Bites: From Pop-Tarts to professional food writer

People expect stories of kitchens and grandmothers and sardines and I’m not sure what. But that wasn’t my path.

pop tarts
Photo courtesy of Bert Folsom/AdobeStock
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As a kid, my favorite foods were peanut butter, pancakes, potato chips and pickles. My mom says I went through a “P” stage.

I peeled mozzarella cheese off pizza, only to cover it with grated parm. I hated mac and cheese and grilled cheese. I ate cinnamon-flavored Pop-Tarts for breakfast in the car to school. I’m not sure what vegetable I ate before entering into a Caesar salad rut in college, if that counts.

I was a picky eater.

While this litany of food abuses isn’t out of the norm for a kid growing up in 1980s suburbia, people find it odd that I’m now a professional food writer. They expect stories of kitchens and grandmothers and sardines and I’m not sure what. But it wasn’t my path.

Tonight I’m speaking at the Rotary Club of Leesburg about what it’s like to be a restaurant critic and how I got this job.

The summer after I graduated from college, my life moved to Houston for six months to work on Annise Parker’s campaign for city controller (she later became mayor). It was an odd feeling to realize for the first time in my life I didn’t have homework. What would I do at night? I couldn’t party every night; I had to get up and go to work. I didn’t want to watch TV all night, especially with my roommate’s affinity for gawking at Jessica Simpson on Newlyweds. I decided I would cook dinner to kill time between the end of work and bedtime. This was adulting, I thought, even though that wasn’t a term in the early 2000s.

I started cooking, dumping a bag of mixed frozen vegetables onto a pan, adding spray butter and Cajun seasoning and pouring that over boxed rice.

I vowed to learn more, get better, make something edible.

At my next job, a small polling firm in D.C., a group of us, all recent graduates with no money but determined to have fun making dinner, started a cooking club. We’d bring in leftovers, give each other tastes and explain how we put it together. It became an obsession.

We eventually moved on to new jobs, and two of us started a blog to keep connected about our food lives. It was 2007. We called it Endless Simmer.

Not long after, my roommate’s brother came over for dinner. I cooked. He asked if I liked food, liked to write, and he invited me to send a sample write-up of a restaurant. He was an editor looking for restaurant blurbs for the A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section in the back of the local D.C. edition of The Onion. (For a few short years, The Onion was a free metro paper like The Express.)

From there, I was published in The Express, Washington City Paper, Eater and once, after the entire staff of my nonprofit was laid off and I tried life as a freelance writer, I grabbed a spot on the front page of the Food section in The Washington Post. A little more than six months later, I started at Northern Virginia Magazine. And that was almost six years ago.