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While fans of the Food Network may easily recognize Guy Fieri, they actually have journalist David Page to thank for the iconic show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. After fighting his way into the world of food journalism —and pitching this show on a whim— David is still eating his way across the country with his new book, Food Americana, a collection of stories about how America’s favorite foods came to be. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’ book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here: https://bit.ly/3jdKctA


Zibby Owens: Welcome, David. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes.

David Page: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: David, would you mind telling listeners a bit more, aside from this great subtitle, about what Food Americana is about? Also, what made you want to write this book?

David: Food Americana is an attempt to, a successful one, I hope, to find what American cuisine is. We all go about our lives every day eating a relatively a narrow selection of foods that have become American. Few people stop to think, how did they become American? How did our menu get made? The answer that I found was we’ve created our own cuisine from bits and pieces of the foods of other countries and other cultures, analogous to how we created a country from immigrants from here, there, and everywhere. I was motivated to write it because, first of all, most of my career I was a TV producer. Writing for television is a unique, often undervalued skill because it requires some real jumping around and some anonymity. You’re not writing your story in your words. You’re using your words to tie together as invisibly as possible, things that are unfolding on screen in terms of pictures and sound. When you write a TV piece, you don’t get to sit down — I was almost going to say typewriter. That’s how old I am. You don’t get to sit down at the keyboard and simply start with, it was a dark and stormy night, and then Oedipus killed his father. In every TV producer’s mind, there is a sense that, I could write a book. I myself have gone through a variety of careers. I’m a little restless. Yes, almost all of them were television, but they were different kinds of television. I tend to change every few years. We had just gotten to the point where it was time for something new. I said to myself, I’m just going to sit down and write the damn thing, so I did.

Zibby: Here it is. Fantastic. That is difference between becoming an author or not. The magic is in actually having a manuscript and getting it out there.

David: Also, the naïveté involved in not knowing just how hard it is. I allotted a year to the project. It took two. In deciding what to put in the book, I was somewhat naïve. I chose to do a variety of different foods or food ways, one per chapter — well, one per most chapters — without really thinking through the fact that to do adequate research to write a chapter on something is almost as much as research as to write a book on something. It would’ve been a lot easier to write a book on lobster rolls or a book on sushi. Instead, I dumped it all in my own lap. It took a good couple of years, but it was enjoyable.

Zibby: I was surprised to learn how sushi came about through Yul Brynner and the one tiny, little store near the cinema. Not the cinema.

David: One of the studios.

Zibby: Yeah, the studio.

David: He played a big part. He was representative of the celebrities who played a big part. Sushi came to America, for the most part, with Japanese businessmen who were posted in California as Japan rebuilt its economy after World War II. However, as often happens in Hollywood, some celebrities got a sniff of it and decided to make the thing. It started with, among others, Yul Brynner, who would often eat sushi at a restaurant next to one of the studios that he was shooting at. The glitterati picked it up. It became kind of a hip thing to do. Two other elements of American society played a great role in this. Number one, in the seventies, we went through a governmental food health phase. People were being, perhaps for the first time, warned by their government to eat less red meat, more fish, try to eat better. There was a miniseries on NBC called Shōgun staring Richard Chamberlain as a samurai. All of a sudden, because of that, everything Japanese became hip. Yes, it became kind of a cool thing to do to have sushi.

Zibby: Was it like the kombucha of today?

David: Better, by my own opinion, but yes. It is a food trend that was created, to a great extent, by people being cool. Will kombucha be with us in forty or fifty years? We can check back and see if it entered the lexicon of American cuisine like sushi did. Remember, sushi’s a perfect example of how food becomes part of our cuisine. We check them out. We try them. Then we change them to our taste. The vast majority of the sushi sold in the United States is big rolls. There are not a lot of big rolls sold in Japan. There are a fair amount of rolls. They tend to be simple. Ours tend to be overstuffed, complex, and sauced beyond belief. Some of ours are filled with things like French fries and steak. I focus on a sushi bar in a gas station in Oklahoma where their top seller is deep-fried sushi because they said to themselves — by the way, they sell very traditional-style sushi also for those who want it. If you’re going to sell sushi in Del City, Oklahoma — no aspersions on Oklahoma. I briefly attended both of their state universities and left without a degree. If you’re going to sell sushi in Del City, Oklahoma, you’re going to have to deep fry a lot of it.

Zibby: It’s so true. You point out you can get sushi now everywhere. It used to be such a delicacy. Not only is it at Citarella, but it’s at the airport. The first time I saw it in the airport, I’m like, do I want sushi at the airport? How do I feel about this? Now it’s everywhere. It’s just anywhere you go.

