Special Sauce: Joe Yonan on Charting Your Own Path

Special Sauce: Joe Yonan on Charting Your Own Path


[Joe Yonan photograph: Lottie Hedley. Beans photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In part two of my far-ranging interview with Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan, we talked about his career in journalism and the ever-evolving world of food media.

Joe told me about his winding path to food journalism. After years of reporting local news, he eventually made his way to the Boston Globe. There, he became travel editor, but found himself yearning to write about food, instead. How did he manage to acquire one of the few coveted roles as staff food writer? He told his editor, “I’m going to leave… if anyone’s listening and you’re able to do this, make yourself indispensable and then threaten to leave.”

At a certain point, it felt like his career at the Globe was stalling. So when the Washington Post came calling in 2006, Yonan listened. “I just said, ‘I really want to do it.’ I mean, it also was more resources, bigger staff. I thought naively at the time that the Post was in so much better shape than the Globe was.”

Little did he know, Joe was about to take on the monumental task of shepherding the Post‘s Food section into the digital age, transferring thousands of recipes from the paper’s archive to its fledgling online database. Since that was shortly after I launched Serious Eats, Joe and I would have long conversations about where food media was going. “You know, Ed,” he said, “I remember your advice having something to do with my mindset back then… I knew what you were up to with Serious Eats… I remember you told me about Twitter. I mean, you didn’t tell me about it, but… I remember asking you. I was like, ‘You know, I don’t know. Should I bother with this? Should I bother?’ And you said, ‘You absolutely should bother.'”

We also got around to talking about my forthcoming memoir, Serious Eater, which Joe had just finished reading on the train up from DC. “It’s so much more dramatic than I had expected. I think for me what resonated was the passion and the drive to make something work in the face of all of these obstacles. I mean, just one obstacle after another. And just the commitment to keep going and making it work no matter what happened.” My thought? It’s not so different a story from his own.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non food folks alike.

Joe Yonan: I was writing stuff for food. I was on the copy desk, I couldn’t get attention. Sheryl was going on vacation and I convinced them to let me fill in as food editor for one week. And it was several months hence. Sheryl said, “I’ll just line up stories for you and you can… I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, and then you can just edit them all.” And I said, “Could you do me a favor? Don’t line up anything. I’ll handle everything.”

EL: We are back with Washington Post food editor and cookbook author Joe Yonan. You’ve written two cookbooks, you’ve edited a third. You shepherded the Washington Post into the digital age. It’s crazy, you know. It’s pretty impressive.

JY: Oh, thanks.

EL: You know, it’s like when I did my research, I was like, “Wow, man. Joe’s done a lot of stuff.”

JY: Oh, thanks, thanks. Coming from you, that’s actually quite the compliment.

EL: So, you’re in Boston.

JY: Yeah.

EL: You’ve transitioned to the food section.

JY: Yeah, mm-hmm.

EL: And then what made you decide to go to D.C.?

JY: Yeah.

EL: So, what year are we talking about?

JY: So, we’re talking about 2006. I went to The Globe in ’96 and left in 2006.

EL: Right, the year I launched Serious Eats as you know.

JY: Yes.

EL: Because you…

JY: Yes, yes. Exactly, yes. You know, I had worked at The Globe for 10 years at that point. I had been travel editor, and I had done a stint where I remade a lot of sections at The Globe. That was actually how I ended up getting them to put me in Food, is if anyone’s listening and you’re able to do this, make yourself indispensable and then threaten to leave. That is how you get people to try to…

EL: To pay attention.

JY: … give you what you want.

EL: Yeah.

JY: Or, at least to pay attention. So, Marty Baron was at The Globe at this point, he was the one that really paid attention to my desire to be in food. He’s the one who made me travel editor. But they didn’t… there wasn’t a position, really. So, first-

EL: Right, because Sheryl Julian was the longtime food editor, right?

JY: Yes. Sheryl Julian was the longtime food editor, Alison Arnett was the restaurant critic. There were no other positions. So, first I said… I got an offer, an outside offer after making myself indispensable doing all these other things. And I said, “I’m going to leave and let you put me in food as a writer.” So, Marty put me in food as a writer on a six month basis. And then the six months was up, and he tried to move me back, and so I just did the same thing again. So, I just got another offer and I said, “I’m going to leave, but this time it has to be permanent. You have to put me in food.” So, they put me in food permanently, and it was great for a couple of years. And then I really wanted to be the food editor.

