I get a lot of great and interesting reader email. A few weeks ago,  I received a note that did not sit well with me. It came from a young student at an elite local college asking me for guidance on food writing and in part said:

“The current dilemma I am having is that I am torn between dedicating my life to a career in public service because I want my work to impact other people and doing something which is more personally interesting to me, like food writing, but does not have as much for a worldly impact”

At first her note irked me. Why in the world would you write to a writer and imply to them that what they are doing has no “worldly impact”?

I sent her off a rather huffy note listing food writers who make a difference:  Look at Marion Nestle with all her work on nutrition. What about Michael Pollan and his view-altering books on how we eat. How about Mark Bittman who is made people come back into the kitchen to cook…

But I began to wonder.. what about people who are the true artists of food writing… the people whose work is just beautiful and poetic and flows and doesn’t fall in the arena of hard-hitting journalism. Do they have a worldly impact?

What is the impact of any art? Why did Picasso paint? Did his paintings have a worldly impact? Can art exist for art’s sake? Should it?

A few days after sending her my response, I was still bothered by her question. Perhaps on a more personal level, it made me think: does my work matter? Does my writing have a worldly impact? What does “worldly impact” really mean?

My goal with my work has always been to show how food affects our culture, how food creates bonds, how it keeps us connected with our past and offer great promise for the future.  I weave tales of food and how intertwined it is in our lives. I write about the joy of my son’s first taste of chocolate, I wonder about the ethnicity of chefs who cook a cuisine not their own, I marvel at the beauty of a plum tomato, I giggle with delight when I taste a luscious fig.

I am a culture watcher, a mere storyteller.

Does that matter? Do storytellers have a worldly impact?

I don’t know the answer.

But here is what all this soul searching made me realize: I write because it is my calling. It is what I was put on this earth to do. It is who I am and what I do. The results are not something I can worry about or control. If I do my work well, perhaps in many ways, that is its own reward.


I asked my esteemed colleagues for their thoughts on the question:

Ramin Ganeshram (Food writer and cookbook author): “Food writing matters because it’s not really about the food–it’s a taste of what makes a person or culture or tick.”

Dianne Jacob (food writing teacher) – Many books about food have impacted Americans in positive ways, helping them change their eating habits or alerting them about the how the government and corporations made food decisions that are not in our best interests. I think of these thoughtful books, such as Tomatoland, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Politics and Fast Food Nation, as public service books because of their huge impact on our society.  Most authors of books like these don’t see themselves as food writers, though — just writers.

Lisa Gosselin (EIC Eating Well magazine) I am thankful that I have a job that, if we do it well, can not only make people’s lives better but can actually save lives. There is not a week that goes by that we do not get letters from readers saying that EatingWell has inspired to them to not only cook and eat healthier foods but to lead healthier lives. They tell us stories about how they have lost weight, turned around the early warning signs of heart disease or diabetes, or simply learned to cook and appreciate vegetables in ways they never thought. We write about sustainability and have helped people make choices that are better for them and the planet through award-winning stories on sustainable seafood or genetically modified foods. We have raised awareness too of the problems in our food systems: how the dairy crisis impacts farmers, communities and landscapes; how the farm bill can change the face of the country by promoting or killing small farms.

To write well is a public service, and a chance to influence millions. To write well about food, is a chance to influence millions in their daily choices: we all eat!

Corinne Trang (food writer and cookbook author): As a chef, cookbook author, and wellness coach, I am dedicated to mindful eating and feel a responsibility to address and bring awareness to health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, which have reached epidemic proportions. To do any less than present healthy recipes in order to promote balanced meals (and therefore lifestyle) would be irresponsible on my part. I have, along with many of my colleagues, an opportunity to make an impact and every chance I get to engage in such an important topic whether it is on television or radio, I do. The way we eat affects us, physically, emotionally, mentally. It also affects our health on a national and international level, economically, financially, and politically.

Annia Ciezadlo (author): “I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion. The Great War, for instance, could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented…. Yet it is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognized. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market gardeners.”

–      George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Clare Leschin-Hoar (food writer): I absolutely would challenge the assumption that being a food writer isn’t impactful. Covering the food beat means you report on environmental and political issues that can range from pollution and antibiotic resistance (CAFOs); to conservation issues (farming) and overfishing (bluefin); to genetic modification of plants (corn, soybean, sugar beets) and animals (GMO salmon), to critical legislation like the Farm Bill.

But if you need an example of food writing that has directly impacted other people, I would point you to the work of Barry Estabrook and his coverage on the conditions faced by the Immokalee workers   (both for Gourmet and in his notable book, Tomatoland, which brought to light modern-day slavery conditions in a food chain that touched anyone who ever purchased a tomato-topped sandwich from a fast food chain, or picked up an out-of-season tomato from the supermarket. There’s no question that well-researched and reported food writing can make a difference.

Molly O’neill (food writer and cookbook author): Why write about food? Because food is a patch of blue in an otherwise gray news world…

One can not tell the truth about other people’s relationship to food without knowing their own relationship, socially, in terms of class and ethnicity. Emotionally in terms of the void that is being filled when one bites and chews. Culturally in terms of one’s political, historic, and economic context.

Food is one of the final frontiers of the unique and the individual. It is a bastion of the liberal arts impulse, a place where only people who never want to stop learning should go. It is a place where people say who they are, where they came from, where they dream of going, over and over and over again. It is living humanism, the transcendental movement for the electronic era. It is the place to be. It requires everything you have. It never stops demanding.

