A Conversation with Dianne Jacob
Talking about the evolution of food writing with the author of 'Will Write for Food.'
Dianne Jacob has been writing since the 1970s, and she brings the perspective of someone well-versed in the industry to her book Will Write for Food, the fourth edition of which just came out this week. In the text and her online writing, she demystifies what is often thought of as the romantic world of food writing for anyone who might want to break into it. That’s required paying attention to how the industry has evolved in the last twenty years, especially, as people have moved away from restaurant reviewing and toward online work.
We discussed what drew her to food writing, how she’s adapted to a digital world as a self-described “print snob,” and how she defines diversity. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Dianne. Thank you so much for coming on today and taking the time out.
Dianne: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. And my parents were refugees. They came there in 1949 to escape Mao. They were from China, born and raised. So we grew up there, because my mother was British, and she could get into Canada, it being part of the Commonwealth.
I think, in the beginning, my parents did not know anything about cooking because they had servants in China. But eventually, they missed their food and they had to figure out how to make it. There were a lot of phone calls with family. And I grew up eating three, maybe four or five kinds of food. Iraqi Jewish food, Bombay, Baghdadi Jewish dishes. Chinese dishes. My mother loved to make Japanese food as well. And every once in a while, she would attempt Western food, which she put her own spin on. Sometimes that went well, and sometimes it didn't. [Laughter.]
Alicia: And what got you interested in food as something to spend your life focused on?
Dianne: It took a while to figure out why. But I think what it came down to is that, is because of my parents. They had a very weird background, and they didn't fit in anywhere. They didn't fit in with the Jewish community. And they didn't fit in with the Chinese community, because they weren't Chinese. They still wanted to express their identity, and they expressed it through food.
And it was really, really important to them. My mother cooked every day. My father was in charge of pickling things and making leben, which is the Arab yogurt. So, they had a garden. And it was a major focus of their life. So I think I just took that for granted for a long time. And I didn't really understand that it was also a major focus of mine.
Alicia: How did you learn that it was?
Dianne: It was when I became self-employed. Before, I had a lot of different kinds of jobs as an editor and reporter and feature writer, and I just worked at different kinds of magazines and newspapers. And even a book publishing house, on whatever topic there was, ’cause I was an editor.
And then when I became self-employed, I realized that I had to become an individual contributor. And before, I had always been a manager. And so I had to figure out what I wanted to write about. And what I wanted to write about was food.
Alicia: What has made you focus on food for so long? I mean, I'm sure we'll discuss this, but food media is not a really easy or welcoming place. And so, what has kept you writing about food all this time?
Dianne: Actually, I haven't been writing about food that much. Early in my career, I wrote restaurant reviews. I wrote a lot of service pieces. I wrote a column, a recipe column.
But then, because I had such a long career as an editor and I missed working with writers, I got more interested in working with writers. So most of what I write about is how to be a food writer in all its glorious guidance, and how there are so many parts to it. There are endless subjects to keep me interested: food and politics, food and identity, ethics, how to write a good recipe, how to get a book deal, how to make a living, how to grow your blog. It's endless. And so, I've never been bored. [Laughs.]
Alicia: [Laughs.] Yeah.
And you've just come out with the fourth edition of your book, Will Write for Food. What has kind of changed in your motivation and your approach to this book since the first edition in 2005?
Dianne: Well, I started teaching food writing at Book Passage, which is a big bookstore here in the San Francisco Bay Area. And I couldn't find a book on food writing. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should write one.’ I figured if I was going to teach on the subject, it would be useful to have this book.
So the first edition came out in 2005. And at that time, restaurant reviewing was really big. So there was a huge chapter on restaurant reviewing, and it was all focused on fine dining. And there's a chapter on fiction writing, which are—Mostly, the most popular genre in food fiction writing is murder mysteries with recipes, with great titles like, ‘The butter did it!’
And food blogs were just starting out. But I was still a print snob, then. And I thought, ‘Well, I don't really know what this is,’ and ‘Where are the gatekeepers?’ So I just ignored it. [Laughter.] And that turns out to be a big mistake.
So in the second edition, I had to write a huge chapter on food blogging, which was in full swing. That was in 2010. And the Pioneer Woman was a big celebrity blogger then. And she wrote a blurb for my book.
