The Food Section’s origin story: Pushing for more thoughtful food journalism

Regardless of reason, uncritical food writing shores up existing power structures, and fails to serve the consumers and workers who stand to be hurt by them.
A tiered platter of seafood on ice, accompanied by lemons and chips, obscures Hanna Raskin, the author.
Raskin’s critic photo. Photo by Allisyn K. Morgan.

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This piece is a part of our series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

Raskin was one of the panelists during our virtual launch event for the series. Listen to the event recording here.

Considering how much awfulness is on social media, it’s probably not worth getting worked up over restaurant publicists thanking food writers for stories about their clients. But I pause my scroll each time one of those posts comes up, since every instance of a corporation smuggling its perspective into print is a missed chance for food journalism.

I’ve been covering food and drink since 2006, when I started reviewing restaurants for the Mountain Xpress in Asheville, North Carolina. Since then, I’ve served as food editor and critic at the Dallas Observer, Seattle Weekly, and, most recently, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, which hired me in 2013 to overhaul its food coverage.

Prior to my arrival, the newspaper’s food section consisted of wire stories cobbled together by whoever had the time. The local restaurant community was so excited by the prospect of a full-time food editor that the maître d’ of one of the city’s ritziest restaurants offered to throw me a welcome party.

When my boss told me as much, I was appalled.

First, I don’t buddy up with members of the industry, preferring to maintain the professional distance that I helped write into the Association of Food Journalists ethics code when I sat on its revision committee. Second, I don’t accept comps of any kind.

Third, and most importantly, I realized that the power players in one of Charleston’s biggest economic sectors had no clue how I planned to do my job.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the good work of independent food writers who are calling attention to racism, wealth disparities, and sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry, among other harmful practices. Yet very few of them have the financial backing or institutional support to reach people who have only a glancing interest in food or media, so those eaters end up getting their information from big-name newspapers, magazines, and television shows that treat food as a lighthearted diversion.

There are several ways in which mainstream media can go wrong when it comes to food coverage. Perhaps the publisher of a cash-strapped weekly instructs her features team to go easy on advertisers. Maybe a website editor who isn’t personally fond of food asks his contributors to make do with insufficient budgets.

Most commonly, though, outlets hire reporters who can’t resist freebies, whether in the form of a seafood tower or readymade story. Plenty of self-made influencers fall into the same camp, repeating the company line and circulating pretty pictures in exchange for being treated like royalty. I am certain that’s what my would-be party host had in mind.

Regardless of reason, uncritical food writing shores up existing power structures and fails to serve the consumers and workers who stand to be hurt by them.   

That’s why, in response, I made clear from the start that I wouldn’t be meeting in person with chefs, publicists, or restaurant owners, since those get-togethers foster perceptions of fraternization and — more crucially — give industry leaders the false impression that they’re controlling the narrative. I wasn’t going to reprint press releases or write about an entrepreneur’s blueberry smoothie because he claimed it was National Blueberry Smoothie Day.

Uncritical food writing shores up existing power structures and fails to serve the consumers and workers who stand to be hurt by them. 

I planned to approach my beat the same way I would if I was covering the city council or the school system, which meant questioning assumptions, holding power to account, and ferreting out facts to enhance readers’ lives, regardless of how it sat with monied interests.

As one subscriber famously told our executive editor after I reviewed a restaurant that had long skated by on an Old South narrative of a docile Black domestic: “Everything Raskin said was true, but she never should have said it.”

Over the following years, in place of cheery pieces about well-known chefs, I wrote about the meals that Indian immigrant hoteliers prepared for their families behind the lobby, the birthday cakes that people incarcerated in South Carolina prisons made for each other, and the tradition of giving away boiled crab in Black-owned bars. I scrutinized the safety of restaurant hoods and showed how a local food festival was exploiting women and people of color.

But it took the pandemic for me to fully realize the power of independent and rigorous food journalism.

COVID-related restaurant restrictions were short-lived in South Carolina. As a result, workers were terrified, and customers were confused: Not many days went by when I didn’t field calls from employees and elected officials trying to figure out whether to go to work, in the former case, and what legislative response they should craft, in the latter.

There was so much to do then. I never bothered reviewing takeout food because our restaurants were wide open and, in those pre-vaccine days, I didn’t want to inadvertently encourage anyone to eat inside a shared space. But there were potential super spreader events to shame off the calendar, racist producers of pimento cheese to call out, an election to parse for folks whose livelihoods were bound up with restaurants, and so much death to bring to the attention of COVID deniers who only read the food section.

Still, I always took those calls from readers who felt unsafe, because to me, looking out for the most vulnerable is a journalist’s job.

Yet it occurred to me then that most people across the South don’t have a local food journalist to call in scary situations, such as ongoing sexual harassment or the lasting trauma from bodily harm witnessed or sustained at work. That’s why I accepted a grant from Substack in September 2021 to launch The Food Section, covering food and drink across the region with the same commitment to balancing joy and justice that I brought to Charleston.

It’s always hard to explain my twice-weekly newsletter to people who correlate food writing with no-stakes cooking. What I usually say is the newsletter focuses on reporting overlooked and under-told stories that help make sense of the South’s complex culinary scene, whether it involves the challenges faced by women frybread vendors in western North Carolina or the fate of an anti-Black restaurant outside of Atlanta.

In other words, I don’t expect any thank-you notes from publicists. But for me, the rewards of thorough journalism are greater.

Hanna Raskin is the editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink in the American South. She previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. Her work has been recognized multiple times by The James Beard Foundation, which in 2017 awarded her its first Local Impact Journalism prize. A past president of the Association of Food Journalists, Raskin serves as the Southern Foodways Alliance’s columnist.

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy edits by Gabe Schneider and Jen Ramos Eisen.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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