In Which David Leftwich Talks Sugar & Rice and Eats a Hamburger

Article by ben

By Benjamin Rybeck

Setting up this interview over email, David Leftwich tells me to go ahead and suggest a place for lunch, which strikes me as absurd. After all, Leftwich makes regular appearances on Houston Matters to discuss the restaurant scene, and he also is executive editor of the artful food magazine Sugar & Rice (which is the reason I’m talking to him today, but more on that later). So what the hell business do I have telling him where to eat?

He decides on Lowbrow, the Houston restaurant I know best, and one I’m always happy to revisit. When I arrive on a drizzly weekday afternoon—one of those Gulf Coast rains where the water seems to just hang in the air, immobile—Leftwich is already there, chatting with the chef, Jason Kerr. The men together form a study in opposition: Kerr, with his beard and his tight jeans, looks Houston hip, whereas Leftwich, with his half-zip pullover sweater and his stubble, looks like a tired dad. But in the Houston food scene, these men are equals, although at different ends of the spectrum: the food maker, and the knowledgeable consumer.

“You like this place?” I ask Leftwich after Kerr darts back into the kitchen.

“You know what the funny thing is? I haven’t been here in a long time. But I really like Jason.” He sips his iced tea. “You come a lot?”

I tell him that during the 2014 holiday season, Lowbrow became something of an unwinding spot for several of us on the staff—a place we started frequenting after work for drinks and dinner. What I don’t tell Leftwich is that I was just here yesterday; what I don’t know yet is that I will also be here tomorrow.

“It’s a halfway spot for me,” Leftwich says. He runs Sugar & Rice from the Heights, so it’s perhaps not always easy for him to make it down to Montrose, let alone south of that.

Leftwich’s office is housed with Treadsack, the Heights-based organization responsible for Down House and D&T Dive Inn. (Two forthcoming restaurants, Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondent, are awaited by a certain type of Houstonian in the way that rock fans await new Radiohead albums.) Three of Treadsack’s head honchos—Chris Cusack, Benjy Mason, and Joey Treadway—act as Sugar & Rice’s publishers and were also the impetus behind the magazine, Leftwich tells me. “They came up with this idea of wanting to expand what food media was in Houston and to tell some stories that didn’t quite fit into the other food media that was out there.”

When I press Leftwich, he’s reluctant to bash “the other food media,” pointing out only that places like Culture Map and Houston Chronicle do “different things” and are, generally speaking, more interested in “openings and closings and reviews.” With Sugar & Rice, Leftwich aims instead to cover farmers, purveyors—“interesting stories and new ways to tell those stories. So we decided, what the heck, we’d start our own magazine.” It took a while to get going—Treadsack was sidetracked with the unusually long process of launching D&T—but when the time came, they approached Leftwich about being the executive editor.

Leftwich had worked in publishing for many years (he was at one point a Brazos sales rep for Little Brown), but “I took time off to take care of my daughter, then got involved with cooking and writing about food and the Houston food scene itself.”

“So food writing wasn’t always an interest of yours?” I ask. “You came to it?”

“Yeah, I came to it,” he says. “I’d always been interested in it and thought, ‘That’d be a nice sort of thing to write.’” But then the Treadsack people approached him about starting the magazine.

One of the most immediately apparent features of Sugar & Rice is its design, which leans toward bold colors and clean interiors, like getting drawn into a modern rustic furniture store by a neon sign out front. “Was that part of it from the beginning,” I ask, “knowing that it was going to be design-centric like that?”

“Yeah,” Leftwich says, “we didn’t have an exact design team, but we knew we wanted to be—”

Here, we’re interrupted by our waitress, a young woman who keeps smiling like she has a secret. I order a plate of fried pickles, which always taste better to me with a beer than without. But what does a food magazine editor order when he hits a place like Lowbrow? The same thing lots of people order: a burger, medium rare, with fries. He stares at the menu for a long while after that, making that sort of groan that universally signals he’s still thinking. Then, he says, “Okay, that’s good,” and the waitress leaves, her secret safe.

As for design: “We knew we wanted to make something that was an object that people would want to hold onto,” he says. “We didn’t want to be your standard magazine—something you pick up, read, and recycle.” He mentions being particularly influenced by a food magazine called Swallow. “They’ve done different things. One issue was hardcover, one had a scratch and sniff guide to Mexico City. We wanted to be something that was well-designed and had artistic value.”

Our waitress returns with a refill of iced tea for Leftwich, which he loads with sweetener. “The Internet’s very ephemeral,” he says, his spoon swirling the liquid, the ice cubes making music on the sides of the glass. “You read an article, and that’s it. But I want Sugar & Rice to be something you can keep around.”

I mention that the magazine has very little online presence—which I sort of assume people do at their own risk these days—and Leftwich nods. I watch his hands. He speaks with them, sliding them across the table like his words are landing between his palms and he’s shaping them as he goes. He has a habit of starting each new thought with emphatic “yeah”s, his words tumbling quickly, excitedly, before settling down a bit into something slower and more measured.

“Yeah, yeah,” Leftwich says, “we’ve tried [with the Internet presence], and we kind of had a blog, but with the staff being pretty much only me, it’s hard to maintain one and the other. It can be very easy on the Internet to dumb down your aesthetic or standards—not always—but I think also, with a blog, people expect constant stuff…”

“Yeah,” I say, “you need to keep doing it, or it dies.”

“And we were trying that, but then it sits dormant for a while, and people think, ‘What’s going on? Why haven’t you updated your blog?’”

