Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eating Words: The Art of Food Writing

Thank you Chef Scot Woods for telling me about this seminar. Thanks to The Stratford Chefs School and The Cookbook Store, my birthday afternoon (Saturday November 14th) was spent in a cute little one-room church listening to fabulous food writers give their most honest and humble advice about the way to become a successful food writer.

At Yorkville Ave and Hazelton Place the street signs on the corner are on an ambiguous angle and so after having walked 2 blocks east - and seeing that we were in fact on Yorkville and not Hazelton - my friend and I deduced that we would have to turn around. We had ten minutes but I like to be on time. To me, that means minimum five minutes early (even with five I get a bit anxious- ten minutes is best). We got to 35 Hazelton Place with about seven minutes to spare. That was a good amount of time to be greeted by Allison Fryer, the face of The Cookbook Store. I picked up a free copy of Toronto Life and found a good seat three rows from the stage, which was more like an elevated platform. The small church room smelled of baby powder but I couldn’t find a giant cloud of powder anywhere. Instead, my eyes wandered over to Jim Morris, who was sitting on a bench on the other side of the room. I recognized his grey hair and blue eyes and I could even imagine his voice, but I mistakenly placed him as a writer whose name I had forgotten.

After the room was (mostly) full and everyone was seated and sipping on hot apple cider dished out by Stratford Chefs School students, Allison welcomed everyone. Ah ha! Stratford Chefs School, white hair, and the voice. I had placed the handsome Jim Morris: He is the Founder and Director of Stratford Chefs School since 1983 and frequently on the Food Network show, Chef School. This event was also a highlight of the Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer in Residence program now offered at The Stratford Chefs School. The program gives students the opportunity to attend workshops and public readings and to have one on one time with the writer in residence.

Recently, Corby Krummer visited the school and when he spoke on Saturday, he sounded as inspired as the students (identified as such by their crisp chef’s whites) in the first row who were beaming up at him. Allison quickly talked about the three year old Gastronomic Writer in Residence program and then introduced the four writers who were sitting on the stage to her left: Ian Brown, Corby Krummer, Margaret Webb and Dr. Michael Symons.

Journalist, author and radio show host, Ian Brown was the first to speak (seated, because he didn’t think he would be able to "stand and talk at the same time”). He is a very funny man, who replied to a question regarding his favourite meal with a story about his latest visit to Scaramouche, where his new Italian linen jacket caught fire. He spoke only for ten minutes, but enforced and demonstrated very well the importance (and humor of) stories that are unexpected. In my cute little notebook I have written down in not so cute chicken scratch: Ian Brown – making readers feel is a technical matter. 4 techniques that matter in a story: 1. Scenes 2. Details 3. Dialogue 4. _____(I missed the fourth- I hope that doesn’t haunt me). Ian also referenced Proust and told us eager listeners to be equally vigorous in our “pursuit of curiosity”. I am a very curious person but now I will make more of an effort to ask all the questions I think.

After almost exactly ten minutes, it was Corby Krummer’s turn to speak. He also remained seated while he boasted about the Stratford students’ writing he had read only a week previous on a visit to the school. A curly haired, rosy-cheeked student blushed when Corby pointed her out as the author of one of his favourite essays about “rivers of maple syrup over blueberry pancakes”. Corby is the senior editor and writer for The Atlantic, an online magazine about business, politics and food. He edits his blog as well as all other blogs on the website- which he believes results in a much higher writing quality than the thousands of non-edited blogs floating online. He spoke adamantly about the importance of listening. I wrote in my book under his name: Be actively interested to other people. LISTEN! (Something I don’t do enough). Humbly honor the stories of some one else. Have fixed opinions and a strong persona (something that the editor, Dick Snyder of CityBites also made very clear in a very direct email in which he replied to my perhaps too desperate plea for a job. Note to self: have fixed opinions. I guess my opinions are a bit bendy but that is only because I try to see all sides. Except for Monsanto. I hate Monsanto …) Corby recommended two authors as must-reads: Calvin Trillan, a comedic, American journalist and food writer; and R.W. Apple, author of recently released Far Flung and Well Fed . Corby also recommended that we read all of our work aloud to check for rhythm, voice and tone and to make sure it sounds like our own. He said that many followers on blogs and Twitter equals credibility (but I am going to focus on my blog and refuse to accept the socially acceptable stalking made possible by Twitter for a little longer).

Next was Margaret Webb’s turn to speak. At the end of fifteen minutes (yeah she went over, so what!?) I was grinning madly and sitting erect in my seat, hoping that she would continue speaking. I also drew hearts around her name, declared her my new hero and whispered my friend - who by this point was craving a cigarette and getting a bit antsy - that Margaret was my best friend (something I say when referring to people I would like to have tea parties with if we lived in the Victoria Era). She started her writing career as the U of T varsity newspaper editor and now teaches Magazine Writing at Ryerson . She recently wrote a series for The Toronto Star and completed her book, Apples to Oysters (http://www.margaretwebb.com/)- which is a saucy (to all senses) tale of her journey eating- amongst other things- across Canada. Margaret, like Corby was also very humble and mentioned that she felt like she was still very new to the food-writing scene. That being said, she promoted some hard working ladies who deserve more attention: Sasha Chapman, Sarah Elton and my (facebook) friend, Ivy Knight who is a bad-ass kitchen chick, food writer and not just on the scene, but the one behind it, planning and inviting her giant list of chef friends. Under Margaret’s name - I wrote: Writes a lot about farms and sustainability, her fiction writing helped her to develop a narrative. What I loved most about Margaret was her almost desperate passion for sustainability and her desire to – perhaps even literally- shake people until they wake up to the global food crisis. I share her frustrated determination. During question time, Margaret suggested that instead of worrying about whether or not the readers want to be shaken, a writer should shake but also include information about how the readers can help so that they don’t feel quite so forlorn.

Doctor Michael Symons chose to stand while he spoke- mostly about his many achievements. He currently holds the title of Gastronomic Writer in Residence at Stratford Chefs School. He is the author of a number of books but is most well known for his book, One continuous picnic: a gastronomic history of Australia. He began his career as a journalist “ but got too depressed and moved to Tuscany”. He didn’t seem so excited about Tuscany and didn’t even really go into detail what he did there, and I cannot really try to understand someone who doesn’t get even a little giddy when he or she talks about Tuscany. But Michael…Doctor Michael received a PhD in the Sociology of Cuisine in 1991 and his books do sound interesting, so I gave him my attention (plus Corby told me to listen and so I did). Written under his name, is a big star followed by: Know your grammar! Be obsessively enthusiastic- find what you want to say and get every detail (and then I wrote down: Book idea: I Don’t Know Much, But I Know I Love to Eat…it could be a book about every delicious meal I eat…remember it is still just a rough day dream).

When Michael had sat back down, question period began. I did have some questions written down (What should the ratio of time be for researching: writing? How do you come up with ideas? What sources keep you up to date/how do you make sure you are on top of the latest stories? How do you find your contacts? ) but I felt ill-prepared and I decided I wanted to do more research before asking anything (also because I feel uncomfortable being the centre of attention and the idea of asking a question with a room of foodies looking at me kind of scared me - something I need to get over or learn to just suck up). Instead, I listened to the questions and responses and wrote down all the names I heard mentioned: Rebecca Spang, Jennifer McLagan, John Almay, Wally Shawn.

I left the building and walked through Hazelton lanes smiling with a bounce in my step and feeling- all at once- refreshed, inspired, energized and serene … and honestly a bit in love with life in general.

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