Reading Before Writing

You like to cook, you’ve thought about writing about food. But how to get started?

The best way to begin writing about food is to read. Essays, blogs, magazines, newspapers, cookbooks. As with all subjects, to read is to learn.

Essays

Essays are a great way to start reading about food. They’re short, and a good essay will leave you with something to think about. Who to read? M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, who lived from 1908 to 1992, wrote twenty-seven books, including numerous collections of essays and reminiscences on food and travel. The Art of Eating, How to Cook a Wolf, and With Bold Knife and Fork are a few titles to look for.

Laurie Colwin (1944 – 1992) was a prolific writer of novels as well as Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, essays – some with recipes – and memoirs on food. She often praised other writers and cooks, paying homage to the work of authors Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan, and many others. If your kitchen is small and you eschew gadgets, you’ll appreciate Colwin’s thoughts on simplicity. She had a tiny New York City kitchen, few appliances, and she liked it that way.

Blogs

If you’re going to read bloggers, be sure to choose well. Follow bloggers whose information is accurate as well as entertaining. Beware of ill-informed writers whose information has come straight from the Internet. I once read a blog entry that firmly asserted that only the white bulb of a scallion was edible and that the green top should be discarded.*

Any blogger who is knowledgeable in his or her subject – and who writes well – is worth following, but if you hope to learn how to edit a recipe you’ll have to be discerning.** An easy test of whether a writer knows anything about how to put a recipe in standard form is to see if the ingredients are listed in the order in which they are to be used. If not, enjoy the writing, but learn to write recipes elsewhere.

Seek blogs like Food52, Eater, Tasting Table and Cookstr where you’ll find a variety of information, all produced accurately and edited expertly.

Magazines

You know the major magazines printed on paper – the ones at the newsstand and in the supermarket. They are venerable institutions with high standards. The writing in them will be good and the recipes tested and edited by experts. But don’t overlook lesser-known but beautifully-crafted periodicals like Art Culinaire or the increasing number of impressive digital magazines like Oxford American.

Newspapers

Follow the food sections of major newspapers to observe the ways in which newspapers, which have very limited space, must condense both articles and recipes so that they are as succinct as possible. Larger newspapers have larger budgets than small ones with which to pay authors, recipe testers, fact-checkers, photographers, art directors, editors and copy-editors, and this is often – though certainly not always – reflected in the quality of the published work.

Cookbooks

Read cookbooks, and choose well. If you are reading in order to learn how to write, be sure to pick books that have been professionally edited.

Observe the introductory chapters – are they useful, interesting? Note the style in which recipes are written. Headnotes may explain the origin of a recipe or relate an anecdote about it or provide cooking tips. Sidebars and footnotes can provide additional information about ingredients or technique.

Observe language, style, a writer’s formality or casual way of presenting information. Learn vocabulary – look up terms you don’t know. All that reading will lead to the next step toward your goal – writing.


*Both the white and green parts of a scallion are edible. The only reason to choose one color over another is for appearance in a dish. Adding it to a white sauce or salad dressing? Choose the white part if you don’t want it to be visible, the green if you do, both parts if you have no preference.

** See The Cook Edits for more about the correct form for a recipe.