Peter Sagal may not describe himself as a foodie—much like hipsters, few people self-identify as foodies anymore, after all—but there is an unmistakable passion in his voice when Sagal starts talking about food. It's the same voice NPR listeners are accustomed to hearing every week when Sagal hosts Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, the "NPR news quiz" show he's helmed since 1998, but one that we've never personally heard discussing a McGangBang on air, nor his adoration for the Fritos-topped Papa John's pizza he once tried for Sandwich Monday. "There were a number of things that really surprised us," laughs Sagal. "That was one of them."
Sandwich Monday, of course, is the now-occasional series on The Salt, NPR's food blog, in which Sagal and the staff of Wait Wait devoured a new and interesting sandwich every week for five years and detailed the results of each taste-test. Other favorites included the latke double down—inspired by the KFC Double Down, out of which the weekly Sandwich Monday series was originally born—and the baco, half bao, half taco, appropriately stuffed with bacon. Eventually, the series moved past just sandwiches and into pizza, yogurt for men, even Soylent.
While the series more or less ended its run this past May ("It became too much of a burden," says Sagal, before adding: "And how many jokes about coronary thrombosis can you make?"), the NPR host was still keen to talk turkey—just not turkey sandwiches—in advance of his upcoming visit to Houston. This Thursday night, Jones Hall will host Sagal and the entire Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! team for a live taping of the show, which will air on Houston Public Media News 88.7 at 10 a.m. this Saturday and Sunday. While he's here, Sagal plans to enjoy three meals, with at least two Houston specialties on his hit list.
I know for a fact that a lot of this food culture—people desperately seeking out the best barbecue in Texas or the best gumbo in New Orleans—is all about people looking for authenticity in a country and culture.
"I'm eating out with some friends on Wednesday night, and I'm asking for barbecue," Sagal says. And when in Texas, he's got two items on his barbecue radar: brisket and hot links. This is one of the benefits of traveling for work, he explains—experiencing and investigating regional variations across the country through food. "The sad thing is that food culture is one of the things that remains or can remain local and unique," he says, "because everything else that we deal with is homogenized."
"Take clothing for example," Sagal elaborates. "There's no such thing as a regional style of dress. There's no such thing as a national style of dress. Almost every product we wear is mass-manufactured. Food is the great exception." Of course, he admits, "food has also been homogenized—there's McDonald's everywhere. But if you spend some effort you can eat something in Houston you can't eat anywhere else. You've got all these influences, Cajun and Southern and Mexican and African Americans, you've got Jews and Vietnamese—since Houston has always been this immigrant hub—so you get this amazing food culture."
And for Sagal, this sought-after regionalism in food underscores a larger concern, especially for baby boomers who grew up as the first generation weaned on processed foods, Green Giant canned vegetables and frozen Swanson TV dinners. "A lot of us are trying to reclaim something," he says. "I know for a fact that a lot of this food culture—people desperately seeking out the best barbecue in Texas or the best gumbo in New Orleans—is all about people looking for authenticity in a country and culture."
Back home in Chicago, that authenticity—for Sagal, at least—is found in hot dogs and sausage, the original cornerstones of the meatpacking city, as opposed to deep-dish pizza. "I hate deep-dish pizza," Sagal says. "It doesn't taste very good, it's mostly cheese, and it's not very Chicago. Chicago is all about the hot dog, which is much more legitimate and interesting."
As for Houston? For Sagal, Houston will always be the place where he had his first banh mi a few years ago. "Since then I eat them whenever I can," he says, though he admits finding a good version of Vietnamese sandwich is tougher in the Windy City than in the Bayou City. But the finding—the journey, the act of searching—is almost enough in and of itself, especially for a man who, in lieu of simply stopping at a Dairy Queen while on the road, once marked off every restaurant in Jane and Michael Stern's epic Roadfood tome in the days before Yelp was a twinkle in the Internet's eye. "As you get older you have to be a little more picky," the 50-year-old Sagal says. "At my age I'm very conscious of the limited meals I have left so why would I waste one? I'm not gonna waste one on a goddamned Applebees."
This time around, Sagal's in the market for more banh mi, but not necessarily Frito pie—another Texas treasure that Houston has nigh-perfected at establishments such as Onion Creek and Benjy's (where you'll find a vegetarian version of the dish). Even though he may have liked the Papa John's pizza take, and though he's yet to try a bog-standard Frito pie, Sagal has his sights set on other regional cuisine goals during his limited stay in Houston. After all, Sagal asks rhetorically: "Why would I waste a meal eating a Frito pie when I could eat barbecue?" A salient point, and one with which we must agree.
Although this week's live taping of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! is sold out, the show will air on News 88.7 this Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. The Houston episode will be available to stream on demand at npr.org on Saturday, or you can download a podcast of the show later in the weekend.