David: produces the most pre-sushi in America told me — she made this analogy because she certainly considers it American food. When she and her friends would duck out of high school to get lunch, they went for a burger. Her kids today go for sushi. My definition, by the way, of what I think of as American food is a food item that has truly become a part of our daily menu virtually everywhere. There are other popular foods such as Thai or Vietnamese that I don’t think have yet crossed over. They’re popular in many places, but they’re not, hey, let’s go out for sushi. It’s a different experience.

Zibby: Yes, that’s true. Sushi now is the common denominator. I know you mentioned that one of the most popular was the California roll or something just very tame, not even the cucumber rolls, things that don’t even have fish, all of that.

David: Except what’s interesting about the California roll — I am told that the California roll has now migrated to Japan where it’s obviously seen as American item. People think the California roll was one of those items invented for Americans. There is great dispute about this. There is a school of thought that the California roll, which has no raw fish in it and has avocado, was actually invented during a time of year when fatty tuna was unavailable on the West Coast of the US. It was invented for Japanese clientele using the texture and fattiness of the avocado specifically to replace the fatty tuna. Others say it was invented to suit American tastes. Whether it was or not, it certainly fits American tastes.

Zibby: Very true. Wow. I’ve even been trying to teach my little guy how to make cucumber rolls with the seaweed and everything. Yes, I could say it’s safely pervaded. I don’t mean to spend the whole time talking about — I know this is only one chapter in your book.

David: Cucumber rolls are very, very traditionally Japanese. Sushi does not require fish. Sushi refers to a foodstuff that is based around vinegared rice. It’s not at all unusual to have sushi in Japan that features vegetables, not fish.

Zibby: Well, now I don’t feel quite sushi lightweight.

David: You’re not a lightweight.

Zibby: I can’t do omakase or whatever.

David: Omakase is, you don’t have to do it, the chef does it.

Zibby: No, I can’t even eat it.

David: Why not? You know what? If you went in and told a sushi chef, A, omakase, but B, I’m a first-timer and I’m an American, the chef would take care of you.

Zibby: I don’t know. I really only eat salmon.

David: Salmon is actually one of the most dangerous fishes in that respect. When salmon is used in sushi, when salmon is served “raw,” by law, it must have been frozen first because salmon is host to all sorts of parasites. Now I’ve turned you off salmon too.

Zibby: I’m like, oh, gosh, that explains it.

David: There’s always lox and bagels, right?

Zibby: Yeah, exactly.

David: Which is the perfect food.

Zibby: Yes. I’ll eat salmon in all forms. The bagel or the smoked salmon is the perfect food?

David: A bagel, lox, and cream cheese is the perfect food.

Zibby: The whole thing.

David: I don’t live in New York anymore. I live in New Jersey, so intrinsically, you’re not going to reach those levels of perfection. I stopped at New York Bagels today and got a bagel, lox, and cream cheese sandwich. My wife did as well, both on everything bagels. I could die now. It’s great. Perfect.

Zibby: I was just saying that yesterday for Father’s Day. This will probably air later. We were debating going out. I was like, “Or we could all just get bagels.” Then we were like, “Are we going to all eat bagels? Then we’re going to be hungry later.” Anyway, we decided not to get bagels. We went out and it was terrible, so we should’ve just gotten the bagels.

David: The premise of my book is that foods of other countries and cultures became American. I got an ad in my email promoting either July 4th or Father’s Day as the day to eat bagels. Okay…

Zibby: Oh, come on.

David: It wasn’t Israeli Independence Day. In fact, the most bagels in America are now sold by Dunkin’ Donuts, or Dunkin’, as they’ve rebranded.

Zibby: I don’t like that rebrand. What is up with that?

David: It’s interesting. I’ve been doing some research for another project. They identify themselves as a coffee retailer, not as a donut retailer anymore. When it comes to franchised coffee sales, they are, by far, number one. They’re dwarfed by Starbucks which owns all of its own stores. No, Dunkin’ is a coffee company.

Zibby: Still, I don’t know, I don’t like anything to change.

David: Okay, you’re clearly a culinary conservative.

Zibby: I know, it’s embarrassing.

David: So you don’t like the fact that regional specialties are now available all over the country, that you can get a lobster roll in Utah.

Zibby: Well, I’m a little suspect. I would not order a lobster roll in Utah. Would you?

David: Dependent on . Look, I grew up in Western Mass. We would go to Maine for the summers. I have a deep and abiding respect for lobster eaten right off the pier. The question is, as my book explores, any number of regional foods are now available all over the country. Lobster rolls are a perfect example. There are several companies that own or franchise lobster roll trucks all over the country. The question is, should you not be able to get a lobster roll at all in Utah? I use them specifically because I feature a Utah lobster roll joint in the book. The processing of lobster, whether it be shipped fresh or frozen, has gotten pretty damn good. The lobster meat you get in Salt Lake or Park City, no, it’s nowhere near as good as you’d get off the wharf. For those that don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, is it better that you can have a lobster roll at all? How — I was almost going to use the word authentic, which I hate.

