Live Blog: Off the Dish: Writing About Food in Travel, History, and Experience


Welcome to the BlogHer Food '11 live blog of Off the Dish: Writing About Food in Travel, History, and Experience.

If you have any comments or posts that relate to the topic – please share!

We’ll be talking about what food writing it: moving past just what a recipe is. Writing about food with context is a more human approach and it makes it more entertaining and informative to the readers. And that is what we are going to focus on.

Q: Why do you think writing about food with an experience makes it more enjoyable?

Diana: It helps readers connect better with the food; it makes people more engaged and makes them want to try your recipe.

Amelia: It’s like the movies – if you describe the smell of the sea you can taste octopus better than just describing the octopus.

Donna: I’m a journalist and I began writing a column about my life and food was incidental. My husband passed away in 96 and the week between his death and his funeral I wrote a column for my job (not knowing I had the week off) about the stupid arguments my husband and I had about food. And how stupid the arguments were and it helped me get through that week. Recipes are important but it’s about how we think and feel.

Garrett: Blogging is slightly egotistic, but you have to incorporate other people. How do other people fit in to your types of writing?

Diane: When I visit a new city I ask readers what I should do or try in that city. A lot of people are passionate about wanting to share their stories about best places to eat in their area. It really engages people when we allow them to talk about the places they live.

Garrett: How do you incorporate complete strangers in your travels into your writing?

Diane: 3 years ago on a trip to South Korea I stumbled upon a woman in a restaurant that served 4 dishes. The woman was really personable and I wanted o write about her restaurant and her family story. She was shy at first, but then she really opened up all about her family history and how they came to be where they were now.

Amelia: I try to engage people when I talk to them about food from their childhood; I almost interview them. Food is a lot about memory. I try to do that myself. It’s not just about the recipe, but how they tie it to other people around them at that time.

Donna: My cab driver on the way over here told me this incredible story about his favorite food: Coconut cake and you’d be surprised how many people will open up about great recipes.

Garrett: How do you address writing about other people’s reciepes without hurting them.

Donna: You tell them what you’re doing and let them know. When I meet people I tell them what I do and I feel comfortable writing about it.

Amelia: Some people want to tell their story – if I don’t share it then no body will and It will be lost. It’s a duty we have as bloggers.

Garrett: What is appropriate to share when talking about travel writing? How do you decide what to write about?

Diane: A lot of my topics seem narrow: Chinese food. How much can you write about that? But a lot of it comes from memory and experience. I have a lot of resources on hand living in a metropolitan area. People give me feedback on their experiences and I incorporate that in to my posts. I share their experiences.

Amelia: Every season has a particular ingredient, holiday, etc. and I try to focus on that. I make it with the eyes of a modern audience that has never experienced that. I recreate it for the audience and try to
focus on sharing bits of culture and food.

Donna: There are so many avenues for writing about food that I write about what is fascinating to me. I met Julia Child at one conference and I realized that people are passionate about food and every person
in the room had traveled and cultivated a love for food. As a prior journalist I have trained myself to be open about what is our there…and the most bizarre things elicit good feedback!

I started off blogging because I started off with a lot of research I want to share. My evolution into Black America Cooks has allowed me to open up and understand that my story is evolving into everyone’s family. We are more alike than we are different. If we don’t save these families dishes, then that is it. When a great cook dies, the recipe is gone.

Garrett: When it comes to travel, you have a lot to plan. When considering your posts you will write while traveling, how do you incorporate writing in to your travel?

Amelia: I always make a list of foods or places I must write about and I do that first. I try to do my photography at the beginning of the trip. Forget about food for a second – it’s not all about food. For example, why are people eating snails? I am digging for nuggets of why people eat what they do – the story behind the food. I focus on that right off, and then enjoy the rest of my trip. “Go Naked.” Go to a place and put aside your preconceptions. Eat what is presented to you. You might get a tummy ache,
but that is the least of your worries. Get out there. Be adventurous. Set the stage: get up when no one is around, scope out your route. Get lost and bring a notebook. Write down about the tastes you try.

Donna: I learned early that one of the obligations we have when writing about food is to eat the unusual. You have to order the thing that is from that region – even if your favorite thing is on the menu – pick what is left out. It really helps give the full story.

Garrett: What is OK for me to share? Am I exposing myself too much? How do you all deal with that? Do you have boundaries?

Donna: I’m a mom and everything I wrote was about him. Until I had to draw the line when he started dating. He said, “MOM!” But you know, they are part of my life and that is what I share. But there does come a time when you have to filter what you decide to write about.

Diane: The general rule is “if you won’t share it to a room of people…” It’s ok to vent but remember if its online it is FOREVER.

Amelia: It is a very egotistical experience, but it is also humbling. Putting yourself out there will make you feel vulnerable at the beginning, but eventually it will pay you back.

Donna: If it makes you cry when you write it – your readers will feel that. If you laugh – you’ll share that with your readers. People know when you’re holding back and you’re pretending – it comes across in your writing. Think of your favorite writers – they are more open than others.

Garrett: Keep the readers you want to keep who will give you feedback. Be yourself and it might make you lose readers, it might solicit hate mail – but you’re true to who you are. Sometimes you have to be willing to push yourself. Everyone is willing to share their experiences, but not everyone is willing to go the whole mile.

Q: Do you ever run in to a challenge of trying to engage someone to participate in the whole experience with you rather than just eating the meal with you?

