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 <em>New York Times</em> 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 <em>Times</em>, 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 <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Thanksgiving-Cook-Well-Sam-Sifton/dp/1400069912/?tag=serieats-20">Thanksgiving cookbook</a>), 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 <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/10/best-ny-pizza-slices-2018.html">where the best slice is</a>."
As you'll hear, despite the variety of important positions he's held at the <em>Times</em>, 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.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=438952
On this episode of Special Sauce, I asked <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/daniel-gritzer">Daniel Gritzer</a>, our managing culinary director, to come on and talk about the work he's been doing recently, and about where he thinks the site is headed from a culinary point of view (I hope to have Daniel and other members of the culinary team on the podcast more regularly in the future). And just to spice it up a little, I had <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/j-kenji-lopez-alt">Kenji López-Alt</a>, on, too.
We spent a fair amount of time talking about a magical and ancient cooking implement: the mortar and pestle. Daniel has done a <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/08/best-mortars-and-pestles.html">lot of research into mortars and pestles</a>, and Kenji has frequently <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/07/quick-tip-faster-curry-paste-mortar-pestle-food-processor-test-best-flavor.html">extolled their virtues on the site</a>. (If you follow <a href="https://www.instagram.com/kenjilopezalt/?hl=en">Kenji on Instagram</a>, you'll have seen photos of Alicia, his adorable daughter, pounding away on her own mini mortar and pestle alongside her dad.)
The first thing I wanted to find out was what Daniel found so interesting about them. "It's a kitchen tool that we take for granted," Daniel said. "Mortars and pestles predate knives, right? Mortars and pestles go back to when we were still cutting things with chipped stone tools, they're that old."
Part of what Daniel was trying to figure out was whether his long-held suspicion that some of the mortars and pestles sold in kitchenware stores were just terrible at doing what they were supposed to. "I collected as many mortars and pestles as I could reasonably get my hands on," Daniel said, and he put them through their paces. "Making things like pesto, Thai chili pastes, grinding spices, mashing garlic to a paste." And he discovered, just as he suspected, that not all mortars and pestles are created equal. "This ceramic one that I picked up at a store that will not be named was just horrible, it didn't work for anything." Although Daniel did soften that criticism after noting that a reader had observed that it was a science lab mortar and pestle, one that's not intended for culinary purposes. "That thing is good if you're mashing up mouse brains to do some sort of experiment."
And a good mortar and pestle is necessary, according to both Daniel and Kenji, since it will lead to superior results. "If you taste a pesto mae in a mortar and pestle side by side with a pesto made in a food processor," Kenji observed, "it's a pretty significant difference." Kenji also noted that in his sequel to the Food Lab, which he's now writing, "there's an entire chapter on the mortar and pestle and what you can do with it." Kenji even claims he'd put it in his top five pieces of necessary kitchen equipment.
Once Kenji left the line I asked Daniel to reflect on the way he sees the culinary content on Serious Eats evolving in the future, and he had a typically thoughtful answer, but to hear him talk about that, you'll just have to listen. For now, suffice it to say that it was a pleasure to have Daniel Gritzer and Kenji López-Alt together again, if only on Special Sauce.