Ron Swanson of Parks & Rec vs. Nick Offerman: The Food Interview
The Ron Swanson food pyramid.
Like the character he plays on Parks & Recreation, Nick Offerman is a man with a magnificent mustache. Something of a libertarian, most certainly a contrarian and definitely not a vegetarian, Ron Swanson is the gruff but goofy patriarch who viewers have come to idolize. Such is the curse of success that people so adore Ron Swanson, they often can't, or won't, separate the man in the eye of the meat tornado from the man who plays him.
It's a strange twist of fate for an actor who spent a good chunk of his early career working as a set-builder and performing in non-union theater in Chicago, a choice he likens to canoeing the L.A. River unironically. "Not a lot of people are going to hear about it, but... you're just happy to have done it," Offerman says.
Married since 2003 to Megan Mullally, who played Karen Walker on Will & Grace, the two of them live in the Los Angeles hills, where Offerman spends as much time as possible avoiding the internet and grilling bratwurst.
Over a lunch of prime rib, mashed potatoes, creamed corn and multiple desserts at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, located a few minutes from the Atwater Village workshop where he builds canoes and practices planking (not the stiffening viral trend), Offerman chatted with Squid Ink about mustache mania, his predilection for Dickensian restaurants and why, even in such a food-centric era, Parks & Rec may be TV's most food-centric sitcom.
"It's a great time to be alive," Offerman says. "Popular music all sounds like Neil Young records from 1972, and we're reliving this artisan appreciation in all the food we're eating."
Squid Ink: Now that I've bribed you with prime rib...
Nick Offerman: You've loosened my tongue.
SI: Everybody loves Ron Swanson. I used to do book reviews for Bitch, a feminist magazine. The entire editorial staff loves you.
NO: Wow, thank you... Bitch.
SI: So here's a question from the Bitch editorial staff: "Do you have any problems with fans who refuse to differentiate between you as an actor and your role? (Confession: the entire editorial staff of Bitch is guilty of this.)"
NO: No, I don't have a problem with it. I've seen headlines on blogs that couldn't state it more plainly: "Nick Offerman, Ron Swanson: Indistinguishable." It's very much not the case. I'm crazy about the character Ron Swanson, but Ron is like a Simpsons character. No mortal could survive his diet.
There are things about my personality, but they're very simple points. Ron loves to eat meat and he loves to work with wood and he's a simple guy who grows good whiskers.
SI: And plays saxophone.
NO: I'm not quite as good as Duke Silver, but I do play. There's no way, short of taking me out for prime rib, that the readers of Bitch could begin to understand that I'm just as much of a sloppy dipshit as the rest of us, trying to find my ass with both hands. Ron is a character like Superman. Christopher Reeve seems pretty indistinguishable to me from Superman, but I can comprehend what must be the differences. That was a bad example. Gene Hackman seems indistinguishable to me from Lex Luthor, but I can comprehend what the differences must be.
SI: Do you get a lot of Ron Swanson fan gifts?
NO: I feel like there's been some sort of shift in the zeitgeist, where people are now able to scratch a certain fan itch online. In [wife] Megan [Mullally's] day, we would receive a lot more things sent to our table at restaurants. There was more tangible physical evidence of fan worship. Nowadays, I actually don't get a lot of stuff, which I'm incredibly grateful for. What am I going to do with pigs with mustaches on them?
There have been a few occurrences where people in restaurants have sent me a rasher of bacon, which I am not going to turn my nose up at. I never let them down.
SI: As a food writer, I get a lot of well-meaning but silly food gifts. Eventually, I had to tell people: If you really like me, stop giving me bacon-themed gifts; just give me bacon.
NO: Let's commiserate: I mainly get mustache stuff. Can you imagine me sitting here right now wearing an ironic T-shirt about mustaches?
SI: For the record, you're wearing a dark blue shirt that says "A visual aid for knot tying," which is very practical.
NO: That's going to come in handy. If the shit goes down right now, and we get swept out to sea, guess who's got the knot chart?
