Former World-Herald staff writer Nichole Aksamit was recently named executive editor of Allrecipes magazine. She took some time out of her schedule to share with us how she landed the job, when she became a foodie and what readers want to know most.
Q: What’s it like to be the editor of such a prestigious food magazine? Is it your dream job?
A: Well, I’ve only just been promoted to executive editor, so ask me in a few more weeks! But, yes, it’s exciting. The coolest part, though: just being able to work for a major national magazine at one of the world’s largest publishers from right here in Des Moines. I love visiting cities like New York, but I really do love living in the Midwest.
Q: What was your position at The World-Herald, and did it help prepare you for this job?
A: I joined the World-Herald back in 2000 and worked there for 10 and a half years on four different beats: Bellevue city government and schools for about a year, Omaha City Hall for about a year (my first day covering city hall was 9/11), health and fitness for about four years and “food in all its glory” for about four years. (And, yes, “food in all its glory” is the job title I pitched to my editors, along with an impassioned plea to keep and expand the OWH’s food and dining coverage, before I ultimately got the job.)
Q: What’s been your career track?
A: Originally, I wanted to be an English teacher or a novelist. I got a full academic scholarship to Moorhead State University, a very good liberal arts and teaching college in my home state of Minnesota. But as I apprenticed on campus, a requirement of my scholarship, I fell in love with newspapers and with newspaper people (literally: I married one!). I switched to a dual English and print journalism major, and I’ve worked in print journalism now for 20-plus years, more than half of that in food. I’m fortunate that I got to try out so many different types and speeds: Daily newspapers, where every day (or minute) is a sprint. Cookbooks, where every project is a marathon (from pitch to printing takes endurance and, often, years!). And food magazines, which feel to me more like a series of 5Ks. I’m not a runner, but I love this pace.
Q: When did you become a foodie?
A: I don’t know exactly. I grew up on a commodity farm in Minnesota. My mom isn’t an adventurous cook, but she is from the South and she KNOWS what good produce is and how to make a biscuit. And she has the greenest of thumbs. We were not well-off, but Mom always had a sizable (sometimes football-field-sized) garden, and we ate very well. I don’t know if I appreciated it as a kid, because I was always being sent to the garden to pick the Wandos (a variety of prolific peas), but I grew up eating really wonderful, fresh ingredients all grown on or within a few miles of our home. We bought milk from our neighbors who had milking cows. We bought eggs from those with chickens. We bought sides of beef and pork from neighbors who raised them. And we filled our freezer and cellar with preserved food — before it was the hipster thing to do. Mom didn’t buy prepared foods much, so I was a little shielded from the Twinkies and the Cheez-its, and I think that really informed my palate. Good ingredients not messed up trump food wizardry every time.
I wouldn’t have called myself a foodie (that term didn’t exist!) when I was a kid, but I did cook and bake a fair amount. I had to help with my younger siblings, who are 10 and 11 years younger than me, and I recall getting out mom’s busted-up Betty Crocker cookbook and ringed-binder community cookbooks to make things like key lime pie with meringue crust when I was in grade school. I worked as a server in restaurants in high school and college and really started exploring ethnic cuisines and digging into cookbooks and food magazines in my early 20s. I had one weekend job in Moorhead, Minnesota, where I made almost nothing in wages. But it was worth it to me for the family meal at the end of each shift. It was a little Chinese restaurant, with the typical Americanized Chinese menu, and the cook made the best off-menu dishes for the staff. Slurping spicy mystery broths, eating on-the-bone bits of chicken in fiery sauces, and sniffing in the back booth of the China Chef is a really fond food memory for me. College and my early married years were also when I began entertaining, inviting people over for dinner and parties, and making whatever elaborate thing we could come up with. I have a very battered Joy of Cooking cookbook and a less-sullied Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I chipped away at all through and after college, and a stack of tattered Gourmet magazines I still haven’t been able to part with. And I remember being the MOST excited when I realized that I could use the ovens on all three floors of the apartment house I lived in for a mega Thanksgiving with my friends who lived there. Three ovens = three turkeys! That was a good 17 years before Friendsgiving entered the lexicon.
Q: Do you have time to cook at all now that you have this job?
A: In short: Yes! My husband and I trade off on cooking on weeknights. I tend to either try new recipes or to just wing it with good ingredients, while he likes to repeat and refine old favorites. We don’t work the same hours, so we flex to one another’s schedules, and we’re pretty good about using leftovers. For lunches, I often turn leftovers into a grain bowl or a salad and bring them from home. And about half the time, tastes of the recipes we test at work serve as my lunch. … We almost always have a big brunch on Sunday that involves oven-baked bacon, fresh fruit, an egg dish or waffles or French toast, homemade lattes, and a physical newspaper (vs. digital where I get my daily news). … I don’t do as much entertaining as I used to (I have too many white carpets for kids or raging parties) but I still love to have intimate dinners, host small groups, and bring something novel or just really darn delicious to someone else’s party. And I like experimenting when I cook. Like, I made some team-colored deviled eggs for a Super Bowl party this year, using beet pickle juice for red and butterfly pea flower tea for the blue. I hadn’t really played with natural dyes all that much before, and I enjoyed seeing and documenting how they turned out. Whether it’s in the magazine or just on my Instagram, it’s always fun to share those learnings with people. Even the most introverted people will ask you about the blue deviled eggs.
Q: What are the three most common questions you’re asked by food fans and what are your answers?
A: The questions are all over the map, but there is a common thread. When I meet someone and tell them what I do, more often than not they volunteer a very personal story about Allrecipes. I was in Minneapolis to serve on a panel with some other editors last fall, and this guy on the hotel elevator saw the magazine I was holding and struck up a conversation with me. He goes: “Allrecipes? You work there? No way! I got my favorite chili recipe from your site!” It’s very cool. People have a really genuine connection with the community of cooks on the site and in our pages. There’s this sense that we’re all in it together, figuring out food together, finding solutions together, exploring new flavors together. It’s just really gratifying to know that one good recipe can affect someone—maybe even for life.
Q: What is your go-to recipe and why? Or do you have 20!
A: Oh, man. Well, outside of baking, I’m not a serious repeater of recipes. I do have a few repeat formulas, however. For example, I love “bowl food”—rice bowls, noodle bowls, grain bowls. So, if I make a big pot of short brown rice on a Sunday, I can usually turn that into three different bowls with other toppings throughout the week. I also love making soups—there’s something very satisfying to me about building the flavors in a soup and making something amazing out of what is often just scraps. I also am a big fan of the sheet-pan supper. A go-to version for me is boneless chicken thighs, wedges of butternut squash, and broccoli or broccolini. I toss them with olive oil, salt, and Penzeys Turkish Seasoning on parchment on a big sheet pan and roast them in the oven while I have a glass of wine and check my email. It is always so good. It makes the house smell amazing. And it’s so easy and so unattended that by the time it’s done, it sort of feels like someone has prepared it for me.
Q: Where can readers find the magazine?