Voice: Food Bloggers as Storytellers: Telling Your Own Stories, and the Stories of Those at the Table



Moderator: Rebakah Denn

S1: Beth Lee

S2: Melissa Crane

S4: Molly Wizenburg

S3: Tori Avery

Rebekah: Cooking can either be practical and utilitarian or it can have all sorts of layers. Food writing comes out the same way.The most important thing is why you think something is interesting.

We're here today with 4 food storytellers.

Start with a brief introduction from each.

Beth: I am Beth Lee from Omgyummy

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I wanted to share this picture of you from Hawaii, I love it. It's called talking story. It means chatting amongst yourselves and story telling to express yourself. That's what we're going to do today.
Here is some influences on my storytelling. I started my career in a more analytical way. I started out in business. Then, I spent the last 17 years as a parent. For the last 10 of those years as a stay at home mom. As long as I can remember I've been a food lover.

In February of 2010 I started a blog to connect my love for food and love for communications. Think about your own background and that will influence your own stories. Everyone has a story. Even people you don't expect to - they do. Sometimes you have to dig deep. I gave a presentation about blogging to a seniors group and one woman raised her hand. She has 100 year old recipes and she wanted to start a blog. I went to see her and she was surprised. She said you can just see my family in the words of the recipes.

Storytelling is a lot about listening. That's where a lot of my inspiration comes from. My grandmother inspires me. This post is about one of her recipes - Puffy Matzo Meal Pancake.

Rebekah: Not everyone knows what their stories are, but it's your job as a storyteller to find that.

Melissa: Melissa Crane --

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I want to talk about visual storytelling, that's what I do. Use your own voice and be authentic. Do what works for you. Writing doesn't work for me, but photos work for me.

Think about - what do you want to convey?
Sense of place, think like a filmmaker
No need to be perfect.

What do you want to convey?
What is important in your story?
Use photos to enhance those points.

My husband knows one recipe by heart. It's chocolate chip cookies. That's because when he used to make these with his mom growing up. The story was about him making cookies. I grew up as a restaurant baby and the would serve banana pudding at my parent's restaurant. I combined his past and my past to make banana chocolate chip cookies.

Think of time and place when you're telling a story. For example when you're writing about a restaurant, don't just write about food write about the environment. Another example, I went to a farm to table festival and I wanted to show what you see when you first walk into the festival. Took pictures of the animals, kids and food. There's no need for a perfect picture. It's about getting the picture that tells your point. If the photo tells the story, it's perfect.

Tori: Tori Avery -- For me, creating any successful blog you want to build a sense of community - storytelling is a big part of that. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs out there, but there's only one you.
I deal in culinary anthropology and the story of the food. I tell the story of the ancient history and more recent history of what people were eating.

Every other weekend I'd spend the weekend with my grandparents growing up. They instilled a love for history in me. My grandmother would tell me stories growing up. Those things stuck with me.

My grandpa and I we had a garden. We would harvest the tomatoes in the summer and that smell sticks with you. As we picked he would tell me stories. After dinner we would watch movies. It was Cleopatra and Ben Hur. My grandpa would bring out his atlas and show me where Troy was. When I learned to cook that love of history found it's way into my story.

I would cook my great grandma's recipes and wonder what it was like in Nebraska in the 1920s... when I started my blog that found it's way into my storytelling.

Your approach will be different because we all have stories to tell.
Make a list about what else you're passionate about - besides food. Look at that list and find inspiration from it.

If you want to be a storyteller you really have to engage your audience.
You have to be honest in your storytelling. It has to come from a real and true place inside of you. Find that place and use it.

Make that inspiration list and become a journalist. Look for stories and be open to them. When you walk down the street or at the park - there are stories there.

Carry around a notebook and write it down.

I have a motto - my husband
"Stay thirsty my friends" - my motto is "stay curious my friends"

Molly: Molly Wizenburg -- I started my blog almost 8 years ago now. After my father passed away in my first quarter of grad school and it threw me for a loop.

After 2 years in grad school I realized I had to quit graduate school. I decided that if I was going to take this leap and leave grad school I was going to make the most of it. A friend suggested I start a blog. For the first few months I was just bumbling around. I realized right away that the posts I really loved told a story.

I am not that interested in talking food, but I am interested in the rituals of food. That's what interests me and drives me.

Good storytelling is good writing. You can't do either one without practicing. I don't love to write, but it's important to keep writing. It's important to write honestly. Truth, what is actually going on is almost always more interesting than what you can invent. I'm really drawn to clear writing. It's easy to get wrapped up in trying to describe. I ask myself, "am I really communicating here?"

The other thing is to read a lot. It inspires me to keep setting my standards higher. Continue looking at our peers and the work that's happening around us. Try to learn how to raise ourselves to higher standards. Ira Glass said this quote I really love, "Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, all of us who do creative work get into it because we have good taste...and your taste is when your work disappoints you..."

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will complete one story."

Rebekah: Those of us with a journalism background tend to give a bird's eye view. Sometimes all you need to make your story fresh is to give that different perspective. So many people tell a story and then give a recipe - what comes first for you the recipe or the story?

