“Everyone who graduated from Penn is either a doctor, a lawyer or … a food writer, it seems.” Well, not quite, but this alumna soon found she wasn’t the only one—food writer, that is.
By Nancy Davidson | Illustration by Phung Hyunh
Sidebar | How It’s Done
People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.
—M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
Food writers have been defending their choice of subject matter since M.F.K. Fisher first attempted to convince Americans that food could be more than mere sustenance. Though Fisher published the books she is best known for from 1937 to 1954, it would be decades before food writing would be universally recognized as a worthy subject.
When Alan Richman C’65, now a contributing editor at Bon Appetit and dean of food journalism at the French Culinary Institute in New York, graduated with a degree in journalism, food writing “just wasn’t done.” With the rare exception of Craig Claiborne at The New York Times, food writers weren’t taken seriously as journalists, he said in a phone interview. But then, in the 1970s, with the help of celebrity chefs such as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck, and others, “Americans discovered food.”
My own first, failed, experiment as a food writer took place in 1983, when, as a senior at Penn, I attempted to contribute to The Penn Press—not the University of Pennsylvania Press that publishes books but an alternative magazine of politics, art, and culture written and edited by Penn undergraduates. I was assigned to review a Thai restaurant. I had never eaten Thai food before. I went by myself. I had never eaten alone in a restaurant before, either. The food was so spicy I couldn’t taste anything. The waiter warned me not to drink water—it would only make the pain more intense, he said—but I didn’t listen. The experience put me off restaurant reviewing—and Thai food—for almost 20 years.
At the time this didn’t seem a great loss for my future. Food writing was not on my list of possible occupations. For the most part, in the early 1980s, a passion for fine dining or for cooking was considered merely a hobby, and not something an Ivy League-educated person might turn into a respectable career.
By the time I decided to become a food writer about three years ago, after five years in book publishing, a short detour to graduate school, and a decade running my own boutique-y design and advertising firm, the landscape had changed dramatically. With the rise of celebrity chefs, cooking shows, and eventually an entire cable channel, The Food Network, devoted to cooking and eating, food writing has become not just acceptable but a hotly competitive field, one that’s particularly attractive to writers under the age of 30, who never attached any stigma to it.
For those of us who came of age during the seventies and eighties, some ambivalence remains. Amy Albert C’81, senior editor at Fine Cooking, loves her job, but resists being pigeonholed. (She’s quick to tell people that she also sings in a band, trained as an actress, makes photographs, and has other interests.) “There’s an image of food people as precious and narrow-minded, only interested in the good life,” she says, when in actuality food is a reflection of culture, a “mirror into the way that people live.”
The writers Albert edits come from diverse backgrounds; one has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. And it’s not unusual for writers to change specialties: Alan Richman was a sportswriter for The Boston Globe before he became the food and wine columnist at GQ, a position he held for 14 years. Randall Lane C’90 considers food writing a sideline from his “real job” giving editorial direction to magazines—even though his only nomination for a National Magazine Award to date was for his wine writing in Time Out New York. In the nineties Lane founded the now defunct P.O.V. [“Start Me Up,” May 1998]. These days, as editorial director and president of Doubledown Media, he is in the midst of launching two new magazines, Trader Monthly and Justice.
My own interest in food writing had been spurred first by Fisher’s approach to the subject—in which, while writing about food, she was also writing about wartime rationing, discovering Europe with her new husband, or the some-time pleasure of eating alone—and then by articles in magazines like Gourmetand Food &Wine, which convinced me that food writing could be a legitimate endeavor.
As I read more, imagining myself published in their pages, I was surprised to find that a number of Penn alumni—contemporaries of mine, in fact, people I knew—had gotten there ahead of me.
I had seen the name Pete Wells C’85 on the masthead of Food &Wine magazine, but it wasn’t until I saw a photo of him alongside his feature on “Captain Bacon” in the May 2003 issue that I recognized him as a former colleague from The Penn Press. Even after I had identified Wells, I assumed that the Lisa Futterman whose name also appeared in Food & Winehad to be a coincidence—someone else who happened to share that name was an expert on the restaurant scene in Chicago. It couldn’t be the Lisa Futterman C’85 who had dated one of my housemates.
When I read a profile of Wendy Artin C’85, a painter living with her husband and child in Rome, in the March 2003 issue of Gourmet, it confirmed my suspicion that the Joshua David C’84 whose features appeared in Travel & Leisure and other publications was the same one I had known at Penn. By the time I saw Betsy Andrews C’85 at a press dinner in New York and learned that she was a senior editor at Zagat Survey, best known for their influential restaurant guides, I wasn’t even surprised.
