Special Sauce: Sam Sifton on Food as the Universal Language
Sometimes my Special Sauce conversations function as a reunion, and this week’s episode represents one of those times. Almost 20 years ago, my guest, Sam Sifton, was my editor at the New York Times food section, and, as such, the person who encouraged me to take deep dives into iconic foods like burgers and pizza. Those deep dives have in fact become the hallmark of Serious Eats, sometimes taking the form of recipes and cooking-technique articles, and Sam is now in charge of just about all of the food coverage at the Times, including its cooking app.
I asked Sam about the genesis of his passion for food. “I’m a New Yorker, born and raised in New York, and my distinct memories of the Sifton family table as a kid involved exploring the city. I, like a lot of knucklehead kids of the ’70s, was dragged off to music lessons, despite a distinct lack of aptitude in the musical arts, and did that on Saturday morning, after which we would drive around—my brothers and my father and I, sometimes with my mother along—we would drive around in the family station wagon, hitting various neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn to pick up ingredients for a sandwich feast, or a fried chicken feast, or whatever we were going to eat over the course of the weekend. I think that’s when this mania of mine began, was during those trips.”
Though he is now a serious home cook (and has in fact written a Thanksgiving cookbook), Sam has always been a serious eater. “…I was a kid who liked to eat, and as a New York kid was able to eat widely and have wide-ranging opinions about the foods that I could afford, which were, what—slices of pizza, meat buns from the Chinese place, and the like. I was always up for a debate about where the best slice is.”
As you’ll hear, despite the variety of important positions he’s held at the Times, Sam has always been drawn toward participating in some kind of debate. “I think I gravitated toward opinion, for sure, and toward exploration, and as my career as a journalist developed, I realized that one of the great ways of exploring a culture, or a city, or a region, is through its food. As you mentioned, I spent time on the national desk, I spent time on the culture desk, and I can tell you, there are people who are not interested in dance coverage, and there are people who are not interested in coverage of Midwestern congressional races, but everybody is interested in food at some point.”
Sam is as smart and opinionated and well informed as anyone I know in food journalism. If you don’t believe me, just listen to his episodes of Special Sauce, and decide for yourself.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk with some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Sam Sifton: The opinion of a New York Times critic is news.
EL: Even with all the Yelps of the world.
SS: Well, that’s a different thing. Yelp is, “I went to the place. It was terrible, and the portions were small.”
EL: Yeah, Yelp is Hyde Park in London.
SS: Actually, it’s someplace in New Jersey.
EL: This week, it is my distinct pleasure to welcome my former editor at the New York Times, Sam Sifton. Sam is currently the food editor of the paper, at what some people call the country’s greatest failing newspaper. Wait, who would that be, Sam? Who would that be? He and his staff have just shared a Pulitzer Prize. Big props to you, Mr. Sifton.
SS: Thank you, sir.
EL: He’s also been, at various times, the Times’ restaurant critic, its national editor, its culture editor. I don’t even know where to stop, but welcome, my old friend. So good to have you here.
SS: Thanks for having me, Ed.
EL: You know, it’s been too long, Sam. We used to break bread all the time.
SS: Well, I was trying to get stories out of you, so it was necessary to feed the horse before you send him into the field.
EL: I see. I see. I didn’t know that that was-
SS: Now we’re competitors.
EL: Right. I got it. I got it. Tell us about life at the Sifton family table.
SS: I’m a New Yorker, born and raised in New York, and my distinct memories of the Sifton family table as a kid involved exploring the city. I, like a lot of knucklehead kids of the ’70s, was dragged off to music lessons, despite a distinct lack of aptitude in the musical arts, and did that on Saturday morning, after which we would drive around, my brothers and my father and I, sometimes with my mother along, we would drive around in the family station wagon, hitting various neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn to pick up ingredients for a sandwich feast, or a fried chicken feast, or whatever we were going to eat over the course of the weekend. And that could take us from Yorktown to the Lower East Side to Little Italy, into Brooklyn on the search for the exact right ginger beer that my father liked. I think that’s when this mania of mine began, was during those trips.
