Devotion: Writing about Food
November 18, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Amy Rogers
Merriam Webster had just featured Kathy Biehl in their “Word of the Day” on October 22 when I rang the author to chat.
Her word? Devotion.
The example cited: “Restaurant loyalties run deep. Look at the scads of eateries that have drawn devotion for decades in the Park Cities, Preston Hollow, and environs.”
Biehl used the term to describe not a familial or romantic attachment – but a devotion to food. She doesn’t know how she was chosen, but it gave us a perfect entrée to talk about her award-winning journalism and her new book, Eat, Drink and Be Wary: Cautionary Tales (9th House Publishing).
Setting aside Biehl’s accomplishments covering topics that range from law to astrology, we focused on her food writing for this interview. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity, and of course, brevity.
Q: Tell me how you got into food writing. What was your entry point?
A: My entry point was answering the phone. Seriously, I’ve been a writer for a long, long time. I was a feature editor at my high school newspaper. I started out as a journalism major in college. When I got disillusioned, I started doing a lot of freelance writing.
I’ve always been interested in the story, and in people. I have a snappy way of getting people’s attention. Someone I had dated had done the bar listings for Houston Texas Monthly, was going to quit, and phoned me. He said, “You want it?” and I went, “Yep.”
So I started having to encapsulate the atmosphere of vastly different bars, in really short amounts of words, like 60 words, and it was like I was writing poetry.
Q: When was that?
A: In the 1980s. And meanwhile, my freelance writing was expanding into all kinds of offbeat writing and things that show the flowering of the human spirit in weird and quirky ways.
Q: Was there a point at which you declared yourself a food writer?
Well, here’s what happened. I walked into a bar one night, and a guy I had dated – there’s a theme here – who was a reporter for the Houston Business Journal, pulled me aside and said, “We’ve lost our restaurant critic. You’ve got the style. Do you want me to recommend you?”
I honed in on quirky places or unusual places, or found what was distinctive about what was going on. I came at it as a writer. I learned about the food aspect but I always approached it as a total experience.
Q: I love the piece in the book where you discuss the differences between snack food and junk food, because I’ve got to tell you, until today I never made a distinction. But now I do. I think those sly, sneaky, smart lessons are what sets a food writer apart, like writers such as Calvin Trillin. I hope you don’t take offense at me comparing you.
A: Oh, no. I’ve been compared to Hunter S Thompson. I’ll take that. I will take that.
Q: My favorite story in the book is the one about the all-night party at your friends’ estate in Britain, where you cavort about with all manner of food, music, and mayhem until the wee hours. I could just picture it and it was so lovely. Do you have advice or wisdom for writers who want to use the lens of food in their own practice and growth?
A: I really do believe that there’s a visceral, subconscious, cellular impact food has on us, and I really enjoy making sense of that. Writing about food challenges you to convey what you’re experiencing. It really challenges your use of language, because you can’t just say, “This is good,” or “This is tasty.” That doesn’t have any information in it. So you have to become aware of the language as actually translating your physical experience.
Q: I think this book can be a place for people to start to understand that food writing is more than restaurant reviews, and even though you’ve done a lifetime of those, the stories that accompany the experiences are what makes this so universal. Anything else that you would want to say on the topic of the writing life, the trials and tribulations, the joys or the heartbreak?
A: I’ve come to discover that there is a vibrant online publication community. I can remember sitting at the edge of the food journalists’ conferences and the people who had staff jobs would treat all of the freelancers like there was something inherently – a lack of journalistic integrity in us. I looked at them and thought, “We are the wave of the future. Just you wait.”
Kathy Biehl is an award-winning writer and observer of human quirks. For three decades she covered food, drink and the behaviors they inspire. Her writing has also focused on off-beat travel and translating the technicalities of law as well as astrology to the mainstream. Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales is available on Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.
Amy Rogers is an award-winning writer, editor and independent press publisher. Books she has written include Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas and Red Pepper Fudge and Blue Ribbon Biscuits. Rogers is a frequent food and culture commentator for National Public Radio station WFAE, and a current contributor for The Food Network.