Finding Comfort In Food Writing And Lemons: Bruce McMichael
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Gone are the days when food writing meant merely writing recipes in a local weekly magazine. It is now more about culture, history, and communities. If you look a little deeper, you'll see how much food influences the people around you, and how a community's food habits have less to do with personal preferences and traditions and more to do with their history and development. Food can reveal a lot about a society's past and present, and it has long been a source of fascination and entertainment.
We spoke with Bruce McMichael, the food writer behind the website and newsletter The Lemon Grove, about his insatiable love for writing and lemons and citrus. He tells us how this passion has influenced his life and his journey to becoming a food writer.
How did you first get into food writing?
So, I've been a journalist for about 30 years, mainly writing for the business and energy sectors. But around 20 years ago, I got into watching TV food programs and was inspired to grow my garden produce, such as sweet corn, potatoes, and unusual salads. I was watching these programs with my children and wanted to feed them better, healthier food. We even started keeping chickens. This led me to become a freelance writer. I also wanted to set up a publishing business and so created two regional food magazines and interviewed chefs, growers and farmers' market managers, and stallholders. That whole world just inspired and intrigued me.
What has inspired you the most in this journey?
The food, the people involved, and the stories behind it were exciting. What initially started at a local level got me more involved in writing about international food, particularly around the Mediterranean. Now I have a website, Substack newsletter and podcast about food and travel, focusing on citrus fruits such as lemons and pomelos.
Writing about food gives you a greater appreciation of cooking techniques, growing food, and fascinating people and their stories.
For example, with the Russian-Ukraine war, many Ukrainian chefs are cooking and becoming quite well-known in the UK for sharing the beloved food of their homeland. That gives ownership and personal memory to people forced to leave their homeland. There's so much to think, consider and write about food. It's not just going about eating at Michelin-starred excellent restaurants. It's the whole story surrounding the growing and eating of food and the communities it nurtures.
Why are citrus and lemons the core element of your writing?
Haha, good question. I like the way one ingredient can change a meal. And I also like the way how ingredients can move around the world. So, the spices from India come into Britain, tomatoes from Latin America come into Italy and back to North America. I love the way how all that moves around.
Lemons and citrus are my favourite ingredients in the kitchen because they're so versatile. They are found in many recipes because they bring the final dish alive. You squeeze a bit over soup or spritz some salad or a rice dish, which freshens it all up.
In that case, what do you think lemons don't pair well with?
Well, it doesn't go well with ... good gosh! Some cheese, maybe … blue cheese. I think blue cheese. Yes, blue cheese and also red wine.
What do you think are the challenges of breaking into this field?
Well, the biggest challenge is that there are few opportunities to work as a staff writer anymore. The number of magazines has gone down. The number of websites and the pay has gone down. And there's a lot of competition. Everybody wants to write about food. But having said that, there are great opportunities in writing a newsletter. For example, Substack is good. Ultimately, you have to be very persistent. And also, it's quite helpful to have a niche. It's why I specialize in citrus because there are few other writers with that focus. People use lemons, oranges and limes to cook with, make perfume, and clean their houses. So, this is a well-known product. Today, people associate me with citrus. So, they often ask me questions, from how to grow a citrus tree to cooking with lemons.
Foccacia with griddled asparagus, lemon, chilli and basil
How do you think exposure to different cuisines helps a food writer?
I think that's so important because there are a lot of commonalities between foods. If you're writing an article for a magazine, you need to know where your reader lives. They could be from Europe or Africa or have an Asian background. If you can add something like, say, this reminds me of a dish I had when I was in Kenya, which is similar to the one I had when I travelled through Kerala, you can draw in memory and get people's imaginations working.
Do you think being a good cook is beneficial to being a good writer food, right?
Not really, because that's only one small part of our food. I'm trying to think of an analogy. I mean, you could be a good sports writer but not play football or hockey. You can still understand what it means. If that's the kind of food writing you want to do … f you want to write about how food moves around the world, then maybe you don't need to cook. But if you're going to write about spice, say you want to write about Kampot pepper from Indonesia, then it's quite handy to say how to use it. Because when you're cooking, you're also tasting a lot. So, if you're creating that sort of food writing, it's nice to be able to cook, but it's not completely necessary. Don't let that put you or anybody off from writing about food.
How do you think food writing has changed in the recent past?
