#4 | what is food journalism for?

on chicken feet, the tweeting microcosm, and the performance of the press when covering food, cooking, and gastronomy

GOAL

I have a goal: to reach 500 subscribers by October 31st. There are about fifty to go, but it will be even less if you share this newsletter with friends and acquaintances who might be interested in the low heat issues. 

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Next month this newsletter will become biweekly, with an interview on October 15th and a journalistic essay on the 29th. I haven't defined a subject yet, but I'm inclined to talk about gastronomy professionals whose role is one of the most undervalued despite the high demand for their technical knowledge. Does anyone dare say which one it is?


this issue was translated by Luciane Maesp 📧 luciane.maesp@gmail.com

click here to read the original piece in Portuguese

This disturbing image was generated by the bot @ilustraIA, created by the journalist Apolinário Passos, from the sentence “what is feeding food journalism?”. It fits well with what I show in this September's long issue: confusion, rush, and lack of accurateness.
[as always, a prelude]

CONCERNS THAT SCRATCH

When I see chicken feet, I remember the tongue clicks that my great-grandmother Filomena did when she sucked the soup broth that was kept between the skin and tendons. One foot was always hers, and the second one was disputed by her offspring of children and grandchildren. But I, her great-granddaughter, avoided chewing all kinds of tougher textures, such as cartilage and fat; and that's why I was never curious to try chicken’s foot1.

The urbanization of the city I grew up in was accelerated by the clothing industry and the growth of a motor company that would become a multinational. Directly and indirectly, it is the industrial sector that employs a large part of the low or highly specialized workforce and raises the average salary in the city. With so many companies, so many jobs (even if many are on the shop floor) and so much taxes (even with tax evasion), the city boasts one of the highest human development indices in Brazil. Great-grannie Mena's descendants did not work in the fields, but swiped their cards in an industrial shed or provided services to the city's economic elite.

That is why no chickens were scratching in my grandmother's backyard during the 1990s when I lived my childhood perched on a guava tree in front of my grandmother Chica's house or playing in Great-grannie Mena's garage, nearby addresses on a dead-end street. At lunch, I separated the chicken thigh’s meat from the gristle and bone with a knife, without making a fuss, to not offend the older generations with my childish palate.

Nobody thought critically about the consumption of chicken feet or the existence of rice grits until the Bolsonaro government was elected and wore out the threadbare and patched up the purchasing power of the Brazilian. The prime cut meat, which has always been a luxury, disappeared from the plate with impressive rapidity. The drop in Brazilians income makes them choose to consume cheaper proteins so that there is no lack of sustenance.

Chicken feet consumption wasn't left because it's not food. Chicken feet were left off because the distance between our table and the ground where they scratch is getting longer and longer.

Chicken's feet were no longer eaten because animals are produced for slaughter in a larger quantity than the human population. We stopped eating chicken feet because the production volume is so large that we can choose which piece of the animal we want to eat, being able to fill a barbecue with dozens of chicken hearts for a meal, without having to worry about cooking the rest of the animal.

ANA MARIA IN A TWITTER SHELL

On September 27th, 2021, the presenter Ana Maria Braga opened one of the segments of the Mais Você television program talking about the increase in prices that beef (30.77%), fish (3.93%), and chicken (25%) suffered in the last 12 months, and makes the point: "So, many housewives appealing for you know what? For chicken feet. So there is no lack of protein on the table"2. On the screen of Mais Você's studio, reporter Luiza Zveiter appears in Dona Graça's3 kitchen, the character found by the production of the program to illustrate what the presenter has just described.

Dona Graça is a Bahian cook who lives in Rio de Janeiro that earns around 700 Reais a month4. She used to prepare oxtail, tongue, and leg beef shank/hind shank before the price of meat increased. Nowadays, the menu takes turns between chicken gizzards, necks, and feet.

The choice of the theme for Mais Você was criticized by internet users for being "a romanticization of poverty" by "teaching how to prepare chicken feet". I went to watch it two days after it went on air, curious to know about the recipe and the tone used by the presenter.

