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Use of first person in Food Writing


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You can write about yourself without being self indulgent, just as you can feed yourself without being gluttenous. And ability to tell a good story will cover a mutlitude of sins (MFK Fisher is gloriously self-indulgent, but she gets away with it).

Self indulgent writing reminds me of the joke about the boorish first date who finally stops babbling on about his latest cars, accomplishments etc to say: "but enough about me, lets talk about you. What do you think about me?"

Didn't mean to take a personal shot with the bolognese reference. I'm sure I'd love to hear about it -- and to hear briey about the man and the scene. As long as, in the end, you remembered you were wrting about FOOD.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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When I starting writing for publication, first person was absolutely forbidden. But I’ve always felt that because reviews are so subjective, the disconnected third person voice seemed kind of phony. And I really believe that readers are better served if they can get to know a little about my personal likes and dislikes.

So I always use first person. I think it’s important to use it carefully, though. There’s a fine line between inserting yourself into your work and making the work all about you. Step over that line and you’re in deep shit, editorially speaking.

The writing I like and aspire to provides some emotional connection to the subject. It’s hard to for a writer to make that connection without revealing something personal. And you can’t do that without using “I.”

Jim

olive oil + salt

Real Good Food

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When I starting writing for publication, first person was absolutely forbidden. But I’ve always felt that because reviews are so subjective, the disconnected third person voice seemed kind of phony. And I really believe that readers are better served if they can get to know a little about my personal likes and dislikes.

So I always use first person. I think it’s important to use it carefully, though.  There’s a fine line between inserting yourself into your work and making the work all about you. Step over that line and you’re in deep shit, editorially speaking.

The writing I like and aspire to provides some emotional connection to the subject. It’s hard to for a writer to make that connection without revealing something personal. And you can’t do that without using “I.”

Jim

I totally agree with this.

Monica Bhide

A Life of Spice

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On the other hand, their numbers confirmed what a lot of people feel instinctually to be true and what has, at any rate become conventional wisdom: women are about feeling/nurtuting/emotional connection  while men are about sex and tools.  Compare recent meoirs by Ruth Reichle and Anthon Bourdaine.

Taking one specimen of each gender and holding each up as THE representative is just plain bad science. Besides, Bourdain is as self-indulgent as they (male and female) come, and if Reichl wasn't about sex, who is?

"Conventional wisdom" ain't wisdom; it's just another way to continue stereotypes without making the effort to do serious research. Gee, I guess that means I'm a man, huh? :biggrin:

Edit-ion: I apologize for helping this thread veer so far OT. No más.

Edited by Suzanne F (log)
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The comparison between Bourdaine and Reichle is an illustration, not science. The science was done by the network marketing people, who spend a great deal of time and money trying to discover the differences between different demographic groups and exploit them. You can argue that it's all mojo, that men and women; blackes and whites; 18-35's and 35-50's all like exactly the same things, but you'd be arguing not just against stereotypes, but actual long-term detailed research.

Of course, these are aggregates -- if women are more likely to like, say, Bridget Jones' Diary (forgive me for that example) than men, that is not to say that all women like it, or that no men do. There's always overlap, sometimes substantial.

And my point, obviously poorly made, was not that women are more likely to be self-indulgent, which I define as a negative, but that judgements on what is self-indulgent and what is personal but not self- indulgent, may skew by gender.

If somone handed you a randomly-selected, well-written contemporary novel, without revealing the auther, how many times out of ten do you think you could guess the gender of the writer after the first chapter? After the first page?

Point on AB well-taken.

Edited by Busboy (log)

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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as a first-person foamer (who frequently writes in the first person), let me say that while some of the best food writing is done in the first person, so is most of the worst. the problem is that the writer is usually the last person who is able to tell the difference. that's particularly true with beginning writers, who too frequently seem to be concerned more with expressing themselves than with writing for the reader.

the thing to remember before writing the first "I" is that when you go into the first person, you are introducing yourself into the story as a character. you had better be interesting enough to deserve it. though most of us think we are, i'm afraid that's not true for most of us.

and it should be noted that posting on the internet is not really the same as publishing in more traditional media. different expectations apply.

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the thing to remember before writing the first "I" is that when you go into the first person, you are introducing yourself into the story as a character. you had better be interesting enough to deserve it. though most of us think we are, i'm afraid that's not true for most of us.

To me this is the crux of the matter. I love reading first-person food writing...if the writer, the main character, is fascinating, intriguing, interesting. When a writer's personality is so large that it can't be contained behind detached, third-person narrative, then first person is the way to go. That's why I find Riechl, Bourdain, Hesser, Trillin, and Steingarten appealing. Of course, sometimes first person is just plain wrong for a piece. A smart and judicious writer, and one who wants to keep working, will know when to switch.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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To me this is the crux of the matter. I love reading first-person food writing...if the writer, the main character, is fascinating, intriguing, interesting. When a writer's personality is so large that it can't be contained behind detached, third-person narrative, then first person is the way to go. That's why I find Riechl, Bourdain, Hesser, Trillin, and Steingarten appealing. Of course, sometimes first person is just plain wrong for a piece. A smart and judicious writer, and one who wants to keep working, will know when to switch.

Okay. But do you have any specific criteria (for yourself, obviously, and by 'you' I mean any writer) in regards to when to switch (pov)?

Also, what about the fact that 'fascinating, intriguing, interesting' is a subjective determination? I believe Fat Guy mentioned this in another thread - that he would tailor his piece based on the expected reading audience. How much weight goes into that, as to how it might affect your 'natural' writing style?

I'm asking as an outsider (I write two-bit comedy scripts, so most of this doesn't apply). But I'm interested in the frame of mind of writers, in general. It seems to me that the advice you get from 'established' writers differs from what the 'up and coming' suggest. In regards to the established writers, is it 'hindsight 20-20', or are they, in effect, blowing smoke after the fact?

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My wife explains that, before a social engagement , "a lady" (her mother, actually, who was very old school) puts on all the jewelry she wishes to wear, and then takes one piece off. I think that might be a good rule for first-person writing as well: Draw as much attention to yourself as you think appropriate, and then back off some. First drafts are always too long anyway, take the blue pencil to yourself before your subject.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Draw as much attention to yourself as you think appropriate, and then back off some.  First drafts are always too long anyway, take the blue pencil to yourself before your subject.

I'd agree. But that's the sticky bit, isn't it? What interests me is how much of the 'I' in non-fiction, is fiction. It seems the current style of first person non-fiction writing is really pseudo-non-fiction. Or fiction presented as non-fiction. Not disingenuous in terms of the food, but in the characterisation behind the 'I'. (Note: I don't have a problem with that, just wondering how you non-fic guys see it)

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Okay. But do you have any specific criteria (for yourself, obviously, and by 'you' I mean any writer) in regards to when to switch (pov)?

Well, when many of us were writing for the Oxford University Press's Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, first person was simply out of the question. Also, most reported pieces (i.e. hard news food stories) don't use first person. Then there are those pieces that can go either way. For me, I have to consider my audience, my topic, and my relationship to the topic in order to decide. For example, there are times when a profile of a person is best told in third person. But if there is a lot of interaction, and my interaction and experience is a crucial part of the story arc, then I would go with first person. But I would be very careful to weight the story in favor of the subject, obviously.

Also, what about the fact that 'fascinating, intriguing, interesting' is a subjective determination? I believe Fat Guy mentioned this in another thread - that he would tailor his piece based on the expected reading audience. How much weight goes into that, as to how it might affect your 'natural' writing style?

It's definitely subjective. But as a writer, you have to know your strength and weaknesses. If you have a strong, distinctive voice, that's something you own; you don't have to think about it. It's just there. Then it's a matter of using it when appropriate. I tailor my writing all the time, but I'm finding that I'm seeking out venue where I can write in my natural style.

In regards to the established writers, is it 'hindsight 20-20', or are they, in effect, blowing smoke after the fact?

When I’m established, I'll tell you. :wink:

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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Doesn't a lot of the rise of the "I" have less to do with egoism and more to do with a general move to informal style, which is supposed to simulate the writer's speech, which is naturally peppered with the first-person? This strikes me as a positive trend.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Doesn't a lot of the rise of the "I" have less to do with egoism and more to do with a general move to informal style, which is supposed to simulate the writer's speech, which is naturally peppered with the first-person? This strikes me as a positive trend.

I'm with Mamster on this one -- a positive trend, indeed. Prose in the third person, however, well-written, is either ponderous and turgid, or flaccid. Give me the immediacy of the more informal style, please.

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I think it depends on the purpose of the piece. If I am writing about cinnamon in an attempt to inform the reader, I use third person. If I am writing about my personal experience with cinnamon, or something new and unqiue I do with cinnamon, I'll use first person.

Tammy Olson aka "TPO"

The Practical Pantry

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I struggled with this issue mightily when I first switched from so-called "hard news" to food writing. As a journalist, I was trained to be a bystander, to never let myself, my opinions, enter into the story. Journalists are taught to always remain "the wizard behind the curtain," and in most circumstances, I agree with that.

But as a food journalist, my role is different. I'm the reader's companion in the kitchen. My readers don't have their grandmother or their mother with them as they stand over the stove. So that's my role -- to be the person standing with them, to say "Yes, I've done this and you can do this too." To cojole them and comfort them and maybe tempt them into new waters.

