Kelly Alexander, Our First New-Media Editor, on the Dawn of the Digital Age
Saveur.com’s first editor had always wanted a job at the magazine...though running the website wasn’t exactly what she thought it’d be
“Have you seen Saveur ? it’s the coolest food magazine.” So declared a fellow intern in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ 1994 summer session, upon learning that I’d been assigned to Food & Wine. When I reported to my (obviously less cool) gig, I spied Saveur’s debut issue atop the boss’s desk. “Secrets of Oaxacan Cooking,” promised the cover. “That’s probably the best new magazine around,” admitted F&W’s food editor, Tina Ujlaki. What, I wondered, is a “Oaxaca”?
Back at Northwestern University the following fall, I bought the second issue. It included more wonders, among them the fact that Saveur’s food editor, Christopher Hirsheimer, was not a dude. Perhaps most memorable, though, was Peggy Knickerbocker’s feature, “The ‘Old Stoves’ of North Beach,” which described San Francisco’s Italian quarter as a neighborhood “with a garlicky heart” and introduced me to a character named “Lou the Glue.”
My Food & Wine internship led to a post-graduation job. But while I spent my days helping with that magazine’s “Best New Chefs” franchise, my downtime remained dominated by salty, old Saveur eccentrics like Lou the Glue. Until finally, in 1999, I landed an interview with editor Colman Andrews. Here, in the flesh (and a cranberry V-neck and Top-Siders), was the man behind my favorite bylines. Colman played loud music to create a “cone of silence” around his exposed cubicle during our conversation. “What do you like about Saveur?” he asked. I reeled off a few columns that had given familiar dishes (wonton soup, guacamole, tabbouleh) the historical treatment. “We need a website that reflects that magazine,” he said. I told him I could develop it.
I should preface what happened next with the fact that, for someone who had long hoped to sit at the Saveur table, I was initially miserable there. The site was the brainchild of advertising salespeople, who hoped to hawk branded merchandise (a prescient idea, if only said merch, or partnerships to produce it, had existed). During my first six weeks, I looked around hopefully anytime Christopher or Ann McCarthy or Margo True or Dorothy Kalins (equal parts high energy and good hair) walked past my desk. For the most part, the editors who made the magazine ignored me.
Saveur, I learned, was governed by a tight circle of friends who spoke in code. Penetrating their inner circle involved convincing one of them you weren’t completely stupid. So I started with Colman, scheduling meetings to explain that Saveur.com should have designated online content. My requests for “outtakes” yielded responses like, “If it’s not good enough for print, we wouldn’t put it online.” Christopher? She looked at me deeply, and in her soft voice said something very firm: “But honey, we never have extra recipes.” No one here had any extra anything. Hence, my second realization: Saveur was the magazine equivalent of nose-to-tail cooking. Every bit of material produced that could be used, was.
Kelly Alexander was senior editor (new media) until 2006; she’s now a food anthropologist at Duke University.