That Bok Choy Moment  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March & april 2011

That Bok Choy Moment   

Why the AP Stylebook now has a section on food terms, and how it came together.Fri. May 27, 2011

By Jeffrey Benzing
Jeffrey Benzing (jbenzing@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


The AP Stylebook now has an entry on corn smut.

It's under "H" for huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn―a delicacy of Mexican cuisine―and is one of more than 400 entries in the stylebook's new food guidelines section, published online and in print this month.

There are common terms like Crock-Pot (a brand name, to be avoided when "slow cooker" can be used instead) and more obscure entries like Fluffernutter (a trademarked name for a sandwich made with peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff), all included because the editors of the stylebook thought them prominent enough, or misused enough, to warrant an official listing.

"The reality is we're just scratching the surface," says J.M. Hirsch, food editor for the Associated Press. "I think it's easy to find terms that confuse people. You could very easily do a standalone food style guidebook."

The expansion of food journalism in recent years, mostly in blogs and magazines, led the editors of the stylebook to consider adding an entire section devoted to food. There were already around 300 entries related to that subject scattered through the stylebook, mostly in the online version. These have been consolidated, along with 140 new entries, for the newest print edition.

When Hirsch took over as the AP's food editor six years ago, he says he was surprised that there were no guidelines for commonly used food terms. This means there was no consistency across the AP and the wide array of other news organizations that adhere to the style bible.

And no place to go when he had questions of his own.

Hirsch says he had his "bok choy" moment when he was trying to find a spelling for the white-stemmed Chinese cabbage, only to find that there were five or six to choose from. So Hirsch started keeping a list of terms he had looked up, and the spellings he used, to stay consistent from week to week.

And if Hirsch was confounded by certain spellings, he's not the only one. For the past three years, more food magazines have been launched than any other magazine type, according to Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and widely known as "Mr. Magazine." In a recent AP story, Husni was quoted as saying that about 800 new titles were launched last year, with more than 100 of them focused on food. And increasingly, Hirsch says, food bloggers — an ever-expanding group — are looking for standard spellings and terms for ingredients and dishes that might have strange etymologies or numerous spellings.

The 2010 stylebook included a new section on social media guidelines, and AP decided that food writing had grown prominent enough to warrant its own section in 2011.

"For the last several years, we've been looking for every opportunity we can find to make sure the stylebook serves a diverse audience of writers and editors," says Colleen Newvine, product manager for the stylebook. "We've been beefing up―no pun intended―the food terms in the stylebook online for quite a while."

Stylebook editors Darrell Christian and David Minthorn say they were approached by a journalism professor at last year's American Copy Editors Society conference in Philadelphia. He said he had seen some food guidelines for recipe writing online but hadn't seen anything in the hard copy of the stylebook, which he said most of his students use for their assignments.

"If you mess up a recipe, you cost people money," says Bill Cloud, who was an editor at Newsday and has taught journalism at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill since 1982. "I think it's going to be handy to a lot of people, both college students and also at a lot of smaller newspapers."

Interest in food writing has been growing for many years and can be seen in the success of Food Network Magazine, launched in 2009, even as Condé Nast closed Gourmet, an industry standard for more than five decades. Condé Nast still has Bon Appetit magazine, which features a new editor-in-chief and a visual overhaul. Competitor Every Day with Rachael Ray has also been revamped to draw readers and advertisers in an increasingly crowded market.

Christian and Minthorn say adding a separate section for food guidelines made sense, especially since the stylebook already included hundreds of food terms online. With help from Hirsch, the editing team, which also included Stylebook editor Sally Jacobsen, consolidated terms already in the book and debated which terms to add.

"It seemed more logical to have all the food entries together instead of having somebody flip through the alphabetical section," Minthorn says. "It just reaches a point where you say, 'Now's the time.' "

Hirsch began working on the section last fall and turned in his draft in December. Revisions continued until February, with plenty of back and forth.

Some terms were easy―there's a right way and a wrong way to spell "broccoli." But others were more difficult. Hirsch says the AP team considers grammar foremost― if there is a grammatical reason to spell an entry a certain way, that's usually what the book will print. When there are multiple spellings, editors consider common usage, which often requires them to make a judgment call when competing spellings or terms are used. For instance, Hirsch says some people refer to aluminum foil as "tin foil" – to eliminate the confusion, the stylebook simply says to use "foil".

When all else fails, the editors turn to Webster's New World College Dictionary. But even that leads to unsatisfactory answers.

Take the terms "sloppy Joes" and "bloody mary." Hirsch says neither term appears to be named after an actual person but the dictionary has "Joes" capitalized while "mary" is not. And that's how the editors decided to list it.

Confusion on capitalization abounds in entries related to cheese. Many cheeses are named for geographic locations, Hirsch says, and some cheeses must be made in that area to be properly called by that name. Others can be made anywhere. For instance, "cheddar cheese" is named for Cheddar, England, but it can be made anywhere. Hirsch says most people don't associate it with geography, so it has no capitalization. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cheese that can only be made in certain regions of Italy and requires capitalization. However, its more generic counterpart, "Parmesan," is still commonly capitalized. And that's how it stays in the stylebook.

Food writers looking for guidelines previously had to go with their gut ―and still will for thousands of food terms that didn't make the cut. But the addition of a food section now gives writers a place to turn for a quick reference. Hirsch says this is useful for general assignment writers who might not have a background in food―and it's also useful for food bloggers looking to post professional quality writing.

"When you communicate with written language, you are judged by the clarity and accuracy of what is written," Hirsch says. "Ten years ago, there wasn't this massive pool of food bloggers. There are a lot more people who are being judged by the quality and clarity of the writing."

And the accuracy of that writing can hit readers in the stomach.

"They say in journalism, we can ruin lives. But we can also ruin dinner," Hirsch says. "People are entrusting us with their time, money and feeding their family―all of those things are incredibly important for the average family."

For the editors of the stylebook, the task was to come up with recipe guidelines that avoid confusion and to choose a handful of terms most commonly used―or misused―to include in a section that is sure to be revised each year and expanded online. The editors say they're seeking feedback and already considering changes for next year.

"It was a little nerve-wracking," says Hirsch, who is used to reading the stylebook as a reference, not writing it. "Am I going to look like a fool if I spell 'bok choy' this way? These are the things that keep us up at night."

###