Food

'Plates': Why a print magazine offers food for thought in this Digital Age

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The first issue of 'Plates' magazine centres around the theme of rice. – Pictures courtesy of Tan Dee May
The first issue of ‘Plates’ magazine centres around the theme of rice. – Pictures courtesy of Tan Dee May

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 2 — Print is dead, haven’t you heard?

At least it seems that way as more and more traditional print media such as newspapers and magazines are switching to a digital-only platform.

Who has time to flip through the pages of a magazine such as The Atlantic when you can just read it on your smartphone?

Which may make it all the more bewildering that someone would be starting a print magazine now.

That’s the case with Plates, a biannual food culture magazine that focuses on the stories behind commonplace ingredients.

Every issue centres on a single ingredient; the recently-published inaugural volume revolves around rice, with the stories intentionally avoiding the clichéd torrent of celebrity chef interviews, restaurant reviews or listicles.

A table of shared plates in a village in Kalaw, Myanmar.
A table of shared plates in a village in Kalaw, Myanmar.

Founder and editor Tan Dee May, a Chevening scholar, explains, “Plates uses food as a medium for conversation to explore the meatier issues.

“We’re more interested in under-reported stories and to find out about a person’s relationship with the food.

“Such angles differ from the more commercial lifestyle titles, who might be more inclined to produce stories that their advertisers can relate to.”

Tan has travelled extensively, especially to places where English isn’t used widely, such as Myanmar, Kosovo, Albania and Colombia.

She found food a common denominator, a bridge: “Sharing a meal with someone can really tell you a lot about that person.”

Now that more and more people are getting the reading material digitally, however, it can be an uphill battle capturing an audience for a print publication.

'Plates' founder Tan Dee May (left) and Dole, a peanut farmer from the Dongthu tribe, sharing a laugh.
‘Plates’ founder Tan Dee May (left) and Dole, a peanut farmer from the Dongthu tribe, sharing a laugh.

Tan isn’t looking to convert digital fans into purely print consumers though. Instead she sees the digital space as a complementary platform, building a community of readers organically and attracting the attention of independent bookstores across the globe.

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“I get most of my news and updates online too. But for long-form and in-depth stories, I prefer to purchase print magazines such as National Geographic and TIME. There’s just something about having a physical, tangible copy to bring with you — from the beach to a waiting room — that you’re able to peruse and absorb without any alerts or notifications.”

Plates is clearly a labour of love for Tan; the primary revenue stream for her business comes from the actual magazine sales. She says, “My current ‘business model’ is to just spend within my means and to seek out long-term, authentic partners. At present, I cover all expenses out-of-pocket. This ‘model’, of course, would be a nightmare for any accountant reading this.”

Now that the magazine is finally published, there is a proof of concept and Tan has been applying for art and journalism grants. She adds, “Crowdfunding is also on the list. I truly believe in the necessity and value in this storytelling project that uses food as a medium for conversation, which is why I’m willing to invest the time and money.”

Starting and running a print-based business might be challenging but Tan appreciates having autonomy over her own time.

She says, “If there’s a story in a remote area that pops up, I can leave almost immediately. I have a go-bag with travel essentials on standby.

“If I need to extend my stay because someone on ground has invited me along for another lead, I can fully immerse myself in the field and the story gathering process.”

A 'gotong-royong' session with the villagers of Long Semadoh Naseb (left). Pages from 'Plates' showing how to wrap a zhang rice dumpling (right).
A ‘gotong-royong’ session with the villagers of Long Semadoh Naseb (left). Pages from ‘Plates’ showing how to wrap a zhang rice dumpling (right).

Tan contrasts this with working at an online portal that requires quick and multiple turnarounds daily. She explains, “Unless you’ve been given a budget for a long-form investigative piece, there’s really no time to fully dedicate yourself completely to a story.

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“When you’re on the ground, circumstances change and you learn that the narrative you had in your head is different to what is actually happening. I definitely think travelling solo has helped me adapt quickly to situations.”

There is a universal appeal to Plates, given its food theme with a social slant. Tan hopes to reach out to an audience who could be desensitised to social issues by packaging more substantial issues in a way that is more palatable to the casual reader.

Beyond its target readership, Plates is also dependent on a global network of stockists to extend its range. The magazine is currently stocked in Los Angeles, USA and Milan, Italy.

Tan shares, “I’m currently working towards establishing partnerships with more independent creators and business owners — both locally and internationally. This isn’t just limited to writers, but would include indie bookstores, indigenous artists and curators.”

What Plates aims to serve is food for thought: how it connects everyone. Tan says, “On many occasions, food was the bridge between language and cultural barriers.

The proofing and editing process of the first issue of 'Plates'.
The proofing and editing process of the first issue of ‘Plates’.

“Whether it was used to round up a group of backpackers to adjourn to the only Thai restaurant in a city in Kosovo; a shopkeeper in Ecuador reciting names of ingredients around the store in Spanish; or being invited to join in on a very generous catch of the day of shrimp and fish by a group of Albanian men, who didn’t speak a word of English, on a remote beach campsite.”

Plates is now stocked at selected independent bookstores in the Klang Valley (Silverfish, Snackfood and Litbooks), Penang (The Warung), Los Angeles (Now Serving) and Milan (Reading Room).

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The next issue, Durian, will be out later this year. Readers can keep an eye out for the pre-order window at www.platesmagazine.com.

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