EL: Right, and you were blocked.

JY: I was blocked, and I just, I was used to revamping things.

EL: Yeah.

JY: And there were things that I wanted to revamp about the section, and-

EL: There’s a woman at The Times who just retired, Trish Hall, who was in, I don’t know if you knew her. She was the revamping…

JY: Yeah.

EL: … king or queen of The New York Times.

JY: Yeah.

EL: Real estate, travel.

JY: Right.

EL: Food.

JY: Right.

EL: She had all those sections.

JY: It’s so fun to do that.

EL: Yeah.

JY: It’s super fun to do that, and I really couldn’t do that. And so when the job at The Post came up, I just said, “I really want to do it.” I mean, it also was more resources, bigger staff. I thought naively at the time that The Post was in so much better shape than The Globe was. The Globe, at that point, was really cutting. It was a lot of…

EL: Yes.

JY: Marty was managing decline. It was very difficult. Morale was in the toilet and I looked at The Post, and it just seemed like this promise land.

EL: The Graham family still owned the…

JY: The Graham family still owned it, mm-hmm.

EL: … majority of the stock, even though it was publicly traded company.

JY: Yep, that’s right. The Graham family still owned it. Lynn Downey, the wonderful Lynn Downey, was the editor. Phil Bennett was the managing editor, and when I went for interviews, they couldn’t have been nicer. They were just the nicest, nicest people I had ever met, honestly. And Boston people by contrast are not always known for being nice.

EL: And newspaper people in general…

JY: And newspaper people in general.

EL: … are not the friendliest, warmest people.

JY: Right. And I was this Southern guy who was relatively gregarious, and I always felt a little out of place in Boston. I have wonderful friends there but I always felt a little bit out of place, and D.C. felt like the South. I mean…

EL: Yeah, because it is.

JY: It’s below the Mason-Dixon Line.

EL: It’s below the Mason-Dixon Line.

JY: It is. I mean, when I was growing up, I thought that D.C. might as well have been Canada, right? I had no…

EL: Right.

JY: I had no clue. But from being in Boston, then I was like, oh yeah. Yeah, so I went to The Post in 2006 to edit the food section.

EL: And were you given carte blanche? Because one of the things that’s interesting about that year for me is it was the year I launched Serious Eats.

JY: Right.

EL: And the changes were being felt in the food culture and in food media.

JY: Absolutely.

EL: That blogs affected.

JY: Absolutely.

EL: And were you conscious of that at that time? At that moment, were you thinking, I’m going to steer this into the digital age? Or, were you still thinking… because a lot of people at The Times were like, “It’s still not news till we write about it.”

JY: Right, right. You know, Ed, I actually really remember, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating this. I remember your advice having something to do with my mindset back then because I remember we were still in touch after we had…

EL: Right.

JY: … gone on the Pizza Crawl. And I knew what you were up to with Serious Eats, and yeah. And I remember we had conversations, like I remember you told me about Twitter. I mean, you didn’t tell me about it.

EL: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s true.

JY: You didn’t break the news about Twitter to me, but I remember asking you. I was like, “You know, I don’t know. Should I bother with this? Should I bother?” And you said, “You absolutely should bother.”

EL: Well, because I met Twitter’s co-founder Evan Williams, who has now started Medium. He was partners with the first temporary CEO of Serious Eats.

JY: Right.

EL: A woman named Meg Hourihan.

JY: Right.

EL: And they developed the first blogging software.

JY: That’s right, right.

EL: Which they sold to Google, so they were both millionaires…

JY: Right.

EL: … by the time they were 30.

JY: Right, amazing. Amazing. And I remember asking you, and not just about Twitter.

EL: Right.

JY: About Twitter I remember you were saying to me, “Do it, and here’s my advice. Have personality, have fun. Don’t just put things out there.” And I remember talking to you about digital media because I remember, and we would talk about The Times some. And I remember saying I didn’t want The Post to be like that. So, yes, one of the very first things that we did when I got there was create a real recipe database that people could search for recipes, and we put thousands of recipes from our archives online and tried to create a space where people could come and filter through the recipes.

