What To Read: Dennis Lee is getting stupid with food

This week, we interviewed Dennis Lee, who writes Food is Stupid, a publication that gets inventive (and often gross) with cooking.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Food is Stupid is my attempt to ruin food for everyone.

How did your relationship with “stupid food” get started?

I’ve been writing about food for probably about a decade now. At some point, I got sick of it. I got tired of all the lifestyle content, feeling like I was missing out if my food didn’t quite turn out as nice as it looked in magazines. I got upset if I didn’t get to try the newest and coolest restaurants. One day (I still don’t know what set me off) I thought, “What if I just drive my food writing career off a cliff? How about I do something really dumb? I probably won’t miss being a food writer.” So I started a blog and did dumb stuff like making empanadas out of Play-Doh, I taste-tested a ton of glue sticks, I snuck raw meat into a Korean barbecue restaurant, stuff like that. 

Then, suddenly, I started winning awards. I couldn’t believe it. My attempt at ruining my food writing career had the opposite effect. Eventually I moved all my antics to Substack, where I happily write about my experiments still today, because apparently I haven’t learned a single thing.

How do you know when a food is stupid and thus worth writing about? Does stupid food have any consistent traits? 

There’s no rhyme or reason about what I might find stupid when it comes to food. I think the only consistent trait about the stuff I write about is the fact that it all makes me laugh involuntarily. You know, that sort of unexpected choke-laugh. If I find myself doing that, I’ll just start writing.

You’ve eaten some very gross-sounding recipes: Beef Fizz and Clam Sweat, Spaghetti-O pie, vegan steak tartare, nachos made with communion wafers. What’s been the best-tasting “stupid food” recipe so far? The worst? 

One of my favorites was, wait for it, the Doritos Locos Tacos Four Loko Cocoa Loco Moco. Try saying that out loud. What started as an extremely long play on words turned into something magically delicious. It involved Taco Bell, a hangover-inducing alcoholic beverage, Cocoa Pebbles, and a Hawaiian dish called loco moco. None of this stuff should have been good together, but go figure, I somehow nailed it.

One of the worst things I tried to make was Crystal Gravy, a fake product that was once advertised on Saturday Night Live. Essentially, it was just my attempt at making a totally clear beef gravy (which I failed to do). I thought I’d be clever and use food science along with artificial flavoring, and the final product made me pretty sick to my stomach. I’m getting upset just thinking about how it smelled. The taste was even worse. 

Many of your recipes are suggested to you by readers or followers online. Are there any food suggestions you just couldn’t stomach making?

I avoid suggestions for things that might actually kill me. The main problem is that the term “nontoxic” means, to me, “Hey, I can taste this at least once!” But people suggest all sorts of stuff, almost all of which is hilarious. But if I know for a fact it might make me ill, I pass.

How much longer can your stomach sustain this project?

I wish I had an answer for this, but as long as I don’t eat actual rat poison, I think I’ll have a long time left in me before I stop. I say that, but I did have to deal with a mysterious stomach ailment that turned out to be unidentifiable (I appear to be healthy now), and my friends and family thought it was because I was sitting around eating actual garbage. Too bad, I’m still here, clowns!

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend? 

I’ve been enjoying Line Cook Chronicles by chef Mark Mendez from here in Chicago. For a long time I, like lots of people, mentally glorified restaurant kitchen work and thought it was so cool. We can blame food television for that. Then one day, I found myself needing a job badly and had to work in a kitchen and became a pizza maker for close to five years. I learned some wonderful things about myself and what I could handle, and a lot of heartbreaking things about what I couldn’t, as I went along. Mendez has been turning to his past experiences as a line cook and a chef, and has been looking back and talking candidly about what he’s learned along the way. If you’re fascinated with what goes on in a restaurant kitchen, his firsthand and honest storytelling will show you what it’s like back in your favorite kitchens, and hopefully you’ll have some newfound respect for the line cooks there.

Subscribe to Dennis’s publication, Food is Stupid, and find him on Twitter and Instagram.