How I Got That Story: Suzanne Podhaizer

When Suzanne Podhaizer wrote her wedding vows, she noticed a common theme in her drafts. “My vows were almost entirely about how meaningful it is to share food with somebody,” she observes, “and meeting someone you want to give the best parts of a meal to.”

For Podhaizer, the food editor at Vermont’s Seven Days, food is more than just sustenance — it’s a passion that permeates almost every aspect of her life. She traces a career turning point back to her college days at the University of Vermont. Originally intending to major in English, she suddenly changed course and designed her own degree called Interdisciplinary Food Studies. “It was a combination of nutrition, anthropology, botany, and writing about food,” Podhaizer explains. In short, “I just made it about food.”

What should an ideal food writer do?

One thing I really enjoy about my job is that I don’t just write restaurant criticism. I also write about agriculture, our local farmers, and policies that come up in agriculture. Because food is really connected to the entire community, it’s important for a food writer to show how the food relates to other aspects of our lives, whether it be about agriculture, economics, or the stories of people who are making and growing their food products.

Also at the most basic, you have to describe taste. How do you approach food descriptions?

One of the courses I took in college was called “Sensory Evaluation of Food.” We started off by breaking down the basic tastes and learning to tell the difference between salty, bitter, sour and sweet. Then we built up to tasting cheeses, coffee and chocolate, and talking about the different flavors and aromas of each product. That helped me develop a vocabulary I use a lot when I’m thinking about any kind of product at a restaurant or anywhere else.

In both “Newfound Ground Round” and “His Daily Bread,” you take two pretty well-known professions in the food industry — the bread maker, the restaurant-chain manager — and you find some new interesting stories within these professions. How did you come to each of these stories?

With “Newfound Ground Round,” I heard about the restaurant making new changes because they’re a member of the Vermont Fresh Network, which is a nonprofit organization that connects farmers to restaurants. This is the first time a chain restaurant has ever approached them and asked to be part of it, and they were very skeptical. Because people were buzzing about this in my community, I decided I would go and check out the restaurant. I asked a few questions of the staffers, and it was really easy to find out that the manager was really the driving force behind this story. So I thought it would be really interesting to learn more why he made this intense commitment to defy the rules of the franchise and bring this local fresh produce and meat into his restaurant.

With “His Daily Bread,” I was getting Gerard’s bread through a farm share. Then I heard by word-of-mouth that he had had a stroke a while back. That was the trigger for me, because I learned that even though he would never walk again, he really was making his artisan loafs of bread all by himself in his really beautiful bakery. I think what helped him get better was that he was so looking forward to being able to bake again. There’s the human-interest angle, the fact that so many people enjoy his bread and don’t know his story — all of those things made me want to meet him. He certainly has an uncommon passion for his craft.

So if you had to pick out your last meal, what would it be?

I’ve asked a lot of people this question for an article, so I feel kind of silly but I don’t have something at the tip of my brain. But … you know, one of my best meals ever was at the French Laundry. It’s a pretty great possibility that if I was able to get a reservation for my last meal, that I would go there.

If I were cooking the meal myself, it would certainly be all local. It would probably be really simple. I’d probably make a local steak with a reduction sauce and roasted potatoes with herbs, and a salad with cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.

Read the story that garnered Moskowitz Grumdahl a first-place finish in Food Writing (circulation under 55,000):
His Daily Bread
Newfound Ground Round
Shuck and Awe

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.

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