It may seem like the aesthetic of 85-year-old Yankee Magazine makes itself.
And it’s true that weathered shacks on the Outer Cape, verdant Vermont farms, and the eye-popping reds and yellows of White Mountain fall foliage exist without being photographed or written about; perfect New England things carry on with or without us bearing witness.
But since 1935, Yankee has made the scenes part of a larger narrative of what the region is and can be, and what those who live here are all about.
Mel Allen wrote his first story for Yankee in 1977. He joined the staff in 1979, and in 2006 became the magazine’s editor. This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement, Allen has had to grapple with what a typically travel and food magazine can — and needs — to do differently. In a phone interview, Allen recently spoke with Boston.com about the magazine’s past, present, and future, and his own place in it.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Your first story for Yankee was about Ma Dudley, the wife of a Maine potato farmer. What do you remember about that?
“I actually had two stories in that first issue. One was Ma Dudley. The other was Ron Libby, who was a square dance caller in Freeport, Maine. His goal was to become the No. 1 square dance caller in the country. Who knew there was such a thing? But in that world of square dancing, he was a big deal.”
What was the state of Yankee when you took over?
“I became the editor the summer of 2006, and my first issue was the January/February of 2007. I got blame from many, many readers, in the hundreds. They thought because my timing lined up with Yankee going from the little size, which everybody loved, to the full size that it was my call. There was actually a ‘Fire Mel Allen’ thing on the web at one time. And I got a phone call from a beauty salon in Keene. And the salon owner said, ‘I want you to know I have a room full of angry women here, because Yankee no longer fits in their pocket books when they’re coming to get their hair done.’
“Yankee to many people was not just a publication. It was a little part of home that they probably had grown up with, because their parents had probably gotten it, and maybe even back to grandparents, and suddenly you tampered with something.”
What have you learned about the magazine and its readers since?
“Always foremost in my mind is the stories. We want to tell stories about place, about people. And that’s always first. But we also know that people expect service from Yankee, and by service we mean food, home, travel, especially travel.
“The biggest change is with the rise of the digital side is we need to always have content that really dovetails with what we’re doing. So it’s not like two totally separate enterprises. During fall foliage time, when people go to Google, Yankee’s posts always come up very, very high. And so we work very closely with — it’s a web team of two. They do a newsletter and they do the site and they keep up with Instagram and Facebook. We have to understand that what we do in the print side has to also support them.”
You’re writing a blog of sorts (“Letters from Dublin”). In it you talk about your morning swims, about digging through your past in your storage unit. Things that are pretty personal. Why did you feel it was important to share that level of intimacy now?
“This started in late March. We wanted to have something for readers to tell them we’re all in this together.
“I know that people see Yankee not just as information, not just as a publication, but they see it as something that also touches their hearts. And if I reach those readers and say, ‘Look, this is my life. This is what I’m observing here, and what I’m observing is probably also going on where you are. Wherever you are, we’re still connected.’ The thing I wrote about the storage unit struck a chord for people: ‘What am I gonna do with my stuff?’ Because mortality, at a time where 200,000 people have died from this, should be on people’s minds.”
A common thread in Yankee stories are small acts of heroism from everyday people. Are there story subjects that have stood out to you over the years?
“I think all writers would tell you that the stories that stir us are the ones where people have to overcome something. When I did the story about Joao Victor, the young man from Angola who came here a few years ago without a word of English, who then became one of the 10 finalists in the Poetry Out Loud competition, which was all about recitation. The story about Bill De La Rosa, whose mother was denied reentry into the U.S. And Bill was a child of 14 or 15, a sick father, young siblings at home, and he had everything against him except this incredible drive to persevere. He went to Bowdoin on full scholarship, and a few years ago, he became the No. 1 Hispanic scholar in the country. Or Wil Smith, who was the first single father in Bowdoin history and also the captain of the basketball team.
“How can every writer not be drawn to people who have everything going against them but they find a way to persevere?”
Can you pull out — are there characteristics of New England people that you’ve come to see over and over?
“I do think in the conscience of America there’s a prototype of a New England stereotype, but we all know that’s not actually true because New England is always changing and our population is changing. But if you’re from New England, because the seasons change, I think you do have to be self-reliant. I think you do have to be adaptable. I think you do have to have a measure of resilience. I think you do have to feel — because we’re so small, I think the actual compactness and smallness of New England does create more of a sense that we are all New Englanders than other places maybe.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania — I never had a sense of being a Pennsylvanian. But I do think Mainers have a Maine mindset. I do think Vermonters have a Vermont mindset … and I certainly think Bostonians, if you’re from Boston you have a little edge to you, and I don’t think you find that in Cleveland or Cincinnati.”
You went fishing with Ted Williams. What are your biggest takeaways from profiling someone so famous?
“If you’re going to go after somebody famous, you follow what he said to me when I got there. He said, ‘You can stay as long as you ask interesting questions.’ If you go to see somebody who has been interviewed a number of times, and it’s no longer a treat for them, so they don’t really need you. You have to ask them questions that they say, ‘you’ve really done your homework.’
“One of my proudest moments as an interviewer was when I went to see astronaut Alan Shepard in Texas. It was the 25th anniversary of his moon landing, and at the time all the networks wanted to have a spot with Alan Shepard. He was known as the most laconic astronaut in Tom Wolfe’s book.
