Interview on a Stick with Matt Armendariz

Blogger, author, photographer, and general all-purpose food enthusiast Matt Armendariz is all over the place: online at MattBites.com, on TV with Martha Stewart, and now in print. It's no accident that his new book, On a Stick!, carries an exclamation point in the title: It expresses the author's deeply felt enthusiasm for food on sticks, a surprisingly broad category that spans everything from überhip Asian street food to übersquare state-fair corn dogs. We called up Armendariz to chat about spaghetti and meatballs on a stick, how he got into food photography, and moving up in his food career from Whole Foods bagger to having one of the top 50 food blogs in the world.

Tell us about the genesis of On a Stick! Why stick food? What grabbed you about this concept both gastronomically and photographically?
I wanted my first [book] to be fun, to be delicious, to straddle the line of silly without being disposable. The idea of food on a stick encompasses traditional fare as well as street food and fair food, and it’s the perfect blend of highbrow and lowbrow. That’s often how I describe myself.

Part of the fun of On a Stick! is how far you take it. What are some of the more oddball or extreme ideas in the book, and how'd you come across them?
The thing that’s had the most reaction is the deep-fried spaghetti and meatballs on a stick. That was inspired by something served at a state fair, but of course I had to put my own spin on it. There were some more extreme recipes that we planned on including, but decided to pull at the last minute. I didn’t want the book to be some tome of “EXTREME EATING WITH THINGS ON A STICK!!!!!”

I'm writing to you from Minneapolis–St. Paul, home to the great Minnesota State Fair, arguable birthplace of the food-on-a-stick concept. Please tell me you made it out to the fair here, and if not, explain what was so darn-tootin' great about the fairs you did attend and document for the book. More generally: What was your research process, here?
Sadly, I have yet to make it to the epicenter of food on a stick, the Minnesota State Fair. I can’t tell you how greatly this pains me. With plenty of friends in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I heard how much I needed to make it there for research. Very tight deadlines didn’t allow a visit. I did manage to get in two state-fair visits in California and a quick trip to Southeast Asia where I devoured more satay than you could ever imagine. As far as my research was involved, it included tons of note-taking, photo-snapping, and huge amounts of caloric intake all for the sake of my book. If it was on a stick, I’d eat it, no exceptions.

A bit of a biographical question for you—which came first, the love of food, or the love of photography? And at what point in your career did you bring them together?
I grew up in a Mexican American household in Texas, and the kitchen was the center of our home. My parents were very big on getting us in the kitchen, and they always encouraged us to cook and experiment. Years later I actually began working in the food industry at Whole Foods, first as a bagger and then moving up to art and creative director.

I began to art-direct numerous food shoots, and really loved and admired the photographic process. I picked up a camera and didn’t put it down for three years as I figured out how it worked, not always to the best results! I’ve been shooting full time for the past few years and absolutely love it.

What's next for you?
I have a few books that I’d love to do on my own, but in the meantime I’ll be photographing a few more cookbooks later this year. It’s an absolute dream job, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I just recently taped an episode with Paula Deen and have a few other TV things in the pipeline, so we’ll see just how bad I can embarrass myself on national television. Oh, and a trip to the Minnesota State Fair so I can bring my research full circle.