By Craig Donofrio
The long, serrated knife, guided by the baker’s steady hand, saws through a crusty baguette and casts golden crumbs onto a sun-splashed butcher’s block. Warm, natural light and a complex array of earthy, yeasty aromas fill the glass-walled room, and nearly 20 Rutgers journalism majors eagerly await a slice of baker John Ropelski’s fresh, hand-crafted bread.
This type of full-sensory, hands-on experience is what Teresa Politano is serving to her Rutgers journalism students this semester, and she is teaching them how to use those nuanced details and personal observations to craft engaging, front-page food stories. “Talk about the bread, the smells in the bakery and the rolling pins on the wall,” Politano said, referring to the class trip to &Grain, an artisanal bread bakery in Garwood.
“Be descriptive in your reporting,” she said. “You were there.” Politano, who has been teaching part time for J/MS since 1999, is hosting a new special topics course this semester about food journalism. Judging from just a few of Politano’s past and present credentials — book author; restaurant critic and food writer for the Star-Ledger and its monthly magazine, Inside New Jersey; a James Beard nominee for food writing; former managing editor of the Home News Tribune — she is perfectly suited to mentor aspiring food writers. According to Politano, mentoring is a significant part of the class philosophy.
“The class features one-on-one workshops to improve reporting and writing,” reported Politano, “and we’ve launched a magazine-format class blog. We have several key guest speakers and field trips throughout the semester.”
During the field trip to &Grain, owner and head baker Ropelski provided Politano’s students with more than just lessons in bread making. He also explained some of the hardships in starting a business and some of the mistakes he made along the way. For example, Ropelski said the desire for high visibility and a street corner space pushed him to design a window-lined, glass-walled room that was not exactly ideal for temperature-sensitive bread yeasts.
Those hardships and mistakes were not lost on Politano. She coached her students to use those details to develop a different angle for their food stories. “This story could be about entrepreneurial secrets and problems revealed,” she said. “One issue with covering food and restaurants is that it’s often said it’s a hard business, but it’s not always explained why or shown to the reader.” Another issue Politano picked up on was the economics behind Ropelski’s bakery.
At one point during the class at &Grain, Ropelski mentioned that customer satisfaction and positive reviews don’t always equate to financial success. Ropelski looked pained to admit that some days’ lack of traffic have even caused him to question his bakery venture altogether. Back in the J/MS classroom the following week, Politano explained to her students that a good reporter has to be ready to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions during interviews.
“Giving examples of mistakes that were made by an owner or talking about the financial struggles behind the business gives context and intrigue to the story,” said Politano. Providing context and setting food stories within larger issues are some things Politano learned early in her journalism career. After graduating from Duquesne University, Politano attended a Washington, DC journalism semester at American University. According to Politano, words of wisdom from a Washington Post reporter during a conference there opened her eyes to the fact that well-conceived and well-written food stories could be front-page news.
“Food is also part of politics and economics,” Politano said, “It is a cultural story, an entertainment story.” The major news outlets and media organizations of the past often overlooked this connection, added Politano. Things have quickly changed, however, and the media now serve a constant buffet of dedicated food channels, “foodie” blogs and even “food porn” photography. For Politano, this explosion of food culture interest and content creation is all related to “access” in the digital age: easy access to digital food content has sparked popular culinary awareness in the same way that better access to fresh produce and rare ingredients has enhanced chefs’ creativity in the modern age. Politano points to one obvious sign that indicates interest in food culture and food writing is spreading to a younger audience. The food journalism course reached its maximum number, about two dozen students, within a few hours of registration. “Young people are just naturally curious,” said Politano, explaining why food culture is appealing to younger audiences nowadays and why it’s an exciting time to teach.
The food journalism class blog, called The New Jersey Food Journal (newjerseyfoodjournal.blogspot.com), is where a lot of the student writing can be found. Politano said the class is “very selective” in what it posts in the way of restaurant reviews, profiles, photography and even some personal essays related to food. “We’re not going to race to post just because we can,” said Politano. “I want my students to think like they’re submitting to the New York Times.”