“Before I went to see him, I went to where he grew up, I talked to people who knew him as a kid, I talked to one of his former teachers. So when I went to see him I was able to ask him stuff that people have never asked him before. My proudest moment was on the second day, Alan Shepard, the famous, stone-faced Alan Shepard actually had tears streaming down his face because I asked him about his father, and what his father thought about him joining the astronaut corps. Because his father was a former admiral and was totally against it. His father said to him when he came back from the moon, he said to him, ‘I’m really proud of you, and I was wrong.’ Just me knowing that moment from other people, I was able to get that in the interview.”
To put you on the spot: What is your view on the future of journalism? Are you optimistic?
“I think the need for storytelling never ends. It’s been going on for centuries. We need stories so we can understand each other, especially now. We’re looking at a half century unlike any half century we have known. The fires in California are harbingers. How can they not be? The social unrest in this country, that doesn’t just solve itself overnight. We need stories, not just news reports. Not just, ‘there was a protest march in Lincoln, Nebraska.’ We need stories about the people, about the people on the front lines of those fires, about the people who are willing to put their lives on the line to save the whales. We need journalism, the craft of writing, to get information out so that it touches people so they hopefully want to act.
“Obviously we know that print is not where it was. But I still personally, and it’s not just because I’m older — I love sitting down and holding a magazine. I love it when Vanity Fair comes in. I love it when when The Believer [an Indie magazine] comes in. When I see a cover and I see a Tom Junod story. I love it when the New Yorker comes, I open it up and I see my goodness, John McPhee still has another story in here. Here’s an Ariel Levy … I have to think that I’m not alone in that, that there’s still people who wanna hold this stuff in their hands.”
A big chunk of Yankee’s content relates to travel and food. How have you approached putting together the magazine during the pandemic, when people have to be home more?
“You’ve been reading my mail as they say. Because we work a year ahead, the story on the Mad River Valley was done last fall. And unfortunately some of the great stuff in that, like taking the glider — they’re not flying this year. So we had to do all these little asterisks — things are changing, make sure you call ahead.
In the fall of 2020, we are having meetings, intense meetings, about what we’re doing for the fall of 2021. And it looks like what we’re doing is going back to something we did in 2010, which is going from our own knowledge of being in New England for so long, things like the best foliage towns in New England and why. We tapped writers and photographers who live here. We’re making do. … The message in all my editor’s letters is, ‘These things are here when you’re ready.’”
Do you have a corner of New England that’s most special to you?
“When I came to New England, I was in the Peace Corps and lived in the hottest place, right on the Equator in Columbia. I don’t mind heat. My mother comes from the island of Jamaica, and I grew up and spent a lot of my childhood there. But this was beyond heat.
“They had a library there, and I went to the library one day and there was a photograph of a snow-shrouded hillside with trees in Maine. And I determined that when I was done with the Peace Corps I was going to come to Maine. I got out in January and came to Maine during a snowstorm, newly married. So Maine always holds a special place because it was my first 10 years as a professional, outside of college. It’s where I became a fourth grade teacher, it’s where I started writing. There’s very few places in Maine I haven’t been to.”
Do you have one New England specialty that you can’t live without? And who makes it best?
“I think one of the best things I’ve ever had in my life is the apple cider made at Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. It’s really famous for its heirloom apples. There’s this guy there named Ezekiel Goodband — it’s like one of these names from the Bible — he gets these apples that they brought back to life after a century. And they make a cider there during their cider days that is absolutely the most ridiculous liquid that’s ever crossed my lips. If somebody said you were going to take one taste with you, and you’ll never run out of it, it’s not lobster for me, it’s not whoopie pies, it’s this cider.”
You were recently pretty forthright about Yankee’s coverage, and how it fits in with the racial justice movement. How are you and the magazine grappling with our current moment?
“I’ll answer it this way. I am more conscious than ever that New England has to reflect everybody that calls themselves a New Englander. And readers will see here and forever more that diversity reflected in our magazine, even more than we have in the past.
“I’ve done a number of stories that reflect that, because those are often the best stories. At the same time, we know that northern New England has been a focus of Yankee because that’s what our readers gravitate to. The moment has demanded that I as an editor, and our staff, say ‘OK, the North Woods are special and our Seacoast is special but we have to also be more inclusive, pay more attention, and make sure everybody who opens Yankee sees their lives reflected as well.'”
You recently wrote about retirement, and how you’re not going to retire anytime soon. What excites you about the next few months and years about putting out the magazine?
“Honestly it’s when stories come in. In the November issue I wrote about Sean Alonzo Harris. He’s a Black photographer in Maine, and he’s been doing a major project he calls ‘Making the Invisible Visible.’ And he’s been going to one particular neighborhood in Portland. His photographs are just beautiful, and they make you humbled to realize that there are parts of New England that we don’t necessarily know.
“Sometimes I get an essay from somebody and I just stop what I’m doing. And as I’m reading it, the world just kind of melts away. How many people get to do that? I say this all the time to people, we get to do something that very few people get to do. We get to work with really creative people, and see something take shape every month, every two months. Who would wanna walk away from that?”
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