Dirt: The pasta is content

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Listen: The Sporkful (Stitcher). Kyle Chayka reviews Dan Pashman’s new podcast miniseries about inventing a shape of pasta.

I walked by a Sweetgreen in Georgetown at one point in the past few months and there was a signboard outside advertising the chain’s new addition of crispy chicken. It had a slogan that showed the chicken and said something like “New Content for Your Stomach” or “Salad Is Content.” The gist of it was that Sweetgreen’s food was no longer, or not just, food, but a form of updatable and upgradeable media, like a physical object you could hit like on by putting it in your stomach. Food is not nourishment but content, entertainment, clicks in the attention economy.

I thought of the sign while listening to Mission: ImPASTAble, a five-part podcast miniseries that’s part of The Sporkful, which is a big food podcast, now more than a decade old, produced by Dan Pashman with the podcast company Stitcher. In Mission: ImPASTAble Pashman undertakes to invent and then manufacture and sell a new shape of dried pasta. He researches pasta history, sketches shapes, works with fabricators, and finds an artisanal pasta company (Sfoglini, familiar to any New York Whole Foods patron) to be his factory. It’s framed as the personal quest of an underdog doubted by his friends and family, or even a business story, like a pasta-focused version of Alex Blumberg’s Start Up, which documented the genesis of Gimlet, a little podcast studio that Spotify bought for $190 million. Like Start Up, the pasta podcast is also the story of a fairly famous guy trying something new with the help of some capital investments and strategic partnerships and then succeeding wildly.

Pashman’s miniseries is fun to listen to. Jess and I consumed all four hours during two legs of a long car trip. The final shape of the pasta seems fun and cool; our friend already pre-ordered a five-pound bag so I’m excited to see what it’s like to actually eat Pashman’s invention. But this is not the story of an underdog. It’s not a perilous quest with livelihoods or savings actually at risk. It’s a lucrative marketing stunt for all parties involved because, like Sweetgreen’s chicken salad, the pasta was already content to begin with.

Instead of dried dough in curly shapes, the resultant Cascatelli pasta now being sold by Sfoglini is an advertisement. It advertises Pashman, it advertises The Sporkful, it advertises Sfoglini, and it advertises itself. Its box is branded with two logos in contrasting colors like a Supreme collaboration and much like a streetwear drop the pasta is unavailable until ten weeks from now, because you had to be an early adopter to get in on it. It is food only secondarily.

Pashman makes much of his start-up costs to manufacture the pasta and the difficulty of finding partners. There’s $5,000 for the pasta die and $15,000 for manufacturing the initial run, the latter of which eventually gets passed on to Sfoglini. These seem to cause Pashman consternation: should he really invest in his dream of making a new pasta shape? His wife is skeptical. But this is not a random guy in a garage! The Sporkful is an established media company with multiple employees and 3,000 ratings on iTunes. The miniseries is interrupted by long host-read ads for enormous food conglomerates, each of which probably cost the client more than the entirety of Pashman’s pasta adventure. In fact, the miniseries episodes themselves probably cost much more to produce than the actual investment in making the pasta.

Even if the new shape failed to make any money at all, the $20,000 would just be a marketing write-off for Sporkful LLC. Like a bad reality show, the business drama is fake. Everyone else involved in the effort seems to acknowledge this in their level-headed speaking tones and nonplussed reactions to its fulfillment, but Pashman is constantly shouting, guffawing, and crying as if to make the audience feel something — in lieu of learning much. I’m not even sure how a pasta die works.

A post shared by @thesporkful

But now, the pasta has become its own form of self-regenerating capital: The initial runs totally sold out, recovering both companies’ investments, and all future boxes will make a profit of at least a few dollars a piece. (Narrative is temporary; margins are eternal.) Its success was inevitable because of the built-in audience — The Sporkful has 34,000 Instagram followers alone, which seems to be the best indicator of profitability these days. Fans and new listeners alike bought the pasta as they might a branded T-shirt or baseball cap, as the natural endpoint and fulfillment of their content experience. When they cook it, they will probably Instagram their pasta, perpetuating it further as pixels. And Pashman permanently owns the right to license his pasta-content.

Any narrative is artificial to some degree, but Mission: ImPASTAble feels more like a parody of start-up hustle culture or a satire of the narcissism of Podcast Dudes. Of course this worked out for you; you had every advantage going into it! By the point in the miniseries that Pashman was testing his creation out with his casual pals like famous chefs Samin Nosrat and Kenji Lopez-Alt (neither had any criticisms of the pasta; Nosrat audibly wishes she had thought of the gimmick first) all tension had gone out of the storytelling. Money is made and Podcast Dude triumphant. Pretty boring story. — By Kyle Chayka

The Dirt: Food doesn’t have to be a business model.