March 2013 Meeting Discussion: The Bay Area’s Food Writer’s Panel

Presented by Moderator Gina Gotsill, with Sean Timberlake, Irvin Lin, and Ben Rhau, and reviewed by Patrick Lufkin

Is it just me, or have the San Francisco monthly meetings been a lot of fun lately.

In March we not only had a panel of food writers, but also a buffet meal of dishes made from recipes on their blogs. What a treat! The three-member panel was made up of Sean Timberlake, Irvin Lin, and Ben Rhau. Each of them cooks, develops recipes, and blogs on food issues. The panel was moderated by Gina Gotsill who, in addition to being well known to Bay Area STC members as a recruiter for TechProse, also has her own food blog. (Links to each of the blogs and more can be found at the end of this article.)

Sean Timberlake, both a cook and avid canner, has two food blogs. At Hedonia he covers “eating, drinking, and living the good life in America’s most hedonistic city, San Francisco,” and at Punk Domestics he covers canning and food preservation issues.

Irvin Lin is writer, photographer, graphic designer, and self-taught baker. He blogs at Eat the Love about “the magic of baking.”

Ben Rhau is a food editor at Glam Media. His blog, You fed a baby chili?, which has just been relaunched after a hiatus, has won critical acclaim; it was nominated for a Bert Greene Award in Food Journalism, and was called one of the “50 Food Blogs You Should Be Reading” by Saveur Magazine.

Lots of questions from Gina and the audience made for a lively and wide-ranging discussion of food, food writing, and blogging in general. It turns out that food writers face many of the same challenges faced by other technical writers. Explaining a recipe is essentially an exercise in procedure writing in which you want to guide the reader/cook to the successful completion of a task. You need to know your audience and be able to judge what needs to be fully explained and what to leave out. And you may need to work with subject matter experts.

Most successful food writing also incorporates elements of entertainment. Writers often wrap their recipes in a story to add narrative interest and to encourage readers to try to make the dish. Many food blogs also incorporate photographs to illustrate techniques and to show enticing results.

Food bloggers often build a following by giving their blogs a personal touch.

Irvin Lin says that the majority of his blog is about his life. For example, if he is invited to a party, he will plan to bring a cake. Now he must consider what kind of cake to bring, and how to make it special. His thoughts and experience with the cake may become the basis of a blog post. Sean Timberlake also works with personal narrative. He says he started blogging while attempting to capture the unique recipes—and the stories behind them—cooked by members of his extended family, many whom come from southern Italy.

Ben Rhau started writing about food while working on a PhD in Biophysics. As a grad student, he got lots of experience writing lab protocols, which are essentially recipes for lab experiments. He also knew many young professionals who liked going to good restaurants, but who didn’t cook. To help them out, he adapted his protocol writing skills to recipe writing and a blog was born.

Unlike other technical writing, food blogging shares elements of journalism in that there is a constant need for new subjects to write about. The panelists had suggestions for generating ideas. Sean draws a lot on family and friends. Another idea is to rethink recipes. For example, Irvin suggests, you might see a particular combination of flavors used in one dessert, and imagine how they could be used in another. There are also a few reference works that help. For example The Flavor Bible is a good guide to what flavors go well together and can be used to spur experimentation and ideas.

In many cases, as experienced cooks, the bloggers act as there own subject matter experts. But Sean warns, in some cases, such as canning and food preservation, it is important to consult real experts. You don’t want to be swapping ingredients and changing temperatures and times just to see what happens. A baking mistake may lead to a flat cake, but a canning mistake can cause real harm.

At one point Gina asked what part of food writing they found most difficult.

Sean said that many of the steps in cooking are really hard to put into words. Experienced cooks depend on their senses to make adjustments as the food cooks, observing aroma, color, the thickness of sauces and batters, and so on. It can be very hard to find the words to accurately convey these things to inexperienced cooks.

Another problem is that cooks use many vague or potentially confusing terms or phrases such as “pinch,” and “too thick.” (Will the novice know if a sauce or batter is too thick?). Also common words may have special meanings unknown to the novice. For example, “fold” in baking designates a specific technique for combining ingredient that is learned through practice, and which, if not done correctly, will yield poor results. And then there is the tendency to use volume measurements like “cups” for dry ingredients in recipes for the home cook. As a baker, Len advises, never use volume measures; weigh everything. A given amount of flour can occupy many different volumes, but always weighs the same.

If all this inspires you to cook, have at it. If it inspires you to blog, do that too. But be aware that blogging, like eating all those great dishes you will be cooking, can take its toll. What starts as a lot of fun may become a grind as pressure builds to keep producing new posts. In a recent blog post, Ben says that in the beginning his “favorite and best writing just happened. Words just came out.” But later, “the more people started to notice what I was doing here, the more slowly the words would flow.” Fearing that his “time-consuming hobby” was morphing into “a difficult career,” he took a year-long hiatus. Just recently, he relaunched his blog with a new design. Judging from the comments, lots of people are glad he’s back.

During the evening, lots of additional resources were mentioned. Many of them are listed below.

Resources

Panelist’s Blogs

Sean Timberlake, http://hedonia.seantimberlake.com/ and http://www.punkdomestics.com/

Irvin Lin, http://www.eatthelove.com/

Ben Rhau, http://www.youfedababychili.com/

Gina Gotsill, http://www.thehotping.com/

Other useful sites

National Center for Home Food Preservation, http://nchfp.uga.edu/

Simply Recipes, http://www.simplyrecipes.com/

Foodies.com, http://www.foodies.com/

Books

On Food and Cooking, by Harrold MaGee. A classis on cooking and kitchen science.

Essentials of Cooking, by James Peterson. Uses photographs and text to teach basic cooking technique.

The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. An excellent reference on which flavors go well with each other.

The Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard. Takes a master recipe approach so you can work your own variations.

The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz. The most comprehensive guide to home fermentation for those who want to make sauerkraut, yogurt and more.

The Everything Homebrewing Book, by Drew Beechum. A guide for those who want to make their own beer.

Patrick Lufkin is a past-president of the San Francisco chapter, and a book reviewer for the STC Journal, Technical Communication. He is Co-chair of Touchstone, the Northern California technical communication competition, and Chair of the Kenneth M. Gordon Scholarship for Technical Communication.

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