EL: And we should say that the Sifton family table was not your garden variety American family table. Your father was a judge. Your mom is still an esteemed editor, worked for many years at Farrar, Straus-
EL: … and your grandfather, her father, was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, so you, you know, you’re not Bart Simpson, dude.
SS: Yeah. I mean, I guess if you see it, it was your standard Squid and the Whale drunk childhood. How about that?
EL: That’s good. That’s good. What was the typical dinner conversation like?
SS: Well, my parents worked hard, so we had dinner on the table, and it’s sort of a miracle to me that that was the case. I’m not sure to this day how my mother pulled it off, like how we had as many family meals as we have, and we continue to have family meals in my own new family.
EL: And you have two kids.
SS: I have two kids, and we have meals together. Now that I’m not the restaurant critic, we have meals together as often as possible. One of the kids remarked the other day that that was a surprise to her. She said she thought more families were like ours, and she thought, and this was a horrible moment for me as a parent, she said, “I had never realized how suburban we are, Dad.” And, you know-
EL: Yeah, that’s really funny, because I remember when you decided to try the suburban thing, and you failed miserably. You moved with your wife and children to Connecticut.
SS: Yes, we lived in coastal Connecticut, and such are my capacities for self-deception that I believed we were living in the southernmost New England fishing village when, in fact, we were living in a kind of moronic and quite boring, albeit beautiful, suburb filled with people with perfect manners and nothing to say. It didn’t work for us. It didn’t take, as they say.
EL: I remember. It lasted a couple of years, and I remember you telling me that your wife was horrified when, at the playground, they thought she was a caregiver.
SS: No, they thought she was from another country. They were surprised that she had an American accent, and she asked them why, and I think the response was, “Well,” pause, “your clothes.” So we got out of there. That was not for us.
EL: It lasted a couple of years.
SS: It lasted one day under one year, and we returned to Brooklyn, where I’m from.
EL: So, when your mom was cooking, it was mostly your mom cooking during the week?
SS: Yeah, or some combination of mom, caregiver, children. My dad was a weekend cook. So yeah, it was, I think, two working parents, 1970s, Brooklyn Heights. I think there was probably some … It’s not for nothing that I’m a pretty fair Trinidadian cook as well as other things.
EL: That’s funny. You make a hell of a roti?
SS: Oh, yeah. That’s me.
EL: Did you always gravitate towards the kitchen? Were you the kid that wanted to help?
SS: Oh, that’s a good question. No, I think I was a kid who liked to eat, and as a New York kid was able to eat widely and have wide-ranging opinions about the foods that I could afford, which were what, slices of pizza, meat buns from the Chinese place, and the like. I was always up for a debate about where the best slice is.
EL: Which you continue to be to this day.
SS: Yeah, and what’s amazing is that since childhood, I’ve always been right. I’ve always been right.
EL: You’ve always been right, and now you’re getting paid for it.
SS: Yeah. It’s great. I think I gravitated toward opinion, for sure, and toward exploration, and as my career as a journalist developed, I realized that one of the great ways of exploring a culture, or a city, or a region, is through its food. As you mentioned, I spent time on the national desk, I spent time on the culture desk, and I can tell you, there are people who are not interested in dance coverage, and there are people who are not interested in coverage of Midwestern congressional races, but everybody is interested in food at some point.
EL: It’s true. It’s funny you say that that’s what got you interested in the culture, and maybe, now I’m realizing that’s why you gravitated … You wrote one of the first reviews about my first book, New York Eats, in the paper that you worked at for many years-
SS: New York Press.
EL: … in New York Press, and I realize what you just said is the reason you gravitated towards it.
SS: Sure. I mean, I think that the city described by your book, and the city that we love, both of us love, and that many of your listeners love as well is one that is just endlessly fascinating from the point of view of food. And not just the food itself, but the experience of being in its presence. My parents got … I mentioned The Squid and the Whale earlier. My parents were-
EL: We should say The Squid and the Whale was a great, early Noah-
EL: … Baumbach. Yes.
SS: Yeah. Noah Baumbach was a classmate of my younger brother’s, and my father, in his infinite wisdom, took them all on my brother’s seventh birthday to see Seven Samurai, and all the kids fell asleep except Noah, and my dad took full credit for his career as a filmmaker.
