his past career, Ruth Reichl, Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine, worked in and later owned a restaurant. Closer to home, restaurant critic Rahmi Uday Singh, also author of The Times Good Food guides was Deputy Director General, Shipping with the Indian Administrative Service, before she gave it all up to be a food writer.

I take comfort from all these stories because food writing happened entirely by chance for me, too. I discovered food writing while on a sabbatical from my job. As the mother of a toddler, I was pretty much confined to my home and the Internet was my lifeline to the world. I spent hours surfing, reading about all sorts of things, and experimenting with blogging. It was at this time when looking for information (on pickles I think) that I discovered, home to like-minded people who reveled in food. 

I spent weeks dithering around, lurking through its forums, scribbling a line or two here and there until I finally worked up the courage to put up an essay on Uttarakhandi cuisine. The cuisine in question being unknown, my post got a lot of attention and my inherent talent for research and writing must have come through because I got a lot of praise. The post was the first step to a book that is awaiting publishing. But more immediately, it brought me a job offer with a local gastronomy magazine, making me realise that perhaps there was a career for me in this.

The first realisation a food writer must have is that food writing is not just recipe features or restaurant reviews. It goes beyond that. Food writing, like all other writing, aims to stimulate the senses of the reader, either evoking experiences, past or present, or more practically, motivating the reader out of the armchair and into the kitchen or nearest restaurant.

Not willing to give up being a hands-on mother, I chose to freelance. My first article (not surprisingly) on Utterakhandi cuisine was published in April 2005 in Savvy Cookbook. By June that year I had three articles published, including an essay on Kutchi food, a recipe feature and a restaurant review in three different publications. (In retrospect, freelancing was the best decision I could have taken because it allowed me to work on a variety of subjects and styles and amass a body of work that I would not have been able to if I had been with just one publication.)

Three years down the line, I have more than 300 articles to my name, and share viable relationships with at least 12 publications.

When you are starting out, it is a good idea to try everything. But be wise and use that phase to identify your strengths. For instance, I prefer to circumvent restaurant reviews and other generic articles. These are easy to write but my approach to them is “have to get this article done and out of the way”, as opposed to my usual feeling of eagerness that subjects I gravitate towards inspire. I have found that articles that motivate me are ones that deal with subjects closest to my heart: the food on the plates of real Indians, culinary history, the migration and evolution of cuisine, sustainable agriculture, the intersection of food and culture, food as a carrier in the evolution of a culture (preferably researched at the knees of someone’s mom or grandma). And my India is a rich country for that.  

That said, however, do focus on your niche once you have identified it. Food writing is relatively unknown in India -- I am still slotted under freelance writers at most publications. As a result, I am often asked if I could do a story on this or that “just this once”. I did a couple of these in my initial days but stopped when I realised I spent twice the amount of time researching unknown subjects.
If you have decided to be a food writer, FOCUS on food writing. Sticking to your niche might lead to lean pickings at the outset but will pay off in the long run. Once your by-line comes to be associated to one kind of topic and your prowess with the subject comes to the fore, more ‘meaty’ assignments will come your way.

I earned Rs 1,000 on my first assignment. I then spent the ensuing year accepting whatever came my way, regardless of remuneration. One year down the line, I began to let go of low-paying assignments because I found that these were the hardest ones to do. I also began to develop relationships with quality publications. You might need quantity in terms of by-lines at the outset of your career, but once you are established it is the publication you associate your name with that counts. And, believe me, the good ones rarely have qualms about paying fairly!

Most of us shy away from appearing avaricious. We are uncomfortable asking for more money. At times like this, try to remind yourself that you are having that dialogue about money because the person at the other end feels you are worth pursuing. (Let me share a secret here. I don’t stress about appearing greedy ever since I realised that it helps separate the wheat from the chaff!) And once you have work coming in, losing a job that pays too little isn’t a bad thing, it just frees up time for you to write the kind of stuff you want to – paid or not!  

Food writing has ups and downs. The best thing is being forced to try new things. Last week, working on an article, I had a great time discovering the amazing variety of green leafy vegetables we use in Indian cuisine (I found seven in Mumbai alone!). I made three new dishes with them: an Irani mixed greens offering called Gormeh Subzi, a forgotten Gujarati recipe called Dakho, and a concoction all my own combining greens and dals. It was heavenly, but I would never know without trying it all.

It’s a field that requires constant educating and re-educating. I study nearly every day to keep up with trends and updated food facts. I inhale every bit of food writing I can get my hands on, have about 500 books on food, Encyclopaedias and histories of foods and food names.
It takes hard work, dedication, perseverance, research, knowledge, an open mind, the ability to multitask, and above all, passion and creativity to grow as a food-writer. It’s an excellent job for someone with a passion for food, writing and learning.

Tip offs!
* Write properly. When you send in an article to a publication, make sure it’s perfect. I thought I was a skilled writer until an editor pulled me up for not spell-checking! If you don’t know how to write or are unsure of your skill, take a class or invest in a copy of Strunk and White. It will hold you in good stead.
* Don’t wait for the deadline. Send your work in early if you can. You can be an excellent writer but not meeting deadlines makes you unreliable.
* Ensure your information is complete. Do not leave anything to be desired. At the same time, strike a balance with information, making the fact-checker work overtime will not get you more work.
* Know your subject. If you are called to discuss your story idea, you must be able to. Nobody is going to trust you with an assignment unless they are confident in your abilities.
* Understand your reader. If you’re writing for a woman’s magazine that is targeted at homemakers – an audience that juggles a budget and cooks up to three meals a day - an article on innovative ways with dal or quick microwave recipes rather than something like truffles will be the order of the day. Truffles are better suited to the glossy, lifestyle magazine where your subjects must be in step with culinary trends around the world.
* Be patient. Ok, you’ve spent hours, sometimes even days, developing story ideas, and if you are like me, chances are you’re going to want a response RIGHT NOW. But hold on. Remember that the editor receives tons of similar mail. Every editor I’ve ever worked with has responded in due course. If s/he doesn’t get back in two to three weeks, an e-mail or phone call is in order. But keep it short. Until I got confident enough to wing it on my own, I wrote out exactly what I would say over the phone. No extra chitchat, to the point. Remember, you’re not trying to make a best friend; you’re trying to get your work published. 

* Develop a distinctive voice. This is easier said than done. Voice is the unmistakable sound, rhythm and point-of-view that connects the reader with the writer. So they know who has written it when they read it. Read writing by MFK Fischer, Nigel Slater and, closer home, Chitrita Banergee, Vir Sanghvi, Vikram Doctor. When you’re reading them, you can hear the authors’ voices in your head. And more importantly, you can never confuse or interchange them. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t inherently interesting enough or big enough personalities to pull it off, as these masters do. Most of us have to work at finding and developing our voice. But when you succeed, editors will use you again and again.

* Create your own website or blog. The fact is websites work. Start with a blog, they are free. I include a link to my blog when I introduce myself to a new editor. Even if the assignment does not come my way, they do register me and my knowledge. Until you collect enough published work, the site will also make a good platform for your capabilities. 

No comments: