Arts and Culture: Evolution of a Foodie

David Page (author of Food Americana) is Greenfield Reporter’s focus as they dive into his impressive past with food and production.

David Page, right, talks with Guy Fieri on the set of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Contributed photo/David Page

By the time the Iraqi government banished reporters like David Page, a veteran journalist who spent his formative years in Greenfield, he was mentally and emotionally fried.

As recalled by Page, who back then was an NBC correspondent covering the lead-up to the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the living conditions in Iraq had been “deplorable.”

He was desperately in need of respite. So Page, now 66, called NBC’s Rome bureau and, via his return flight, requested to be put up for a night in Hotel Hassler Roma overlooking the famous Spanish Steps.

“I told them I was coming through from Iraq and I hadn’t had a vegetable in God knows when,” said Page, author of the recently published book “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes” and creator of the popular food show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” which is now in its 33rd season.

Not two minutes after Page arrived in his room in Rome, a waiter knocked on the door carrying a “huge silver tray, the kind that has filigree around it, and on it were 30 pieces of caprese (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil), each with the perfect slice of tomato,” he recalled. “I looked at it and said to myself, ‘I can’t eat all of that.’ Then I sat down and I did.”

Page, who today lives in Beach Haven, New Jersey, had returned to civilization “and it was wonderful” — even life-changing.

Thirty years later, the savory and fresh flavors of that simple meal leap readily to the forefront of Page’s memory as if it were consumed yesterday. It’s a testament to the profound impact cuisine has had on his life, both personally and professionally.

Having grown up in a household that considered selections from Greenfield’s former Alberti’s Bar to be the best cuisine in the area, Page’s evolution from part-time disc jockey at the now-defunct WCAT radio station in Orange, his first job at age 15, to creator of the Food Network mega-hit television show is one for the local record books.

Born in Flushing Queens, New York as Joel Padgug, Page changed his name after getting into radio, “Because you try giving the time and temp with that name,” he quipped.

His parents, Jacob Padgug, former dean of Greenfield Community College and Barbara Padgug, who worked at the Roy B. Shapen Accounting Co., moved from the Big Apple to Franklin County when Page was around 9 years old, seeking a quieter lifestyle.

He attended elementary school and junior high in Greenfield and went to Northfield Mount Hermon School as a day student through high school.

After landing a weekend gig playing music in Orange, he began reading the news and filling in at Greenfield’s WHAI whenever he was needed.

“I got full credit my senior year for working at WHMP (Northampton),” Page recalled.

The years post-graduation saw him enroll and withdraw from Oklahoma State University, where he intended to study broadcasting, then land a job as a copy boy at WNEW New York, “one of the great radio stations of the time,” featuring the iconic voices of William B. Williams, Dennis Elsas, Carol Miller and Pete Larkin, among others. Page remembered how he’d pull wire copy for broadcast during the overnight shift, emerging into the dawn light covered in ink and looking like “a coal miner.”

Thus inspired, he returned to Oklahoma, where he was hired by WKY, which is among the oldest radio stations in the nation, and began taking his career seriously.

“That was the point at which I really decided I wanted to be in news,” Page said. “I had come to the business by way of playing records. These were the days of Watergate and news seemed like the exciting thing to do. I was the kid at WKY at the press conference for Miss America, and I asked her if she had ever smoked marijuana. She said ‘yes.’”

After a subsequent news job in Wichita, Kansas, he was hired as an investigative television reporter at KPNX, channel 12 in Phoenix, Arizona, “Under the mentorship of a guy named Al Buck, who, in later portions of his career, was the guy who hired Katie Curic in Miami.”

Over the next few years, Page worked in news in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia, where he was a stringer for a local NBC station.

“From there, I was hired full time at NBC and placed in their Chicago bureau. After two years there, I was sent to London, and eventually moved from Frankfurt to Budapest,” Page recalled.

“The assignments you would get in those postings would take you to various countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”

He ate breakfast with Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat at 2 a.m.; he interviewed Libyan revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi in the remains of his Tripoli house after the United States military bombed it; he covered the Romanian revolution; he worked on the other side of the Iron Curtain and walked through the Berlin Wall when it was torn down.

“I had some wonderful adventures,” Page said.

And along the way, he developed a passion for food.

“On one of my first trips to East Berlin, back in the old days when you had to go through ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ and they ran the mirror under your car and checked for stowaways in your trunk, there was a vendor selling weisswurst, which means ‘white sausage,’” Page recalled. “In the German style, it was sold in a roll with a dollop of mustard — it was mind-bogglingly good. I don’t know why. It was like this little spot of brightness in a gray, unpleasant place.”

His transition into a foodie came in leaps and bounds.

“I didn’t really begin to appreciate food very much until I went to Europe, when I looked around and said, ‘these people know how to eat. I began to realize that food is a gateway to a country’s society,” Page said.

On assignments, he began asking his translators for restaurant suggestions.

“I wanted to eat wherever they ate,” Page said. “The whole universe of Middle Eastern food blew me away and opened up a whole new vista.”

The first time he ate couscous, Page recalled he was waiting on an interview with Arafat (which he eventually landed as a solo journalist), in a pool of other journos.

“They herded us all into this ceremonial tent,” Page said. “To kill some time, they fed us a meal based on couscous. It was phenomenal.”

Another time, when tasked to cover the lead-up to an upcoming military summit, Page says he asked himself, “What’s the smallest military in NATO? It turned out to be Luxemburg.” (Back then, Page estimated it had around 600 troops.)

One of the military’s generals happened to also be the country’s agricultural minister. Page and his production crew accompanied the general/agricultural minister on a parade as he tossed milk containers to the crowd from afloat.

