It was a 100-pound sack of onions that did it.
John Lehndorff, an East Coast native who transplanted to Boulder in 1976, was working at Potter’s restaurant on Pearl Street, now Woody Creek Bakery & Café.
“The storage room was in the basement,” he says. “It was a summer day. I had to go down into the basement and carry 100- pound sacks of onions up the stairs, into the kitchen. I had to peel 100 pounds of onions, slice 100 pounds of onions. My knees were sore, my back was sore.”
Those onions made Lehndorff realize that he would be happier writing about food than preparing it. Forty-plus years later, he still has onions in his life, but instead of carrying them up stairs, he’s writing about them.
“Last week I was researching a story for a national produce publication,” he says. “On onions. I know a lot about onions now. A lot.”
These days, Lehndorff is a food writer and lover, but he’s written about every type of news he can think of, including local breaking news, natural disasters, obituaries and for a time he was the editor of the wedding section of the Daily Camera. He broke into the food writing business as the first male food editor of the Camera. He and the staff reinvented what was once the “women’s pages” with a new, modern food column, called “Nibbles,” in 1985.
“What I liked about being the food editor at the Daily Camera was the interface with the people,” he says. “I would ask people to send me recipes, or write in with questions about the food. And I’d like to think that I contributed at least a little to bring that food community together.”
“Nibbles” ran in the Camera for 15 years and then for another eight in the Rocky Mountain News. Today, the column is still alive via the weekly “Radio Nibbles” show on KGNU. He also keeps a blog, where he recently wrote about expressing his wish for a job running the National Pie Museum. The only problem is that the National Pie Museum doesn’t exist.
“There is a Baked Bean Museum in Port Talbot, Wales,” he wrote in the blog post. “There’s a potato museum in Bruges. You can visit a currywurst museum in Berlin, a ham museum in Madrid, and a museum devoted to mustard in Doesburg and a chocolate museum in Köln. Le Musée de Foie Gras is not in California. There is no National Pie Museum, no place in the U.S. dedicated to celebrating the dessert that defines how American something is.”
Lehndorff, who considers himself a pie expert, says Boulder has a special history with pie, making it possibly the perfect place for a National Pie Museum. And National Pie Day was founded in Boulder by Charlie Papazian. Before Papazian became the father of homebrewing in America, he was a teacher in Boulder.
“January 23 was his birthday,” Lehndorff says. “He told the kids in his class that he didn’t want a birthday cake, he wanted a birthday pie. He told the class he was going to declare his birthday to be National Pie Day.”
January 23 is indeed National Pie Day, and for a time Lehndorff took over running the American Pie Council from Papazian, whom he had met working in the kitchens of Boulder restaurants. Lehndorff didn’t grow up making pie, but when he got to Boulder, it stuck.
“Over time, what I’ve found as a pie guy is that if you walk in the front door with a pie, people smile. And they’re very happy,” he says.
Boulder’s food scene has changed tremendously in the past 40 years, of course, and it has helped propel foodcentric movements across the country beyond the pie crusade. Some of the pioneers of the natural foods movement were in Boulder, Lehndorff says.
“It was happening everywhere, the natural food movement was happening across the country,” he says. “I used to see Steve Demos, who started White Wave tofu, delivering tofu in a bucket to the two or three restaurants that served tofu at the time.”
The food scene in Boulder is still diverse, he says, with restaurants, distilleries, brewpubs, coffee houses and bakeries found across the county.
“There’s so much going on now,” Lehndorff says. “It strikes me weird that there’s not a food publication about Colorado food.”
The other thing that has happened in the Boulder area over the past few decades is that the local food movement has grown.
“There are still people trying to grow food here and deliver it to market,” Lehndorff says. “When I got here there weren’t any farmers’ markets. Nobody knew what a farmers’ market was. Farmers had stands, I think it started with one farmer at the corner of the courthouse lawn with some apples and pumpkins.”
Food isn’t Lehndorff ’s only love, though. As a young man, his dream was to be a music critic, talking to his musical heroes and being paid to go to concerts. Now, a certain summer 2015 reunion tour is calling his name.
“I’d like to get paid to cover the Grateful Dead reunion in Chicago,” he says.