Discover more from Root: Historic Food for the Modern World
Food Writing as Craft
Sustainability, Joy, and Community (plus my kimchi caramel corn recipe!)
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I love thinking about the intersection of theory and practice, and considering process alongside product. My newsletter and Patreon, by and large, showcase the results of my writing practice. But we rarely dig in to talking about our writing practices themselves.
This month, as I wrap up the remaining book events for the year, I'm reflecting on writing as craft, and in particular on my writing as a craft.
Like most writers, I do other work that isn't strictly putting pen to page (or fingers to keyboard). In my case, I'm a writing coach, and I help scholars set goals and develop habits that push their work forward. It's rewarding work, but it also helps me continue to assess my own practice. For freelance writers, long days and juggling dozens of assignments can cause burnout, and I've tried to avoid this to the greatest extent possible.
Obviously coaching goes way in depth and way beyond what can go in a newsletter issue, but I wanted to distill a few key ideas down that have served me and that might serve you, too.
Take up space in your own life
I started using this phrase with clients a couple years ago, after seeking a more succinct way to encourage them to center themselves within their work. If writing, and sharing your ideas, are most important to you, then give them pride of place in your life. Start your day with the work that matters to you before email and meetings take over. I finish my writing for the day before meeting with my writing clients, for example, and I have clear routines and boundaries around my time and my own habits (like email checking) that create distance between my writing time and the rest of the world.
Learn how you write
From your physical environment to your most productive, energetic, generative times of day, take stock of what supports you as a writer. I find I'm most inspired in the morning, and when I can move between the computer and the kitchen. I've also found I need non-garbage snacks at the ready for times when I'm really writing against a deadline or am otherwise busy, so I prepare a handful of grab and go foods ahead of time to enjoy throughout the week.
I also like ambient nature noises when I write, but the sounds of lawn equipment and construction outside often drown out the birds and kill my focus, so I wear Loop earplugs to cut down on the noise.
Sustainable writing means writing in the way that works for you: Maybe you thrive in deep dive, multi-hour sessions or maybe you can only grab 15 or 30 minutes a day to put towards your work. There's no wrong answer! The key, though, is learning how you write and then giving yourself the grace to be done for the day when you're done. I've found that unsustainable writing practices often include working too many hours, but also are rooted in the idea that we have to write nonstop and we're failing if we don't.
Don't take yourself so seriously! Your writing will be there tomorrow, and will be better if you give yourself time to step away completely.
Your writing is a craft, not a to do list
It can be easy to think of writing as a checklist of pieces to hand in, especially when we're working to deadlines. However, remembering the value our work has beyond being a line on the CV or a few dollars in the bank can help us stay engaged. There are many ways to do this, but managing expectations with others (and yourself), and creating space to write what matters to you (and consistently showing up) are the big ones.
There's also a lot to say about the complexity of vocational awe, and how easy it is to be overworked and underpaid doing work we're passionate about. We all have different ways we navigate this: For me, I find that actively creating space for the writing I'm most passionate about (e.g. this newsletter, Our Fermented Lives, and pieces like my Longreads reading list) and putting that writing first thing in my day reminds me that it's the real priority, and allows me to separate passion writing from the things I do to keep food on my table, though I find joy in those things, too. I enjoy writing round ups and other pieces too, but by keeping them mentally separate, I remind myself that the core of my craft is in the thoughtful, research-driven, deep divey writing I find most rewarding.
Remembering why I write, and acknowledging successes, is another big one. I have one client who writes a self-reflective paragraph at the end of his last writing session of the week, where he acknowledges what he's done and what's next, and takes stock of how he's felt about his writing and himself as a writer that week. It's a powerful practice, and one I've adopted as well.
Create the conditions for writing, but let your ideas emerge when they're ready
Part of writing as a craft is knowing when an idea needs more reflection, deeper research, or other gifts we might pour into it. My original plan for this month was to write a deeply vulnerable essay, but I found that the ideas around it were and are still forming in my mind. It's an important enough topic that I don't want to rush the essay out of its metaphorical incubator before it's ready. And so I decided to let it continue percolating and to refocus my attention this month (that essay will be out next month, instead).
When you have the luxury to do so, using your writing space to daydream, and think curiously and deeply, can yield wonderful results. Acknowledging how much of our writing happens outside of the actual draft, and making space for those generative, thoughtful aspects of our work, yields better quality pieces and makes the whole process more satisfying.
Craft is always a work in progress
To be a writer is to commit to a life of learning and continuing education. "Continuing education" here can mean a couple things. First is our subject matter expertise: Obviously the more time I spend studying food, talking about food, trying different foods, etc. the more I will know (and importantly, the more I'll realize I don't know).
But continuing education is expansive, too: I want my practice as a writer to deepen into areas I haven't explored quite as much (like fiction writing), and I want to continue to connect my writing about food to my understanding of the world writ large. Most importantly, I want my writing journey to connect me to my joy: I don't want writing about things I love to feel like a slog. Even when I'm writing about a challenging topic, I want the writing itself to be an affirmation that my work is important and meaningful, and that the words I'm putting down need to be out in the world. Thinking about my writing as a craft that will always grow and evolve helps me connect with what I need to do to find my joy as a writer.