SS: Anyway, divorce was a feature of life in New York in the 1970s, and I was a child of divorce eventually, and on Friday nights, when my mother was working at that time at Random House, she would take my brothers and me to a great and sadly gone sushi restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, which was run by a Japanese woman and her American husband. I believe they had met, I like to think, during the war, but that can’t possibly be the truth.
SS: Anyway, one of the people who was always at that restaurant at that time was Jerry Nachman, who was a-
EL: Jerry Nachman. My favorite Jerry Nachman quote of all time, “I used to think there was no such thing as having too many spare ribs, and now I know there is.”
SS: So Jerry Nachman was, at the time, the editor of the New York Post, and a big fellow, as evinced by your spare rib story, and I remember him getting calls from the news desk during his meal at the restaurant. I was in high school. There were no cell phones. Someone would come from the kitchen and say, “Mr. Nachman, the desk is calling.” I thought that was so romantic, like a desk is calling you.
SS: So, he would stand up and go to the kitchen and get on the phone with the wire, and he would talk to the desk, and they’d be talking about the world, whatever the headline of the next day’s paper was going to be, but invariably he would grow hungry during this conversation and walk across the newsroom, stretching the Princess line wire to the phone-
EL: So great.
SS: … 10, 12, 15 feet to nab a piece of tuna and shove it in his mouth and then wander back. And I thought that was about the most romantic thing I could imagine, and I determined that I had to be a newspaperman.
EL: That’s so great. So, you went off to Harvard. And thank you, by the way, in all the years I’ve known you, for not wearing your alma mater on your sleeve.
SS: I, yeah. I don’t.
EL: You’re just not one of those guys.
EL: Which I appreciate, because we’re surrounded by them in New York.
SS: I suppose so.
EL: But were you into food there? What did you think you were going to be?
SS: Oh, that’s interesting. Like a lot of people in college, I had to work, and I got a job at the Harvest restaurant in Harvard Square.
EL: A seminal new American restaurant.
SS: Very good of you to remember that, with beautiful Marimekko prints throughout, and a lot of interesting chefs and food people passed through its doors. I’ll give you two examples right off the bat. Many … I shouldn’t say many. Some years before I was working there, John “Doc” Willoughby was a waiter at the Harvest.
EL: Wow. Long-time editor at Gourmet and America’s Test Kitchen.
SS: And one of the best people in the world that I call my professional home.
EL: Who just retired.
SS: Basically. He’s writing-
EL: That’s what he told me.
SS: He’s writing a memoir. It’s going to be awesome.
SS: So, he worked there. Barbara Lynch worked there. It was just a really exciting place. Now, I got a job there working as the cashier, which meant I ran the cashier station, which was connected to the coffee station, so I also pulled espresso drinks. And the cooks would come out of the kitchen in the afternoons and ask for these deli jars, or deli packet things, those big plastic tubs, and they’d want quadruple espressos on ice with 18 sugars, and anybody who was asking for that seemed to me, like that seemed, it was alluring.
SS: They’re sweating, and I was like, “I want to try that out.” So I started kind of hanging around the kitchen, and eventually nabbed a job as a prep cook working with the prep guys in the mornings before class, and worked my way on to garde manger and grill station-
EL: I didn’t know that.
SS: … then saute. That really helped me kind of … I mean, it was like newspapers. It’s adrenalized. It’s shift work. There’s alcohol at the end. It was really fun, and I enjoyed it and I enjoyed how different it was from my collegiate experience.
EL: And so, at that moment, did you decide, “You know, I want to see if I can figure out a way to incorporate food into my job?”
SS: I don’t know that I did. I was too much of a kid, I was too much of a knucklehead. I knew I wanted to go and be on newspapers, but I don’t think I thought at that point, “I want to be a food guy.” I still don’t necessarily think that that’s the best way for some people to think of their careers. I think you can put yourself at a real disadvantage as you self-identify as a food reporter as opposed to a reporter. If you look at some of our best reporters in the food world, take Kim Severson for example, there is no subject she can’t cover. She just happens to cover food really well. So, I wasn’t thinking that either at the time.
