by Greg Bolton

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a foodie. And as long as I’ve been a foodie, I’ve hated the term with a passion I normally reserve for tall food, lineups, and places with lineups that serve tall food. (Don’t look for any today, they’re all gone.)

In my opinion, the problem with too many foodies is that while they take apparent pleasure in demonstrating their knowledge of the difference between bok choi and tatsoi, they can’t conjure the requisite joy that should be relished with the simple act of assassinating a burger in some weird joint in Keswick.

While the high-minded reverence expressed by foodies should not be dismissed out of hand – it comes from a good place –  the species too often drains pleasure from the simple primal act of grubbing down, much as the bitter proto-emo nerds in High Fidelity have a weird tendency, as self-styled music lovers, to bleed the joy out of music.

(If I may permit myself a metaphorical moment worthy of High Fidelity, I’d like to suggest that too many self-styled foodies fuss over the baroque technical mastery of a Steve Vai when they’d be better served by chowing down on a far more satisfying and nutritious hunk of Angus Young.)

So when, recently, I came across a podcast called The Sporkful, I was immediately hooked. My love affair started with the catchphrase “It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters,” and continued with a secondary catch phrase – the audacity! – “We challenge your assumptions about consumption and drop a sporkful of knowledge on you, because we’re obsessively compulsive about eating more awesomely, and because if history has taught us anything, it’s that the hosts of food shows need a lot of catch phrases.”

Hosts Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison met in New York while working at National Public Radio on a project unrelated to culinary matters, but they soon realized that they both “thought about food more than most normal people.”

Their pet project was officially born about a year and a half later, quickly becoming a popular venue for the two to discuss and debate basic food matters with the kind of high-minded passion normally reserved for a political show or a symposium on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.

In a recent episode, by way of example, a discussion of waffle-cutting techniques turned to the relative merits of “breaching the cells” and, in a way that seemed perfectly natural, compared the high walls of the waffle to those found in the light bike battle in the original Tron movie.

I caught up with Mark and Dan via email to ask them a few questions. As the end of summer has officially arrived, I opened by grilling them on some BBQ staples, so that we might all use their valuable input to properly inform our last handful of outdoor cookouts.

Hi guys. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Let’s get going: What’s the quintessential American food – hot dog or hamburger? And why?

MARK: Neither. Both can be delicious given wise input and creative preparation. But I refuse to accept anything as a quintessential American food. I love the eating here too much – there’s no way I could narrow it down to one thing. Plus, I don’t think there is a truly “American food.” There are definitely distinctive regional cuisines, but they’re very different, as you’d expect for a immigrant nation of 300 million and change. And they’re all the results of various global cuisines coming here and staging awkward sloppy makeout sessions. Oh, and lest I forget, USA! USA! USA! Or something.

DAN: I basically agree with Mark’s series of homespun cliches, but if forced to choose, I’d go with hot dogs. Our country’s most famous competitive eating event centers on hot dogs, which makes them the epitome of American gluttony.

What should never go on a hot dog or hamburger? What should always go on a hot dog or hamburger?

MARK: Ketchup, ketchup, ketchup, no, nay, never. There’s very little that it belongs on, at least not in the tooth-liquefyingly sweet stuff that’s called ketchup in America. Hot dog – always mustard. Hamburger – always cheese, often bacon.

DAN: Funny that Mark will wave the American flag one minute, then stomp on it the next. Ketchup – in moderation – is a perfect complement to a hot dog or hamburger, as any red-blooded American will tell you. Mustard on a hot dog can work too, but only in very small amounts. It has such a strong flavor that it easily overpowers a hot dog. I’d add that with an especially good dog, little or no condiment may be needed, but the most underutilized hot dog topping is grilled onions.

As for burgers, there aren’t many things that should never go on them, but there is such thing as too many total toppings, which can upset ratios and distract from the burger. And one must take care to avoid toppings that are likely to slip and slide against each other, putting the burger’s structural integrity at risk. These include tomatoes and sliced pickles, among other things. Burgers should always have cheese. A burger without cheese is an incomplete food.

Favorite vegetable? Least favorite vegetable? How come?

MARK: Least favorite is iceberg lettuce. It’s the least flavorful leafy green, basically water turned crispy with a green tint. It’s the kid that should never get picked for the basketball team, even if it means hitting the court with 4 players. Favorite is a tough call, but maybe chili peppers, because they add heat, and therefore joy, to things. Or asparagus, because it’s good on the grill or in the oven.

DAN: Iceberg lettuce may lack flavor, but it adds crunch, a worthwhile contribution. My least favorite is those mini corn things. They’re annoying and they have an unpleasant aftertaste. For favorite veggie I think I’d have to say garlic, it makes almost everything better and there’s almost never too much of it. But if you want a veggie you can eat solo, I’d call it a tie between arugula and grilled eggplant.
Name something you will never put in your mouth again.

MARK: Cheese puffs, easily the most irredeemable of all bagged snacks. The great tragedy is that it dares call itself by that name, simultaneously defaming all that which is cheesy and puffy. They taste bad, feel bad and leave a sickly orange residue – there’s nothing to like there. And this applies also to doodles and others in the degraded cheese snack family tree.

DAN: Actually I had a great experience with some slightly stale cheese puffs last weekend. They’re best when they start to get just a little chewy, so they’re chewy and crispy together. The thing I’ll never put in my mouth again is squid ink ice cream. Ugghhh.

This last question is a little boilerplate, but I have to ask.

Against your better judgment, you decide to take a vacation in a tiny, isolated nation ruled by an insane, impossibly cruel dictator, whom you almost immediately offend in some way.

As a result, you are sentenced to death, but in a quirky gesture typical of your tyrannical captor, you are kindly offered the opportunity to have any meal you can imagine before you are dispatched. The dictator assures you that it will be expertly and lovingly prepared to your exact specifications using the finest ingredients available anywhere. For some reason – even though he’s now wearing a pig mask and listening to Justin Bieber – you believe him. What’s going on the menu? And do you just give in and enjoy a nice meal? Or rather, do you order something that you might be able to use to overwhelm your despotic host and escape?

MARK: I’d like to do both. Something about your question makes me think island, even though you didn’t specify. And the pig mask provides further inspiration that points me in the direction of repeating a memorable meal: I once went to a wedding of two archaeologists who did their digging in the Pacific islands, and the food their explorations inspired blew away all wedding food previously known to me.

They dug a hole (and these two dig excellent holes, naturally), heated bricks white hot, tossed them into the hole, then added a pig wrapped in a banana leaf, along with root vegetables. Then they buried it for a day. When they dug the thing up it was more tender and delicious than I ever thought possible. I dictate that I want that, dictator!

This provides me with time to devise an escape plan. And now that state fairs are fashioning “pig wings,” I think if a bone can be turned into a handle, it can probably be filed down into a slammer-style shank. So at best, a slashy, bloody athletic escape, and at worst, a moist, porky demise.

DAN: Clearly there is only one dish to request in this situation: Fried Dictator.

Thanks guys. You’ve given me a lot to think about. And you’ve made me want to go have a snack.

Visit the Sporkful online at and check out their podcast on iTunes.

Greg Bolton is a man of many appetites. Follow him at