A decade of dishing: What I’ve learned in 10 years as a food writer

Ten years ago, when the venerable Kitty Crider left the Statesman after 28 years covering food, the newspaper took a chance on a 24-year-old new mom who knew more about journalism than food.

I had an enthusiasm for learning, and I think that’s what then-editors Kathy Blackwell and Ed Crowell noticed when I sat for the interview. I’d just returned from “What Not to Wear” with a new attitude about dressing and how I carried myself in my life. Some days, you fake it till you make it, and when my friend and then-staff photographer Alberto Martinez suggested I apply, I figured I didn’t have much to lose. If I could make it through my son’s first year while supporting a family of three as a copy editor, I could handle not getting a new role, even if I really, really wanted it.

I made a list of story ideas and initiatives that I thought would be worth pursuing, emphasizing the fact that, as a recent college graduate and new mom, I was already on Facebook and had a blog. Thanks to behind-the-scenes “What Not to Wear” videos, I also had experience talking ad-lib on a camera. The world was changing. Media was changing. Nobody could foresee the wild ride that was ahead, but they trusted me, an average cook with enough curiosity to make up for culinary expertise, to take it on.

Over the 10 years that followed, the newsroom has changed dramatically, and so has the local food scene. I’ve written hundreds of stories about the history and future of food, how we get our food, how to make our food and what food means. I’ve profiled chefs, families, farmers, kids and TV stars. I’ve cooked thousands of meals and Instagrammed at least half of them. I’ve written columns and obituaries that made me weep and tried to find the balance between the heartfelt and the handy, the emotional and the educational, the food stories that challenge you and the ones that bring comfort.

Becoming a food writer changed my life in ways I couldn’t have envisioned, and I’m so grateful to feel so supported by a city of readers who also happen to be curious food lovers like myself. As I’ve been looking back at this first decade with you, I wanted to share the biggest lessons that stand out, the times I changed my mind or learned something new. Maybe you’ve had some of these “aha” moments of clarity, in a kitchen or in a job. I’d love to hear them. As always, I’m at abroyles@statesman.com and 512-912-2504.

Twitter really did change the game. Just a few weeks after my first food story published in May 2008, I interviewed Gary Vaynerchuk, the fired-up online wine reviewer who would go on to become a marketing mogul and frequent South by Southwest keynote speaker. When I expressed concern that this newfangled tool called Twitter was going to overwhelm me and leave me too exposed, he told me that signing up to tweet — such a weird term at the time — was not optional. Journalism today is a two-way street, he said, and listening and being authentically present matters. “Your readers aren’t your audience. They are your community.” Those words — and not letting fear stop me from embracing new technologies — became the backbone of my work philosophy.

Everything old is new again. My first job was at my hometown newspaper in Missouri, and sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ve never worked too far from a press. All the tasks I did at the Aurora Advertiser I still do today, just in different forms. I don’t lay out the paper with a wax machine and X-Acto knife, but I edit photos and embed them into blog posts and write cutlines and headlines. The biggest lesson I learned, though, came from my first boss, editor Kim McCully, who showed the importance of being both a public-facing community leader and a behind-the-scenes workhorse. You never know whether the person on the end of the phone is going to shower you with praise or complaints, but you answer the call anyway. Only recently did I realize that the taste test videos I’ve been doing for nearly five years trigger the same excited butterflies in my stomach as when I was 14 and getting ready to read the school’s lunch menu for my media production class.

Participation is the key to harmony. Through projects like our cookie contests and cookbook drive, I’ve been amazed at the generosity of readers when we solicit recipes, cooking tips, cookbooks or donations for Season for Caring families. I still have Tupperware containers from when friends, many of whom I met through the food blogging world, brought food after my now-7-year-old was born, and our food community relies on this same level of support. In the middle of summer or the dead of winter, farmers market shoppers show up not because it’s convenient but because they are committed to buying from the farmers who rely on that income. Farmers show up because they know their customers will be there.

What would Ellie Rucker and John Kelso do? If I get a call from a reader who has a specific question that I can’t answer, I think about how the longtime columnists would respond: They’d find someone who knows the answer and play telephone switchboard operator to connect people. It’s clear that a newspaper food columnist occupies a special place in a city’s food culture to answer questions, hunt down old recipes or email recipes to people whose spouses already tossed that day’s paper. Like every newspaper columnist who has come before me, I relish these interactions that, though passing, can be incredibly meaningful. The serious to the silly, the conversations from my little cookbook-covered desk to your kitchen table are, hands down, the most unexpected joy of this job.