Zibby: I’m so glad you stopped yourself. I’m relieved on your behalf.

David: I almost hit the screen. How traditionally faithful are they to the way I think a lobster roll should be made, on a certain kind of bun, grilled a certain way? The noted food journalist Ruth Reichl told me in no question about it that eating a lobster roll outside of Maine, even though the place that made them famous is in New York, that eating a lobster roll anywhere but Maine is like eating strawberries out of season. The fact of the matter is in our current culinary culture, we do eat strawberries out of season, and tasteless tomatoes and all sort of things, because we want everything good enough all the time. It’s a conundrum. I’ve always looked forward to going to particular places because of the particular food you can get there, New Orleans, for example, being an extreme. The fact is, there are things that originally could only be had in their hometown, state, region. Now pretty much everything is available pretty much anywhere. I still look forward to going to where it was created.

Zibby: I know you have a whole chapter on pizza and the evolution of that and who made it, how the crust even was different because of the dough and all this stuff. Recently, I took my husband to Sally’s Pizza in New Haven.

David: No, no, Sally’s Apizza. That’s how you say pizza in New Haven.

Zibby: Sorry, Sally’s Apizza. You’re right. I know. I knew that. I apologize. I’m so sorry. Anyway, I hadn’t gone in twenty years or something like that. He had never been. I’m like, what is the difference? Could it really be that much better than all the pizzas we’ve had all over the country?

David: It was, wasn’t it?

Zibby: It was. It was amazing.

David: For two reasons. One, they invented it. As long as they’ve stayed true to what they do, they’re the ones everyone else is copying. Number two, eating done right is an experience. That includes environment. That includes tradition. That includes looking around and going, they made this thing here first. You can get a good clam pie a lot of places. I live on a tourist island in South New Jersey where the clams are fresh. There’s a place that makes a pretty good clam pie. It ain’t going to be like New Haven. It just isn’t.

Zibby: I don’t even have the answer. I guess I’m glad that there’s things everywhere, but there’s something special about going to the source of it and the experience of it. Even now, post-COVID, with all these restaurants serving food in plastic containers, I’m like, what? No. This is ruining the whole thing.

David: Look, let’s not forget the fact that, hype aside — there’s a lot of hype for things like heritage god knows what. Real food is real. I was interviewed by some folks down in South Carolina the other day. We got to talking about grits. I confessed that I, a New York Jew, use instant grits. They fell over, clutched their throats in agony, and sent me two large stacks of heritage grits, two different types from the Low Country. I made grits the other day. God almighty was there a difference. It was astonishing. I, pretty intensely focused on food and food quality, had gone my entire life without making real grits. It was time to fix that. It was amazing. Now if I could only get fresh shrimp, but I don’t live in a shrimp region, so there you go.

Zibby: Gosh, the last thing I need is more foods to fall in love with. I feel like it’s hard enough to not overeat the ones that I already love.

David: I’m trying to figure out what the taste contrast would be. Where I live, there’s a small commercial fishing port at the top of the island. I believe that we bring in the finest scallops on earth. I’m trying to figure out, given the sweetness of shrimp and the sweetness of scallops, if I could do something with scallops and grits.

Zibby: I would order that.

David: I’m going to try it. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: That’ll be your next project.

David: My next big project. I’ll report back.

Zibby: Okay. Can you give me the quick rundown of how you even got into being so obsessed with food and how this all started and your TV career all in two minutes and less?

David: Yeah. What do you want? Thirty seconds? Forty-five?

Zibby: Yeah, sure.

David: I grew up with a wonderful mother and father, neither of whom could cook worth a damn, so I really didn’t appreciate food for a long time. I like to eat. I’m not thin. It wasn’t until NBC News sent me to Europe, once I covered Africa, Europe, and Middle East, that I really started to focus on food as a thing, a matter of substance. As I went from country to country or even region to region in various countries, I would encounter foods very specific to that place and quickly came to the realization that in many ways, food is the gateway to another country’s culture. Along the way, I started to develop a real appreciation for food as more than just fuel or something to fill up on. When I came to the States, I worked in network news for another several years. Ended up leaving network news and briefly working in home shopping, which I quickly figured out I really shouldn’t be doing. Left, opened a production company, and had no business. I called a friend of mine who had worked for me at the Weekend Today Show, Al Roker, who had a production company of his own in addition to his NBC activities, and said, “I’m starving. Do you have any work?” He said, “Yeah, I’m doing a lot of stuff with the Food Network. Why don’t you do some of that for me?” So I did, including, Al subcontracted a documentary to me on the history of diners. That’s how I got my toe into the food journalism world.

