Author: Susan Pagani


In 2004, Chris Peterson, the executive director of Seattle Audubon, dreamed up an idea to boost appreciation for birds: broadcast amazing stories about them on the local public radio station. BirdNote would feature two-minute essays—written by birdwatchers, vetted by ornithologists, and filled with sounds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s library. Fourteen years and 1,500 essays later, BirdNote is broadcast daily on stations across the nation, with 1.3 million listeners. The book BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds From the Popular Public Radio Show (Sasquatch Books, 2018) pairs 100 of those essays with charming illustrations by artist Emily Poole. Each essay is brief but packed with wit and fascinating science. Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine]

Where I Work

I once worked at a San Antonio newspaper where the office was so small that all we editors could hold hands and sing kumbaya without leaving our desks. At a tech PR firm in San Francisco, we all sat in the same room, in clumps they called pods, everyone stressed out and yelling all day. The company was based in the UK, so we sometimes drank beer in the middle of the afternoon, and then everyone would sing, and for a few minutes it was fun. Okay, it was super fun a lot of the time — smart, wildly creative people. In a very organized, calm kitchen in Portland, I had my own prep table under a light well. The restaurant had a grocery and bookstore attached, so I could wander over and get a cookbook, whatever ingredients I needed — or maybe a bottle of Vermouth I wanted to try — and make something. That was the life. Now I can work at home, where I have a nice, light-filled space. There’s plenty of room for …

Nobody is Safe

When I tell strangers that I’m a food writer, they tell me I’m lucky, and then — looking at my belly — ask, “How do you eat all that food?” I like to say that I only eat three bites of any dish I taste, but that’s hooey: I got the idea from a novel, and though its restraint appeals to me, I’ve never been able to do it. I rarely tell them that I don’t write reviews anymore because eating all that food started to make me sick. I never tell them that at the peak of my short eating career I ran 15 to 20 miles a week so that I could tuck into my meals with careless abandon. As a “foodie,” being free of such worries is part of my street cred and, as a woman, I’m supposed to have some control. People like the three-bite secret, and the question deserves a false answer: after all, no one asks my male colleagues how they keep from getting fat. So why am I …

The Power of Potlikker

In the antebellum South, “potlikker” referred to the broth that was left over from a pot of greens. The masters ate the greens; slaves got the broth. Today, writes John T. Edge in The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin Press, 2017), locavore chefs use potlikker to give dishes such as poached mountain trout an authentic Southern umami. It turns out potlikker is just one of many foods that form a through line connecting everything from racial equity and cultural appropriation to immigration and food trends. Take the 1955 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, during which people used their own cars to transport African American laborers to work. Drivers needed money for insurance, gas, and tires, but many riders were too hard-pressed to contribute. Cook and midwife Georgia Gilmore organized a club to raise the money by selling home-cooked fried fish and fluted pound cakes. The club inspired more cooks, and together they helped keep cars on the road until the successful end of the 13-month strike. Read more [Appeared in …

The Craftsman of Yore is No More

When you write about food, people like to ask you for a favorite restaurant. For me, favorite means different things, and so there has never been just one. I have a favorite for out-of-town guests and fancy occasions, for breakfast, for pizza, and for Korean food. But the most important favorite is the neighborhood restaurant I go to at least once a week because the wait staff is lovely, the atmosphere is charming, and the food is, without fail, great. For a long time, for years, that was the Craftsman Restaurant & Bar. A dear friend and I used to meet there once a week to hash out our life and work conundrums over the Craftsman’s fantastic Manhattans (a toothpick stacked with house-macerated sour cherries before they were a thing), or for the brief time they were available, the wonderfully tanniny Emily’s Sumac. We liked the hummus, smoky and garlicky and surrounded by simple but pleasing vegetables — bright pink watermelon radishes, pickled cauliflower, parboiled green beans, and such. Another good memory: Early one summer evening, …

In Favor of Rustica’s Polenta Bread

In these parlous days, Rustica’s Polenta Bread (available on Mondays) offers solace. The crust is crunchy, and the inside is cool and airy and squishy soft. It smells like popcorn, and tastes like corny, slightly sour, very luxurious white bread. Toasted or not, it is magic with salty butter — just the thing to calm the heart and smooth down the hackles. [Appeared in Heavy Table. Photo Credit: Rustica Bakery]

Two zebra finches snuggling on a twig

An Interview about “Fledgling”

Writer Keith Lesmeister has a blog called “Life as a Shorty.” Each week he picks a short story and uses it to talk about craft, either by exploring some aspect of the piece or interviewing the writer. Earlier this month, we talked about my short story “Fledgling,” which recently published in Rappahannock Review. You can read the story here. ***** Keith Lesmeister: The story starts out with this horrific, nightmarish scenario, which draws readers in immediately. And while I had thought initially that the story would be about the parents who lost the child, it wasn’t about that at all. Did you know, upon starting this piece, that that would be the case? Was this always going to be about Mary Beth? Susan Pagani: Yes, it was always Mary Beth’s story. There was a draft where I began with Mary Beth and the finches, thinking that would help the reader understand it was her story and create more of a build to the actual accident. It didn’t work as well for me. I felt the accident needed to …

Two zebra finches snuggling on a twig

Short Story: The Fledgling

A child had died in the neighborhood. A four-year-old girl called Molly. The day it happened, there had been snow. Molly and her mother, Sarah, went out to shovel the front steps. They took the dog, an eager, young chocolate Labrador. The snow was heavy and wet, the kind that packs well. Molly had just learned to make snowballs. Afterwards, the neighbors would point to the steep slope of the yard, the tiered garden beds, the rows of shrubbery wrapped in misshapen bundles of burlap and twine. There was no space to play, and the child was always running around in the boulevard. Molly had hurled a snowball into the street and followed as the dog went after it. Neither of them noticed the car, but Sarah, hearing the crunch of tires in snow, looked up from the shovel and said, “Molly, stop! Car!” The little girl halted, teetering at the curb, still laughing at the Labrador as it scrambled to find the snowball in the white slush of the road. The car rolled forward …

Open Arms of MN Annual Report

Annual Report: OAM

This year Open Arms celebrated a major milestone: thirty years of providing meals for people with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Our strategy for their annual report was to talk about the many things that had changed over the decades — and the many, many wonderful things that had stayed the same. To do this, we interviewed past and present volunteers, clients and donors, and told the organization’s story through their stories. This juxtaposition of past and present allowed us to weave in 2015 results, creating a book that highlights the year’s growth, as well as three decades of community support and nutritious, delicious food. Read more

Diversity is a Tremendous Strength

Word limits are word limits, and sometimes editors have to trim good stuff out of stories. So here’s another outtake from one of mine. In September, I wrote a piece for Civil Eats about the Seward Co-op, which had recently made a series of necessary changes to its hiring policy in order to get more people of color onto its staff. In the course of our interview, Leila Wolfrum, a co-op manager in Durham, North Carolina, stopped the conversation to make a point that was later cut but now — in the aftermath of our election last week — seems critical to the story. The Durham co-op has been open for a year and a half and employs 45 people, 32 of whom identify as people of color. As Wolfrum told me, diversity in the co-op is important for several reasons: it brings jobs to the people who live in the community, it creates a grocery store that reflects and welcomes the community it serves, and it’s just good business. “I think it’s important to recognize that diversity is not something we’re doing solely for the health …