Interview by Anna Mindess | Illustration by Lila Volkas
Two widely respected East Bay entrepreneurs are celebrating ten-year milestones in the food and publishing worlds. Cheryl Angelina Koehler marks a decade as editor and publisher of Edible East Bay, and Dianne Jacob celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Will Write for Food (known to many as the “food writer’s bible”) with the publication of an updated 3rd edition. She also coaches food writers and is co-author of two pizza books: Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, and The United States of Pizza, both with chef Craig Priebe.
In this interview, Cheryl and Dianne share their wisdom and reveal the journeys that brought them here.
Anna: A decade ago, both of you refashioned your careers after successful runs in other positions. What were you doing before you made that big switch in mid-life?
Cheryl Angelina Koehler: Five years before the opportunity to found Edible East Bay fell into my lap, I ended my career as a modern dance choreographer, performer, and costumer with the intent of writing for a living. Through college and after, I also found employment as a cook and baker, but cooking as a life profession never struck me as a good idea.
Dianne Jacob: Since the 1970s, I’ve been a journalist and magazine editor for newspapers, and city and international magazines. I became self-employed almost 20 years ago, but it took me a while to make the leap into food writing. It’s a tough way to make a living.
Anna: What motivated that change?
Cheryl: I had grown weary of the endless search for funding and the constant need to coax the public and the press to take note of the ardent work my fellow dancers and I were engaged in.
Nonfiction seemed to be my calling, especially with the discovery that as a journalist I had an open ticket to explore the real world. I started by chronicling my own projects, with my first published story on a snail ranching experiment, but became increasingly grateful for opportunities to report on other people doing wildly fascinating things.
Dianne: I’d written and edited on many subjects, but rarely food. I missed my parents and their obsession with cooking as a way to identify themselves and their cultural inheritance. I had to give myself permission to dive in as a food writer. It’s still easier for me to approach it as an editor and coach.
Dianne, you travel across the country and the world teaching food writing workshops and Cheryl, you are involved with Edible Communities publications all over North America. What do you feel is special about the East Bay and its food scene?
Cheryl: The East Bay is full of food artists and innovators. We developed a large urban orbit of organic farming here earlier than it appeared elsewhere, due to our good land and good climate, along with the Bay Area’s forward-thinking population that sees clean, wholesome, and beautiful food as a life necessity.
I feel most moved by the way East Bay activism has distinguished our local food community. In 2007, at one of the early Edible Communities conferences, I surprised some other publishers when I used the term “food justice” in describing what I felt was distinctive about my East Bay beat. Now, eight years later, food justice is a topic of national interest. I’m sure the change is not fast enough for the sick and the hungry, but the work is going in a positive direction.
Dianne: Well said, Cheryl. The East Bay has a radical food justice edge that I respect. Oakland is, after all, home of the Black Panthers, who served free school breakfasts to children.
What changes have you observed in the last 10 years in terms of writers’ and readers’ interests?
Cheryl: Advances in technology and communications have dramatically reshaped the food world and reporting on it: Blogging and social media have changed the way people produce and access information. Molecular gastronomy has become part of kitchen technique and the lingo around it, and findings from research in microbiology are spurring a revolution in interest in ancient arts of food production. On the dark side are the looming effects of environmental degradation and climate change, which are requiring us to rethink agricultural and food system practices, as well as how they are financed.
Dianne: Food blogging has upended the print world and forced it to compete. The online world has taken over as we move to mobile devices, yet cookbooks continue to sell. We can devour food writing on any topic: micro blogs where writers gush over smoothies, and macro pieces about food politics around the world. Special diets—paleo, gluten-free, vegan—have moved into the mainstream.
Both of you were writers and moved up to being editors. Are you still reinventing yourselves?
Cheryl: I’m a lifelong entrepreneur, often the person leading projects. Upon switching to writing, I immediately found editing opportunities. I’m also a designer and continue to earn my keep by offering my design skills to others. I currently do magazine layout for eight other Edible Communities publications.
Dianne: I’m thrilled with this current incarnation: writing coach, food writer, book and manuscript editor, speaker, and teacher, with clients and workshops around the world.
What are your favorite East Bay food hangouts?
Cheryl: I like to walk to the store and have been lucky to live (at different times) near Rockridge Market Hall and Monterey Market, two of the East Bay’s best food markets. I also love visiting all the farmers’ markets to learn how each is unique, but I often find I’m too busy getting to know the farmers and artisans to get any real shopping done. It’s a hazard of my job. For eating out, what matters most is whom I’m with and whether it’s quiet enough to enjoy a good conversation.
Dianne: I’ve been going to the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market forever, but sometimes it’s a zoo. I retreat to my little Montclair market, where I know many of the organic farmers. As for restaurants, I never tire of Champa Garden. My new favorite is Fusebox.
And what do you see yourself doing during the next 10 years?
Cheryl: Lately I have reinvested myself in writing, which I find the most labor-intensive of all the labors, but also the most rewarding. If I can find the time, I’d like to write another book [Koehler is the author of Touring the Sierra Nevada].
Dianne: Slowing down to write more personal essays. I’ve also teamed up with colleagues to offer food-writing workshops around the world. Travel will be a continuing delight.