From the Berlin Wall to bagels
search

From the Berlin Wall to bagels

Former TV news producer David Page describes an appetite for his Food Network assignment

David Page
David Page

So what does being a television producer who filmed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, among many other far-flung, dramatic, even world-altering things, have to do with Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, hosted by the irrepressible Guy Fieri?

And what might being Jewish possibly have to do with it?

Well, to be straightforward, a guy’s gotta eat. And, of course, his family’s gotta get fed…

Or, to be a little more formal, a person can grow out of a format, or grow beyond it, or see other possibilities; a middle-aged man can decide that it might be better to have a home, even if that home changes every few years.

And if you’re Jewish, what doesn’t being Jewish have to do with? It colors everything, doesn’t it?

David Page, the television producer, creator of “Diners, Drive-ins, and Drives,” and most recently the author of “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes” — a man whose career includes so many items that to itemize them would be to turn this story into a list — will talk at the JCC U’s afternoon session on June 9. (See below.)

When he was based in Europe, years ago, Mr. Page also reported from Israel.

“I’m going to be talking basically about my book, and about the experiences that led up to my writing it,” Mr. Page said.

Those experiences started in Flushing, Queens, where he was born, and then to Long Island, where he spent a few early childhood years. So far, so ordinary. But then the family moved to Greenfield, a small town in western Massachusetts. It was close to the border with Vermont, “which was dangerously helpful if you were trying to drink illegally,” Mr. Page said. “The drinking age in Vermont was lower than it was in Massachusetts, and so it was easier to convince them to sell you something on a fake ID. The fact that you endangered the world when you were coming home from there was irrelevant…”

Mr. Page began his romance with radio when he worked on his college station, and then dropped out of school to follow that love west. He worked in Oklahoma City, then in Wichita, and then in TV in Wichita, and then in Phoenix, and then in Houston, “and then I was picked up by NBC news as a producer in the Chicago bureau.” That was in 1983. It was a young broadcaster’s dream.

His dream career continued to unfold. He went to London as a producer. That job entailed “working with a correspondent, who would be on the air, and a sound man, and a camera man, and a translator who sometimes was a fixer. It was the producer’s job to make sure that it all worked.

“I did it first in London, then I moved to Frankfurt, and then to Budapest, because we could see that the call of communism was coming.”

Mr. Page “covered every community revolution or government change from the late “80s from Budapest,” he said. From that perch in Eastern Europe, he’d go anywhere in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East where a promising story beckoned. NBC had decided to broadcast from the Brandenburg gate; it was clear that the world was changing, and that the wall would change too. That’s why “I was there, at the gate, and when it opened, I walked through to the other side.

“I’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as part of my job,” Mr. Page said. That didn’t prepare him for the intense oddness of the experience.

“You know the pictures of Germans dancing on top of the wall, the night it opened?” he asked. “I was at least partly responsible for that. That was my ladder.”

The camera crew had decided to bring a ladder to use to film the vast crowds who were expected to storm the gate. When it was open, “East Germans came through it unimpeded. We brought a ladder so the crew could climb up. And then when the crowds started coming through, I lost control of my ladder.”

The jubilant Germans used it to climb up the gate, and photographers immortalized them. “My loss was the world’s gain,” Mr. Page said.

There is of course very little unalloyed good in the world. “It was a very interesting evening,” Mr. Page said, and a very good one, but “I had growing concerns about vestigial German nationalism as the East and the West came together. There was something about being in the crowd when a de facto union took place that gave me some pretty grave concerns about that sense of growing nationalism.

“To be fair to Germany, it has been a very productive and supportive member of NATO,” he continued. Under Merkel — that’s Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who chose to leave office, after a tenure that began in 2005, just last year — “Germany was the most important country in Europe, but I still worry to some extent about some of the dark forces lurking there.”

His time in Europe has caused Mr. Page to worry about what’s going on there now. “I hesitate to say that I have insight into anything, because I am a journalist, not a scholar — but Ukraine scares the hell out of me,” he said. “That because of the ways it parallels the old German experience.

“You have a madman, who cannot be predicted.

“It is remarkable to see Ukraine led by an amazing leader — who is Jewish! — standing up to this aggression in this way.

“I spent a lot of time working in the Soviet Union, and one of the things that is fascinating to me is that when I was there, nothing in the Soviet Union worked.

“It is fascinating to see the myth of military power punctured. But the tanks don’t work, the conscripts are all drunk, and none of them give a damn. It’s a country where the emperor has no clothes — but he has nukes.”

During his time in Europe, Mr. Page started to be fascinated by food; he realized that food can be not only delicious and nutritious, but also revelatory. Food can tell the story of the place it’s from.

“It’s things like you go to Paris, and you have a sit-down lunch, not a grab-and-go. It completely captures the French work/life balance.

