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Swallow Magazine's James Casey on the Mexico City Issue

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[Photos: Paula Forbes / Eater]

The latest issue of Swallow Magazine has just come out, focusing on Mexico City. It's the third issue since the magazine launched in 2008; the first issue looked at Nordic cuisines while the second focused on the Trans-Siberian railroad (and marmots? and marmots). So what took so long to wrangle this third issue? Scratch-n-sniff stickers that smell like the neighborhoods of Mexico City, slapped throughout the magazine on top of photos and text, content be damned. Don't worry, you can peel them off and move them if they get in your way.

Bellow, founder/creative director James Casey talks to Eater about the new issue, from the new visionaries of Mexico City's food scene to digestively dangerous and dangerously addictive taquerias, a trip in a helicopter to capture the cover shot to what's next for the magazine. (A whole issue on New York City's East Village.) The new issue is currently available on the magazine's website.

Why Mexico City? Why now?
Mexico City didn't come to mind so quickly as a destination, nor did Mexico really, between myself and the editors trying to figure out where we wanted to feature. Eventually, somehow and someway, the idea of Mexico came up and it was just sort of an aha moment. It's literally next door to us, but in some ways familiarity breeds if not contempt then just indifference. And I think that we're so surrounded by Mexico — or Mexican culture — here in the States that it just didn't come across as the first suggestion. But once we pondered it over it made sense to be the place because it's so close and so strong culinarily, historically, all of those things.

[Photos: Swallow]

And why now? Through just a little bit of cursory research we were doing at the time, it just felt like Mexico City was in this whole new stage in its development. I think in the 90s it was becoming more international in terms of art and culture, but then in the last three or four years its really taken on its own culinary identity. Instead of just doing French bistros, which was a trend, or people setting up sushi restaurants, they're rediscovering a lot of their own stuff. Not that it needs rediscovering, because it's so strong. But there is a movement there to reexamine how and what makes Mexican food.

What was your background with Mexico City before beginning research on this issue?
I'd been there once, on a sort of debauched vacation. Well, debauched is probably the wrong word, just a rather drunken, hazy vacation back in the early 2000s, and we had fallen in love with it then. But at the same time we were sort of fairly cautious because we'd heard horror stories about it at the time. So while we had an amazing time, I don't think we got to see below the surface at all, but we had enough of a feeling that it was a pretty amazing place.

When you returned and really dived into the food scene, was there anything that surprised you or went against that first impression?
There are certain things there that get praised as the high cuisine, I think they call it alta cocina, and my experience with a few of those places was fairly unimpressive. You just got the sense they were taking things from the streets and just putting them in towers and piles and squiggles and things like that. But I think there are a few people who work within that genre, who are developing a new style out of that who are doing some really interesting things. For example, Enrique Olvera at Pujol and a couple other chefs out there who are interesting as well, who are taking cues on what's happening in Europe in terms of presentation and what's happening in the States. But then to apply that aesthetic to such a strong culinary background is pretty amazing, I think.

And then there's Contramar as well. Mexican seafood just knocks my socks off. And they are doing interesting things with service. There are amazing, lifelong waiters out there, the level of service in Mexico City is pretty phenomenal. You have what essentially here would be white tablecloth service, that can exist even in a small simple seafood shack. There's just a conviviality when you go to lunches and these things last for hours, massive affairs.

[Photos: Swallow]

Tell me the story of how the cover photograph came about.
I was at a bull fight, which was one of the stories we were doing, and afterwards there was a big celebration held by one of the owners of Plaza Mexico, the big bullring there. And I was chatting up several people there and I ended up meeting this guy who asked me, while you're here, do you want to take a helicopter? And we sort of laughed about it and said yeah, that'd be great. Never thought much about it.

When I returned with the photographer Marcus Nilsson, one afternoon we had just finished a shoot and we were just sitting around having drinks and I mentioned to him that there was a possibility of getting a helicopter. We didn't think much of it, I made a quick, cursory call, and as it turned out my friend from the bull fight just said, 9:00 tomorrow, police academy, see you there. So we turned up with a shoot in our heads, basically we wanted to shoot a hand through the window of a helicopter — with the Torre Latin America in the background — holding a taco or a torta. We bought a bag of hot sandwiches on the corner, turned up, and the helicopter descended from the sky, a police helicopter. And we got in, and lo and behold the windows were sealed. So essentially we were just these two stupid gringos with a hot bag of sandwiches.

