(Editors Note: Mary Kay Culpepper left Cooking Light in 2009) Like most Americans, I don’t have the best eating habits.
I generally try to follow the 80/20 rule. I make an effort to eat smart and well about 80 percent of the time and give in to my inner teenager the other 20 percent, having an occasional burger and fries.
Over the last 25 years, we’ve been barraged by media and marketing that urge us to eat a better diet and make better choices at every meal, and one of the magazines long at the forefront of this effort is Time Warner’s Cooking Light, and I should know, my wife has stacks of back issues all over the house.
Joining me today is Cooking Light magazine editor Mary Kay Culpepper; she took over the publication’s to p chair in January 2001. Since then, the magazine’s audience has grown to more than eleven and a half million readers, and it seems safe to assume that at least a few of them have improved their health by following the ideas and recipes in Cooking Light.
You can LISTEN to this interview with MARY KAY CULPEPPER, editor of COOKING LIGHT, by clicking the audio player above!
CULPEPPER: Wow, Bob, thanks so much. I’m happy to be here, and I’m delighted that you and your wife are living with some back issues of Cooking Light.
ANDELMAN: Oh, yeah. We’ve got them here for sure. I was just afraid you were gonna ask me if I’m having an 80 day or a 20 day.
CULPEPPER: Well, tell me about 80/20.
ANDELMAN: Well, it’s something I picked up on in a book I worked on years ago called The Corporate Athlete. The fellow I did that with said that if you follow 80 percent of the time you do the right thing, and he said that could apply to exercise or eating or pretty much anything in your life, he said the other 20 percent you can kind of let yourself go a little bit. He said it’s a lot easier than trying to be 100 percent of the time so perfect. So I always thought that was a good way to go.
CULPEPPER: That sounds logical to me.
ANDELMAN: Something I could live with.
CULPEPPER: In fact, it’s something that fits really well with the tenets of the magazine to eat smart, be fit, live well. We let readers have access to a lot of great information about doing just that and let them make the decisions themselves. So 80/20 goes right there.
ANDELMAN: Do you ever worry about having too heavy a tone in a magazine like this, that thou shalt eat well?
CULPEPPER: No. One thing that we work on here and are quite conscious about is keeping a very positive voice in the magazine. I think Americans and American women, in particular, are given so many conflicting messages about food and about health and trying to help people understand the choices in front of them and giving them the power to make those choices. Not necessarily making them for them is one of the real special parts of the magazine in my point of view.
ANDELMAN: So you present the information, you let them know what’s good, and hopefully, they make the right choices.
CULPEPPER: Yes, because it’s all about context. The 80/20 situation is a great case in point there. You are making a choice, and it really does work well for you, and it’s such a good way to proceed that you feel that you can live up to it almost all of the time. And so I think you work out really hard one day, you don’t work out so hard another day, or perhaps you even take a rest day, but it all fits into the package of what’s going on at one particular time. You’re not made or broken in a day. And life is like that. You have lots of different choices. And I think the great thing about cooking, in particular, is you have three shots a day at it.
ANDELMAN: One of the previous jobs that you had was executive editor of Weight Watchers, right?
ANDELMAN: What is the difference in philosophy, let’s say, between Weight Watchers and Cooking Light?
CULPEPPER: Well, Cooking Light really is about healthful living, and it’s not necessarily about weight loss, and Cooking Light is really more holistic, I think, than the focus that Weight Watchers has. And Weight Watchers is a really terrific magazine and continues to be quite strong. But Cooking Light really takes into account the whole person and where readers go on vacation, what they’re interested in besides cooking, although we know that our readers are passionate about food.
ANDELMAN: So, would you say it’s a lifestyle magazine?
CULPEPPER: I think that’s a great description.
ANDELMAN: I’m curious, and you don’t have to answer this, but I’m curious, someone who’s been at Weight Watchers and then Cooking Light, have you ever had to deal with weight or health issues that are relevant to these two magazines yourself?
CULPEPPER: No, not really. But I will tell you that I have cooked from Cooking Light since it began, and I have worked out from Cooking Light pretty much since it began, and oddly enough, taken vacations that Cooking Light has recommended well before I was on the staff of the magazine. So I’ve always understood the premise of the magazine and, as a subscriber, really loved the way it got its point across. It is a terrific idea for a magazine, and, in fact, I think it’s a terrific magazine, and I am thrilled that we have 11.5 million readers who agree.