As you might imagine, I don't know how to prepare chicken feet. The knowledge of how to kill, pluck and eviscerate a chicken has been lost in my family for decades, and today, if I needed to prepare it, I would risk boiling it directly in the soup. I don't know whether it should be seasoned long in advance, or whether it needs to be sealed or scalded. Ana Maria didn't help me either: she said goodbye to Dona Graça and ended the segment.

I’ll sum up my opinion:

  1. I didn't see romanticization, but a statement that chicken feet are food – Dona Graça and Ana Maria are from different social classes and, in a way, when Ana Maria Braga says that chicken feet are tasty is a validation of Dona Graça’s choice made (within of her possibilities), without ranking cuts of meat, nor constraining the interviewee;

  2. There was contextualization and it was explained that the choice is due to the economic issue – the worst in 30 years;

  3. Any food preparation was taught. There was no meager gastronomic information in the eight-minute segment;

  4. The fact that the country's largest broadcaster has a history of discrediting politicians with a leaning to the left and being responsible for creating the motto "o agro é pop"5 makes us conclude that there is a calculated omission in not talking about public policies for food. Either because the topic would need more than eight minutes; either because it is understood that it would be too "complex" for the "housewife". As it is a dead-end, I adopt the optimistic perspective of points 1 and 2.

When Ana Maria Braga wore a tomato necklace to talk about the increasing price of the fruit in 2013, the criticism was that it "sported an expensive product that many Brazilians couldn’t afford". Yet, not eating tomatoes for a period does not affect us nutritionally. Ana Maria did the same thing this February, appearing with a string of tomatoes when the price of fruit increased by 23% in São Paulo. She also used a rice and bean necklace in 2016, and another one made of garlic and onions. By the way, the rice collar was repeated in September 2020.

On her social networks, the presenter was in favor of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. In May 2021, she used the same network to ask for the impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro.

Maybe it's time for the tweeter to understand that the Mais Você program is not made for him, and that's why the programming won't live up to his expectations.

The subjects that Rede Globo's production selects have the same origin as those that guide the gastronomy editorials of large media vehicles: trending topics and Google Trends. These immediatist oracles deliver the curious theme or the controversy of the day, just picked from social networks, fresh farmed in the kitchen of newsrooms. And served rarely, otherwise, it would lose its freshness.

PARENTHESIS: the cover story of the Extra newspaper on September 29, 2021, was a good lesson on how to take the subject of the moment and find its ballast in reality. A few months earlier, we had other reports along the same lines, with the sole of the reporter's shoe wearing out on the streets of Cuiabá and Recife.

WHAT DOES FOOD JOURNALISM FEED ON?

on the algorithm and popular hashtags

People think they understand food because they eat it every day and because they like to see what's in and what's missing on the supermarket shelves in their neighborhood. It is not through this practice, however, that statements are postulated – neither in journalism, nor in academia, nor market research. The story about rice grit showed it.

Journalism has its method and prerogatives, which everyone thinks they understand as well. "Simplification is something journalism has always done. It's different from academia. Journalists speak more colloquially and they don't need to make the state of the art for everything", summarizes Guilherme Lobão, a journalist in Brasília at CBN Sabores, and creator of the open course Comida de Pensar. Guilherme was one of the press colleagues I called to talk about the title of this newsletter.

The point was to discuss the public's reaction to the articles about firewood, Miojo ramen noodles, and the sale of bones in the butcher's shop6, which received criticisms very similar to those directed towards chicken feet in Mais Você. "The title cannot hold all the information and bring the context", reported Lobão.

Editors know about it. The rush provoked by social networks makes all publications done on the spur of the moment, trampling over the checking and reviewing process in exchange for clicks and the scoop. Lean newsrooms, overloaded reporters, pressure to meet audience goals, and increasingly increase the number of stories published per day are some other ingredients.

Food is a cross-cutting matter in press editorials: as in gastronomy (as cultural expression, restaurant sector, and reader service), economics (agribusiness, business expansion, food price increase), and politics & society (market regulation, public policies, prohibitions, or regulation of sectors). The editors' fight for the current topic is as commonplace as the newsroom's coffee being bad.

