For Shelby Vittek, it took about two years to go from biology student to national-award-winning food writer. And the whole transformation took place at Drexel.
Vittek made that switch, in large part, through editing and writing for Table Matters, a food and drink website based at Drexel that has earned national notice a little more than a year after its debut.
Like other publications produced by Drexel’s Center for Cultural Outreach, part of the Pennoni Honors College, Table Matters features a roughly 50/50 mix of student writers and professionals, allowing students to transmit their creative work from the campus out to a much wider audience.
“This has really helped me apply my voice to a world beyond this campus,” Vittek said, “and be recognized for that.”
Vittek’s journey into culinary writing began with an Honors College food writing course she took about two years ago, taught by Jason Wilson, director of the Center for Cultural Outreach. She thought it would be a fun break from her biology coursework, but it wound up leading her down a different path entirely.
She fell in love with writing about food and wine. And after Wilson — a food writer and critic who’s written for The Washington Post, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia magazine — and others at the Center for Cultural Outreach helped create a new online food publication last year, Vittek distinguished herself enough through her work for Table Matters and other outlets to eventually take a lead role.
About a year after the site launched, the food world has taken notice. Table Matters has been linked to by a variety of national and local outlets, including The New York Times, Philly.com (regularly) and food blogs such as Food52 and Eater.
Last month, the site won three national awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Vittek swept the top two spots in the “Best Student Writing” category, and an essay by Wilson, “When Wine Talk Gets Weird,” won second place in “Best Writing on Beer, Wine and/or Spirits.”
Vittek’s first-place piece, “My Endangered Dinner,” recounted the ethical tossing and turning she went through when she visited the Cayman Islands, where she lived for two years as a young girl, and yearned to again try a local food that had become intertwined with memories of her childhood: the endangered green sea turtle. Her second-place winner described a feast of traditional Scandinavian food at Philadelphia’s American Swedish Historical Museum at a time when trendy “New Nordic” cuisine was gracing food magazine pages.
Both of these are great examples of what Table Matters aims to do, Wilson said: to take culinary subjects and filter them through writers’ personal voices to find something deeper.
“Food is a window into culture,” Wilson said. “And when we can, we try to explore that.”
Other features put the spotlight on produce ingredients (radishes, sunchokes, sweet potatoes) that can be used in creative, previously unimagined ways. This is done with the help of culinary students from Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at test kitchen sessions — a process similar to one professional food writers go through.
“It’s like real-world lifestyle journalism,” Wilson said.
The writing that has landed on the site has ranged from one student’s quest to recreate the tortillas españolas (actually an omelet with onions and potatoes) she enjoyed while studying abroad in Spain; to an engineering student’s attempts to make his own mozzarella cheese from scratch; to regular dispatches from a craft-beer enthusiast.
“This generation — I’m always surprised at the level of food knowledge compared to, say, mine, 20 years ago,” Wilson said.
The site’s photos come from Drexel students, as well, and its elegant design and day-to-day operations are overseen by managing editor and creative director Diane Pizzuto.
Vittek, now a senior honors student at Drexel, is planning to head to a graduate program in journalism in hopes of working as a writer, and she’s also working on an e-book about wine for college students (21 and older, of course). She worked a co-op at a wine blog.
She said Table Matters is what helped her go down this road.
“Without Table Matters and the opportunities this office has given me, I would just be another student with their own blog, writing, hoping to be noticed,” Vittek said.