We launched the Behind the Byline series last March with the goal to uncover the stories of Pittsburgh’s journalists. Our next feature spotlights a Pittsburgh woman who didn’t let life stop her from reaching her dreams – even though those dreams may have shifted throughout her journey.
Meet Gretchen McKay – a wife, mother of five, runner, cyclist and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s newly appointed food editor.
Gretchen may have everyone’s dream job, but it certainly wasn’t what she imagined she’d be doing when she graduated from Penn State during the early ‘80s recession. Although at the time she wanted to be a business writer, she thought becoming a paralegal would be more sustainable. That didn’t last long when her husband was assigned to a job in Hong Kong just six weeks after her first child was born. It was there that Gretchen learned how much she loved writing feature articles. After moving back to Pittsburgh in the ‘90s, she responded to an ad for a job opening at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette … and the rest is history.
Throughout our conversation, Gretchen humbly shared her accomplishments which include completing five triathlons, a marathon and dozens of 10k and 10-mile races within the last decade. What is even more admirable is throughout her career, Gretchen raised five children all while moving from city to city.
Continue reading to learn more about Gretchen’s journey to becoming a food editor, her take on the Pittsburgh food scene and her current food obsession.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Pittsburgh. After college, I got married and we moved to Miami, Hong Kong, D.C. and New York. Like so many people, I boomeranged back to Pittsburgh in my mid-thirties. My husband and I bought a house around the corner from my parents in Ben Avon where we raised our five kids.
Where did you go to school?
I majored in English at Penn State University. I wanted to be a business writer, but because of the recession at the time, I decided to go to paralegal school and became a corporate paralegal for a few years. After moving back to D.C. from Hong Kong, I went to George Mason University to get a master’s degree in professional writing.
What made you decide to become a writer?
Ever since I was a little kid, I liked to write. I thought I wanted to be a business writer. In fact, I never thought about writing for a newspaper – I didn’t take any journalism or creative writing classes. But, when I began writing for a magazine, I realized how much it fits my personality. I’m the kind of person who likes to get out and do things – I grew up in a big family with a lot of talkers. Now as a reporter, I get the chance to meet new people and I’m learning something new every day. You won’t find me sitting behind a desk. I’m always out and about.
Where was your first writing job?
It’s a funny story. When I moved to Hong Kong with my husband and a newborn baby, I had the choice between becoming a personal shopper or a writer for Off Duty, a travel magazine for service members. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in the magazine business, so I initially said no. After I thought about it, I called the editor back – Jim Shaw – and begged him to give me the job. Thankfully he did, which led to me being the Pacific editor for a few years. Before moving back to Pittsburgh, we moved to New York where I wrote for First for Women Magazine.
You’ve been at the Post-Gazette for 23 years. Tell us about your career there.
I’ve had a fun career at the Post-Gazette! When I moved to Pittsburgh, I answered an ad in the paper and began covering council and board meetings as a municipal reporter. I was also the education reporter, home and garden reporter and real estate reporter. Eventually, that morphed into features. I started writing about food 16-17 years ago. I really liked it and did as many good stories as I could. In time, that became my beat. Throughout the years, I worked for Suzanne Martinson, Amy McConnell, Bob Batz and most recently Arthi Subramaniam. I’m excited to step up and take over as the new food editor.
Would you say this is your dream job?
Writing about food is my dream job. I’m always meeting interesting people and always eating, drinking and cooking. Now after a pandemic, I’m excited to direct the coverage for the Post-Gazette. People are back to socializing and entertaining people in their homes so there’s a real call for recipe and entertainment coverage.
Food connects people in a way that nothing else does. I try to write stories about what makes people tick, what makes Pittsburgh tick and why our region is so special.
As the new food editor, how will the editorial focus change?
I want us to be more active in the community. Dan Gigler is going to be a key component in covering restaurants and Bob Batz who writes about beer and spirits is coming back on a regular basis. We’ll also be starting a new weekly food truck feature.
During the pandemic, the focus was on home cooking, which was good for me because I do a lot of recipe stories. The challenge was making cooking enjoyable and interesting for those that see it as more of a task. I cook every day, but I know a lot of people don’t, so I wanted to make cooking fun and interesting for our readers. I think a lot of people discovered cooking during the pandemic.
Now coming out of the pandemic, people are eager to get back out and restaurants are gearing up for it. We’re excited to move forward and see what happens now that people are vaccinated and interested in dining out again.
What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh food scene compared to other cities?
Growing up here, there wasn’t a restaurant scene, but it’s so different from when we moved back in the ‘90s. Today, it does stand up to other cities. Pittsburgh is such a melting pot – we have so many kinds of restaurants here. We have every cuisine, every price range, a great bar scene and award-winning chefs. It might be smaller in numbers than a D.C. or New York, but it’s been such a great place to live and raise my kids. I get a lot of calls from people out of town looking for recommendations and I always tell them there’s everything you can possibly want to do, eat and play. It’s all here in Pittsburgh.
Do you have any food obsessions right now?
Yes! I’ve been growing a pineapple for 7 years and got my first fruit this spring. I’m watching it grow out on my patio – it’s six inches! I rooted it in a glass of water when my daughters were still in high school. My goal is to have a pina colada party at the end of the summer when it reaches full size. I have been poked in the eye by it so many times over the years that it better grow to full size. This is all new territory! The groundhogs are eating everything else, but I think my tiny little pineapple might be safe.
What is one of your most memorable stories?
I have two that come to mind. In 2014, I interviewed Carol Pascuzzi, or Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.’s Dearheart. I worked for months to get that interview and when I did, I had an opportunity to visit her home. It turned out to be such a great profile.
I also worked with Post-Gazette’s photographer Steve Mellon on a series called, “This is Pittsburgh Food” where we explored the roots of iconic Pittsburgh food. The first story I did was on the Panella family, an Italian family in Butler County who, every January, hosted a huge party to serve their homemade sopressata, a pork sausage. This was such a great story because it was a true slice of Pittsburgh. There are so many Italians in the region who have the same tradition and I loved that it was such a feel-good story with a great party at the end.
That story inspired me to take a class with the American-Italian Club of Aliquippa to learn how to make prosciutto . Now I have a prosciutto ham hanging in my basement covered in mold. I’m hoping that when it’s done curing in November, it will be edible.
I like stories that talk about tradition and culture. Stories that have fun people in the center who teach you something new and, of course, end with something really good to eat.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I’m a runner and a cyclist. When my oldest son went off to college, I saw an ad for the Philadelphia triathlon and I thought, “I can do that,” so I trained for it and completed it twice. During my fifth triathlon, I had a bit of a freak out during the swim portion in Lake Erie and decided that was my last triathlon. From there I focused more on running. In 2014, I worked my way up to running a marathon and over the years, I’ve completed dozens of 10ks and 10-mile races.
It’s funny because people always think food writers aren’t healthy, but I try to stay active since I’m constantly eating and cooking.
– Robin Rectenwald, WordWrite