EL: Yeah.

JY: That was one of the first things that we did. Now, the problem is as much as I thought that The Post was so much better situated than The Globe, of course all the same factors were at play. The Post was just a few years ahead. So, within the few years, it felt like I was right back where I had been at The Globe.

EL: But you were limited in what you could do to sort of move…

JY: That’s exactly right.

EL: … the food section forward.

JY: That’s exactly right, because we were making a dime on the dollar, The Post was, for advertising. The digital advertising was paying a tiny fraction of what the print advertising was paying.

EL: Right. It still makes one tenth as much money for the same number of impressions.

JY: Right. So, we’re trying to grow the website, right? But it can’t grow fast enough because at that point, we didn’t have a paywall. So, we’re trying to grow the website fast enough to be able to increase the ad rates because we had more viewers.

EL: Right.

JY: Fast enough to make up for the drop off in the print advertising.

EL: In circulation, yeah.

JY: In circulation, right? So, it’s this horrible problem.

EL: It’s the ultimate catch 22.

JY: Right, right. And what happened was the Graham family is trying to distinguish The Post. So, what can we do? What is it that can set The Post apart from other papers? And one of the things that they did was say, “Okay, you know what? The Washington Post is going to be 100% for and about Washington.” So, it was double down, triple down, quadruple down on-

EL: Super serve.

JY: Super serve Washington. One of the things about The Post when I went there, I don’t know if this is still… this is probably still true for the print side. That The Post was known for, was it was the highest circulation paper that had the level of market penetration that it had. We had much deeper market penetration than The Times. So, the percentage of people in the D.C. area that subscribed to the physical Washington Post

EL: Right, was huge.

JY: … was higher than any other city in the country.

EL: Yeah.

JY: But obviously, there’s problems with that model. And it took Jeff Bezos, and Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Post to really help everybody realize that.

EL: Right, and it’s interesting because one of the things that the Graham family did is they decided to diversify, right?

JY: Right.

EL: So, they bought Newsweek.

JY: Yes, exactly.

EL: They bought Stanley Kaplan, the test.

JY: Oh man, that’s right.

EL: Remember that stuff?

JY: Oh, I tried to forget that, Ed.

EL: It’s like many other publicly held but privately run.

JY: Right.

EL: Like The Times, all the attempts at diversification failed.

JY: Right.

EL: It must have been difficult trying to shepherd this food section knowing what’s going on.

JY: Yes.

EL: And knowing that there’s only so much you can do until Bezos bought the paper. And what he did, and he’s a complex guy, we don’t need to go into that stuff.

JY: Yeah.

EL: But he must have put the wind back into your sail.

JY: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. And yes, he’s a complicated figure, but he invested smartly in the paper, in engineering and development. And he lifted the shackles of the for and about Washington mantra from the paper, and we wanted this. It wasn’t like anyone was arguing with this, we all wanted it. I was doing national food stories as much as I could. I was finding little D.C. angles to slip into national food stories.

EL: Right.

JY: To try to make sure that nobody noticed that-

EL: You were finding the loophole the same way you found the loophole…

JY: Exactly.

EL: … when you went shopping for your mother.

JY: That’s exactly right, I’m a loophole guy. But he made us realize that the only way to survive was to build scale. And the only way to build scale is to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, right? So, that’s what we started doing again, and to really focus on scale. And also one of the big things that we did that we had never really done was pay a lot more attention to the digital headlines, to… there was more of a social media strategy. Before that, it was all-

EL: Right, and they gave you… A lot of papers, there would be this divide. Like, “Okay, you run the digital food side and you run the print food side.”

JY: Right, exactly.

EL: It’s like, that never made sense to me.

JY: No, it was terrible. When I first went to The Post, the website was across the river, man. It was a different division of the company.

EL: Yeah, that’s crazy.

JY: It was crazy. So, we had merged before Bezos bought us, so we were sort of prime for this. But yes, when I first went there, I would edit a story. A reporter would write a story and just the story, and send it to me. And I would edit just the text, and I would send it along to a copy editor, and they would write a headline. And a photo editor would find a photo and put it on it, and then once the website started getting integrated, we had these production editors who would try to dress it up. Well, guess what’s happened?