SS: I had a cool blue collar job, and then I had a kind of white collar degree, and I had to figure out how I was going to put that together, and it didn’t come together for many years. I worked in journalism for a number of years before food came a knockin’.
EL: But you also ended up teaching social studies in the New York City public school system, so I have this image of you as like Ken Howard in the old TV show The White Shadow.
SS: Yeah, I’m not as tall as him. I know that because he was an actor at the American Repertory Theatre when I was in college, and would frequently be at the bar of the Harvest. Big fella. Much taller than me. Yes, in some senses I suppose my experience … I was a social studies teacher at Bushwick High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn-
EL: Before Bushwick was a hipster place.
SS: Well before Bushwick was a hipster place, indeed. Save four police officers and the two Mormon kids everybody thought were my brothers, I was the only white dude there. It was a really interesting, challenging and difficult time to be in that neighborhood, riven by crack. There were undercover units posted up in the school, which I fought against for two years or half the time that I was there, but these marvelous kids, some of whom I’m still in contact with today, who were struggling to make a better life for themselves under really punishing circumstances, and now their parent’s homes are being turned into-
SS: -hipster condos.
EL: Yeah. Why did you leave?
SS: I left because I got a full-time job in journalism.
EL: Got it.
SS: So, I got a job at the New York Press, and at that point, I had this decision to make. I love teaching, and I miss it all the time. I miss it just talking about it right now, but I needed to go back to school to get another degree if I was going to continue teaching, and all I wanted to do was be in a newspaper. Then, here was Russ Smith saying, “I will pay you what you’re getting at that school to write for me full-time.”
EL: The New York Press was, again, a seminal indie paper. It was … He started it in Baltimore.
SS: Well, he started the Baltimore City Paper in Baltimore, and then moved up to start New York Press 10 years later with John Strausbaugh and Michael Gentile, and it was kind of like a pre-Gawker Gawker, or a pre-blog blog. It was … It developed a reputation as a neocon place, but really that was just Russ. It was kind of punk rock, and it was devoted to the documentation of the downtown scene, and really downtown. 15th Street might has well have been Bonwit Teller.
EL: It’s true, and it’s weird that I never thought of the New York Press that way, and I knew that Russ had neocon views but that weren’t shared by the rest of his staff, and he clearly didn’t hold it against all of you that you didn’t share his neocon views.
SS: No, definitely not. In fact, one of the great things about the paper is that it was really freewheeling in terms of who wrote for it, what the voices were, who the voices were, and how in open conflict they could be. We did a “Best of New York” issue every fall, which was all unsigned work, so it was the voice of the paper. Each entry would contradict the last, as we determined what the best place to break up with your male lover on a Sunday night-
EL: Right, and that’s something that’s lost now in the media world, I think.
SS: Well, I don’t know. It’s become-
EL: It’s certainly less prevalent.
SS: It’s become something else.
SS: The idea that you could have … We had a circulation a little north of 100,000, and our circulation came out of bars and out of restaurants and out of dry cleaner … Not dry cleaner shops, coin op shops, laundry shops and the like, and I think we knew every one of them within a six block radius of the Puck building. We might has well have been running Time Magazine, but that’s so different from the reach that is provided by the internet.
EL: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. For sure. So you ended up at the Times in 2001 after a stop at Talk Magazine. You wrote a book, A Field Guide to the Yeti.
SS: Yeah. Yeah, boy.
EL: See, I do my homework.
SS: You sure do. You’re one of the few people who know about that book. Yeah, I wrote a book about young entrepreneurial technocrats and it was a satirical book, a kind of field guide to their habits and looks. The thing of it was, it came out exactly as that first tech bubble exploded, so it was out of its time, too late for its time. It missed its boat.
SS: It’s available for one penny on Amazon. I encourage you to take a look. The jokes are good. The timing is just a little rough.
EL: So how did you end up at the Times in 2001?
SS: Well, I had been, this is astonishing to me, but I had been recruited onto the Times earlier and had not gone because I believed we were going to be successful at New York Press, that New York Press was going to unseat The Voice, that we were going to put The Voice out of business, and then that New York Press would be able to grow as some of the alternative papers had been able to grow to markets outside of New York, and that I would, eyes on the prize at 25 years old, that I would be able to become the editor of the Long Island Press, which didn’t exist except in my mind-
EL: That’s hilarious.