The approach of coverage for food matters varies depending on the editorial that wins the dispute: the economy may speak of a record harvest and gains for the State with the opening of new fields, while the gastronomy will be reporting the difficulty of small producers to obtain guarantees to continue producing. This editorial schizophrenia happened in another way during the pandemic: on one May day, Folha de S. Paulo reported that the level of social isolation was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic, and April had been the most lethal month. On the next day, Guia Folha7 published a list of bars that would exhibit the final of the Brazilian Football Championship. On Twitter (always on it), users pointed out the contradiction of the vehicle.

"The editorials have different goals. The food editorial does its job that is to encourage this sector, but the reader gets bewildered. Each editorial does its job without necessarily knowing what the others are doing," Andrea Torrente described to me by telephone. We met at the Bom Gourmet newsroom where we worked together between 2013 and 2018 when I left the gastronomy section to cover behavior at the extinct Viver Bem editorial team, also from Gazeta do Povo newspaper. In February this year, the independent news vehicle Jornal Plural, from Curitiba, launched a gastronomy editorial section, and Torrente was responsible for structuring it.

He was able to define the qualitative criteria that guide the local coverage of food journalism and set the concepts of the slow food movement – good, clean, and fair – as its basis. "I don't think big industry and fast food are worthy of being reported in a gastronomy editorial, because I don't think this food is good, clean, or fair. The quality of the ingredients, the large-scale production that results in low quality, the exploitation of raw materials, and workers in these enterprises… none of this is good, clean or fair," he said. It is difficult to find a food journalist who disagrees with this view.

In September, Luciana Fróes, who has been working at O Globo newspaper for 30 years, 20 of which dedicated to gastronomic journalism, wrote an article about "gourmet Miojo ramen noodles". "It was the most read on the site for days," she told me. "It wasn't to magnify it, it was to talk about the impoverishment of food. I start the text with: Fresh pasta is hanging on a thread. I even said I wouldn't sign the article, but at this point, I'd rather talk about Miojo than talk about foie gras" she claimed.

I asked her if the combinations suggested by the chefs – with expensive ingredients such as seafood – didn't make the story sound unlikely to what she had just told me. "The middle-class standards have also fallen, and they have to resort to Miojo to make a meal. The selection of ingredients was made by the chefs", she defended.

My reading is completely different from Luciana's and comes close to how Victor Matioli, O Joio e o Trigo’s journalist, analyzes the issue: "In Brazil, gastronomic journalism has a very obvious class cutout. It is for a social stratum group that wants to know about chefs' news, and when talking about recipes that need to yield and diversify, calls upon chefs as if they were the only holders of culinary knowledge".

A title that chose to combine the words Miojo noodles and gourmet is an old trick to get the attention of whoever is scrolling through a timeline. This accessory function, relegated to the gastronomy editorial, is part of a commercial strategy – no potential advertiser gets offended when there is nothing indigestible published – in which the covers smooth and simplify debates, and bet on service journalism, amenities, and in entertainment as a tonic.

Before gastronomy became the main subject of Sunday newspaper supplement (now part of the web portals of major newspapers), fashion and decor occupied this place. "Vehicle owners also have their responsibility. In the newsroom structure, gastronomy is seen as a perfumery, as banality, as if it were a piece of cake. But it requires specific repertoire and knowledge", points out Rafael Rocha, a reporter for the Cumbucca portal and MaisConteúdo editorial of special reports for O Tempo newspaper, in Belo Horizonte. By the way, a specific multidisciplinary repertoire, in addition to curiosity and interest in subjects that spillover from the professional kitchen to the field and industry.

IN SERVICE OF WHOM?

In a country with more and more famished people, making hotlists of bars and restaurants and teaching cooking techniques for ingredients seems frivolous to many readers. "The cultural itinerary always had a large space in the news, because service is very important in journalism. Gastronomic journalism had to be the service of restaurants: where to go, what to eat", contextualizes Lobão, who was part of Veja Comer & Beber8 and had a gastronomy magazine, named Chef.

For Torrente, the main function of food journalism is “to help people to eat better”, and he identifies the restaurant recommendation and presentation service as the main content. With small newsrooms even in large media vehicles, journalists are used to season press releases to relieve their work hours and fill up the homepage with new notes and articles. "When you receive a material that is chewed over and has beautiful photos, clearly the work gets simpler. Those who have more economic power are more likely to gain space in the media," said Torrente. The opposite of the current labor conditions seems like a distant dream for any section of major newspapers today: having the budget, time, and availability to investigate topics and move around the city to discover subjects and places.