What we did is we ended up making sure Marcus shot the building from as many angles as possible, because it's really an iconic symbol of Mexico City. If you look at it from far away, almost, if you squint, you can almost confuse it with the Empire State Building. And I think that was a very deliberate way of saying the city is a major city. So he shot it, and when we were back in his studio in New York, we put the tacos that are on the cover now directly onto the print. So it's a composed still life that involves helicopters and bull fights and tacos and all of those things.

It's sort of the issue in a nutshell.
Exactly. It's a little foretelling of how the issue came together. By hook or by crook.

Since we're talking about photography, tell me about the design of the magazine. What was the overarching look you were trying to achieve?
It's such a colorful city, and having worked on the previous two issues in more dour or drab locations, it was an opportunity to start playing with color a lot more. The colors we chose were neon green and pink. It's an acidified version of the Mexican flag, instead of green and red it's green and pink. In a lot of places the design takes its cues from 60s design, from photographers such as William Klein and his books and the typography that was in them. But also taking into account the chaos you see in the streets. The design itself is fairly busy, I would say. Especially with the stickers stuck directly on top of the contents, so you have to remove them and interact with them. So it's all, I think, very consciously combining that chaos into one issue.

You mention the scratch-n-sniff stickers, which I actually didn't realize you could remove until just now because I thought it would tear the page. What's the idea behind them?
Well, when you travel there are some things that are unavoidable. Alain De Botton did that book called The Art of Travel, which talks about how you'll idealize something, you'll see a beach and yet when you actually go to that beach, you sort of forget that you have to go through customs, you have to go past sewage treatment plants on the road all the way there, so I think there are things in travel that are unavoidable. No matter how much you idealize them. And in a city like Mexico City, where it's very polluted — it's not just polluted, it's also a very beautiful city — but the pollution, smells, all of these things are unavoidable. Especially if you take it by foot. And so the stickers were a way to bring you one step closer to that destination.

I'm of the belief you have to justify print, if you're making a print magazine there has to be a reason to be doing it. And we try with our design, colors and varnishes, but I think this was another way to bring you one step closer in a way that couldn't be digital. I think there's nothing wrong with digital, I think it serves really great purposes and I'm super excited because we have our website now. But at the same time, I'm always very conscious of how to justify the medium.

Let's talk about the way you employ shock in Swallow, which has been a running theme through all three issues. In the Mexico City issue, there's a spread of food (largely meat) done up as religious reliquaries.
I think that with food you can touch on anything: lifestyle content all the way up to the profane. You can do things that are sacrilegious. Films like Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom, you can really go there if you want. But I think that the idea with doing an independent magazine, especially when we started, was that the mainstream magazines at the time — Gourmet, Saveur, many others — while they were entertaining they were not representing a whole other kind of food. I don't think any magazines really were. So it was a very conscious way of showing another side of food, which could be that shock, that profanity, something like that.

But now that we've seen the loss of some of these mainstream magazines, the independents haven't really kept up their end of the bargain. It's still sort of dealing in lifestyle and peddling lifestyle, and I think that that's fairly uninteresting to me. So the further we can push these ideas, I'm willing to do it. Within reason. I don't want anyone to be too comfortable. To be too comfortable is rather boring, and I think you want to push people expectations and give them a jolt. A little bit of excitement and entertainment, and hopefully you'll learn something at the same time. Each thing we do, even if it has that shocking value, there's always some sort of information you can glean from it.

[Photos: Swallow]

Swallow is as much a travel magazine as it is a food magazine. How do you balance the voices of foreigners looking in with the voices of locals?
It's about really having both of those voices, because I think that you can show things to locals that they're not necessarily aware of in their own environment. And vice versa, locals can show you very exclusive things you wouldn't be able to find if you were going to go visit. It's about maintaining that balance, pointing out the brilliant and also the absurd. Sometimes you have an idea in the beginning and you think it's fantastic, but you ask someone who lives there and actually it's fairly commonplace and not that great. But then you might have an observation, and once you run it by a local they're like, hmm, I never really thought about it that way. It's important to have the two together. To have just one? if you just worked with people who live there, you might not necessarily have the criticism you'd find, and vice versa. You'd have an outsider's opinion, a sort of imperialist?not imperialist, but a sort of haughty tone. We've definitely tried to balance that a lot more this issue, talking to cab drivers and people on the street and being more reflective of the scope of Mexico City, from artists and intellectuals to people in the stands at wrestling matches and dancing girls and everything in between.

