A few weeks ago, I attended the Association of Food Journalists’ annual conference in D.C. I had the chance to meet food journalists from all over the country and listen to speakers cover hot topics in the food journalism world. I even got to have lunch at the Swedish ambassador’s home and attend a reception at the State Department for the launch of the American Chef Corps (check out this article from Eater.com for more information). For this post, I wanted to share an article I wrote for the October 2012 AFJ newsletter covering a panel led by Ann Hodgman, a well-known humor and food writer. Hodgman discussed her upbringing, her inspirations and addressed the question, “what is humor’s place in food writing?” I’ve always loved using humor in my own food writing, so I found Hodgman’s perspective very informative. If you haven’t read her article, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch,” then you’re missing out. Check it out – it really shows Hodgman’s knack for strong voice and vivid descriptions.
“Make ‘Em Laugh, Urges Ann Hodgman”
Ann Hodgman’s Panel at the annual AFJ Conference in Washington, D.C.
Ann Hodgman grabbed AFJ Conference participants’ attention by starting her panel discussion, “Make Em’ Laugh,” with the first few sentences of a magazine piece she wrote entitled, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch.”
“I’ve always wondered about dog food. Is a Gaines-burger really like a hamburger? Can you fry it? Does dog food “cheese” taste like real cheese? Does Gravy Train actually make gravy in a dog’s bowl, or is that brown liquid just dissolved crumbs? And what exactly are by-products?”
In the Spy magazine article (June 1989), Hodgman explained how she bought different varieties of dog food from the grocery store, including canned “Chunky Chicken” from Kal Kan Pedigree and dry “Butcher’s Blend” from Purina. Hodgman sampled these flavors at home and reported her honest opinions about them.
She establishes a genuinely curious voice in the first sentence and carries it throughout the piece. It is entertaining to follow as she gradually comes to the conclusion that dog food does not taste good to humans (especially when we already knew that truth to start!).
When panel moderator Jim Shahin from The Washington Post asked Hodgman if she really was curious, she said, “No, I wasn’t at all curious. I knew it tasted bad. I wanted to write something funny and edgy that fit the magazine.”
Her article caught readers’ attention, and even landed her an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
In addition to her memorable piece about dog food, Hodgman has a long list of other accomplishments. While attending Harvard University for her degree in English, she was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon, a humor and parody based student publication. Since then, Hodgman has written children’s books, humor books and humor cookbooks, including Beat This!and its sequel, Beat That!. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Gourmet, Food and Wine and more. She was a humor columnist for Spy magazine and writes regular humor columns for Eating Well magazine.
While discussing the role of humor in her own food writing, Hodgman talked about her past, her inspirations, and how she creates humor.
“It’s definitely more of a challenge to be funny [in food writing],” Hodgman said. The topics of appetite and nutrition can be sensitive topics for some people.
On the same note, Hodgman believes humor is one way to tackle emotional situations. Poking fun at everyday scenarios that regular people go through not only makes writing lighthearted; it also becomes relatable, human writing. Taking a topic that would not normally seem humorous and making it hilarious fascinates Hodgman.
Since childhood, humor and food have played a strong role in Hodgman’s life. She remembers her family’s constant encouragement to see the humor in every situation, including difficult ones. As a teen, Hodgman thought about food often, struggling with her weight and trying various diets. She turned to humor to tackle her troubled relationship with food.
Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book was also an influence on Hodgman’s writing. She admired how Bracken mocked domestic life, a topic that had previously not been approached with humor. Bracken’s hassle-free recipes were relatable and realistic to busy, working moms in the 1960s, when the cookbook was released. Hodgman also admired Bracken’s conversational writing style and how she worked humor into her recipes.
Hodgman uses a similar style as Bracken, finding many of the jokes she uses by listening to casual, everyday conversations. One place from which Hodgman gets ideas from is in school cafeterias, listening to children’s’ conversations. “Kids sometimes put things in a way that adults can’t,” she explained.
She finds that humor writing is more successful when the language flows like natural conversation. To exemplify her style, Hodgman shared a short piece she wrote for Eating Well called “The E-mail Home” that was nominated for a James Beard Award in humor writing this year. The piece starts like this –
Of course I still “plan to grace you with my presence during the holidays,” as you put it. All I meant was, I’ve changed a LOT since coming to college and I need you to respect that. I’ve totally educated myself about nutrition. I’m learning to make food choices that are right for me. I was NOT criticizing your cooking when I said most of the foods you make are poison.”
Hodgman first took a scenario that most moms have experienced, a daughter writing home from college about what she’s been doing. To make this situation humorous, Hodgman played with the daughter’s character, making her exaggerate her new, overly health-conscious diet. She rambles on about her new gluten-allergy discovery, her new obsession with agave syrup over sugar and detoxing her body with raw foods.
Hodgman explained that she intended the piece to be a commentary on our society’s obsession with “super healthy food.” Exaggerating and joking about health and diet can help readers put into perspective just how seriously they might take these topics.
Lastly, Hodgman encouraged food humor writers to strive for a confident, assured voice. She suggests avoiding phrases that show uncertainty such as “in my opinion.” To Hodgman, believing in one’s humor and writing is more important than worrying about what the reader will think.
“Trust your own voice,” she said. “Trust that what you say is funny and don’t back away from that.”