“Everyone who graduated from Penn is either a doctor, a lawyer, or … a food writer, it seems,” Betsy deadpans.
Not only did I know them all from Penn, they were all connected to each other. The off-campus house where Pete, Betsy, and Lisa lived their junior years, was also home to The Penn Press. Pete recalls writing about sensory-deprivation flotation tanks that promised hallucinatory experiences; Betsy took on the University with a story about how recyclables weren’t actually being recycled; and Lisa, a fine arts major, provided illustrations. At their kitchen table, in the days before desktop publishing, they pulled all-nighters, cutting the galleys by hand, preparing the layouts by pasting type onto boards.
Putting together the magazine was not the only activity that united them. Their house, nicknamed Beulah’s Supper Club, was a place where they cooked together, or took turns cooking, several times a week. Lisa was already an accomplished cook by junior year. Betsy—a vegetarian at the time—was known for her falafel and vegetarian chili. Pete, meanwhile, was teaching himself to cook using cookbooks as references, but his memories of Philadelphia cuisine focus on cheaper eats—pork sandwiches, olives and cheese from the Italian market, cheesesteaks from Geno’s or Pat’s, and soft pretzels from the Reading Terminal Market.
Joshua, a frequent visitor to the house and a contributor to the magazine, says he was initially drawn to the Press as a way to get to know Stephen Hirsh C’85, whose brother Bill C’83 was the magazine’s editor at the time. The two have been a couple ever since. Joshua also worked at the then just-opened White Dog Cafe, as did Lisa and Betsy; it was so tiny, he recalls, that the restaurant’s laundry was done upstairs in owner Judy Wicks’ apartment.
In their senior year, Pete and Betsy, who shared an apartment with two other friends, hosted a tuna casserole bake-off that highlighted the differences in their cooking styles. “Pete made something really complicated, haute cuisine; he followed a recipe and used wide, round rigatoni,” Betsy says. “Mine was canned tuna, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and the rest of the spice cabinet.” Who won the contest? “It was a tie,” she answers.
Like cooking, food writing comes in different styles and flavors. It’s not all restaurant reviews and recipes: it can also be the history of salt, an argument for sustainable cuisine, or the story of how a young boy and his grandfather connected while gutting fish. Which, I thought, might help explain why these friends, with similar interests, but different academic backgrounds—in history (Pete), fine arts (Lisa), anthropology (Betsy), and design of the environment (Joshua)—all found themselves writing about food.
I decided I would ask them.
Still new at interviewing, I was nervous about talking with Pete. When we met, he had recently won his second and third Beard Awards—named for the legendary cooking-teacher and author—for magazine-feature writing. He shrugged off my congratulations. “Some people call them the Oscars of the food world,” he said, “but it’s a very tiny world.”
Pete’s career in New York began with freelance fact-checking in 1988 at Vanity Fair and Tina Brown’s New Yorker, where he acquired a skill-set that made him overly cautious when he first began writing features, he says. With practice, he became more comfortable telling “the story in my own way, putting the facts in order and drawing a narrative out of the facts.”
After writing press releases at The New Yorker, food features for Time Out New York, and some freelance assignments for Food & Wine, he joined the staff there as an editor. His beats included restaurants, spirits, and the news & notes section, which offers pithy up-to-the-minute items about food and drink from around the world.
“It’s rewarding to write about the people involved in cooking food or brewing beer,” he says, because “people tend to be really happy to talk about it.”
Though relieved that food writing is no longer about how to “make fake salmon out of macaroni and cheese” or relegated to the women’s pages, Pete also wanted to use “the other side of my brain, not just the food side,” so he left Food & Wine in 2001 for the young men’s magazine Details, where he is currently articles editor. In a recent issue, he wrote three pieces: two were on food (ice in cocktails; oysters) and the other, assigned by his editor, was on relationships—specifically, about men being “whipped” by girlfriends or wives (in the sense of not being allowed to watch football or go out with the guys rather than the sort that raises welts). This topic satisfied his hankering to write about something other than food, he says, “But I definitely wouldn’t say it was more meaningful, or better in any other sense that implies a value judgment. It was just different.”
Pete has also continued to write for Food & Wine—including “Captain Bacon,” one of the stories for which he won the Beard Award, in which he accompanies Dan Philips, creator of the Bacon of the Month Club, on a trip through Kentucky and Tennessee to visit his purveyors. The article mixes an insider’s view of smokehouses with insights about Captain Bacon himself. “That this rivalry with his Jewish father set young Dan Philips on a path that has brought him to his mother’s home state in search of the flesh of the swine, struck me as material that would keep a psychoanalyst busy for years,” he writes.
