People want to talk, they want to be heard.
Jaime Lewis Podcaster, food writer
Writing and food happened separately. I’d always communicated well through writing. But I never thought about it as a job. I just thought whatever job I take on, writing will be a strong suit for me. In college, I studied art and architecture history just because I really enjoyed it, clearly not because I was thinking about a job. I had a field work position as an editorial assistant at Architecture New York Magazine and so I was going in once a week for this internship and I loved the architecture part but more than anything I loved the editing and publishing and writing part, especially the editing. It’s insane to me that I had graduated high school and had nearly graduated college and I still didn’t know the functions, the real mechanics, of writing until I got that job. And again, fear’s an excellent teacher, right? I was afraid of losing my position so I picked everything up, I absorbed it, I worked on it, I studied it, and I really fell in love with writing and editing and publishing.
After I graduated college, I ran out of money pretty quick… on cocktails in New York City. Pretty soon I was living with my friend’s parents on the Upper West Side and I was very self-conscious about the fact that I didn’t have job prospects when so many people around me were getting jobs with Bear Sterns and were working on Wall Street or going to grad school (which I had no interest in). I tried to move to San Francisco first, sleeping on my friend’s couch in Cole Valley trying to think of what I could possibly do. This was in 2000, so the tech boom had busted. It was just a very bad time to try to get a job. Nobody’s hiring, nobody’s hiring, and then I decided, well, I’ll try LA. Slept on a different friend’s couch, I had one job interview and it was actually an editing job and I didn’t get it. Finally, I called my mom and I just said, “Nothing’s working out.” And she said, “I ran into a friend of yours at the grocery store and she said that Rosa’s Italian Restaurant is hiring a bartender. Why don’t you come and live with us for a time, it’s temporary, get yourself a job, and start to figure things out.” So I did that.
I ended up getting a job with the San Luis Obispo Symphony, which was one of the best things that ever happened to me, working in administration for the orchestra. I was in fundraising and then I got into music education. I grew up playing music. I worked for them for six months and then was recruited to the San Francisco Symphony and I worked in their development department. Fell in love with my husband and for a few years we were up there and then we moved back here and I got a job as a music minister at a church which was one of the worst experiences of my life. I’ve heard that autopilot is not when a plane does a straight line from point A to point B, but it hovers over the line going back and forth constantly adjusting. I think I was kind of hovering around that line: where do I fit, what kinds of people do I like to work with, what kinds of skills make me feel successful, where can I help and be of service to people? Right around that time, I really started to fall in love with wine and food. I did not grow up eating in any explicitly foodie kind of way. And wine was part of my family’s life, but there was a good amount of Two-Buck Chuck at the table.
I went to Italy in college to study architecture and spent a summer there on my own, and you can’t go to a place like that without being conscious of food and wine. I saw enjoyment and pleasure in eating and drinking and also care for ingredients and care for the human body and longevity. It’s such a national value, I would say. I had never seen anything like that before. That planted the seed but being back here, wine country’s blowing up around us and I read a couple of books that had food as a theme and I just became enthralled. Learning about wine is a lot like learning about art: there’s a time and a place and a person and materials and style and a story and I really connected with that. I got into that while I was working at the symphony; nights and weekends I was getting my sommelier certification and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it and Jake and I were saving money to be able to take a year off and travel the world.
We saved up and over six years we saved $75,000 and we went abroad. We went to Italy for six months to work in vineyards and farms, and then another six months in New Zealand to work in a brewery and a winery. It gave me an opportunity to see the beginning of these products from planting the tomatoes and harvesting them and your hands getting all black because you’ve been doing it for the last six hours. And the most boring jobs in the vineyard, snipping at this one spot, leafing, all that stuff. There was a day, it was so hot and muggy and we were threading, we were winding string through the vines so they would get skinnier so you could take a tractor through and it was easily six hours of doing that, in the sun, baking and sweating. And we’re doing it together, my husband and I, and I remember at one point looking at each other and just bursting out laughing, like, “This sucks so much!” And we did it on purpose!
My whole goal was to get my chops, really learn things, I didn’t know to what end. I decided to blog about it, when blogs were kind of new and exciting, and I kept a very detailed journal of our time away for a year and turned that into a book, just for us, a big coffee table book. It wasn’t really meant for anyone to read, it was more for us but I did it also so that if I applied for any kind of a writing job someone could see my style. I got a job based on my blog, which is insane, for a wine marketing company back here in SLO. That lead to writing for a PR company focused on wine, food, and travel and then I went freelance and one job begets another, and then ended up working in editorial. A few years ago, we were moving into this house and we were packing up the old house and I found a certificate from third grade that said ”Jaime Johnson, Most Creative Writer.” I thought, you know what, it has been a thing for me for that long. The fact that something comes fairly easily to me and that could be my livelihood is pretty cool. The podcasting thing has been so much fun and it’s been fruitful and helpful but I still identify as a writer; I think I always will.