In more than a dozen years on this job, I've seen the difference a strong, active first-person voice makes in the response I hear to my articles. They can hate my voice, love my voice, disagree with it, learn to like it. But they certainly respond to it.

Food writing is different from other forms of writing in that regard. Readers must -- MUST -- feel like there's someone there with them, burning the steak, screwing things up a little, but still being willing to try it. Food-writing that stays in the second person is too often removed, lifeless, lofty.

I've debated this with other (non-food) journalists who think first-person is a little "icky" (and yeah, sometimes I still feel a little icky in first person too -- who the hell should care what I think?). But I truly believe that food writing is a different kind of writing, with different rules.

Interesting lesson learned in this one, for what it's worth:

When I first started as a food editor, I wasn't allowed to have a picture sig with my columns like other writers at the paper. (Long story, of interest to no one but a young journalist or maybe my mother.) When I finally was "bestowed" with the hallowed honor of that postage-stamp picture on top of my weekly sig, I noticed an immediate difference. The response from readers, the letters, faxes, phone calls (this predates e-mail -- oooh, I'm old) dramatically increased. Even people I'd known for years suddenly asked me, "when did you start writing for the paper?" even though I'd been writing for the paper, under a byline, for several years. (I started as an editor and crab-walked backward into writing. Try doing that and chewing gum at the same time.)

What made the difference was the face, the face combined with the "I" voice. I really believe that readers crave the comfort of a real person with them in the kitchen, a living, fallible -- and fallible may be the key -- person.

Why do you think so many people on this site have such a visceral reaction to Amanda Hesser? Amanda is a hell of a good writer -- there, I've said it, come after me with the torches. But why do you think she gets so many of you so hot? Do you see anybody devoting reams of posts to every word penned by George Will?

My job is to have a dialogue with the readers in the city where I live. First person, in food writing, equals passion.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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David Leite:

I tailor my writing all the time, but I'm finding that I'm seeking out venue where I can write in my natural style.

I've read a fair bit of your work. Maybe I'll go back for second read and see if I can spot examples of 'tailor' v. 'nature' (sort of a free writing lesson for me). Thanks for answering my pesky questions, too.

David Leite:

When I’m established, I'll tell you.  :wink:

David, if you can't be considered 'established' as a food writer, then I'm really Annette Funicello. :raz:

kpurvis:

In more than a dozen years on this job, I've seen the difference a strong, active first-person voice makes in the response I hear to my articles. They can hate my voice, love my voice, disagree with it, learn to like it. But they certainly respond to it.

mamster:

Doesn't a lot of the rise of the "I" have less to do with egoism and more to do with a general move to informal style, which is supposed to simulate the writer's speech, which is naturally peppered with the first-person? This strikes me as a positive trend.

kpurvis:

First person, in food writing, equals passion.

But isn't 'passion' an expression of ego? Not that I disagree with what mamster says about the general move to informal style, which might be another topic altogether, in that it has positive and negative repercussions. But is egoism a negative? (mamster - not implying you're saying that, just not sure)

There is a glut of writers and writing out there. Part of the immediacy and identification of the informal style gives the reader the idea that, "Hey, I can probably write too!". Not to be elitist about it - maybe they can, and they should certainly try, if they're interested. And of course they need to appreciate that writing is not just a passion, but a craft.

But I'd like to think that the only point behind the newbie third person writing rule is: It develops craft. And craft will help you to better express your ego in an appropriate (or entertaining) style. I don't think it should be taught as if the goal is the elimination of ego, because I think all writing is ego-driven, or probably should be.

kpurvis:

I really believe that readers crave the comfort of a real person with them in the kitchen, a living, fallible -- and fallible may be the key -- person.

Interesting. I'm trying to figure a way to argue that 'fallible' is only possible if you've got a well developed ego. Please stop me if I'm wrong....

kpurvis:

I've debated this with other (non-food) journalists who think first-person is a little "icky" (and yeah, sometimes I still feel a little icky in first person too -- who the hell should care what I think?).

I also don't see it as a question of "Who the hell should care what I think?"

One of the challenges of writing is making people care what you think. Isn't that the passion that precedes the passion for the subject? I don't see how that can be done, in any style, venue, or pov narrative, without being ego-driven. Craft is just the means to that end.

Is this not applicable to non-fic writing? (Obviously, not referring to hard news or technical writing, although....)

kpurvis:

When I finally was "bestowed" with the hallowed honor of that postage-stamp picture on top of my weekly sig, I noticed an immediate difference. The response from readers, the letters, faxes, phone calls (this predates e-mail -- oooh, I'm old) dramatically increased.

Thanks for the story. A photo sig is the ultimate, eh? But don't you miss those letters, faxes and phone calls? E-mails just aren't as satisfying, imo....

