(In full disclosure, though, I was a nominee for Best Food Writing in 2010, and Best Essay in 2011. I find this rather curious as more often than not I usually just purge onto my keyboard every week and it somehow comes out somewhat cohesive, so thanks to everyone who keeps coming back every Tuesday to see what hot mess I've spewn out.)
I am overjoyed to say that I was nominated with some pretty damn awesome people and the winners truly did earn their titles. I've also boasted my nominations here and there so I guess I can't knock on the Saveur nomination and voting process too much without being a bit of a hypocrite. Another post, perhaps.
This year, though, there was some category shuffling. Best Food Science, Best Kids' Blog, and Best New Blog were all added to the list and all very necessary categories than deserve recognition, a bit of fanfare, and an award in which the winner is showered in sexually loose groupies and a Parma ham.
However, what is now absent is the Best Food Writing or Best Essay Category. In fact, there is no singular category that takes food writing in a singular manner. I suppose each category is put forth with the assumption that the winner will be have great writing. I can sorta jive with that. Yet, the fact that a blog award program that is so recognized in the food blogging community decided to not host a category that celebrates writing for its own intrinsic value without it being tacked on to a theme seems a bit, well, dumb.
What is going on at Saveur?
Now this isn't to just knock on Saveur. They're good people with a good product. I have nothing against them at all. This is about writing.
It feels to me that good writing is being assumed. That the winners will all automatically be decent writers. Or, perhaps, they aren't taking that into account. My blog posts generally run 800-3000 words. I get teal deer'd because people just want a recipe and stunning photos that make you weep at their beauty and that, my dears, is not this blog.
But I visit a blog or two that I don't read because the writing is just terrible. I'm sorry, but that's what it is. The pics are stunning and the recipes are flawless (when written properly), but reading the words between it all kills my brain cells to the point where I almost stroke out when I see the word "delicious" being used for the seventh time in a paragraph.
Can food blogs be best, worst, or somewhere in the middle without taking the writing into account? I don't think so. Many blogs that others might consider to be the BEST in whatever category often have great writing. In fact, these are popular blogs because the authors know that writing is the skeleton that supports the muscles of their blog be they images of a fish market in France, or a detailing of their grandmother's chicken salad recipe, or the history behind a red velvet cake. (And, hey, no Best Culinary History Blog?)
Writing is a key component of blogging and should be recognized as such. How can it not?
Let's go into Best Photography. I could call this category old hat and I might be right. However, in the case of blogs it doesn't matter. Photography can be critical to developing tone, voice, context, and sense of place. Pictures communicate emotions, people, times, locations, and what makes each of these things unique and worth investigating.
My photos have switched to Instagram on my blog. I did highly styled photos on my blog forever, but never really enjoyed doing it. It wasn't how I ate or lived. Instagram allows me to simply shoot and go - it's more in line with my way of life, may attitudes, it better demonstrates how I actually eat. My medium communicates a specific purpose.
Now, take this photo from Helene Dujardin of the blog, Tartelette:
In this picture is commensality. Serenity. Perhaps a muted joy and quiet reflection. It is enrapturing. It does what good food photography should do: make us thoughtful and hungry. This careful styling and construction is what makes Helene such a treasure of the food blogging world.
However, neither Helene nor I solely rely on photographs to communicate our perspectives or story. The pictures help move them along; for Helene more so than I, or so I imagine. Her sumptuous images communicate her enviable home life. Their light captures her attitudes and informs her readers. Through the use of perspective and styling she expresses how life has carried her (or how she has carried life) to this moment in time.
In a post entitled, "Comforting Recipes," Helene sat her audience down and talked about her relationship with August. For Helene, August has too much association with death - the departure of so many loved ones in her life.
One might expect blackness, noir, and lack of vibrancy in the photos to emote a mournful reverence for the departed. Yet, and I hope my interpretation is accurate or at least seen in the state of earnestness I present it in, Helene's photos glow with natural light. It effuses off neatly halved peaches. Barely-filled glasses and broken tarts show an alimentary situation: a gathering of loved ones at a bustling table celebrating lives of those gone by and of those still here.
These pictures are supported by her words. Her pictures - already worth a thousand words - are worth millions more with a few simple, but deftly crafted sentences that encourage the reader to stop, slow down, and ponder not simply life in its fragile, noisy, wretched, adorable, and jubilant worth; but the role of food and the people we share it with amongst this journey.
