Q&A: Dan Pashman of The Sporkful - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Dan Pashman of The Sporkful

As host of The Sporkful podcast, which celebrated 10 years this past September, Dan Pashman has had some less-than-typical conversations about food and drink, whether talking with Weird Al Yankovic about his food parody songs, or discussing the finer points of drinking in the shower. But over the course of a decade, more than 500 episodes, a book (Eat More Better), a show for the Cooking Channel, and a James Beard Award for Best Food Podcast, he’s found that food and drinks are actually a great platform to learn more about people. We chatted with Pashman for our January/February 2021 issue about how the show has evolved over 10 years, why we should be having uncomfortable conversations, and why he’s not afraid to drink Guinness on the beach.

Imbibe: The tagline for your podcast is “It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters.” What’s the difference and why was that distinction important to you? Dan Pashman: Well, everybody eats. Foodies are people who connect food with status. So they care about being able to brag about which restaurants they’ve been to or which chefs they know about, or which ingredients they cooked with. Even though they would object to me putting it this way, the truth is that it makes them feel superior. To me, I’m very turned off by pretentiousness in general, and people who use food for status. I like to eat well but I don’t really care about going to the cool new restaurants. People ask me for restaurant recommendations and I’m like, “My family and I go to Panera. Have you been to Panera?” So that’s the difference. And it’s a show for drinkers too, but not beer or wine or liquor snobs. The dynamic with drinks is similar. Craft beer has been especially hard hit with a wave of snobbery. What used to be the competition over which restaurants you’ve been to is now, “Well, have you tried this brewery?” And 99 percent of these people can’t taste the difference between 99 percent of these breweries. That may be sacrilegious to say in Imbibe, but that’s my hot take.

You just celebrated the show’s 10th anniversary in 2020, and the concept that you sort of evolved into is that through food, you learn about people. What do you feel like you’ve learned about people through what we eat and drink? I think I’ve learned that, rather than getting into discussions about whether somebody is right or wrong, it’s more constructive to ask whether you can see it from the other person’s perspective. When you start conversations that way, as opposed to “Is this person right?” which is often the direction things go, because that framing is good on cable news and social media—“Is this person right or wrong? Fight!” But it’s just not helpful to think about things that way. I’ve learned it’s more useful to ask, “Can you understand how this person might feel this way?” Because the other thing I’ve learned is that there’s this cliché that food brings people together, or drinks bring people together. And it’s true that often when people are gathering, there’s food and drink. But, really, it’s just a tool… people bring people together. So, it’s a tool that can also be used to divide and separate people. Various religions’ dietary laws were created, in part at least, to prevent intermarriage. And many of the dietary restrictions—while I know that people have legitimate medical conditions and ethical concerns, so it may not be the intention—but it’s sometimes the effect that these things end up separating people. And the same thing with a fancy bar where the drinks are expensive; if that’s where you choose to hang out, then you’re excluding people who can’t afford to drink there. So food and drink can be used to bring people together or to divide people, and create a feeling of superiority.

You’ve had conversations with a lot of interesting people who seemingly have no connection with food or drinks—and even refused to interview chefs for several years. Do any of those guests or episodes stand out for you for the connection you were able to share? Definitely. The episode we did with the comedian Ron Funches years ago. He’s a great person and a very thoughtful and funny comic, and part of the conversation was about his son who has autism, and to some degree that affects the way his son eats, so we were talking about the struggles that he has with his son, and it ended up being a very personal conversation. People loved that episode, they really connected with it. It’s probably one of our most beloved episodes ever. A chef is liable to first think about food as a sum of its parts and the techniques and ingredients that created it. Whereas an average person is more quickly going to connect food with people and experiences because they’re not thinking as much about, “Well, what temperature did I roast that broccoli at?” or “What was the bitterness rating on that beer?” They’re just thinking, did it taste good and what happened? What did I learn? Fortune Feimster was a comic we had on recently and she was great, talking about growing up as a chubby kid in the south and the role that food played in her life, and also in meeting her soon-to-be-wife and them having this big fight over her eating habits. So it was a window into two peoples’ relationship that happens through food. I mean, people eat two to three times a day hopefully, so there are always going to be life things happening around that.

