Interview with Swallow Magazine's Creative Director and Editor, James Casey
We here at Eat me daily are huge, huge fans of Swallow Magazine — see our enthusiastic coverage as evidence. This is a bold, innovative publication that redefines what a food magazine can be, bringing a level of design, photography, and writing to food that has been sorely missing. If this is the future of food in print, then the future is bright. Our only complaint is that there are only two issues a year.
We managed to track down James Casey, the magazine's Creative Director and Editor, for an interview.
Eat me daily: Let's start with the basics. Who's behind Swallow Magazine? Is there a mastermind? What are your backgrounds?
James Casey: Swallow Magazine is a pretty small operation—It currently comprises myself and co-founder/contributing editor John Short. That said, we are starting to explore giving honorary titles to other editors and writers involved in reward for their tireless endeavors. My background is in editorial and publishing, generally on the art side of things (although I have been known to leave my station, so to speak).
Is Swallow Magazine a full-time gig?
While Swallow is more-or-less a full time endeavor, I also work on several other projects that are complimentary to the magazine and it's aesthetic. I seem to work on quite a few coffee table books these days and also dabble in a few consultancy projects for magazines with a more commercial appeal.
Since the magazine is going to focus on a different geographical region, how does the staffing work? Do you have a bunch of contributors and send them out as foot soldiers to gather information?
We’ll start of by doing a lot of research on the region in question. This usually involves ploughing through books, art and film concerning the area. Ideally I like to check out somewhat alternative sources—old novels, the Time-Life Foods of the World series (invaluable), forgotten ephemera etc. I also like to speak with friends, colleagues and connections with knowledge of the areas for interesting ideas and possible pitches.
Following this, I usually write down a shortlist of story concepts and book a ‘research’ trip with a photographer and writer. While in the area, we try to get as much as possible done—from interviews to portraits, still-life shoots and appointments. The appointments, with local photographers/illustrators/artists/writers are key as we don’t have much of a budget to fly people from here to there all the time.
Once back in NYC, we'll usually review what we have, what we learnt and then work out what we want in the issue. Ideally after having taken the trip, more ideas will present themselves from both experience and conversation. At this point we start to commission/approach people for certain stories. Ideally, I like to start with a dialogue and have someone else come up with something that is their own as the idea of forcing a concept is never good for anyone involved. Softly, softly, etc.
Right now it's kind of hard to track down information on the magazine — your website is a single page, and you're not doing too much publicity. What's the reasoning behind this? Are you planning on having a website?
Press seems to be trickling out—we just had a rather large thing in the most recent edition of Wallpaper* Magazine alongside a glowing piece in Nylon (They went so far to state that we’ve rendered other food magazines insignificant! Not true, obviously…) and also a selection of online press (Daily Candy, Refinery29, etc.) That said, as we’re new and very small, the push for PR isn’t huge. Hopefully people will feel like they’ve discovered us and I would imagine that with time, word will get out.
As for a website—we’re working on the idea. I think that the site itself will have to be something totally different to the print magazine. The magazine is essentially a vessel for more timeless stuff—beautiful images, strange stories etc. I think the website might eventually become a sort of sketchbook for the magazine, a place where ideas germinate and quality isn’t so strictly enforced.
For the Scandinavian issue, did you come across any food that was just too much? Too ghastly? Anything you refused to eat?
Not really. We had someone do something on Iceland’s Thorrablot festival, which usually consists of the requisite grossouts—sheeps balls, split lamb head, stomach aged in whey, rotten shark etc. While it was all supremely disgusting tasting, it was also a bit dull as an idea. It was all a bit shock value and ultimately we’re not really that interested in that as the ghastly eats path is pretty well beaten by now. One of the writers ate polar bear in Greenland, but that’s not really that gross—it’s normal over there I guess.
Why call it Swallow Magazine?
After having spent the best part of a month thinking of good names, Swallow was pretty much a perfect fit—it’s funny, serious, dark, light, sophisticated, juvenile etc. It took a while to come to a consensus as to whether or not the name was offensive to some people but at the end of the day we thought fuck it. Naming a food magazine is a pretty difficult endeavor—we tried to stay away from the cute sounding names, the gluttonous ones and the boring ones.
What regions are to be covered next? Where does the magazine go from here?
Next issue is the Trans-Siberian issue—the train from Moscow to Beijing. I think that the issues will probably become a bit more abstract, a bit more adventurous and a bit more romantic. Scandinavia was an easy first issue but hopefully the follow ups are a little stranger and more evocative of travel. The last trip, from Moscow to Siberia to Mongolia to Beijing, was a real eye opener and showed me how our magazine can really be interesting.
It needs to become a bit more Waugh/Green/ Maugham in tone. I would love to work in tandem with some ridiculous tinpot dictator to promote whatever banana republic he/she oversees, then return and expose all the inconceivable excesses. Did you ever see the Last King of Scotland? Something like that, before all the killings. Oh, and cargo cults! Yes, cargo cults!
In the premiere issue, you mention the magazine is "a step away from the hubbub of 'foodie' fadism" - care to explain further? Is the magazine a response to food magazines and food blogs?
It’s not a deliberate response to other magazines and blogs, as I enjoy several magazines/blogs out there (I love Gourmet and Gastronomica in particular). Saying that, I do feel like there is this new ‘foodie’ culture which is pretty silly to say the least. It’s like a bunch of people trading baseball cards. You've seen the inane comments on some of these blogs, right? It’s infuriating. The word 'foodie' itself is saccharine, cute and annoying.
Much of this new appreciation stems from the magazines/blogs who need to fill their pages, and much of it, like fashion, has a finite life (and is connected to PR/advertising). I feel that taste, and ‘good’ taste in particular, should be effortless. That said, ‘good’ taste should include all sorts of digressions and excursions into the vernacular—they’re all equally valid. I think it’s good to have a healthy interest and avoid slavishness. We advocate appreciation yet avoid gluttony. It’s like anything—moderation m’dears…
When can we expect the next issue to drop?
In the spring/summer overlap region, fingers crossed.
As Swallow Magazine's website says, the magazine is available at "Idlewild Books, St. Mark's Bookshop, McNally Jackson, Universal News, random newsstands, that place on Canal and Ludlow, Borders in the UK, someplace in Berlin, Lafayette Smokeshop, Prince and Thompson, and more more more."