`Will Write for Food' by culinary journalist and writing teacher, Dianne Jacob is a must read for everyone who has any intention on entering the culinary writing field. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Ms. Jacob makes it clear that like virtually every worthwhile endeavor, success with culinary writing is difficult. As I have occasionally given some thought to trying my hand at submitting culinary writing for publication, I have thought that there may be some `easy' markets, if I were just clever enough to find them. Ms. Jacob has convinced me that there are no easy markets, at least none which actually pay real money for publication. Even the seemingly `easy' outlets such as local newspapers, magazines, and niche magazines have so many sources of either free or relatively inexpensive material that even these markets may be tough to crack. The major national markets such as `Gourmet', `Saveur', and `Food and Wine' are virtually unreachable by the newcomer.
The second most important thing about Ms. Jacob's book is that it does not intend to teach you how to write. She does give a few pages of suggestions and hints, especially on word usage in culinary applications are spread here and there around the book. And, a few references to sources on training for writing are given, including my very favorite `The Elements of Style' by Strunk and White.
Thus, the book is more about the food writing market than it is about writing. This is a very good thing, as all your writing efforts are worthless if you don't have a clear notion of your audience, your medium, and your medium's picture of their audience. And, the quantity and quality of sources, especially web sites given in this book are truly astounding. There is not a single culinary web site of which I am familiar that is missed, although the name of the TV Food Network web site is a bit out of date. And there are many, many more which are new to me. I am also happy to see that Ms. Jacob includes a mention of a personal web site or blog as a means of getting your writing in front of an audience. This is the modern world's version of self-publishing with even less overhead than a paper and hard covered book. She even mentions `printing on demand' where the vendor only prints the physical volume when they receive an order for the book. All this means is that this is a very up-to-date manual on all your outlet alternatives.
So, Ms. Jacob's primary focus is identifying all the culinary writing markets, finding the one which best suits your interests and skills, and giving you suggestions on how to maximize your success in each market. Along the way, there are lots of interesting bits of information on, for example, why there are so few negative restaurant reviews. From the newspapers' point of view, there is simply no point to publishing a highly critical review of a local eatery, even if they don't advertise in the paper. People give much more interest to suggestions on where to go than where not to go. Unfortunately, Ms. Jacob's book was probably in galleys when Ruth Reichl's `Garlic and Sapphires' book was published, so there is no reference to that book. So, if you are really interested in restaurant reviewing, Ms. Reichl's latest book is also a must read.
Along the way, Ms. Jacob quotes a really impressive range of successful culinary writing professionals, starting with Judith Jones (VP at Alfred A. Knopf and original editor for Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey, Lydia Bastianich, and Diana Kennedy) and including Julie Sahni, Deborah Madison, Tony Bourdain, James Villas and Ruth Reichl. With all these bases covered, I'm surprised she has no mention of Michael Ruhlman who is both a major culinary journalist and collaborator in cookbook writing with Thomas Keller.
As Ms. Jacob does not cover cookbook reviewing (my favorite culinary writing hobby), I will comment on her extensive tips on writing recipes. In general, I believe her tips are very good for the amateur or newbie recipe writer. And, I wish most cookbook writers would follow her suggestions. But, I believe there is room for more than one paradigm of a good recipe. Ms. Jacob gives us what may be called the Julia Child paradigm, where the author assumes little general culinary knowledge on the part of the reader. So, as most people react to Ms. Child's recipes, you have the feeling of the author's standing at your side and walking you through each step. This method is especially good for teaching traditional recipes to amateurs.
A second paradigm may be called the Elizabeth David model, as you find in her books on Mediterranean, French Provincial, and Italian recipes. Here, the object is less to give detailed instructions than to cover as broad a field as possible, spending a lot of time on comparing and contrasting recipes from different regions. The recipes are not so sparse that a trained cook could not reproduce them, but doing so may require a fair amount of specialized culinary expertise.
A third paradigm may be called the Joel Robuchon model, which is what I expect to find in any cookbook written on a restaurant's `haute cuisine'. This model allows both unusual ingredients and difficult techniques, as the object of this writing is not so much to teach the amateur a recipe, but to simply tell us how it is done at the chef's famous venue. The best practitioner of this style is probably Thomas Keller and literary collaborator, Michael Ruhlman.
At one point, Jacob advises against using a rather long list of words for culinary techniques in recipes. This list includes `blanch', `braise', `fold', `poach' and twelve other technical terms. I cannot disagree more on this point. The only case in which I would avoid these words is in a community fundraising cookbook. Any book written to teach should not hide its flame under a skillet!