Aficionados agree: Great writing makes for good food journalism

Consumers are increasingly interested in learning about food preparation and production. Writing about food is an expanding area for journalists. Many “foodies” can satisfy their appetites to learn more through locally produced newspapers, magazines, online blogs and television segments. The Society of Professional Journalists, St. Louis chapter, recently brought together three area food writers to talk about trends in food news.

Suzanne Boyle is the food editor at the Belleville News Democrat. She has been writing about food for 17 years. Suzanne Corbett started in the food industry as a culinary teacher and caterer. After years of doing presentations for groups, she started writing for publications throughout the region. Catherine Neville is the publisher and editor of Feast magazine. She started building websites for restaurants in the late 1990s and launched another food magazine, Sauce, in 2001.

While each of the three got into food writing via different paths, they all agree food journalism is like other forms of journalism – it comes down to great writing.

“You must have the writing skills,” Boyle said. “It is about organization and how to make the article interesting to read.”

Corbett said it’s helpful to have an editor who is familiar with food, so that recipes can be better proofread.

“I can usually look at recipe and recognize a problem, but sometimes we miss things,” she said.

Boyle initially was reluctant to become the food editor.

“I didn’t want to be the ‘Betty Crocker’ type of food editor,” she said. “But now it is so popular, I don’t mind being called the food editor.”

Neville acknowledged that food writing is very different than being a food critic.

“Food critics are mostly male – it is a very male-oriented job,” she said.” Journalism, and specific to me being an editor, is still mostly male profession. But we see more and more women writing about food.”

Neville’s Feast magazine is produced with an all-female staff, but they do have male contributors.

People approach food from a different perspective today, Corbett said.

“People are embracing the old ways of food cooking,” she said. “Cooking is a hobby, a social event now. It is not a life skill like it used to be. Food is a great way to connect with people, but basic life skills are not being met for the young people who still eat everything out of a box.”

Neville agreed.

“Food is a spectator sport now,” she said. “People think, ‘If I can’t do it just right, I am a failure.’ We need to open up the way we think about food preparation so people enjoy it.”

The most significant change in covering food has been the increased demand by consumers to know where their food is coming from. The connection with local producers – and the number of backyard gardens and poultry flocks – has increased in the past 10 years.

“It is a sea change in how we approach and value food, and understand that it matters,” Boyle said. “You, as a consumer, have power with your money and your spending.”

The year-round availability of foods from around the world also has changed the way we cook and eat. Boyle said we have lost sight of how to eat seasonally, and we want all types of food “on demand.” Consumers also should try to buy more locally grown food.

None of the panel members wanted to speak directly to the issue of genetically modified seeds and foods. However, all agreed that food labeling should be as accurate and detailed as possible. Transparency in food labeling will give consumers the information needed to make the choices that are best for them, they said.

A question from the 40-member audience led to a discussion on food photography. The panelists said people love to see photos of food, whether it is something they have personally prepared or have ordered at a restaurant.

“We eat with our eyes,” Boyle said. “We try to use the real item for our photographs, but some do use other items to make the photos look better.”

Neville said shortening often is used for photos of ice cream and other frozen products. The consistency is similar, but it doesn’t melt during a photo shoot.

There was concern about some restaurants trying to block patrons from posting food photos on social media. Some chefs see this as free publicity, but others see it as a potential problem is the costumer is not happy.

The next SPJ News at Noon event will take place June 13 at the Missouri History Museum. The event is free and open to the public.


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