Restaurant critic Ed Murrieta went public three years ago about receiving food stamps and visiting food banks to get by after “my entrepreneurial dream fizzled along with the economy.” (He started an online food venture in 2008 after leaving the Tacoma News Tribune. It failed a short time later.)
Murrieta wrote in the Seattle Times in May of 2010: “As a gut-punching, ego-bruising, bank-busting predicament, eating on the food lines is real. After six months of it, I still feel the occasional memory pang of expense-account indulgences gone by, but I don’t cry in my cabernet.”
He hoped the Times piece would bring in job offers; instead, “the reaction I got was the usual 15 seconds of fame these days,” the 48-year-old Murrieta tells Romenesko readers. “My story was regurgitated by Huffington Post, Atlantic Wire, Gawker, all the usual non-paying suspects. I got about six inquiries from people named Amber and Brittney at publishing houses. Most of them wanted a Ramen Gourmet cookbook. I haven’t eaten ramen since I was a 12-year-old latchkey kid. So I never pursued that.”
He adds: “Some Seattle Times readers were generous. I received cards and letters with about $600 inside, just from readers, almost as much as the Times paid me for the story.”
Mostly, the reaction I got was shock — from editors and producers who were shocked to hear that I wanted to be paid for my participation in their media products. …The Kansas City Star wanted to republish my story but wasn’t willing to pay me. …Not one of those outlets who got traffic on my bad fortune admitted to the irony of not paying a journalist who’s writing about being poor. “Talk of the Nation” was the only news org that paid me — $150, its normal stipend to working journos who guest on the show.
A few days ago, Murrieta posted some good news on his Facebook page: He finally found a job.
He started this week as restaurant critic for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I chose the title Restaurant Critic because it’s familiar,” he writes in an email. “Culinary Concierge is closer to what I’ll actually do. My work will be published on the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau‘s website, a new farm-to-fork website it’s building and in the CVB’s e-mail newsletters. I will also be working to place my stories in regional newspapers and magazines and among travel-oriented publications. I’m also here to serve as a guide for food journalists who want to write about Sacramento. (Jonathan Gold: Call me.)”
Will negative reviews be allowed? I asked.
“Negative reviews? Why compete with Yelp? My job is to find and showcase the best food and beverages in the Sacramento region. I don’t care if servers can or can’t pronounce gnocchi, endive, Mouvedre or Soave. I don’t need my food placed before me with Praetorian precision. I’m interested in whether the food is good, whether the atmosphere is pleasant and whether restaurants offer good value for the money. And since I take photos of everything I eat, your lamb shank had better look like my lamb shank or a restaurant’s got a problem.”
He tells Romenesko readers more about the new job and what the last few years have been like:
How did you get the convention and visitors bureau gig?
While reporting a story on Sacramento’s farms and restaurants in December, I met with Mike Testa, the senior vice president of the bureau. While listening to the city’s plans for a farm-to-fork food festival and commiserating about how difficult it is to place a Sacramento story in the national media, I joked, “Sacramento should hire its own restaurant critic.” After an awkward pause, we got back to the interview. After my story was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 20, Testa asked me to write a proposal for Sacramento’s restaurant critic, the first of its kind in any city anywhere.
My job is to create content focused on the Sacramento region that the media do not do — the kind of content the larger media orgs can now do their “research” with and the kind of content that smaller publications can print without paying for. This includes restaurant reviews and go-and-do features (an eating tour of Sacramento’s Little Saigon, bike tours of farms, pubs, urban wineries, a review of hotel room service…).
Do you ever regret going public about your food stamps? (When I put “Ed Murrieta” in the Google search form, the top auto-fill was “Ed Murrieta food stamps.”)
No. I’m among 47 million Americans who eat thanks to food stamps. I knew my story was media bait — because every one of my friends and colleagues knew that they weren’t that far away from the food lines themselves. My only regret is thinking sympathetic editors would welcome my work. I was naive there. My philosophy is somewhat Rumsfeldian: You go to dinner with the food you have, not the food you want. That seems to rub the foodie journalism establishment the wrong way.
How much did you make in your last year as a fulltime critic (2008)? What was your average freelancing/other employment income from 2009 to 2012?
In 2008, my salary was in the high 50s. I earned approximately $6,000 from freelance journalism, a bakery job and a medical cannabis marketing/PR gig between 2009 and 2012.
In the 2010 Seattle Times piece, you wrote about being rejected for jobs ranging from butcher to baker to restaurant critic. Did you change your job-hunting strategy after that?
I did change my strategy: I set out to report on pot. In September 2010, I embedded in Humboldt County, meeting sources and digging up reporting. I eventually sold a travel story to West Coast Cannabis magazine and a food story to High Times (which also published two of my recipes in its 2012 cookbook). I also added a TV credit to my resume, appearing as an on-air source for KCET’s SoCal Connected in a segment about California’s cannabis culture. That led to a job doing marketing and promotions for a Humboldt doctor who does medical cannabis recommendations. I lived in a no-water shack on the doctor’s beach while scheduling his appointments, setting up databases and plotting how to tell his story — he was tour doctor for both the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin in the ’70s.
In spring 2011, I moved back to Sacramento to house-sit and continued working on a pot journalism project — PotAppetit.com, in which I applied a lifestyles reporting/writing approach to Sacramento’s medical cannabis businesses and culture. That led to freelance work writing for the Sacramento Bee’s medical cannabis advertising section. When the feds stepped up its pot pogrom, I saw the writing on the wall and snuffed the pot journalism project.
In September 2012, I decided focus once again on food and restaurants.
What lifestyle changes did you make?
When I couldn’t make rent, I lived in my car. Eventually, I sold my car. Cable? Never had it when I had money. Cellphone? I don’t like them so not having one for the past three years has been no sacrifice. (I have one now, but mostly so my dad can call me.) I learned that Folger’s is damn fine coffee. I’ve eaten more lentils and cactus than anyone I know.
Your news gives hope to the many out-of-work journalists in their 40s/50s/60s. Any advice for them?
Keep the ends out for the ties that bind.
When the first paycheck comes in, what do you plan on buying?
Belgian ale and locally raised rib-eye. I do plan to spend the rest of my remaining food stamps before I barbecue the EBT card. I plan to stock up my spice cabinet — something I’ve been unable to do in three years living on food stamps and trying to keep my food budget to $7 per day.
In June of 2010, Murrieta told his story to the public radio show, “The Splendid Table.”
“The show’s producer, Jen Russell, tells me my story’s been repeated a few times and has been among the show’s most popular pieces,” he writes. “I’ve never been offered payment for that piece. That said, I hope to write and record (and perhaps get paid for) a new piece for The Splendid Table about three years eating on food stamps.”
* An unemployed restaurant critic finds a different kind of culinary satisfaction (seattletimes.com)