Kara Newman is the author of The Secret Financial Life of Food: from commodities markets to supermarkets (Columbia University Press), as well as two cocktail books, Spice & Ice and the forthcomingCocktails for a Crowd. She is the spirits editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine, and the former VP of Strategic Research at Thomson Reuters. This past week the Washington Post reviewed her book: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-secret-financial-life-of-foodby-kara-newman/2013/01/29/1596ff66-658b-11e2-9e1b-07db1d2ccd5b_story.html.
1. What inspired you to write your new book, The Secret Financial Life of Food? Although I’m a food and beverage writer now, I started my career as a financial writer, and the inspiration for the book started way back then. It all began with two little words in the financial newsweekly Barron’s. Jim Rogers, a noted commodities expert, gave the following advice: “Buy breakfast.” He was talking about pork belly futures (which no longer trade) and frozen orange juice futures, and that one little comment snapped into focus the point that agricultural commodities aren’t abstract financial concepts – at heart, they’re about food. Pork bellies become the bacon on your plate; frozen orange juice becomes the OJ in your glass. In the end, it’s all about food.
2. What are some interesting things readers will learn when reading your book? I think it’s fascinating to see what foodstuffs trade (corn, cattle, cocoa, sugar) as well as what used to trade here in the U.S. (peppercorns, eggs, potatoes, onions). The scandals that have taken place over the years are always entertaining too – such as the story of Tino De Angelis, who called himself “The King of Salad Oil” and nearly brought down the soybean and cottonseed oil industries in the 1960s. He had a warehouse out in Bayonne, NJ, where the oil was kept in enormous tanks, and trades would be based on later delivery of that inventory. But the great scandal was that there was no inventory – instead of oil, the tanks were full of seawater, with a few feet of oil floated on top. De Angelis even used a complex maze of interconnecting pipes to transfer oil to different tanks. When the hoax was discovered and the bubble burst, it bankrupted 20 banks and commodities and securities firms, including a unit of American Express.
3. As you researched and explored the relationship of food and commerce, what surprised you the most? How the ups and downs of the commodities market influence what we eat and what we pay for food. For example, many farmers study commodities prices to decide what and how much to plant. Chain restaurants use them to manage costs – if the price of beef is expected to spike, does it make sense to raise menu prices, or find an ingredient substitution? Commodities prices set a baseline for prices at supermarkets and greenmarkets alike -- and most people don't even realize it.
4. What do you love most about the writing process? Discovery – finding a compelling fragment of information and following it down the proverbial rabbit hole, until the full story finally emerges.
5. Do you have any advice to struggling writers? Consider looking outside of traditional venues. Although I work with a traditional publishing house (Chronicle Books) on cookbooks, it wouldn’t have been the right venue for this book. Instead, I found a home for it with an academic publisher (Columbia University Press) and it’s turned out to be an excellent fit.
6. Where do you see book publishing is heading in five years? I suspect we’ll see a fragmented environment: text-based books increasingly will be published in electronic format, but photo-driven books will remain in print format, and will be considered all the more precious because of their tangible form.
For more information, consult: http://www.karanewman.com/ or http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-15670-7/the-secret-financial-life-of-food
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