Hannah Howard, a Brooklyn-based food writer, is releasing her newest book, a memoir titled PLENTY: A Memoir of Food and Family.
In this memoir, Hannah Howard tells the story of New York City-based women in the food industry alongside recounts of her own experiences in the food industry, the connections it has led her to develop with friends and family and her struggles with a previous eating disorder.
In an interview with Hannah Howard, Total Food Service talked about the details of her new book and her career path transitioning from a restaurant and food retail worker to a food writer.
What drew you to the idea of weaving your own personal story with those of the other women in the food industry?
I’ve always been drawn to memoir, telling my own story and using my own experiences in my writing. When I started this project, the focus was on profiling women in the food industry and not so much writing about myself, but in the early drafts that I shared with my writing group and some friends, they all said that they liked the personal pieces and wanted more of that. As a woman who has worked in the food industry my whole career, I kind of felt that I was part of the story. It was fun to get to share my own experience and to get to know the women I wrote about, to spend time with them, and to have their amazing trust in me to share their stories and experiences.
How did you decide which women to profile in your book?
When I began the project, I thought that I would profile big-deal, very successful women, but as I started to do some research and interviews, I felt more inspired talking to people who are in the trenches doing their own thing. This is not to say that the women in my book are not successful, because they certainly all are, but they are not celebrities. They are people making their way in this world of food and hospitality. These women were people who I either knew in some way or was trying to get to know through the process of writing and building my own community of women in the food industry.
At what point in the last couple years did you conduct these interviews with the women? Were they interviewed at one point in time or were you able to follow them through the pandemic?
I started this project before the pandemic. I started writing in 2018, developing the idea and early drafts, and then really dug into it in 2019. The draft for my book was due to my publisher April 1, 2020, so right as the pandemic was starting, so I was only able to catch them at the beginning of the pandemic. The last few chapters are this rush of how everything is changing. There is a check-in chapter maybe a few months in and then that is it concerning the pandemic. The time prior to the pandemic seems like an eternity ago now.
As someone who worked in restaurants and food retail, how does your background in the field influence your writing and the questions you asked the women?
I share the same passion and curiosity for food as they do, and I think it helps that I was also in the trenches of the food industry, so I understand how hard it is. I worked in restaurants in front and back-of-house positions, so I know how brutal the hours are. I’ve lived that life, experienced, and chosen it for myself. I feel like it gives me a lot in common with the people that I wrote about.
What made you transition from working in restaurants and food retail to becoming a food writer?
I always loved restaurants, going out to eat, cooking, and food, so I thought I wanted to have my own restaurant. I worked in restaurants in New York City in college, and after college I went to a restaurant management program. I worked in restaurant management for several years and the more I did that, the more I realized that although I still loved restaurants and food, it was not the place where I was going to shine. I found the hours to be difficult. I’m a morning person and I was working at restaurants that are open super late, I was always exhausted, and had limited time to spend with family and friends outside of the industry.
I’ve also always really loved to write. It seemed like a pipe dream to make a career out of being a food writer, but I started doing some writing on the side as a freelancer. I wrote a series of profiles on food entrepreneurs, and I interviewed Steven Jenkins, one of the owners of Fairway Market in New York City. I hit it off with him and on this crazy whim I asked if he was hiring. I started behind the cheese counter but as someone who had a background and love for writing I ended up being the copywriter as the company grew, marketing everything from the signs next to the cheeses to the emails they would send out to customers about the week’s specials, whatever they needed. That was when I realized I could make money writing about food. I’ve had jobs writing for a lot of different food companies and that was kind of the start. It still is sort of surreal that I can do this as my
As a male-dominated industry, do you ever feel there are certain expectations or limitations on your role in this field and how do you navigate that?
Absolutely. When I look back on my career, I have had some amazing mentors, but they were all men. Even though it is a male-dominated field, there is still so much room for womens’ voices and perspective. I started my career when I was 18 years old as a hostess at an old-school, fine dining restaurant in New York City. I was struggling with an eating disorder at the time, but I felt like I was only hired because I was thin and presented the image they were looking for. I think there is a pressure for women to portray a certain image that does not exist as much for men.
Did you find that your relationship with food changed as you wrote this memoir?
My eating disorder will always be part of my reality, but it does not have the role in my life now like it did in the past. I don’t consider myself as someone with an active eating disorder but someone who is in recovery. It has also taught me so much. Even at the peak of my struggling, I still loved food, and I want to celebrate it. I was surprised how much I am still learning as I got to know the women for my book and the new
perspectives I gained.
As someone who experienced an eating disorder, now as a food writer, do you pay a greater attention to the language used to describe food to avoid triggering any of your readers’ experiences with similar situations?
I always try to be thoughtful about the language I use as a writer, as someone who cares about words and the power they hold. I think in terms of eating disorders and body image, I try to be very careful. My first book writes in detail about my eating disorder experience and people, who are either struggling themselves or find it close to home, have told me that they felt it was too hard to read because it felt triggering. As I write I think about what would have helped me ten years ago when I was struggling and what would have made it worse, but it is such a personal situation. Everyone is different in what could be helpful and what could be a challenge in their individual situation and process, so I know that I cannot be perfect in that regard. However, it is something that I think about and try to be sensitive about.
For our readers in the restaurant and food retail business, are you interested in job opportunities writing for such businesses?
Yes, I definitely love my work as a copywriter for different food businesses and I still do that today. I am always open to new collaborations and new clients.
Hannah Howard is also a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier New York (LDNY), the nonprofit educational, scholarship, mentoring, and advocacy organization serving women in the culinary and hospitality industry.