Food Writing Could Be Better, But It Will Need to Get Unappetizing First

Food media isn’t for everyone who eats but the gourmand who eats better than most, or at least aspires to. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

Nothing about being a food writer is exciting right now. I haven’t been thrilled by my industry since before the pandemic. But when the majority of the food industry’s workforce, from farms to restaurants, are Black and brown folks facing higher risks of exposure to COVID-19, the job feels even more empty. When their already precarious health and financial safety face further attrition at the polls and in the Supreme Court, emptiness becomes desperation. 

This year, independent restaurants, those darlings of food media, which once provided colorful characters and enchanting dishes for award-winning profiles, are closing one after the next. Those able to survive the economic realities of COVID-19, are contorting themselves to meet health guidelines just to serve the public’s eager appetite for normalcy. These are the current storylines that feed food writer’s penchant for poetic abstractions.

But this gloomy landscape isn’t even the reason writing about food isn’t exciting. Rather, it’s the very premise of food writing itself. Food media’s original and arguably core mission has been to service consumers— restaurant patrons, cookbook readers and kitchen gadget enthusiasts. 

Food media, especially in its digital form, isn’t for everyone who eats but for the gourmand who eats better than most, or at least aspires to. As such, stories begin at consumption and its pleasures with the unsexy business of food production only mentioned if the appellation is noteworthy or quaint. Even then, production is often abstracted by the science of terroir or other precious details of manufacturing. Labor and the global politics of food production, with their racialized and exploitative hierarchies, are too bitter for food media’s preferred prose. This almost singular focus on a consumer with economic access has meant that stories investigating food’s power dynamics and disparities are funneled toward the news section. Food media’s inosculation with the food industry means the two not only share an audience but also a stomach—that is to say, when consumers feed one, the other is nourished too. And so the food industry and food media, including writing, television and filmmaking, center the same customers: the upwardly mobile consumer looking to escape themselves.

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There are of course exceptions to this premise. In the ideological margins are publications and writers uncharmed by food media’s allegiance to the consumer class. These dissenters inject social and environmental concerns, placing the food industry inside an economic order and forecasting grave repercussions for people and the planet. The pandemic folded these margins toward the center, even if temporarily. With no grand openings to write about, food writers turned to the economic devastation from the pandemic. Suddenly, food sections were linking food insecurity to long-existing infrastructural failures; the food worker’s essential role was examined along with the absence of social protections for industry labor. The inequities laid bare by the pandemic were always present, we wrote, though we mostly had just parachuted in to the frontlines we’d previously ignored. 

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But even in the shock of the pandemic’s early months, our audiences’ primal appetites for consumption persisted. Readers devoured stories about pandemic cooking and how to safely get takeout and from where. This appetite for pleasure, albeit in a more utilitarian “safe mode,” was reflected by the bonanza experienced by food delivery companies. If food was a vehicle for escape and pleasure before, it became salvation for consumers who baked and ate their way through the pandemic to break the monotony of shelter-in-place. We food writers obliged this hunger with a dissonant mix of articles about food banks scrambling to meet demands and essential tips on sourdough starters. 

Today, where I find myself as a food writer is refusing the tides back toward the central premise of my occupation. As somber as the pandemic’s effect on the food industry has been—an economic devastation whose repercussions will have second, third and fourth waves of their own—our audience’s gourmand desire to consume and the food media’s impulse to satisfy remain intact. I’m disheartened because this central premise never moved. Capitalist consumption is resilient and stays in place even as we scramble around it. But I’m also not surprised that nothing has changed. After all, which mainstream media sector has successfully reoriented its audiences’ tastes towards this country’s foundational disparities and their contemporary iterations? 

Even so, food media has a specific and different problem than music writing, where the labor around song making, from its nascent phase to a final form, is more deeply examined and tracked. (This interest in archiving certainly hasn’t solved the material disparities in the music industry which run clearly across race and gender lines.) On the other hand, mainstream food media’s segregation of food consumption and food production has not served the political and economical literacy of food writers and our audience. Have we read and written enough to draw a line from this nation’s first agricultural labor system, indentured servitude, to chattel slavery, to sharecroppers to the condition migrant laborers face today? And when food writing ventures into politics, its favorite subject is appropriation, but even then the harm is barely examined. “There is a material connection between legitimized appropriation and the conditions of freedom for Black people. But in beginning and ending the conversation on the offense and not the impact, we risk clouding the real stakes,” writes Rawiya Kameir about the crucial context and consequence of Black music’s co-optation by non-Black people, a sentiment which applies to the food industry. 

From its most essential state as nutrition to its conception as a cultural product, food is a site of conflict. In the United States alone, a global agricultural superpower, food insecurity affects 1 in 9 residents or well over 36 million people. The labor force which services the country’s lucrative agricultural export is divided across racial lines, further stratifying income disparities. In California, where the majority of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown and picked, 56% of farm workers are undocumented and unprotected without access to government backed unemployment and health insurance programs. 

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This is where the seed of the food industry’s inequity grows but we mostly swallow its harvest whole, refusing to reckon with how it landed on our plates.