Interview with the Iron Poet

cookNscribble – August 27, 2012

Rensselaerville , N.Y.

As writers observing and interpreting the world, we interview people to learn things. For short-form news or feature stories, interviews tend to be brief and to the point.

For longer-form writing, the subject’s personality, life experience, and insight are as important as her expertise; the interviewing process is a slower dance and is usually conducted over weeks or months. In order to construct an accurate and nuanced profile or feature, you need to know the subject, to enter his world and observe him in it, to invite him into an unfamiliar reality and watch him navigate, to ask the same question five different times, to see good hair days and bad hair days.

The longer interview is like dating, if you have good early-date boundaries. If, that is, you can maintain the detachment it takes to observe clearly while engaging at ever-deepening levels.

Food writers enter their subjects’ lives at an intimate level. We walk into their kitchens, where the past as well as the subject’s hope for the future flicker like the pilot light on an old gas stove, where dietary resolve and temptation duke it out on a daily basis, where confessions are made and secrets such as off-brand ketchup are concealed behind the refrigerator door. The moment you walk in, you know whether a person dispatches dirty dishes or piles them in the sink. You know if they cook—or simply reheat. You know who they mean to be and who they are.

The setting is intimate and so is the subject. You might not stay more than an hour, but when you interview someone about food, the conversation encompasses elements of both the breif informational interview and the extended interactions required to write a substantial profile.

There’s a natural fellowship between food lovers that creates instant intimacy and candor. This connection is not as easy when interviewing, say, a master welder, as I did this week.

Tom May, retired upstate after a 30-year career with Local 5, the Boilermakers Union in New York City, is the guy people around here call when they have a 19th-century cast-iron urn or a snow-plow blade in need of mending. Some call when they need new rails in milking barns, others when they simply must have a two-story Giacometti-inspired pergola fashioned for their garden.

When I needed a spit that could support and evenly cook a 240-pound Tamworth pig in Oaxacan style over an open fire for the upcoming LongHouse Food Writers Revival, I dialed Tom May.

“Congratulations,” said his answering machine, “You’ve reached Tom May. Now comes the hard part. Leave your name and number. Speak clearly and leave a short message. Key word: short message.”

His inflection is Hells Kitchen, where he was born, the son of the son of  a boilermaker. May’s cadence as clipped as the hundreds of New York City police officers and firefighters who, like Mr. May, retired young and moved to Greene County. Nearby East Durham is called  the 33rd county of Ireland and  the “Emerald Isle of the Catskills.” Mr. May is a welder, not a cop and he lives halfway between East Durham and Rensselaerville; nevertheless, his voicemail greeting made me feel like I’d been pulled over for texting while driving in New York City.

A brief explanation was in order, yet full disclosure seemed well-advised. In addition to the spit, I needed a door and interior grill for the in-ground pit in which the Yucatan pibil would be prepared, as well as a vertical spit backed by a high charcoal grill to serve as the rotisserie for tacos al pastor. I hesitated.

In addition to the what-do-I-say-to-avoid-the-ticket feeling, I’m a little star-struck by Tom May. His welding saved the three-story tall baseball bat that stood outside Yankee Stadium from 1923 until 2009.  “The Bat” was where friends arriving on different subway lines arranged to meet before games, where tickets were traded, and where parents advised children to stand should they become separated. Flying in from Ohio, my brothers met me at The Bat. In his final season, when my father could no longer walk long distances, I stood near The Bat with a wheelchair, waiting for the car to deliver him, and then wheeled him to the family section to watch his son play right field.

Tom May and I lived in different New Yorks and now inhabit different, though occasionally overlapping, Upstates. But for a decade, the bat he helped rebuild was my lodestar.

“Tom,” I said, “I’m building a barbecue pit and I need some advice on the metal work. I hope you can return my call.”

He did, several days later.

“I’ve been on the move. Sorry for the delay,” he said “What do you got?”  He was silent through my epic explanation of pits and spits, the needs of heritage-breed hogs, and the intricacies of regional Mexican barbecues.

“OK for me to drive up there now?” he asked, “I need to see what you are talking about.”

Tom May drives a shiny new Silverado Z71 that is the same color of his blue eyes. “I trade in for new every couple years when the price is right,” he said.

The leather seats of his truck were carefully draped with New York Yankee stadium blankets. Long-divorced and single, his jeans were evenly creased, his blue Patriots sweatshirt radiated a just-washed smell and he responded firmly when I praised his work.

“Don’t call me a metal artist,” he said as he steered us toward LongHouse, “I’m just the guy that welds stuff that other guys throw out.”