Old recipes still mean a lot to us. I learned pretty quickly that the banana pudding our grandmother made in 1963 might be the only portal we have to connect with her. A pfeffernusse cookie might connect you to a grandfather who fought in World War II, and my own grandmother’s coffee cake inspired me to take a trip to Sweden to see where we came from. I can’t always find the recipes, but I see how keeping the search alive helps keep the memories alive. I’ve received dozens of requests over the years for the shrimp with the lemon cream sauce from the now-closed Rainbow Inn, a recipe that seems to elude everyone looking for it, but I did finally get a breakthrough in the long mystery of the Kitchen Door’s chicken salad (Cavender’s Greek Seasoning).

Community cookbooks are pretty cool after all. I didn’t fully appreciate these spiral-bound cultural objects until we started working on one for the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance in 2013. When I researched their history dating back to the Civil War, I was able to see how they empowered the community of women who made them. Countless churches, scholarships and schools benefited from recognizing that everyday recipes had monetary and societal value when compiled and shared.

Grocery stores are amazing places. Austinites often call the flagship Whole Foods Market downtown “the amusement park of grocery stores,” but as more grocery stores add restaurants, craft beer bars and natural foods products, they all feel like a magical wonderland of flavors, smells and sights. And as I learned working a shift as an H-E-B cashier in 2009, I even like the sound of the checkout stand.

Behind every dazzling grocery store is an even more impressive food supply chain. I’m in awe of the $700 billion machine that makes sure your apples are shiny, your yogurt choices are plentiful and your cart always includes a few items you didn’t plan to buy. Covering farms was my first venture into learning more about “where food comes from,” and some of my favorite supply chain stories took me to a quail hatchery in Lockhart, the Adams Extract production facility in Gonzales or the Lone Star meat processing plant that remains on a buzzy part of East Sixth Street.

Appreciation is not the same as appropriation. As a person who has made missteps and written about the public missteps of others, such as when Whole Foods recently opened a store with an attached restaurant called Yellow Fever, I’ve unpacked more about racism and economic inequality through this beat than I ever thought I would. I’m still learning — apparently I’m one of the few people who thinks the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben logos don’t belong in supermarkets — but food feels like a space where we can learn and grow in a respectful, productive way.

You never know what you’re gonna get. When Kitty Crider passed the sacred spoon that is a newspaper cooking column to me, I didn’t know how much my own ideas about food would evolve with the job. I had no idea I’d be co-hosting a podcast and livestreaming taste tests about the new flavors of Peeps and writing about wrestling, single parenting and birders. So many ideas that I thought were etched in stone — that peach pie was my favorite dessert, that I’d never feed my kids chicken nuggets, that there was no greater virtue than a compost pile — have proven to be more malleable than pizza dough. It has felt good to let my job evolve as my own ideas and perspectives do, too.

The abyss isn’t so bad. It’s not easy to manage the twists and turns that come in your first 10 years of anything, but I felt supported by the wisdom of many authors and teachers, some of whom I interviewed for stories: Brene BrownEsther Perel and even actresses Alicia Silverstone and Alison Sweeney, whom I’d loved in my youth and who’d also become wisdom-seeking women. If I’m ever overwhelmed, I think of my conversations with Rachael Ray, who uses an infectious optimism and joy to deal with her workload, and stop being so grumpy.

Trying something new is worth the effort, even if it doesn’t last. Some projects that feel like forever projects, such as raising chickens or making kombucha, turn into seasons that eventually end. Through #Austin360Cooks, one of many series I’ve launched and tried to keep up over the years, I get to see my fellow Austinites trying new cooking techniques and tools, sometimes laboring hours over a meal that will take 20 minutes to eat. But those ephemeral 20 minutes of pleasure and satisfaction — just like those memories of my kids carrying our backyard chickens or that morning fishing trip with Jesse Griffiths and Hank Shaw to the San Marcos River — are the notes on the pages that fill the books of our lives. What’s in Your Fridge Friday had a good run, didn’t it?

The road goes on forever, and the food sections never end. There’s always another meal to make and another column to file. After all these years, covering the home cooking beat, like cooking dinner itself, is a never-ending presence in my life. I can’t go to the grocery store or talk about cooking without wearing my food writer lens. Sometimes I get recognized in my Saturday best, but I’ve grown to appreciate a beat that is never too far from reach and reaches to places I never knew existed.

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