Hungry for stories: Evolution of food writing in the internet age

Celine Bellegarda/Staff

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Oftentimes, before making the decision to try a new restaurant or dessert place, my friends and I turn to the internet for advice — Yelp, social media, anything that could provide insight into whether whatever it is we’d like to try is “worth it” or not. When I’m feeling particularly indecisive, I might even immerse myself in the words of food critics; in essence, a deep dive into the world of food journalism. 

According to the Association of Food Journalists, food journalism can be broadly defined as writing stories about food in our communities and initiating “informed conversations about what we eat and why.”

Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Eater (a network of food and dining sites under Vox Media), the New York Times’ food column — these are just a few online and print publications in the industry that release stories about food on a regular basis today. And while it is certainly true that the journalism industry as a whole faces struggles of staying afloat in the midst of rapidly evolving technology, food writing as a genre in and of itself has yet to grow stale. 

People have been discussing food, developing recipes, etc., since the beginning of time, but World War II was a crucial turning point in the growth of modern food journalism. Back then, a large, unprecedented number of women entered the newsroom in the absence of their male counterparts, where they were provided with the opportunity to engage with and report on hard-hitting news. When the men returned from the battlefields, however, female journalists were relegated to write about less gripping matters such as family and home affairs, fashion and food. 

The term “food journalism” began to take hold of the world, and food writers grew to write about beyond what was simply on their plates.

Still, the women helming these departments were able to add a spin to these traditional topics by delving into more nuanced aspects of the field. Instead of simply writing recipes or reviews of local dishes, some wrote about nutrition, food safety, hunger and food prices. 

One influential food journalist, Jane Nickerson, the food editor of the New York Times from 1942 to 1957, even wrote a piece about a psychological study on the connection between food and housewives in the average middle-class family. The term “food journalism” began to take hold of the world, and food writers grew to write about beyond what was simply on their plates. 

The food writing industry has steadily expanded to encompass stories and reviews on everything from fancy tablecloth restaurants to food trucks and even street vendors. Food publications are also branching out to cover stories in a wider range of locations. For example, the New York Times is hiring restaurant critics in other states and even one in Australia. Like many other food publications nowadays, the company seeks to cater to a wider audience of readers and acknowledge the food world beyond New York. 

More than ever before, the presentation of food has developed a unique aesthetic and amassed a devoted following, especially with the increasing usage of social media and other online platforms in the internet age. Terms such as “foodie” and “food porn” have emerged with the transformation of food into objects of desire, something to be admired and coveted; the genre further propels this form of food appreciation by publishing stories akin to that of celebrity profiles. 

“Food, in this conception, is alluring; it is intimate yet also distant; it is inaccessible,” writes Megan Garber in a culture piece from the Atlantic. 

Eve Turow-Paul, author of “A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs and Microbrews Will Make Or Break the Future of Food,” offers her thoughts on why people, millennials in particular, are so obsessed with food. Part of it is because of the digital world we all live in — and with it an increasing desire to self-brand or acquire higher social status through posts of luxurious meals — as well as a real hunger for something else that is crucial to our well-being. 

More than ever before, the presentation of food has developed a unique aesthetic and amassed a devoted following, especially with the increasing usage of social media and other online platforms in the internet age.

“We have formed into a society that’s so accustomed to sitting in front of a screen and typing, for the vast majority of the day. And the truth of the matter is that it’s not exciting all of our senses. … People want something that’s tangible, that they can see and feel and smell and taste. … We’re craving community,” Turow-Paul said in an interview with the Atlantic. 

She argues further that food writing provides us with this lost sense of interconnectedness. Many people are and have always been passionate about food. Food writers simply take this passion of theirs into creating stories for the public so that they are able to not only gain access to learning about a new unique dish, but also partake in a sort of give-and-take relationship with the commonality of sharing a love and curiosity for food. 

Examples of this can be found especially in renowned Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold’s work. Gold was a trailblazer in the field of food journalism. Not only is he the only food writer to have been honored with a Pulitzer Prize, but he also set an example for other journalists in the industry with his food reviews, which were infused with LA culture and history and even posed questions about the existential nature of culinary traditions themselves.

These days, the convenience and ease with which people can share photos and personal thoughts of food online has led to an admittedly smaller amount of Gold-like investigative food profiles. The relationship between food writers and chefs has also become much more dynamic with restaurateurs having acquired the ability to directly engage with customers through social media; they no longer depend on a single review by a prominent food critic to gain widespread attention. 

But all of this doesn’t signal the end of food journalism as we know it; in fact, the rise of the internet has only made it so that people are now able to access more than one avenue for a good restaurant recommendation or culinary advice. 

Food is everywhere, so we often tend to take it for granted. Food writing exists to illuminate our perspective of this fundamental necessity in life, as well as to share and connect individual experiences with food. For as long as people will continue to dine, this particular field of journalism will likely remain to fuel our hearts, minds and stomachs with stories.

Contact Stella Ho at [email protected].