In February, a Grease Trap post on this blog lamented shrinking local food coverage in some Bay Area dailies – a common theme of the weekly feature. As evidence of this trend, John Birdsall pounced on an announcement that the Contra Costa Times would be publishing “Fork in the Road,” a syndicated food-focused travel column by Colorado-based writer Laurel Miller. You can read the original Grease Trap item here. In the following letter exchange, Miller breaks it down, and Birdsall responds.
I was the subject of a recent Grease Trap on local food coverage and how it has expanded to outside sources.
As I write this I’m on assignment in a mountain village in Morocco researching Berber walnut farmers. As a freelancer, I retain the right to live wherever I please. As far as my ANG Newspaper column, “Fork in the Road,” goes, Birdsall is mistaken in his facts. My column changed to a food travel format focusing on sustainability issues as they pertain to regions all over the world in January 2005. This was at the request of my editors at the paper. Birdsall’s reporting that my column changed simply because I moved is inaccurate, and damaging. For the record, I moved in October 2006.
The reason for the column change was because, after over three years of profiling local product and farmers, I had largely exhausted local column topics, and my editors felt that my work as an eco-adventure travel and food writer would better provide a forum for me to write about global culinary topics with a sustainability or food artisan focus to create a better awareness of these issues to educate readers. I always include mail order or Bay Area sources for product or applicable links whenever possible.
I would also like to call out Birdsall on his comments about my recent Kangaroo Island column, and how I was writing about what I ate on a “free junket.” Again, Birdsall wasn’t there, and doesn’t realize (because he never spoke to me) that I have done a lot of work in conjunction with Tourism Australia in order to promote their family farmers and regional foods and products because I have such a strong respect for their burgeoning food industry and it’s eco-conscious methods. My KI story was a piece on a remote location that is a dedicated wilderness preserve, and the hardworking and innovative farmers who are creating an responsible and viable economic industry amidst one of the planet’s most fragile ecosystems.
Since Birdsall at least learned where KI is located, I think I can rest my case. We live in an increasingly homogenous, shrinking world due to technology and urban development. Not being a Bay Area-based writer or exclusively writing about Bay Area culinary topics isn’t an excuse for ignorance. My mission as a food and travel writer is to educate readers about how the rest of the world eats, farms, and how what they consume affects those who produce what’s on their plates. What you eat in the Bay Area generally affects someone else in another part of the world.
I apologize if you felt the post was a swipe at you for being a travel writer focusing on food (or a food writer who travels, whichever). Like I try to do with all Grease Trap posts, I meant to make a point about the Contra Costa Times food section, not you. I completely respect your skills as a writer and a journalist, more now perhaps than when you were writing about things near the Bay.
My lament was that page three of the CC Times‘ food section, traditionally given over to community food criticism and journalism, is now less rooted in the local. Pre MediaNews days, page three was the place to read about local hot dog stands, where to get fish and chips, or where to score a cheap lunch. I should know, having been a regular freelance contributor to the Times. As I say, my lament was about the changing nature of the Times, not your piece. Excuse me if I gave that impression. My blog post did include the following praise: “Miller’s a talented food writer and cooking teacher . . . She deserves big props. Miller was writing about local growers long before it was a food section cliche.” It’s a small point, but I didn’t say “free junket,” but “free chow on a journalist [sic] junket.” I did point out that you’d moved to Boulder in October 2006, a fact I gleaned from your website. I didn’t mean to imply cause or timing: that you started writing about the world in October 2006. I wrote merely, “Now she’s focusing on travel writing with a heavy food component . . .”
I used your interesting piece about Kangaroo Island as an example of something you have nothing to do with: editorial decisions that happen above the level of contributor. The “bittersweet flavor” I mentioned, the one the editor’s announcement about “Fork in the Road” appearing monthly provoked in me, wasn’t about the quality of or journalism behind your pieces, but precisely that they’re good stories appearing where the food section once focused hyper-local coverage. I have no argument with your defense about making connections in a shrinking world. In fact, I agree.
I really appreciate your reply, and I would greatly appreciate your posting my response. While I didn’t overlook your compliments regarding my writing (thank you, by the way), my ire was that I felt I was being targeted, when really, the budget restraints with various newspaper groups are such that I have no control over amount the syndicated content, and given my years in the Bay Area, and considerable work I’ve done and still do to promote the farmers and food artisans there, I still consider myself a local writer. Regardless of that fact, my main point was the one I made in my letter: I am trying to educate readers about these issues outside the Bay Area bubble. I also felt the “free food junket” comments were damaging to my reputation, as I pride myself on not being a “journo whore.” I am very specific about any press trips I take, I will only write about what I believe in, and most of my travel, as with my current stay in Morocco, is independent travel.