A Serving of The Sporkful: A Conversation with Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison

In one sense, podcasts seem like the fan magazines of the Internet age: low budget productions made by passionate amateurs, given mass distribution thanks to the World Wide Web.

In another sense, the “podwaves” represent an opportunity for seasoned radio professionals to separate themselves from corporate concerns or editorial interference and call their own shots.

Enter Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison, former NPR colleagues that have teamed up for The Sporkful: it’s a podcast, a blog, and, really, a forum for ongoing, lively discussion across social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc) regarding food.

But The Sporkful isn’t necessarily a show for the Bon Appetite crowd. Well, actually, anybody interested in either food or just entertaining conversation should love the Sporkful. Let’s just say it isn’t catering to the “drinking tea with a raised pinky” crowd.

The Sporkful launched fairly recently; with only 10 episodes in the can, each weighing in at about 15 minutes, it’s super easy to get caught up. By the same token, these tight shows focus on the culinary subject of the day — not navel-gazing or self-reflection. Accordingly, The Sporkful’s proprietors remain a little mysterious.

Fortunately, Dan and Mark acquiesced to speak with Osmosis Online about the show’s genesis, their philosophy on food and foodies, and just why The Sporkful is a place where “Sacred Cows Get Grilled.”

Osmosis Online: “The Sporkful isn’t for foodies, it’s for eaters” says the landing page. How would you differentiate the two?

Dan: I think the term “foodie” implies a certain amount of pretension and exclusivity, while the term “eater” basically applies to everyone. Even if you can’t cook or don’t go to fancy restaurants, you’re still an expert on eating. When you’re at a party and you go for the potato chips, why do you pick out the chip you picked? When you make a PB&J, how do you layer the ingredients? We got a great comment recently after our PB&J show that said, “I never realized I had so many opinions about PB&J!” That’s the ultimate compliment for us, when people get sucked into our absurd debates on topics they didn’t even know they cared about.

Mark: So far we’ve found the show appeals to both, and of course everybody is welcome. And I’m a little bit of both, so there’s plenty of overlap. There are a lot of ways one can define it, but for me, an eater makes food choices solely on the awesomeness of the consumption experience. Not that foodies don’t love awesome, delicious things, but they choose with other considerations in mind also. That could be accurately representing a certain regional cuisine, fealty to a certain style of cooking/particular chef, or ingredient choice based on any number of factors from health to locality. I think about these things too and some of that shows up in Sporkful, but at its core, Sporkful is of, for and by eaters.

OO: Your site references that you’re former coworkers at NPR. Were you both on-air talent? Why did you decide to start “The Sporkful”?

Dan: Before going to NPR, I was a producer on the original morning show on Air America Radio, Morning Sedition with Marc Maron, and I had my own segment for a while called “Pashman’s Rules.” Each week I’d explain another life theory of mine, and I soon realized that about 90% of them involved food. So that was probably the very first kernel of The Sporkful. When I met Mark, I quickly discovered that he was a kindred spirit on the food front. I remember sending an email to the NPR show staff about ordering Cuban sandwiches, and Mark came over to my desk in about three seconds and proceeded to ask a string of very detailed questions about the nature of the establishment from which the sandwiches would be procured, then held forth on the issue of Cuban sandwiches in general. I’d like to say that we shared a Cuban sandwich “Lady and the Tramp” style, but we actually each got our own.

Mark: I was the newscaster for an NPR show called the Bryant Park Project, and Dan was a producer who contributed pretty frequently on-air. BPP was a blast to do and had incredibly loyal listeners, many of whom have followed us all the way to The Sporkful, nearly two years after the final BPP. The conversations you hear us have on The Sporkful are a lot like the talk we had around the BPP office. After the show was canceled, I remember us meeting with friends over burgers when we were first talking about doing something together. As a test, Dan put forth his rigorously tested theory of how cheeseburgers are better with the cheese on the bottom. The whole table was weighing in with really elaborate, detailed reasoning for and against this, as well as interesting thoughts on condiments, bread, etc. None of these people were hard-core foodies, but they were very much into the conversation. That’s when I knew it could work.

OO: Any key differences between podcasting and traditional radio from the content creators’ standpoint?

