AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2004

Haute Cuisine   

Food journalism, once a throwaway compendium of recipes and “what’s hot” articles, has gone upscale. Newspapers and magazines are dedicating top talent to the food beat, and they are hungry for sophisticated stories with timely angles.

By Doug Brown
Doug Brown is a writer in Baltimore.     

R. W. "Johnny" Apple, the famously formidable New York Times chronicler of wars, presidents and political horse races, now spends his time scrutinizing such complexities as the bouquet of the French brandy Armagnac, the hybrid cuisine of the Italian city Trieste and the wonders of Wisconsin bratwursts.

The New Yorker every year dedicates entire issues to subjects like the arts, books and money. Last summer, a double issue revolved around food. Food-related features, too, are common in the magazine (including a profile of Apple by prolific food writer Calvin Trillin).

The Atlantic magazine has a full-time food writer, Corby Kummer, and Newsweek's executive editor, Dorothy Kalins, was editor of the food magazine Saveur before joining the newsweekly. Maybe her stewardship of the magazine had something to do with a cover story--smack in the middle of historic debates among Congress, the Bush administration and foreign governments before going to war in Iraq--about organic produce.

Food journalism has long persisted as an oxymoron, with newspaper food pages little more than wire-service recipe dumps and magazine articles barely scraping deeper than "what's hot and what's not."

But that's changing, food writers and editors say. Newspapers around the country are dedicating top staffers to the food beat, and they are hungry for well-reported stories with timely angles. Magazines, too, are hiring accomplished writers and paying them to travel around the world in search of good grub copy. Food writers Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue and Jonathan Gold of Gourmet were both up for National Magazine Awards for criticism and for other categories in 2002. Steingarten won the Leisure Interests category. In 2000, the food magazine Saveur won the National Magazine Award for general excellence, and in 2003 it was a finalist for the award.

The transformation of food journalism from "five things to do with cream of mushroom soup" to the subject of an entire issue of The New Yorker, longtime food writers say, has a lot to do with changing attitudes about food across the country.

"Food is coming into American culture in a really strong way, but I started writing about food 30 years ago and everybody thought it was weird. It was seen as 'women's page' stuff," Gourmet Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl says in an interview in her grand Times Square office. "Food has become a part of popular culture in the way film or theater is."

Cable television is crowded with celebrity chefs wielding knives and shaking sauté pans. Supermarkets from Atlanta to Albuquerque carry dozens of different olive oils, heaps of fresh lemon grass, organic poussin and sushi. The same cities might also support one or more of the natural-foods emporiums--for example, Whole Foods Market or Wild Oats Market--peppering the country. And just about every town of any size, says former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, has "a decent approximation of a bistro now."

"Readers aren't going to put up with wire-service copy and grocery ads," Grimes says. "It was a huge day at the Times when salsa overtook ketchup as the No. 1 condiment. They made that a page-one story. That says a lot about how journalism has changed. The sense of what has a claim on reader interest and what qualifies as news has changed remarkably in a short amount of time."

It wasn't long ago that little more than free-floating recipes and sappy features larded the food section of the Baltimore Sun. The section, says former Sun deputy managing editor for sports and features Stephen Proctor, was "a 1950s idea, with a focus on recipes" and "designed for the woman at home making dinner."

Management had talked about revamping the section since the mid-1990s and finally decided to spend the money on a makeover, which was unveiled in early 2001.

Food "has become more of an entertainment now," says Proctor, now deputy managing editor for news at the San Francisco Chronicle. "It has become much more of an essential focus of our life. A newspaper usually reflects what the culture is doing, and I think that's why you're seeing so much more devotion to food journalism."

The Sun moved a premier reporter, Arthur Hirsch, to the food beat, and much of the section is now local. Given Baltimore's quirky food environment--plenty of wonderful provincialisms like cod cakes sandwiched between saltines and slathered in mustard, a universe of crabs, a scattering of interesting restaurants--it makes for a fairly lively section, and a big departure from its wan former incarnation.

Even in food-savvy cities like San Francisco, food journalism has only recently been granted editorial heft by newspaper management, says Michael Bauer, the Chronicle's restaurant critic and executive food and wine editor.

At the Food Journalist Association's annual conference, Bauer says, "the one thing food journalists talk about is gaining the respect of the newsroom--you feel as a second-class citizen as a food journalist."

A decade ago, he says, it looked like food sections were on the way to oblivion. Cities that had been full of competing grocery stores were down to a handful of chains warring for customers, and the ads dried up. "All of a sudden, food became unimportant," he says. "The only reason many papers carried food was because of the advertising." Many newspapers folded their food sections.

