Regina Schrambling, Interviewed
Regina Schrambling's always entertaining (if sometimes maddeningly cryptic) insider looks at the food world, delivered via her blog Gastropoda and its little sister Gastriques, read like a breath of snickering fresh air in the culinary blogosphere. Never one to shy from a juicy scandal, Schrambling's blogs have become something of a food world Page Six, albeit more intelligent and with a clearer agenda. In many ways she's the patron saint of Eat me daily, so we asked her to weigh in on politics, frugality, anonymity, and the questionable empire of Alice Waters.
Eat me daily: You've been a visible part of the food media world for a while now. In your words, what have you done and what are you doing?
Regina Schrambling: Right now I'm trying to figure out how to bridge the great divide between what Michael Tomasky at The Guardian has brilliantly dubbed "formerly arboreal media" and the play-for-free universe online. I'm extremely fortunate to be paid for the bulk of what an editor friend once described as my "chewing and typing," but it can't last. What's next?
Luckily, I am not quite ready for my epitaph ("frittered away"). I feel pretty good that this college dropout wound up at the New York Times in 1983 and was smart enough to quit to make a living in food and then made that living well enough to be hired back in the Dining section in 1998 and then get a nice gig writing on contract for the LA Times for a while. I've done a ton of magazine writing and managed to get one book published without losing my sanity, and I have always done what one of the smartest editors I've ever known called "couture journalism" — I do my own research, make my own phone calls, develop my own recipes, write every word I submit under my byline. I would never trust anyone else.
The funny thing is that nothing I've done in print — even in the NYT — ever had the impact of just speaking up online.
The tone of your blogs (Gastropoda and Gastriques) is very — let's say it's "pull-no-punches." That kind of criticism is rare in food media (and, in our opinion, there should be more of it). Why be the cranky food blogger?
I hate to give the NYT any credit, but it ran a story at least 20 years ago that included a line from some source pointing out that "people will always pay money for a point of view." Namby and pamby you can get for free. Pointing out that the Empress Alice wears no apron not only gives me great pleasure but attracts readers who have had about enough of the "mother of American cooking" silliness. I always knew the food world was chest-deep in BS, but working at the Times really made it clear, and I was more than ready to use Gastropoda to tell the truth.
Along similar lines, the rise of internet media coupled with the declining economy means big changes for everyone - magazine circulation is down, Gael Greene's out at New York, everyone with a digital camera and a Cuisinart is suddenly a "food writer." Where do you see food media going?
Maybe dementia is setting in early, but I really believe the food world is going to shake out the way all other worlds will. Many are idiots, few are savants. People are going to be much more discriminating in where they forage for information. Are you going to trust a magazine with so many ads you can't find the editorial? Are you going to squander your time with web sites built on the old-media model (if it's Feb. 14, it must be time for endless stories on chocolates and aphrodisiacs)? I'm sure we're going to go through a weird period where internet media, as you put it, dominates because ad dollars built that city. But ultimately people are going to be looking for more, and from people who actually know what they're talking about.
You're blogging on frugality for Epicurious. How'd you get into that? How's it going?
I was wandering around Zabar's one afternoon idly throwing stuff like marcona almonds in my basket and thinking, "I'm just buying to be buying." Then I came home and found an email from an editor at the LA Times, where I'd been writing on a very nice contract for five years, saying they were cutting me off in the latest round of budget whacks. I thought about starting a blog called "No More $8 Salt," and then I remembered I rather desperately need health insurance, which you need to buy in this third-world country. I shot off an email offering a real-life frugality blog to the amazing Tanya Steel at Epicurious and literally within minutes had my gig.
It's been great because the response is so encouraging — Epi readers are very different from other "consumers" on- and off-line. They jump in and comment, but rarely in a mean way, never in a cretinous way. They think before they type, and they usually have something useful/insightful/helpful to say. The two hard parts are actually doing things I can write about and also producing a photograph for every post. Luckily, I'm actually even getting into the visual challenge and have an expert adviser on the premises.
On your blog, you often go off on political tangents. Do you think the two interests are related?
