Steve Billings: It’s Not Just About Food

Editor’s Note: This is the 19th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Steve Billings’ food writing is different. Of the three pieces that won him an AltWeekly Award in Food Writing/Criticism, one sings the praises of fresh sauerkraut — and includes a brief history of fermentation; another follows the author’s obsession with noodle soup from the street vendors of Bangkok to a noodle house in Santa Cruz; the third recounts the glorious history of the all-American meatloaf.

Billings learned about foods, fine and otherwise, largely from working in restaurants and country clubs. He majored in English at Lewis & Clark College and had considered, vaguely, doing food writing before. But it wasn’t until a friend working at Metro Santa Cruz told him of an opening that he got his first sample columns together. As fate would have it, among those columns was "Kraut in the Act" — the winning sauerkraut piece. He got the job. 

Since then, Steve Billings has written about Santa Cruz’s culinary offbeat: locally produced foods, organic farms and goat-cheese producers. His articles draw not only on his own culinary experiences but on careful research into the history, chemistry, and traditions — sometimes centuries old — of the foods he encounters.

Billings lives in Santa Cruz, where he manages a wine-tasting room for a local winery. Below, he talks about how he’s developed his unique style, and how he manages to keep food writing interesting.

Before you heard about the position at the Metro Santa Cruz, had you ever thought about being a food writer?

I had an interest in food and writing, and I would see some of the stuff that was being put out there, and I thought there was room for something a little more interesting. I don’t know — I don’t like a lot of straight-up "We went here and we ordered this" dish reviews. And then there’s so much going on up here with organic farming and so many people doing great things on a small scale that make for a lot more interesting stories. I was always reading food reviews and thinking, "How would I do that?"

How did you make the transition from being a lover of food to writing about it? What new skills did you have to learn?

The biggest thing was that by avoiding the format of straight-up dish reviews and by going into topical subjects instead, there was really no prescribed format that needed to be followed. It felt so open — I would just go out and try and find people who were doing interesting things. We’ve got a strawberry producer who has one of the only unionized farms in the country, and he’s doing it organically. It’s like, this guy deserves to be in a food article! He’s producing good food and paying people fair wages. There are so many things to mine around the area.

How do you find "breaking news" in food?

There are some really good people doing advocacy work for farmers and restaurants in this area, and it’s a place where "local" means something.  And then a lot of the stories are just things I come upon that are of general interest. My article "Reclaiming Meatloaf" came from a local place downtown that served an updated, sort-of-gourmet version of meatloaf.

For the most part I’ve got free rein to go and find topics that are fitting to my column and that are relevant to the restaurant and dining community. I think the only guiding point is to keep that balance and make sure the stories feel diverse and timely and relevant. But that’s what I want to be doing anyway.

Your article "Kraut in the Act" had a lot of research behind it: food history and the chemistry behind fermentation. How did you do that research?

That story started as a kind of product discovery. It was my first experience with the raw thing — you know, sauerkraut uncooked, the real, fermented product. There was such a difference, such a mind-blowing difference from what I had been used to, and it was intriguing enough to make me actually research the science a little bit to figure out what this fermentation process is all about. So I just kind of delved into it.

I went to a lot of sauerkraut Web sites to see what their process was. And I found out that people who are really into raw, fermented foods, are also into sharing information about it, about the process of doing it. You know, people who are into the philosophy of it.

How much can there possibly be to say about eating and restaurants? How do you go about differentiating yourself from other food writers?

Only in that I don’t do straight reviews. I guess that noodle article I wrote, "Bowled Over," does actually incorporate a local restaurant. But for me, the approach that I took was to use the restaurant as a foil to talk about a greater culinary experience, not only of this one restaurant but of some noodle cart in Bangkok, too.

Has writing for an alt-weekly been to your advantage?

That’s my experience of it. There’s more room for an individual writer’s style to come through, and I was lucky enough to have a great editor who’s very open about format and style. And he’d of course offer great editorial advice and make good changes.

When you sit down to write, how do you go about taking all the information you’ve gathered and creating the voice that’s so important to your column?

I don’t censor myself when I start writing. Once I’ve lined up all the quotes and all the information relevant to the article, I just start to write, and that was a good skill I learned from college, especially from creative writing classes. The first effort’s never the best effort.

Then I go through and see what’s working thematically. It’s like making a stock — starting off with all these big robust elements and all the big chunks of raw vegetables and just simmering and simmering. Starting off with the largest quantity of water and raw ingredients possible and reducing that to get that really pithy, strong, subtle good stuff.

Do you ever run out of ideas?

Well, we’re a pretty small town so there’s not a restaurant opening every week. It’s not like San Francisco, where you can visit star chefs, going from restaurant to restaurant. So in that respect, I do need to be resourceful about going out and finding topics. If you’ve lived in town for 20 years, do you want to read a review of a restaurant you already know about? But, again, there’s such an amazing number of organic farms and farmers doing amazing work. It’s a pretty special place, and the natural bounty keeps it interesting.

Do you ever consider doing other kinds of writing?

I guess I could write other things, but so far I like to have the creative freedom to just go out and find things and retain my own personal style. I think I would like to stay with food — it’s intriguing. A dream for me would be climbing some hill in Italy and finding some guy who’s been making cheese the same way for hundreds of years and being able to write about it. I like finding those intriguing, inspiring stories. People are working their asses off, and it’s great to see them working and struggling. It’s not just about food; it’s about life.

Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.

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