EL: Right.

JY: I mean, now it’s basically back to my old days of community journalism. I do everything now, which is awesome.

EL: Yeah.

JY: That’s how I want it. I mean, I have a photo editor.

EL: Yeah, yeah.

JY: And we have photographers, and we have-

EL: You have people.

JY: I have people, but I’m still putting the package together now.

EL: Yeah.

JY: So, and it makes me… I need to think about, who is this for? What audience is this for? How are we reaching them? Is this… are we positioning this story to get an audience through search, through Google Search? Or, are we positioning it to be passed along through social? Are we trying to do both?

EL: What’s fascinating is you’re not an entrepreneur by inclination, and yet you found yourself doing entrepreneurial thinking.

JY: Right.

EL: Within the confines of bigger organizations.

JY: That’s right, that’s right. I just don’t get maybe the payoff…

EL: Yeah.

JY: … that you might get if you were a successful entrepreneur like you, Ed.

EL: I don’t know about that. It was crazy, and I don’t think you want to live through what I lived through. So, somehow you found time to write a cookbook called Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One .

JY: Yep.

EL: In 2001.

JY: Mm-hmm.

EL: Which you didn’t take a leave, I believe. I can’t remember if you did, or maybe you did just a very short one.

JY: Very short.

EL: Yeah.

JY: Yeah.

EL: And what I found so interesting about the cookbooks is… they’re, in their own way, quite personal and revealing.

JY: Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm.

EL: It’s like you didn’t shy away from it. What’s it like cooking for one?

JY: Right.

EL: And is it lonely? Is it not lonely?

JY: Right, right.

EL: And I assume it has to come from your personal experience, it has to be autobiographical.

JY: Yeah, yeah. It totally was. Well, I’m married now, but I was single for a really long time. And one of the things that I wanted to do with that book, which sort of grew out of the column I was writing for The Post, was really say to people… it actually can get kind of emotional. But to say to people, “You know what? You’re worth it.”

EL: Right.

JY: People would always say to me, “Why would I go to all the trouble to cook for myself when it’s just me?” And I always would say, “Why wouldn’t you? I mean, you’re the most important person…”

EL: Right.

JY: … to cook for.”

EL: Right.

JY: But yeah, so I tried to really inspire people to have fun and think about it in a different way. But also, yeah, I didn’t shy away from this don’t get caught up in this idea that you’re not important enough, you know?

EL: Yeah.

JY: Really try to celebrate yourself.

EL: And even for the second book, which was 2013, which was Eat Your Vegetables, it sort of talks about your path to vegetarianism.

JY: Yep.

EL: And you did take a leave, I remember talking to you about it.

JY: Yeah.

EL: It was like, “I’m going to go live with my brother in Maine.”

JY: My sister and brother-in-law, yeah.

EL: Yeah.

JY: Yeah, yeah. It was amazing.

EL: And you went up there and you were actually gardening, right?

JY: Yeah, yes.

EL: You were raising, growing vegetables.

JY: They grow almost all their own food on an incredible piece of property. You should really try to see it some time.

EL: Really?

JY: I would totally send you by there if you’re ever in the… My sister would love to meet you.

EL: It’s in Maine, right?

JY: In Southern Maine, in North Berwick. It’s about a couple hours north of Boston. Went up there partly to work on the book. I also, I had had this… well, frankly, I had laid somebody off at The Post. It was the first time I had to actually tell, have that conversation.

EL: Probably the most painful thing you can do.

JY: It’s the most painful thing you can do, and it was around budget time. And I thought to myself, I don’t want to be here during the next budget season. I don’t, I can’t do this again. Simultaneously, I had just had a really traumatic experience where my beloved dog died very suddenly and unexpectedly in my apartment.

EL: Oh my God.

JY: And then at the very same time, right around the same time, the only place that I really was having, finding any solace at the time, was this community garden I had been in for a few years. It was this beautiful, 20 year old, all organic, 80 plot community garden. And the landowners decided to live up to the Joni Mitchell song and to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

EL: Wow.

