Food Editor Sam Sifton on the Joy of Birds and the Perfect Birding Sandwich

The New York Times cooking scribe has renewed a childhood passion—and struggled with bird-feeder befuddlement—at home during the pandemic.

For countless people daunted by decision-making during the pandemic, the culinary and all-around life advice in New York Times editor Sam Sifton’s Cooking and At Home newsletters provide comfort and guidance. Sifton, meanwhile, has found solace in a rediscovered hobby: birding.

“Birds are a rare pleasure in a time that doesn’t offer many of them,” he says. 

Audubon recently caught up with Sifton by phone (much to our mutual relief: “I spend too much time on video calls,” he says) to discuss birding during the pandemic, paralyzing indecision about where to put feeders, and the key to that oh-so elusive gastronomic goal: a sandwich made pre-dawn that doesn’t turn into a soggy mess by lunchtime in the field. 

Audubon: What has your evolution as a birder been like?

Sifton: I was a pretty passionate birder as a kid. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but my father was a passionate outdoorsman and his parents lived in Maine. So I spent a lot of time with him as a kid, hunting and fishing, observing the natural world, and birds were a part of that. But then I lost it for a long time.

When the pandemic came and we stopped working in the newsroom in the middle of March, our family moved out to Greenport on Long Island. I work in in my bedroom, which has two windows. And those windows allow me to see a lot of birdlife, and have the thrill of a chance sighting, like the Scarlet Tanager I saw the other morning. And then there’s a Cooper’s Hawk who hunts behind my house, where there are a lot of little rabbits. I watch this little guy with this elegant tail working the skies. I'm like, he’s at work, too. 

A: Do you do all of your birding from your windows?

S: I’m also out in the early mornings and early evenings walking or riding my bike. And I'm a passionate fly fisherman and I get out on the water in my boat, where there’s more birdlife. 

Being here, observing the natural world, you see patterns emerge, like when the Ospreys returned this spring. I ended up in a conversation with the mailman, actually, and he said, “Yeah, I think they’re a week early.” I was here when the gannets came in, and I watched them dive-bombing for bunker. It was awesome. 

And here in Peconic Bay, you’re like: Okay, so the bunker are here, so the gannets are here. So the striped bass are going to be here soon. And that’s just kind of neat. It’s another dimension to our understanding of the world. Most people look at the weather, they look at the sky—it’s cloudy, it’s not cloudy. The trees have leaves, they don’t have leaves. Noticing the birds and their movement, is another way of passing the time and discovering, or thinking about our place in the natural world. 

A: Given everything that’s going on in the world, what has it meant to you to rediscover birding now?

S: 2020 sucks and pleasure is really hard to come by. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to feel joy when so many are suffering. It’s difficult to feel optimistic. We’re in the midst of three of the biggest storylines of our lifetime, to use a newsroom term. We have the pandemic. We have the protests that have developed since the murder of George Floyd. We have a consequential presidential election afoot. All of us are in some way stuck at home. That’s just a reality.

And so where do we find pleasure? I make the argument in the newsletter that we find it at the stove, but I also make the argument that we can find it in the world if we just look out. If we just pay attention to the natural world. There can be something kind of great and amazing about that. And it’s a way of getting how much bigger all this is, than just us and our fears.

Time has also slowed in interesting ways. It’s okay to stop and space out. My kids and I, we recently stopped to the side of the road because we saw some Barn Swallows, which are spectacularly beautiful birds, and we just spaced out and watched them for a while. 

A: How has your family responded to your interest in birds?

S: They are tolerant of me. And they did acknowledge, for instance, in the case of those Barn Swallows, that those are cool.

A: Have you put up any feeders?

S: My neighbor has a number of them, and I'm deeply thankful for him for doing so, because the birds are up and at ’em. I have spent roughly five months thinking about whether I should have feeders and where they should go and failing to come to a conclusion. So I have not entered the feeder lifestyle because I am paralyzed by indecision about where the feeder should be. It just seems overwhelming to me. Not only where it should go, but which is the most effective one against the dreaded squirrel or trash panda. There’s a lot to think about. I’m new to this game.

A: And besides, there might be a shortage of squirrel baffles, with so many people becoming interested in birds in recent months.

S: And now I know the term squirrel baffle. 

A: Welcome back into the bird world. So, have you started keeping a list?

S: I’m enjoying just looking around. My life is lists. I have this new job as assistant managing editor for Culture and Lifestyle, dealing with a lot of different people, a lot of different agendas, a lot of different things. And I take notes as much as I did when I was working as a reporter or critic. Everything is about lists. In a previous world, in the world before the pandemic, I probably would be keeping a list, like I do with books or music. But as I said, birds are rare pleasure in a time that doesn't offer many of them. I don't want to screw it up.

A: That makes sense. Though, if you did want to keep a bird list, you could use eBird, which is great for finding more birds while also contributing to community science. 

[Pause, during which the interviewer assumes that Sifton is Googling “eBird.”]

S: Oh wow. Suffolk County eBird. Wow. Long-billed Dowitcher.

[Another pause.]

S: What. Come on, man. This guy is reporting Common Terns. Great. Herring Gulls—oh, saw two of them, good for you. Barn Swallow, that could have been me. Wild Turkey, that could've been me—I saw five this morning. Mute Swan—really? It’s hard to miss. Wow, this is a lame list. I've seen all of these birds. 

I’m definitely getting into this. 

A: I apologize for introducing you to this.

S: No, I’m totally into this. This is gonna be great. Because of the boat, I’ll be in places where these guys can’t go. I might see new things. This is great. 

A: Now for a bird and food-related question. For birders setting out for a long day in the field, what would you recommend they pack for lunch?

S: Packing some sandwiches can be really pleasant.

The ideal road-trip sandwich is a baguette spread with butter with ham. It's so freakin’ good, but that requires really good ham, a really good baguette, and really good butter, and in America during a pandemic that seems a little pretentious to be advocating. 

But someone takes plain sandwich bread, slathers on condiments, puts on the ham and cheese, wraps it up tight, and it’s just disgusting by the time you want to eat it. If it’s sliced bread that you’re dealing with, as opposed to bread that you’re slicing yourself, toasting is absolutely, absolutely essential. It’s crucial because . . . No, I’m serious.

A: Sorry, I’m laughing because multiple people in our team Slack channel asked: Can you please, please ask Sam Sifton how to make a non-soggy sandwich?

S: Yeah, the crucial step is to toast the bread because it increases the structural integrity of the slice. And then you have to take care with how you layer the ingredients in the sandwich so that you don’t get excessive moisture. Take pickles for example. I would put the pickles under the cheese and over the Bologna or whatever. So the pickles are facing impenetrable surfaces rather than right up against the bread. 

A: You’re blowing my mind.

S: I’m here to help. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.