Betsy Andrews credits both Pete Wells and Joshua David with helping her land her current gig at Zagat. Joshua gave her name to a Zagat editor who had called him about a position, and Pete passed along his recommendation through his boss, who happened to be having dinner with one of the decision-makers there.

Betsy loves food and worships chefs—she thinks they are among the hardest working people in the world. “It thrills me to see someone who has their heart in it,” she says. Betsy understands restaurants from firsthand experience: she’s worked in a long list of restaurants in high school, college, and after graduation. But before she worked at Zagat, she had been a teacher for 15 years. Though Betsy and her colleagues work hard—“especially when on deadline”—the job is a welcome respite from the 24/7 demands of students. “I loved teaching but I don’t miss it,” she says.

Betsy writes essays and book reviews for Salon.com, but she is most invested in poetry. She says that the process of writing the one-sentence reviews that comprise the Zagat guides—dense crystallizations of hundreds of reviewers’ comments, nuggets jam-packed with information—is similar to writing poetry.

But unlike her poems, the reviews represent others’ opinions—those of the survey participants. “It’s the people’s book, and the people’s collective opinion is what matters,” she says. Despite the cavils of professional restaurant reviewers about whether such “amateur opinions” can be relied on, such as a 2001 Food & Wine piece by the former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, “Rating Zagat,” Betsy counters that “the majority opinion,” which is carefully fact-checked, “in my experience is pretty darned accurate.”

 

Though Joshua David doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” food writer, he has noticed that the backpack provisions he takes along for trips to Fire Island grows increasingly heavy with “necessities” such as meat and fish, rice wine vinegar, cilantro, and other hard-to-find items. “If you travel to remote places and you also care about food, you end up carrying a lot of stuff,” he explains.

Joshua came to food-writing through travel. His first job after college was as assistant travel editor at Bride’s Magazine. “I think they hired me because I was the first man in history who ever wanted to work there,” he says.

As a travel writer on press trips, “food writers used to drive me insane,” he says. “I don’t want to spend all day in a restaurant. They would stand on their chairs with cameras and take pictures—I was always horrified!” Even today, Joshua doesn’t write restaurant reviews or “write about food in the really intense half-scientific, half-painterly way,” he says. “I can’t pick up a fork and take a bite and distinguish the ingredients.” He’s more interested in the larger experience: the place, the people, the tradition, gossip, news, political aspects. “All those other things are what attracts me to writing about food and looking at food. Every place has a life of its own, far beyond the plate, and that’s what interests me.”

His article on Wendy Artin grew out of a dinner conversation with Gourmet editor Jocelyn Zuckerman. “She told me they were doing a Rome issue and if I had any ideas I should let her know, and I thought Wendy was a natural fit,” he recalls. “Wendy is one person who made me more interested in food, and looking at it in a particular way. When she was still a struggling painter, she would have the most fabulous dinner parties in borrowed apartments. ”

Besides food, Zuckerman calls on Joshua to write about design and architecture as well, often in the framework of a travel piece. His interest in architecture dates back at least to Penn, where he studied Design of the Environment, but a professor told him his drawing skills were inadequate and discouraged him from continuing. (These days the kind of drafting required is all done on computer, Joshua says.)

While architecture’s loss has been journalism’s gain, Joshua is currently involved in a project that has returned him to his academic roots and left him with less opportunity for freelancing (though he still makes time to write articles for Gourmet). His full-time job is with the Friends of the High Line, a group that is working on transforming an abandoned elevated railway track in Manhattan into a vertical park [“Alumni Profiles,” May/June].

 

As for me, I’ve overcome my fear of Thai food: In the past few months, I’ve written about five new Thai restaurants—and I’ve learned why yogurt is better than water for cooling the burn of hot chili peppers. I know that people think I’m lucky when they hear that I get paid to write about food, and I heartily agree. Of all of our group of Penn “food writers,” I’m probably the one who’s most comfortable with the title. Yet the old stigma still lingers a bit, a shadow that makes one yearn to do something “more meaningful.” Because no matter how much I love food-inspired writing, no matter how important I think it is, I’d give it all up with out a moment’s hesitation in exchange for a career as a novelist.

Luckily, I don’t have to pick. As with eating food, writing about it improves when there is variety in the diet.

Nancy Davidson C’84 is a freelance food writer based in New York. She has contributed to Cooking Light, Gourmet, Saveur, Gastronomica, The New York Post, New York Sun, and Time Out New York. She is currently working on a memoir with recipes about cooking with her senior-year housemates.

 

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

FEATURE :
Taste Quakers
By Nancy Davidson
Illustration by Phung Hyunh

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