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 chefsshe 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: shes 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 hardespecially when on deadlinethe job is a welcome respite from the 24/7 demands of students. I loved teaching but I dont 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 guidesdense crystallizations of hundreds of reviewers comments, nuggets jam-packed with informationis similar to writing poetry.
But unlike her poems, the reviews represent others opinionsthose of the survey participants. Its the peoples book, and the peoples 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 doesnt 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 Brides 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 dont want to spend all day in a restaurant. They would stand on their chairs with cameras and take picturesI was always horrified! Even today, Joshua doesnt write restaurant reviews or write about food in the really intense half-scientific, half-painterly way, he says. I cant pick up a fork and take a bite and distinguish the ingredients. Hes 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 thats 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 architectures loss has been journalisms 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, Ive overcome my fear of Thai food: In the past few months, Ive written about five new Thai restaurantsand Ive learned why yogurt is better than water for cooling the burn of hot chili peppers. I know that people think Im 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, Im probably the one whos 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, Id give it all up with out a moments hesitation in exchange for a career as a novelist.
Luckily, I dont have to pick. As with eating food, writing about it improves when there is variety in the diet.
Nancy Davidson C84 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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