You started having conversations about food and race years ago, and your 2019 episode “When White People Say Plantation” won a Webby and was also nominated for a James Beard Award. Have you detected a shift in your conversations, where people are more receptive to thinking critically about topics that before might have seemed innocuous? Well, I’ve said before, people like to argue about “is this racist or not” or “is that person racist or not?” And that’s not always the most constructive approach. If you instead try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, as much as reasonably possible, you’re going to learn a lot more. If someone feels a certain way about their experience, then you should accept that as legitimate. When someone else’s experience makes you feel bad, there’s a tendency to say, “Well, I don’t like that this is making me feel bad, so I’m going to discount this person’s experience.” I think there’s often an undermining that happens to other people’s experiences, because it’s easier than having to think about our own blind spots. But I didn’t set out to change people’s minds. I don’t think of my role or the show’s role as that of an activist; I’m more interested in finding gray areas where different people and ideas come together and what happens when it gets complicated and there isn’t an easy answer. That’s an interesting place to be, and that’s where you find good shows. But you also have to get to a point where you don’t mind having uncomfortable conversations. I think we white people in particular are accustomed to not having to be uncomfortable, so it was a hurdle for me to get over—asking questions that are liable to have uncomfortable answers, or make me look or sound foolish or ignorant. But I’ve tried to model an uncomfortable conversation in the hopes that it’s helpful to other people.  

People are always asking you what your favorite food is, but we’re interested in what’s in your glass. What’s your favorite drink? I don’t know if I could pick one favorite. To me, my selection of what I’m drinking at a given moment is dictated by two factors: When am I gonna start drinking and when am I gonna start eating? Or did I already eat, and how much? Because I put a lot of thought into buzz management, by which I mean, manage your buzz to the point you want it to be at. It could be an 11. The point is not necessarily to be responsible, but to set a goal and achieve that goal, and not to exceed or fall short. You want to advance to the desired buzz and maintain, and that requires a calibrated deployment of food in relation to drink. If I know I’m going to be eating a lot or if I just ate a lot, then I’m going to liquor—I want something strong but not heavy. If it’s the middle of the afternoon and I want one drink, or if it’s the evening and I want a drink to relax, that’s beer time to me. I’m really not a wine drinker. It’s usually either a cocktail—and my go-to is a good tequila and seltzer and a lot of fresh squeezed lime—or for beer, for the past two years I’ve been on a major Guinness kick. And I used to think Guinness was only for cold weather, and now I drink Guinness at the beach and I find it delightful. I like it right out of the can, even though the instructions say pour it in a glass. Also, there is a drink I’ll recommend called the Lawn Dart, which I learned about on a podcast called Let’s Drink About It. It has tequila, gin, agave syrup, lime juice, muddled green peppers and green Chartreuse. It’s incredibly good. It’s very strong so I often cut it with a bit of seltzer. But it is fantastic—very herbaceous and sweet and strong, but also kind of bitter; it’s got everything going on. If I’m doing a BBQ and want a signature cocktail, I’ll make a big batch in a mason jar. So, Guinness out of a can on the beach, and Lawn Darts.

In 2020, you also launched Sporkful Media. What kinds of projects will we see from that? There are two projects right now in development. One is a new podcast with Stitcher, another food podcast that I’ll executive produce and help to create and oversee, but not host. The second is a TV show with a company called Zero Point Zero Productions; they’re the same folks who made Anthony Bourdain’s shows, and they do W. Kamau Bell’s show [United Shades of America]. We’ve developed the show and are pitching it around now, but I think I can say it’s a very different kind of food TV show.  

You also teased that in 2021, you’re going to kick off the biggest, craziest most ambitious project in Sporkful history … want to tell us what it is? Or give us a hint? I don’t think I can tell you what it is, but very careful Sporkful listeners will probably be able to figure it out because it has been referenced in the past. But it will be a lot of fun. I don’t know that it would have been ready for 2020 anyway, but part of the reason we pushed it was because it didn’t feel like the year we wanted to do something fun and weird. But I’m optimistic that 2021 will be the year that everyone will be craving something fun and weird.

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