Last year was a tough one for print, with stalwart magazines folding and more bloggers than ever crowding the Web. But the January 7 “Word of Mouth” panel on food writing for the Web, which I moderated at Housing Works Bookstore Café in lower Manhattan, proved one thing: cookbooks and food writing still have incredible power—and that the medium through which they're delivered is starting to matter less and less. A standing-room-only crowd packed the store to hear Cleaving and Julie & Julia author Julie Powell, Food52 co-creators Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, Serious Eats’ Ed Levine, and Not Eating Out in New York blogger (and soon-to-be-memoirist) Cathy Erway talk about food writing, and, perhaps not surprisingly, cheer its rosy future on the Web.
Former New York Times Magazine food editor Hesser explained the difference between the mediums this way: “What’s terrific about writing online is that there are fewer production constraints, and the speedy nature of the Web makes it possible to write about more things and at whatever length makes sense. In print, you have to be more selective about which stories to pursue and a lot of great ones, big and small, are missed as a result. For writers, the Internet allows you do to more of what you most enjoy: writing”
Levine brought up Ree Drummond—better known as The Pioneer Woman, of multiple blogs—as someone who’s parlayed her prolific online writings into print very successfully. Drummond has a following for whom the word “devoted” is an understatement; as Levine told the 200-some attendees, he witnessed one of Drummond’s signings for hew new book, The Pioneer Woman Cookbook, last fall and was blown away by the throngs of fans. He noted that Drummond’s appeal seems to know no medium; indeed, her Web site draws about two million visitors a month, and her book is up to 216,000 copies in print.
Everyone agreed with the Web’s ability to break down barriers between the “experts” and the hoi polloi. That democratization, which certainly has its downside—Powell was first to admit she’d had her brushes with the negative aspects of baring your thoughts to the world, sans editor or publisher—has nonetheless resulted in an unprecedented flood of interest in food. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter whether Powell writes about Brooklyn butcher Tom Mylan in print or online; thanks to the new food revolution, print gets Tweeted about and blogs inspire books. And before you know it, Mylan’s shop is famous, and Powell’s rolling her eyes at how “it’s annoying that there is such a thing as a rock star butcher.”
Blame it on the new food revolution, something Not Eating Out in New York blogger Cathy Erway picked up on when an audience member asked about the shift in food writing from coverage about the pleasure of eating to the politics of eating. “Once you have a food revolution,” Erway said, “everyone starts looking at food in different ways.” Erway, whose memoir, The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, Gotham will publish next month, said each medium has its perks. “I always wanted to delve into the topic of home cooking versus eating out in today’s society more deeply. With my short blog posts and recipes, this didn’t seem the right medium to do so, and with the memoir, I was able to flesh out the ramifications of both through my own experiences, in a cohesive narrative that follows my two years of eating in. I hope it complements the blog, but serves a different experience for readers, too.”
Recipes, too, are continuing to surge online and in print. Stubbs remarked, "Like most cooks, I have a collection of cookbooks that I consult all the time for inspiration, and for sheer pleasure. But when I'm researching how to make 'the perfect chocolate cake,' for example, I'm likely to turn to the Internet, because that way I can pull up lots of different recipes and compare them side-to-side."
The rest of the night’s talk ricocheted from traditional media’s gatekeeper status, to the Internet’s “anything goes” environment. In the end, the hour-long discussion proved that people seem to have an endless, um, appetite for food, no matter how they read about it.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.