I'm so grateful to be in the position where people want to express their love of our show with some sort of mustache-themed gift. I get that. They always say, "I saw this, and I had to get it for you." That's where you need to change the thinking. See it, think of me and maybe have a laugh with your friends.
SI: How do you feel about fancified meat products: bacon jam, truffle burgers, beef foam, etc.?
NO: Yawn. See [the Parks & Rec] beef burger episode. There's no need to improve on meat.
SI: So Ron Swanson's "It's meat on bread" motto is your burger ideal?
NO: Sure. I love cheese. I love horseradish on my prime rib. Here's a difference between me and Ron: If I could order one meal of meat, it would be a bratwurst. I'm crazy about the bratwurst.
SI: When it's a scene with food, you don't have to eat Ron Swanson's food, but you often do.
NO: When you consume something in a scene, you learn to be very circumspect because you may end up having to consume that amount 30 times. When you're young, you think, "Man, it would be really cool if I smoke in this scene." Then, on take 18, you're green and vomiting because you've been smoking for 90 minutes. So you learn with food: If you have to take a bite of something, don't swallow it, and get a spit bucket. Even if you're eating one bite of cake, you may end up eating four pieces of cake by the time you add them all up. It makes sense, especially if you're attractive. I have the good fortune of not being included in that category.
Early on in the show, when I needed to consume something in the scene, the props people would be standing by with a spit bucket and I'd say, "Take that spit bucket away from me. You'll not be needing it." Our show is not like a Kubrick film where we're going to do 40 takes of anything.
There's a scene in the episode about my birthday where at the end, it's just me eating steak and watching Bridge on the River Kwai. There have been many occasions when I receive a new script and I read something in the script that just makes me openly cry with gratitude. One of them was in that script. The tag at the end said, "This will not change: 30 seconds of Ron Swanson eating steak and watching Bridge on the River Kwai in silence." I read that, and the fact that they said, "This won't change," I just started openly weeping.
[That episode] was directed by the great film director Nicole Holofcener. (I'm so happy I've gotten to be buddies with her.) We were shooting that on a Monday, so I didn't eat on Sunday because I thought, "I'm going to eat so much goddamn steak." We got to that scene in the middle of the morning. We shot probably a minute and a half. I got 4 or 5 good bites of steak before she said, "Cut." And I was like, "No, I didn't eat yesterday!" So we went one more time, but then it was ruined. I had a couple more bites, but then it was gluttony. When it's something I'm creating on behalf of the show, it's important that I eat all this meat. When I'm doing it just for myself, I can't stomach that.
SI: Were there "standby steaks"? Did they wrap them up for you?
NO: There were, but I actually am pretty strict with my diet. I have a wonderfully hedonistic appetite, and if I wasn't really strict with myself, I'd weigh 300 pounds. I'm not good with moderation. It's either "Always be vigilant." There's no, "I'm happy." I either have to stay on top of it or become a full-blown alcoholic, which I may do. I'm still young.
Ron Swanson, probably thinking about a meat tornado.
Courtesy of NBC.
SI: You learned not to eat everything on your plate, but I understand Chris Pratt, who plays Andy, just goes all-in.
NO: Chris is a man of many immense talents, none of them greater than his ability to consume comestibles. His digestive system is a gaping maw. And he has such an enthusiasm about eating. Chris can take a bowl containing 10 servings of pasta and, with two fistfuls, make it disappear. He can do that six takes in a row. I've also seen him eat, and this is not an exaggeration, eight slabs of ribs in about three hours -- with absolute glee. He's an amazing human being. Truly a specimen worth studying.
SI: Aziz Ansari is a big foodie too. We've written about him.
NO: He is. He's such an amazing resource because his standup tours take him to every corner of the country and his interest in restauranting have combined into this incredible resource. I will find myself in Kansas City, and we have tonight off, let's go to a restaurant. I'll immediately text Aziz: "Kansas City. Sushi. Go." He's like, "Well, do you like sashimi or..." He has it all broken down.
