Meet Food Critic Laura Reiley

When I read Tampa Bay Times food writer Laura Reiley’s Farm to Fable article
(http://www.tampabay.com/projects/2016/food/farm-to-fable/), I knew I had to reach out to her. Not to mention that Lane DeGregory, who is also featured on this site, also suggested Laura.

As a former agriculture writer myself, I find the unpacking of where food comes from, those who work the fields to create it, and how it ends up on our tables to be incredibly interesting. And, I agree with Laura that these topics and issues need to continue to be investigated because as our population continues to grow, the topic of food is only going to become more magnified.

Meet Laura Reiley

Q: How many years have you been working as a journalist?
Laura: I started as a food writer at magazines when I got out of culinary school in 1991, so I’ve worked continuously as a food writer for 26 years.

 

Q: What are the main newspapers where you have worked?
Laura: Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Sun, Palo Alto Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, St. Pete Times/Tampa Bay Times. But lots more freelancing.

 
Q: Think back to the beginning, why did you decide to go into journalism? 
Laura: I didn’t decide to go into journalism. I was an English and women’s studies major undergraduate, but I always had an enthusiasm for writing. I didn’t really have an area of expertise except that for pocket money in college I worked at restaurants. I figured maybe I could go to culinary school and then I would have technical, hands-on knowledge that would stand me in good stead as a food writer.

The first fifteen years of my career I called myself a food writer, not a journalist. I was a professionally trained chef, could drill down on a wine list’s strengths and talk about mother sauces and such. Things started to change. This is partly because social media created other avenues for thumbs-up-or-down criticism, partly because in order to keep our jobs the remaining food writers had to hustle and multitask, and partly because the food system, and food choices, had become so complicated it was an enormous service to readers to devote ourselves to unpacking it.

 

Q: What do you remember about your early years of reporting? What did you love about writing?

Laura: I’ve always loved writing. Still do. The idea that my job is frequently to sit down with people doing cool stuff and then figure out how to make it accessible and interesting to a general audience is amazing. I get paid to eat food and learn new things from smart people. How could that be bad? And I continue to love the process of blobbing in thoughts, refining them, working with editors, buffing things up, and sending it all out into the world.

 

Q: Today there is a lot of talk about the liberal media trying to brainwash readers and all this – has it always been this way that you recall? Have journalists always been the enemy or talked about as being liberal in a negative way?
Laura: I don’t believe there’s ever been as negative a feeling about the media as there is right now. It’s because of the Trump White House, but also because the internet has made it impossible for regular folk to discern between fact and fiction. The idea that truth is totally fungible is so disheartening, as is the notion that everyone has an equally valid opinion, regardless of expertise on a given subject. There are experts who dive deep, spend their lives investigating and learning. You may not like what they reveal, but your uniformed opinion is not equally worthy.

 

Q: Do you think most journalists are liberal? Do you think most journalists are conservative?
Laura: Most of the newspaper journalists I know are, privately, left of center. It’s only since the “under siege” mentality that began in the run-up to the last election that so many journalists seem emboldened to broadcast their personal beliefs and preferences. It’s a shame, and hasn’t done us much good. Just further entrenched the “us versus them” mentality.

 

Q: When it comes to journalism, how has the job changed over the years? What has been bad / what has been good?
Laura: I don’t want to speak to journalism overall, because my slice of it is pretty specialized. As I tell beginning journalism students, I believe there’s never been a more important time to write about food. Just as more people care about the provenance of what they eat, the system has become infinitely more complex and opaque and the institutions for policing such things have become weaker. I want to help guide consumers through the deception, through the confusing and conflicting pronouncements of nutrition science, the ever-changing dietary guidelines, fad diets, health gurus and quick-fixes to living a healthful life.

It’s been interesting to watch journalists like Mark Bittman shift into more advocacy roles. In a way, though, being an investigative reporter on a food beat serves a similar function. With a projected 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, accurately predicting the precise nature of our future’s food system seems pretty important. Useful projections must be based on a clear-eyed view of how the system works—and doesn’t work—right now.

 

Q: What do you think the future will bring for journalism? What hopes and dreams do you have for the future?
Laura: Sadly, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. What the average person still fails to understand, is that even if they get their news from Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., it always tracks back to traditional shoe-leather reporters with editors at legitimate papers, magazines and websites. If people won’t pay for it, we’ll keep trying to do more with less, but the quality and coverage can’t help but get whittled.

 

Q: What have been your favorite stories over the years? What have been the award winners? Have those award winners surprised you?
Laura: This was the series that contributed most heavily to my Pulitzer, James Beard and Paul Hansell nods in 2017: http://www.tampabay.com/projects/2016/food/farm-to-fable/restaurants/

I really enjoy writing agriculture stories, especially new technology stories or stories about how technology is preserving historic seed stock or agricultural traditions. Here are a couple:
http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/agriculture/drones-and-dogs-save-suicidal-avocados-from-the-dreaded-redbay-ambrosia/2251483

http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/food/dining/100-years-after-it-disappeared-a-giant-florida-watermelon-is-brought-back/2326737

I just won an Association of Food Journalists award for features for this: http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/food/cooking/for-st-petersburgs-dr-bbq-the-journey-to-fame-was-low-and-slow/2294820

I think one of my favorite things is writing profiles of some of the quirky birds in the food biz like Dr. BBQ, or like this guy: http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/consumer/meet-the-candyman-inventor-of-jelly-belly-sets-up-shop-in-clearwater/2305431

Trend stories make up a fairly big slice of what I do:
http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/food/dining/as-tampa-bay-restaurants-shift-focus-to-burgers-and-biscuits-fine-dining/2300414

And I’m also not averse to doing really low-hanging fruit stories like these: http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/consumer/remember-carvels-fudgie-the-whale-cake-its-turning-40/2325749

http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/food/dining/our-food-writer-conquers-arbys-meat-mountain-is-it-any-good/2195327

 

Q: Why do you keep working as a journalist?
Laura: Sometimes I think I’m just one of those people who stays at the party until the hosts are wearing their pajamas, but I’m still enthusiastic about food criticism and newspaper journalism in general. It’s fun work, feels important, and I get to essentially pitch stories and be an entrepreneur of sorts. Every day is different.

 

Q: And, what do you do when you get writer’s block?
Laura: Clean my house, write other stories, convince myself that I’m being “productive.” And then hopefully I sneak up backwards on whatever project is stymying me.

 

BONUS: What is a current news topic that connects to you deeply or that you think will continue to be a hot topic in the future?
Laura: Increasingly, I derive great pleasure in writing about agriculture — with only 2 percent of American families involved in ag these days, it feels like pulling the curtain back on a mysterious world.

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