Increasingly, many feature reporters assigned to food sections are urged to write for A1. That’s not necessarily because the front page has gotten softer, but because food news has gotten harder. Kim Severson, a former cop reporter who happened to like food, told me she was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle about ten years ago to write for the food section and “bridge the gap between food and news.”
“I was centered in features,” she recalls, “but I was encouraged to write for the front page. It’s evolved in the last decade. A lot more papers have seen the value of having food news coming out of the food section, so it’s written from the plate out.” Severson, who now writes for the New York Times’s dining section, captured a fair share of front-page real estate in 2008. But, as she said, “I like to reserve the right to do the recipe story, too.”

Many traditional food writers—those who have spent their careers writing about recipes, profiling chefs, and reviewing restaurants—are now confronting the complexities of food issues. “A lot of them have had to get serious,” Paul Roberts said. “And in many cases they’re out of their depths, because they’ve never had to cover this before. We’re starting to wake up to the fact that this is extremely complicated.”

I, too, came to my beat as a reporter who loves food. I’d covered a lot of beats—cops, environment, health—and was an education reporter when I pitched the idea to my editors. I confess: I’m not well read in the big food writers of the past, and I’m not a particularly informed gourmet, either. But I realized that I was spending a lot of time plotting menus, figuring out how to use what I had in the fridge to avoid throwing anything away. I’ve always loved the idea of eating out of the garden, and have happy memories of my grandparents’ little plot of urban land in Düsseldorf, Germany, which seemed to yield endless jars of raspberry jam.

Even so, I was lucky to get the green light for this beat. I was the rare beneficiary of a shrinking newsroom. Some science beats had been consolidated or eliminated. We lost an agriculture reporter in a buyout, and our biotech reporter left this fall—for a job at Monsanto. I also had editors willing to try something new, because doing so was better than doing nothing and helplessly watching the ship sink.

Until now, food stories have tended to lack the gravitas of, say, big investigative pieces on government graft. Maybe that’s because food security in this country is pretty solid. There’s an abundance of things to eat (though, arguably, not enough of it is nutritious), and even with the food scares of late, our supply is generally quite safe. But with the world’s population expected to climb to 8.5 billion people in about thirty years, food production will need to rise by as much as 2 percent annually—and the earth already has one billion malnourished residents. Our need to feed ourselves, and the impact of that demand on our landscapes and lives, will likely complicate the role of food reporting in years to come. Certainly the current global crisis has made it clear that food coverage has to go way beyond anything we’ve done before.

The food writers of yore waxed beautifully and meaningfully about what we eat and how. But as much as, say, M. F. K. Fisher did for food consciousness, she was not a journalist, nor did she try to be. Today’s food reporters face a different challenge.

It used to be that we humans spent hours each day looking for food. Many of us, myself included, still do—only it’s not for survival, and we do it with a keyboard, or by flipping the pages of a magazine or newspaper. We can only guess at the roots of the phenomenon. It probably comes from some deep need to connect with life, with the earth, especially in an age of such thorough alienation from what sustains us. In any case, it has engendered reams of lovely, enriching stories about perfectly crusty bread and spectacularly inventive chefs.

Much of this food porn is great—truly delectable stuff. Still, it seems that all of the recipes, the celebrity chefs, and the collective food fetishes are a portal to something else. We have built entire media economies on food, and now we’ve found ourselves facing a food reality with consequences, one that actually matters.

It’s a new story. Time to dig in. 

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Georgina Gustin writes about all things food-related for the Metro section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When not in the newsroom or tracking farmers in the hills, she's usually in her kitchen, ruining dinner.