JY: So, I didn’t want to be at work. I didn’t want to be at home, and I couldn’t be in the garden. And I was like, I have to get the hell out of town. I have to.

EL: Wow.

JY: And so I was simultaneously talking to Ten Speed about another book, and I just was like, I want to go live with my sister. We’re very close and I want to go live with her, and if I can’t garden here, I want to learn how they do it. And so that was why.

EL: Which is even harder in Southern Maine given the climatic conditions.

JY: Oh my Lord.

EL: So, you actually took a leave because I remember you appointed a temporary replacement for you.

JY: Mm-hmm. My deputy editor, Bonnie Benwick, took over the section for a year. And yeah, they made it all work and I walked away. And I wrote, I still wrote… was it monthly at the time? Yeah, it was monthly, and I wrote a little…

EL: Dispatches from Maine.

JY: Yes. Single cooking, not really for yourself.

EL: Yeah.

JY: Kind of with other people, yeah.

EL: What I realized in doing the research for these episodes is, the personal stuff you sort of save for the cookbooks.

JY: Yeah, interesting.

EL: More than anything you wrote in the paper. And I don’t know if that was conscious. Probably from what you’re saying, it doesn’t sound like it was conscious.

JY: No, no it wasn’t.

EL: Maybe you thought that that didn’t belong in the paper, or…

JY: That’s interesting. Yeah, I haven’t really ever thought about that before. I think it might’ve just been… I feel like I dabbled in it in the paper maybe, but I think it probably was just that I didn’t have time to write anything of length in the paper. I don’t think I thought that it was inappropriate for the paper, although yeah, it’s interesting. Not inappropriate in general, but maybe not… there wasn’t a natural hump for it.

EL: Got it.

JY: In what I was editing in the food section.

EL: Got it, sure.

JY: How do I make these connections?

EL: Sure, yeah.

JY: But I think part of it might’ve just been that I was… I didn’t have time.

EL: Yeah, for sure.

JY: It wasn’t until I was working on the book that I felt like I had time to do it.

EL: You know, one of the many ways our lives have intersected over the years is one of the first people I hired at Serious Eats was Erin Zimmer.

JY: I know, she’s so great.

EL: Who is the greatest, and she immediately established her bonafides with me by saying she knew you.

JY: Yep.

EL: And I think you were even giving her some assignments, or…

JY: Yeah, I had just started giving her assignments.

EL: And now Elazar, who works for me at Serious Eats…

JY: Yeah, that’s right.

EL: … is now doing… you were very, because people always talk about, how did I find all these people? It was really through people like you and through blogs.

JY: Yep.

EL: And it was also the only people I could afford. You know, it’s like…

JY: Right, right.

EL: You read the book. Kenji was like, “What am I doing?”

JY: I couldn’t believe that. I was like, “Oh my God.”

EL: It’s like, this guy is paying me $35 a story and I’m putting my life in his hands.

JY: Oh man. It’s worked out okay for Kenji, but yeah.

EL: Yes, it’s worked out okay for Kenji. And it’s also, and I don’t know if you feel this way, and I say this in Serious Eater. And by the way, thank you for all the kind words about the book.

JY: Oh yes, I love it.

EL: But it’s like the greatest, most unexpected pleasure I got from Serious Eats was finding young, talented people.

JY: Yeah.

EL: And giving them the runway they needed.

JY: Yeah.

EL: To become whatever it is they could become.

JY: Yeah.

EL: And I don’t know if you feel that way about the section.

JY: Of course, I so do. I so do. You know, Ed, I didn’t say this when we were talking about The Boston Globe, but when I decided that I was going to go to culinary school and change my career toward food, I reached out to the two staffers in food at The Boston Globe. One of them did not respond, and I was working at the paper, mind you. One of them did not respond and the other one, remember I was working nights. The other one said, “Don’t quit your night job.”

EL: Whoa, nice. That’s supportive.

JY: Yeah, yeah. I was happy to, at one point become, at least for a short period, one of those people’s boss, which was…

EL: Sweet.

JY: Which was sweet. But I really vowed then that I would never do that to people. That if someone reached out to me that I knew had an energy and an interest in food journalism, I would try to give them some of my time.