Mr. May lives in a tidy, gambrel-roofed contemporary located 11 miles down the mountain from Rensselaerville. When he is not hunting, he welds in the shop adjacent to his home. I live in a 19th-century brick row house in the heart of a historic district. When I am not cooking, hitting tennis balls, brushing my Bearded Collies or worrying that my Balinese cats, Martha and Stewart, have killed another mouse, I write in Thoreau-like bucolia in a room that overlooks stone walls, gardens, and a creek. Tom May did not accept my admiration as a viable link between our lives.

But as we stood together on the flat rocks hauled from a collapsed stone wall to pave the LongHouse fire-cooking arena, he proposed another bridge.

“You’re probably looking for rustic here, not polished, correct?” I allowed that found objects were more LongHouse than newly minted ones. He nodded but sought further reassurance.

He has, he said, two sets of iron sawhorses. One is his Sunday set, gleaming stainless. The other is rusted, paint-speckled cast-iron. He uses both to lift snow plows; either could serve as stanchions for the pig spit, he said.

“The rusty ones,” I said.

“Yeah,” he nodded and smiled slightly. “That’s what I figured.”

The live fire cooking area is 15 feet in diameter and under the August sun, even without a fire, the rock was hot beneath the thin soles of my flip-flops. I shifted from foot to foot. Tom was wearing a khaki baseball cap emblazed with a red-, white-, and blue-striped elephant. He pulled it lower on his brow. His skin, like my father’s and brother’s, pinks at the hint of sun. In fewer than ten minutes, we’ve forged a new best friendship on what I call “found objects” and he calls “scrap.”

“Show me again how you see this,” he said, “I’m not the guy that can imagine. I got to see the thing before I can figure out the best way to make it.”

Standing at the edge of the shallow fire hole, I bent forward at the waist and stretched out my arms.

“The fire is underneath me, I am the big pig and I am turning laterally and slowly over the fire for about 20 hours.”

Tom said, “We’ll need to put a good handle on that spit, give those rotisserie-ator guys a little space to turn it.

“We’re going to have to weld some stops on those stanchions; you don’t want to want that pig flying off there. These guys are going to know what they’re doing. My hunting buddies that cook are serious control freaks, but you look away from an animal this size for a minute and it can start to travel. We don’t want that. I need to think about this engineering.

“We don’t want to add a lot more weight or your guys are going to be turning five hundred pounds of heat. But it’s got to be foolproof, food-safe, simple.”

He stared out at the northern Catskills and considered an iron pig cage: a hinged, double-sided grill; a series of lightweight stainless belts.

“We need to see the pig,” I said, “It grew up on a farm over near you and it’s gorgeous.”

Tom nodded. “I’m thinking about what I have laying around and trying to see this thing,” he said, “What’s happening in that pit.”

Stepping to the opposite side of the arena, I clambered down the two cinderblock stairs and assumed a semi-fetal position on the stone floor of the pit.

“I am on a grill. I am a smaller pig, or maybe a hacked-up pig. Beneath me are pots of beans and vegetables. Beneath the pots is a bed of hot coals. Above me is a metal roof. The roof is covered with a piece of old carpet or an old tarp.”

Staring into the pit, Tom said, “I got some road signs that’ll make a great cover. We might have to use two. We’ll put some handles on them. I got some old wires shelves from some commercial refrigeration in the shop; they’ll work good  for the grid.”

Climbing out of the pit, I walked to the furthest corner, the third point in the triangle of pig cookery: a vacant circle of flat rock between the two cooking pits. Hands clasped above my head, sun-salute style, I began to turn around and around.

“I am a cone of pressed pork and I am turning slowly on a vertical spit in front of a vertical coal grill.”

“Like gyro!” said Tom.

“OK, I get it. We need something that turns. An axle. That’s what we need. An axle from an old garden cart, one of those little trailers. There’s got to be one sitting in somebody’s yard. We take that, sand bag the tire end, and I’ll sharpen up that top end like a spear and put a collar underneath it to hold the meat and catch the grease, and some handles, so your guy can turn it every fifteen minutes or so.

“I need more information about the cone of meat before I can see the heat source,” he said. “How large is the cone? We need the height and the diameter and we need to talk to your rotisserie-ator guy to know how far he wants the heat from the meat.”

He wanted to draw what we had discussed. We got back into his truck, the fabric of my gauzy tunic shivered in the breeze from the air conditioner, his thick forearm arm was bent in the driver’s side window, blushing in the sun.

On the four-mile drive back, I scanned the landscape for signs of a broken garden cart or stray axle.  He solved the spit engineering issue.

“I’m going to make a four-pronged grill, like ribs coming out of the spine of the spit. Then we’re going to use this metal wire I have to truss that pig, securing it from opposite ribs. I’m thinking: I have this stainless mesh, food grade; we can use that like one of your famous chefs would use cheesecloth for extra protection. It’ll all disappear. That pig won’t move. Your guys can carry it from the fire to the butcher block and that meat isn’t going to move. That pig will be rotisserating in midair!”