Since then, however, the national zeitgeist has included a healthy appetite for food, and newspapers have discovered that readers crave news about what they cook and eat. It's only in the past five or six years, Bauer says, that newspapers have taken food seriously.

Not everyone toiling in food journalism is sanguine about trends in the field.

It's not always easy, for example, to get news editors excited about food stories, says Bill Daley, a food writer and restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle--where he jumped to last year from the Hartford Courant. "I don't know if we've convinced the hard-news types that it's newsworthy," he adds.

The big papers are indeed getting better, says Tommy Simmons, food editor of the Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But Simmons, who has written about food for the Advocate since the mid-1970s, and who reads local food sections from around the country every week, worries about the homogenization of food coverage in smaller papers.

"I'm seeing a lot of chain-generated copy in chain papers, and so I think to a certain extent they are losing touch with their local scene," she says. "You see fewer stories about local chefs and local cooks.... I think we're losing the local newspaper touch in some of the smaller markets."

In the end, much of what passes for food writing remains "lifestyle journalism," says Warren Belasco, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who studies food issues and food media. "I see it as a handmaiden to consumer culture, helping people refine their choices, become more expert as consumers, more discriminating."

What's been sorely lacking, Belasco says, is more incisive coverage of agriculture, "which is the world's largest industry and yet virtually invisible for the most part." He champions the work of writer Michael Pollan, who in 2002 wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine about cattle ranches. He also praises Eric Schlosser, whose book, "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," exposed a kaleidoscope of horrors associated with the fast-food industry.

A fixation on local is not a hallmark of the New York Times. Every Wednesday the paper's food section is full of dispatches from around the globe, from Sydney to Moscow to Buenos Aires. The paper's food writers delve into the obscure--the Peruvian brandy Pisco, the Baltic fish plaice. Stories explore the subtleties of Spanish wines, the pleasures of rustic French cooking and the technique for preparing braised rabbit sauce over hand-cut pappardelle.

It's the gold standard of newspaper food sections, say most of the food editors and writers interviewed for this story. None of them think their newspapers could reproduce or approximate what the Times accomplishes.

Most papers, according to New York Times Associate Editor R.W. "Johnny" Apple, "don't have the horses and they don't provide the money when they do have the horses" to cover food properly. "If you're going to write about food you have to travel, you have to eat."

Otherwise, he says, "you are forced into the position of sounding like where you live is the center of the food universe, and that's not healthy. It's no more healthy than writing about foreign affairs while sitting in D.C., never getting other perspectives, or writing about campaigns and never getting off the plane and talking to people."

To illustrate his point during an interview, Apple rattled off his food itinerary for the months ahead: two weeks in the Midwest, followed by Maine, then the South of France for a month, then Scandinavia. "I approach it," he says, "the way I write about foreign policy or the arts."

Apple's leviathan stories, which appear regularly in the Times as well as the magazine Saveur, require exhaustive knife-and-fork research. Reporting, Apple says, "is everything."

"I hope I write well, but writing cannot make up for a lack of reporting, and this stuff requires tons of reporting," he says, mentioning a piece he did about raising tuna. "I spent endless amounts of time studying tuna--which ones were threatened, which ones weren't, how they differed. I talked to people in Japan, then went down to Mexico and talked to the guy who does this. It takes reporting time, a lot of book and other background research. But for my money, it works."

Saveur Magazine Editor in Chief Colman Andrews, a large guy with a scholarly bent, is passionate about food.

The erudite trencherman is reflected in the magazine, which dedicates long features to topics like kaiseki (a Japanese meal that is a ritualistic series of between seven and 10 small courses), the bar food of the Andalusia region of Spain, or an annual cookie bake at a Pennsylvania church. The articles exhaust their subjects. They tend toward the celebratory, or even the evangelical.

Andrews and a few other editors launched Saveur in 1994 because no other magazine was exploring and championing food traditions that serve as the foundation for so much of what is served in restaurants or touted in grocery stores.

"We sat around our offices for a few months and made this magazine up, and we decided we didn't care what the common wisdom was--you have to review restaurants, or you have to rate wines numerically, or you have to give people low-fat, low-calorie Tuscan chicken recipes," says Andrews, wearing comfortable black shoes, khakis and a blue oxford-cloth shirt during an interview in his Manhattan office, which is not much bigger than a walk-in closet and is cluttered with old cookbooks and wine bottles. "From the beginning we wanted to present food in context, to say this isn't just a disembodied recipe we made up in our test kitchen, but something that people have been cooking for hundreds of years, and here's who these people are, and here's why they cook it that way and not another way."

