Dan Pashman’s desk is covered with the usual pens, paper clips, and personal photos, but there’s also a small case of sauces and salt, a six-pack of Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale, an autographed vinyl album from a group called The Notorious MSG, and, of course, a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest trophy.
If you haven’t guessed, Pashman, A99, spends a lot of time thinking about food. He’s the host of The Sporkful, the weekly podcast from New York public radio station WNYC that explores everything from the history of Belgian waffles to the dynamics of dating when you’re in an interracial relationship. The Sporkful is currently the number two ranked food podcast on iTunes, and it’s been nominated for a James Beard Award, the annual competition that is commonly called the “Oscars of food.” Pashman brings your favorite comedians, actors, and celebrity chefs on the show to discuss complex topics. Rosie Perez has spoken about stereotypes surrounding Puerto Rican food, while Margaret Cho has opened up about eating disorders. Pashman’s food empire also extends into publishing and television. His book Eat More Better dropped in 2014, and his Cooking Channel web series, You’re Eating It Wrong, earned its own TV special in 2015. Pashman has even appeared on the Food Network with the mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fieri, on Guy’s Grocery Games.
But The Sporkful remains the center of Pashman’s food media network. He’s been recording it since 2009, long before podcasts became trendy. Each episode begins with a disclaimer: “This is The Sporkful. It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters.”
“Most of the food media world is stuff that is either suffocating in its pretentiousness or kind of fun, but also pretty mindless,” Pashman told me. “You might share it on Facebook, but it’s not something you’re going to be talking about weeks later. So I view The Sporkful as the best of both of those worlds. There’s a bias in the public radio world and the fancy food world that if you are fun, or humorous, you are somehow frivolous. It’s the challenge we take on, to do something that’s smart and engaging and thoughtful but also fun and at times funny.”
Pashman was new to the food media world when he launched The Sporkful, but he’d been broadcasting since his senior year at Tufts, when he hosted After Hours with G-Money and the Pashman on WMFO. He and his friend Gabe (“G-Money”) had the 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. shift on Thursday night—or Friday morning, depending on how you looked at it—and used the quiet of the time slot to entertain friends returning home from parties or bars in Somerville. Their bits included “The 3am Traffic Report,” wherein Pashman would go to the studio window and look out at the intersection below. “I would yell back to Gabe who was on the microphone and tell him what the traffic was,” Pashman recalled. “So the traffic report would be like, ‘There’s no one there! Wait, there’s a truck coming! Oh, there’s a truck! Okay, it’s all clear again.’ Our show was very, uh, free-form.”
After graduating, Pashman worked in Boston at 92.9 WBOS and RadioBoston.com. “I was in on the digital radio revolution early,” he noted. But after two years of part-time gigs and waiting tables to cover his rent, he moved to Chicago in 2001—just a week before 9/11 rocked the nation and crippled the job market. “I loved Chicago and I miss it dearly, but my career was going nowhere,” he said. Then, in 2004, the progressive radio network Air America launched. “It seemed like an opportunity to get into the radio world and do something exciting,” he said. Although the network had roots in Chicago, the executives signed a deal with New York’s WLIB to be its flagship station. So when Air America moved to Manhattan that spring, Pashman tagged along.
But Air America had a famously turbulent history that ended in bankruptcy in early 2010. After that, Pashman bounced around NPR and Sirius XM. He was mainly covering news and politics, but he’d always harbored a passion for food. So when he decided to join his friends in radio who were experimenting with podcasts, he settled on eating as his subject.
“The original idea for the sporkful was basically, Let’s pick a food and obsess about it in ridiculous detail,” he explained. “We’d spend twenty-five minutes talking about how to eat a slice of pizza, or what’s the best kind of slice of pizza, or what’s the best ratio of crust to sauce to cheese. When I hit on that idea, I realized that it fit with my personality. I like to nerd out on details, I love to eat, I like to argue. So it played to all my strengths.”
His first episodes covered grilled cheese and ice cubes, which was “a statement that this show was going to get weird.” Later, he brought on a couple of married philosophers to discuss the existential nature of soup. The “New Jersey’s Pork Roll–Taylor Ham Wars” episode found Pashman returning to his home state to investigate the proper name for that signature sandwich. And when he finally landed his long-time dream guest, Alton Brown, last November, he explored how eating and cooking shape relationships.
Pashman has essentially built a career out of trying new things. His job takes him into cheesesteak spots in Philadelphia, hot dog shops just outside Detroit, and even the Library of Congress for prized pancake recipes. Although he winds up in the same booth each week—”talking to nobody half the time,” he joked—his job at WNYC provides endless exploration, and license to talk about pretty much anything he wants.
Pashman plans to continue investigating the strange ways that food shapes our lives with a second book and another TV special. Until then, you can tune in to The Sporkful on Tuesdays for the latest in food journalism, from America’s foremost expert on pork rolls, ice cubes, and 3 a.m. traffic.