And then the third edition came out in 2015. And by then, people were more interested in how to make a living as a food writer—and mostly, especially online. They wanted to know how to make money online with recipes, or as content creators. I had to write about transitioning from a hobby to a business, more about photography, social media. A lot less on restaurant reviewing, because with the advance of Yelp, it just—restaurant reviewing has become a job that ten people have. [Laughs.]
And then for the fourth edition, which comes out on May 25, I got rid of the Eurocentric focus on food and writers. And I brought in more diverse voices, younger voices. There's a much smaller chapter on restaurant writing, more on making money.
And I wrote a new chapter on voice, because the field has become very crowded these days, and a lot of people are writing the same kind of content. And so, how do you stand out in a crowded field if you're writing the same kind of content as other people? For me, it comes down to voice.
No, that's so important. And you also have your blog. You also send out a newsletter. Why have you gone sort of an independent route with your work?
Dianne: Well, I started the blog in 2009 because I knew I was going to have to write about food blogging. And I felt if I didn't jump in, I was never going to understand it.
So I mean, I did jump in. But I didn't start a food blog. I started a blog about writing, particularly food writing. And at first I did twice a week, short posts about whether blogging is journalism, how adapting a recipe doesn't make it yours. It was really fun because in those days, people weren't on social media as much. I would regularly have like 50 or 80 responses. And I would get in theoretical arguments with people.
I remember having a big argument with Shauna Ahern about whether blogging was journalism, all in the comments, going back and forth. And Paula Wolfert was one of my first commenters. It was a really heavy time.
And then for the newsletter, I started that probably ten years ago. But then, it was just for anyone who had been a student of mine or a client. But now it has a bigger audience than my blog. And both of them together have me—they kept me on a regular writing schedule, and—which is really important. Because I don't want to just be an editor and coach for people. I want to keep my writing practice.
And so I've been writing mostly service, what's called service writing, how-to pieces. Opinion pieces. And I bring in a lot of guest posters when they have wisdom to share.
And how do you find it now? It's been over a decade that you've been kind of writing for yourself, writing directly to readers. What have you gleaned in that time from that kind of writing versus writing for publications?
Dianne: Well, the joy of not having a gatekeeper, and writing whatever you want, just can't be underestimated. But you still have to be relevant for people.
This is something I learned as a writer early on, I think, when I was doing restaurant reviewing. What I learned was that people may never go to the restaurant, but they still want to read my review. And they wanted to be entertained. And I think I'm still learning about entertaining people. I tend to be very serious. [Laughter.] You are too, right?
But entertainment is a huge part of writing for people. And so, it always has to be an element. I'm still figuring that out. I'm still figuring out how to be personal, and not just talk about what's going on in the industry. How much of myself to reveal. And of course, social media only amplifies that issue.
I don't know. I hope I'm not serious. I hope I don't come off serious.
Alicia: Yeah, the funny thing is that I'm not a serious person as a human being. So it's interesting that my writing that is popular is very serious.
And it's a little bit frustrating to me, because I think I am trying to balance within one audience a few different ideas of what people want for me. And so some people like the personal writing and some people like the polemical, political writing. And some people like some more specific food writing about specific ingredients, or that sort of thing.
And it's really hard to make all of those people happy all of the time. Which I guess the answer is—it's impossible.
Dianne: Yeah, it is.
Alicia: I find having direct contact with an audience that wants things from me pretty challenging most of the time. I don't know if I have the ability or the stamina to go on with it for over a decade, like you have. [Laughs.]
Dianne: A lot of what I write is not personal. I think that’s how I've been able to handle it, it's—just a while ago, I wrote a blog on how I noticed that I had a half-tablespoon measure in my drawer, but I never see half-tablespoon measuring recipes. And when I do, I usually edit it out and put one and a half teaspoons. Sometimes, you just never know if people are gonna respond to that or not.
And people were all over it. And they were telling me, oh no, they've had this tablespoon for years. And they always use it in recipes. And it was the most minor subject.
Alicia: Right. It got people going.
Dianne: Yeah, it got people going. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, I think it's interesting to talk to you today, because while this is coming out in late May, we're talking in late April. And the people who are in the essays that are being included in Best American Food Writing 2021 have been announced in some form.
Dianne: Oh. I haven’t seen that yet.