“You’re going to have to come, Tom,” I said as he parked in front of my house downtown. I left a silence; he didn’t fill it. Instead, he explained why he worries about seeing a job the way the person requiring the job sees it.

He and his hunting buddy had a terrific argument about a particular landmark in one of their duck spots, you see. He described its location one way; his pal insisted it was located a good 25 yards north.

Mr. May, who is also a pilot, finally went up in his glider and took som epciure. “From above, I figured it out,” he said,  “We were both right. We were in the same duck blind, looking at the same thing, but we were looking at it from opposite sides of the blind.”

I usually wrap up an interview with this question: “Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have asked?” But Tom has his own methodology for seeing the world as his subjects do.

“Like this?” he said, sketching lines and circles at my kitchen table. “Is this what we discussed? We’re all set with the spit and the pit. We don’t know what we have available yet for the vertical.”

“Small Garden,” he wrote.

“Small Utility trailer,” he added.

He wrote, “Emery Cloth” and underlined it twice. “We’re going to need to clean up some of this metal before we put the food on it.”


  • Read everything that has been written about the person before you schedule the interview.
  • Write a list of questions. The standard must-asks in journalism are: Who? What? When? Where? Why? In the longer form, you are trying to establish who the person is, what they do, why they do it. You are, in other words, gathering information from what your subject says and doesn’t say as well as from your observations and your responses to what you see and hear.
  • Write a note to yourself that answers these questions: Why do I want to talk to this person? What fascinates me about him or her? What do they know that I want to know? What do I share with this person? What confounds me about this person? These answers can serve as the lodestar during your interview and later, when working the puzzle and interpreting the picture that emerges.
  • If you are clear about your goals and have specific questions in mind, you’ll be able to go with the flow of the interview, posing questions as they align with the conversation.
  • Establish a conversational tone. Noting similar childhood and family experiences or shared tastes, hobbies, cultural and intellectual pursuits, and travel and eating experiences helps establish commonality quickly. It also helps to share tasks. You can learn a lot about someone by helping that person shell a bushel of beans.
  • Tell the subject why you wanted to interview her and what you hope to learn.
  • Engage but don’t dominate. Unless you are a talk show host, an interview is not about you; it’s about the subject.
  • Listen. Write down what you see, what you hear, what you feel. Keep your hand moving across the page but maintain eye contact with the subject. You don’t need to say anything to let the subject know she’s been heard. You can nod or issue some monosyllabic “huh,” “hmm,” ”right,” that doesn’t interrupt the flow of conversation.
  • It’s great to get the subject’s vital statistics down early on. However, if a conversation gets going, don’t stop it to ask somebody what year they graduated from high school or what they studied in college. Call when you get home, thank the subject for taking the time to meet with you, and ask any follow-up questions you have.
  • Maintain an open posture. Do not clutch your notebook to your bosom with crossed arms, do not cross your legs, and do not take this opportunity to pretend you are wearing a posture board. Sit or stand naturally and maintain just a bit more distance than you would if having coffee with a friend.
  • Ask a couple of unexpected questions. When interviewing people who’ve been interviewed a zillion times before and who respond like a living press release, shake them off their script with something silly or absurd. Reckoning back to childhood works well. If a chef, for instance, is mincing like a machine as she speaks, ask her if her grandfather whittled, ask her if her mother used an electric knife on the Sunday roast, ask her if she owns and operates a switchblade. (Then ask her if it’s true that her sous chef, an illegal alien from Burma, is the real genius in her kitchen.)
  • Synthesize and summarize what the subject is telling you and repeat it back in different words: “So you hated canned peas and now you collect heirloom beans.”
  • Try to establish the subject’s early dreams and aspirations and to connect this vision to who she became: “So you meant to be a rock star and worked in kitchens to pay the rent. How is cooking like rock ‘n’ roll?”
  •  Savor the subject in all her possible unsavory-ness. Respect her and let her know what it is you respect about who she is or what she does. The subject feels they’ve been seen fairly and compassionately, at a deeper level than usual. In the best interviews, the subject understands his or herself better—or at least a little differently—when the writer walks out the door.
  • It’s easy to form an alliance with a subject and that’s fine as long as you never forget that your allegiance is to yourself and your readers. It’s tough to paint a balanced portrait of someone you have a crush on, someone you feel protective of, or somebody you want something from. Make like a shrink: Listen without judgment, accept without reservation. Then go home and do your job.
  • Review your notes immediately. Highlight salient points. Note anything you’ve missed.
  • Call and thank the subject the morning after your interview, before noon.



13 simple journalist techniques for effective interviews