Helene, in this post detailing deaths she has personally experienced and in chronicling a fellow blogger's tragic loss of her husband, communicated with succinct and adept writing that was straightforward in a way that reached into the chest of the reader and plucked the most resonant, bass string of the heart so that it reverberated throughout that person's core:
Over the year, I have come to deal with the fact that I don't care that much of August. I have a love-hate relationship with August actually. My brother passed away in August. My grandmother too. It's my mother's birthday in August. And my grandfather's too. He's 101 this year by the way. Talk about witnessing life and mortality.
I am finally ok with August being a crappy month for myself. I hate, hate, hate the fact that now it will be a difficult time for Jenny and her daughters. I, and others who have lost dear ones, know the journey ahead. And we hurt inside for Jenny and her daughters already. How to make it better? How to make it easier?
This is honest connection. It wasn't made simply with her stunning and emotional images, but the words she typed out and published for the world so we could all come together to mourn loss and celebrate what we still have. Pictures themselves. Even amazing, epic, life changing pictures do not make for a great food blog in and of itself.
I would even go so far to say that a food blog doesn't even need to have recipes to be a food blog. Allow me to rather drastically switch gears here...
Look at Harold McGee's blog, Curious Cook. Here is a man who not only provides information about food science such as the often ignored use of alkaloids in cooking - a subject to most about as enjoyably engaging as smashing your dick in a car door - but makes it riveting, approachable, and satiating. McGee brings chemistry out of the lab and into the kitchen, but doesn't cover up his fascination with the subject for fear that the reader will eyeroll at the word count or detailed science and go find amusement elsewhere. His passion is apparent in his writing. Take this simple intro to the discussion of sugar and caramel:
For me, the epitome of stovetop alchemy is making caramel from table sugar. You start with refined sucrose, pure crystalline sweetness, put it in a pan by itself, and turn on the heat. When the sugar rises above 320°F/160°C, the solid crystals begin to melt together into a colorless syrup. Then another 10 or 20 degrees above that, the syrup begins to turn brown, emits a rich, mouth-watering aroma, and adds tart and savory and bitter to its original sweetness.
That's the magic of cooking front and center: from one odorless, colorless, simply sweet molecule, heat creates hundreds of different molecules, some aromatic and some tasty and some colored.
He goes on to discuss the chemical breakdown of sugar in response to significant heat. It's scientific, poignant, and a pleasure to read. McGee even wraps up each post with a miniature Works Cited section that I usually end up reading through myself because I'm a nerd who enjoys reading academic papers.
But notice that there isn't a single recipe in that post, Saveur. Not one. Yet, it's far more fun to read than many other blogs out there. His verbosity, his clever diction, his sexy as an Andrew Christian advertisement use of adjectives gives his point and purpose a gravity that so many other blogs just don't possess.
Yes, McGee has some beautiful photographs in some of his posts. Actually, most of his posts have only okay photographs and some are just kind of blah (sorry, McGee). In fact, some have *le gasp* none at all. However, I don't think this lessens the impact of his blog.
Or does it? Are we that shallow that we must be entertained in every conceivable way for a post to be in the running for "Best?"
According to Savuer, this means that McGee's can only fall into the category of Best Science Blog. And, of course, it very well could be. So could so many other great food blogs that use gargantuan words that probably stem from the Latin word for "hungry" or detail the various botanical compounds that make rhubarb taste like joy and furious sunshine. Blogs like Ideas in Food; The Quenelle; or my delightful favorite, Khymos, and its They Go Really Well Together experiments. All of these offer science, but science is rarely interesting - let alone approachable - without good writing to back it up and make it accessible. Without clever wit, with no use of simile or metaphor, and minus the ability to clearly communicate your point the audience will remain perplexed and the goal of erudition will be unmet.
As I've said, many of these categories rely on good writing to be successful in their categories. However, there are blogs out there who fall through the cracks. The blogs that focus on food, but whose writers aren't scientists, don't have the finances to travel as much as they might like, who don't write a special diet blog because they're fortunate enough not to have a food allergy, others who don't have kids, some who don't drink (of which, Saveur, two different alcohol categories?). What about these writers? It appalls me to think that a blog like Elissa Altman's, Poor Man's Feast, won't be recognized because it doesn't have a niche outside of Food Writing so Good You'll Print it Out and Pin it on Your Fridge.
I know my blog doesn't fit into any of these slots and hammering my square peg into the solid cement wall of Food Blog Awards isn't doing me or my blog any favors.