And I wanted to ask you, because you wrote about—you wrote a gorgeous and award-winning essay about mangoes for Lucky Peach in 2016. And then you wrote a blog post that just broke down the process. And I feel that was such a na—genius, kind of ahead of its time move to do that because I think it's only in recent times that we've really been having this conversation about what makes things successful in food media, and what makes a piece end up in an anthology or winning awards and that sort of thing.
And so, I wanted to ask you why you wanted to matter-of-factly break that down for people.
Dianne: Well, thank you for calling it gorgeous. I appreciate that. And also, thank you for finding that post, because I've got thousands of posts now going back to 2009. So, I didn't even remember that one. So, I went back and read it.
But I think what I wanted to get across is that people tend to think that writing is some kind of magic that people can just pour things forth, and it will be beautiful and fully formed. And that was not my experience writing that piece. That piece took a long time. And it appeared in various guises. And I just want people to know that it's work. It's work to get there.
And also that if you do want to be recognized for your work a lot of the time, you have to—most, almost all the time, you have to apply. And I was so freaked out by the James Beard awards that I didn't even apply. I didn't even for that piece. I just couldn't get up the nerve. It was just ridiculous. The things you tell yourself are insane sometimes. [Laughter.]
Alicia: No, it's true.
Has how you perceive awards changed since that time?
Dianne: Not really. You have to believe in your work enough to submit awards. And I'm always telling people on social media and in my newsletter, ‘Ok, the award deadline is coming up. You can’t wait anymore unless you apply. You've got to pay some money. You've got to believe in your work.’ And that hasn't changed.
Alicia: No. Yeah.
And I mean, it's interesting. The James Beard awards are, I think, the most expensive award to submit yourself for. And I don't know if you've ever judged the writing awards for them. But—
Dianne: I have judged them, but not journalism. I've judged books for the Beard Award.
Alicia: Oh, ok. Right.
Well, it's interesting to me that it's—people pay so much money to be considered, and then the people doing the reading aren't paid for that time, either. So, it's interesting. I mean, I've written before about how much I loathe the James Beard awards. [Laughs.]
Yeah, it's a difficult thing. And that's why I appreciated that blog post, because I think that people often do think, like you said, that it's this magical process toward writing the great essay that will get attention. And it's not. It just is plodding to get there.
Dianne: Yes, with a lot of self-doubt and putting it away and bring it back out. And yeah, just how it is. I’ve been a published writer since 1974, and I still go through that.
Alicia: And I didn't give you this question, ’cause I'm only really—I'm considering this right now this week, that the idea of being creative and working in a creative field is, I think, something that we're supposed to always talk about in a very lofty manner. And your whole work that you're doing now is about, and have been doing, is about breaking that down for people and making it about success and not shying away from the business end of it.
And I wanted to ask how you kind of balance or decided to balance those things, and how creativity and business—how in your mind do they kind of fit together?
Dianne: That's a really good question.
What I've decided is that there are some people who are entrepreneurs, and they’re business people first. And they apply their creativity to their business. Whereas food writing, I think, for so long has been a hobby and not taken seriously and things that people do on the side or they just do it for fun, or they do it because they're privileged enough to not worry about whether they're going to get paid for it or how much. That's a whole other kind of thinking.
And so you can produce the same work. I mean, you can write a recipe and have either point of view. But the people who are making a business from it are focused on that. They're focused on financial success, however they define that. I've had people as clients who have made six, high six figure incomes. I've interviewed people who have made high, mid-six figure incomes. And they're just as good as writing a recipe as the people who get paid nothing. But they’re entrepreneurial about it.
Alicia: Right, right.
That's an interesting way of looking at it, I think. ’Cause I think I have a lot of guilt about money in being a creative person. Guilt about thinking of my work as labor and guilt about thinking of my work in business terms, in a way that I never did if I was selling people cakes or cookies. I would never feel this way, but because I'm just writing—And as I say it, I say, ‘just writing.’
Dianne: Just writing, yup.
Alicia: Yeah. [Laughs.]
I'm like, ‘Is this real work? Am I supposed to be caring about money? Is it gauche of me to need money to live?’ [Laughs.]
And so trying to kind of be honest about these things, and how it all really works, which is a lot—it's very complicated.
Dianne: It is, because money is fraught, especially in American society. Fraught with so many issues.
I have the privilege sometimes of writing a piece for my own pleasure and getting paid very little for it. And I think, ‘Is something wrong with me that I do this, because at the end of the day, it's not—my labor isn't being paid for. So, is that wrong? Or do I just decide that I'm a privileged person?’ and then I have guilt about that. [Laughter.] You can make yourself crazy with this stuff.
