The author: Florence Fabricant is a famous food writer. She contributes regularly to Dining & Wine on The New York Times. Meanwhile, she often gives advice on entertaining at home and eating in restaurants through Dear FloFab on The Times. She is the author of 11 cookbooks including The New York Restaurant Cookbook, The Great Potato Book and Florence Fabricant’s Pleasures of the Table.
The article: “The Lost Art of Buying from a Butcher” is the most recent investigative piece by Ms. Fabricant on The New York Times. It is published on November 1, 2011. The story introduces there are lots of butcher shops opening around the United States, as well as how butchers customize cuts of meat though their deft craft. It’s a major turnaround in the way meat has been bought and sold: more and more people go to butcher shops rather than buy packaged meat at the supermarkets. As usual, Ms. Fabricant gives advice: “Learn to talk to a butcher: you will eat well and save.”
The idea: Instead of taking initiative, Ms. Fabricant conceived the idea just because the editor asked her to write it. “The editor thinks I would be a good person to write butcher shops.” Ms. Fabricant said. Though it was an assigned topic, Ms. Fabricant felt that it was a great idea when she found that butchers made cuts of meat for different recopies. Ms. Fabricant considered butchering an art and valued the experience: “I am very happy to do this article, because sometimes the editor suggests a topic you may not think it is a good idea, but you have to write it anyway. I do think this article is a great idea.”
Before writing: Ms. Fabricant carefully examined the facts. She called and visited the butchers to collect information. There were more than ten butcher shops in the article, some of which were located in Boston, Berkeley and Portland, but the only ones she did not visit in person for the story were Meat Hook and Fleisher’s in Brooklyn, as well as Lobel’s. She did not visit these places because she had been there before and was familiar with them. Actually she had previously written about all of the butchers and involved these people on a first-name basis. She also visited Whole Foods and Fairway even though they were only mentioned in passing.
For Ms. Fabricant, it is very important to ask questions. “You can never learn unless you are talking with people” she said. During the investigation, she asked butchers lots of questions such as “what kinds of meat are most popular now?”, “what unusual things people ask for? How do you prepare for these things” and “where does the meat come from?” etc. “if you think you know it all, you are not doing a good job.” Ms. Fabricant continued.
In addition to communicating with butchers, Ms. Fabricant had first-hand experience of cooking customized cuts of meat. The article informed that if veal rump was beyond consumers’ budget, they could get sliced veal shank at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. These slices could “make for a presentation worthy of Henry VIII.” As an experienced food writer, Ms. Fabricant bought these cuts from butcher shops in the story (since writing stuff cannot get anything free, The New York Times paid the bill). She personally tested the recipes, created some for the veal shank and lamb neck, as well as cooked by herself. Meanwhile, she negotiated with the editor about which butchers to include in the story.
During writing: Asking questions was not only important during interview, but it was an integral part to writing. Ms. Fabricant took lots of hand-written notes when she interviewed sources. When she heard the same answers and the same explanations again and again, she decided that it was time to write. She jotted down her ideas when reading her notes. If the article suggested additional information or when a question occurred, she got back to interviewees. When Ms. Fabricant needed to work out her questions or to verify the information, she turned to experts or people familiar with the issue.
Ms. Fabricant sifted collected information and wrote the article in a way that was professional yet readable to most people. “There’s no enough room to put all my notes. As an experienced reporter, I know how to sort the information but it is hard to tell…” she said.
After writing: Though the published story did not change a lot from the original draft, Ms. Fabricant went back and forth with the editor several times. She wrote the article on pressure. When she was working on the piece, she was on a short trip and did not have enough time to polish the story. After writing, she sent the draft to the editor and he came back to her with his version. Then she reworked some languages, made some editions and changes of the structure. After that, the editor forwarded the revised version to the copy desk of The New York Times. Editors there examined whether the format of the article was consistent with The Times’ requirement and double-checked facts. It was a complicated process.
Advice on writing: Ms. Fabricant gives advice on eating and entertaining, but she is very cautious when it comes to writing techniques. “I can hardly give advice on writing, because everyone has a different system. I read lots of good writings to get inspiration…” she said. Though Ms. Fabricant could not be specific on writing, she pointed out that a journalist should follow basic rules: when conducting a report, make sure to have sources’ names spelled right; make sure their titles are right; make sure the details are true; make sure the words used are accurate. When have enough time, read the writing again and again.
As an author of 11 cookbooks and columnist on The New York Times, Ms Fabricant said that it was a balance to be a good writer as well as a good reporter. “Some people have much more talents for writing than others. Some people have other talents but they cannot be reporters, while some reporters don not write well.” She said.