Jonathan Gold (Pulitzer prize winning food writer):  I probably come up against this question more than most writers do – my brother is a well-known marine environmentalist, and people find it amusing to juxtapose our careers; the species he saves versus the species I eat for lunch. But the difference is clear: The fact that Santa Monica Bay is more swimmable than it was when we were teenagers outweighs whatever I may have done to persuade Angelenos about the wonders of the multicultural mosaic.

If the student’s passion for food writing is real and pure and true, than she should probably pursue it. If, on the other hand, she is considering it as one career option among many, she may as well channel her passions into Oxfam or Food First or Doctors Without Borders. In the long run, it will probably do more good.

Bruce Shaw (publisher, Harvard Common Press)– I believe that many people may initially undertake food writing because they either love food, or find the idea of writing about it to be full of possibility. But any good food writer, that is, any writer who is true to the craft and to their place within that world, soon realizes that our words and thoughts on food touch everyone who read them. Whether it is food education, sustainability, or even a recipe that helps to bring a new cook into the kitchen, food writing has a profound effect that goes far beyond just words on a page.  Food surrounds us in all that we do, and those that lead the conversation which helps consumers better understand and appreciate their food are doing a service that is beyond measure.”

Bill Daley (senior food reporter, Chicago Tribune): Granted food writing isn’t hard news – it’s not wars or taxes or murder or even stock trading – but it’s vital news. And anyone with imagination, drive, talent can push food writing onto page 1. Their writing may help set policy or change how a nation or a people view food. At the very least, a food writer can give readers something wonderful to eat for dinner – and there’s honor in that, too.

The first few lines could be a quote I suppose but don’t want to sound if I’m beating up on the kid. I’d rather have you use those points in a softer paraphrase or perhaps use them to shape your reply…after all, none of us know what the future will bring.

David Leite (publisher Leite’s Culinaria, author and food writer): “If you think food writing can’t have a worldly impact, how do you explain away “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child?”

Domenica Marchetti (food writer and author): Of course there are all sorts of ways to answer this. I could talk about the relevance of writers such as Michael Pollan and Barry Estabrook and Eric Schlosser. There are writers like yourself, Momica, for whom food is, among other things, a wonderful vehicle for storytelling. There are writers of memoirs, writers of cookbooks, writers of blogs. They are all relevant.

In my own case, writing about food gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge of and love for Italian culture and life, and ~ increasingly important ~ to shine a light on food and culinary traditions that are in danger of disappearing. I just wrote a blog post about visiting a farm in the mountains of Abruzzo where the owners raise sheep and cows and produce award-winning cheeses. But the cheese is only part of their story. They have bigger goals ~ monumental ones. Through their work they are trying to revive traditional organic farming ways that have been lost to industrial farming practices. And they are using their farm and agriturismo operation to breathe new economic life into the region’s distressed mountain towns and villages, many of which have seen their residents depart for cities and other countries in search of work. Their aim is to become a model, not only throughout Italy, but in other countries facing similar circumstances.

Now maybe my blog post won’t reach thousands of people, but if it makes even a few aware of this place, of these people and their work, of a different way of living life, then it’s relevant.

Tim Carman (food reporter, The Washington Post: It just seems human nature to want to believe your job has meaning and value, that you’re contributing something to the greater good of your community. We all spend so much time devoted to our jobs these days that to think otherwise would lead to a sort of existential crisis (which, I believe, your original note writer was hoping to avoid).

With that said, I think setting the bar at “worldly impact” is setting yourself up for disappointment. Most of us food writers will not make an impact on the world. For many people, in fact, the job of the local trash collector has more impact on their lives than the words I print on a weekly basis. That’s just a humbling reality. But I think our words create smaller, ephemeral ripples, and there is nothing wrong with that. Our words might help a small-but-skilled restaurateur drum up business. We might suggest new and interesting recipes for readers to try at home. We might even give voice to those in the industry who are distressed but powerless, or those who see disturbing trends on the horizon, both large and small. All these things have value.
I think one of the hardest things about writing (whether food or some other subject) is that you don’t always get to see/feel/experience the impact of your work. You can feel the wrath of reader comments or savor the words of an e-mailer who loved your story or a particular turn of phrase. You can even troll Twitter to get a sense of what people think. But these are just small samples, and not always a reliable indicator of your work. The bottom line for me is that I have to feel happy with my work: I have enjoy the entire process — the research, the interviews, the writing — and enjoy the responsibility of depicting people fairly while still honoring my own perspective. Then I have to trust that, somehow, it has impact, because ultimately, I have no control over that.
Andrea Nguyen (food writer and cookbook author): The most successful writers have something to say. They want to make a difference, to contribute to the discussion and bring new knowledge or insights to the table. And how do you define success? It’s not necessarily monetary, but whether or not your work — recipes, essays, reporting, restaurant reviews, website/blog, corporate marketing info materials — helps someone. That’s the payoff. In that regard, it’s a form of public service.

Or, maybe you just want to write for yourself. Self-expression is just fine too.
The lovely Virginia Willis adds her thoughtsYes, my sweet lady, food writing matters, if for nothing else, it gives me my raison d’etre, my reason to be. I can no more imagine not cooking and writing than I can imagine living without breathing.
Michael RuhlmanI’ve always struggled with this and even have tried to shy away from the label “food writer,” meaning not good enough to write about the important stuff. But that’s wrong. Food and cooking are fundamental aspects of our humanity.  So is story-telling.  We are the only animal that tells stories, and we are the only animal that cooks.  To tell stories about food and cooking then is not only natural, it combines the two sole activities that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  That in itself is worth exploring.

Photo from iSTOCK.com
This piece got a lovely shout out in the NYT Dining blog: Here
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