In short: “We decided we’d just stick to print and doing it well,” Leftwich says, “and maybe we’ll do Internet later.”

I ask Leftwich what other kind of staff he might like. He thinks for a second. Apart from design and accounting, Leftwich fills nearly every role on the magazine (though he has “help when needed,” he confesses), and several times now I have seen Leftwich coming into Brazos upon the release of a new issue, schlepping copies of the magazine from store to store on his own.

After a moment, he says, “Maybe a good managing editor? Or somebody just part time, doing more of the sales stuff—distribution, ad sales, you know.”

“You don’t really have ads,” I say. “Is that a philosophical choice?”

“Our goal has always been to never have more than ten percent of the magazine be ads. You look at most mags, it’s fifty, sixty percent, and our goal is to keep it under ten. And a few ads are always Treadsack ads anyway.”

“It seems,” I say, “that in magazines like Vogue, the ads determine the aesthetic, whereas with Sugar & Rice, maybe the aesthetic can determine the ads?”

“Our designers have even gone in and tweaked some of them,” he says.

The design firm responsible for Sugar & Rice is Always Creative, and Leftwich mostly leaves them alone to put together the magazine how the artists want. The result: a magazine in which each article has its own particular aesthetic—no set formula here—yet there are some basic fonts and layout choices. “We try to design each magazine so it’s a little different,” Leftwich says, “but so there’s also still something that makes everything look consistent.”

Like Leftwich, Treadsack, and Sugar & Rice, Always Creative is based in the Heights. So does Leftwich think of his magazine as being a Heights publication? His answer is a simple “no”—though he confesses that they have a strong subscriber base in the Heights, mostly because of how the magazine evolved from Treadsack. But he stresses that the content stretches out geographically: the last issue contained stories about Louisiana and Florida, and this new issue contains a story about the Yucatan—and even a piece about going to Mars.

Here is where our own food arrives: my plate of artfully arranged fried pickles, and Leftwich’s monster of a burger, as monstrous as any burger I’ve seen at Lowbrow. He uncaps the ketchup, and it glugs itself onto his plate as if reluctant to leave the bottle.

To find Sugar & Rice contributors, Leftwich has worked his way through a variety of contacts and friendships within local arts organizations, and flipping through the issue, one finds familiar names, whether University of Houston creative writing folks like former Gulf Coast editor Zach Martin (“Which reminds me,” Leftwich mutters, “I gotta talk to him,” so get ready, Zach Martin), or designer/artists like Sara Hinkle. A recent piece on Slab Culture (which, I confess, I had no idea what that meant, until I looked up this article and said, “Oh, that’s what that’s called…”) came from a ethnomusicologist who was visiting Houston for a hip hop conference. This is part of what makes Sugar & Rice unique: it’s a food magazine that sometimes doesn’t require writers to write that much about food. This is why Leftwich stresses the cultural side of the enterprise.

As an editor, he mostly wants to find the right person and unleash them on the right project, giving them freedom to experiment and develop an idea. “In the first issue, for example, I got a friend of mine to write an essay on women-owned bars, but I let her do her thing, and she came back with an awesome personal essay about Texas, politics, women bar owners, the role of bars in society—a much different than I envisioned, but a better piece. Food touches on so many different things, and [the writing I want] is history, culture, and personal essays about how food affects us.”

As he speaks to me, he tries to snag bites of his burger, but it becomes messier and messier the more he tries to eat it. I feel a little bad. Maybe I need to turn off the recorder. Maybe I need to let the poor guy eat his lunch.

But first, I want to ask him about his own writing, because Leftwich isn’t just the editor of Sugar & Rice: he’s also a regular contributor. Had he done much journalism before embarking upon this magazine?

“I got my MFA in creative writing from American University in poetry. So I spent my time writing poems, then kind of got into blogging about cooking, food, stuff like that. But I’m not really a journalist, and I haven’t done much of it. A little bit here and there. But that side of the writing has been a new thing.”

I ask him about his own journalism—what he’s trying to capture in his food writing—and he uses the moment to flag down the waitress and ask for more napkins, even though a simple raised eyebrow and nod toward the devastated burger might have been enough.

“It depends,” he says, that truest and most diplomatic of answers. “If it’s an interview, it’s more about the subject” (a lesson I’m still trying to learn, clearly) “and if it’s an oral history, I get out of the way and let that person speak.” Otherwise? “It usually turns out to be an interesting combination of trying to relate my own personal history and the history of how food has developed. My maternal grandfather was a farmer, my paternal grandfather was a grocer, so I often start out personal and get into, like, the history of farming, or the history of the grocery store.”

“Is that because you’re a poet and you want to start personal?” I ask. “Or is that just a quality good journalists have?”

“With food writing,” he says, “people get personal a lot. Everyone has a personal relationship with food.”

It’s sort of hypnotic, I must say, watching Leftwich eat the burger. It seems to keep breaking into smaller and smaller pieces in his fingers. Whether he wants to or not, he’s getting to know every last particle of it. Is that what he means by “a personal relationship with food?”

The messiness is not his fault; it’s just the kind of burger that seems designed for three-handed eating, not two-. Finally, Leftwich is left with something of a soup on his plate: a mix of ketchup, aioli, and grease. French fries float on the surface. I think about reaching out and snatching one. Then, I wonder: if food looked like this more often, would we even want to eat it? Perhaps an entire industry of shallow, glossy food magazines—magazines unlike Sugar & Rice—would go out of business. The burger was certainly delicious, but there was nothing pretty about it.

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