Sam Sifton

By Spencer Ackerman

My first job in journalism was opening mail for the listings section of the immortal Manhattan weekly New York Press when I was 19. By the grace of Russ Smith, Lisa Kearns, John Strausbaugh, Lisa LeeKing and especially Andrey Slivka and Daria Vaisman, I eventually graduated to factchecker and got to write for the paper. The caliber of writers the Press attracted in the late 90s and early 00s was intimidating: in addition to those named above, there was Jim Knipfel, Tanya Richardson, George Tabb, Bill Monahan, Bill Bryk (who wrote a history column — a brilliant idea that should be a newspaper tradition), C.J. Sullivan, Jeff Koyen, Queen Itchie, Jennifer Maerz, Alan Cabal. If all you know about New York Press boils down to Matt Taibbi, who arrived after Russ sold the paper — man, you missed out on a lot.

But there was one writer associated with the Press whom I never met. That was Sam Sifton, the old managing editor (or was he associate editor?) back when the paper lived in the Puck Building, before the move to 333 7th Avenue. Sifton defected to the Times ,an eminently sensible Talk Magazine, a decision that was viewed in the office as almost a personal betrayal. [Update: Alan Cabal corrects my second-hand memory in the comments. Also: Alan Cabal is in the comments!] Sam, the chosen one, beloved of Russ, had sold out, went the view, opting not to challenge journalistic miasma but to secure a privileged place for himself within it. The Press back then was full of lovable radicals. And those guys could fucking write.

As a vestige of my early association with the paper, I’ve, for years, read Sifton warily. What a mistake. Sifton is the Times‘ food writer now, and his stuff is gorgeous. For instance, this description of the ideal midwinter meal:

There would be the barest hint of wood smoke, too, recalling the smell of a pipe caught on a lee shore as a sailboat passes by in the rain. There would be candles on the table, stuck into polished silver. There would be deep snow outside the windows, laughter and good music within — a New England pantomime whether experienced in rural Idaho, suburban Missouri or bone-chilled Brooklyn.

In the soft middle distance, perhaps, there would be small planters of paperwhites rising into the living room’s warm air, false spring forced into flower. These would be worth toasting with excellent wine, plenty of it. Meanwhile, the dog sleeps on a rug. And your guests, loved and appreciated as they are, disappear at 10 as if summoned by Morpheus.

Just excerpting the piece is unfair to Sifton, because he returns to these images later, delightfully, as he develops an admirably unsentimental, practical, knowledgeable and persuasive argument about the components of a home-cooked winter dinner. Your youthful idols can be wrong — even if they were wrong for the right reasons — and that’s why you shouldn’t have had any in the first place.

2 responses to “Sam Sifton

  1. The “defection” you reference was not to the NYT, it was to Tina Brown’s TALK magazine. Sam is an incredibly gifted writer, and after the failure of TALK the NYT very wisely picked him up. Russ Smith was extremely peeved when he went to TALK. Smith has absolutely no business complaining about loyalty after what he did to NY Press and John Strausbaugh. Perhaps Sifton was psychic.

  2. Cabal! How the hell are you! Thanks for correcting my memory on this!

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