ANDELMAN: It’s a good thing you’re the editor because all that enthusiasm would be wasted otherwise.
CULPEPPER: I don’t know. We have some readers who love us. We have an incredible phenomenon on cookinglight.com, which is a bulletin board, and people post reviews of recipes. People actually post when they get their issue in the mail and will take it upon themselves to type the index from the magazine so all of the recipes are there, and people can decide before they even have the issue in hand what it will be that they’ll make first. And that is so precious to this magazine that I’m not the only one who’s enthusiastic about it, obviously.
ANDELMAN: Is that a good thing, though, that they take it on themselves to post that to the forums?
CULPEPPER: I think free speech, as a professional journalist, is the best thing ever. So I can’t imagine that it would be a bad thing. I think, again, it’s people making choices for themselves and extrapolated out to this particular degree.
ANDELMAN: It’s certainly not cutting into your circulation, apparently.
ANDELMAN: Speaking of recipes, I have to ask you this. I always wonder about this when I see the cooking magazines, especially when I see the stacks of Cooking Lights here, why don’t you guys ever run out of recipes?
CULPEPPER: That’s a great question, Bob, and I don’t know that anybody’s ever asked me that. We assign recipes. Actually, it’s a fairly interesting process that we go through to get recipes. We work with recipe developers that are on staff, and there are some incredibly talented people here and actually around the world because I think it’s really important that we have a sort of pan-national palate, something that certainly represents American appetites but also because our readers travel, and they’re exposed to many different world cuisines that that’s here too. So we assign recipes to developers, and we are constantly looking for people who have a great palate and who can really make recipes come to life and make healthful recipes, in particular, come to life.
ANDELMAN: So the recipes do not come from the Keebler Elves.
CULPEPPER: No. Or from wishing and hoping. It’s a lot of work that goes into them.
MARY KAY CULPEPPER audio excerpt: “I believe that creative fires burn everywhere. We have drawn chefs from all over the country to come and work with us, certainly in our test kitchens and our editors have actually, a number of them have worked in professional restaurants, have been chefs on their own, and I think if you’ve got something great, it does draw talent.”
ANDELMAN: As a veteran freelance writer who’s used to getting assignments, I’m kind of curious, though, how do you assign recipes? You say, hey, you know what, we’d really like something with halibut, whip up something with halibut, or how does that work?
CULPEPPER: Well, it’s not unlike that. You do have parameters. One of our most popular columns is “Dinner Tonight,” which is essentially four menus, and there is a main recipe and a couple of very quick, straight-forward side dishes that go with this main recipe to create a menu that can be put together in about thirty-five minutes or so. So I say to you, “Bob, we would like your best ‘Dinner Tonight’ recipes for halibut.” That’s a little narrow for us, but I can see it happening. So you might decide, well, one would be grilled halibut with fruit salsa, and perhaps one would be pecan-crusted halibut. Another would be perhaps broiled halibut with lemon pepper. And then the last one could be steamed halibut in a ponzu sauce. So you would create those recipes and suggest the side recipes that would go to it and submit them. We would run them through our test kitchens to see if the proportions were right, the balance was right, that the nutrition information came through loud and clear and really fit the parameters that we have in the magazine. We rate the recipes at taste testing. If they pass, then they run in the magazine, and your assignment is complete. It’s just like that.
ANDELMAN: You mention test kitchens, and I wanted to ask you. Consumer Reports has its fabled test laboratories. What exactly does Cooking Light have?
CULPEPPER: We have some fabulous chefs in our test kitchens, people with incredible backgrounds, and interestingly enough, given that, they all have various specialties that really do inform the pages of the magazine. The test kitchens director, Vanessa Johnson, who has actually been at all of the test kitchens at Southern Progress, so she was director of Southern Living’s test kitchens, which really started it all for this company, as well as Oxmoor House, the book division’s, and has run ours for the last seven years. And she’s sort of the ringmaster of eight different chefs who work in the kitchens preparing recipes in various cooking stations. And we really do test every single recipe that runs in the magazine as well as prepare the dishes for photography, and they are all real and all ours.
ANDELMAN: There must be a couple of slightly overweight people on staff there if someone’s testing all these recipes.
CULPEPPER: They’re light.
ANDELMAN: They’re light. I kind of set that up, and you hit it out of the park, didn’t you? Let me ask you this: how has the definition of “cooking light” changed over the years?