Alicia: Right, right.
No, and in this new edition, in the introduction, you talk about the diversity of voices that have emerged in food writing in the last decade and the major writers of color, or Black writers who've emerged in this time. And you yourself could be said to have a ‘diverse’ background. So, I wanted to ask you how you define diversity.
Dianne: Thank you.
So first, I'll define it for the book. So my editor and I spent a lot of time on how we were going to define it. And she was very helpful. So of course, there's BIPOC, which means Black, Indigenous and people of color. But that's not everybody.
I just looked up the new abbreviation LGBTQQIAP. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual. Got all that? [Laughs.]
Alicia: Yes. [Laughter.]
Dianne: We're leaving out people who are disabled. I know, it's not everyone. But at least we're enlarging who can write about food and how they write about it.
And so I tried to describe the intersection of food writing and more diversity in the first chapter. And I don't fit into one category. I mean, I present as a white person, and I have the privilege of a white person. But my parents were Chinese refugees from—who were Iraqi. So it's kind of complicated. Identity for me is a huge topic, and I'm endlessly fascinated by it.
Alicia: And I wanted to ask if you've faced—I mean, you just said you, you're a white person with the privileges of a white person. How do you view the kind of gatekeeping that occurs in food media and the fact that we have taken so long to start seeing food media more accurately reflect the world at large?
Dianne: Oh, yeah, it's taken a long time. I mean, I graduated from journalism school in 1974. And it was almost entirely white. And every job I had, the whole staff was almost entirely white and the writers I hired were almost entirely white.
I never questioned it in the beginning. We weren't having those kinds of conversations. And it's taken a long time to start—for the publishing industry—to start having the conversation, and to own it that publishing is, what, 85, 86 percent white. Depending on which publishing you're talking about, but I think, for us, it is. It's just taken a really long time because the gatekeepers were not really aware of how, of choosing their own and how their own were always available.
I mean, white writers came to me and want to be published. And I didn't think about seeking out other kinds of people for the longest time.
Alicia: Right, right. [Laughs.]
And how did that moment of clarity kind of emerge?
Dianne: Well, just in the last few years, it's become a lot more obvious that this system has to change. And I've had my own understanding about it also, and questioning what I could do about it.
Last year, in honor of Black Lives Matter, I had—I said I would take on five new clients who were interested in food writing, who are all Black, for $100 instead of $800, because I know there's this disparity in the income of white people versus Black people. And so that was something new, for me to do that. And it went really well. I had really terrific people to work with, who were—or I could just suggest to them, they work very hard. And it was good. It was a good experience. And now I'm trying to figure out what else I can do.
How far in advance do you start planning your next edition of the book?
Dianne: Well, they've come out every five years. I guess, technically, it was supposed to come out last year, but because of the pandemic they pushed it. So this one is out every—on the sixth year. So I can keep a file of all the stuff I’ve forgotten to write about, and how to rethink what I wrote about.
When I first got into food writing, I was absolutely bewildered by the Eurocentric nature of it. And it was so foreign to me, because I didn't know about European food. I didn't have the income to go to fine-dining restaurants and eat continental food, as it was called at the time. And I just didn't understand why everyone was so excited about it. [Laughter.] So we've come a long way from that point.
And for you, is cooking a political act?
Yeah. Because you make decisions, you make decisions. Are you going to buy organic, and is that just for your own health or is it for the health of the people who work in the fields and for the health of the planet? Can you look beyond yourself and see why that would be a good idea? Are you eating a plant based diet to—for environmental reasons or for your own health?
Are you claiming your food as being from one country or another? I just had a guest post about—that Nandita Godbole, I don't know if I'm pronouncing her name right, wrote about cultural appropriation. And I realized that I had written a recipe for some—a Chinese dish that my mother made. And I was very wrapped up in the memory of how she made it and how delicious it was and what my memories were as a child eating it.
And then I realized after reading her posts that I hadn't thought about, ‘Was this a dish that existed in Shanghai? And did my mother eat it? And is that how she found out about it? And what do I know about the Chinese version of this dish?’ I hadn't thought about it at all. So, it just enlarged my thinking about how to write about food in a way that's more inclusive.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time out today.
Dianne: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.