One of my favorite stories is we worked with this artist Artemio, and he had been telling me for months that he and his father had this list of the most dangerous places to eat in Mexico City. Their idea of danger was not physical violence, but how dangerous and dirty the food is. It's sort of a common outsider's observation that you'll go there and you'll get Montezuma's Revenge, but it's also a fairly received idea in Mexico as well. You probably will get sick at some point in your life. So he and his father and a couple other people basically put together this list of treacherous and nefarious eateries in Mexico City. And we created a key for that based on categories like danger, addictiveness, price, dirtiness. So there was a syringe and a dollar bill and a fly and a skull and crossbones. Anyway, he was very concerned about when he turned in his copy that we didn't want to clean it up too much and make it exactly perfect English, because it would've taken away some character that his writing had. And that's something that the editors I work with are very keen on that voice, that written voice. How people told stuff to us while we were there.

Another great story is there's a guy who's in a band called Pellejos, or the Foreskins. It's him and his dentist and their guide to the ultimate taquerias of Mexico City. And again, I think that was such a good way of getting real, on the ground people give really, really, really sharp insights we necessarily wouldn't have. And also they tie in the culture to those things.

There are other little things in the issue that are really fun as well. The big features are great, they're beautiful and they can be shocking, but also the small things in the front. I think as you read through the whole issue itself has so much information. And I've been told by a few friends over there that there are things within it locals didn't know about Mexico City, and I think that's probably the highest compliment we could have been paid. Obviously some locals do, but I think everyone's going to find something new.

Let's talk about Swallow as a magazine in general. Who makes up Swallow? The editors you mentioned?
I'm the founder and creative director, and I worked on this issue with co-editors. They are Megan Conway and Laurence Lowe. They're as much responsible for the magazine as I.

You mentioned earlier that you've put a bunch of the content online recently. As a supporter of print, why go in that direction?
We've been so divorced from a digital presence and it's gone in our favor in a way, because it's created this sort of mystery about the magazine itself. Someone had written a comment on one of the pieces of press we had that it was a cruel joke, that there was no such thing as an issue of Swallow. That he's tried to get ahold of us and he just can't get a copy. Which is not true because it's quite easy to get ahold of us, if you really want to.

The idea with the website is to start showing people into the world of Swallow, the way that it works and the types of stories that we do. I think some things from the issues will be there to give you a taste. But going forward we're also working on digital-only content that's not connected purely to just one destination. The frustrating thing is that there are so many great destinations around the world, but often you're working on an issue based in one place and you almost have to put your blinders on. I think that the website allows us to have a bit more of a scope in terms of what we want to feature, from places that aren't necessarily the subjects of coming issues.

So content that will be digital only, then?
There will be tons of that, hopefully. In the future. There's some of that already, the Chinese Whispers that's up there. There are two or three digital only stories on the website now and I think that going forward we're going to be ramping up that content. I think you'll find the website will serve as a receptacle for non-issue based content. And a few issue-based things here and there, things we feel are worthy of a wider look in.

What's coming up next for Swallow?
The upcoming issue for sure is the East Village. I'm super excited about it, there's so much there. New York is probably the most over-reported city in the world, and it's certainly one of the most heavily-trafficked neighborhoods in the city, food-wise. I just think there's so much beneath the surface that hasn't really been touched on. I also think that's the great challenge in doing it, so that's definitely coming up before the end of this year. Another grand step forward is that we'll actually be jumping into a fairly regular printing schedule following this issue. No more smell stickers to hold us back.

Well, you had to do it once, right?
Of course. As a friend said, we have escalation issues. We started off as a hard bound book, then we added a comic, and then we went to the smell stickers. So, I don't know what's next. Maybe pop-ups? Just kidding, not really. Holograms.

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