For more information about Dianne Jacob and food writing, visit her website at www.diannej.com.
Jacob is author of the ultimate guide on food writing, Will Write for Food, which she originally wrote as a resource for her students. Anthony Bourdain, host of the popular Travel Channel show, “No Reservations,” calls her book “a concise, illustrative, and eminently useful guide to the nuts and bolts of professional food writing.”
I consider her book a must-read for any aspiring food writer and a valuable resource for those already in the biz. She includes insights from a wealth of experts in the field, from literary agents to chefs to writers; covers all types of food writing; and even includes writing exercises to get you going.
Jacob has always been a writer, reporter, or editor. After graduating from college with honors, Jacob held high-level editorial positions at newspapers, magazines, and a PR firm before striking out on her own as a freelancer in 1996.
She has written restaurant and cookbook reviews, recipes, cover stories, profiles, advice-based essays, and opinion pieces. She also teaches food writing for the Writing Salon in San Francisco and at the University of California extension. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, and Gastronomica magazine, among others.
In addition to Will Write for Food, Jacob has recently come out with Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas, which she co-wrote with celebrity chef, Craig Priebe. Last year, Jacob was a finalist for the Bert Greene Award, a national award which recognizes excellence in food journalism.
I joined her in her gorgeous, multi-level home tucked into the Oakland Hills to talk about food writing. The first thing I had to tell her was how much I loved the title of her book, Will Write for Food.
It's so catchy.
I have to tell you how the title came about. I think the name on my proposal was How to Write About Food, because I had no idea. I spent so much time with the publisher, trying to figure out a good title, and neither one of us could come up with anything really good. So my agent said, "Well, why don't you email some of your writer friends and ask them?”
So I emailed 25 of my closest writer friends. ...My friend, Joshua Greenbaum, who used to be a reporter, came up with Will Write For Food, and in second place there's a husband and wife who both write books, they're friends of mine in Montana, and their title was The Dish on Food Writing.
Another great title.
Wasn't that good? They actually said, "You know, we're going to put aside some time this weekend to brainstorm titles, and we'll get back to you." Isn't that great?
That's wonderful, and that's a great way to get a title. So let me start with a basic question. What exactly is food writing? How would you define it?
Well, in the narrowest sense, technically, food writing is writing recipes. But in the broadest sense, any topic can be food writing. There's a ton of culinary travel writing. If you profile a chef, it's food writing. If you write a feature about going to slow food in Terra Madre, it's food writing.
So anything that has to do with food.
So it covers many genres, then.
Absolutely. There's murder mysteries that are food-related, that have recipes in them. There's political writing about food now, a lot of it. There's a website called Grist that's fantastic. Michael Pollan's books are political. They are science writing about food. He says he's a science writer.
That's probably a part of what makes [food writing] so exciting and so popular these days. Do you agree that food writing has become very popular in the last, what would you say, five years?
Oh, sure. There used to only be cookbooks in the cookbook section, and now there are essays, memoirs, science, textbooks, travel writing, glossaries, dictionaries.
That's amazing. How did you get into food writing and why? My understanding is that you didn't necessarily start off as a food writer.
I started off as a journalist, so my first job was on a newspaper, and I was in charge of the recipes that went into the paper, among other things. I also had to write obituaries. It was a pretty broad job.
I had no idea what constituted a good recipe. I just worked with the paste-up guys in the back in those days. We had 14 pages to fill, and I'd say, "Oh, this recipe is three inches long, so I'll slap it in here. This one's longer, there's a hole right there." I had no idea.
From there, I became the editor of a city restaurant magazine. That was 1977, a really long time ago.
Did you also have an interest in food, which is what motivated you to become editor of a city restaurant magazine?
I really didn't understand that I did. My mother and father were both obsessed with food, but I just thought that was normal. I thought everybody was like that.
They planted food, they harvested food, they canned food, they brined food, my father made yogurt, my mother cooked and baked every day. So I just thought that was what everybody did.
So that's how you came into food writing. Did you always write, were you always a journalist and writer?
My father was a poet and an amateur composer, and he thought of himself as an artist. He wanted me and my sister to become writers, so he used to give us writing assignments when we were very young. We did not argue with him, and both of us became reporters. My sister has an English lit degree and became a reporter, and I have a journalism degree and became a reporter.
That's training at a young age.
Yes. We were fulfilling his unanswered dream of being full-time writers.
I read somewhere that you had worked for international magazines. How did you come to do this?
I'm from Vancouver, and I moved to L.A. When I got out of journalism school, I got a job on Los Angeles Home and Garden Magazine, which lasted for six months and then [the magazine] closed. The only other magazine [the publisher] published was called Four Wheeler, still around today, an international four-wheel driver magazine.