“Pete could be the best food writer in America if he keeps at it,” Alan Richman says. (Assuming that Richman retires, that is.) “He can flat-out write. His stories reek charm, delicacy, and humor.”
It made total sense to Pete Wells that Lisa Futterman would combine her love of cooking with her aesthetic sense as an artist. As it turned out, Lisa prefers her creative expression in the kitchen rather than the studio. With fine art, she says, “You can’t eat what you make, so it’s not as much fun.”
It was while cooking at the White Dog Cafe under chef David Spungen C’83 that Lisa had what she calls her “aha moment”: If David was a Penn grad and a chef, Lisa reasoned, she could be one, too. Inspired by his example, she enrolled in the nine-month Chef’s Training Program at the Philadelphia Restaurant School, where her classmates were mostly high-school graduates from South Philly. While David turned in his toque after just a few years for a career in which stocks and markets involve neither soup pots nor fresh vegetables—he works for an investment firm now—Lisa stuck with the food world.
After working in several restaurants in Philadelphia and San Francisco, Lisa eventually moved to Chicago, where she wandered into the Chopping Block, a school for home cooks that was getting started in 1997. “We immediately connected,” says owner Shelley Young. Lisa became the cooking school’s first teacher aside from Young herself, and is now the director of the company’s two schools, managing and training all the instructors.
When Pete, then senior editor at Food & Wine, came to the Windy City to eat with her, he realized she would be the perfect candidate for the recently vacated position of contributing reporter for Chicago—and a food-writing career was born. Lisa continues to fill that role since his departure from the magazine’s editorial staff, reporting on new restaurants, trends, and gossip in the industry, and has also written for other publications. “Now all I do is cook, eat, talk, and write about food,” says Lisa.
Betsy Andrews credits both Pete Wells and Joshua Davidwith helping her land her current gig at Zagat. Joshua gave her name to a Zagat editor who had called him about a position, and Pete passed along his recommendation through his boss, who happened to be having dinner with one of the decision-makers there.
Betsy loves food and worships chefs—she thinks they are among the hardest working people in the world. “It thrills me to see someone who has their heart in it,” she says. Betsy understands restaurants from firsthand experience: she’s worked in a long list of restaurants in high school, college, and after graduation. But before she worked at Zagat, she had been a teacher for 15 years. Though Betsy and her colleagues work hard—“especially when on deadline”—the job is a welcome respite from the 24/7 demands of students. “I loved teaching but I don’t miss it,” she says.
Betsy writes essays and book reviews for Salon.com, but she is most invested in poetry. She says that the process of writing the one-sentence reviews that comprise the Zagat guides—dense crystallizations of hundreds of reviewers’ comments, nuggets jam-packed with information—is similar to writing poetry.
But unlike her poems, the reviews represent others’ opinions—those of the survey participants. “It’s the people’s book, and the people’s collective opinion is what matters,” she says. Despite the cavils of professional restaurant reviewers about whether such “amateur opinions” can be relied on, such as a 2001 Food & Wine piece by the former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, “Rating Zagat,” Betsy counters that “the majority opinion,” which is carefully fact-checked, “in my experience is pretty darned accurate.”
Though Joshua David doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” food writer, he has noticed that the backpack provisions he takes along for trips to Fire Island grows increasingly heavy with “necessities” such as meat and fish, rice wine vinegar, cilantro, and other hard-to-find items. “If you travel to remote places and you also care about food, you end up carrying a lot of stuff,” he explains.
Joshua came to food-writing through travel. His first job after college was as assistant travel editor at Bride’s Magazine. “I think they hired me because I was the first man in history who ever wanted to work there,” he says.
As a travel writer on press trips, “food writers used to drive me insane,” he says. “I don’t want to spend all day in a restaurant. They would stand on their chairs with cameras and take pictures—I was always horrified!” Even today, Joshua doesn’t write restaurant reviews or “write about food in the really intense half-scientific, half-painterly way,” he says. “I can’t pick up a fork and take a bite and distinguish the ingredients.” He’s more interested in the larger experience: the place, the people, the tradition, gossip, news, political aspects. “All those other things are what attracts me to writing about food and looking at food. Every place has a life of its own, far beyond the plate, and that’s what interests me.”
