BEST FOOD PODCAST James Beard Awards, Webby Awards

Still Eating After All These Years

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Sep 21, 2020

This week, in honor of The Sporkful’s 10th anniversary, we’re re-releasing three all-time favorite episodes, selected by listeners, each with a brand new update. On Monday, September 21, we released Searching For The Aleppo Sandwich, about our quest to find out what happened to a beloved sandwich shop in Syria. On Wednesday, September 23, we’re sharing Katie’s Year In Recovery, about one woman’s struggle with an eating disorder. And Friday, September 25, you’ll hear Notes From A Young Black Chef, featuring Kwame Onwuachi. Then Saturday night, September 26 at 9pm Eastern / 6pm Pacific, we’ll have our Instagram Live 10th Anniversary Party, with special guests Carla Hall and Sohla El-Waylly, and a fundraiser for Feeding America. Follow Dan on Instagram so you don’t miss it.

In this essay, Sporkful creator and host Dan Pashman shares a reflection on 10 years of The Sporkful, and looks ahead at what's to come.

 

I started The Sporkful out of desperation. 

When I graduated from college in 1999, my dream was to host my own radio show. I figured I’d start as a producer and work my way up. Over the next ten years, I got laid off from six different radio jobs. (Two recessions, plus the tumult in the industry created by the internet, made it a very hard time to break in. Every time I thought I found a great opportunity, the show I was working on would get cancelled.)

At this point I was 32, married, with our first child on the way. It was starting to look like I might have to go to law school.

Around this time, friends of mine in radio started saying, “You should start a podcast.” Marc Maron, who I worked with on one of those cancelled shows, had just started his. “It’s going really great,” he told me, when his listenership was a tiny fraction of what it is today.

I figured, if I start my own podcast, at least nobody can cancel it but me. 

My wife Janie believed in me, but she was still understandably skeptical of my chances. Media is such a fickle industry. Becoming the host of anything that would ever pay the bills felt like a long shot.

I considered doing a show about politics, or sports, but I knew the world didn’t need another guy with opinions on those topics. So what about food? I had never really covered food in my work, and I had no professional experience cooking. (I didn’t even know how to make a roux.) But I always loved eating, and food was an area where I had a lot of idiosyncrasies. 

The Sporkful launched in 2010 with a simple premise: We’re going to discuss and debate the most ridiculous food minutiae, in search of new and better ways to eat. 

I had a strict rule that we would not interview chefs. The initial catchphrase, “Where sacred cows get grilled,” quickly gave way to “It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters.” In one of our first episodes we spent 15 minutes debating the ideal size and shape of ice cubes for different beverages. In those early years I asked my friend Mark Garrison, who I had worked with at NPR on another show that got cancelled, to co-host the podcast with me. It was mostly the two of us arguing about things like buffet strategy, and the number of things you can add to a grilled cheese before it ceases to be a grilled cheese.

Thanks to all the friends I made in all those jobs I lost, the show grew pretty quickly. Mike Pesca, another former NPR colleague (who now hosts The Gist), endorsed our show on the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. Marc Maron came on as a guest, and I scored a feature for his appearance in Apple Podcasts. (Today, PR execs spend weeks lobbying for Apple’s promotional slots. Back in 2010, you just emailed a guy named Steve.)

We had on Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich. (He had a cameo in the personal highlight of my time at NPR, my satirical attempt to make it to the top of NPR.org’s Most Emailed List.) Robert and I debated whether the first bite of a diagonally-cut half sandwich should be taken into the hypotenuse or one of the acute angles. 

And Rachel Maddow, whose newscasts I wrote at another job I lost (way before anyone knew who she was), was gracious enough to not only take an hour to tape a show with us about cocktails, but to re-tape half of it immediately afterwards when I realized the batteries in my recorder had been dead for most of the conversation.

Everything was going great. There was just one issue — The Sporkful wasn’t making any money. For the first two years it was a passion project, something I did at night and on weekends, at 6 in the morning while my daughter Becky watched cartoons. 

Then I got an email from a book editor who asked, “Have you ever thought of turning your podcast into a book?” I had, but I had no idea how to do that. She helped me get a literary agent and I went through the process of pitching a book. (Around this time, my co-host Mark got a great full-time job offer that made it hard for him to continue doing The Sporkful on the side, so he moved on.)

The book deal brought in enough money to make The Sporkful a part-time job, and I started writing. I also started hosting web videos for Cooking Channel. In 2013 I worked with folks there to create my own show — You’re Eating It Wrong. And I hosted the first ever live taping of The Sporkful, at Guactacular at the Bell House in Brooklyn:

That live event took place in the Bell House’s smaller front room, and was attended by about nine people, at least five of whom were my close friends or spouse. 

The next year, after two years of me nagging his manager, Weird Al came on the show. We talked about “Eat It,” “Fat,” “I Love Rocky Road,” and all his other food-related parody songs. It was magical.

Then came my big break. Two executives at New York Public Radio named Chris Bannon and Erik Diehn (now the CCO and CEO, respectively, at Stitcher) were looking to expand the station’s podcast offerings, and they thought The Sporkful had potential. They picked up the show and invested in it, providing a full-time producer for the first time. This would allow us to do more ambitious episodes. 

The Sporkful launched at WNYC in April 2014, with producer Kristen Meinzer on board. (Kristen has gone on to host the excellent podcast By The Book, among others, and she's written two books.)

That spring, four years after The Sporkful’s debut, I interviewed a chef for the first time — Tyler Kord. I only agreed to have him on because he had written an entire book about broccoli, and was famous for his broccoli sub. That all seemed so weird and ridiculous that I made an exception to the “no chefs” rule. I learned though, that chefs aren’t always as pretentious as you’d think, and they tend to be very obsessive about the smallest details of the eating experience — just like me.

