On Food Writing
All my life I’ve had a deep desire to write, yet I never considered myself a writer. I am an artist, and that I can identify with. Upon the blank canvas or paper, I wasn’t afraid to fill in the empty space with the language of color. But words were something I kept to myself in a journal. When I was a young girl, I kept a notebook by my bed to write down dreams, thoughts, and ideas, many of which I still remember. The vivid dreams that I had as a child, especially the notable ones, were scribbled down in a rush to get the dream out from the invisible to the visible. I’ve also had a few experiences where my written word was erased, once by someone out of jealousy (an ex-boyfriend, in case you were wondering), crumpled up, destroyed, thrown into a garbage dumpster during a rainstorm. That sounds dramatic, I suppose, but the sight of running ink left a stain upon my memory. It was safer to keep the real stuff hidden away, and kind of scary to put it all out there. I never gave much thought to being a writer. Perhaps it was a fear that I’d say something powerful enough to get a strong reaction, to be thrown at me metaphorically, or thrown away. The fear of my own power has held me back for years, but now I think I’m ready to really write, and food writing was an easier way of preparing for it.
A blog was a curious thing to consider doing, because it was an immediate way to put the written word out into the blogosphere where hundreds and thousands of people I didn’t know could read it. Only I could press the delete button, and I liked that feature. The other thing was, subject matter. So, what did I have to say and how exactly would I say it? Magically, the blank post draft was blinking its cursor, as if to beckon me into a world where I could say anything and press publish. That cyber will o’ the wisp called out, asking me to go into the dark midnight of my mind, to uncover all of the treasures within. And the first thing that I felt inspired to write about was, well, pizza.
At the time when I started this blog back in 2011, I was a totally stressed out single mom of three kids. There was no pause in time for deep introspection, and what I craved most — when I had a moment to myself — was the act of enjoying a good meal. A good meal while sitting down at a table, not the hurried frenzy of eating a burrito while driving in traffic. As I look back, it’s no wonder that I wanted to describe the sensual experience of slowly eating a butterscotch pudding or waxing rhapsodic on how the tahini sauce enveloped roasted carrots. That’s because each day began as if I were preparing to climb a mountain with my team of school age children: backpacks, water bottles, lunches all ready to go. I juggled a full calendar of things to do, organizing my work schedule around my children’s schedule, which was a mental form of Jenga on its own, then fitting in my son’s baseball practice drop offs and pick ups, rushing along streets and intersections to pick up both of my daughters from after school and daycare, and, not to mention, figuring out what we were all going to eat for dinner. It seemed that meals were eaten while doing something, such as shuttling around in the minivan while eating a burrito, or some other portable food. I wanted to have that calm moment to take in the basic pleasure of paying attention to my food. Were I able to blog about the messy, the difficult, the dirty dishes of my life back then, this blog would have become a different focus. So I chose to write about food, because I felt uplifted when I was in my kitchen, and that has always been my happy place.
Food is comfort, love and possibility to me. It was my mothering form of love and a sort of meditation. To put together wet and dry ingredients into a bowl and transform it into a cake, that was what I wanted to write about. Alchemy. Food was pleasure, its warmth and cozy nourishment gave me such satisfaction, and I had to imagine that if I felt the way I did, then other people out there could relate.
Even though it’s been years since I put a paintbrush to canvas, I’m still a creative artist. I had to express all of that creativity inside, much like painting. Well, with a limited amount of time (and space— back in my little apartment the kitchen fit one person at most) cooking was like painting, and writing about cooking felt possible to do, so I blogged about food.
Magically, the blank post draft was blinking its cursor, as if to beckon me into a world where I could say anything and press publish. That cyber will o’ the wisp called out, asking me to go into the dark midnight of my mind, to uncover all of the treasures within. And the first thing that I felt inspired to write about was, well, pizza.
And you know what happens, the life stuff. Overdue bills, daycare costs, too many things crowding the pan of my mind. But cooking gave me hope for something better, and I believed in that. I now believe that blogging was a practice in visualization to align with my dreams. It helped me manifest my life to where it is today. I was curious about blogging. The act of cooking kept my mind calm.
I wish I had the courage then to capture the whole of that time, because I was in the midst of an entire midlife transition. My eating focus went from vegetarian to vegan. I biked to work. I went raw vegan and exercised more. I wanted to feel as much life as possible. It was fun to create a dish, snap a photo of it, and share the recipe. Maybe not a profound thing, but a fun thing to do. Eating and the art of cooking felt good to me. I wanted to feel good and feed my soul. That was how the name The Sensual Foodie came about.
After work I took the bike path along the beach just to breathe in the fresh ocean air and appreciate beauty. I’d meditate on blog posts and dream up recipes during my bike ride. Blogging refreshed my creative passions. I remembered who I was with a laptop and a camera. Writing a post was an act of gathering together the many parts of myself that I had forgotten: the part of me that loved to cook, the part of me that craved the simple pleasure of baking, the part of me that was intensely creative. The poet that wrote while gazing out a train window. The painter that fell in love with light and color. There were so many parts of me I put away because I was distracted and overwhelmed, just barely surviving as a single mom of three.