His article on Wendy Artin grew out of a dinner conversation with Gourmet editor Jocelyn Zuckerman. “She told me they were doing a Rome issue and if I had any ideas I should let her know, and I thought Wendy was a natural fit,” he recalls. “Wendy is one person who made me more interested in food, and looking at it in a particular way. When she was still a struggling painter, she would have the most fabulous dinner parties in borrowed apartments. ”
Besides food, Zuckerman calls on Joshua to write about design and architecture as well, often in the framework of a travel piece. His interest in architecture dates back at least to Penn, where he studied Design of the Environment, but a professor told him his drawing skills were inadequate and discouraged him from continuing. (These days the kind of drafting required is all done on computer, Joshua says.)
While architecture’s loss has been journalism’s gain, Joshua is currently involved in a project that has returned him to his academic roots and left him with less opportunity for freelancing (though he still makes time to write articles for Gourmet). His full-time job is with the Friends of the High Line, a group that is working on transforming an abandoned elevated railway track in Manhattan into a vertical park [“Alumni Profiles,” May/June].
As for me, I’ve overcome my fear of Thai food: In the past few months, I’ve written about five new Thai restaurants—and I’ve learned why yogurt is better than water for cooling the burn of hot chili peppers. I know that people think I’m lucky when they hear that I get paid to write about food, and I heartily agree. Of all of our group of Penn “food writers,” I’m probably the one who’s most comfortable with the title. Yet the old stigma still lingers a bit, a shadow that makes one yearn to do something “more meaningful.” Because no matter how much I love food-inspired writing, no matter how important I think it is, I’d give it all up with out a moment’s hesitation in exchange for a career as a novelist.
Luckily, I don’t have to pick. As with eating food, writing about it improves when there is variety in the diet.
Nancy Davidson C’84 is a freelance food writer based in New York. She has contributed to Cooking Light, Gourmet, Saveur, Gastronomica, The New York Post, New York Sun, and Time Out New York. She is currently working on a memoir with recipes about cooking with her senior-year housemates.
How It’s Done
Fork It Over, by Alan Richman C’65 is so good that it comes with a highly complimentary blurb by Emeril Lagasse—despite the fact that, in the book, Richman blows the cover of Lagasse and other celebrity chefs who don’t do much cooking at the restaurants that brought them fame.
Subtitled The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater, this collection of essays, many originally published in GQ magazine, shows why Richman has won more awards for food-writing than anybody else—and why this Penn alumnus, who was one of the first to make a career of food writing, still sets the standard in the genre.—J.P.
The Eating Life
I am a restaurant critic. I eat for a living.
Chefs complain about people like me. They argue that we are not qualified to do our jobs because we do not know how to cook. I tell them I’m not entirely pleased with the way they do their jobs, either, because they do not know how to eat. I have visited most of the best restaurants of the world, and they have not. I believe I know how to eat as well as any man alive.
I dine out constantly, but there is a great deal I do in restaurants that people who eat purely for pleasure would not consider part of a normal meal. You would not enjoy having dinner with me.
I lie—I make a reservation under a false name. I steal—the menu, not the
silverware. I wander. I am always getting up from my table in order to check out my surroundings. I drift around, and the meandering invariably ends when a well-meaning captain taps me on the shoulder and points me in the direction of the men’s room, wrongly assuming that is where I wish to go. I rarely talk to the people dining with me, but I love to chat with waiters and busboys. They know the secrets lurking behind the swinging kitchen doors.
Friends who accompany me to meals are bored by the absence of conversation. They are unhappy with the dishes I choose for them—they have their hearts set on a lovely salad of poached Maine lobster and become cranky when I tell them they must sample the seared calf’s brain. The warm mandarin soufflé they’ve been anticipating all evening is finally set before them, and I stick my spoon in it before they have a taste.
Yet everybody envies what I do. They think it’s the gastronomic counterpart of test-driving Mercedes sports coupes or helping Las Vegas showgirls dress. They believe it involves little more than eating unceasingly and being reimbursed for the privilege. There’s some truth to that, but sometimes I am obligated to eat three full meals a day, day after day, which is not always easy, even on an expense account. I generally receive little sympathy when I make that point.
A critic has to understand when food is correct, which is to be admired, and when it is inspired, which we would call a miracle. The job is part analysis (is this good?), part self-analysis (It’s good, but am I the only person who likes it?), and part gluttony (Have I tried everything on the menu?).
I’ve never been a victim of culinary fatigue, because I can reverse direction and concentrate on the humble whenever I weary of the haute. A natural-casing hot dog off the grill can be as thrilling as Charlie Trotter’s terrine of asparagus with goat cheese, beet juice, and hundred-year-old balsamic vinegar.
I often make that point when it’s my turn to pay.
Reprinted from Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater, published by HarperCollins. Copyright©2004 by Alan Richman.