By Lindsey Tramuta. http://www.lostincheeseland.com/
On Tuesday, in this rather depressing piece, ex New York Times food editor Amanda Hesser, lamenting the demise of print food journalism, gave her advice to those starting out on, and wanting to earn a living from, a food writing career. In a nutshell ? Don’t.
‘Doers’ not ‘observers’ are now the food world’s darlings, says Hesser. Where snobbery would have barred their way to publication in the olden days of only five years ago, now it seems that readers love a butcher’s or chicken farmer’s memoir as much as a journalist’s detached, well-documented musings.
Hesser dives bravely into the painful area of writers’ salaries. Money, the lack of it, causes the fear and defensiveness so many writers experience as their incomes dwindle, and she seems more than slightly rueful about who’s getting rich right now, (mostly the first flush of canny bloggers) and how.
In the UK ‘s papers most food writing and restaurant reviewing was traditionally done by gouty bon vivants or bored, ex actor/rock-star types with jolly second homes in the Cotswolds or the Hamptons or Gordes or Capri. Now the old establishment’s influence is waning, as the great unwashed of the foodloving planet rise up, switch on the interwebs and , virtually or IRL – does it matter ? – cook and eat their way around the world, paying very little heed to anyone for very long.
Yet the advice Hesser gives at the end of her article seems to be rooted precisely in the old-school, academic viewpoint that she describes as being the norm 10 years ago. The one which might have made an editor dismiss the David Changs- as- writers of the 90s. She seems to say that as it’s now so bloody difficult to get paid for having an opinion, for ‘proper’ investigative, detached, journalistic writing, well then you’d best not write at all. At least not for now, not until you’ve gone out and done something worthwhile and zeitgeisty which you can then write about – like building a chain of humane abattoirs. Quite.
Over the past five years, the internet-fuelled, youth–driven explosion of the world’s food culture has not only decimated sales of Hesser’s old paper and many like it, it has forever blown away old distinctions in culinary writing. Because everyone wants to know and hear everything about food. From everyone. All the time. And now they can.
No longer in a NYTimes-ish circa 1995 state of mind either, the cookbook market’s brazen good health reflects escalating opportunities and consumer demand. Self publishing, ebooks and apps will soon challenge the traditional form (already morphing) of the cookbook itself, lending themselves beautifully to the ephemeral and fickle nature of our eating expériences, either in simply documenting and describing them or passing on their recipes. I believe, quite contrary to Hesser’s pessimism, that it’s an exciting time for food writers, when content can be practically self-generating and everything is up for grabs.
Like Hesser, I’m a ‘bestselling’ ( a very misused term) author whose books are sold all over the world. I do some journalism, reviewing and general food writing, sometimes in English, but mostly in the language of the world’s greatest food culture, French (no arguing at the back please.)
I’ve been doing this for 12 years. It started by accident but it has turned into a dream job, which, despite – or perhaps, because of – some panicking and many risks taken, is not going to go away any time soon.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice to anyone starting out in the fabulous playground of cookbooks.
Good luck and, most of all, have fun there, it’s all yours.
1/ All general writers’ rules apply. Don’t be intimidated by those who would make too much of distinction between ‘food’ and ‘cookery’. Here’s my personal, essential food book list.
Nora Ephron, Heartburn, Joanna Blythman, What to Eat, Nigella Lawson, How to Eat, How to be a Domestic Goddess, Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World, Frédérick e. Grasser-Hermé, Délices d’Initié, La Cuisinière du Cuisinier, Elisabeth Scotto, French Cooking, Jason Atherton, Maze Cookbook, François Simon, Pars!, Manger est un sentiment , 100 Recettes Pour Mon Chat, Le Fooding, Guide 2012, Jamie Oliver, The Ministry of Food, David Chang, Momofuku Cookbook, Christina Tosi, Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook, Rene Redzepi, Noma Cookbook, Richard Corrigan, The Clatter of Forks and Spoons, John Pawson and Annie Bell, Living and Eating, Diana Henry, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage Meat Book, River Cottage Veg., John Lanchester, A Debt to Pleasure, Julian Barnes, The Pedant in The Kitchen, Keith Floyd, Floyd on France.
2/ It seems obvious, but spend time online and in bookstores looking at what’s on offer and what sells. Apart from macarons and la bistronomie, major trends in Europe (bacon, cake pops, sushi) tend to come from the States and/or via the UK. Please don’t ever say this to the French.
3/ It’s already a global market. Knock on publishers’ doors and keep on knocking. Get signed by as big a player as possible with a good translation record. That’s how you’ll build up a backlist, and therefore your ‘career’. Self publishing, ebooks and apps are the future, for sure. But for now real book publishers are your best bet for getting work out there and getting it sold The worldwide cookbook market is booming. Publishers constantly need new ideas and productive, reliable authors.
4/Use your blog for ‘vanity writing’ (like I’m doing here) and news. Keep your best content for where it might earn you money. Since Julie and Julia, very few blogs have been transformed into bestselling books.
5/ As you’re writing a cookbook, it’s advisable to target countries where enough people would actually cook what you’re suggesting. Otherwise you’d better find yourself a TV show if you want to make a living from booksales, (the increasingly tired UK model) and good luck with that. This means Spain, France, Italy…and the US, because it’s so huge. But remember it’s also conservative, rather insular and wary of new forms of publishing.
