by Eric Ginsburg
Several questions into my interview with Malcolm Gladwell — yes, the Malcolm Gladwell — I asked if it would be alright to switch gears completely. By that point I’d gauged that he seemed to be a pretty good-natured guy, relaxed, open, and probably wouldn’t mind much. Plus, I thought, justifying the departure in my head, famous people like him are probably sick of the same line of obvious questioning anyway.
And that’s how I learned that Malcolm Gladwell only drinks four things.
It’s a rule he has, though there are several reasons as to why, and so far it’s served him well; no drinks except for red wine, espresso-based coffee beverages, water and tea allowed.
So many other drinks are unhealthy, he explained, such as soda, and though he conceded that alcohol can be a wonderful thing, it’s also dangerous and powerful. This quartet, really, satisfies all of his desires when it comes to drinks.
His response surprised me a little, not just because it’s unlike most I’ve heard before, but because of the contrast with his answer to the immediate preceding question.
You see, I’d veered off topic from talking about his experiences as a journalist and widely recognized author and his current foray into podcasting to inquire about food and drinks. I figure food can tell us so much about someone’s background, sense of self, habits and so on that it bears exploration, and particularly when it comes to oft-interviewed celebs, even the less obvious subjects you can hit in a brief phoner (as we call them) have already been posed at least thrice over already. That’s why I recently asked Jewel about her favorite breakfast dish (she doesn’t like breakfast — her loss) and why I wondered aloud if Gladwell associated any particular food with his childhood.
Given his mother’s Jamaican heritage, Gladwell said that any quintessentially Jamaican dishes conjure a particular warm feeling, naming curry goat and jerk chicken as specific dishes that help evoke a significant emotional memory. Intrigued by his answer, I tossed out another question, wondering if his current diet consists of anything that shows up regularly or with considerable frequency.
Not really, Gladwell said. His food tastes are pretty wide open and he aims for diversity. Gladwell is up for almost anything, really, when it comes to food. And that’s why I was taken aback a moment later, when he said that he’d isolated his accompanying beverages to four.
His drinking rules actually go a step further, at least when it comes to wine: only after the sun sets, and only a glass and a half at most. Establishing limitations makes a healthy relationship with alcohol so much simpler, Gladwell said, recommending the practice.
Our conversation tempted me to plunge deeper, asking about when he built in these parameters and whether a specific incident led to the decision, or prodding Gladwell about his favorite types of red wine. But being as this conversation occurred on the phone and not a dinner party, and since the voice on the other line belonged to Malcolm Freakin’ Gladwell, I righted the ship and sailed a more focused course.
Gladwell is putting the finishing touches on a podcast called Revisionist History, a 10-episode piece to be released weekly by Slate’s podcast network Panoply (a really awesome word that means “a complete or impressive collection of things” or alternately “a splendid display” or “a complete set of arms or suit of armor” — yeah, badass).
The podcast makes sense; Gladwell studied history in school, plus the format allows for greater ease when trying to communicate emotion or humor. Oh, and he said it’s part of his “extended tour of procrastination” as he delays writing his next book.
The episodes, anchored by Gladwell, are scripted and run about 45 minutes long. And if it performs well, he’s more than willing to sign on for an additional season because the experience proved to be fun and podcasts enable flexibility.
The author of The Tipping Point, Outliers and David & Goliath (among others, as well as his gig writing for the New Yorker) will be the featured speaker as part of Guilford College’s Bryan Series in Greensboro on April 12. Gladwell said he’s planning to talk about why people rebel — certainly a fitting subject for a Guilford crowd, but also one that ties to our current historical moment nationally.
“We’re in quite a rebellious moment and I want to sort of explain that phenomenon,” Gladwell said.
After he flies into Raleigh-Durham International Airport for the talk, Gladwell plans to go running in the capital’s adjacent Umstead state park before heading to Greensboro; he’s big on running, Gladwell said, and he’s been told the park is among the best places anywhere for it.
I’d like to think that after he arrives, maybe on the eve preceding or following his no doubt captivating talk, that he’ll unwind with a glass and a half of red wine (I’ll venture a guess and say pinot) at the bar of his hotel (I’ll guess again and predict that the college is shelling out for the Proximity).
In this vision, his nose is buried in a Daniel Silva spy thriller — Gladwell told me he collects and consumes tons of books in the genre, and is such a fanboy that he’ll email authors like Silva to laud their work. And maybe I’ll be there, acting like it’s a coincidence, and use the opportunity to ask my follow-up questions over a glass of the cheap Bordeaux ($5.75) off the hotel’s wine list.
Find more info about Malcolm Gladwell’s April 12 talk in Greensboro at Guilford.edu/bryan-series/