The Consumed podcast is casual conversations with eaters, drinkers, thinkers, and makers across California, and especially at its heart, the Central Coast. Chefs, winemakers, and brewers to people who've struggled with food insecurity, disordered eating, and alcoholism. A water activist, a kitchen designer. That’s the fun stuff, getting really loose with what that means, what food and drink means.
I was sitting on my bed – as I am wont to do, with my laptop – and the magazine that I had worked for was sold, purchased by a lovely person who asked if I would come back and I said, “You know, I think the door on that is shut in my mind for some reason, I’m ready to move on.” The man who took over the managing editor job had the same last name that I do. I’m sitting in the bed with my laptop and I get these three texts in a row: “Who is this guy? Is he connected to you somehow?” And I realized I have this Michelin star chef’s phone number and he’s reaching out to me, I have this coffee shop owner’s phone number, and I have this farmer’s phone number… my contact list in my phone, I have all these people in there from the hundreds of pieces I’ve written over time and I think I could probably get them to talk to me at my kitchen table. I bet that they’d do it.
I would say probably 75% of the interviews I do are me deciding who to talk to. The other 25% are a publicist saying, “I think you should talk to so-and-so,” and I might be interested but usually I’m not. There’s something about talking to people who are trying to promote something that is just not conducive to having a good conversation. If people can just show up knowing that we’re just going to get to know you, it’s so much better. I schedule 10 at a time per quarter and I love that – that’s another thing that’s made podcasting possible for me. There’s a statistic that says that between 4% and 33% of podcasts get past 10 episodes. I think one of the reasons is the pacing of how you have to pump these things out. If I have to chase something once a week or even once a month, I will fall behind, I will start to resent it. With this, I batch them up, interview, interview, interview, do the editing, and publish them. I do a little bit of website work and put the episodes up and photos, something on Instagram and then it’s done. I don’t think about it again in any kind of active or planning sort of way for another at least six weeks. I can do sprints, I can’t do marathons. I do like deadlines; I need them and they incentivize me. But having something once a week doesn’t feel like a deadline. It feels like a death sentence.
The only reason the podcast exists is because I hired an editor. Have you heard of the Kristen Smart podcast, Your Own Backyard? It’s a true crime podcast. My editor, he did it, it’s his and it’s hugely successful. And it’s right in the throes right now, the murderer is in jail in Salinas now and going through trial and my guy is living up there because it could be a year-long process. So for a year, he can’t do it. I’m doing it myself right now and I am proud that at 44 I’ve learned a new skill. That’s pretty cool. And every season gets easier.
I almost take nothing out. I’ve had coughing fits in the middle of it, so I’ll remove that, but otherwise I don’t change the pacing at all, I don’t speed it up, I don’t have time to get in there like that. If people listen, fine; if it’s not their thing, fine. And I come so unprepared to each one, and I tell people that. I’m like, “We’re just gonna chat, and it would probably be so much better if I knew more about you but we’re just going to get to know you.”
People want to talk, they want to be heard. I can think of two times I’ve invited people to be on and it hasn’t happened. I’ve had 131 episodes, and it makes me so happy to think I’m doing something that’s worthwhile to them. It must be worthwhile to them if they’re saying yes. But also, meeting right here and not in a studio. Just come to my house. So many people are like, “Are we meeting in a studio?” Nope, you’re coming over. I’ve had interviews here when there’s been construction and our whole kitchen was taken over.
I don’t expect everybody to listen to every single one. Except my mother, she listens to every single one. But, to connect with one. To find something unexpected in someone’s story that either reflects something that you want or reflects something that you’ve experienced or a relationship that you’ve had, a career arc or an interest arc or dealing with change or adversity. Especially in the food industry. I was just talking to a friend the other day about chefs who don’t want to be chefs anymore and they have very limited options. They have limited scope because they can do this one certain thing really well but if they want out, they have no health insurance or they have no retirement so they’re stuck doing something, often, that they hate and they’ve outgrown the interest in doing it anymore. Sharing stories like that, that help people see themselves or feel seen and not feel so alone and perhaps be given ideas and options for how to move forward with that. Or maybe this person is in process, they’re a winemaker right now but maybe they’re not sure they want to stay doing that. I had somebody not too long ago talk about how he’s tired of being defined as a winemaker; when you go to a cocktail party the only thing that people talk about with you is that you’re a winemaker and it’s like, there’s so much more here, but it’s kind of a pigeonhole thing. I had never heard anyone say that before. It seemed like a pretty dreamy job to me and I don’t think many people drop out of doing it but it was important for him to say, “There’s more to me than this,” and that was cool. I liked hearing that. It’s very cool to hear people be real.