Mark: BPP had a major podcast/online/interactive component, so we’ve carried those lessons forward. I think the main thing is with a podcast, someone actively chooses to stream or download you, so you know they come with some degree of interest. So that means less time spent on setup and more time getting straight to the conversation. Feedback is a key element of Sporkful and we weave it into everything we do, whether it’s the blog, podcast, Facebook page or Twitter stream.

Dan: I think one big difference is that there is no clock, so you can say as much or as little as you want. We try to keep our podcast tight, which is a challenge when no external force is making you keep it short.

OO: The amount you guys spend on the nature of food construction (the aforementioned cheese placement; your epic “spreading jam on top of peanut butter” debate) is definitely part of what makes the podcast so amusing. Do either of you obsess about the details in other mediums/subjects, or is food somehow special and more deserving of quantification/over-quantification?

Mark: Thanks! Food especially, but with me those traits certainly shows up on other topics. Whether it is to an unhealthy point is for my girlfriend to decide.

Dan: Ditto.

OO: I’m an unabashed fan of the show — but I also listen to an embarrassing number of podcasts every week. Why is the show the relatively short length that it is?

Dan: Keeping it short increases the chance that people will check out your podcast, because you’re not asking for much of an initial time investment. And while I do think we’re on to something good here and we have plenty of topics yet to cover, the show is pretty specific and we don’t want it to wear thin. I’m a big believer in the old cliche that it’s always better to leave people wanting more.

Mark: We can and do go on for longer, but we edit the show down to make sure listeners get only the best stuff, and that it’s short enough (usually around 15 minutes) that it’s quick and easy to listen to. Sometimes when we really like something but it just doesn’t fit, we post it on the blog as an outtake.

OO: What food-related sites or media do you consume?

Mark: Serious Eats has great writing on a wide variety of topics. I’m always impressed at how the Chowhound boards are filled with smart people posting on both home cooking and restaurants. The NYT has great stuff both in the articles and increasingly in its food and drink blogs.

Dan: I love the Buzzfeed Food section, lots of fun stuff in there, and I often use Midtown Lunch to find new places to eat in NYC. Of course I need to check ThisIsWhyYoureFat.com periodically too. I’m not so much one for recipes, I like to invent my own dishes, so these sites help give me inspiration.

OO: What would you choose for your “death row” last meal?

Mark: Sometimes when food-obsessed friends visit me in New York, they’ll ask me to find them somewhere interesting to eat. For the really serious ones with the time, I’ll instruct them to skip the previous meal, and then I take them for consecutive meals at several restaurants serving different world cuisines. Ideally I like to hit 4-5 places, plus another for dessert. It’s a lot of food, but not as much as it sounds if you share entrees and order strategically. So for the last meal, I’d do something like that, a meal where every course would take me to a different part of the world. Then excellent ice cream for dessert, and really great aged rum, served neat.

Dan: That’s a tough one, because I don’t really have one all time favorite food, it’s a bit mood-dependent. That being said I’d probably go with fried chicken. My wife and I served fried chicken and mac and cheese at our wedding. Or maybe I’d just eat rancid tuna salad, so that my corpse would smell really bad for the jerks who executed me.

OO: How about your “desert island” meal? (kind of like the old “desert island” album question, except instead of listening to Zepplin until you croak, you’re eating some food that could reasonably have washed ashore with you

Dan: I’d go with a whole pig, because there are so many glorious cuts, preparations, and flavors to be obtained. If I was stuck on an island with nothing but pork, it’s the food I’d likely eat longest before getting sick of it.

Mark: My father was in the Army, so I always got a kick out of eating MREs. I loved the tiny Tabasco sauce you got with each ration. So hopefully some of those would survive, ideally the steak and pepper flavor, with pound cake for dessert. I’m told pound cake was one of the most prized food items in battle, because no matter how hot it got, the pound cake always tasted cool.

Dan mentioned to OO that in addition to The Sporkful, he’s also started “co-writing, editing and producing a daily video segment on Slate’s The Big Money called The Bullet.”

“It’s a daily look a business news, with jokes,” he says.

We’d like to thank Mark and Dan for their time and availability, and encourage anyone that bothers to eat to check out The Sporkful in any of its many forms, but especially the podcast.


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