SS: -within a few years, and I would run this punk rock, culture magazine, newspaper that would be distributed in bars and restaurants from, what, like East Hampton-
EL: Right, so-
SS: -and make so much money.
EL: That’s very blog-like.
SS: Yeah, or it’s super dumb. I was like a kid-
EL: Got it.
SS: I was a kid because the two youngest people on New York Press were me and Mike Doughty of the band Soul Coughing, and his day job when he was freelancing was as the doorman at the Knitting Factory, and I was a public school teacher.
EL: So you thought-
SS: So I thought, “I’m going the … These papers are going to take off, and this is going to be incredible.” It didn’t work out that way. The Voice just decided to go free and killed us, or didn’t kill us but made it very difficult for us, and yeah, I had hitched my wagon to a horse that was going to be replaced by a Tesla. So, that was an error, and I eventually-
EL: You were going to open the best blacksmith shop in Nassau County.
SS: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. I went off and working with Tina Brown where I met some really marvelous people who I would end up on the Times with years later. Worked there for three years and then I mercifully was approached again by the Times and able to go on.
EL: Why the hell did you hire me to write those long-ass pieces I wrote for you?
SS: Well, for the benefit of the readers, they were published at considerably less length than they were filed. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I was allowing you free rein of your prose. We hacked and pruned, as the artist does to the granite, to make it into beautiful stories. Listen, we’ve had this conversation, not on the air but we’ll have it on the air right now, I think we’re both of a particular belief about New York City and its food that allows us to be champions and partisans and guides and explainers-
EL: And missionaries.
SS: And missionaries, too. I think that my position on the desk and your availability to write happened to coincide around a moment when the city was beginning to change, when we were seeing not only a massive influx … We always see a massive influx of new individuals. What we were seeing was a change in the city itself that was opening up neighborhoods and burroughs that heretofore had been kind of closed to newcomers. Nobody arrived in New York City and moved to Brooklyn, much less Queens.
EL: Right, exactly.
SS: So, when that happens, it’s good on one level, but it’s bad on another. It brings change to amazing things that have existed in amber for years and years. I thought, and I think you thought as well, that it was worth documenting some of that-
EL: For sure.
SS: -before it all went away.
EL: Yeah. We used to talk about that people thought, before I wrote those pieces, that you needed a visa to go to Brooklyn.
EL: It’s like, no, no. Really, there’s really cool food in Brooklyn. That was really one of the points, and you would always say to me, “I need you to go to Brooklyn. I need you to go to the Bronx. I need you to go to Staten Island. I need you to go to neighborhoods, Red Hook,” if we were writing about sandwiches, because you thought that was important.
SS: I do think it’s important, and I continue to think it’s important. I think that it’s great that we have people in New York City like Tyler Cord making fantastic sandwiches at No. 7, but I think that it is almost even more remarkable that 40 years into the business, the Defontes are still making amazing sandwiches on Columbia Street in Red Hook in Brooklyn.
EL: Please have the roast beef and mozzarella with the fried eggplant.
SS: I like it, and maybe this is reflected in our physiognomy, I don’t get the roast beef anymore. I get the fried eggplant and the mozzarella.
EL: Got it, with the brown gravy.
EL: Yeah, okay.
SS: Or maybe sometimes with a little hot pepper.
EL: Got it. Okay.
SS: And sometimes when I’m feeling really racy, a schmear of mayo.
EL: All right, all right.
SS: I love that.
EL: I hear you.
SS: So, is Lioni going to exist on 15th Street in Brooklyn forever and ever, 15th Avenue in Brooklyn, in Brooklyn forever and ever? Maybe not. I think it’s important that we know about it.
EL: Yes, and Lioni is, of course, a mozzarella maker and a sandwich shop in Dyker Heights, right next to Bensonhurst, that you sent me to for my cold hero story.
SS: That’s correct. That’s correct. And what a hellacious duty that was. It’s important to point out that Lioni has something on the order of 200 different sandwich variations-
SS: -all named for Italian Americans, but you can’t order by the Italian American. You have to order by number.