“Or you go to Strasbourg, in eastern France, and they are eating charcuterie, a plate full of sauerkraut, topped with pork.” It sounds German, not French — and that makes sense. “It’s a region that has changed hands many times,” he said.

“In Tuscany, there’s a great reliance on wild boar. That is reflective of the fact that it was such a poor region that they always had to hunt their own food.” One boar could keep a family going for a good long time. “You can learn so much from food, and there is so much to talk about,” Mr. Page said. He plans to talk about how food science, cultural history, demographics, and other disciplines come together in the study of food.

After the Berlin Wall came down, Mr. Page came back to the United States. So did many of his colleagues. The United States lost interest in Eastern Europe after that because everything seemed to be under control. “Soon after the wall fell, the networks thought that they’d set up big bureaus there, but then they realized that we” — Americans, that is — “didn’t care. We worried when we thought that the Russians were going to nuke us. When that threat seemed to go away, so did the interest.”

And then, a few years later, Islamists hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, killing almost 3,000 people, altering the face of downtown Manhattan and the minds of Americans. Almost no one was interested in the former Soviet Union then.

So Mr. Page became the executive producer of talk shows in Manhattan; he and his family moved to Glen Ridge, and then to Montclair. Eventually, though, the pressures of his job, which at first was tiring but fun, became fun but tiring, and then just plain tiring. And the definition of news was starting to change as well; the networks were not producing anything even vaguely classifiable as “fake news,” but it was airing a great deal of fluff.

“That’s when I realized that my time in network news was over,” Mr. Page said.

He and his family moved to Minnesota; there, a stint as head of a home shopping network ended in boredom. “So I opened my own production company, starved for quite a while — and then I got lucky and managed to connect with the Food Network.”

And that was that. Sort of. It was business. There were ups. There were downs. But most of it was up, including the creation of “Diners.” “I’d developed an anthropological interest in food, and this was the perfect opportunity to turn it into something,” he said.

“My mother was a great mom and a terrific accountant and a truly crappy cook,” he continued. So everything he knows, he learned himself. Starting in Europe, “I became a foodie.” But just as a consumer, not a producer. Apartments in Europe come without appliances, he said; you have to bring your own. He recalls moving into a brand-new apartment, with a brand-new kitchen he’d bought himself. “When I left it, several months later” — because back then, he had that sort of life — “I realized that I never once even turned on my oven.

“But when I got home I started cooking, and I decided that I love it.

“I have a natural instinct for making television, but not for making food.”

He tells stories of chefs and their instincts; of how a serious cook can carry on a conversation but still know when to turn around to fix the heat or stir or add something to the ongoing stovetop creation. He tells stories of a recovering-from-illness chef who loses his sense of taste but can hear and see his food’s needs. “He knows what he sees when he looks at the oil,” Mr. Page said.

Mr. Page lives on Long Beach Island now, in south Jersey; he’ll venture north for an in-person talk in Tenafly. Knowing his audience and being part of its demographic — if you give him just a bit of an opportunity and he’ll talk about shuls he’s known, including the one he and his family belong to today — he’ll talk about Jewish food institutions.

In his book, “I have a whole chapter about bagels,” he said. “How they were created, how they got to the United States, how they developed from there. I talk to the son of the guy who invented the automatic bagel-baking machine, which forever changed bagels in America.” That’s Lender’s Bagels. “You decide if it’s good or bad, but you ended up with softer, sweet, not-New-York bagels that got introduced all over the country.

“Now many bakers are back to making real bagels,” he added.

“I was allowed behind the counter and Russ and Daughters, to attempt to slice lox. And guess what? I fared very badly. I ended up with a pile of lox mush. And the people I met in line were fascinating. I talked to a former heavyweight boxer who used to hang out with the Jewish mobster who ran boxing for the mob. He would get his appetizing from Russ and Daughters.

“I even got to meet Mel Brooks to talk about bagels. Needless to say, he’s in favor of them.”

Mr. Page will talk about all of this. The serious geopolitical stuff — although it seems unlikely that he’ll stay serious for long. It’s not what he does — and the food stuff. And Guy Fieri. And the Jewish stuff, which is entwined with everything else. It’s all at the JCC
in Tenafly.


Who: David Page

What: Will speak at the JCC U

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

When: On Tuesday, June 9, at 10:30 to 2.

Why so long: Because it’s in two parts. In the morning, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Thomas Grunfeld will talk about “U.S./China Relations and Biden Foreign Policy.”

How much: $36 for JCC members; $44 for nonmembers

For more information and to register: www.jccotp.org/programs/lectures-learning; to do it step by step, go to jccotp.org, then click on Adults, then Lectures & Learning, then JCC University. Or you can call (201) 569-7900.

read more:
comments