CULPEPPER: That’s a great question. We are actually celebrating our 20th year this year, and we’ve had a lot of occasion to look back at what the magazine was and is, and it’s been interesting because in a lot of ways, Cooking Light has not changed at all. In the very first issue, Don Logan, who has now retired from Time Warner, said that what we wanted to bring you is straightforward, credible information about how to eat well and exercise, and that’s never really changed at all. What we have found that’s changed in twenty years has been a real shift in thinking that Cooking Light would represent diet foods, for example, or deprivation. And I think that given the results of our last proprietary insight study that we did with the Roper Organization, we found that people are really aware of what they should do to eat more healthfully and to move more, which is half the battle is knowing what you should do.
ANDELMAN: How affected are you — or not affected — by trendy diet things, like Atkins when it was hot or South Beach or whatever the big one of the moment is? Or do you try to not be affected by that?
CULPEPPER: I think, again, that we give readers tools, and when people were heavily following low carbohydrate diets, they would use the information in the magazine to help them plan their meals. When people are restricting calories, they can do the same thing. It has been interesting, because in seeing essentially those specialized diets like that, knowing that the magazine can be useful for people but ultimately people go back to making choices for themselves means that we have really weathered those fads quite well, I think.
ANDELMAN: Well, and that’s what I always wonder about when these things come up. They always tend to be fads, they come, they go. It seems that the same people get attached to each one of them that got attached to the last one, but has there been a diet type of fad like that over these twenty years of the magazine, and I know you’ve been there for the last six, six and a half, but has there been one that the magazine has been attached to in some way or found more credible than others for its purposes?
CULPEPPER: We really stick to the recommendations from the American Dietetic Association for a healthy diet, and in every issue of the magazine, we print what those recommendations are so people can go back to those, and that really is what we hang our hats on.
ANDELMAN: Has the magazine ever come up with — or defined — the three or five or whatever basic rules of thumb for Cooking Light?
CULPEPPER: Yes. We do, and that actually subtly involves us, evolves, rather, as I think it does for any magazine. The nuances change at bit with time. For example, besides having a very clear and ultimately positive message about food itself and not demonizing any particular food — and that’s one rule of thumb that I think has more or less held its way throughout the magazine. People want to feel good about choices they make, and they want to feel that they’ve done something good for themselves and the people they care about, because ultimately, that, for so many of us, is the biggest motivation to want to cook this way and live this way.
ANDELMAN: So if there was a convention of Cooking Light readers, they’d probably be some very healthy-looking people?
CULPEPPER: I think so. When I’ve met them, it’s always the case. It’s interesting to me that when I do meet readers, they will be very specific, and they’ll tell me the recipe they love the most or the Cooking Light city destination that they love the most, and it really says to me that this is a vibrant, living entity.
ANDELMAN: In the 20 years that the magazine has risen to such success, there has been a number of contrary things going on. The steakhouse has grown in immense popularity, the high-end steakhouse. The Food Network is huge, with most of its programs very high caloric, things like that. Is there some contrariness going on in American culture, or is it just business as usual?
CULPEPPER: I think that food, like the other big topics in the world, is so complex and so layered that it’s all out there, and I do think that Americans in particular have become much more conscious of what they eat and how they cook and what they want than ever before. I think that that’s probably a really good thing. The point that you bring up actually led us to our first Cooking Light insight study with Roper Group in 2004, because we were seeing these contrary trends, and we really wondered what they meant. And what we think it really does mean is that people are just more aware, and I think that that really does resonate with the message of the magazine. But they also love food and, on a metaphysical sense, it’s a communion with other people that you get to partake in, and there is no escaping that, but I think that that’s a great thing for people who want to eat well.
ANDELMAN: Now, at the opposite end of the steakhouse phenomenon, I wondered if sushi has a place at the Cooking Light table.
CULPEPPER: Oh, it definitely does. We’ve run a number of stories on sushi and how to make your own. In fact, I’ve made my own sushi and been really rather pleased with it.
CULPEPPER: I think it’s definitely within the grasp of a home cook. If I can do it here in Birmingham, I think people all over the place can do it.
ANDELMAN: I’m glad you mentioned Birmingham. It would seem like one of the last places on Earth to be talking about cooking light and cooking well would be in a place that is so well-known for southern cooking, which is not the lightest of cooking styles.
