Food writer, editor, and SC&I Part-Time Lecturer Teresa Politano teaches and inspires students in the Digital News Writing and Reporting course, while also balancing her responsibilities as the Editor of Edible Jersey magazine.
Over the course of her career, she has worked as a writer, editor, columnist and newsroom executive at various news publications in Washington D.C., Florida, New York City, and New Jersey. She has been a restaurant critic and food writer for The Star-Ledger and Inside Jersey magazine.
A graduate of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., Politano majored in journalism and political science with a minor in speech. She is an MFA candidate (2020) at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
SC&I speaks with Politano to learn more about life as a professional food journalist, the factors that inspired her to pursue her career, and what she hopes to teach her students at SC&I.
What are some of your responsibilities at Edible Jersey magazine?
At Edible Jersey, my job is to plan, assign, edit and produce the editorial content of the magazine. I have worked to build an excellent team of writers, to encourage a range of stories and to reach a wide audience. Under my direction, the magazine has won a number of significant industry awards, including an award for narrative writing by Jenn Hall by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Our mission is to celebrate the people who are champions of organic and local food and to champion the great artisanal products in New Jersey.
What is the most interesting story you are currently working on?
The wine story. New Jersey is not really the best state for vineyards because we don’t have the climate. However, we have some amazing entrepreneurs who are traveling the world and who are trying to bring New Jersey wines to an entirely new level. Gov. Phil Murphy and the First Lady Tammy Murphy have announced that they will serve only New Jersey wine at Drumthwacket, the Governor’s home, which is pretty exciting. The magazine also has focused extensively on the evolving stories of oysters, seafood, and clams. N.J. is a culinary rich state.
A lot of people don’t really see New Jersey in that kind of way, why do you think differently?
New Jersey has 130 miles of coastline; our fishing industry is the supplier for many outlets on the East Coast, which is not a well-known fact. New Jersey also has terrific soil –we are not the Garden State for nothing. Thanks to our busy ports, we have access to ingredients from all over the world. Most important, in my view, is the human factor. New Jersey is home to so many different ethnic groups, and since we’re the most densely populated state in the nation, we’re all smushed together, so we all learn from each other. In the culinary world, this results in an amazing and natural combination of ideas and talents and tastes. Plus, New Jerseyans are hard workers; we hustle, we solve problems. This state welcomes so many immigrants, many of whom open restaurants. Many children of those immigrants, having grown up in the restaurant business, then go on to attend culinary school. They work in New York, at some of the best restaurants in the world. Then they come back home and open their own restaurants. All over the state, we have great neighborhoods filled with locally owned restaurants. Everywhere the cuisine is pretty fantastic. You can’t find that anywhere else in the nation. Chefs in this state, at the family restaurant level, at the haute cuisine level, are hardworking, passionate, able and willing to adapt.
When did you start teaching at Rutgers and why did you want to be a lecturer at SC&I?
I left the newspaper business in 1998 when my first son was born. I was working as the managing editor of The Home News Tribune. We had 125 newsroom employees at the time, if you can imagine. But the job was 80 hours per week, which I couldn’t do with a newborn. I became a freelancer full time and applied for a teaching position at Rutgers. I am glad it worked out.
What are some of the skills you perform in the industry that help apply to the lectures you teach the students?
Good writing is good writing. I focus on the basics. If you know the basics of good writing, you can write in whatever medium you choose – whether you are writing a Tweet or writing a book. As a writer, I’m still learning. I learn every single day. And I appreciate all the advice I’ve received, even the bad advice, from my editors over the years.
I saw that you taught a Food Journalism course in 2013, how did that go?
Everyone eats so we all know food, but it’s a different matter entirely when you research and write about food. Take bread, for example. The class visited &Grain in Garwood, and breadmaker Jon Ropelski talked about yeast, about flour, how bread is alive. He reminded us that most Americans, who grow up on Wonder Bread, have no idea what real, honest homemade bread tastes like. It was eye-opening. As a class, we created “The New Jersey Food Journal,” a platform for student work. We encouraged a number of different approaches -- essays on food, stories about the Rutgers Food Trucks, infographics. It was great fun and we all learned a lot, myself included. The class offered students an opportunity to explore our cultural and familial relationships with food and the storytelling behind it. We discussed food, culture, traditions, what it means to be a vegan, how to make an amazing coconut cake.
How do you balance running a food magazine and teaching at Rutgers?
In all my work and throughout my career as an editor and manager, I like to build a team of really great people and let them fly. I like to say yes. I like to ask people what they want to do and how I can help. People always do their best when they are working on something that excites them, something that they are passionate about. I work with amazing writers. I like to surround myself with experts, which helps make my life easier as well.
What inspired you to become a food journalist?
I’ve thought about that for a long time. People frequently ask me that question.
When I was a girl, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was an excellent and efficient cook. She baked pies every Sunday. She could chop the head off a chicken. She had a garden. I remember baking bread with her, punching down the dough, canning tomatoes. When I was 12, my grandmother was killed in a car crash. Suddenly my food world changed. My mother had no interest in doing those kinds of kitchen chores; my mother didn’t want to be confined to the kitchen. I respect that – I don’t want to be confined to a kitchen either. Yet I felt like I lost a connection. As Americans, we eat a lot of processed food and we don’t have a deep connection to the cycles of the seasons, the earth, to family, or to farm life, which I had when my grandmother was alive. So the food writing is, in a way, a search for authenticity. The celebration at the table is my way of trying to return to that feeling and connection I had with my grandmother, with my past.
Any advice for any aspiring food journalists, critics, or anyone at SC&I?
The media world is rapidly changing. On the other hand, we are very much a tech- and information-based society. There is a desperate need for experts. As always, I advise journalists to continue to ask questions, to continue to build a repertoire of reliable sources, to continue to seek expertise. How does that relate to food? As Americans, we consume, but we don’t really think about what we’re eating. If, as journalists, we can explain food in an accurate way, whether that’s nutrition or provenance or technique, we can open up a world to readers. When you share food, when you eat at another table, when you share your culture through food, that’s a positive interaction. In many ways, food is the first positive introduction we have to another culture. Food builds bridges. The world is getting smaller. We can connect through food -- at the table and as writers. Through food, we can tell the story of global warming and environmental changes. This is important and difficult work. I honestly believe we can’t survive, as a species, on processed foods.
What is an ongoing food problem that you think should be addressed?
Food insecurity and the fact that 40 percent of the food in America ends up in our landfills, which is a sin. We need to talk about it and address it in order to save the planet. To me, this is a page one story every day of the week and we should be covering it relentlessly on every platform and outlet. Our Edible Jersey March issue is dedicated to food waste. What I learned from editing these stories is that a head of lettuce thrown away in a plastic bag will last 25 years in a landfill. Meanwhile as it decomposes, it also creates more toxic gases, which contribute to global warming.