EL: Yeah.

JY: Now, you know, and I’m sure this happens to you. I do get a ton of people asking me that, and it’s impossible to give everyone a lot of time. But I try to respond to everybody and when I do find people that I think are interesting and that seem like they have some talent. And they want to put in the work, that’s another requirement, that I really enjoy working with them. Elazar is a joy to work with.

EL: Yeah, and he’s like 21 years old.

JY: He’s so young.

EL: By the time he’s 30, I think he’s going to be the boss of both of us.

JY: I know, probably.

EL: But it’s okay, it’s fun. When I sent you the copy of the book, you actually responded and said, “Oh, it’s great.” So, I have to ask you, what resonated with you?

JY: Oh, man. Well, I think I told you it’s so much more dramatic than I had expected. From the outside, and even though you and I have talked about these things, I certainly wasn’t privy to all of the angst and the crises that you were facing all the time. I think for me what resonated was the passion and the drive to make something work in the face of all of these obstacles.

EL: It was insane.

JY: I mean, just one obstacle after another. And just the commitment to keep going and making it work no matter what happened.

EL: Yeah, yeah.

JY: I thought was fascinating. And the fact that you were, I mean honestly, it’s just every chapter is a cliffhanger because you were always on the cliff.

EL: Exactly. I always say I was never slash raising money.

JY: Right.

EL: And so it really was one crisis after another, and as you read about, it was my wife who literally, I was going to continue.

JY: Right.

EL: And then she was just like, “No mas.”

JY: Right, right.

EL: “I can’t do this anymore.” So, anyway, I’m so glad that you liked the book because it was… you know, I’d never written a book like that before.

JY: Right.

EL: And the idea that I could write a coherent book length nonfiction narrative.

JY: Right.

EL: I felt like, you know, I think you’re much… I regard most people as much better writers than me.

JY: Oh, I don’t know about that.

EL: But I just was so amazed that what came out was coherent, you know?

JY: Yeah, yeah.

EL: And at first I was like, “I hope it doesn’t suck.” And now I actually think it’s pretty good.

JY: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, that feeling right before it comes out especially when you’re like, am I the only… I had this feeling, everything I’ve written, where you think, am I the only person who is going to get this?

EL: Yes.

JY: Am I the only person who thinks this is cool? Maybe I’m wrong and it’s really bad.

EL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, for sure.

JY: Yeah.

EL: So, all right. Now, it’s time for the all you can answer Special Sauce buffet.

JY: Oh, I should have studied.

EL: No, there’s no reason to. So, who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. So, your husband can’t be there.

JY: Okay.

EL: Your many brothers and sisters who are still with us, none of those people, because then people would just say their family.

JY: Nina-

EL: Writers?

JY: Nina Simone.

EL: Nina Simone? You already earned a place at the Special Sauce permanent table.

JY: Honestly, do I need to even have anyone other than Nina Simone? I mean, if Nina Simone is at the table, I sort of feel like I don’t know if anybody else needs to be there because I just am going to want to talk to her.

EL: Oh, God. Nina Simone… in the book, as you know, I worked for concert promoters for a few years.

JY: Yeah…

EL: And we actually did some Nina Simone shows, and-

JY: Did you get to meet her?

EL: Yes, and it was really difficult because Nina Simone, if you saw the documentary-

JY: Oh, amazing documentary.

EL: You know, had many issues.

JY: Yeah.

EL: But when she was present and singing, it was the world had stopped.

JY: Magic.

EL: It was like magic.

JY: Magic. The tone, the tone of that voice. I could hear her forever.

EL: And the way she could penetrate anyone’s psyche.

JY: Yeah, absolutely.

EL: With seemingly simple lyrics.

JY: Yep, absolutely. Just stunning.

EL: Yeah, stunning.

JY: Absolutely stunning.

EL: So, I don’t know. I think I may let you off the hook.

JY: Okay, all right.

EL: I may let you have a dinner for two.

JY: Yes.

EL: And then you can write a cookbook about dinners for two.

JY: Dinners for two with me and Nina.

EL: With Nina Simone. So, what are you eating?

JY: What am I eating? Oh, at this dinner?

EL: Yeah.

