with Fran R. Schumer
January 13, 2013, 2PM-4PM
After Hurricane Sandy postponed the original event, writers finally gathered at The Writers Circle at MONDO-Summit for the long awaited Food Writing workshop with New York Times food critic and author Fran R. Schumer.
“One of the challenges of being a restaurant reviewer,” Fran began, “was that you have to go to great pains not to be recognized, especially in New York City where a review can make or break a million dollar business” – thus explaining why there are no photos of the speaker in this recap.
Fran went on to explain several golden rules of the restaurant reviewer:
- Never review a place that pays you or lets you in for free. (Not before and not even after the review comes out.)
- Never write a review if they know you're a critic.
- Never write a review if they know you're coming.
- Don't accept gifts, no matter how wonderful.
Reasons for all this became especially clear when Fran shared as an example Ruth Reichl’s side-by-side review of Le Cirque from 1993: Dinner as a Commoner v. Dinner as a Most Favored Patron.
Fran emphasized that there are many more outlets for food writing than ever before, from recipe blogs to online review sites to memoirs and even novels featuring recipes as the central organizing factor. “The very first of its kind was Nora Ephron’s ‘Heartburn.’ In one chapter, the wife and husband are arguing and she threw the lemon meringue pie that she’d been baking at him. And at the end of the chapter, there’s the recipe for the lemon meringue pie.”
“Food writing is not first and foremost about food; it's first and foremost about writing,” she continued, “It requires all the aspects of good writing used in fiction and memoir: voice, plot, theme, description, good verbs, personification, alliteration, all of it. The food writers who last are those who are fantastic writers.”
She went on to share several writing exercises with group, starting with “the last best thing I ate” and moving on to “a moment of food memory”. Very quickly, each writer saw that they were writing more than their thoughts about food. They were sharing personal experiences and memories that centered around family, friends and traditions.
“Recipes aren’t enough,” Fran said. “Food is not enough. Especially in memoir, you have to find your larger theme – what you’re really writing about. Sensory perceptions through food open a deep part of you - from the gut to computer to paper.” She used an excerpt from "Remembrance of Things Past" by Marcel Proust describing petites madeleines as an example of food triggering involuntary memory.
Even with restaurant reviewing and recipes, Fran emphasized, “You have to have a unique voice. In the world of food blogs, everybody's a critic. You have to find a way to stand out.”
To prepare for a review, Fran brings an iPhone, pad and pencil and just goes to restaurant. “I might do a little research, but I prefer to walk in fresh. I go more than once and taste a wide variety of dishes.”
And you should cover more than the food. “Talk about the service, atmosphere, prices, maybe something about the chef, the place’s history, describe the magic around it. Restaurants are like people - not all good or all bad.” She also cautioned, “People earn a living running restaurants. Don't smash a place to smithereens. Be honest, but if it's really bad, just avoid reviewing it at all. People will find out either way.”
She wrapped up the session with a quick word about writing clichés. “After the writer part of the brain is done, the editor part comes in,” cautioning writers to avoid words like “yummy”, “cozy”, “charming” and hackneyed phrases like “Don’t forget to save room for dessert!”
In the end, Fran demonstrated the breadth and depth of food writing as a skill and an art where great observation, sensory details and a wonderful voice can raise the work from informational to memorable.
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