Kristina Rose: Food is an experience, and writing lends to it a voice. How did you discover your passion for food writing? How did you break into the food writing industry?
Katharine Shilcutt: I didn’t consciously choose to go into food writing, or into writing at all for that matter. It never occurred to me as a kid or even as an adult that I could make a living as a writer; I graduated with a degree in GIS (computer cartography) and worked in human resources for many years, and only wrote for my own satisfaction, as a hobby. Writing and food were always sort of naturally occurring elements in my life, and came together in a sort of holistic manner without much conscious thought on my part. My “break,” I guess you could call it, came after I started posting my writing—both food writing and otherwise—on a little blogging platform online for fun. About a year later, I graduated to Wordpress and started feeling comfortable enough sharing my writing with other people that I began posting links to my blog on Twitter. I also mustered the courage to join a group of young writers who were publishing an online-only daily (of sorts) called Houstonist; having that group of peers really helped bolster my confidence in my (still completely untrained) writing. Shortly afterwards, the food critic at the Houston Press, Robb Walsh, read my blog entries, and thought to approach me about writing for the paper on a freelance basis. Not long after, the Press had an open position for a web editor; having a computer-related degree and some work under my belt at both Houstonist and the Press (all thanks to the network of people I got to know after I started writing in earnest) got me the gig. Well, that and the sheer amount of faith placed in me by Margaret Downing, the editor-in-chief, who knew I had no journalism background but was willing to train me up. I owe so much to the Press for helping me get started on a path that I’d never even considered before.
KR: I understand your mother was a chef, and your father was a self-proclaimed pit master. To what extent was your love for food fostered by your parents?
KS: My mother still is a personal chef and my father still is an excellent pitmaster; they both have a deep and abiding passion for food, whether it’s coq au vin or pork butt. Food is what we discuss more than any other topic of conversation, it’s how we relate to each other, it’s how we tell each other about our days or what our weekend plans are going to be. I love food because of its ability to transcend social structures, language, religion, ethnicity, politics, you name it. Food brings people together; food is something everyone can discuss, and an area in which people can most often find common ground. My parents were also keen on introducing me to cuisines and dishes from outside my own culture as a means of broadening my perspective and helping to eliminate that natural “fear of the other” that kids raised in homogenous communities often experience. If you like someone’s lebne or samosas it’s not at all difficult to continue opening yourself up from there and learn more about them. I think that’s one of the greatest lessons food can teach: a respect for and understanding of otherwise “exotic” or foreign cultures, which is ever vital as we progress towards a more global society.
KR: In 2011, you were nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Multimedia Food Feature. Can you tell us more about the nominated piece? Was this something you consciously worked towards, or did the nomination take you by surprise?
KS: Ha! Like everything else, this was unplanned and unexpected. It’s a rather long story, but the piece itself came out very differently than I’d originally anticipated. I’m glad it did, however, and it’s a testament to my editors’ intervention and suggestions that it took another, better path. Listen to your editors, folks: they have your best interests at heart. We entered the piece, Designer Meats, in the multimedia category that year on a whim, not knowing what other sorts of pieces might be submitted in that rather new category. To my enduring surprise, I ended up nominated alongside Andrew Zimmern for his work on Bizarre Foods and a team from the Chicago Reader. I was positive that Zimmern was going to win—I mean, it’s Andrew Zimmern—and to my great delight, the Chicago Reader duo won instead. I never got a chance to meet them, but I hope they know I was as excited for their win as I was to have just been nominated and to have gotten the chance to witness the Beard awards firsthand.
KR: Do you find yourself reading other food critics' writing frequently? Do you have food writers who inspire you?
KS: I do and don’t. These days, I have a very different role than when I was the food critic at the Press. I handle a lot more than just food, which means my daily reading list is greatly expanded as well. I’ve stopped reading a great many restaurant reviewers that I once read on a weekly basis simply because of time constraints. But I’m still a huge fan of Bill Addison and Robert Sietsema (both now at Eater), Jonathan Gold at the LA Weekly, Hanna Raskin at the Charleston Post-Courier, the inimitable Pete Wells at the New York Times, and of course our own local reviewers, especially Alison Cook. The critics who seek out unusual experiences and who favor creating a relationship with their readers over stroking chefs’ egos are those who appeal most to me.
KR: Outside of restaurant reviews, are you a reader? Do you feel that there is a crossover between fiction and food writing, lessons the two can learn from each other?
KS: Yes. I read far more non-food writing than anything else, though even then it’s predominately non-fiction. There are so many beautiful, interesting, captivating, important true-life stories to be told, and in so many different forms, and I feel like a new part of your soul is unlocked each time you read about an experience that differs from your own. Reading can help you be a more thoughtful, compassionate individual, not to mention a more well-educated writer. You can’t be a good writer if you aren’t a good reader. I think it’s as simple as that. You should be constantly learning, constantly seeking new input so you can have fresh output; reading helps prevent mental stagnation and sharpens up your mind. I can’t count the number of times I’ve marveled at how a talented, seriously inspiring writer, like Anne Fadiman, for instance, constructs a narrative or a segue and wondered, How could I apply this to my own writing?
KR: We are looking forward to having you teach the day-long Writespace Food Writing workshop on July 25, which will include a lunch outing to get the food-writing juices flowing. What do you want the workshop participants to leave with—besides a full stomach?
KS: I hope that people will leave with a greater understanding of how writing about food is more than just, well, writing about food. Food is such a significant cultural touchstone and I think there’s more to great food writing than just describing dishes or waxing on about the newest chef in town. I think the reason food writing is so popular is because, again, it speaks to something universal in all of us, and I think that food writing deserves that sort of respect from the people who pen it. I also want to discuss the ethics of food writing—something that doesn’t come up often enough—as well as the intricate details of writing compelling copy: how to write a lede, how to set a scene, why arbitrary words like “delicious” are often useless, how to interview and work quotes into a piece, etc. All the things I had no idea how to do until the Press got a hold of me...
KR: Every writer gets better with practice. What is a typical rookie food-writing mistake new food critics should avoid? Is there a cardinal rule that a food writer should keep in mind when writing a review?
KS: I think the most basic mistake of food writing is when someone begins writing for the chef/restaurant/bartender/etc. rather than their readership. So much of what food writers do is in service to our readers; I think that can sometimes get all mixed up when young, excited food writers (like I once was!) get wrapped up in a world in which we’ve fetishized food and elevated chefs to celebrity status. At the end of the day, you’re not writing for your interview subjects—and this is true in any journalism vertical—you’re writing for your readers. Have you given them the information they need about a restaurant? Is it as unbiased as possible? Did you relate your own experiences truthfully and in their proper context?
KR: “You are what you eat,” goes the saying. What dish would you be?
KS: Hahaha, oh man. I eat a lot of yogurt, eggs, cheese and vegetables. When I’m not eating for work, I mostly adhere to a vegetarian diet because it’s inexpensive, healthy and sustainable. I sound like the most boring person on earth, I’m sure. But the other night I did binge-eat a bag of my favorite cookies while watching a particularly moving episode of Community (it’s the Ass Crack Bandit episode, FYI), so I guess in that instance I’d be a bag of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos. At least that’s what I’d like to be.
To learn more about Katharine's Food Writing workshop, click here.