Episode 57: For food critic Nancy Leson, deadlines got in the way of a good time
Chapter 1: Meet the writer who’s not fond of writing
Nancy Leson loves books, she loves libraries, she loves to talk and she loves food.
That makes the Edmonds resident an ideal guest for Sno-Isle Libraries Check It Out! podcast.
Libraries figured large in Leson’s childhood in Philadelphia. Her family had little disposable income, so off to the library they went to borrow books and glean information from encyclopedias. These days, Leson says, the Friends of the Edmonds Library book sale is her favorite book event every year.
Books and learning followed Leson into adulthood.
She’d always wanted to own a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, so she filled out a postcard to get more information.
It was a particularly cold winter night in Anchorage, Alaska, when Leson heard a fateful knock on her apartment door.
She opened the door and exclaimed, “Are you the encyclopedia salesman?”
The man was flustered. “The guy looks and me and asks, ‘How did you know that?’”
In his many years of sales calls, no one had ever asked if he was the encyclopedia salesman, he explained.
“Damned if that night did I not buy, a poor nursing student in my 20s in Anchorage, Alaska, a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, a gorgeous leather set, that this man came into my house and did nothing more than sell me a set of encyclopedias. I was a very brave young woman.”
Leson still has those encyclopedias, and she mourned the day when Encyclopedia Brittanica announced it would stop printing them.
“Now ask me when the last time I opened them was,” she said.
Funny thing about Leson. Much as she loves words, she hates writing.
She wanted to be a children’s librarian, then a writer, then tried nursing school, but ended up waiting tables. She finally got into writing courtesy of the University of Washington’s journalism program. But to earn her degree, she had to create “clips” by writing stories for local newspapers, and had to write about state government in Olympia. She resisted.
“I had no interest in that at all,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a features writer.”
Leson finished her journalism degree, but was broke. She went back to waiting tables at an Italian restaurant (now called Nell’s) on Green Lake.
“I knew every single one of the editors and publishers in town because they all used to eat in there, even Frank Blethen, my eventual boss,” Leson said. “I said, ‘One day, I’m gonna work for you.’ And I wasn’t lying.”
Leson was still waiting tables a year later when she saw an ad in the back of the Seattle Weekly. They sought an unpaid intern in the food department. She applied.
“I lied a little,” she said. “I said, ‘My mother always wanted me to be a doctor. Maybe now at least I can tell her I’m an intern. Hire me, I’m your girl!’ And they did. That was the first and last (writing) job I looked for.”
She wrote a “gossip column-ish” called “As the Tables Turn” about her views of the Seattle restaurant scene, much of it based on her own waitressing experience. She earned $5 an hour.
Sno-Isle Libraries podcast co-host Paul Pitkin wanted to know how Leson managed to write so much when she hates writing.
“Writing is painful. I mean, I loved reporting. I loved going out. I loved interviewing people and finding out things. But I was the person who would sit down and write and could not do what they call – and you’ll excuse me – the ‘vomit draft,’ where you just throw it on out there and then you fix it later,” she said.
“Until I got the lead on any story, I was writing, I couldn’t go on. And I fussed with it and fussed with it until I got it right. So it took me a long time to write. And as a result of that, I like to think that much of my work did not need much editing. And I was told that all along. It was good for my editors, but not so good for me.”
Leson went on to edit the “Best Places” series for Sasquatch Books and was restaurant critic for the Seattle Weekly. That led to an offer from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a freelance restaurant reviewer for a few months before the Seattle Times gave her a call: “Hey, could you come talk to us?”
It was her dream job, but daily deadlines got in the way of a good time.
“It’s real fun to write something if you have all the time in the world,” Leson said. “I always liken journalism and deadline writing to when you’re in high school or college and you have a paper due and you’re writing the paper, or you have a final and you’re studying and studying. And then you write the paper and you get done, or you finish the final, and you’re like, ‘Oh, oh, yay, thank god that’s over.’ And then you wake up the next day and – augh! – I’ve gotta do it again.”
Leson made a connection at KPLU-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate that’s now known as KNKX. The station wanted her to write and produce a weekly, 3-minute essay about fun, cool things.
She was at the “worst time” of her mother-work life, so she offered a compromise.
“I could do it once a month for six months,” Leson said. “And they agreed.”
Then the station paired Leson up with one of their on-air hosts, Dick Stein.
“It was initially a show about him interviewing me,” Leson said. “But it became the show it is today, which is the two of us having an absolutely fabulous time talking about the thing we love to do most, which is cooking.”
They call it Food for Thought. Leson and Stein have been chewing the fat since 2006 about food, cooking utensils, cookbooks, secret ingredients, restaurants, likes and dislikes, you name it.
Now Food for Thought generally sticks to cooking and food themes. To get a sense of how Leson and Stein work together, listen to them recollect their earliest food memories from childhood.
You’ll learn why Leson felt compelled to eat a stick of butter. Her revelation inspired Check It Out! podcast co-hosts Paul Pitkin, Justine Easley, Kurt Batdorf and Julie Thompson to share some of their childhood food memories. Some are more horrifying than others, but you’ll have to listen to find out.
Chapter 2: Get acquainted with Sarri Gilman’s Self-Help Shelf
We live in trying times and licensed mental health therapist Sarri Gilman wants to help.
That’s even more important now that coronavirus precautions make face-to-face interactions with family and friends difficult at best.
In this episode of the Check It Out! podcast, Gilman debuts her Self-Help Shelf segment. She is also posting self-help book recommendations on the Sno-Isle Libraries blog, BiblioFiles.
“I want to call out the books that are literally as good as therapy,” Gilman said. “Books that really help. Books that really make a difference. And some of these (titles) you aren’t even going to find in the library in the self-help section, because some of these are for children and they’re going to be in the children’s section.”
All of the titles Gilman recommends are available in digital formats at sno-isle.org.
Gilman recommends titles that she believes will help children navigate through emotions, help adults navigate through feelings and difficult challenges, help couples, and help families and caregivers.
“I think there’s a wide range of books to pick from, but I’d like to call out the best, the things that help the most.”
Adult self-help books are all about learning, Gilman said. For children, she looks for writing that encourages emotional literacy.
“There are books out there that can help us through every stage of life, through every age, through every feeling, every experience. They’re all out there,” Gilman said. “I’ll call out books that make a difference. Which of these books can help you now.”
Gilman’s recommended title for adults this week is “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind“ by Kristin Neff. It will help you soothe yourself when you’re hurting, and bolster your morale when you’re feeling down.
For children ages 9-11, Gilman recommends “The Nest” by Kenneth Oppel. The 12-year-old main character, Steve, worries about his young brother’s health problems. Through Steve, Oppel shows it’s possible to be both brave, afraid and faithful. It’s a great book for parents to read with their children, Gilman said.
Paul Pitkin is Director of the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation. He also plays guitar, along with several other instruments, sings and writes music.
Kurt Batdorf is a Communications Specialist for Sno-Isle Libraries. Kurt brings years of journalism experience and perspective to his work, along with an array of interesting life opportunities including barging a house from Seattle to Mount Vernon and an inveterate love for Mazda Miata cars (Miata = Miata Is Always the Answer).
The Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation proudly supports the innovative work of Sno-Isle Libraries through private donations.