SI: The Parks & Rec cast is full of people who love food.
NO: It's very food-centric. I don't know if that has to do with it being a Midwestern show with a lot of heart. ("Home Is Where The Hearth Is" read an embroidered plaque on my mother's kitchen wall.) But we all definitely are really into our food. The ladies too -- they just have to use less of it. They're in the business of being beautiful.
SI: Why do you think Ron Swanson, one of the most paleo-libertarian, comically hyper-masculine characters on TV, is such a hero to so many people, especially women? He's really the breakout character of the show.
NO: I think everyone in our cast could carry their own show. If my character is at all any sort of breakout from that, it can only be through some bizarre anomaly of the zeitgeist that I can't begin to wrap my head around. I feel, when asked that question, like a birthday clown who's asked, "Why do you think the kids are so freaked out by your makeup?" It's hard to tell if you're in the makeup.
I think Ron appeals to the simplicity that people crave in this age of information. We have such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choice. Do you want to hike in the Alps? There are 300 pairs of shoes you can order within the next 10 minutes. You have your choice of everything. Ron ignores all popular choice and just lives really simply.
Also, Ron celebrates things that we've been taught to eschew, like hair on a man. It's something that has been weaned off our Brad Pitts and our Jude Laws. But when you see it, you're like, "Oh, yeah. That's a fucking guy." That's not a Hollywood boy-man, that's a fucking man, who if we need wood chopped, that guy can chop it. I think it just appeals to something sort of elemental in people.
SI: There's also a vicarious thrill to the unrepentant hedonism of Ron Swanson, Don Draper (Mad Men) and Jack Donaghy (30 Rock). We have to think about calories and moral consequences. They just smoke and knock back Scotch and sleep with stewardesses.
NO: They revel in their disdain of moderation. They're like, "I'm going to eat this whole fucking steak and then I'm going to smoke a cigar and it's going to be so delicious, you pussies." I don't like to use that word in that way because it's misogynist, so I'll say, "you lily-livered sissies" instead.
Coincidentally, that was the trip with [Megan's character] Karen Walker on Will & Grace. People loved her because she said what she wanted to. She would drink a martini any time she chose. People love to see that. They love to identify with characters who are able to honestly speak their mind without having to deal with any consequences. Which is so boring and dry for an interview answer.
SI: But there are dimensions to Ron's relationship with Amy Poehler's character. He's not just the dry boss who sticks to his guns. He cares about the people around him, though grudgingly.
NO: It's a Lou Grant/Mary Tyler Moore vibe. The patriarch who is a ridiculous teddy bear, if you can just get through the layers of claws and teeth.
SI: What restaurants in Los Angeles do you like?
SI: Any other favorite foods?
NO: Well, we've discussed bratwurst. I love to cook out. My dad had a big article written about him in the Joliet paper. It was "gas vs. charcoal grilling," probably a 4th of July pullout. Somehow, they got ahold of my dad, who is just a hilarious charcoal grillmaster. He does the Thanksgiving turkey on the grill. He is just an amazing griller.
SI: Do you have strong feelings about gas vs. charcoal?
NO: I guess I do. I stick to charcoal. I have a Kenwood charcoal grill. In our house, if anybody is cooking, it's me. I love making burgers. I love making pork tenderloin. Lamb chops I do on the grill a lot. But you just can't beat brats.
SI: Where do you like to eat sausages?
NO: The Red Lion, of course. That was another "victory meal": their sausage platter and a couple of Hefeweizens. That was a happy time. That was back when you could smoke. These were great places to smoke back then, the Red Lion and the Tam O'Shanter.
For me, coming from a small town in Illinois, there's nothing more romantic than a place in Los Angeles where you can behave like you're in a pub on the wharfs of London. Have fish and chips. Smoke. Have a few pints. I've never known anyone who behaved like this, except characters in Dickens.
Elina Shatkin is a staff writer at LA Weekly. Follow her at @elinashatkin or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.