CULPEPPER: I believe that creative fires burn everywhere, and I think that having this magazine here is a great example of that, because we have drawn chefs from all over the country to come and work with us, certainly in our test kitchens and our editors have actually, a number of them have worked in professional restaurants, have been chefs on their own, and I think if you’ve got something great, it does draw talent. But I can tell you, I grew up in Mississippi, a place that has an incredible food gestalt that, whether it’s light or not, there is a respect for ingredients, and there is a reverence for freshness that I learned and a lot of the other Southerners who work here have known, and as a birthright, that’s a really amazing one to have, and I think it’s something that is really good for the magazine.
ANDELMAN: I mentioned the Food Network before, and of course, Cooking Light has the magazine, there are Cooking Light books, there is the Internet. What other multi-media opportunities are there? Maybe you’ll correct me, but I don’t recall seeing like a Cooking Light breakout on television at a time when we see a lot of food programs. Is any of that going to happen?
CULPEPPER: We think it will. We aren’t quite ready to talk about it yet, but yes, we’ve actually worked on a special with the Food Network on our supper clubs, which are an amazing development that sprang from our bulletin boards. There was a reader in San Francisco who posted about six years ago that she liked to cook from Cooking Light and wondered if other people in San Francisco liked to do that. She got responses back and actually still has a supper club that meets in the members’ houses once a month, cooks from the magazine. It really started something that’s been quite a phenomenon for us. By our count, there are more than 500 Cooking Light supper clubs around the country.
CULPEPPER: Completely grassroots. They use the magazine as the spark that gets them together.
ANDELMAN: They light it for their fires, their barbecues? What are you saying, Mary Kay?
CULPEPPER: It jump-starts them, Bob!
ANDELMAN: I remember Esquire had a story on how to use the magazine to pop the top on a beer bottle, so I thought maybe they were lighting… Anyway…
CULPEPPER: We will explore origami, I feel sure, in another issue.
ANDELMAN: Is there a single healthy-eating guru at the magazine’s core, I mean like a go-to person either on staff or consulting, whose expertise you rely upon above everyone else?
CULPEPPER: There is a team, and one of the glories of working on this magazine professionally is that this team is so really very strong. One of the founding editors, Mary Simpson Creel, is a registered dietician. She also just completed the Iron Man up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, so she is a phenomenon herself. But also, there is a young woman on staff, Kathy Kitchens Downey, who is a foods editor and is also a dietitian and has a really great sense of food and just understands the healthfulness that goes into it but also a great sense of the story. We actually featured her family reunion in an earlier issue of the magazine this year because she has a cousin who’s a vintner, and they all love to get together and cook. But beyond those two, we actually work with a panel at the University of Alabama/Birmingham who can help us on some more complex measures of nutrition and of healthy living. That advisory panel is headed up by Dr. Julius Lynn, and they are a terrific resource.
ANDELMAN: I mentioned Esquire a minute ago; I am going to mention it again. They used to run an occasional feature called “Esquire Regrets” in which the magazine pointed out fashion mistakes it regretted from previous years. Is there anything you regret publishing from your first six and a half years at Cooking Light?
CULPEPPER: I can’t think of anything. Regrets are pretty expensive emotions, and one of the great things about working with such a powerhouse of a staff here is that we deliberate a lot and we consider a lot. I also think that we are extremely fortunate in covering the subject that we do because there is so much to it. So I can’t really point to a single thing.
ANDELMAN: Okay, fair enough. You will probably get off the phone and think of something. But finally, nobody is looking, there is no one listening to us right now, you can speak out for any guilty pleasure, meal or snack, you choose, Mary Kay. What would it be?
CULPEPPER: Wow. You know, one time my husband and I were on vacation in London, and we were watching “The Late, Late Breakfast Show” with Noel Edmonds, so you can think, this must have been in the early 1980s, and they had a clip of Margaret Thatcher, who had been asked what her favorite fish was, and you can imagine in the U.K. what a loaded question politically that is, because of all the constituencies that deal in seafood in the U.K. So she named every single fish there was, and the clip ran for about five minutes. So there are a lot of things I love, but so much of it depends on the context, which is what Margaret obviously was playing to. But I’m thinking that right now, what I have in my fridge that I will go for when I get home is a great ratatouille that I have to go on pasta with some Kalamata olives and fresh tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, eggplant, and some really, really nice olive oil all sort of coalesced together on some long fusilli, and I’ll probably have a great Pinot Grigio that is really cold to go along with that, and then I’ll have some, I believe that I will have some cantaloupe with port for dessert.
ANDELMAN: But you’re going to pour gravy over it in the fine Southern tradition. Gravy goes well with everything.
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