How do we write about food when there isn’t any?

In 2005, Maria Luisa Rios launched the first food blog in Venezuela, Mil Sabores (1,000 Flavors). The trained journalist and mom of three relished her newfound outlet, sharing her love for food, wine, and dining with her fellow Venezolanos, and the food of Venezuela with the world through local outlets, her blog, and various global media. Until 2016, when she slowed her writing to a trickle.

As Venezuela’s economy went into freefall, food shortages plagued the country, periodic riots hit the streets, and skyrocketing inflation meant that the eggs you paid $1 for the day before might have tripled in cost overnight. Restaurants, if they could stay open and find food, likely had to buy their ingredients at high prices on black markets. All of this gave Rios pause—both figuratively, and literally, when she decided to take a break from food writing. “If you go out on the street and see people looking in the garbage for food,” she says of the choice, “it’s terrible to get to your office and write about fancy food.”

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It raises an ethical conundrum: How should food writers continue their work in the face of devastating food shortages? Watching starving children rummage for scraps soured Rios on food writing. But food shortages exist everywhere in the world, every day, points out freelance food writer and radio producer Von Diaz. “Should we never review a restaurant in a city that has a homelessness crisis?” she asks.

Diaz is Puerto Rican by heritage (her February 2018 book, Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South, draws deeply on her ties to to the island), so the issue is near and dear to her. “Journalists covering food in an acute crisis,” she says, referring to situations like that of the island since the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, “need to be conscious of it and, at times, preface what they say by acknowledging it.” But she also points out that businesses deserve the opportunity to revive. Which was, after some time, why Rios decided to return to writing about food at the end of 2017, despite the advertising revenue having dried up.

“People get to eat only because they work at restaurants,” says Rios, explaining her motivation. Chefs she spoke with had told her that employees didn’t want days off to be with their family because they had no food at home. Meanwhile, owners struggle to draw business. “If you go outside, you can’t speak on your cell phone, because it might get stolen,” Rios explains, “so people don’t go out at night.” Most restaurants now open for only breakfast and lunch. Water and electricity shortages mean they can’t even always do that.

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“Although we worry about what’s happening with the food shortages and malnourished children,” she says, “it has been clear to all—and especially to food journalists—that restaurants have to stay open.” But in order to square her ethics with her vocation, she needed to make some changes.

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Gone were her days of writing about Argentine wine or where to find Italian truffles. Gone, too, were the advertisers who supported her site—restaurants, rum companies, cheesemakers. She focused on posting pictures to Instagram about street food, writing about dishes more people could afford. “We help, in some way, when we speak about where you can find good food,” she says, “where prices are reasonable.” (Nothing, she adds, is cheap anymore. “Reasonable” is the best hope.)

Rios began running video conferences to promote Venezuelan food culture both within and outside the country. “Chocolate Summit” brought together experts from the US and the Netherlands with growers of Venezuela’s fine cacao. “Arepa Conquista” focused on the corn-flour disks that are Venezuela’s staple food, looking to preserve the cuisine in the face of shortages by connecting Venezuelan emigrants around the world who make and sell the local favorite.

Rios turned her focus toward people like Chefs Francisco Abenante and David Akinin, who created Barriga Llena Corazon Contento (“Full Stomach, Happy Heart”), a foundation that makes soup to feed hungry kids in the hospital, as well as the staff and family members who care for them.

And that, says freelance writer Dan Q. Dao, is how to write about food when there isn’t any. A member of the Ethics Committee of the Association of Food Journalists, Dao says, “The best food writing is about people.” Following Hurricane Harvey in his hometown of Houston, Dao wrote for Saveur about the storm’s effect on a Cambodian water-spinach-farming community 30 miles outside the city.

Unlike Rios, who lives under a dictatorship that leaves her unable to say all she would like to on the record, Dao has the latitude to be brutally honest, including when it comes to the national organizations that prevented the community from getting the aid it needed. “If you’re going to cover food in a situation where there isn’t any,” he says, “it’s important to cover the direct cause and effect as to why the shortage exists.”

Rios knows that speaking out politically could be dangerous, but—like Dao—uses her food writing to convey bigger messages than where to find your next arepa. “I don’t know how to write about politics,” she says. But Diaz points out that “how people cook is always relevant, always revealing.” And Rios acknowledges, “I’m not only writing about good food…I’m also telling Venezuelans that we should not isolate ourselves from what is happening in other countries around the world.”

Which is why Diaz encourages food writers not to put down their pens—even during periods of prolonged scarcity: “The stories of how people cook—and how they get their food—say so much about the political context that they’re living in.”

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Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food and travel writer and a member of the Association of Food Journalists’ ethics committee.

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