As you know, you are, in journalism, or certainly television, the last thing you were. I had once been an investigative reporter. Then I was an international journalist. Then I was a morning show — now I’m a food guy. I started pitching the Food Network directly and got nowhere. I would talk to the same executive over and over again. She would be very kind and polite and say, no, no, no. Finally, one day, I’m on the phone with her pitching, pitching, pitching. She’s saying, no, no, no, and hearkening back to that documentary I had worked on. She finally said to me in desperation, “Don’t you have anything else about diners?” I said, “Oh, yeah, I’m developing a show called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” She said, “That sounds interesting.” This was late on a Thursday or Friday. She said, “We’re having a development meeting Tuesday. Get me something on Monday.” I hung up the phone. On one hand, this was great. They’d shown interest in something. On the other hand, I had just invented the title out of thin air, or pulled it out of a body part if you wish to be a little more scatological. Spent the weekend calling people. This was kind of before everything was done by email. Wrote a proposal, got it to her on Monday. Shortly thereafter, they picked up a special which then turned into a series. Now I’m a food journalist.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Are you still involved with the show?

David: No, I left after the eleventh season.

Zibby: How many seasons are there?

David: Oh, they’re in thirty-something now. At the time I was doing it, we were doing three seasons a year. They may be down to two. I left after season eleven. I syndicated a show on craft beer.

Zibby: That’s right. I read that.

David: Then I did some development work for a streaming venture. Then I decided it was time to write the book.

Zibby: Wow. What next?

David: Another book.

Zibby: Another book?

David: Yeah, I like this author thing. It was a dark and stormy night. It’s sort of a sequel to this, but different. It’s different categories of food. I am assuming it’ll be another two years, but I’m hard at work on it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I think you should write about more of the personal stuff that you talked about in the introduction.

David: Boring.

Zibby: I don’t find that stuff boring. I think you have an interesting story to tell. I think you should consider it.

David: That’s very kind of you.

Zibby: Not everybody has had a life like that. That’s very interesting.

David: My daughter wrote something about that in a Facebook post on Father’s Day. My daughter’s in her late twenties. My wife turned to me and said, “See, she did listen to the war stories.”

Zibby: I wrote something about my dad too. He’s like, “Oh, wow, you really did. You see what I do.”

David: The story my daughter seems to like the most is, during the Romanian Revolution, I put together and led an international convoy in through the Hungarian side. The border guards at the border there in Romania were ethnic Hungarians, so they just let us through. Anyway, we got as far as Timișoara where the rebels were putting up quite a battle with the Securitate, the government forces. We get out of the car. My correspondent is a veteran, George Lewis. He did Vietnam. I, at this point, am relatively new to bang-bang. We out of the car. All of a sudden, there’s this huge burst of AK-47 fire. Instinctively, I find myself lying on the ground next to George. I have no idea. I do not remember going to the ground, but I was definitely there. I’d have been underground if I could. I turned to him and I said, “George, what do we do now?” We were kind of pinned down outside a hotel. He reached into his backpack and came out with a bottle of booze, unscrewed it, and said, “This.” That seems to be my daughter’s favorite story.

Zibby: I think you should write that book. I think that will be a very good book. I would really think hard about it. That’s my two cents.

David: That’s very kind of you.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

David: Don’t give up. If you’ve got something to say, say it. I had a hell of a time initially selling this book while I was writing it. I managed to obtain an agent. It’s thundering out. My dog is just coming for shelter.

Zibby: Aw.

David: I managed to obtain a relatively big-name agent with the recommendation of someone famous in the food world. She just wasn’t working it. I’m writing this book hoping to hell I can sell it. She finally, after a year, sends me an email saying, “I tried. I’m going to have to drop you as a client.” First call I made was to an author I had interviewed the prior week for my hamburger chapter. I said, “Hey, I’m changing agents. I like your book. We got along well. Could you suggest who you used?” He said, “I didn’t use an agent. I was approached by a publishing company and wrote directly for them, but I’d be glad to give you the connection.” He gave me someone’s name. I sent an email. We had a phone call. Two weeks later, I had a deal. If you believe you have a story to tell, just keep pushing. Any creative endeavor involves a tremendous amount of rejection. I had a hit TV show. It was one among hundreds of shows that I pitched. You have to keep doing it. Don’t lie to yourself, make sure you’re doing it well. Have someone you trust read it and then rip you apart.

Zibby: Thank you. This has been so fun. Next time you’re in the city and I’m in the city, which I’m not now, but we should have some bagels and lox together or something.

David: We’ll go to Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. I would love to do that.

Zibby: I like the Russ & Daughters Uptown underneath the Guggenheim.

David: At the museum? It’s been closed for the pandemic. I don’t know when they’re going to open. We’ll figure it out.

Zibby: We’ll figure it out. We’ll find a place.

David: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been great.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Bye.

David: Take care.


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