Diner: One Last Bite

How to become a food writer -- by trying almost everything else

For starts, become an equestrian, girl sleuth, cat trainer, forest ranger or movie star. Fail miserably at each, ideally by age 16 when brimming with disillusionment, you will compose long passages about thwarted desire in red ink in your journal (the one with your favorite Beatle, John Lennon, on the cover).

Show it to Mr. McDaniel, your English teacher who says you have a gift for poetry and suggests that you read the romantic classics. Spend school nights under your covers with your Siamese cat, a flashlight, Shelley, Byron and Keats. Take to wearing ruffled shirts and writing sonnets on thunderstorms, matters of the heart, Italian counts and wasting diseases. Pepper your conversations at school with exclamations like "O how scandalous!" or "What a great waistcoat you're wearing, Chip!" or "By the immortal gods, I will not dissect another frog in biology!"

Start ingesting large quantities of controlled substances, keep a vial of poison under your pillow and declare to the cute youth minister (the one who looks like Jim Morrison of The Doors) that you "prefer to quaff the blood of fallen believers from the skull of a medieval nun." Get yourself suspended from the school newspaper for printing an essay in praise of public floggings and atheism.

Decide that perhaps you should switch to comedy. No ... playwriting.

No ... creative writing. Start slouching, wearing black and smoking cigarettes. Spend a lot of time in self-imposed exile thinking about your whole life from infancy until this moment; everything you've done and seen and read and dreamed. With blue ink write Very Deep Thoughts in your journal (the one with geometric op-art on the cover) such as "Imagination is the farm tool with which to plow the soul" and "I seek not facts, only truth." When your parents comment that perhaps your distance suggests you are running with a bad crowd, tell them your "freedom is what you have bought with your solitude" Continuously ask yourself the same questions over and over: Where does writing come from? Why do I write? Why does anyone write?

Take a stand on the importance of fruit and spend the rest of high school in the art room painting still lifes of fruit, silk-screening fruit onto muslin for peasant blouses, throwing, glazing and firing clay into fruit-shaped mugs, and carving puppets with elfin heads and fruit bodies.

Fill a new journal in green ink (the one with a Maxfield Parrish painting on the cover) with a long/short story about a driving school instructor/sex goddess who views the entire world as an incipient erotic paradise and safety manual. Write it only between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. with sweating armpits and tenuous moments of euphoria convinced of your genius. Show it to your two closest friends — one who drags deeply on her cigarette and declares it "inventive" while the other smiles in a sweet way, sighs and tells you it "lacks inventiveness."

Sulk. As an outlet for your growing hostility, write several dark, bitter letters to various corporations, a few politicians and that annoying Tony Orlando & Dawn. Box up years of journals (keep one between the mattress and box spring in case the new boyfriend inspires a paragraph) and swear you'll never show your written work to anyone again. Abandon writing to pursue a career as a chef.

Spend the next 20 years riding the stormy seas of the culinary industry, often as the lone "cupcake wench" on a pirate ship of bandaged, boozed and bawdy scallywags — the buccaneers of the restaurant vessel — eventually working your way to a position where you get to captain your own ship and wield the big razor-sharp knives.

While wearing vanilla behind your ears, and somewhere between the raspberry sauce and sourdough starter, you will write: recipes, menus, employee manuals, schedules, letters of recommendation for your interns and a letter of apology to the customer who finds a chicken beak in her White Chocolate Coeur à la Crème.

Despite a good salary and reputation, quit the life of a chef and become ... anything else. A gardener, fiber artist, more attentive mother, the queen of crash, a cleavage diva, yoga instructor, movie star. Flop at most of them because you have the attention span of a ferret on amphetamines and don't have the right haircut, handshake or sensible shoes.

One evening catch your boyfriend reading your journal. He will ask if you ever considered becoming a writer, and you will tell him no and that he should put the journal down before you tear out his eyeballs. He dares you to write and shop an article.

Scowl fiercely and take the dare with a side bet. Write 600 words about food and send it to an editor of a local alternative weekly. After three weeks of silence then, just when you are about to collect on the bet, hear from the editor that the paper would like to give you your own column.

Oh shit, now what have you done?

Call the column "Bite Me." For the next five years, rant, rave, write about fruit and food-as-sex. Review restaurants and learn to distinguish the excellent from the merely good or downright indifferent. Celebrate the artisan-made, the local and the authentic. Champion organic, deride "fast" and canonize "slow," sometimes while wearing blue butterfly wings or Homer Simpson slippers — or both.

Write about food/obesity, food/feminism, food/relationships, food/advertising, food/community, food/family, food/orgies, food/race, food/mindfulness, food/industry, food/service, food/literature and food/guides, in black ink on your computer (the one with the Julia Child quote as a screensaver: "Life itself is the proper binge") while wearing cowgirl pajamas and a tiara.

Love the freedom and creativity and isolation of your job. Love your editors, team of writers you have taken to calling "chowheads" and the readers who correspond, support and challenge you.

And one day, decide to accept an offer to move to a monthly publication. To write about food. To be an editor. To have large, glossy photos accompany your text. To diversify your résumé. To squirm, because you still wonder if you have anything to say, if you've ever had anything to say or if there is even such a thing.

Ever grateful, write your last Bite Me column nearly five years to the day after it debuted.

There is still time. You could become an astronaut. Or mayor. ©

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