EL: Right, which is beyond nonsensical.
SS: Well, you’ve got to have rules.
EL: Now, I don’t know if you remember this, but there was a time when my freelance writing had slowed down. You had an opening on the section for a reporter. I asked you if you would consider me.
SS: I think I said absolutely not.
EL: You did. You did. I was so mad at you. You said, “Absolutely not.” I said, “What do you mean, Sam? We do all these great stories together.” You said, “Look, if I hire you, I’m gonna end up sending you to do stories that you don’t want to do. You’re gonna hate it. You’re gonna hate me and you’re gonna end up hating your life. So, I know you’re gonna be pissed at me, but the answer is no.”
SS: And I was totally right.
EL: You were totally right.
SS: You went off to do Serious Eats. Now we’re in this fancy room doing podcasts. I haven’t gotten a dime from you, by the way. I think I bought our last lunch, and I’m responsible for it all.
EL: It’s true, but you do.
SS: You could be out right now running down a tip. Listen-
EL: You do get props in the memoir I’m writing, I promise you.
SS: I hope so.
EL: You don’t do many of those kinds of stories anymore. The section is much more geared towards home cooking and cooking in general. Why not?
SS: I’m gonna push back on that. I think that we do do less New York specific roundup type things, although that’s not strictly the case. Ligaya Mishan has done some really marvelous work in the world of shave ice and cold desserts.
EL: Yes, I saw that.
SS: And the like. But our mandate, at least in my view, has changed. We’re much more of a national and international report, and we need to reflect that. Yes, I will say we do do a lot of home cooking. We always have done a lot of home cooking, and that’s been true since before Craig Claiborne sat in my chair, but we’re also taking a look a little more widely at the food scene of the United States and in deed the food scene of the world. And that allows us to do stories about French bistros run by the Japanese in Paris.
EL: Right, Cambodian restaurateurs in Oakland, or whatever.
SS: Exactly. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the work that the reporters are doing. I don’t mean to sound a negative note about my beloved New York City, but I also think that the New York City food scene is a little troubled right now. It’s a little rocky.
EL: It’s a little muddy, I would say.
SS: Okay. Muddy’s a good word. It’s confusing to the outsider. Even the outsider like you or me who has observed it for much of their professional careers or his professional career. So, I’m really interested in other places and so are our reporters, and the reader is, I hope, to the benefit of that.
EL: As a business proposition, the Times’ growth is coming outside New York. What you’re doing at the section reflects in part some business realities.
SS: Well, let’s talk about business realities. I’m not a business guy. I never would pretend to be one and that’s probably a good thing for my family and my mental health because I’d be terrible at it. But I do know the realities, and the realities are that food sections at newspapers in the United States were traditionally tied directly to grocery store advertising. Those circulars came out on Wednesdays and that set the grocery stores up for a weekend of shopping. And that’s why there’s a Wednesday food section in all these American newspapers. But for the New York Times, at any rate, the notion that advertising is gonna be the revenue stream that we’re gonna depend on, that’s gone. We are a subscriber-based business. And if we look at our subscribers and we look at our readers, I think we’re about to pass a milestone which will show that we have more active readers in the state of California than we do in the state of New York.
EL: Yes, somebody else just told me that, which I think is a remarkable statistic.
SS: Well, at this point, with three million paying subscribers, that would be a lot of people in New York. So, it does spread out. But it also creates a desire on the part of the readers to know something about, in my case, the food scenes of the cities and states and regions and countries in which they live. That’s an opportunity for us for sure.
EL: One of the most fascinating aspects of your career at the Times is the way you slalomed in and out of the food world. You ended up as the culture editor of the paper. Did you seek out that gig? What was that transition like?
SS: Well, the transition was I moved from the food desk where I was running a weekly section to a deputy position on the culture desk, helping to run a report that came out seven days a week, and that had a much larger cast and crew. I was the deputy for a little more than a year before I ascended to the role of culture editor, running all those daily reports, the weekend report, and the arts and leisure section. I like news. I like management. I love critics. The transition was not as great as it might have been for someone else in so far as I had all these big powerful critics around me-
EL: So, you loved having lunch with these people?