My very first post was about an afternoon lunch of pizza and iced tea. I described the pizza as “…delicate and thin, dappled with burrata cheese. The crust had a burnt, earthy flavor, covered with fresh cherry tomatoes, zucchini, thyme, garlic, little buds of squash blossoms. It tasted like sunlight baked upon a hot stone.” I was sincere at the time, but it’s not always easy to describe food without sounding like a paperback romance novel.
I’ve been on the culinary path all along: I graduated as a chef trained in French classic cooking and pastry, and was once engaged to a line chef at Spago. For quite awhile, my favorite thing to do on the weekend was to decorate cakes. I also lived in New Orleans for a number of years and ate a lot of things made with butter. Oh, and I owned a blowtorch specifically for making that toasty golden caramel crust on crème brûlée. I’ve always loved the produce section at the market. I find joy in the mountains of apples and avocados, and get excited by the vivid colors of radicchio, beets, and radishes.
I’d like to think good food writing has evolved, but in this content hungry age, we are bombarded by Yelp reviews, top lists and best of articles. Yet there are good writers out there. Consider food critic Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, who has helped so many mom-and-pop businesses thrive in a huge city like Los Angeles with his reviews. The thing is, lately, many bonafide food writers need to take on other jobs, you know, to eat.
Being a creative, no matter what form, allows the energy of life to flow through us. Food is an essential part of life. To write about food is similar to writing about art. How you experience it, what it evokes, its colors and textures, triggering a response from the senses. As I’ve written about food and blogged, contributing to other magazines and writing for pay began to feel more like work. It wasn’t for my own pleasure, or to share something, it was to describe an experience and to give an opinion in exchange for a paycheck.
Virginia Woolf may have been absolutely correct about finding a Room of One's Own, but she definitely would have also suggested a side hustle or two, in order to keep writing in this internet age. We have to do anything we can just to write. Now it’s writing content. I crave quality writing, soulful writing, the art of writing. Let me briefly illustrate that “round up” lists do not satisfy the creative writer. Round ups are — if you aren’t sent a barrage of PR emails asking you to list things like the Top 10 Best Ramen Restaurants in the entire city, then you may not know the word —a form of article per se that lists something. As a food writer, you are, suddenly, a list maker and knower of all of the best places to slurp ramen in a city of 26,000 ramen restaurants, because you would and should know that. A “round up” is otherwise known as the listicle. It’s a list, it’s an article, it’s a listicle. Let me tell you, listicles are soul sucking to the writer, unless you don’t mind making an effort to graze at every place you can for the sake of reporting it to the epicurious in search of such places. There are those hungry and brave journalists that enjoy list making as a freelance job, but it’s not quite literary in the making. List the Top 10, describe it in a few sentences, add the blurb about the wine list, and move on.
My efforts in food photography have made some improvement from eight years ago, as they were once yellowy-orange from indoor lighting. It takes practice and as I continue to improve my food photography, it’s part of the food blogging deal. Instagram obsessed, I began with taking shots of my morning chai lattes and farmers market vegetables, and with regular practice, I feel more confident with my camera skills. The art of photography is another thing to grasp as a blogger, unless you have another photographer to shoot for you. I’ve also dabbled in the craft of food stylist, photographer, as well as recipe developing cook.
Daily life in raising a family involves grocery shopping, cooking, and feeding. If a dinner turns out well, I'll take notes on what I did (I don't measure) and try it again before sharing the recipe. To get a good photo of the recipe takes more trips to the grocery store and/or farmers' market for ingredients, clearing my workday to cook, style, and make the most of daylight to get the best shot. Sometimes I get it right and other times it seems like nothing works. If I’m too tired to cook, it’s a recipe for failure. I don’t expect much of myself at that point, so instead of a homemade family meal, we pick up burritos for dinner. (Burritos are my soul food.) Salads, soups, and other everyday foods are basic staples. Not everything needs to be a concerto, sometimes it can just be a song. A little fresh salad, some homemade pesto for linguine or fettuccine, et voila. My philosophy is to eat mostly fresh food, and less processed things. Fall in love with the ordinary vegetable. It has the ability to transform if you allow the flavors to come out.
I’ve been on the culinary path all along: I graduated as a chef trained in French classic cooking and pastry, and was once engaged to a line chef at Spago. For quite awhile, my favorite thing to do on the weekend was to bake and decorate cakes. I also lived in New Orleans for a number of years and ate a lot of things made with butter. Oh, and I owned a blowtorch specifically for making that toasty golden caramel crust on crème brûlée. I’ve always loved the produce section at the market. I find joy in the mountains of apples and avocados, and get excited by the vivid colors of radicchio, beets, and radishes.
My love of food and the art of cooking inspires me as an artist. Writing my thoughts and opinions on food, a restaurant review, a recipe, the memory of a beautiful meal— all of it is worth sharing in a blog post.