In the fall of 2014 Anne Saini took over as producer, and would produce the show for five years, helping to oversee tremendous growth in the quality and listenership of our show. Simon & Schuster published my book, Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious

I officially had my dream career. But while the show continued to get better, it wasn’t really evolving. Five years and a couple hundred episodes in, I was starting to get tired of debating the ideal surface-area-to-volume ratio of French fries.

In the fall of 2015 we did another live show at the Bell House, this one in the big back room — and this time it was sold out. John Hodgman and I debated whether hot dogs are sandwiches, which back then was a very hot topic, not the tired meme it is today. On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone was the moderator.

In retrospect, that event marked the apotheosis of the first iteration of The Sporkful. As we entered 2016, I was resolved to make the show more thoughtful, and to connect with listeners more deeply.

It was around this time that our show added a second catchphrase: “We obsess about food to learn more about people.”

In the spring of 2016 we launched Other People’s Food, our first series on race and food. It included a tense conversation with chef Rick Bayless about criticisms he’s faced for being a white chef who cooks Mexican food. That fall we followed up with a series on racial coding in restaurants called Who Is This Restaurant For? We also collaborated with Radiolab on a show about a woman who developed a mysterious meat allergy and with Planet Money on a show about a truffle dealer.

In 2017 we followed the execs Chris Bannon and Erik Diehn to Stitcher, and ran a series of episodes that have become some of listeners’ all-time favorites: Searching For Rosa Parks’ Pancakes, Searching for The Donut King, and Searching For The Aleppo Sandwich. Bucking the most tired of food media traditions, we swore off Thanksgiving shows, releasing our Last Thanksgiving Special Ever. (And we’ve held to that promise!) 

We also started doing more thoughtful, longform interviews with people like Guy Fieri, Padma Lakshmi, Roy Wood Jr, Jim Gaffigan, Alton Brown, W. Kamau Bell, Carla Hall, Ron Funches, and Nigella Lawson. We won a James Beard Award and a Webby Award for our work.

Of course we continued to have a lot of fun, like when we attempted to travel through time in search of a piece of coconut cake, or the time my daughter Becky, the same one who was born the year The Sporkful launched, set up an ice cream stand in our town to test how the color of the bowl affects taste perception.

And while it was no longer the focus, I kept having silly debates, like the time I tried to convince Good Food’s Evan Kleiman that burritos are wraps. That discussion led to a truly absurd crowning achievement: I was hired to be an expert witness in a dispute between two restaurants in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Say what, you ask?! Well...

A place called Pita Pit had a lease that said the landlord wouldn’t allow restaurants with similar foods — like wraps — in the strip mall. So when the landlord tried to bring in a burrito place called Holy Guacamole, Pita Pit sued. I wrote an affidavit arguing that burritos are in fact wraps. 

Money quote from the local press coverage: “Heffner Development disputes that Pashman is an expert.”

In 2019 producer Ngofeen Mputubwele joined the team, and our coverage of race and food hit a new high-water mark with our episode When White People Say Plantation, which was nominated for a James Beard Award and won a Webby Award. We did an episode for April Fools that satirized health and wellness culture, and another that was an interactive game. We also launched Sporkful World Tour 2019, a tour of select cities in the continental US:

Ngofeen and Anne have since moved on, and now Emma Morgenstern and Andres O’Hara are the producers who make the show, including our two recent episodes about systemic racism at Bon Appetit. (The first one, “A Reckoning At Bon Appetit,” is our most listened-to episode of all time.)

So here we are, ten years in. And there’s no way I’d be here without Janie, who tells anyone who will listen about the show, comes to every live show she can, and picks up the slack at home when the work gets crazy. I’m also so thankful to all of you for listening and supporting our show, and to the others who have worked on it over the years who I didn’t mention here. (Shout out to editors Dan Charles, Margaret Kelley, Peter Clowney, Gianna Palmer, and Tracey Samuelson, and our kickass EP Daisy Rosario!)

I still think of myself as an outsider in the food world. Back in normal times people would ask me for restaurant recommendations and I’d be like, “Have you been to Panera? My family goes there a lot.” I’m not tapped in to which chefs are cooking at which restaurants. I still don’t know how to make a roux. 

The show has evolved in ways I never could have imagined, but at its core it’s still a show for eaters, about people. I know that as we move forward, we’ll keep taking risks and trying new things and sometimes failing and then trying again. The variety of The Sporkful from one week to the next, and its continuing evolution, are the reasons why it’s still fun to make the show, and why I’m still so passionate about it today. 

Speaking of taking risks and trying new things, I have some exciting news to share. This week I’m announcing the launch of Sporkful Media, a new food media company that will create content across a variety of platforms. We’re already developing a new food podcast with Stitcher that I will produce but not host, and a TV show with Zero Point Zero Productions — the same folks who produce W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America, among many others, and who made Anthony Bourdain’s shows.

I'm hopeful that this will allow us to find new and exciting ways to ask questions and tell stories, and offer us more opportunities to elevate other voices in the food world.

This feels oddly fitting because back when The Sporkful first launched in my living room, I had a joke on our website that someday we’d create “Sporkful Omnimedia.” I meant it as a parody of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which always sounded vaguely menacing. Now it’s actually happening! Except without the menace.

One more thing to mention: In 2021 we will kick off the next ten years with the BIGGEST, CRAZIEST, MOST AMBITIOUS PROJECT IN SPORKFUL HISTORY. How’s that for a tease? 

Stay tuned, and thank you.

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