I became the editor within six months, and I had a staff of 15 beer-swilling, gun-toting, pot-bellied Republican young men. I was their boss, and I stayed there for two and a half years. …That was just an odd thing that happened.
Were you still interested in food writing at the time?
I think I did restaurant reviews on the side while I was the editor there.
You mentioned in your bio that you left to become self-employed in 1996 after holding high-level positions at magazines and at a PR firm. What made you make that decision?
I had had a career of crazy bosses, and I just couldn't do it anymore. Publishers are very strange people.
Was it scary to go out on your own after holding these positions?
Yeah. I had no idea what I was going to do because I was used to being the editor-in-chief or the executive editor, and I didn't generate any work myself. I wrote position papers and strategies, and I managed a team, but I didn't produce work.
I know what you mean.
So then I was here, alone in my office going, "Okay, so…what do I do?" I had several reinventions. I wrote website text, I was a consultant for people who wanted to start magazines. I wrote marketing copy. I did PR for a venture capitalist.
Lots of different things.
Yeah, and somewhere in there, I started writing about food again. And then I discovered, "Oh, this is what I was meant to do."
So that's when you kind of put more focus on food writing.
Well, food writing does not pay well, unless you're at the top of your game, writing for Gourmet. So it's almost impossible to make a living as a food writer. Unless you're the type of person who writes one cookbook a year. As a freelancer it's really, really hard. Because they would like you to work for nothing, which was a big shock to me, having been paid to write, and paid well.
So, that's why I did all the other stuff. And then about four or five years ago, I married, which is what happens to a lot of food writers: they have another source of income, so they can afford to just do food writing, if that's what they want to do.
What would you say was your first break as a writer? And later as a food writer?
My first break [came when] I was still in journalism school. I decided to pitch a story I was working on, and the daily paper published it as is on the op-ed page.
That's a big break.
I just thought, "Oh, well, this is easy." It is not that easy now, but for some reason it was then.
[My first break as a food writer:] San Francisco Weekly was looking for a new restaurant reviewer. They had a contest and I won. They had three finalists, and they sent us all to restaurants and read our reviews, and then they hired me.
Oh, that's great.
It was kind of a weird way to find a new reviewer, but it worked for me.
So what have been your biggest challenges or obstacles in your career?
Well, certainly pay, being a food writer, that's the number one thing.
I feel that too, even as a non-food writer.
Yeah, pay is a big issue. People just don't take food writing seriously as a craft, and they think, "Well, this is just for fun." And if you do have another means of income, then they think, "Well, you don't really need to be paid anyway, so it sort of creates a chicken and the egg problem."
So, if I was not married and dependent on my own income, I could never do what I do. There's no way.
That says a lot about the field.
Or I'm not willing to move to Arkansas and live in a cabin so that I can do it.
Right. I'm with you on that one. How would you describe your work process, or your writing process? Do you write every day, for example?
I don't write every day. I find that old trick where you block out time in your calendar [works for me], and I'm very deadline-driven. If I have something to do, I'm going to do it, and I always beat my deadline. Having been trained as a journalist, you never miss a deadline, ever. But I used to be very organized in that I would write an outline first. Now I've given myself more permission to just start somewhere and build on it. I like that better.
You trust it more.
Yeah, I do trust the process more. But there's a big difference between writing articles and writing a book, in terms of your process. Because my first book was 80,000 words, and if you write a magazine piece, 5,000 words is a big piece.
[Writing a book] is more like running a marathon, that's how I think of it. I'm still trying to finish a novel; it's just taking a long time.
Well, it takes a long time, it just does. You just have to give it permission to take a long time. Or it's going to be crap, and what's the point of that?
So, when did you start coaching and why, and how has it affected your own writing?
I started coaching when I became self-employed because I missed working with writers. I'd spent my whole career working with writers, and I really loved bringing them along and helping them make a better story, and helping them have their breakthroughs and successes. I missed it, so it just sort of happened in an organic way. I can't even remember how it happened or who my first client was.
Has the coaching affected your writing, and if so, how?
I don't think it's affected my writing. It's always amazed me how talented people are who think that they have nothing to say or no skills. I'm always blown away, particularly when I teach, when people just write small things in class and they're beautiful. And they think they can't do it. So it's really not about whether you can do it or not. It's about persistence.
Yeah. I've met so many people who can do it, but it just doesn't mean they're going to.
So, how would you recommend others get into food writing?
Well, it depends what kind of food writing they want to do. If they want to review restaurants, they need to look around their community for a publication that isn't reviewing restaurants or who takes freelancers and start there. If they want to write recipes, then that's a whole other thing.
That's a very technical kind of writing, to write a cookbook. If they want to write memoirs—a lot of people want to write a food memoir who have glorious memories of their grandmother or growing up in another country—that's a lot more accessible because it's the easiest kind of writing, to write about yourself, because it's all in your brain, you just have to get it out.
