March 29, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 18°C

The right to write

M.F.K. Fisher was an acclaimed practitioner of "literary" food writing.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Published: 2015-03-21

he professionals who reported on and wrote about food before the advent of the Internet were considered experts. For decades, food journalism was on a par with covering foreign affairs or economics, a profession for which people trained, obtaining coveted certifications before working countless hours penning heaps of unsigned articles. They started at the bottom and proudly crept their way up the magazine's masthead. These were history's acclaimed restaurant critics, seasoned journalists hired by authoritative publications to rate dining establishments. They could decide the fate of a restaurant or skew eating trends.

Then there were the cookbook writers. Like other non-fiction writers, these authors became celebrities if their books sold. Consider Auguste Escoffier and Pellegrino Artusi, both rooted the 19th-century, or the more modern M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan and James Beard. Their timeless culinary literature remains both entertaining and edifying. They used cooking to also comment on culture, history and social fabric of their day.

This brings me to the digital age, and the (literally) free-for-all opportunities afforded by the Internet. The egalitarian web swiftly set aside the notion of expertise. Web log writers, the new arbiters of instant communication, became the voice of silent readers. So-called "bloggers," colloquial, casual and soon wildly popular, grew into a community of trusted and unbiased trendsetters.

The 2009 blockbuster movie "Julie & Julia" boosted the trend. The film is based on a book inspired by the story of an early food blogger (blogging was still considered a hobby at the time) as she tried preparing all the recipes in Julia Child's massive "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." This blog-turned-book-made-into-film not only inspired amateurs to write about what was simmering on their kitchen stoves but also encouraged them to seek the kind of fame and fortune that suddenly seemed possible. Food blogging itself went viral, and out came a business machine that still crunches millions.

In her TV heyday, Julia Child commanded a devoted audience.

It's all in the numbers. Bloggers offer good ideas, strong opinions, unbiased criticism and full transparency, which can bring a select group of bloggers a worldwide following. Large and small brands now consider bloggers more reliable than journalists. They're also eager to tap into the readership of influential blogs, seeing more potential revenues opportunities in the give-and-take format than in traditional product reviews.

The explosive popularity of food blogging has led some authors to venture into videos, journalism and non-fiction writing. Networks, publishing companies and imprints can now make informed sales predictions based on a blog's online reputation and ranking. These statistics are an author's "mathematical" public pedigree. In the pre-web past, wannabe cookbook authors had to send material to literary agents with only a select few scoring appointments to pitch their manuscripts, usually thanks to original thinking, superb writing skills, animal resilience, stubborn belief and extraordinary knowledge of the subject matter. They didn't have a Facebook or Instagram following as a bargaining chip.

Nowadays, popular food bloggers with verifiably large audiences stand a good chance at getting a book deal or a writing gig with a major newspaper. Their online reputation girds their opinions and voices. Publishers know a highly visible platform guarantees readers, sales, exposure and possibly profit.

I know because I'm among those bloggers. I'm not a professionally trained journalist yet I write constantly. My blogging success had led me into serious discussion to publish a cookbook. How did it happen, I ask myself? How did I go from "Eleonora, who?" into cookbook territory? By shamelessly and informally deciding to share my recipes, my opinions on white tablecloth restaurants, gourmet delis, and filthy street food joints: me, the complete food writing nobody.

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