I think one aspect that is particularly interesting about food writing is one particular area, recipe writing. It's been evolving over the centuries. A long time ago, it was straightforward. It was just guidelines for cooks working in big aristocratic houses. It would just be chicken, rice, spices, and cooking steps. But nowadays, we have a lot more detail. Now it includes stories about ingredients.
Food writing is now about the memory of food. For example, my mother was Austrian. If I write an Austrian recipe or a story about the country, I will bring my family memory and history, adding a little depth and seasoning to the account. That twist could be seen among food bloggers for a long time. When they started writing 20 or 30 years ago, they needed to fill out their blog page. So, they added lots of stories. So, memories are significant.
Travel writing and food have become intertwined. So rather than just writing about travel, there are a lot of books like the Red Sea, which is an excellent book. It's about countries around the Red Sea, such as Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and all their cuisines. So, as well as visiting them, people are also talking about the food and how it identifies with a country and community. Rather than just saying I was in Paris in this restaurant, they did go a lot deeper into why that sausage is particular to Paris.
With people's attention spans decreasing rapidly, how do you think food writing could sustain this
Food writing doesn't necessarily mean just words on a page. It can mean podcasts, which I'm just starting now. I've done a couple of interviews. So that's a kind of 'food writing' in terms of using words to communicate. Writing words on a page is just one way of expressing a story. So, it depends on how you use the words. Podcasting is an intimate, personal and direct form of communication. And also videos. I mean, TikTok is a fantastic thing. There are 1000s of different ways of looking at TikTok, but today it's an essential part of food, although the platform can be overwhelmed by fashion and fickle ads. It's a good way of introducing people to new ideas. And then, if they want to read a bit more, they can do that. When I write for my newsletter or blogs, the longest story is about 800 words. There are many links in these articles, so people can go off and explore, and hopefully, you inspire them. But attention span is a problem. Podcasts and videos help keep people's attention.
What separates a food writer from someone who just happens to write about food?
That's a good question because a lot of people call themselves writers. I know how to write about food, but I can also write about energy, film or football. I just chose to focus on food. People like to put others in pigeonholes and give them an identity. A food writer is a writer who happens to write about food. There's nothing magical about it. You don't have to go to a university or take exams. It's always good to learn from other people. I often take part in online courses and watch Zoom events. And I'm always learning because there are always new ways of doing things and seeing things. When I started writing about food, I got myself some business cards that said Bruce McMichael, Food Writer, and that was it. I called myself a food writer.
Danish oysters from Rømø
If I were to get into food writing, what would be your few tips for me?
Okay, I would say …
Taste everything you can. Build up a taste memory.
Read as many different books, magazines, and articles as possible, and watch some TV, but reading is the best.
Ask as many questions as possible when you're at a farmers' market or when you're at a food festival. How did you make this? Why did you make this? Try and understand their motivation.
I would read the history of food as well. I would understand where food comes from and why it's essential in a particular culture.
And one more, I would write as much as possible, even if it's not published. If you have a blog, that's great because it gives you structure and shape. Limit yourself to maybe 800 words, but I would write as much as possible. I don't believe you can ever run out of words and phrases.
You want to read as much as possible to learn vocabulary and understand different people's styles. The way Nigella Lawson works is different ... it's evocative and emotional and different from a writer such as Diana Henry. Diana writes a lot about memory, taste and texture. After a while, if you read a lot and write a lot, you'll end up with your style, which is called your voice.
Talking about writing style, what do you think is your style?
My style? I have a friendly, approachable way of communicating. I like to give a lot of information about food history and share different cooking techniques with my readers. I don't use a lot of woeful words, shall we say. It's very different to PR writing. You are drawing people in through an entertaining, informative and descriptive world. I aim to inspire, and hopefully, my readers will learn something from what I've written and go on to travel, explore a new cuisine or cook a new dish at home.
Lastly, what book would you recommend to someone interested in writing about food?
Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoirs, and More by Dianne Jacob.
To read Bruce McMichael's blog, visit www.thelemongrove.substack.com
Food has enormous power. It's how we communicate with one another, fuel our bodies, and connect with ourselves. And, because it is important, we must revolutionize the way food is portrayed around the world. Fudd is always pleased to include such accomplished food writers as Bruce McMichael as friends and consultants, and together with them, we are working to bring about a sea of change in the way that people think about food and communicate about it.
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