And there's a market for that.
There is. It's a tough market, but there is one.
Right. I had a particular question about cookbooks, so I wanted to sidetrack for a minute to ask it. It seems like there are so many cookbooks out there … and there are lots of recipes in books and magazines. How is it people can continue to come up with new recipes? I mean, I've seen about ten recipes for Szechwan beans. Isn't one infringing on the rights of the other?
Well, it's a big issue.
I was always curious about that, because there are so many recipes out there. Are they all somehow original?
No. They're not all original. How could they be, right? If you want to make Szechwan green beans, you look in your cookbooks and you find four recipes for Szechwan green beans, and then you decide which one you're going to make.
So they're all variations.
They're all variations. But not everything is a variation of the same thing. … Some people get obsessed with copyright, and people stealing recipes, and I don't know what to say about that. It's a big issue for the big cookbook writers; they find their recipes all over the place, ripped off, all the time.
With no credit.
No credit, yeah. But there's still inspiration, [such as with the] 40 gluten-free allergy-type cookbooks [that] came out last year. There didn't used to be cookbooks like that.
There are not a lot of recipes for how to use quinoa and amaranth in cooking. There's always something new to explore.
That's great. Very positive too, for the marketplace. What do you think about blogging as an entry into food writing?
I think it's the best way in, absolutely.
Because I heard about the Julie/Julia blogging success story.
Yeah, that is the ultimate blogging success story. Actually, I wrote a trend story about food blogging and posted it on my website. That's the one that was a finalist for the Bert Greene award.
[The Julie/Julia blog] is going to be made into a movie with Meryl Streep playing Julia Child.
I heard that. ...What other advice or recommendations would you give a writer who wants to be a food writer?
Start writing about food. It's the same advice you'd give any writer: start writing.
There's so much material from your own life [you can use]: going to the supermarket, going to the farmer's market. One of my students in my UCLA [online] class just pitched me a story about making dinner from the 99-cent store. Great idea, super idea.
That is a good idea.
There's a billion [ideas] out there. There's a lemon tree in my backyard. I can write about that. I could write about, I don't know …my husband ate dinosaur kale three times in one day in three different things. I could write about that. There're a billion things to write about.
And [with] blogging…when you're a freelance writer, you have a million ideas a day, and you throw out almost all of them. But with blogging, you can just make small posts. You don't have to flesh out something, you don't have to interview anyone or track anybody down. So you can pursue that. It's very exciting.
I'm not saying that [the blog is] going to be good or that anyone will read it—those are whole other questions—but at least you can get it down.
There's an outlet for your work, at least.
Yeah, and then you have something. If you ever want to pitch a magazine or a newspaper, you can give them a link to your blog, since all pitches are in email now, right? … What would you have otherwise? If you had never been published, and if you were just starting, what would you say in your letter about why you're even qualified to write the piece?
It's a good point. Just a couple more questions. What is the key to good food writing, do you think?
Well, again, it depends what kind of food writing you're talking about. In recipes, the key is testing, because just because you write it down doesn't mean that somebody else knows what you're talking about. You make a lot of assumptions when you write something down, and that's why some recipes don't work.
But also, in cookbook writing there's a lot of opportunity for sensuous writing. And you want the reader to be able to smell what you're envisioning, and see it and taste it in their minds, and you want it to be a sensuous experience for them, to entice them.
So, what does the future hold for you?
I'm working on a book right now that is a new kind of writing for me, and it is not about food. In fact, I don't really know what it is. … But it will have food in it. It's a story about my family, because I have a very strange family background. It's about my aunt and her escapades. I have no idea how to write anything like that, so this is a new adventure.
Well, that's exciting. Is there anything else you want to add?
For people who are new to [food writing], there are classes they can take … classes in their town or online classes. …There are exercises in my book that a lot of people like to get them started.
I don't know of any other book on the market for food writers.
There isn't. There's a book on how to write recipes but there isn't a broad book like this one, that covers the whole genre. So it just happened to be a good idea to write it.
Well, it must have been kind of fun too to put all your experience…
Well, I interviewed 75 people for the book, and I quoted 220 works, and I wrote it… I was supposed to start writing it in the spring, and then my mother died, so I didn't write anything for months. I finally started writing in August, and I had to turn it in in November.
Wow. That's a pretty quick turnaround, four months. Especially when you've got other things going on that you have to balance it with.
Well, it wasn't just writing whatever I thought, because I'm certainly not the ultimate authority on food writing. It was interviewing people who were [expert]. Getting a testimonial from Anthony Bourdain was good.
That's fantastic. Thank you so much for your time.
Sure, it's my pleasure.