John Safran: “[We] Jews are obviously pretty good with food because Jews are very fat and like eating”

The writer on drinking tequila with white nationalists, which religion has the best food, and his new book on Big Tobacco.
Penguin Random House

You grew up in a Jewish German-Polish household. What are your fondest food memories from your childhood?

We had Friday night Shabbas which I thought was normal – I didn’t think I was part of some “ethnic” thing. There was challah, the braided bread, which was delicious. It’s one of those foods you can eat heaps of when you’re young because of your metabolism.

I didn’t drink socially until I was much older. Everyone thinks it’s some big decision, or your father died in a drink-driving accident. But part of the reason was because during Shabbas, you say a prayer – a bracha – and drink this kiddush wine. So wine wasn’t this forbidden thing.

You once said your ’90s rap duo Raspberry Cordial “broke down the wall that Eminem’s been able to walk through”. Do you resent the success of Australia’s other cordial-named musical duo, Lime Cordiale?

I’m open source. It’d be a bit rich of me, as someone who was influenced by Public Enemy and LL Cool J cassettes, to say: “Hang on. Lime Cordiale taking from Raspberry Cordial? That’s cultural appropriation.”

In your previous book Depends What You Mean By Extremist you hung out with white nationalists. Do they eat the food of other cultures?

I once did tequila with them. That was my first book where the making of it [became public]. Everyone has phones and can film stuff and you have to be a bit mindful of that, because that went online – me having tequila shots with white nationalists.

It’s very confusing being Jewish in that scene. Some [old-guard white nationalists] were like, “It goes without saying that the main people neo-Nazis hate are Jewish people!” But with the new world, it’s like, “Jews are white, and is John just a white person hanging out with these white Nazis?”

On the day the book was released, one of the white nationalists said, “Just so you know, that time in Bendigo, they were all planning to beat you up and I talked them out of it.” I was obviously very disappointed because the bruises would have healed by then, and what an awesome chapter that would have been for the book [laughs]. I can’t believe it got in the way of my art!

You road-tested several religions in your TV series John Safran vs God. Which religion has the best food?

The Jews are obviously pretty good with food because Jews are very fat and like eating. But that’s a bit biased of me.

Muslims are quite good with food, because they’re always trying to convert you. And I’m not saying that in a cynical way. There’s lots of hospitality and whenever I’m at a Muslim person’s place, you’re always getting a good feed.

Though I bet a Pentecostal I’ve hung out with will read this and think, “I cannot believe we gave him that great meal, and he hasn’t mentioned it. What a jerk.”

In you latest book Puff Piece you often refer to restaurants, bars, and bagel shops in proximity to your home, using the number of tram stops and Sex Pistol songs as a metric. Why do you do this?

One of the things I’m not good at is describing places. So I guess in a narcissistic way, it’s describing how the world exists in proximity to my apartment. The other thing I’m bad at is describing people. No matter what I do it either seems like I’m insulting them, or hitting on them [laughs].

Puff Piece is a deep-dive into Philip Morris and the vaping and e-cigarette industry. In the name of research you actually smoke these products. Were you ever worried you’d get addicted?

I was hoping I’d get addicted! When I realised I wasn’t, I had to lean into that. Though after I handed in the manuscript and was just at home alone during lockdown, that’s when I really started smoking my Heatsticks [Philip Morris e-cigarettes] a lot more. I liked it in a limited way, but the problem is as soon as you start exercising, you really feel it. I couldn’t make it around the block jogging.

I do like the whole aesthetic of cigarettes. When I worked in an office yonks ago, I liked how the smokers would hang out outside together; the camaraderie and the danger, and the social unacceptability. That’s one side of the ledger. Then the other side of the ledger: leukaemia. That’s a pretty compelling argument not to smoke cigarettes.

But you did develop an addiction to nicotine gum?

That’s true. I still am chewing nicotine gum with Juicy Fruit. I’m still Juicy Fruiting!

In your research, what surprised you about the world of vaping?

I hadn’t really thought much about vaping before I started the book – like how I haven’t given much thought to cardboard production, or Romanian dancing.

But the thing that really surprised me was: we’re living in a time where things are either bad or good to the nth degree and that’s [accelerated] because of social media. Yet somehow cigarettes, vaping and Heatsticks have snuck through. Most people think they’re deadly, and bad in that sense, but they haven’t been cancelled.

It’s the most inconsequential chess move in the world of health for the past decade. Cigarettes getting banned, finally, then Philip Morris figuring out how to slip past [legislation through their invention of the HeatStick]. It’s quite amazing that smoking is the biggest health crisis in the world, but it’s perceived as a dated health crisis. But it’s not! It can’t be the world’s biggest killer, but also not relevant. I couldn’t get my head around it, but that became fun for the book: me being flustered that no-one seems to be noticing this.

It’s like what happened with Depends What You Mean By Extremist. Now I almost can’t write about the alt-right and Nazis and white supremacy because it’s the most mainstream thing ever. When I started that book, Pauline Hanson hadn’t had her revival yet, Trump hadn’t announced he was running for politics, and I was just hanging out with the only eight neo-Nazis in Australia.

Hopefully with Puff Piece everyone will go, “John, you were ahead of the curve.” But they won’t. They’ll just use my material and it’ll be forgotten, and I’ll be like, “Damn. It happened again.” [chuckles]

Your book will be like … the wall that other vaping books broke through.

Exactly. I’m the pre-Eminem of Heatstick analysis. I’m the Raspberry Cordial of Heatstick exposés.

Puff Piece by John Safran is out on now (Penguin Random House, $34.99).

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