Staying curious and flexible have become very important to me too: When I feel that my writing style is falling in a rut, it encourages me to take a step back. What part of my craft might need new tools or a set of fresh eyes? What narrative styles do I want to explore? What am I most excited to learn? Workshops can be helpful for this (I'm taking one this month through Orion Magazine that I'm thrilled about), but so too can talking with other writers, particularly ones who don't have your exact beat or who study in completely different fields. I love connecting writing to other creative practices too: I'll draw ideas out, mull things over on a nature walk, or cook and sing while I work through a problem. Whatever is the best path to keep you curious and connected to the joy of writing, is the best path for you!
What are your go-to tricks for maintaining a sustainable writing practice?
And, what questions do you have for me?
· Reminder: I recently wrote a book!
I also am doing many events around that book, including one in Wales next February, some virtual events, and a couple in Boston and North Carolina (all details TBA).
You can see all my upcoming events on my Our Fermented Lives event page.
If you want to host me for a book talk/fermentation class/etc. in your town, please reach out!
· I also wrote this article for Atlanta Magazine about the intersection of my life as a food writer and my experiences with gustatory synesthesia:
The perfect piece to come out while I’m talking about our writing as a craft that connects to our real lives!
· Now is the time to get your holiday orders in!
I love helping people give unique gifts including Hidden Cosmos decks (can be signed and personalized!), online classes, or hire me to teach a private virtual fermentation class. I'm open to other gift ideas too, from custom artwork to small group classes. Please reach out with your ideas!
I have a *very* limited number of printed planners available in my shop (which are already almost sold out), so please get one soon if you want one!
I also have affordable, digital versions which you can buy and use digitally or print at your favorite local print shop.
FYI, if you pay me for a membership (as a Substack subscriber, Patreon patron, or via my website) you get this digital planner for free.
· This year, I’m inviting readers to join me in brief vision journaling exercises each month to help us intentionally craft a meaningful and hopefully joyful 2022. You can learn more and see the year’s prompts here.
This month’s journaling prompt is:
What does financial success look like for me? How do I define comfort and stability? What emotions and experiences help me draw more abundance to myself?
See all the prompts and learn more about vision journaling at this link.
I loved doing this interview with Civil Eats, which puts my writing in the context of climate crisis, and how I use fermentation to find hope and resiliency in challenging times.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs talks about her conscious relationship with salt, salt as an ancestor, and what happens when we alter that relationship to treat salt purely as a commodity (Orion magazine, where this piece is featured, is a perennial favorite of mine).
I've been diving into pieces from Catapult magazine, too, including this piece on the power of sharing our cooking processes, Katie Okamoto's grounding and nuanced relationship with butter, And Meg Bernhard's writing, which resonates a bit with my own above, of finding ourselves when the spaces we were raised in cannot hold the truer versions of ourselves that we become.
I love Amy Halloran's Dear Bread, and loved this issue on history, and how we shape and understand it.
Books I'm currently reading + loving: Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Koshersoul by Michael Twitty, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (who wrote the essay on salt, above).
To Make: Kimchi Caramel Corn
Sometimes, dreams come true in the form of snacks!
In this case, I had a dream about kimchi caramel corn that was so delicious I sprung out of bed around 1:30 in the morning to make it. It was incredible in the waking world, too: while the combination might sound strange, the savory spice of the kimchi really marries well with the caramely, sticky-sweet popcorn.
The trick is to cook your kimchi into the caramel so it imparts flavor without altering the texture or making for soggy corn.
This caramel corn can be made one of two ways: with fresh kimchi, like I outline below, or with seasoning:
For this method, omit the fresh kimchi and use 2-3 tbsp of either homemade or store-bought kimchi powder (I like this one from Burlap & Barrel, and I cover making your own seasoning powders like kimchi powder in my Preserving Abundance class).
Either way, it's utterly delicious, easily one of the best recipes I've written. I hope you'll give it a try.
12 cups popped plain popcorn
1 1/4 c packed light brown sugar
1/2 c butter
1/4 c wildflower honey
1 tbsp kimchi juice
1/2 cup finely chopped, drained kimchi
1/2 tsp baking soda
-Heat oven to 200 degrees F
-Pour your prepared popcorn on a large well-greased baking sheet, preferably lined with a Silpat
-In a large high-sided skillet or a saucepan, cook your brown sugar, butter, honey, kimchi, and kimchi juice, stirring occasionally, until bubbling around the edges.
-Continue cooking for roughly 5 more minutes until the mixture thickens slightly
-Remove mixture from heat and stir in baking soda until foamy
-Pour over your popcorn and stir until evenly coated
-Bake your popcorn for 1 hour, stirring every 10-15 minutes
-Store in an airtight container.
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