Diane: I didn’t want to alienate my readers who were not there with me, so I related it to things they were familiar with so they could get a sense of what I was experiencing.

Q: If you were invited to come speak at an event, how would you expect to be compensated for that? What should a brand consider before soliciting a speaker?

Donna: As a journalist, I would not have been able to accept anything – I would have had to sell the idea to my editor and get it approved. There is a fine line of ethics involved there. It worries me – you realize these ethics are in place because a person has the freedom to have an opinion, but with money that freedom is lost.

Garrett: The food blogger code of ethics written by Brooke – great resource for food bloggers. It’s a must-read for any food bloggers.

Donna: How do we make a living? Food companies are very eager to supply you with a lot of offers, because they want to buy free publicity.

Garrett: For me it has to be practical. Personally, I get emails and I say “no” mostly because they don’t relate to my blog voice, and I think it should fit in to my voice and experience and assist me in telling my

Diane: You should also have the freedom to not write about something that you don’t fully support of believe in.

Comment from Poor Girl Eats Well: Not holding back has been part of the reason my blog has been so successful. Sometimes I am too honest, but I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from my readers that thank me for that. Even more so than the recipes I develop are my experiences with food or trying to get food. Exercise caution, but don’t hold back.

Amelia: Stay true to what your philosophy is will keep you in good shape.

Donna: Life is full of chapters. We don’t always know that when we are in the middle of a chapter. That’s the part that is so wonderful: appreciate the chapter you’re in, but those chapters do close. Don’t be worried you’re stuck in one place forever, it changes.

Q: Do you write about the negative? How do you balance that?

Garrett: The day before I left on my last trip my house burnt down. The travel was bittersweet because I was glad to be there, but I also thought about what was going on in my life. It’s about the good AND the bad.

Amelia: With food travel we are willing to put it all out there – to put a different hat on and that is part of it.

Donna: I heard about this one restaurant that so many people had raved about and I took a guest with me to try it out. It was HORRIBLE. My guest spit out her food. So I went back. I have a rule: you have to try it at least 3 times. When I went back I found out that the owner herself was going through family illness and the place had been taken over by a student. Each time I went back it was never what it used to be so I made the decision not to write about it. I told my boss someone else should go back in 6 months to give it another chance. Sometimes you have a choice about writing about it or not.

Diane: Some readers appreciate the honesty that you aren’t trying to sugar-coat the experience.

Amelia: But I think it’s good to have a balance. Always try to remember there are people behind the scenes. I say you should always try to find at least one positive thing to say about a place.

Q: How do you approach photographing your food?

Garrett: I think you need to be respectful of the other patrons and not be disruptive. In an ideal world you could come back later and photograph the food.

Donna: If you ARE going to snap a picture, don’t use the flash.

Garrett: If you are writing a review of a restaurant, you should let them know AFTER you’ve been there – it’s a more raw experience.

Amelia: Garlic and Sapphires is a great book on how to go to a restaurant and have a real experience as a patron at a restaurant.

Garrett: Even if you feel like you’re a small-time blogger, know that restaurants can know about it and you might get preferential treatment that isn’t’ authentic.

Q: In the past year have you seen the changes of how now companies having editorial rights to edit your content?

Donna: I don’t have any partnerships yet because I am waiting to find the right fit. Other people have to secure sponsors more quickly so they end up giving up their voice for the sake of securing a partnership.

Garret: It is your responsibility as a PR company to find bloggers with well-established voices that are sellable.

Q: Have you ever had a situation where you have a vested interest in a certain restaurant?

Donna: We’re not promoting. I stopped writing reviews because my town was predominantly chain restaurants and a new local restaurant came in and rated low. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I think a different rating system should be in place. Your readers trust your opinions, so you need to make sure they are being well represented.

Garrett: Remember there is a greater story. Don’t just look at the food.

Diane: There might be a story about the family who started the restaurant. For example, why are they serving the dishes they are serving?

Donna: Have a form that you can fill out to get information about the experience. Name of place, hours, popular dishes, photographs, etc.

Amelia: Try interviewing the chef. Instead of writing about the food experience, try writing about the chef and how he helps makes the establishment successful.

Q: Writing styles: what is the right balance of interesting, but not overly descriptive?

Diane: I start by writing it all out – no limits. Then, a day or two later I revisit it and edit it with the idea in my mind that people have a short attention span. Edit your content to address that.

Donna: When you fall in love with a phrase/description – it’s usually really bad. That’s usually the one that when you cross it out, the writing is a lot better.

Amelia: Writing is like decorating. You put it all up there and little by little you strip things away until it’s just right. Mark Twain once said, “Sorry I wrote you a long letter – I didn’t have time to write you a short
one.” And it’s true. Less takes more time. But it’s worth it.

Donna: One reason I started writing about food was because I felt like my culture had been so misrepresented when it came to food. I wanted respect to be shown for African American foods. As you represent your culture, represent it well. I think it’s so wonderful that so many people are writing about their traditions and their culture and their family. It’s a real contribution we are making for the generation for people to come.

Amelia: I’ve made a list of 40 great books for Food Writers. Eventually I’ll share this with you all, but I think it’s important to help you find your voice – whether it’s travel, experience or history.

Garrett: Best Food Writing is a volume book that is another great resource.

Donna: Also, coming to food conferences is great when you’re starting out – and great when you’re an expert. The people you meet at these kinds of events are great for giving you feedback!

Amelia: Yes, go for the critics. Not always the ones who will tell you what you want to hear!