Saveur, I just write. I like to think I write well. Some days I succeed and others I don't. Sometimes my posts are deeply tied into the food I am making. Other times, I just write about my life and how food somehow intersected in a minuscule but observable way. Sometimes, I just rant. Both cohesively and otherwise.
To take out Best Writing, or even just Best Essay, seems to miss the point of blogging. We bloggers blog because we need to write. Bloggers are writers. Did we forget that at some point? Even those who feel they aren't writers are writers. We blog because we have something to say and we communicate it through our words.
I AM WHAT I BLOG.
I AM WHAT I WRITE.
I AM WHAT I EAT.
THESE THINGS CANNOT BE SEPARATED.
And lest we not forget, "Best" is a judicious and finicky word more subjective than a person's favorite flavor of ice cream or choice of porn. In the end, "Best" is usually decided in a contest whose results are often (but not always) reflective of a blog's number of Twitter followers. I know some people who love, Fifty Shades of Grey, god bless them. I know I would rather smear chili mash into my eyes then ever read another page of it. A well-read blog isn't necessarily a well-written blog, and vice-versa. Let's keep that in mind.
So, Saveur, I urge you to consider bringing the category of Best Writing or Best Essay back. If not, at least promise me you'll mull it over a bit? You're writers of a magazine, website, and blog dedicated to food. Surely you understand the importance of writing to bloggers and to yourselves?
UPDATE: I received a kind and thoughtful response from Helen Rosner at Saveur in regards to this post. She brings up some good points and it brings to question how can bloggers and media outlets work together to recognize greatness in the blogging community?
I saw your post lamenting the lack of a Best Writing category in this year's Saveur Best Food Blog Awards and was compelled to get in touch. First of all, thank you for your incredibly insightful take on the matter — you expressed in a very nuanced way a lot of the elements that here at Saveur we've thought about (and discussed, and, okay, argued about somewhat vehemently) when it comes to what the BFBAs are about, and what aspects of food blogs we should be honoring and rewarding with the program.
A couple of days ago I had a Twitter conversation on exactly this topic with Irvin Lin of Eat The Love (most of the thread is here: https://twitter.com/hels/status/312607335740735488). Basically, the Best Single X categories — single recipe, single photo, single video, single essay — were logistical nightmares for us from a judging perspective. One of the hallmarks of the BFBAs, and something I am incredibly proud of, is that we really do look at every single frigging site that's nominated — and that's not just glancing at a homepage and deciding if we like the header or not, it's really reading a sample set of posts (or, depending on the category, looking at a sample set of recipes or photographs or whatever), and then we have the somewhat arduous task of narrowing the thousands of nominated blogs down to six finalists in each category. Some categories are simpler than others, and the Best Culinary Essay category, which was our nod to pure writing (and for the record was hands-down my favorite category), was the most difficult of all — we've historically received very few nominations in that category, which meant that we did a lot of independent reading in blogs nominated in other categories, looking for that one amazing post, that one shining beacon. It was pretty grueling labor finding those posts, especially as we strived to include sites that aren't just the usual few dozen blogs we all follow regularly, and we worried that going forward, the specificity of the category meant that it'd be increasingly hard to fill the slate of finalists with well-considered, thoughtfully selected choices.
So this year, we decided that — as you mentioned slightly unhappily — good writing was going to be assumed to be table stakes. Blogs have evolved so massively since their inception, food blogs in particular, and part of what makes a blog — or blogger — great, is the fact that he or she has mastered an incredible array of skills: not just writing, not just photography, not just recipe development, not just personal promotion or graphic design or site construction or community building but all of these things. Or at the very least, most of them. I assume that the site that wins Best Beer or Wine Blog is going to have terrific writing about beer or wine — that the winners in all the categories (except maybe Best Overall Photography?) will have made their name in large part based on their intelligence, voice, and point of view. But hey, one of the great things about the BFBAs is that it changes a little bit every year — and that it's run by actual humans (namely, me and my digital edit team; there are just three of us running this whole shebang, hello!) who care hugely about keeping the program meaningful and relevant, especially as the whole concept of "blog" evolves and mutates and grows into new things.
I think Best Overall Writing is a great category, and one I'd like us to add to the slate next year. I hope we do add it. And I hope a lot of people pay attention to that category and nominate blogs whose writing they love, so that we can have a slate of incredible finalists and recognize some really incredible writers. If you have any other questions about the blog awards or anything at all, please don't hesitate to be in touch. And thank you again, seriously, for your very thoughtful — and thought-provoking — post.