On a rainy Sunday morning, a hearty collection of toddlers, parents, and storytellers gathered in the covered garden space of Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel for the “Junior” division of the annual Food Book Fair. Despite the inclement weather, they sang food-related songs, read picture books such as “Harold’s Hungry Eyes,” and learned about composting.
Meanwhile, adult foodies were experiencing food in quite the different light. Representing the “Food and Fiction” panel were Stephanie Danler, author of the forthcoming novel “Sweetbitter,” Jessica Tom, author of the novel “Food Whore,” and Helen Ellis, whose latest is the short-story collection “American Housewife.”
The concept of food as a metaphor for sex was one of the first topics. “Food is also about beauty, identity, finding and projecting who you want to be,” said Tom, “so I think it’s more that it’s about things sex is about also.” Another potential similarity: “Food is a source of power,” said Ellis. “There is power in accepting, or rejecting, someone’s food.”
Asked if she had an audience in mind when writing, Ellis said, “I wrote the book for women. I wasn’t too concerned about male readers.” (This refreshing view generated a thankful “Woo!” from a female audience member.) Danler, meanwhile, leaned away from the notion of keeping an audience in mind, noting that she wrote for herself. “You have to be certain that you wrote the book you would just die over,” she said. “The book you’d want to read.”
The panelists were emphatic on some issues—and often funny. Asked whether she’s willing to be placed in a “food genre” as a writer, Ellis called out cheerfully, “I love genre! It helps potential readers find my work.” Of her inspirations, Danler said that in addition to the cookbooks she uses, “I have aspirational cookbooks—I’ll never be able to make anything in there, but I like to look at the pictures.” She also mentioned two specific poems—“Oysters,” by Seamus Heaney, and an untitled poem that begins “Light clarity avocado salad in the morning,” by Frank O’Hara—that she kept on her desk throughout her writing process. (“I’m a huge booster for poetry,” she said in conversation after the panel. “I think it should get so much more visibility than it does.”)
Regarding ways in which her protagonist resembles herself, Danler, a former waitress, said she “started with a few facts about my life. But then you’re in a [writing] tunnel, and suddenly the characters are talking to you.” As for being her protagonist’s age, 22, Danler (now in her early 30s) admitted that she doesn’t remember it clearly—“I think I was drunk a lot!” Tom revealed that her protagonist “has some things in common with me—but I’m cautious and boring, and she’s not.”
At a later panel titled “Foodieodicals Today,” topics ranged from priorities in the current world of print media (“We have resisted working with distributors—they could get us into Barnes and Noble, but is that useful now?” wondered Anna Dunn, editor in chief of “Diner Journal”) to the motivations for current projects (“I felt like my stories [as a food-and-craft stylist] were getting ruined by editors and art directors!” joked blogger-turned-print-editor Paul Lowe, who heads the magazine “Sweet Paul”).
Money was a pressing topic—budgets to pay writers, editors, photographers, and stylists; ways to sustain a career from publishing. “We pay authors based on how much we produce of their work,” said Nick Fauchald, publisher of “Short Stack,” a collection of small-format cookbooks, “not how much we sell. We consider selling to be our job, not the writer’s.”Though Lowe spoke of a lot of work and not much financial benefit, he added that “there’s so much talent out there, and that’s very rewarding.” In remarks echoing Danler’s comments from the fiction panel, he said, “I make a magazine I want to read. Whatever I put in there is whatever I’m into right now. I don’t have to sell my ideas anymore—I can do what I see, which is rewarding also.”
Dunn is an advocate of the good-old day job: “The worry about making money will debilitate the act of creating,” she noted, so “sometimes it’s best to find other means” to pay bills while doing creative work. That said, she co-authored “Dinner at the Long Table” with chef/”Diner Journal” founder Andrew Tarlow; the book is due out from Random House’s Ten Speed Press imprint this fall.
In regard to images, “Sometimes we work from the art and create the writing,” said Dunn. “We ask, What’s beautiful in the mess of cooking this? What’s depressing?” “We’re interested in people cooking and hanging out together, added Sarah Keough, publisher of food zine “Put a Egg on It.” “You won’t see many plates of food by themselves.” Conversely, “I’m very into that plate of food!” said Lowe. “It just needs to be really pretty—not perfect, but beautiful. I want to give something doable but beautiful.”
At the panel on Recipe Testing, the audience learned from food journalist and moderator Julia Bainbridge that “just because a recipe appears in print does not mean it works!” Panelist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director at Serious Eats, said that they test recipes several dozen times: “If we’re coming up with a new technique, it could be tested over 100 times.” And be warned, he added: “The simpler the recipe, the more people have a connection to it and the more precise you have to be.”
Maria Zizka, a recipe developer who works with chefs on restaurant books, explained that she wants “to capture a particular chef’s voice within a recipe.” When she worked with Russell Moore of Oakland’s Camino Restaurant for “This Is Camino,” she found that “he doesn’t have anything written down and often makes things only once.” She would watch him cook, then try to recreate the recipe.
Andy Baraghani, senior food editor at “Bon Appetit,” said that “with ingredient-driven stories, we work up to a year ahead”—testing, tweaking, and analyzing a dish’s appearance before finalizing.
Still, the best-tested recipe might fail due to excessive improvisation. Alt-Lopez recalled a dissatisfied review of an enchilada recipe that relied heavily on its sauce: “But the reader had made it with her own sauce—which turned out to be crushed tomatoes and peanut butter. It did not work out.”
At a dinner called “A Spritz and a Slice,” celebrating the publication of the books “Spritz” and “The New York Pizza Project,” Sarah McKeen and Dinavie Salazar of food-oriented web channel Heritage Radio reflected on the day. “It was really impressive,” said McKeen. “Everyone was so happy, excited, and passionate—there was no blasé conversation.” “Each book and magazine was so beautiful!” added Salazar. “Holding these things, it felt like a celebration.”
Pamela Rafalow Grossman’s articles and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, Time.com, Ms. and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is slowly but steadily overcoming her fear of the kitchen.