How Emily Nunn Turned Salad Into a Soapbox

Brash and funny, she uses her popular Substack newsletter, The Department of Salad, to hold forth about ageism, politics and, oh yes, leafy greens.

By Kim Severson For The New York Times

Images Melissa Goldern

ATLANTA — Emily Nunn won’t drive on the freeways here, so it can take 45 minutes to get from her apartment to the cavernous indoor Your Dekalb Farmers Market, whose inexpensive and bountiful produce selection she prefers.

We hadn’t even reached the lettuce bins before she started in.

“Everybody in the food business hates me,” she said, taking a moment to defend both her vigorous use of mint and her penchant for social-media agitation, particularly when it comes to ageism. “It’s because I have so much fun. And I don’t care anymore.”

The word “everybody” is hyperbole, of course. After years as a food writer at high-profile publications like The New Yorker, Ms. Nunn now swims in a much smaller part of the food-media sea: She writes a twice-weekly newsletter about salad.

Ms. Nunn, 61, is as surprised as anyone that The Department of Salad is holding steady as the sixth-most-popular paid food newsletter on Substack, which is home to hundreds of newsletters about food and cooking. Hers was a career Hail Mary pass during the first year of the pandemic, when she was eating a lot of salad. She would post photos of them on her Twitter feed with a comment like “Here is another damn salad.”

She sometimes mentioned her tiny hometown, Galax, Va., and her Aunt Mariah’s antics, suggested that Republicans perform specific sex acts, or crowdsourced tuna salad recipes.

She also tweeted about how life looked from the vantage point of an older single woman: “I once went to a dinner party with all couples and one of the wives asked me: But what do you do at night? I told her I freebased.”

The Department of Salad could just as easily have been The Department of Dips, she said, because she was eating a lot of them, too.

“Look, I’m not the world’s biggest salad fan,” she said as we arrived back at Department of Salad headquarters — a small, tasteful shotgun apartment with a balcony and a counter full of vinegars in a slightly fancy suburban building.

“I love salad and I’ve gotten better at salad, but it’s this kind of food writing that I’ve missed,” she said. “I don’t want to be going to the parties in Brooklyn and writing about amping up the flavor of everything. I love it, but I can’t do that. I had to make something of my own.”

The excitement of reinventing yourself can be extraordinary, and the wide world of food provides plenty of opportunity. (See: James Beard, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Carla Hall, etc.)

After a long writing career that included co-creating The New Yorker’s Tables for Two column, reporting for the Chicago Tribune, blogging, contributing to the website Food52 and publishing a book, Ms. Nunn found herself living a quiet country life in a leaky converted horse barn in North Carolina that she found on Craigslist. It was a good place, she said, to recover from a rare but treatable form of blood cancer that struck in 2018.

Then the pandemic hit. The money from her well-reviewed 2017 memoir “The Comfort Food Diaries,” which chronicled life after a drinking career and the suicide of her closeted gay brother, was almost gone. She couldn’t get hired by a mainstream publication. She was down to rolling quarters.

One of the true glories of a Southern summer is that month or so when the tomatoes pile up next to the cucumbers on the kitchen counter, and the peaches and berries are sweet with juice. Tossing them into salad kept Ms. Nunn sane. Her Twitter account, a funny, cranky and political corner of the social-media universe with a modest 18,300 followers, kept her connected.

A food writer suggested on Twitter that she start a salad newsletter. The actor J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri Kellman on “Succession,” tweeted that she would read something like that. By October 2020, Ms. Nunn had one going.

The following February, she started charging $50 a year, or $5.50 a month. She made $20,000 right out of the gate. Her followers include the British food writer Diana Henry, media personalities like Soledad O’Brien, pediatric surgeons, Vanity Fair writers, people from Cleveland and doulas.

Ms. Nunn wouldn’t disclose how many of her more than 17,000 subscribers pay, or what she earns now. But she did say she is making more than she did when she was laid off from her job as a roaming feature writer for the Chicago Tribune in 2009.

Her witty newsletters are a bridge mix of information. She might feature an interview with someone with a point of view about salad, or use a recipe from a vintage cookbook or an old menu as a writing prompt. The recipes, like orange and radish salad or herby rice salad with peas and prosciutto, only sometimes include lettuce.

“Salad is a lot of fun because it’s not like lasagna,” Ms. Nunn said. “If I was doing a lasagna newsletter it would be like, ‘This time put Italian sausage in it, or make a béchamel.’ But there are a million different kinds of salads.”

