Author Dianne Jacob says her love of food came from her parents, who were Orthodox Iraqi Jews from China, and very adventurous eaters.
“My ancestors came from Iraq through India to Shanghai, so I ate a lot of Bombay Baghdadi Jewish food,” Jacob told the Journal.
In Iraqi food there’s a lot of stews, vegetables and stuffed items. Baghdadi Bombay food is spicy, like Indian food, with curries, chutney and mango pickle.
“Since [about] 95 percent of American Jews are Ashkenazi, [my parents] had a very hard time with their identity in the context of being Jewish,” she said. “So they cooked to identify themselves and to remember who they were.”
Jacob’s father made pickles and labneh, her mother did all the cooking and baking. Plus, they had a garden.
“They were very wrapped up in their past and food was how they expressed it,” she said.
Jacob got a journalism degree in her twenties, started writing for newspapers and became a magazine editor and then a book editor, before going out on her own.
Jacob, who teaches and coaches food writers, is author of “Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More.” Now in its fourth edition, “Will Write for Food” has won three international and national awards. She co-authored two cookbooks:”Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas” and “The United States of Pizza,” and her essay, The Meaning of Mangoes, won an annual award from the Association of Food Journalists and from Les Dames Escoffier.
A lot has changed in food writing over the years.
“I think what’s best about it is that anyone can go online and start,” Jacob said. “Before there were a lot of gatekeepers.”
There still are gatekeepers in print, but not as many online. Anyone can start by creating their own platform, whether it’s a blog, an Instagram profile or a Substack newsletter.
Jacob finds the expression “I love food” impossibly broad. Food could be popsicles, curry or the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
“I always say that in writing, you should pick something that’s narrow and deep versus something that’s wide and narrow,” Jacob said.
For instance, Jacob’s topic is food writing. She teaches and talks about it, and has a blog and newsletter.
“I never run out of topics,” she said. “I could be writing about AI, the technical specifics of recipe writing, I could be interviewing an agent or a publisher.”
People’s strong connection to food comes from necessity – we all have to eat – but it’s so much more.
“From a survival standpoint, we do have to engage with food and then you have to make decisions about it,” she said. “What you like, what you don’t like, what you perceive is healthy, what you perceive is indulgent [and] how much is too much.”
Jacob says because outside food has become normalized, there’s more emphasis on being a good cook.
“When I grew up, we went out like once a month, maybe, for a meal,” she said. “Now you can get takeout breakfast, takeout coffee, a takeout sandwich. … Standards are higher for what that food tastes like, as opposed to home cooking, which usually isn’t quite as complicated or doesn’t have as much fat or salt.”
She adds, “Even if you’re just going to In N Out Burger, they’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to make the absolutely most delicious burger possible, and that’s what you have to compete with as a home cook.”
Because of her background, Jacob loves to make Middle Eastern and Asian food. She also enjoys making soup.
“In the winter, I don’t like to eat salads as much as in the summer, so I like to get all my vegetables in by having soup,” she said. “I never get bored making a huge pot of soup and putting some in the freezer and discovering it [a month later].”
Jacob’s earliest food memory is making a trade with another little girl on her street.
“I think her family was Scandinavian,” Jacob said. “She gave me a cookie and I gave her a preserved Chinese olive, which is cured with licorice and salt and sugar. … Another time she had a bowl of milk that had blueberries in it, and I thought, ‘Wow, your food is really boring.’”
When asked how people can make their food less boring, Jacob said to use more salt.
“I was a terrible cook for a long time because I had no idea how much salt to put in food,” she said. “In fact, I was a terrible soup maker. I used to say that my stock tasted like dish water, but I have learned to use salt properly.”
In fact Jacob “despises” recipes that say “salt to taste.”
“If you’ve never made this thing before, you really don’t know how much salt should be in it and you don’t know what it’s going to taste like, so it’s just not helpful,” she said. “A good recipe writer will tell you how much salt and then if you want more, great. If you’re watching your salt, use less, but at least there’ll be a guideline.”
The key to writing recipes is to take ownership of them.
“It’s your recipe, it’s the way you like it, and that’s how you should present it,” Jacob said. “You do have to think about who is your target audience and how much time [they are] willing to put into this.”
One more thing.
“A lot of people are obsessed with describing food; they want to use an endless number of adjectives,” Jacob said. “That really doesn’t add anything to your writing. It’s better to tell a story and explain the food that way.”
Learn more about Dianne Jacob at DianneJ.com, follow @DianneMJacob on Instagram, and subscribe to her newsletter, aimed at food writers, at Diannejacob.substack.com.
For the full conversation, and more cooking and recipe-writing tips, listen to the podcast: