When you’re a journalist, you have a complicated relationship with opinions.
The food-writer side of my job means people often want to know what I think, about recipes, food products, restaurants and chefs. The journalist side means that I’m more comfortable keeping my opinions to myself, unless those opinions are on recipes, food products, restaurants and chefs.
Last week, I ended up sharing my opinion on the current state of food writing in America. First, I agreed to write a piece for the online magazine Bitter Southerner, on whether Southern food writing has been unduly influenced by men from outside the South.
My point in that article: What’s being written about Southern food tends to focus on extremes that are driven by what interests men – all that barbecue, butchering and bourbon. Along with that, I was asked to talk about gender in food writing at a conference last weekend, Food Media South, put on by the Southern Foodways Alliance.
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As you can imagine, both subjects drew a lot of attention. In the words of several friends, I blew up the food writing corner of the Internet for a few days. What was clear from the reaction, though, is that an awful lot of women feel left out of a conversation that used to be theirs alone.
I’ve been in food writing for more than a quarter century now, years that stretch from print-only to an online media world that has something for every form and focus. Sometimes, trying to keep up with it is like sitting in the front row of a hyperactive circus while you try to keep an eye on a single acrobat.
When I came into food writing, the lines were clear: Recipes and home cooking were mostly the role of food editors who tended to be women. Restaurant reviewing was mostly done by men. Professional cooking was done by chefs who were, yes, mostly men.
All of those roles have changed now. And change in who does a job tends to change how that job is done. There are more female chefs, although still a shamefully low number. There are a startling number of food editors who are male, particularly in the national publications that influence food coverage, from Bon Appetit to the New York Times.
So for you, the food reader, does that shape what stories are trying to grab your attention?
For a while there, starting with Anthony Bourdain’s book “Kitchen Confidential,” it felt like food writing was becoming preoccupied with stunt cooking. Exotic food adventures in exotic lands and big-project cooking with heavy-duty equipment.
Lately, though, it has started to swing back to home cooking. The ground trembled a bit in 2014 when the New York Times changed the name of its food section from Dining to Food. When editor Sam Sifton reports on slow-cooker pot roast, it’s a new day, indeed.
As I said in my talk on Saturday: Food writing is a big table. There ought to be room for plenty of chairs.