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Lucky Peach: Food on the Edge

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h1I feel like I went overboard in the first issue — but it was new unexplored territory we were speeding off into, so I naturally just yelled ‘FUCK’ at the top of my lungs.

Peter Meehan, Lucky Peach

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One look at the gritty and loud Lucky Peach, and you know this is not your typical food magazine. Printed on thick, matte paper with cover photos of dead fish and chicken feet, it’s laced with lots of profanity and provocative essays from the rock stars of the food world. A collaboration between David Chang of Momofuku fame and former New York Times food writer Peter Meehan, and published by Dave Eggers’ independent publishing house McSweeney’s, Lucky Peach is a riot of essays, art, photography, rants and recipes. And it’s awesomely entertaining.

But why would anyone print on dead trees in a post-Gourmet world? And how’s it going this many months out? We checked in with Meehan to find out.

How did you and David come up with the magazine idea? The magazine was a byproduct of a TV show-app hybrid we were working on. I thought we could take all the scraps — the time away from the cameras, the long rambling conversations that don’t make for scintillating video — and make sausage out of them. It is surprising to see how popular the sausage is.

In this day and age when everyone is going all digital and iPad, what made you decide to print a paper magazine? We were trying to go digital! We failed. Now we have a magazine. Maybe one day we’ll join the 21st century. Honestly, though, aside from the silly amount of work that goes into putting each issue together, the magazine thing is great. You don’t have to explain what it is to your grandma.

Now that a few issues are out, what have you learned that surprised you? I’m pretty constantly surprised at the resourcefulness and talent of the people who work on the magazine internally — there are five staff members, and everyone has other jobs. I think everyone’s putting out a really great effort. And I’ve learned that most of the writers who write for us turn in far better, far more polished first drafts of stories than I ever have. It’s a kind of shaming surprise — a good learning experience.

David Chang is known as volatile, radical and a willful iconoclast and rebel. Besides the chefs swearing at each other, how did you try to bring that into the pages? I’ve known and worked with Dave for years now. I don’t like that side of him so much. If he was a turtle and that aspect of his personality is his shell, the game of making the magazine is seeing if I can flip him over.

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The swearing is how we all talk right now. We’re trying to tone it down. I feel like I went overboard in the first issue — but it was new unexplored territory we were speeding off into, so I naturally just yelled “FUCK” at the top of my lungs.

So what parts of the magazine are you? The parts that are sagging or covered in stretch marks

What were your most popular stories in the first issue? There’s no way for us to track page views. I know people liked Bourdain, Chang and Dufresne all talking to one another for pages and pages. I think the ramen map that Nate Shockey, a k a Ramenate, did really got people going. And Dave Arnold’s egg temperature chart was another one that readers were asking for posters of.

In the second? I think Adam Gollner’s apricot story is the reader favorite — it’s what I’ve seen people tweet about the most, and Utne Reader is gonna run an excerpt.

You have quite a few rock star chefs in the magazine. How do you decide which ones to feature? Who makes the cut? That’s Chang’s world and, to some extent, a part of the world of food I’ve written about over the years. We know a bunch of people and, generally, we write about or go through them.

When you think of other food publishers out there — who else is doing it right? Are there any other voices, sites or magazine you follow or admire? Tons. All of them. You know how when you don’t do something, it’s easy to criticize? Like I feel street construction in New York is too loud and too dirty — but I’ve never manned a backhoe or wielded a jackhammer. Seeing magazine publishing from this side of the looking glass is totally different.

In terms of specific things I like — the New Yorker is pretty goddamn amazing week in and week out. But I’m also into old things, like Details back when Bill Cunningham was shooting for them, or this fashion magazine called Flair from the 1950s. And all kinds of small press rock ‘n’ roll stuff, like The Negative Guest List from Melbourne.

Lucky Peach costs $10 per issue and has no ads. What made you go with that model and how’s it working? a. Inexperience. b. We’ve junked it. It’s now $12, and there will be up to six ads per 180 pages if we can sell them.

What can we expect in Issue No. 3? Another rambling conversation with Chang — this time with Daniel Patterson (the chef at Coi in San Francisco) and two U.K. chefs, Sat Bains and Claude Bosi. There will be stupid cartoons, at least one mention of cat food, another of Disneyworld. One story will be in Chinese. And the chances of a barbecue chicken pizza recipe: 100 percent. [Ed note: the third issue is now available here.]

This interview was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of SAY Magazine, along with our irreverent (and delicious) map of the online food world.

[Photo credit: Jeremy Leach]

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