Sandra Pinckney '70 eats her way across the continent -- live on TV.
by Bridget Meeds '91
Who doesn't dream of a career that involves travel and good food? For Sandra Pinckney '70, this dream has come true. As host of the Food Network show Food Finds she travels around the United States and Canada discovering regional specialties and unusual foods. And she credits her Ithaca College liberal arts degree in sociology and anthropology as leading her there.
Sandra took a rather unorthodox path to her TV fame. Her father was a diplomat in the United States Foreign Service, and she grew up around the world. You might expect a girl who had lived in Cambodia, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur would find Ithaca a wee bit slow, but Sandra loved it because it was so American.
"Ithaca seems like something you read about in a civics book," she says. She loved the big windows of her dorm room and the "sweetness" of the city of Ithaca. "It was just so totally beautiful, the quintessential type of college experience -- except for freshman beanies." Sandra started in anthropology because she was interested in ancient cultures, discovered that "trying to understand what was going on in the present fascinated me," and added sociology courses to the mix.
A Few of Her Favorite Things
Sandra has been kind enough to share a few of her North American special food finds with us:
Chicken pot pie from the Cleaver Company at the Chelsea Market in New York City
Chocolate chip cookies from Tates Bake Shop in Southhampton, New York
Coffee from Café Napoleon in Montreal
Medjool dates from the Oasis Date Farm in Palm Springs, California
Truffles from the Chocolate Garden in Coloma, Michigan
Turducken from La Boucherie in Houston
Yogurt from the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, New York
In just three years after graduating from IC, Sandra studied French culture at the Sorbonne, married fellow IC student Benne Herbert '70 (they have since divorced), studied at Howard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and had a daughter, Aina. In 1976 she was a graduate fellow on the Code and Rating Board of the Motion Picture Association of America and was one of the people who gave the first Star Wars film its PG rating. She then began producing news at WJZ-TV in Baltimore. Soon, however, she had jumped in front of the camera -- and found that she was a natural.
"There are people in television news who went to journalism school and learned how to write stories," she says. "I never went to journalism school, but with my liberal arts background I knew how to tell stories. I had an interest in a lot of different things, especially in people. I was able to get people to talk to me and tell their stories with emotion."
For the next 18 years Sandra reported and anchored news in Baltimore. Highlights included interviewing NAACP president Kweisi Mfume and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. "But the story that probably had the greatest impact on me," she says, "was an interview in the early 1990s in Cambridge, Maryland. Jesse Jackson had made an appearance there to draw attention to the conditions of people who worked in the poultry industry. I interviewed several people who worked as gizzard pluckers. I had never heard of such a thing, never imagined it. The only housing they could afford was in shacks without indoor plumbing. I saw the well where they drew water. I thought about celebrity and how it could be used for self-promotion or for good."
Her own celebrity spread when she began hosting TV shows with niche appeal. In 1996 she made the jump to national media when she was hired to host several syndicated programs, including NBC's weekly news magazine SOS in America and Fox Network's The Hidden Truth. "It was a hoot," she says. But while it was fun to be working for bigger audiences, she admits, "it was hard to keep a straight face while people related stories of alien abductions and space ships."
In 2000 Sandra found a new professional home hosting Food Finds, finding the work much more fulfilling. "Talk about a sweet deal!" she laughs. "I eat and travel."
She also goes to out-of-the-way places, meeting people and sharing their stories. Sandra has been to every state to locate small eateries that specialize in regional foods -- jams, pickles, truffles, pies, ribs, barbecue sauces, and baked beans. Being a good journalist, of course, she can't possibly arrive for a shoot without having carefully researched her subject. "Anybody who works with me will tell you that I'm not a 'one little tiny bite' person. I really eat!" she admits.
So she must continually address a workplace health issue common among those in the food industry: girth control. "I've been fortunate," she says. "I have very good genes. But I also have an off-again, on-again relationship with Dr. Atkins [of low-carb fame]. When I'm not working I try to limit my carbs. I try to exercise, too."
Although she says she enjoys most of the food she covers, there have been times when Sandra wishes she didn't have to sample everything she comes across. "Buffalo jerky," she shudders, remembering a recent shoot in Montana. "The lady gave me a tour of the shop where she processes her meat. I thought I was going to pass out. I thought, I'll just look at her forehead; I'm not going to look around. She wanted to show me pictures of buffalo with those beautiful eyes! Then I had to taste it, and that was very difficult."
But there are many other shoots she remembers with fondness, and she has certainly been introduced to foods that have become personal favorites (see box).
While traveling and eating fine foods are what many of us do on our vacations, Sandra points out, for her these pastimes are work. So she must find other ways to relax. Her home base is Charlotte, North Carolina, where she has been working on a book about her Food Finds adventures. She also enjoys gardening and is very active in community work. She has supported the American Cancer Society, the Special Olympics, and the Boys and Girls Clubs, and now, she says, "I am interested in using the celebrity I have achieved on Food Network to help fight hunger." She's hoping her dream job can give her the chance to help others -- perhaps people like the impoverished chicken factory workers she met in Maryland -- also achieve their dreams.Photos courtesy of Food Network