On a recent, sweltering Saturday afternoon, Sonia Booth’s Bloomingdale rowhouse is quickly taking on the look of a preschool classroom. She and Malaka Gharib, founder of the Runcible Spoon, have covered almost every available level surface with construction paper and other supplies scooped up on the cheap at craft thrift shop Scrap DC.
Soon, around a dozen hip 20- and 30-somethings trickle in, several of them hot and in need of water after arriving via — cliche alert! — bicycle. The attendees have signed up for a workshop through Knowledge Commons DC, a free-class organization. Their task: Create a Washington-centric, food-oriented page for “A Very Runcible DC Cookbook.”
Gharib tells them her goal is to build a community cookbook, a modern take on the Junior League and church group collections of previous generations. But there’s a twist: Contributions to the food zine’s book don’t have to be recipes. They just have to deal with food, ideally with a Washington bent.
Glue stick tops pop off. Scissors start slashing through carefully composed photographs from Saveur, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine. In keeping with the Runcible Spoon’s freewheeling approach, there’s something subversively appropriate about cutting up such food writing mainstays to build something entirely different. (Gharib says they try to observe copyrights by avoiding illustrations and using images in new, reinterpreted contexts under fair use law.)
“We are totally irreverent,” Gharib tells me, “so if you want a real recipe, don’t come to us, because we make up half our stories.”
At a time when buffets of blogs, food magazines and television shows are competing for the hearts and stomachs of hungry Americans, Gharib’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek disclaimer about the Runcible Spoon, which she started in 2010, can sound like a bit of a head-scratcher. But peruse the pages of the diminutive, 51 / 2- by 81 / 2-inch, 16- to 24-page publication, and it begins to make sense.
We’ll start with how it looks. Gharib, 27, and co-editors Claire O’Neill, 27, and Alison Baitz, 25, make the magazine by hand. It’s a mashup of illustrations, collages, simple fonts and handwritten headlines. Imagine that an Etsy hipster sat down and got crafty with a “CSI” ransom-note writer and you might begin to approximate the funky aesthetic. Baitz, a freelance writer, says they try to walk the line between glossy and homespun.
The content of a typical issue is just as unpredictable. A recipe for Occult Jam looks legitimate until you read carefully and realize it calls for “1 tiny speck of Princess Diana’s hair.” A facetious page of “Kitchen Experiments for the Lazy But Curious Chef” illustrated by Gharib includes instructions for how to make flatbread based on your favorite bread recipe (“when you reach the step about adding yeast, skip it”) or churn butter (attach a jar filled with heavy whipping cream to your belt loop and walk around all day). But you’ll also find more straightforward features, such as a cheap coffee tour of Washington or a photo essay on vintage kitchenware.
“The D.C. food scene is kind of stuffy,” Gharib says, and she sees the Runcible Spoon as an antidote. She admits, though, that it took time for readers to catch on to the predominant whimsy, which the Runcible Spoon decided to embrace after realizing it would be hard to compete with the other independent food publications out there.
“One of the first criticisms we got was that we don’t know anything about the D.C. food scene,” Gharib says, “and we’re like, ‘We don’t care.’ ”
The pedigree of the contributors to the Runcible Spoon shows that some members of the establishment are taking seriously this not-too-serious venture. Gharib, a Syracuse University journalism graduate who works in social media, says contributor résumés include Politico, NPR and, yes, The Washington Post. She says she’s delighted that it has come to a point where writers are seeking her out rather than the other way around.
The Runcible Spoon, named after a phrase in “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by English poet, painter and wit Edward Lear, comes out roughly three times a year. Each issue takes about two months to produce, and the team spends another two months promoting it through social media and events and searching for new vendors willing to sell it. The zine — typically a limited-circulation, self-published work, for those unfamiliar with the lingo — originally started with funding raised through Kickstarter. Now Gharib relies on the money generated by sales on Etsy, at book fairs and at zine fests, as well as at local sites such as Meeps, Qualia Coffee and Seasonal Pantry. The amount of money in the bank determines the size of each print run, anywhere from 200 to 500 per issue. Depending on the issue size, the price also varies, generally from $6 to $9.
Originally, Runcible Spoon issues had a seasonal theme (spring, fall, etc.). These days the zine is more topical, with a breakfast issue, a mad science issue, a gross issue and a swimsuit issue (“lusciously gratuitous food options and down-home, sticks-to-your-ribs recipes that are guaranteed to make that winter weight permanent and get us beach-ready in no time”).
Taking the theme idea even further has led Gharib to spearhead the creation of the Runcible Spoon cookbook.
The workshop participants take the open-ended concept and run with it. Meredith Robinson’s Asian-centric page espouses the joys of international markets (her favorite is H Mart). Chrissy Ziccarelli recounts her “never-ending quest” to make the perfect pizza dough (she’s skeptical of cutting up an issue of Cook’s Illustrated but relents when I show up with a few pizza cutter images Baitz had snipped from it earlier). Gharib decides to make a guide to brunch in Washington, which mostly consists of a big, fat kiss to new French hot spot Le Diplomate. A page by Carina Gervacio, program director at the nonprofit youth agency Brainfood, who thought the class might give her ideas on projects for the students she works with, offers tips on how to throw an impromptu Southern fish fry. Another page takes on the form of a PSA promoting the virtues of cheese.
There are a few recipes, sketchy as they are. One for rabbit stew calls for two things: one pet rabbit and one mushroom — and serves 107 people. Rising American University senior Jessica Luczywo lays out a recipe for Girl Scout Stew, a throw-anything-in-the-pot dish she learned from her grandmother. Dirk Keaton, a member of the DC Zinefest collective, shares a friend’s version of a strawberry-rhubarb bake, and Alissa Millenson pulls ideas from an old Whole Foods receipt to write about how to make smoothies. Dave Ramos, a Knowledge Commons Web site volunteer, draws his instructions for brewing ginger beer. “I haven’t killed anyone yet,” he reassures me.
Attendees leave with a promise of being able to see the finished online-only cookbook by mid-June. Gharib has already completed a similar project in Brooklyn and plans to offer a workshop in Los Angeles.
As for the Runcible Spoon, Gharib says she’d like to be able to make it heftier and help make the print-based medium of the zine more relevant in an online era. Ultimately, her goal is “bringing our story and food culture” to a wider audience.
She hopes the Runcible Spoon can show the rest of the world that Washingtonians are cooler than our government-cubicle, K-Street-lobbying reputation might indicate. If you ever find yourself with the urge to churn butter on your belt loop, she will have succeeded.
The Runcible Spoon is available for purchase at Seasonal Pantry, Qualia Coffee and Meeps and on Etsy through therunciblespoon.info/store.