Why James Oseland Left Saveur to Clean Chicken Coops

“I closed all the blinds in the apartment, turned off the TV, lit a couple candles … " Photo: Melissa Hom

The recent announcement that veteran Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland — who led the magazine since 2006 — would leave his position to join Rodale was surprising. Oseland, after all, had become more or less synonymous with the title. But even more surprising was Oseland’s choice of new job: rebranding Rodale’s 62-year-old Organic Gardening into Organic Life, with his first issue dropping for May/June 2015. So Grub called Oseland up to discuss his big decision, his upcoming (non-food-related) memoir, and why he’s been spending his days shoveling cow manure.

I want to hear about your memoir first: I’ve read that it’s about growing up in the punk-rock scene.
It is. You were informed correctly. The name of the book is Jimmy Neurosis, and it will be published by the HarperCollins imprint Ecco Press. It’s funny: I think I had somewhere buried in the very core of James Oseland the impetus for making this book for decades before it became clear inside my mind. My mom passed away four years ago, and that probably played no small part in setting the stage for allowing me to proceed with the project. The book is very, very much — at the very dead center of it — a story about the relationship that I had with my mom growing up.

When’s it coming out?
When it’s finished! I wish I could do an I Dream of Jeannie head bonk and have the thing actually finished, but it’ll be done when it’s done.

Does food play a role at all in the memoir?
You know, since it’s a work in progress, it’s hard to say for sure. But my gut instinct is that there will be very little food or cooking or just, really, anything to do with food at all in it. Instead, it’s more of a coming-of-age story about my screw-is-loose childhood, and feeling very innately, very early on, like, Oh my gosh, what am I doing in this environment? This doesn’t feel right or correct to me at all. It’s shag carpeting and it’s cottage cheese ceiling and it’s Brady Brunchreruns. How can I find a way out of this? There’s gotta be an escape hatch somewhere here. … There was a lot of sex and a lot of drugs and a lot of rock and roll, and I almost died a couple of times.

You have a lot going on right now! Why did you decide to leave Saveur and start this new project with Rodale?
So Saveur has a very, very deep, warm, comfortable place in my heart, and my journey with Saveur is an old one. You know, I was among the first fans of the publication, at its inception in 1994 … I finally worked up the courage to pitch the title as a writer, to pitch stories to the title. I loved Saveur so much that I didn’t almost somehow want to wreck it by contributing to it.

You certainly didn’t.
Yeah. I took a leap of faith, sent off a pitch, eventually started contributing to the magazine very frequently. All this is to say that for me, Saveur was always more than a job. But I guess it was also … time. And I feel like, in my gut, probably going out as far as two years before the time I actually left, there were cues in my life and sounds going off in my head that indicated to me that it was time to start thinking about doing something else and expanding my creative life. And to push the boundaries of what I could do as a creator of printed material.

Maria Rodale, who is the CEO of Rodale, is an old personal friend. We had worked together going back to 2001. We remained friends over the years, and would get together for dinner at least once a year to fantasize about what we might do next. So we’d been talking directly and indirectly about creating a title like Rodale’s Organic Life for many years. But roughly two years ago, those conversations started to take on more seriousness.

It must feel bittersweet to walk away from Saveur, but it’s nice to hear that it was on your own terms.
When I ultimately took the job and signed on the dotted line, I spent a weekend alone with myself. This is gonna sound completely pretentious, if not borderline bipolar, but I closed all the blinds in the apartment, turned off the TV, lit a couple candles — purchased at the witchcraft store not far from where I live — and I just wanted to get out my head, and even more importantly, my soul, and into the grand potential of what lay ahead of me. I had this instinctual flash that one of the first things that I needed to do was go work at the Rodale Institute. Rodale was founded by Maria’s grandfather, and one of the first things that he did back in the 1940s was establish this nearly 400-acre experimental organic farm, the farm that ultimately became known as the Rodale Institute. It still exists.

… And so I put into motion a series of days volunteering out at the Rodale Institute, and I’ve been doing it frequently ever since then. I’ve had such a blast literally shoveling cow manure and cleaning out chicken coops and weeding fields of brassicas. It’s just absolutely transcendental and invigorating in so many ways. I mean, wow, how amazing is it that the company you work for has, at its very center, an experimental organic farm that’s been around for decades?

What will the content of Organic Life look like? Certainly there’s a strong focus on farming and gardening.
Yes, the two things that you’ve just named will be very much part and parcel of the title. Food will probably be the lion’s share of what we’re creating — roughly 30 to 40 percent. As a Californian who was born in the early 1960s, I’ve always had somewhere in the background, if not in the foreground, ideas about approaching life on Earth in a more environmentally sound way — about making green choices and eating organically.

… Yet at the same time, when we think of organic food, our minds immediately tend to lean toward raw kale salad and seed oils and foods that might be good for you, but aren’t necessarily pleasurable or very delicious. And one of the things that I’m very excited about doing with Rodale’s Organic Life is creating an environment where food is first and foremost about deliciousness … Healthy food can be Indian food, and food from the South of France, and Calabrian grandmothers’ food, and from Mexico, and from the Deep South. But I think the point of differentiation is that the ingredients that go into it are very pure and very clean.

… It will also very much be a magazine about wellness, both physical and psychological. For example, we will cover homeopathy, a very misunderstood alternative remedy that I’ve been practicing for more than three decades. Homeopathy is actually kind of my core medicine. I’ve seen the same homeopathic doctor here in New York for more than two decades.

How do you plan to balance respecting the audience of this old, established brand while still breathing new life into it and making it feel exciting?
Well, for all intents and purposes, we’re creating a new brand — effective with the February and March issue of Organic Gardening, it’s going on pause. I think that Organic Gardening’s current readership very easily fits into the folks that are likely to really respond to what we’re creating in a very enthusiastic fashion. So I think, really, it’ll be a really easy segue.

So the inevitable question is: Is it still feasible to invest in a print magazine? What’s your digital strategy?
I think there’s something special about the experience of either getting a magazine in your mailbox or going to your favorite newsstand and sitting down with a magazine at a nearby café and holding it in your hands, or maybe reading it later when you’re in the bathtub, with[out] that fear of dropping it into the water. The way you interact with the physical object itself … I don’t think that can be beat … At the same time, the idea of what we’re going to do with Rodale’s Organic Life as a digital entity is equally stimulating, intriguing, and thrilling.

Have you spoken to Adam Sachs about the future of Saveur? Is it strange to see someone else take the reins?
No, it’s exciting! To the contrary, it’s more thrilling to see where this part of me — that remains so close to me — goes next. Adam is an old colleague. We’ve never worked together super intimately, but we knew each other going back to Adam’s days at Time Out. I’m psyched to see what he’ll make of it.

Earlier: Saveur Editor-in-Chief James Oseland Is Leaving the Magazine

Related: Saveur’s New Editor-in-Chief on His Plans for the Storied Magazine

Why James Oseland Left Saveur to Clean Chicken Coops