JY: Oh, we’re at the dinner. Oh God, okay, wow.

EL: You could have somebody cooking for you or you could cook it yourself, so…

JY: I could have somebody cooking for me. If I could have somebody cooking for me, I think I’d probably… why wouldn’t I have someone cooking for me? Who is that? Wow, this is a very difficult question. I mean, of course I want to ask Nina what she feels like eating as a host, right?

EL: Because you want to make her happy.

JY: It’s like I want to make her happy, I want to make her happy. Can the person who’s cooking for us also be dead?

EL: Sure.

JY: Well, it’s Edna Lewis. I want dinner by Edna Lewis with me and Nina Simone.

EL: Okay, you’ve just entered the Special Sauce hall of fame by conjuring up Nina Simone and Edna Lewis.

JY: Right?

EL: The famous African American cook who was incredibly influential.

JY: Yes.

EL: And seemingly every few years gets another moment in the sun.

JY: Right.

EL: Somebody writes another bio, somebody updates a cookbook. You know, it’s like…

JY: Yep.

EL: And I think it’s happening now. I think I got some press release, there’s something happening at the Museum of Food and Drink in Manhattan that’s related to Edna Lewis that I don’t remember how.

JY: They’re reissuing In Pursuit of Flavor.

EL: That’s right.

JY: Which is the first book before Taste of Country Cooking. But yeah, and there was a beautiful anthology out that I had a piece in called Edna Lewis at the Table, I think.

EL: Yeah, yeah.

JY: Edited by Sara Franklin, yeah.

EL: Yeah.

JY: I want Edna Lewis because I never got to eat Edna Lewis’ food direct, so…

EL: I did once.

JY: Did you?

EL: At Gage and Tollner.

JY: Oh, great. Yeah.

EL: And I was like, you know, “This place is a tourist trap.” And I didn’t know shit at the time, and then I was like, “This is good.”

JY: That’s so great. I mean-

EL: Yeah, because she was the chef there for a couple of years I think.

JY: That’s right, yeah. That’s right.

EL: So, that’s awesome. So, what do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?

JY: Oh, tacos.

EL: Tacos.

JY: Yeah.

EL: Because you always have tortillas.

JY: I always have tortillas, and I always have cans of beans, and I always have eggs, and I always have sweet potatoes, and I often have pickled onions in the fridge, and I always have salsa that I made. So, I make tacos out of, I roast sweet potatoes or microwave them if I don’t have time.

EL: Yeah.

JY: And I cook some eggs. Fried egg, sweet potato, pickled onion, salsa taco is kind of awesome.

EL: It’s like your West Texas roots.

JY: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

EL: Do you have a guilty pleasure?

JY: I don’t really believe in the guilt, but…

EL: Okay, that’s good. Besides our mutual fondness for Mr. Goodbars.

JY: Yes, yes. Mr. Goodbars. I like everything. What is something that’s sort of low brow that I like? I like… well, you know I eat bivalves.

EL: Right.

JY: That’s one of my exceptions. I eat oysters, muscles, and clams because I don’t think they’re sentient, and other reasons. But I really like smoked oysters out of the can.

EL: That’s good. Well, you know there are whole-

JY: It’s kind of low brow.

EL: You know there are whole tapas restaurants in Barcelona.

JY: Yes.

EL: That serve only canned seafood.

JY: Only canned seafood, yeah.

EL: I know, it’s… and I went to one, it was awesome.

JY: Yeah.

EL: So, what’s on your nightstand now, book wise?

JY: Oh, what’s on my nightstand? Well, Serious Eater was just on my nightstand. I brought it with me.

EL: I appreciate that.

JY: Yeah, I’m not lying. This is not just for you, it really was. I was trying to read it. Not trying to read it, I was enjoying reading it. There’s a book, My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing is a book that I got because it was recommended for people who liked Gone Girl, and…

EL: Got it.

JY: …. The Woman in the Window, I’ve sort of been getting into those sort of thrillers lately.

EL: Are you a Laura Lippman fan?

JY: I have been, yeah.

EL: Yeah. She’s my wife’s client, and I’m reading her new book.

JY: Oh, great.

EL: Which I think is called The Lady in the Lake, I could be wrong.

