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Advice for aspiring food writers?

Besides sharing a passion for food, cooking and exploring new restaurants within my family we have often discussed food writing and my aspirations to write a regional cookbook. The last book I found that was published, in English, specific to our region came out in 1978. I think I have found three others in Italian and one in German that cover the cuisine of the Trentino-Alto Adige. There are a few books on Northern Italian cooking that contrain recipes for a few of the more common dishes but many describe the region as "the least italian" and perhaps it just doesn't fit neatly in to books on "Italian" cooking. Admittedly, within the region there are two distinct capitals (they hand over the reigns from time to time) and two or more cultures, don't forget the Ladin...

So to the meat of my question, besides reading (and, of course eating) all that I can, where should I look for direction in both food journalism and the writing of a cook book. One of our local Culianry Institutes once offered a food writing class but it seems to have been dropped. It's times like these I miss New York and the FCI...

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  1. Not quite what you're looking for, but these posts by Heidi Swanson about self-publishing cookbooks may be helpful.
    http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/...
    http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/...

    1. If you don't want to self-publish, you need to write a really solid proposal. It's almost as important as the book itself. There are books about how to do that. You also need a good query letter to send with the proposal. Once you have that, you can query agents specializing in cookbooks, or query smaller publishers directly. There are books about agents in the reference sections of libraries, and also sites online with the information. If your subject is of interest, you'll probably get a nibble.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Glencora

        Glencora and Melanie,
        Thank you for this information. I am also thinking of enlisting the assistance of a few relatives in Italy. Our relatives own a hotel, have connections to some of the local farms and include one long time politician I hope to tap for information - as well as a somewhat colorful family history. I would like it to be more than a collection of recipes. I would like to speak a bit about the history and traditions of the area and how this influenced the regional cuisine(s).

        1. re: vonwotan

          You may find this website useful,

          http://www.diannej.com/DiannesBook.shtml

          both for the specific book it talks about, "Will Write for Food," and for Dianne Jacobs's general program regarding food writing.

          1. re: Barry Foy

            Thank you for the link. Dianne's coaching and advice sound just the thing to get me organized and keep me on track.

      2. candace Dempsey italien woman at the table, google her. She has an online writing course.

        1. Have you thought about blogging to get your feet wet? It might help you refine your writing skills in a no-cost medium as you get an immediate response as to what people like/don't like.

          A number of chowhound regulars also blog and deliver some really great stuff - be it local coverage/reviews or just cooking topics in general.

          As a consumer, I find myself turning less to cookbooks and more to online recipe searches. I also give as much creedance to certain regular local blog critics as I do the newspaper critics in my city. It can be argued that a newspaper critic only turns out one review a week whereas a blogger can run several. Similarly, a mainstream newspaper critic can be explorative, but for the most part has to appeal to a larger, general audience. Thay can't always feature the fab hot dog vendor or divey taco stand in a shady strip mall.

          1. Food writing/journalism and doing a cookbook are two different things -- related, but different. The former comprises descriptions, commentary, observations and/or critiques of food and food-related topics. The latter involves researching and testing recipes and writing them down in a clear, consistent way that is comprehensible by the average home cook.

            Sad to say in publishing these days, just a good idea and an outline don't cut it anymore. To get a book published, you need a "platform" that will persuade an agent and eventually an editor that YOU are the ideal person to do this book. Your outline needs to include not just your concept for the book but also needs to indicate in your outline what kind of an audience you have built, what contacts you have made and what sales, marketing and PR skills you bring to the table. When a prominent chef (or owner/chef) proposes a cookbook, his/her platform is his/her restaurant. The rest of us have to work a little harder on the writing end to build one.

            One place to start is to launch your own blog, as Tastyjohn suggested. You don't indicate what you do for a living, but writing in any form is different from other skill sets. Get used to writing and posting every couple of days. A book is a major, time-consuming project, and it's good to test yourself to see whether it is for you.

            The carrot of encouragement that I dangle before you is that Julie Powell ("Julia & Julie") and Clotilde Dusoulier ("Chocolate & Zucchini") both got book contracts on the strength of their blogs and the audience they had built.

            Good luck.

            2 Replies
            1. re: ClaireWalter

              Thank you. I agree that these are two different disciplines. At the moment my focus is on the cookdbook but, I had it in mind to continue my explorations beyond the completion of the book in some form of food journalism. My primary argument for being the person to write this book are our family ties to the region. In addition to owning and runnig a hotel at the Lago di Garda our family know many of the local farmers and producers and several local chefs who have recently earned their Michelin stars cooking the foods of the Sudtirol / Trentino - Alto Adige. I will also draw on the assistance of another relative, a member of the legislature and academic who has had several books published. The regions is being recognized so I hope I am not late to the party but our cuisine seems underrepresented in the cookbook sections, especially in the English language.

              As an aside, if I can't find a publisher I would consider self publishing with the first five or ten books becoming a very different kind of project - printed on a letterpress and bound by hand (by the author) at a local school that has an amanzing bookbinding program... On my walks home from school, in addition to stoppoing in at a few local restaurants to say hello, I would stop by a bookbinder's shop to look through his books and to watch him at work on restorations of new projects. Food and books are my two greatest passions.

