This Food Historian Documented The Midwest’s Agricultural Legacy Thanks To Freelance Work

By Andrea Mew

Cynthia Clampitt was raised by “foodies” before the term was ubiquitously known, and given her proclivity to writing, a career documenting food history was a natural path to take. A Midwesterner who became “enamored” with the region and fell “in love with the people of the Heartland,” she found success writing books, articles, and encyclopedia chapters on topics like how corn or porcine shaped the rural and urban Midwest. Additionally, she has gained experience as a public speaker in the Illinois Humanities “Road Scholar” speakers bureau. According to Clampitt, a career this varied, rich, and full was attainable thanks to the flexibility of being an independent contractor.

“I wasn’t always a freelancer,” she began, explaining how early in her career she had a corporate job with enjoyable perks. “I decided after ten years that it would kill me—and what I really wanted to do was write—so I quit and went to Australia for six months, to break the employment ‘habit,’ then came home and built a new life. I can’t honestly say there is anything I’ve left behind that I would trade for the adventure life has been.”

Early in her freelancer career, Clampitt had one major client, and recalled that when Illinois passed a law similar to California’s job-killing law Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), her primary source of income was threatened. She explained that companies like the one she contracted with at the time, which benefited from a diverse workforce of freelancers, had to either offer them employment or cease working with them. 

Similar legislation to Illinois and California’s AB5, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, was recently reintroduced in Congress. It would reclassify most independent contractors as employees, inflicting AB5’s hardship on freelance workers nationwide.

“They offered a lot of us jobs that weren’t really ideal, just to keep us. But it taught me to never again rely on one client,” Clampitt said. “The publisher called in the freelancers one day, one at a time, since not everyone would be retained and told us—of course, for a salary that was considerably less than what we made freelancing—because they figured benefits were as good as money.”

In her experience, living the freelance lifestyle has allowed her to travel to six continents and 37 countries gaining knowledge about food history and sharing information about her own beat, the American Midwest, with a broader audience.

“A typical week would include at least one speaking gig, a blog post, a few hours of research, one writing assignment, and, at present, a couple of hours working on a proposal for the next book,” Clampitt said. “Oh, and eating out at least every other week, as it’s hard to write about food if you’re not exploring it.”

Flexibility to travel for public speaking or be physically present to research regional food like Monroe, Wisconsin’s iconic Swiss cheese; Freeman, South Dakota’s German/Russian-inspired chislic; or Holland, Michigan’s Dutch-derived saucijzenbroodjes has been critical to Clampitt’s self-described pursuit of history. It also afforded her the opportunity to care for her mother in the last years of her life.

“I went from my mom needing me three days a week to needing me every day,” she said, explaining how her mother passed away last year. “Now, while I’m still digging out from everything involved in losing a parent, I’m back to full-time work.”

From Clampitt’s perspective, her livelihood “would be completely crushed” by legislation like the PRO Act that would limit her ability to produce content at her own pace and independently document history. Polling suggests that over half of the American workforce will engage in some form of freelance work by 2027, but if the PRO Act is passed, many of those Americans will be forced back into traditional or unionized work arrangements.

“Freelancing is not for everyone, but it definitely suits me,” Clampitt said. “It’s hard work and often uncertain, but the places I’ve been and people I’ve met—and the history I’ve both learned and been able to share with others—are, for me, more than worth the effort.”

Do you have a story about how AB5 or other independent contracting laws have affected your ability to work? Share your story here.