The University of Michigan’s College of Science, Literature, and the Arts publishes a nifty little periodical called LSA Magazine that has done good work over the last couple of years. (Probably for longer than that, but I only started seeing it upon the advent of UMagazinology.) Editor Lara Zielin devoted the Spring 2012 issue to food. “We have some hard-core foodies in the office—we’re talking underground gourmet parties in abandoned warehouses here—and many of our water cooler discussions were leading to food in an organic way, no pun intended,” Zielen told me. “So when, inevitably, someone said, ‘Let’s make the next theme of the magazine food,’ we all rolled our eyes, then realized it was kind of perfect. There were so many angles from which to come at it, we were in story idea heaven.”
Among the angles pursued by LSA were alumni who have been part of the rise of farmers’ markets and their thoughts on what’s going on there, including the viewpoint of skeptics who have questioned the assumed good of locavorism; the complexities of food labeling; some of the peculiar things study-abroad students have encountered on the plate, including llama, Vegemite, kangaroo, and fermented soybeans; and alumni chefs Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless (complete with recipes, thank you very much). Plus what the pharaohs ate as they walked like Egyptians, cannibalism (“the strange and squeamish idea of humans eating humans”), and the neuroscience of tasting food.
Theme issues are common practice at LSA. “It’s so much easier for us to organize our content that way,” Zielin explained. “With tens of thousands of students and faculty, plus 180,000 alumni on our mailing list, it’s really the only sane way we can pull something together. Otherwise we’d probably have to get a story wheel you could spin. Like at a carnival. Yeah, probably that.”
I asked her if she had any particular concerns going into this project. “Magazine concerns are a lot like having a garage sale. You think that your grandmother’s still-in-good-condition table is going to get snatched up, but then no one looks at it. Yet somehow you sell out of your warped Tupperware and used shoes. In this case, the stories we were concerned about didn’t raise any flags, but the ones we thought were safe came under fire. For example, we thought our piece on the murkiness of food labeling would really get readers fired up. Not a peep. We also thought readers might pause at our cheeky quiz asking which was more plentiful, University of Michigan regents or the number of fly eggs in your tomato juice. No response there, either. We never expected the topic, the actual theme of food, to be blasted—but it came under fire. Some people complained it was too light, not academic enough. I guess they missed our stories on how the brain processes the taste of chocolate cake, or studies on toxins in groundwater. Or our essay and stats on hunger. But I digress.”
Digressions are allowed here.
Did anything give the staff special fits as they put the issue together? “Special fits are the new black. For this issue in particular, we had some high-profile alumni that we really wanted on our pages, but initially we weren’t sure if we could get on their schedules. In other words, we budgeted pages for them, then kept our sweaty fingers crossed. Chefs Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard and Gabrielle Hamilton, for example. Also Sanjay Gupta and filmmaker Ken Burns, the latter of whom is not technically an alumnus but he was needed for a quote or two for our story on Prohibition. Wouldn’t you know, they all came through. I like to think about this when I can’t get faculty to call me back.”
I asked her how the issue looks now that it’s out of their hard drives and on the printed page. “I love our spread on ‘How Coffee Works,’ but there’s very little in there that’s alma mater–focused. It was a fun idea to illustrate, but it could have used more institutional grounding—a faculty member to weigh in on the science of roasting, a student to talk about fair-trade beans on campus, an alum who works slinging espresso . . . something. Overall, though, I think ‘Food’ was successful. The range of topics, plus the incredible design, make it a personal favorite. I know I’m biased, but I also wouldn’t say that about all of our issues. You try, you don’t always succeed, but then you cut yourself another slice of chocolate cake and keep going.”