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826LA's Seminar Series: Food Writing!

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(L to R:) Christine ``Little Flower'' Moore; Jeanne ``Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes'' Kelley; Colleen ``Eat L.A.'' Dunn Bates; Jessica ``Daily Dish'' Gelt; Jonathan Gold, Patty "EatingLA" Saperstein/Photo by Elise Thompson for LAist

Thursday night 826LA presented a seminar titled, "Food Writing!" And as fans of punctuation know, anything with an exclamation point has got to be good.

826LAis a community organization offering free tutoring, workshops, desktop publishing and all-around grooviness to the communities of Echo Park, Venice and Westwood. 826LA is supported by paid workshops for adults and by the supercool Time Travel Mart, which is where you can pick up milk, kazoos, and products relating to robots, the future, or radiation and its effects.

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The seminar was advertised as discussing "writing about food in various media: blogs, newspapers, and books. We will also talk about the business side of the genre: how to go about composing a recipe, review a restaurant, and how to get published."

The moderator was Christine Moore, a former a pastry chef who now helms the Little Flower Candy Company.

Panelists included Colleen Dunn Bates, the owner of Prospect Park Books, restaurant writer for Westways Magazine, and eat-la.com. Previous stints included editor of the food-focused Gault Millau guidebooks and food editor of the Los Angeles Times. Also on the panel was Jessica Gelt, who writes about restaurants and nightlife for the Los Angeles Times and co-edits the Times' food blog, The Daily Dish.

Cookbook author, contributing editor at Bon Appetit and webmistress of the Eat Fresh blog, Jeanne Kelley was also on the panel, as was Pat Saperstein of EatingLA. No food writing panel would be complete without our own local-boy-made-good, the illustrious Pulitzer prize-winning Jonathan Gold.

I assumed the event would be a superblogger reunion, but I walked into a sea of extremely intense and unfamiliar twenty-somethings. A small group of people were liveblogging (or writing their English Lit papers). It was a relief to see CarolineOnCrack waving me over to the troublemaking kids' favorite place in the back of the class.

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The discussion opened with panelists sharing the stories of how they broke into the field. It was surprising how familiar some of the stories were, familiar to the point where I'm pretty sure that I have read a book or an article with their biographical details. It was interesting to hear Gold's stories of his somewhat contentious yet symbiotic relationship with Ruth Reichl.

The question came up as to whether one needed to be able to cook in order to write about food. There was one nay and a chorus of yeas. Of course someone only has to tell you once that someone burnt the roux for you to remember that taste forever, but, really, unless you have seriously screwed up a bernaise, how can you know exactly how the chef blew his bernaise?

There was some serious schooling on the history of food writing, from housewives in test kitchens to snobby 1500-dollar dinners. Not only do you not need to go to culinary school or journalism school in order to become a food writer, it was actively discouraged. One panelist suggested that traveling and working in international kitchens would be a far better use of culinary school tuition.

This topic segued nicely into the issue of Yelp!, and the internet spawning a democratic reviewing process. If I may paraphrase, the question was put somewhat bluntly, "You have studied and worked for years to make this your career, how do you feel about these people out there who think they are smart enough that their opinion should matter?" Ouch!

Colleen Dunn Bates and the other panelists were quick to make nice, "Well, everyone's opinion matters..." Gold was all for giving the power to the people, but others cautioned against taking one bad Yelp review too seriously. Blogging's place in food writing was examined, and Gold told Jeanne Kelley that reading her blog was "like walking into a garden where there is always something fragrant and wonderful..." These similes just flow out of him so naturally it's Tom Robbins-esque. No, Tom Robbins is weirder and his language is not nearly as pretty. Gold should really do books on tape so we could fall asleep to him describing gently simmering noodles.

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The discussion led into how the length of reviews has changed over time, from 1500 words to 600 words to a Twitter. There was some discussion as to the value of being concise compared to how much space is needed to really convey the gestalt of a restaurant (Yes, that was according to Gold, and yes, he self-effacingly apologized for using a pretentious word).

At this point, I had to jam out of there to meet Bobzilla over at the Territory soft opening. I left my coat behind, forcing a kind soul to chase me down with it. As soon as I hit the sidewalk and turned my phone back on I was hit with instant messages that Territory was over. And that the Colt 45s and dry pulled pork were not really worth it anyways. I imagined walking back into a classroom that I had entered late and left early in a clatter, and then I noticed a street vendor selling freshly made blue corn tortilla quesedillas. At that moment the idea of listening to people talking about writing about eating food seemed so meta compared with actually eating food that I ordered one with chicharrones and hit the road.

I never did find out how to write a recipe or how to get published. The main truth I walked away with is that anyone can write about food. Getting paid for doing it is an entirely different matter.

CarolineonCrack's take on the event