This was never intended to replace my work. I do get paid for it now, which is really exciting. Every hour that I’m working on it, I’m not working on something that really truly pays the bills. It’s a very weird balance to try to be successful with the podcast and yet stay realistic about where the real monetary value is. It’s a huge value to my life doing the podcast, massive quality of life. And I would say for my family, too. Meeting people and seeing them around town, this town is pretty small so when people recognize the kids, it weaves our community together and we feel very tight.
It’s entirely possible that Consumed it a step towards something else. And I don’t know what that is. Like I’ve said, people do support me, I do have sponsors, not a single one of whom I’ve solicited, which I’m so grateful for. I make the same amount doing the podcast as I did working for the magazine and that’s been a massive milestone for me. Now it’s no longer just that silly little thing that I do on the side and now it’s legit. I can pay my editor and pay for the podcasting platform and all that. Future ideas that I had were: I ventured into doing bonus episodes, which have been awesome. I’ve thought about doing paywall content. One of the coolest things I’m looking forward to is some live event stuff. I have a trio of some of the finest brewers on the West Coast coming to do a panel discussion with me as moderator as the first Consumed live event. I have no doubt many people will come based on the caliber of the people I asked to speak. I’d love to do those quarterly, maybe turn that into a paywall kind of thing. I’d just like to legitimize it more. The video thing… one of the ways I dipped my toe into this was by doing interviews in other places. I did one with a forager up on the mountain here, I did another one in an old historic chop suey place, and different pretty, cool places that show well on video. I just don’t know that people want that. There’s something magical about a podcast that you can listen to while you’re grocery shopping or picking your kids up or driving or walking the dog. With video, I have to trust that people are into the content enough to sit down and do it. I’ve messed with live episodes, I’ve messed with video, and I’m dipping my toe in live events. That’s as far as I’m willing to go at this point.
I have to address the fact that I’m married to somebody who very much supports us financially. I’m not really taking any risks, here. I can say “I have permission to be ordinary” but that’s because I’m not the breadwinner for my kids. I contribute to the finances, but I have the freedom to be ordinary. There are people who, if they take a risk and own their own business, they have to be extraordinary because there’s no other option. I think, talking about privilege, I have so much privilege and I readily acknowledge that I can give myself permission to be ordinary because there’s no imperative to do otherwise. I would hate for somebody to read this and be like “Oh, I wish I could do something like that,” it’s just not realistic to hold it up as any kind of a model unless you have the same circumstances that I have. The stakes are super low for me and I still haven’t been willing to take a lot of risks!
I’ve told this story so many times, but I went to a food writing conference that was wonderful and the keynote speaker was asked, “How does one make a living at food blogging?” and this woman literally said, “Marry up.” I think we need to be very realistic about certain industries. In media, you see the high-level and you don’t see all the people with hope in their heart and a dream to turn this into a job, for whom it just cannot be one, and it never does. I do it because I love it and because I can. When I’m working on it, I need to remember is this lifting me up or is this lifting other people up? I care a lot about revealing stories and people and places that don’t get the front page treatment all the time. People just want to be heard. That’s been a constant refrain for me, especially with the podcast: people just want to be heard. Giving them a place to do that has been really valuable to me. If I can remember that mission, then whatever I do is going to be just fine no matter what it is.
Take calculated risks, take risks that you can withstand and also be mindful of the story you tell yourself about who you are. There’s a great adage, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Remind yourself that you are in the midst of a story and that you can hover over that line and you have permission to do that, you don’t have to have it nailed down. Stay present, stay here, change happens, and let the rest go. I got this tattoo – there’s a poem I love called “Allow” that’s about how there is no controlling life. Trying to corral a lightning bolt, you can’t do it. Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet. Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground. In this poem it talks about bearing witness to what is, and therein is the value. I think that’s important to me to say that I’m very fortunate and I’m very grateful for how things have turned out. It could have gone any number of ways.