He adds: "The joke was that we wouldn't write about the hot young chef in Seattle or Chicago, but we might want to write about his grandmother, because she probably gave him his love of cooking."

Andrews, who has written about food since the 1970s, agrees that food journalism is becoming more sophisticated, not necessarily in terms of the prose but rather in the depth of knowledge writers are bringing to stories.

He used to keep a file of "ridiculous statements" he found in newspapers and magazines about food, the equivalent of, "Magic Johnson was the best quarterback the Dodgers ever had," he says. "If somebody in the sports page had written that kind of statement, they would have been booted out of town. Editors would have caught it, even though sports is a quote-unquote less serious side of journalism. It's an area people do take very seriously, and now maybe people are taking food more seriously."

Newsweek Executive Editor Dorothy Kalins, who launched Saveur with Andrews and photographer Christopher Hirsheimer, thinks the magazine showed journalists that food could be treated in a different way, and that ingredients--and understanding them--were as important as the recipe. A true connoisseur wants and needs to know, she says, "that paella was really a food for grape pickers in the vineyards around Valencia--it was cooking over a fire.... Once you understand those things," she explains, "you have a very different relationship with the food you buy, grow and cook....

"Nobody was doing stories like that," she says. Saveur gave journalists who were interested in food a place where they could "go deep." "Ten years ago," she adds, "there would never have been these big Johnny Apple pieces about cognac and Armagnac."

The magazine matched its topical ambition with resources. Its main photographer "traveled all over the world, sleeping in fishermen's shacks in Japan, hanging out with Russian women on farms making pickles.... You have to be willing to break convention, and that's what we did," Kalins says. "We showed people you could do that. I think for journalists it's so much more rewarding. I think it began a new era."

Dressed head-to-foot in black and spangled in silver jewelry, Gourmet Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl sat at a round table in her office decorated in blondes and reds, with an orchid preening before a wall of windows framing Times Square. It's a far cry from Saveur's gray and tattered office ambience.

Reichl served as the New York Times' food critic for six years before Grimes took over. She was the Los Angeles Times' food editor before that. Her two memoirs--"Tender at the Bone" and "Comfort Me With Apples"--are best-sellers. She's the editorial equivalent of the "celebrity chef"--the Emeril Lagasse of food media. Shortly after the interview in her office, CNN was stopping by for some taping.

Despite the trappings, Reichl seems to have preserved the intellectualism that fueled her rise through the food world from waiting tables in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to scavenging for whole-Earth foods on a California commune, to leading Gourmet, the nation's oldest food magazine.

Food writing "demands a lot of territory," says Reichl, who tends to smile as she speaks. To understand what Americans eat today, reporters should, among other things, study immigration law and demographics. She says government policy should be important to any food writer.

When she became the Los Angeles Times' food editor in 1990, she says the section was "an embarrassment." "It was literally not written in the English language. It was hair-raising the way that thing was put together."

With competing supermarkets taking out enormous advertisements, the section harvested millions of dollars in ad revenue, but the Times' management paid no attention to the copy. The section served as a cash cow, paying the salaries of reporters and editors in other sections of the newspaper. Stock photographs of Campbell's soup cans and other products were the "art," wire service copy filled out the pages and the section's news editor maintained a catalogue of stories organized by length.

"If she had like a three-inch hole, she just looked, it didn't matter what it was," Reichl says. "The first week I was there I said, 'Throw it all away, I don't want one piece of it.' She said, 'You can't, you'll never run this section.' And I said, 'If I have to write the whole section myself I will.' She had stuff that was 15 years old and she thought nothing of just, 'OK, I've got a seven-inch hole, here's something.' "

Reichl sent reporters into disparate immigrant communities to learn about their cuisines. She sent people to supermarkets just "to watch what people were eating." One reporter, she says, spent a month with a family living on food stamps.

After more than an hour of talking constantly, almost feverishly, about food and journalism, Reichl summarizes that in terms of food journalism, it's "an extraordinary time."

At the San Francisco Chronicle, says Bauer, the reporter who had been writing about gay issues chose to switch to the food beat. And both the news and features sections now compete for the foodie's stories.

"It's exciting, with all of this mainstreaming of food journalism," Bauer adds. "I think we'll see a huge leap forward."

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