Beth: For me it's both. I find snippets of time to do my blogging. I really try to focus on staying enthusiastic and having that come through. Sometimes I really want to make something and the story falls in around it. Sometimes on my blog I tell a story and there's no recipe. For me it is not one or the other always. I try a lot of different things. I've done a giveaway as a way to elicit stories from my readers. I would encourage you to try different approaches.

Melissa: I tend to be pretty emotional, especially now 6 months pregnant. It's based on how I'm feeling. For example, if I went to a farm and saw these great tomatoes I'm going to give you a tomato recipe.

Tori: A lot of times it comes from people I meet and they share a recipe and that's how I blog about it. It depends on the week and what's inspiring me.

Molly: For me for a long time the recipe came first. Food is the gift that keeps giving. We have to eat all the time. Those of us who like to cook are a lot of times starting new recipes. The truth is, I realized the story is what interested me and I had it backwards sometimes. I needed to loosen it up for myself a few years ago. Sometimes I just wanted to tell a story. There is a church in Paris that was very important to my grandmother. Whenever I'm anywhere nearby I will go to that church. I took a ton of pictures and sitting outside. I had a little picnic outside and overheard these guys sitting on a bench behind me.

I heard these guys analyzing these pastries they got around the corner. For me, I think that they go hand in hand. There is a lot of pressure in food blogging to post recipes but it's important to cut ourselves some slack.

Rebekah: I'm struck by the authority that all these speakers have here. When you decide this is the story and you own it and present it that way - that makes the story.

Rebekah: With food blogs there is a lure to tell personal stories - how do you decide how much to share?

Beth: I've struggled with from the beginning. You have to decide what you're comfortable with. I got more comfortable because I love the world of food and I love food blogging. Recently I felt comfortable enough to put a family picture. When you're bringing other people into it make sure they're okay with it.

Melissa: I've heard over and over to be consistent. Just do what feels right to you.

Tori: Blogs started as online journals. My blog really is my food journal. I am very personal because I look as my readers as my friends. I talk about my husband and my stepdaughter, but don't mention them by name. When it comes to me - anything goes. I want people to know who I am. I want to communicate with people.

Molly: I think it comes down to what it is you want to read. I like reading personal writing. I'm not going to blog about my sex life. But, I do write a lot about my family. My dad was 50 when I was born. I had to decide that those stories belonged to me. I like reading personal writing and try to keep in touch with my gut.

Question: To Molly - Who are the authors you would recommend?

Molly: Calin Trilon, who made his way writing about America for the New Yorker. He wrote books about food and his wife Alice. There is a book called Alice Lets Eat. I love Frances Lam writing, he used to write for Gourmet. Also Kate Christiansen, who is a novelist. She also has a blog you can Google. Her writing is quite personal. Her writing feels effortless.

Beth: I heard a quote from Frances Lam that I wrote down, "I write about food because I love people." I try to read a lot of other blogs that inspire me.

Question: Web is such a visual media, are there stories that you've hesitated to tell because you didn't have an image to go with?

Melissa: If it's possible I would go out of my way to get an image that would represent what I'm trying to tell. Try to become creative and create an image. You don't have to be a journalist.

Tori: That doesn't happen very often. Recently I wanted to write about salt and thought about how I can create an image of salt. I spilled it on a cutting board and wrote "salt" in it with my finger.

Molly: I wouldn't be afraid to go through my archives and photos that I really love.

Beth: I have had that happen, it doesn't always have to be perfect.

Rebekah: Do any of you use video instead of photos?

Tori: I have a site launching and it's going to have a lot more video.

Question: If you're looking to add more storytelling - how do you turn that into a voice that is consitent.

Tori: It's practice. It's sitting down everyday to journal. it's taking the time to practice.

Molly: Don't be afraid to write the way you speak. Your ear will catch moments that you're writing something that you would never actually say. Reading aloud is a tremendous tool.

Beth: I also ask what they see already in what you've written.

Question: The thing I find, I love a post and three weeks later... it's terrible! Are there strategies for catching that.

Molly: I hate pretty much everything I've done at a certain point afterwards. I think it's not a bad thing to hate what you've written. It's a sign of growth. It's yucky that it's sitting out there, but I think it's never too soon to get comfortable you're probably not going to like stuff you've done before.

Melissa: It's encouraging to look back on your own posts and see where you've come.

Question: I'm a teacher and teach writing. The number one thing to be a better writer is to read. Second thing my students do is read it to a wall. I highly recommend the book On Writing.

Rebekah: If you can tell people how you write your posts?

Beth: I fit everything in when I can. I usually start with the photography and the cooking. Then, I sit down and I write. I don't have a scheduled editorial calendar. That's not how my life works right now.

Melissa: I have an editorial calendar. I need that to keep myself on track because of so many other things going on in my life. Topics come from seasonal ingredients and the stories that pop into my head.

Tori: I have an editorial calendar. But as to the actual post it's very free form to me.

Molly: I don't have an editorial calendar. I post about once a week. Some of my posts have recipes, some don't. I'm not a big outliner. I usually plunge in and see where I end up.