              1. re: vonwotan

                There is an almost limitless appetite for books on regional Italian cooking, and you're right: the Sudtirol is underrepresented. I suspect you'll be looking at a smaller publisher, but if the proposal is good, somebody will pick it up. And running a hotel doesn't hurt a bit.

            2. I'm not sure where you are based out of, but there are several universities now offering bachelor and masters degrees in food writing and gastronomy (study of food and culture). I know NYU has a food studies program, and I want to say there is another program in Italy.

              I am finishing up my Masters in Gastronomy at Uni Adelaide in South Australia, but they also offer the program online, and you do not need a bachelor's degree to enroll. It is a great program covering the history of food writing, all genres of food writing, and past and present issues with food and culture, including GM foods, organic, obesity in children, etc. Just run a Google search of Masters in Gastronomy and that should give you a few options.

              1 Reply
              1. re: foodrocks

                I stumbled upon your post, and saw that you were completing your Masters in Gastronomy, and have researched the idea (and school) extensively. I just finished my associates degree in culinary arts, and gastronomy is my next step. Studying online is the most convenient for me, and I was just curious about your experience with the school. Any information you have for me would be helpful. I completed my culinary arts degree online, so I am familiar with studying through home.

              2. I'd ask myself how big the market was for this region's cuisine and/or a cookbook.

                Lidia Bastianich certainly couldn't sell a book on her native region, Istria, also unknown.
                It's curious, you and I have discussed this before, that the cuisine of Alto Adige/Sudtirol
                isn't thought of as being Italian. It's a sort of German/Austrian/Italian hybrid. I'm not sure how interesting that will be to consumers when Italian is fairly concretely defined in their heads.

                Nevertheless, I would pursue the idea, and certainly the history, and try to sell an article on three to a worthy food magazine: Saveur, Gourmet, etc -- a magazine that still runs features and real writing. Part of your job will be to point out why the cuisine is memorable, worth reproducing at home, what the cultural influences are, etc. Those three articles could be the first three chapters of your book.

                You might also be chagrined to learn that cookbooks are not making much money these days -- except for the folks with TV shows. Most publishers want you to have an established tie-in with media, in order to sell you as a package.

                By the way, BU has a wonderful gastronomy program (or so I've heard). Give the department a call, wander around and get more info about the profitability of publishing, how to begin, etc. Good luck.

                6 Replies
                1. re: maria lorraine

                  This is why I am glad I found this board. It's great to get all of this feedback and advice. All food for thought. The idea of a series of articles is one that I have condisered and I'm trying to work out how and when to write them. My current thought is to base them on my next few visits to the area. I am planning a few seasonal visits to the farms in the area as well as the local chefs recently recognized by Michelin and Gault Millau.

                  For me, there is no real question that I will write the book, but it would be nice to be able to sell it and to introduce a wider audience to the region and its culinary traditions. There will be a few items on the menu that are familiar and part of what many consider to be Italian but their use and preparation may differ. Variety and discovery are what keep me interested in the foods and culinary traditions of the world. If I can share my enthusiasm for the foods of the Trentino-Alto Adige with others I'll be happy - even if it means a privately published book.

                  What I love about the cooking of the Trentino-Alto Adige is that is has all of these varied influences with some dishes stretching back three thousand years to the Celts the Romans brought to the area - part of the Ladin heritage of the area. The area and its politics are also interesting because it has two distinct regions and capitals - one more germanic and one more italian. What I believe they have in common, with one another and with other regions, is that the dishes celebrate the local produce and products which is what makes the cuisines of italy so enjoyable.

                  One note that might be interesting to any skiiers or apres ski afficionados is that by nearly 80% vote, the people of Cortina d'Ampezzo have voted to leave the Veneto and become a part of neighboring Alto-Adige. In large part this is driven by the Ladin population wanting to joing the other Ladins in the neighboring semi-autonomous Sudtirol.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    Lydia Bastianich could definitely sell a book on Istria if she wanted to. It wouldn't get a massive advance, and it wouldn't sell as well as the others, but she could sell it. A book written with skill and passion will always find a place. Although you are right that with a few exceptions, cookbook-writing is not the path to riches these days.

                    1. re: condiment

                      Lidia Bastianich's first book ever was on Istria, titled "La Cucina Di Lidia: Recipes and Memories from Italy's Adriatic Coast." It didn't sell. She tried again with "La Cucina Di Lidia: Distinctive Regional Cuisine from the North of Italy." It sold 1/30th the number of copies as her more popular books like "Lidia's Italy: 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most". And this was Bastianich!

                      So Bastianich tried twice, both times were unsuccessful from a publishing standpoint.
                      That's what I meant when I said above that "Lidia Bastianich certainly couldn't sell a book on her native region, Istria, also unknown."

                      The cooking of Istria is described by Bastianich as 50 percent Italian, 35 percent Yugoslavian, and the rest mixed German and Hungarian. I'd also throw in Slovenian,
                      and weight the percentage even heavier towards Eastern European.