After a long day, “we were tired; we were grubby,” Page said. On the way home, they turned off at a sign for a restaurant — “A silver-grey stone place. I don’t remember the name, I don’t remember exactly what we ate. All I remember is that we were dramatically underdressed.” The owner “welcomed us with open arms,” he continued. “I remember it being awesome. But to this day, I cannot remember a single thing that was in it.”

Today, “The memory of that meal makes me smile,” he said.

Back in the U.S., Page was offered a job as senior producer of a talk show called “A Closer Look” with Faith Daniels, then worked as co-producer of the Today Show’s weekend edition before moving on to ABC, where he became the senior investigative producer of 2020, then line producer of Good Morning America.

“Every third week … the show was mine,” Page said. “I would get up at about 3:30 in the morning and I’d get to bed around midnight. Part of it was a whole lot of fun, part of it was a whole lot of mind-numbing sleep deprivation. But there’s no better moment in television than — (on) a morning when news is breaking around the world — striding into the newsroom to control the ship.”

Around that time, he founded Page Productions and began pitching networks.

It didn’t go well at first.

“As one executive producer described it to me,” Page said, a new production company is nothing more than “a recording on an answering machine — it’s voluntary unemployment.”

Business took a turn for the better when Page reached out to Al Roker, a meteorologist he knew from the Today Show who managed his own production company. Roker subcontracted Page to work on his Food Network show, “Roker On The Road.”

Encouraged, Page began pitching the Food Network himself — with no luck, at first.

Then, on a Thursday in 2006, his luck changed.

“I’m on the phone with them, and I’m pitching and pitching and pitching, and she finally says to me, ‘don’t you have anything to do with diners?’” Page recalled.

Off the top of his head, Page said he was working on a concept called “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” The Food Network liked the idea and asked for a formal proposal by Monday.

“In fact, I did not have anything called ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ in development,” Page said. After a long weekend of phone calls and last-minute scrambling, “The gods of timing did me a favor.”

Guy Fieri, an up-and-coming Food Network star, was brought on for a one-off hour-long special.

“They were trying to find a primetime vehicle for him and they had asked a couple of major league production companies to come up with something. In the meantime, they wanted to keep his face front-and-center,” Page said, recalling that a producer said about his show concept, “We honestly don’t think this has legs.”

Contrary to those expectations, the special was well received and Page was given a one-season order. That was just the start.

“I stayed with it through season 11,” Page said.

Since its inception, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” has featured more than 800 locally beloved eateries across the United States and in Europe and Cuba. It has featured many guest celebrities including Chef Robert Irvine, Matthew McConaughey, Rosie O’Donnell, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Keven James and Gene Simmons.

For Page, who won two Emmy awards for his work, the show was a vehicle that took him behind the scenes of some of the best eateries in the nation — to beloved local watering holes like Dirty Water Dough in Boston; Black Duck Cafe in Westport, Connecticut; Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage, West Virginia; Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine; Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, “The place that, to this day, is my favorite barbecue joint on Earth,” Page said.

For that episode, Page and his crew started filming the show early one morning at 3 a.m., “when Bobby (the owner) started the fire. We hung in there through the creation and service of some of the finest brisket and sausage I’ve ever had in my life, in a building that had been a girl’s basketball gymnasium some (decades) ago,” he continued.

The windows were “covered in soot and grease from this incredible barbecue,” Page said. “It was special because the environment had real feeling to it. Bobby exuded a sense of warmth and welcome, and it was one of the purest examples anywhere of great American cooking being done with love and care.”

These days, Louie Meuller Barbecue is operated by Bobby Mueller’s son, Wayne Mueller, and Page is busy promoting his recently released book, “Food Americana,” which is a literary exploration of some of the same themes tackled in “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

In researching the book, Page says he reached out to authors, academics and historians. He traveled to San Francisco to attend a pizza school and interviewed Chinese-American restaurateur Cecilia Chiang; filmmaker Mel Brooks; Steve Herrell, founder of Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton; Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s; Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California; and the owner of a sushi bar in an Oklahoma gas station, among others. He went to the 2019 Memphis in May barbecue festival and observed a class with Marisa Baggett, an African American sushi chef of Jewish descent.

“I just asked the question: why do we like this food, how did we start liking it and where are we going next?” Page said. “I wanted to explain a simple premise: What is American cuisine?”

So far, the book has received positive reviews, including one by George Stephanopoulos of Good Morning America, This Week and ABC News, who described it as “Terrific food journalism. Page uncovers the untold back stories of American food. A great read.”

At a deeper level, as with “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the book explores culture — food is the key that unlocks culture and memory, as it has been throughout Page’s storied life.

“Food reaches us at the endorphin level, I think. It is one of the most pleasant experiences we can have, at the same time that it’s vital for us to live. It becomes a touchstone for us to remember,” Page said.

Once, for example, Page recalled seeing his father and grandfather seated together at the bar at Alberti’s Bar on Main Street. It’s an image he’ll never forget.

“I was shocked one day when my father and grandfather stopped to get a drink. I never thought of my dad getting a drink, especially with his dad,” Page said.

But then again, back then, “Alberti’s was the place to go.”

“Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes,” was released May 4 and can be purchased at World Eye Bookshop, 134 Main St. in downtown Greenfield, among other local distributors.

Andy Castillo, recently the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder, holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing.

Food Americana

The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes

Food Americana is a riveting ride into every aspect of what we eat and why. From a lobster boat off the coast of Maine to the Memphis in May barbecue competition. From the century-old Russ & Daughters lox and bagels shop in lower Manhattan to the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival. From a thousand-dollar Chinese meal in San Francisco to birria tacos from a food truck in South Philly. Readers will learn the inside story of how Americans came to form national cuisines from a world of diverse flavors. This insightful book is, overall, engaging and oftentimes extremely humorous.

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