I see everything in life through the prism of food, which is why I have never had the usual twinges of shame at making it my living. And probably never have food and politics been more intertwined. We had a buffoon in the most powerful position in the country, and what was he eating? Hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches. If only someone had informed us all very early on just how destructively infantile the fool was. Instead we were sold a guy who "stopped drinking" by adopting an imaginary friend, and not what he was, a dry drunk. I blame Panchito, of course. Think about that and it's hard to stop.
What's your opinion on food politics in America, particularly the recent push for a "foodie" Secretary of Agriculture and White House Chef by some prominent members of the American food world?
As you might have noticed, I have total scorn for this ridiculously presumptuous movement to lecture a new president who has his plate rather full with a new Depression, a flaming disaster in the Middle East, a thoroughly Chimp-corrupted government etc. As crucially important as food is, the elitist tone to the whole campaign struck me as tone-deaf. And it would have been nice if the hectoring horde had actually looked into where the White House gets its food now. Hypocrisy is one of the many sins of the Chimp; his "ranch" was hyper-eco-sensitive even as he denied the human contribution to global warming; why wouldn't he be eating salmonella-free peanut butter while the little people muddled through? And where were these people the last eight years?
All that said, Big Agriculture and Big Food in general have way too much sway over Congress and food policy. Changing that is going to be a slog, and I'd prefer people who understand how the sausage gets made in Washington tackled it. As Michael Pollan and others say, though, you vote with your food dollars. I'm constantly amazed at how many food people who know better settle for industrial pork and bacteria-bomb chickens. And letting your kids, or yourself, eat fast food, really, is not an essential part of being an American.
Your website hints at a book in the works; care to give us any clues?
Over the last six years that is the one sentence I have tweaked the most on Gastropoda. When I was devising my exit strategy from the NYT, a book was definitely on my to-do list. But what I want to write and what publishers want to buy is separated by a gap as big as the one between some celebrity chefs' ears. The consensus is that a cookbook would be a waste, but the snark muse acceptable to both me and a publisher has not yet landed on my shoulder. In short, I am just "agonizing" at this point. As a friend in the music business told me after my first debacle, CDs — and books — are not released. They escape.
We've noticed that you, like a lot of food writers, try to keep yourself visually anonymous — something that writers like Danyelle Freeman and John Mariani have been casting aside, prefering to go for total transparency. Any thoughts on that?
I was an old-school journalist before I got into food, and I believe those rules are the best. Chefs and restaurateurs who know who you are will always treat you better than some poor schmuck who wanders in with money to spend. It always makes me realize just why they believe that; they get payback big time. And I just know freebies and fawning service can skew even my jaded judgment. Plus I would like to eat in peace. I could name restaurants where I had to quit going because the attention was a turnoff even though I'm powerless; plus I always figure we have to tip on what the bill would have been, and that adds up. I am always supremely flattered when a chef discreetly sends out something small. But one reason why I love the New French, for instance, is that the owner figured out who I was because some G readers had come in, and he is always friendly but never intrusive.
Burying the lede, I have to add that the best lesson I ever got was reserving at Le Cirque after an editor on the Sy Newhouse payroll took me to lunch and we had a faboo meal, with slobbering service. Coming back with my lowly (in their eyes) consort was like eating under an elephant's tail. They weren't just dismissive. They were rude. And the food? Funny. I have no recollection.
Between your many blogs, your writing for Epicurious, the New York Times, the LA Times, basically every food magazine we've ever picked up — well, it seems like you know what you're doing. Cheesy as it sounds, do you have any advice for all those wannabe-food journalists setting out to follow in your footsteps?
First I have to correct the record. I have written for various food magazines over the last 25 years in this game, but usually I've done best with other outlets, like Esquire and Metropolitan Home. Magazines that want food ads but are not dependent on them will buy stories and let you have your say (most of the time, anyway). So my advice would be first: Feed your head — learn everything you can about the field, even if it means going into hock as I did to get professional training. And then, look for the less obvious outlets. When I started, I spent most of my time at the big newsstands, like in Grand Central, flipping through magazines and seeing which ran food stories, then pitching.
But that's all if you want to get paid. Mostly my advice would be: You want to be a food writer? Start writing. With blogs, it's never been easier or cheaper or more rewarding.
–Interview conducted by special EMD contributor Paula