                      Alto Adige is similar in that the influences on its cuisine is quite mixed. It is mostly
                      Germanic and Austrian, with some Italian thrown in, though the food doesn't register
                      as Italian at all.

                      So vanwotan faces the same challenge (if not a greater one) in writing about his native Alto Adige. Bastianich was well-known at the time she published her books that reference Istria, unlike vanwotan (unless he's holding out on us!). My advice to vanwotan is still to pursue writing about the cuisine of Alto Adige, but to use a couple of magazine articles to gauge public interest before hurling himself into a book. The articles plus a detailed outline can be used to sell the book, if the publisher feels he can make money on a book about the cuisine of an unknown area.

                      Many established cookbook writers/restauranteurs have attempted to write about the cuisine of unknown regions. While their books may have been interesting, they didn't sell. Or sell much.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        I believe we are more or less on the same page when it comes to articles + book but, our approach is slightly different. I've committed to writing the book and set out a rough outline, lined up a travel plan and have a few interviews scheduled starting in early spring 2008. What I will wind up doing is taking sections from my first draft and trying to publish those in a series of articles. I also have a tentative commitment from my cousins to help edit translations in Italian and German for a local audience.

                        At worst I will wind up with twenty or so hand bound letterpress copies to give as gifts to friends. But, I can tell you that I will very much enjoy the research, the recipe testing and the process. Having my book published is obviously the goal but, fortunately this is a labor of love and not essential for my livlihood.

                        1. re: vonwotan

                          Lovely. Enjoy the process and discovery, vonwotan. I wish you well.

                          Maria

                          1. re: vonwotan

                            Do more than a few interviews and make sure that they're open ended. Your relatives who had the hotel should have many stories to tell. Others in the local food chain(s) should have many, many stories to tell. Do food ethnography. Rather than having fixed interviews, use an informal but somewhat structured approach. You never know where someone will take you in terms of great stuff if you don't let them first wander this way and that. I must assume that for you to do interviews, you know: a) the foods, b) the ingredients and their production, c) the basics of most recipes, d) how to do interviews (writing and talking and listening carefully at the same time, maintaining a converstation, building on what peoplle say to you as the interview develops...)--and all of this in the local language. People respond the best if they feel you are really listening and responding and if they feel you are well informed, but just not quite as well infored as they are about a particular topic. A ham maker isn't really going to go into detials with you if you don't know the basics about hams, cured meat, pigs, pig husbandry, butchering, EU pricing and quality control policy, and trthe like. Study up and then get set to do intensive, interactive interviews.

                    2. Another idea besides starting a blog is to write for a local paper. As a free lance writer, I am often asked to write about food related topics. Another writer specializes in seasonal recipes which she learns from friends and family. Good luck.

                      1. Ok. Now some more meat and potatoes questions. Thinking about your favourite cookbooks what do you feel is the correct balance of recipes, photographs, regional or culinary history, or stories about the region - i.e. its farms, its vineyards or its local chefs?

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: vonwotan

                          Do it a way that's never been done -- that makes the area come alive.

                          Once you dive into the region, the information that you learn may dictate the format. Find a way to organize the information.

                          If it's a cookbook, then recipes are the primary focus. Perhaps you want to do a regional history with recipes. Or a book on the beauty of the region (like Hugh Carpenter's books) where the photos play a big role along with the recipes. If you remember the novel "Like Water for Chocolate," a recipe began each chapter, then the story unfolded with that recipe as part of the plot. "Quail with Rose Petal Sauce" was one of the great chapters. I'd never seen a novel that used food or recipes to propel the plot forward.

                          Maybe the story of your family could be told in a similar way. Just an idea to make the idea new and attention-getting. A recipe by your great-grandmother that was made after she climbed into the high hills, perhaps foraging for some food item.

                          One of your tasks may be (I give this as advice often) is to go the library or bookstore and find books about specific culinary tribes or regions, and see how those books are organized. You may find a prototype or three that sings to you. At the very least, write down the publisher of those prototypes because they will be the first publishers your agent approaches, since they've already published that type of book successfully. (Yes, you will need an agent.)

                        2. The Recipe Writers Handbook by Barbara Gibbs Ostman & Jane Baker is essential to anyone who wants to make certain their recipes are readable and consistent. Among foodwriters, it's considered kind of a "Bible" of sorts.

                          Consider also, joining the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) www.iacp.com. Members of IACP come from all disciplines of the Culinary world, including, of course, food writing, photography styling and publishing. Workshops are often held among and for members, who are historically into sharing their knowledge with each other. I have made many professional and personal friends through IACP.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ChefJune

                            Those are both good tips. Translating a recipe from relatives into a working recipe requires some skill.

                            IACP is a good resource.

                            Also, since you're in Boston, check what's available about Alto Adige at Schlesinger Library, one of the Harvard system libraries. Google HOLLIS.

                          2. vonwotan - Take a look at http://www.bellabaitaview.blogspot.com/ -- a B&B blog from another region of northern Italy that perhaps it will kick off or crystalize some thoughts.