Lettuce care is a particular skill of Ms. Nunn’s. “What’s worse than sand in salad?” she asked. She swishes each variety a few times, separately, in a big stainless steel bowl, then dries them in a spinner she found at a yard sale. She is also good at reviving lettuce and arugula, by wrapping it in slightly damp paper towels and tucking it inside a zip-top bag. Other tricks include shaving unripe avocado on a mandoline, using the slices to add a nutty texture to a salad without the sometimes overpowering butteriness of ripe ones.

Ms. Nunn is an advocate of putting lots of citrus and soft herbs in salads, and calling on red onion to save the day. “I have this theory that whenever there’s anything wrong with anything, add a tablespoon of very finely chopped raw red onion and everything will be fine.” Yukari Sakamoto, the author of “Food Sake Tokyo,” is building a collection of favorite Department of Salad recipes, including spicy cherry salad from Mitchell Davis, a former executive of the James Beard Foundation, and one of Ms. Nunn’s latest, a vintage green olive dressing made with a hard-boiled egg yolk and basil. Ms. Sakamoto trusts Ms. Nunn’s palate, and is a fan of her voice. “It’s a bit sassy, which sometimes has me laughing out loud on a busy Tokyo train.”

The editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, who was brought up to regard salad as a close relative of castor oil, says he has been a fan of Ms. Nunn’s humor since they both joined the magazine in 1992.

“Getting something that’s authentically funny and not the latest gag of the day, but something that has an innately funny voice and real wit — that’s really rare,” he said. “To see her now bringing the funny as a food writer, I wish I had thought of it long ago.”

He, like others who have worked with her, says Ms. Nunn has never been one to hold back. That helps explain her relentless Twitter campaign against ageism in hiring, which often targets The Washington Post and its owner, Jeff Bezos, whom she has also blamed for a lack of frisée at his Whole Foods Markets.

Her crusade started when she applied for a job at the paper in 2018. An editor mistakenly sent an impersonal rejection letter explaining that the job required someone with more experience and a significant number of years at a well-known publication. It ended with a cheery “Keep writing! Good luck with your career.”

Ms. Nunn was incensed, and posted that sentiment on Twitter, along with her age. “I mean, if it wasn’t ageism, why was I on auto-reject?” she said. “I had three times the experience they needed.”

The tweet quickly turned into a discussion about age discrimination, and went viral. Others of her generation shared tales of never even getting a call back for an interview, even though they were more than qualified for jobs. A cause was born.

“It’s just soul-annihilating,” she said of ageism. “I’m not anti-younger people. I’m pro-older people in the mix.”

The editor who had sent the letter followed with an apology, which Ms. Nunn also posted. Her later applications for jobs at the Post, including one in the Food section, never resulted in an interview. She has targeted the paper ever since, contacting various editors to no avail and even filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which she knew wouldn’t really go anywhere.

This month, when the Post published a collection of crossword puzzles to honor Women’s History Month, she tweeted: “Thanks for the fun crosswords. Older women can do them while standing in line for food stamps.”

Joe Yonan, the paper’s Food editor, who has taken much of her heat, declined to comment. Some of Ms. Nunn’s friends are suggesting that what once seemed a worthy fight against ageism in the media is dangerously close to taking a right turn into the land of unhealthy obsession.

“It’s frustrating to be super-talented and have all that experience and you can’t get arrested, but her vendettas sometimes are a little hard,” said Steve Sando, whose coveted Rancho Gordo Beans mail-order club has a waiting list of 40,000 people. (He once hired Ms. Nunn to write about beans. “We asked for four or five recipes. Amazingly, she gave us ‘War and Peace’ on beans.”)

He understands her anger. Ms. Nunn, he said, is among a new school of food writers who have found success by being uncompromising and sharply political on social media.

Dan Stone, a writer and bar owner who works on writer partnerships for Substack, has been a fan since Ms. Nunn’s time at The New Yorker. When he saw her thread about ageism in March 2021, he reached out to see how he could support her work on the platform. It led to a yearlong contract for a minimum financial guarantee, which ends this month. Ms. Nunn and Substack are discussing the next year.

On Substack, Ms. Nunn is competing with some big names like Alison Roman, a former New York Times columnist whose newsletter (simply called “a newsletter”) holds the top spot on the platform’s paid food list, and the pastry chef David Lebovitz, who has been writing a letter from France since 2005.
Other heavy hitters, like Ruth Reichl and Andrew Zimmern, have recently started Substack newsletters, looking to find a successful mix of video, recipes, reader participation and storytelling at a moment when consumer subscription burnout may not be far off.

Ms. Nunn’s own burnout may not be all that far off, either. Despite her running joke about getting help from “the boys in the lab,” she does everything herself, with only a light read from a copy editor paid for by Substack.

“I’m exhausted all the time,” she said. “I always have salad dressing in my hair.”

But she’s happy. “I like making a living just being myself.”

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