_sp12-Eliza Barclay

Eliza Barclay

2001 Conservation and Resource Studies

She has reported on consumerism in China and crime in Mexico, but the story Eliza Barclay wrote that really got people’s attention was about bacon. Barclay had noticed her vegetarian friends’ struggles to give up the crispy, fatty treat. She proposed a piece for Shots, the online health blog from National Public Radio, where she works. Her editor wasn’t quite sold on the idea, but OK’d it anyway.

Her January 2011 post “Why Bacon Is a Gateway to Meat for Vegetarians” examined the science and psychology behind why bacon is so tempting, even to the meat-averse. Within hours, Barclay’s article had rocketed around the Internet, eventually picking up thousands of readers and more than 650 posted comments on NPR’s site alone.

“The people have spoken,” her editor told her, tongue in cheek, after reviewing the statistics. “And they want to read about bacon.”

“I just had a hunch,” she says now, smiling.

Just another day in Barclay’s life as an online journalist reporting on food and health for NPR. As a host of The Salt, NPR’s food blog that went live in 2011, Barclay manages the site’s social media and writes or edits more than a dozen blog posts a week. Topics vary widely, from the surprising history of Crisco to how the U.S. Army created a sandwich that can stay fresh for two years.

“We don’t do recipes or cooking tips on how to make luscious brownies — not that we have anything against luscious brownies,” she explains. “It’s about the ecology of food.” The Salt, she adds, aims “to look at food culture and industry with a pinch of skepticism. And we try to have fun with it, too.”

Barclay joined NPR in 2010 after years of freelancing for outlets including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and National Geographic News, primarily about food, health, and science.

She attributes her interests to an undergraduate assignment from Louise Fortmann, a professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, to trace the political ecology of a common dinner ingredient. She chose snow peas and tracked them back from her neighborhood grocery to a bustling wholesaler in Oakland, then to an East Coast port, and finally to Guatemala, where farmers had been urged by the U.S. government to grow snow peas for the U.S. market — only to have much of their produce rejected at the border for having too much pesticide residue.

That research sparked Barclay’s fascination with the roots of food. Soon after receiving her B.S., she signed up for a course on magazine writing. She loved it, and realized her interest in travel could be supported by journalism.

Within a few years she was reporting from Mexico City for newspapers and wire services. She followed that up with fellowships and grants to report on malaria in Tanzania and Kenya, and on the effects of increasing meat consumption in China.

In 2010 she earned a master’s in science writing from Johns Hopkins and landed a temporary editing job at NPR.org, which led to a full-time position. She helped launch the Salt in 2011.

“The Salt [aims to] look at food culture and industry with a pinch of skepticism.”

The blog reaches a broad readership hungry for information about food — it quickly racked up more than a million visitors a month. She and a small staff of reporters, editors, and interns spend their workdays seeking out and preparing posts.

Along the way, she’s learned a few things about the Internet and about blogging in particular: clever headlines are key, although some subjects get attention just for being peculiar — one popular post on NPR’s health blog explained how neti pots used improperly as a cold remedy had fatally infected two people with brain-eating amoebas.

Unlike many blogs, the Salt does its own reporting. Barclay says readers value food safety information and the debunking of myths such as which raw ingredient in cookie dough actually sickens people (flour, it turns out — who knew?) and how much sugar is in kids’ cereals (even more than you thought, sometimes more than in a Twinkie).

“It’s just a never-ending supply of stories,” she says of food science. “The goalposts are always moving, so there’s something else to report. That’s just the way science is.”

BREAKING-BREAD NEWS: The Salt has won a 2012 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. The Awards were presented May 4 at an event in New York City.