6/ For authors, the book market is polarised and competitive. Fat, once in a lifetime tomes at one end, themed, check-out size books at the other. Guess which it’s easiest to have published ? Marabout, here in France, have a great collection callled Petits Plats. 30 themed recipes, 8€. This is how Rachel Khoo got started and I’ve done lots, from trifles to truffles, they may not be James Beard Award material, but their distribution means you can get started and if they sell, they’ll generate royalties for a while. Find an idea, a trend, the smallest thing and make it yours. Think up 30 recipes with bacon or white chocolaté or miso…. A publisher is much more likely to accept your 3000 page masterpiece when they know you are reliable and your smaller books sell.
6/ Don’t live in a foodie ghetto. There is nothing more boring than a group of foodie people talking about food ALL EVENING. Just because the surviving culinary press is full of food activism in politics, ecology and sustainability, and thèse are areas making the news, does not mean is the only viable source of content open to you. Have your own style. Copy no one. Feed your writing from real life, (rather than making your life into a project) from fashion, the arts and everything that gravitates around and interacts with food. It will bring you closer to your audience , who are very possibly less obsessed than you, and leave learning to cut up a pig ‘like a butcher’ to all the other people following Amanda Hesser’s somewhat gloomy advice.
Photo: Deirdre Rooney
I once had a French sister-in-law who, when we were eating spider crab or lobster toegther, would excavate the beast down to the last tiny, edible morsel before tasting ANYTHING. She would build a mound of meat and dominate the conversation while we were all eagerly sucking and picking at limb joints. I found this a little mean-spirited. She was opting out of the communal mess and joy of using fingers, tongues (and usually teeth as we could never find the damned nutcrackers) and would eat, triumphantly, her tidy pile of flesh long after we had made carnage of ours.
It’s socially acceptable to be a bit slurpy and dirty with shellfish, of course. And even if in England things get rather prissy with lemon-laced finger bowls (I was recently given a whisky tumbler filled with tepid water set on a paper doilie, on a saucer, which I then absent-mindedly grabbed when reaching for my water glass) provided for the merest oyster, you can enjoy the primitive pleasure generated by eschewing cutlery.
But still, there have been too few meals in my lifetime where the entire table gets to use their fingers and eat meat directly from its skeleton. So for Easter I ordered a suckling pig, fired by Momofuku Bo Ssam love and a grand fantasy of a grande table of folk greedily pulling bits of skin and confit meat from a carcass.
My butcher sorted out the ordering and butchering, and on Sunday I picked up 7kg of baby pig. I followed instructions from this great post, with pretty good results (see pic) – all very delicious , crispy outside, melting within. (I served it with apple compote and Noirmoutiers new potatoes. Pudding was Eton mess and a goats’ cheese platter from The Normandy Stall of Everything.)
And yet, devastatingly, my well-meaning caveman fantasy did not become reality. My daughter, (11) was disgusted, pointing out to me that the pig was the size of our dog and almost put herself up for adoption on the spot. And the French parents of the younger children present begged me to cut the meat , put it in a serving dish and hide the carcass. We all knew each other quite well but it was immediately obvious no-one shared my desire to have our fingers meet somewhere inside that piglet’s hot, collagen-sticky, little head.
So the next time I want to put anything edible, still connected to its face and hooves on the table – no matter how droolingly melting its meat may be, I shall be more selective in my guests. No children for a start. And probably only foodie people – a majority of whom, I suspect, would be Irish/British and who, like me, might have a delicious tendency to use food for sensation, not sustenance.
Roast suckling pig
A 7kg pig fed 14 + 5 the next day and fitted easily into my 90cm oven. It would be a squeeze in a 60cm oven, so a 4/5kg pig would be more practical. Reduce cooking time by about an hour. 30 minutes preparation, 5 hours cooking
1 suckling pig, 7kg, 1/2 head of celery, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, 2 carrots, 2 handfuls fresh thyme, 10 bay leaves, sea salt, 100G butter, olive oil.
10 apples (Canada, Boskoop) 1 small jar Fauchon spiced mango chutney (or similar) 2kg new potatoes, fresh thyme, bay, 50g butter, salt, pepper.
Pre heat the oven to 200°C, cover the roasting tray of your oven in aluminium foil and lay the pig on its side, bending it at the hips to fit it on the tray. Drizzle and massage with olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt inside and out , then fill cavity (including throat) with the finely chopped aromates. Protect the tail and ears with aluminium foil (they’ll burn otherwise) and roast for about 30 minutes. Lower the temperature to 150°, cover with foil and cook for a further 4/5 hours.
About an hour before sitting down together, make a compote by steaming the peeled apples with a very little water for about 10 minutes in a saucepan with a lid on, and mix through the chutney you’re using. Stir and reserve. Boil the potatoes transfer them to a large pan or wok with some butter and thyme and bay – ready to heat and toss just as you serve the meal.
For the last 30 minutes before serving, you could turn the grill on in your oven or turn the heat right up to 220/230° to crisp up the pig’s skin. I didn’t do this, as I was going to cut the meat below, and preferred to keep the skin to make AMAZING crackling the next day.