"Journalism is the supervisory entity of the public power and needs to guarantee polyphony to the debate. To bring the service, but also confront public affairs, and to defend people’s interests, not companies. In practice, food journalism is done less beautifully and is more likely a gastronomic social column", criticizes Lobão.

Rocha also defends that the scope of food journalism must be broader: "There is no way to think about creating journalistic content in gastronomy today without talking about food sovereignty, public policies aimed at food matters and the high use of pesticides in Brazil." This does not mean that these are the central issues of all agendas, but that they modulate the angle and tone of reports: nothing is created in a vacuum, everything has an origin, a consequence, an intention.

Matioli advocates a similar approach. "I see a fundamental role in food journalism as the guardian of the country's food culture, to bring people closer to the kitchen back again and make them understand the role of food, nourishment, and food culture ingredients in their lives and society."

Walking this line of recognition of food journalism as part of cultural journalism, I consider this summary published by Bori press agency in August to be a good starting point:

  • Food systems based on monocultures and distribution concentrated in few companies can be even more harmful in the context of the pandemic;

  • Agribusiness production records do not guarantee increased food security in Brazil;

  • Open markets, small businesses, and family farming are solutions with the potential to create healthy and sustainable systems.

When faced with these statements, a journalist has to make a stand. The clearer it is for the reader which premises the journalist started from, the more journalism there is on that page.

Even if the agenda seems innocent, there are many choices and positions made when covering food, cooking, and gastronomy – and gastronomy journalism will not move on as long as it tries to pretend to be impartial.

Many thanks to Andrea Torrente, Guilherme Lobão, Luciana Fróes, Rafael Rocha, and Victor Matioli for the time they took to talk to me. And to Luiza Fecarotta, who made herself available, but couldn't reply to me in time.


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1

NT: chicken-based stews are a traditional countryside meal in Brazil. Historically it was one of the matriarch's duties to raise, kill, bleed, pluck and prepare the chicken for the family meals. Even though the animal raising in the backyards is fading out, the stewed whole chicken remains as a classic bumpkin dish, and as a portrait of comfort food.

2

NT: Mais Você is an entertainment and cooking program exhibited on the largest Brazilian free-to-air television network, Rede Globo, since 1999. Streamed on weekdays mornings, its target audiences are housewives and housekeepers.

3

NT: “Dona” is an informal treatment pronoun used to show courtesy for a woman, which commonly is a housekeeper.

4

NT: Less than US$ 130. The minimum wage in Brazil is US$ 220. According to the DIEESE (Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies), the monthly minimum staple food cost for a family is US$ 117 (October/2020).

5

NT: “Agro is tech, agro is pop, agro is everything” are the statement sentences of an ideological campaign by Rede Globo (supported by Ford and Seara/JBS group) to promote social approval of agribusiness in Brazil. In short, this campaign has interests in making a good image of this growing business sector focused on the export of two main commodities: soy (mostly to become animal feed)  and beef meat. However, it says nothing about the side effects of this “development”, such as the devastation of forests and biomes (like Amazônia and Pantanal), climate change, pesticide poisoning, an increase of hunger, social inequity, and poverty. Read more on Uniwash GIB and Morning Express.

6

NT: The social crisis and increase of poverty in Brazil, due to the pandemic and its bad management, has been forcing the citizens to change consumption habits. To swerve the increasing price of cooking gas, firewood and alcohol are being used. Even though it has the worst nutritional quality, Miojo ramen noodles sales are rising because it’s the cheapest meal available in supermarkets (US$ 0,18 to US$ 0,36). Beef is being replaced with bones because, now, it is the animal protein affordable for the poorest families.

7

NT: Guia Folha is a weekly guide for leisure and gastronomy entertainment in São Paulo. It’s published along with Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, which has the greatest circulation and influence in Brazil.

8

NT: Veja Comer & Beber is a food editorial that reports on the gastronomic scenario of the major Brazilian cities. In addition to a permanent section in Veja (the weekly magazine with the largest circulation in Brazil, belonging to the Abril group), it has its own award for bars and restaurants, and publishes an annual guide to the best establishments at São Paulo – but it used to be at the main Brazilian cities.