SS: Yeah, and listening to them and giving them little chips of chocolate to make them happy and telling them how great they are.
EL: Even if it was dance or theater or whatever it was.
SS: Oh, absolutely. The wealth of institutional knowledge that they have as individuals, and in the case of some individuals, the polymathic interests that they have to spend time with Michael Kimmelman or Alastair Macaulay or someone who knows a great deal about a great number of things. Tony Scott, A.O. Scott, as he’s known to the readers. It’s like this … All of them are really. The chance to work with them, to solve problems for them, to help them do better work …
EL: And just to soak up what they know.
SS: It was really exciting, and I loved it. It helped cement in me a belief that I had on the food desk when I was on the food desk, and that I would hold dear when I returned to the world of food as a restaurant critic, that the opinion of a New York Times critic is news. They’re making news.
EL: It still is. Even with all the Yelps of the world.
SS: Well, that’s a different thing. Yelp is, “I went to the place. It was terrible and the portions were small.”
EL: Yeah, Yelp is Hyde Park in London.
SS: I think it’s actually some place in New Jersey.
EL: Right, exactly. So, from there, and we’ll get to your stint as restaurant critic in a second, you became national editor, which is still yet another quantum leap.
SS: Right. Being the national editor is like being in charge of a whack-a-mole game. The national editor of the New York Times is responsible for the 13 news bureaus that we maintain outside of the metropolitan region, outside of Washington, DC, which is covered by the DC bureau, or at least the federal government is. And the 40 or so reporters, I think it was 46 reporters when I was on the desk, responsible for the coverage of the nation. They move around with purpose. They have story lists. They’re following breaking news, but they’re also following feature news. They’re also following enterprise investigative news, and they’re moving around. The job of the national editor is to figure out what to do when invariably news breaks out where they’re not. Jack Healy was a Rocky Mountain correspondent based in Denver. The Aurora Batman shooting happened. We need to get going on that immediately obviously, but he’s in North Dakota reporting on a story. He’s six hours away.
EL: Got it.
SS: How do we start? There’s all this getting stringers going. It’s high stress, high organization. Pretty exciting. But the diet turns out to be fairly similar. There are school shootings. We have a lot of school shootings in the United States.
EL: Yes, we do.
SS: And pretty much every time I look at my phone, I’m thinking, “That’s another school shooting.” School shootings, weather events, animals that can’t cross big roads. You’re doing the same thing a bunch. I think we were talking with Dan Barry, my colleague who’s on the national desk, and just a marvelous writer who was writing a column called This Land, which has now been put together into a really great book also called This Land. It dispatches from the United States that he covered. He was kind enough to give me a nod in the acknowledgements, but he also … I think he was able to enumerate the number of national editors who he worked under, and it’s a big number.
EL: Was it weird that you had all these people reporting to you, doing a job that you had never done? Was there any resentment from people like, “Hey, this guy came from the culture desk and then he was a food guy before that”? Was that an issue?
SS: I don’t think so. I think that as I said earlier in our conversation, one of the things that I think is really important about the Times is that whatever your beat is, you ought to be able to do another beat. I don’t think I could walk on to any of these beats outside of my own and do well in the first day or even week or month, but I think we can figure it out. At the end of the day, we want to find the news, get the news, find out what other people don’t want you to know, but that the people ought to know, and then tell them. The transitive property of journalism says that that’s possible.
EL: So, it’s universal.
SS: Yeah. And one of the things … I’m gonna come back to this notion of these personalities with voices. One of the great things about the national desk is it’s filled with writers. They’re amazing reporters, but there are also amazing writers. That line of style you can trace from national correspondents, Kim Severson among them, through to culture critics, Mike Kimmelman, and then to restaurant critics as well, is to me like, “Okay, we got it. We know what we’re doing. We get the facts right, write it up beautiful. Get everybody crying.” That’s our job.
EL: Sam, we haven’t even gotten to how you have changed the food coverage in the Times in the internet age, so I’m gonna stop you right now. Thanks for letting us play this is your life with you, Sam Sifton. We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.
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