Some reporters live for politics. They want to be in the halls of Congress or a state capitol, following the endless debate over bills and the controversies of the latest politician’s tweet.
Other reporters need to be on the field of play, covering the big game, chasing the action of the ball as two teams, two athletes, battle like the gladiators of old, for glory and victory.
And you have reporters that have to be in the center of danger, covering war, battle, and death. I’ve always wondered what goes through the minds of these reporters. I won’t deny I envy their courage but prefer the cozy confines of my radio studio far from all of that risk.
One type of reporting that is truly fun and tasty, writing about food. Here’s a piece of what I mean.
Puerto Rican mofongo is a garlicky mash of sweet plantains, usually with a healthy dose of pork chunks and pork fat. But at Manjay, the Mofongo My Way dish is transformed using semi-sweet plantains and rolled into balls that are deep fried. Make sure to dip them into a tomato sazón and have each bit with a pop of Haitian-style pikliz, pickled slaw that brings the heat but also a tart vinegar that punches through the richness.Carlos Frias, The Miami Herald
OK, now I’m hungry. And that’s what great food writing does. It brings the food right to the Olfactory Cortex and eventually to the medulla oblongata that makes my mouth salivate.
Carlos Frias is a James Beard Winning writer. He’s the food editor for the Miami Herald. And if you’ve never heard of the James Beard award, it’s basically the Pulitzer of food writers. I talked with him recently about his incredible journey when he returned to South Florida and got his opportunity to write for his dream paper, as well as his take on the bias that journalists battle through.
I couldn’t write about food. If I did, I’d gain a hundred pounds. I used to work in food service for years, and I did literally gain a ton of weight. But I have to say, I love this guy’s work and his commitment to the job.
He’s really good at using social media as well, and putting together fun videos that really engage audiences. I also love his March Madness Restaurant edition he does every Spring for the Miami Herald.
TRS – What were the early days of your career like?
Carlos Frias – When you’re writing early on, you’re trying different styles and learning different techniques, applying fiction-like narrative to nonfiction. It’s reading a lot. It’s following orders. And I had a great editor named Leon Carter, who was with the New York Daily News for a long time. More of a mentor. And he used to tell me, never say no to an assignment when you’re starting out. Just always say yes. And get yourself into a bunch of uncomfortable situations. I learned early on that that was such a valuable lesson. Any time I went into a situation where I felt insecure and uncomfortable, I knew that I was going to learn something that day. I would be in a room full of people, maybe like at a press conference, or I went to interview somebody who had had some kind of life-thing happening that I couldn’t relate to, and I would tell myself, you’re going to learn something today.
TRS – You were writing about sports early in your career.
Carlos Frias – Yeah, primarily sports. At 19, I was the regular sports correspondent in Gainesville for the Sun-Sentinel. I’d write weekly practice reports and little features, and then on game day, the primary writer would come up from Fort Lauderdale, and I would write the second story, the sidebar, and maybe the notes column or two sidebars, and they paid me great money. That all happened because every day, for a week, I called the late Fred Turner, who was the sports editor at the Sun-Sentinel, and I said I’ll do anything. Fred Turner said to me, Carlos, so you want to be a sports writer.
TRS – Here you are now, award-winning food editor at the Miami Herald. How did your previous experiences help you now as a food writer?
Carlos Frias – I think it helped me see that all the beats have one thing in common: finding more intelligent people than you and talking to them and asking them questions. And that’s really all of journalism is being a conduit, knowing that you’re not the ultimate arbiter in the room; it’s talking to lots of people and hearing lots of different opinions and facts. And I think that’s what helped the most because, like I said, I covered everything in a newsroom, and that’s usually how it goes for journalists.
TRS – The first time you were writing about food was at the Palm Beach Post?
Carlos Frias – So, I was writing the Big Sunday story in sports for a while. The food editor at the Palm Beach Post is Liz Balmaseda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Miami Herald for many years. She was the one that told me you can tell great stories in food and through food. And so she kind of recruited me to start writing food stories, and the rest is kind of history.
TRS – What was it like when you dipped your toe into that topic?
Carlos Frias – I remember thinking – is this important? Are people interested in this? Does this resonate with readers? And I was stunned to learn that it was not only essential and relevant to readers but much more so than anything I wrote in sports. For example, I’d find an interesting family and write about their restaurant, and I’d write about the trajectory that led them to open this thing that provided income and brought them meaning. Then people in the community read about it, and they went, which changed the restaurant owner’s life. And then a community feels like they learned something like, I have a new pizza place; I have a new Mexican place; I have a new taco place. It really affects people’s daily lives. And I really was surprised by that. And that has been the thing that’s really kindled an interest in it.
TRS – How much time do you spend at your desk compared to how much time are you out visiting with people, going to restaurants?
Carlos Frias – Some may know, but there’s no newsroom at the Miami Herald anymore. We’re all working from home; a 100 little bureaus scattered throughout Miami, and that’s how it should be. Good editors will tell you to get out of the newsroom and talk to people. That’s where the stories are. Like, your phone isn’t going to ring, and you’re going to pick it up, and you’re going to have a Pulitzer. I spend my time, I’d say half the time lining up interviews and the other half interviewing people. I constantly check myself to make sure that I haven’t been sitting down inside my house for too long.
TRS – What is it you wish people would understand more about you as a journalist and what you do?
Carlos Frias – I think that number one, we are not stenographers. We don’t go and talk to the senator and talk to the chef, and they say 75 words, and then we write them down. We are not the Library of Congress. We are not a transcription service. Writing journalism is thinking; it’s using your head. And by that, I mean talking to people and then going home and sitting in silence in a quiet place and thinking, what does that mean? It’s reading over the quotes, and it’s being attentive. So when someone’s talking to you, and they’re telling you something, you’re taking in the facts, and then you’re stopping to catch something and say, tell me about that again. It’s revealing your lack of knowledge and letting yourself be curious. If you and I go to a thing and we report on a subject, we will have different takes on it. It’s going to read different because you’re different than me as a human being. You hear things and see things slightly differently than I do. So that’s part of it. We can’t say that there’s no implicit bias we may have. We do. We walk around as human beings with implicit bias. But it’s listening to everybody, and then it’s thinking, what does that mean? And if you don’t know, it’s about making a callback and saying, did you mean this? And I think that that’s what people miss.