JY: Oh, yeah. No, I think it is.

EL: It’s great.

JY: Is it great? Okay.

EL: It’s amazing.

JY: All right, okay. I’ll get it.

EL: She’s from Baltimore, so you know…

JY: Yes, of course.

EL: Some people call Baltimore and Washington one market. I think it’s definitely two markets.

JY: Definitely two markets.

EL: So, who’s had the greatest influence on your career?

JY: The greatest practical impact? It feels horrible to say this, but it’s Marty Baron.

EL: I was going to say, I was going to suggest that.

JY: I mean, it’s Marty Baron because when I was at The Globe, the story that I didn’t get to tell a little bit earlier, I’ll try to make it quick, is that I was writing stuff for food. I was on the copy desk, I couldn’t get attention, and Sheryl was going on vacation. And I convinced them to let me fill in as food editor for one week, and it was several months hence. And Sheryl said, “I’ll just line up…” I love Sheryl, by the way.

EL: Right.

JY: Sheryl said, “I’ll just line up stories for you and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, and then you can just edit them all.” And I said, “Could you do me a favor? Don’t line up anything. I’ll handle everything.” And so I ended up doing this crazy reader cook off, sort of Iron Chef style.

EL: Right.

JY: And it was a production. We actually did it at my culinary school…

EL: That’s awesome.

JY: And did this huge package, and Marty really loved it. And he gave me a shot at being travel editor after that.

EL: That’s great.

JY: If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know where any of this would’ve gone.

EL: And now he’s at The Post.

JY: And now he’s at The Post.

EL: And of course, people know them from the movie Spotlight.

JY: Right. He’s really, honestly, the best editor on the planet.

EL: Yeah.

JY: What can I say?

EL: Yeah.

JY: He really is.

EL: He’s a friend of my brother. I have a brother who’s a conductor, somehow became friends with Marty Baron.

JY: Oh, great.

EL: I don’t even know how, but okay. So, it’s just been declared Joe Yonan day.

JY: That is so nice. I didn’t know you had the ability to do that, Ed.

EL: All over the world.

JY: Wow.

EL: So, what’s happening on that day?

JY: Wow, what is happening on Joe Yonan day? Oh my God, okay. Well, people are eating completely plant based for this day.

EL: I don’t know, I might have to ascend this question.

JY: Okay, maybe you can have some cheese.

EL: No, no, it’s okay.

JY: Cheese.

EL: Okay.

JY: But people are eating a lot of beans, Ed.

EL: Okay.

JY: Beans.

EL: That’s good.

JY: That’s my next book, it’s about beans.

EL: Really?

JY: Yeah. My next book is about beans, coming out next year. But people are eating a lot of beans, people are listening to a lot of really great music. They’re listening to a lot of Nina Simone.

EL: Awesome.

JY: Just to take us back, Amy Winehouse. Basically, I’m curating everybody’s playlist for the day, so that’s fun.

EL: Didn’t you love the fact that they let me put it in the Serious Eats playlist?

JY: I love that. I love that, I really wish that I had taken the time to download the playlist and listen to it while I was reading it. I may have to do that and read it again.

EL: Yeah. It’s pretty cool because actually what Penguin has done is they’ve created the Serious Eater playlist on Spotify.

JY: Oh, that’s great.

EL: So-

JY: So, I can just grab it.

EL: Yeah, yeah. You can just grab it.

JY: Yeah.

EL: So, wow. Okay, this is really cool. Well, I can’t tell you how much fun this has been. And just because you named Nina Simone and Edna Lewis, for those reasons alone…

JY: I’m so glad.

EL: … this has been a great time. So, thank you for sharing your Special Sauce with us.

JY: Oh, thanks for having me.

EL: Joe Yonan. And by all means, subscribe to The Washington Post even if you don’t live in D.C. because it is worth every cent to subscribe to The Washington Post. I say that as a subscriber.

JY: Thank you.

EL: And it’s really important, actually.

JY: Good journalism is not just worth paying for, but it needs support.

EL: Yes, exactly. And just buy one of Joe’s books, and we can’t wait for the beans cookbook to come out.

JY: Thank you.

EL: It’s really been a pleasure, and so long Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time.

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