Writers Talk About Writing
"Food writing." Or writing, about food.
As the executive editor of the award-winning magazine Saveur and author of the just-released W. W. Norton book Cradle of Flavor, on the cooking of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, James Oseland is celebrated for his writing about food -- just don't call him a "food writer." We caught up with James to ask him to parse this distinction, and tell us what makes for compelling writing on the subject of food:
VT: Is there such a thing as "food writing?"
James: We have a tendency to categorize in our culture, so we think of "food writing" as a thing, "science writing" as a thing, the work of a novelist as a thing. But good writing is good writing. It's essentially all the same thing, you know what I'm saying?
VT: What about Saveur's contributors?
James: I'd say 30% of Saveur's regular writers probably call themselves "food writers" but a good many of them don't. I'll get queries from novelists whose work I know, but just as often I'll get queries from housewives in Vermont or physicians in Berkeley. That's the thing about food. It's this great connector, something we're all inherently interested in, something we all inherently know from our own perspective.
VT: How does food become a vehicle for writing?
James: Food in and of itself is interesting but it's no more interesting than, say, nuclear fusion. A good story brings good writing to life. Food for me when I'm writing about it is merely a conduit, it's a way of telling the bigger story that I want to tell at that particular moment. This is the thing I think Saveur does best. We're not a magazine of trends or hot new things. We're a magazine of good stories. That's what we strive for editorially.
VT: A lot of people pitch stories to you. What are your criteria for assigning a piece?
James: They're totally and utterly unpredictable. I know that's not exactly helpful to your readers! But a strong pitch is simply the one that gets me in the gut at a particular moment -- the one that feels right. Let me give you an example. A couple of months ago a piece written on spec arrived completely out of the blue. It turned over my whole idea that you should never write on spec and send it to editors because that never works. This time it worked -- and how. The writer also included a query letter, but she needn't have. She could have sent her piece as an attachment and said, let me know what you think.
The writer was a newspaper reporter who wrote about visiting her grandmother's home outside Calcutta and the awkwardness of being in a house full of servants. Coming from America, she was really uncomfortable about that aspect of Indian life. But then she talks about how she spends time in the kitchen with the servants and the connection that happens. It's a gem of a piece. It's a thousand words long but it's so rich it feels like 10,000 words. She gets all these layers of humanity in the piece, all this information -- and the food she describes is delicious. The story was so quietly dramatic, it told me all of these things about a world I didn't know before. The way she told it was so heartfelt, so well modulated, so spare.
VT: Your wonderful book about the cooking of the Southeast Asia, Cradle of Flavor, just came out. Would you call it a cookbook?
James: I think, okay, I wrote a food book. When you look for it at the bookstore you're going to find it in the cookbook section. It starts off when I'm 19 years old, when I went to Indonesia for a year, an experience that changed me in more ways than I can say. But I tell the story of this transformation through the food of the place. The book is deeply personal and I become the entry point for the reader to travel to an unknown place. And yes, there are recipes, too -- recipes that I hope are intrinsically linked to the broader narrative, this transformation at work. It's a cookbook and I'm proud to have it be known as such. But it's also my hope that it will resonate on other levels, too.
VT: Did you learn any lessons when you wrote your book?
James: Good food writing -- like all good writing -- is ultimately about capturing the soul and the essence of a subject and conveying it to the reader in a way they can understand. As I wrote my book I was reminded of that old cliché: Less is truly more. We often want to complicate our writing, but keep in mind that the extra adjective you're married to may not bring the reader any deeper into the experience you want to tell them about. During the writing and rewriting of the book, I just plain wrote. I didn't feel the compulsion to announce my cleverness at every turn of the bend -- something I always used to do. I guess I realized that I could be direct and my voice would have even more impact. I realized that it wasn't so much about being spare, but about remembering my reader. Everything has to count for them.