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Dear Miss Funicello,

You'll be hard pressed to find some of my tailored peices; they don't appear on my site. Some of the peices were for trade pubs. I'll be happy to e-mail you copies...if you're really that interested. :blink:

The Camille

I've read a fair bit of your work. Maybe I'll go back for second read and see if I can spot examples of 'tailor' v. 'nature' (sort of a free writing lesson for me). Thanks for answering my pesky questions, too.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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mamster:

Doesn't a lot of the rise of the "I" have less to do with egoism and more to do with a general move to informal style, which is supposed to simulate the writer's speech, which is naturally peppered with the first-person? This strikes me as a positive trend.

I think you have a good point. I also think that we build up trust in certain writers. We look for their names and get a small Christmas-morning feel when we see them. I think about that while reading Saveur. I usually enjoy the short first-person pieces at the front of the book, but it annoys me that the identifier only runs at the end, as a tagline. I have to flip pages before I know who I'm reading. And if it's first person, I want to know whose voice I'm hearing -- male, female, a name I know, a name I don't. It seems a conceit to let people write in the I, but hide their names at the end.

On the e-mails: The only downside to e-mail responses is that they're so time-consuming. Unlike a phone conversation, which can be offhand, an e-mail answer feels like something I should carefully compose -- and that takes time. But I do enjoy getting them. Many of the ones I get are passionate and heartfelt, and obviously took time. Same as first-person: If you're going out on a limb to stick your head out from behind the curtain, you're taking ownership.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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KPurvis is so right (as she is about most things) about first person and food writing. When I came into the field six years ago, we told the readers that I wasn't a cook but I wanted to learn. So my columns at first were often stories about my kitchen mishaps. I relied upon my neighbors to provide the cooking success stories. Over the years, the column evolved to the point that if I don't write about a neighborhood happening for awhile, readers ask if I have moved.

First person has allowed me to make a strong connection with readers — many of them men. I can't tell you the number of times I have been in a sports bar, watching a game next to a stranger when through casual converstion or by recognizing me from my picture (right again Kpurvis) the stranger wants to talk to me about food. I've missed a lot of basketball games since taking on the food beat.

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I have nothing against "I" but always remember a lesson taught at J-school by Judith Crist. Before typing the letter I, ask yourself seriously, "Who the hell am I? And why should the reader care?" A useful check, I think.

The word that fascinates me is "one," as used by the British Royal family and the aristos.

"One feels rather saddened to see the old house go, but what could one do when one's creditors are at the door?"

"One" is the etymological equivalent of the latex glove. It keeps one a layer removed.

I'm not terribly sold on "we'' although I use it. "We" always makes me think of the editorial "we" as in this is what the newspaper thinks. While San Francisco is a serious food town I don't think the Chronicle as an entity cares whether the salmone tropicale was unbalanced, garish and off-putting.

Bill Daley

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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So winsome.

I have been called many things, but never winsome. Thanks?!

Not a reference to you, David, but to another of our (in)famous favorites on e-gullet. I'll give you a little hint -- she's one of the more prolific writers for the NYTimes' Dining In/Out section.

I'm sure you can figure it out.

Remember, I didn't say anything. :blink::wink:

Soba

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Not a reference to you, David, but to another of our (in)famous favorites on e-gullet.  I'll give you a little hint -- she's one of the more prolific writers for the NYTimes' Dining In/Out section.

I'm sure you can figure it out.

Remember, I didn't say anything. :blink:  :wink:

Soba

Soba,

I figured that was the reference. I have to say that I (there's that first person again), unlike some eGulleters, am fond of her and her writing. I wasn't at first, but I decided to find out why. In the process, I became, for lack of a better word, a fan. I interviewed her for my Web site about "Mr. Latte," Amanda bashing, eGullet.com, it was very interesting. :wink: She's a very bright woman.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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I started writing while still a working pastry chef. I couldn't imagine writing any other way but the first person back then because I was commissioned to write as an expert. Today as a restaurant critic, I slip the "I" in there at least once per review. The me-itis stylings of A.A. Gill may be a bit much, but harsh criticism needs the “I” to hold it up. An effective restaurant review is more than just a dinner report.

Anecdotal food writing is appealing in small doses. Though I enjoyed most of Hesser’s food diary in bi-monthly entries, I did start asking “why should I care” when faced with chapter after chapter of her life in book form. Funny, I never had this feeling with books by Ruth Reichl.

The "I" can also get you into trouble. I was just writing a feature on Languedoc wines and I started out by saying I often served them at dinner parties. I then called a terrific wine importer for a quote and he said he'd never serve such cheap, boring wines to guests. I thought about it and decided to change my opening. With one honest comment, I could have dug my grave with all the high-end wine readers.

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