An Interview with the Host of Tasting History, Max Miller

An Interview with the Host of Tasting History, Max Miller

I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Max Miller, the host of the amazingly popular YouTube channel Tasting History. Tasting History is a show that is like no other. Max introduces a recipe from the distant past or not-so-distant, reinterprets it for the modern kitchen, prepares it, and then gives the history of the food or of the time. For instance, recently, Max did a show where he made a pumpkin cheesecake recipe from the Papal Court of the 16th century; while the cheesecake baked, he gave an excellent presentation on the jack-o-lantern it was fascinating. Max uses great graphics and film clips while he tells his stories.

My interview with Max was relaxed and friendly. I felt as if I was talking to an old friend. I knew Max had worked for Disney. He commented that he had worked on the Christopher Robin Movie when he noticed the framed movie poster in my living room. I wanted to know about his time as a Disney Prince.

It was for Disney Cruise Line. I did one contract when they opened The Dream which was in 2011.  It was a stage show so the characters are broken up into two different roles, there are the characters that are out on the ship or in the parks that are out and about that you can meet and, and stuff like that. And then they’re the ones that are only on-stage doing shows. And they’re just held to a different, I want to say standard,, but it’s not a standard so much as they have different rules. You have more freedom when you’re on stage and how you can portray the character and everything. And so that was what I did, and I played several roles Like Peter Pan, Prince Charming was one of them as well.

Max went on to work for Disney Studios itself. When the pandemic hit, he was furloughed, and that began his career in YouTube, but I asked Max what he did at Disney.

So the job that I had directly before I got furloughed was in theatrical sales. So selling movies to movie theaters, basically getting our movies on as many screens as possible and keeping them there. It’s keeping them there, that’s the hard part.. And then before that, I was only in that job for maybe six months, seven months before I got furloughed, and before that, I was working in marketing on the trailers and TV commercials and stuff like that. And that’s where I worked on Christopher Robin.

Max started Tasting History while he was on furlough from Disney. He had begun watching The Great British Baking Show and an interest in baking began. He found great delight in the early episodes of that show when they gave the history of the creations the contestants were baking. He developed the YouTube show and history was made. I asked him about how he manages each episode as a one-man production.

It’s always a challenge. Yeah, I mean, I’m the only one working on it. So it’s all it’s all on me. And so usually, each week, or, you know, each time I start a new episode, it’s coming up with what I want to cover. And sometimes I’ve got something kind of in my mind already, but a lot of times, I walk to that bookshelf behind me and start opening books and just reading little snippets of things until something grabs me, because what I’ve found is that I have to be interested in the topic. At that moment, you know, there are a lot of topics that I want to cover that I’m interested in.

But I might not be interested in it at that moment. And then next week, I’ll be obsessed with it, it’s so weird, you know. And I have to be obsessed with it at at the moment that I start writing, or researching rather. So I’ll go through those books or I’ll go through, a myriad websites and, and notes that I have that people have sent me suggestions and all of this kind of stuff. And I’ll just kind of go through that until something sparks my interest. And then I’ll start deep diving into it.

 It starts with an upper-level Google search of Wikipedia, and then, you know, it goes down from there until I usually end up with primary sources, reading old newspapers, and journals and diaries, whatever, and these books behind me. I don’t have every book on food history, but I have most of them. It’s rare that something pops up that I don’t already have. And so there’s always stuff in there that I can mine. And then once I have  I’ve gone through and just done research, at some point, it just kind of clicks.  Where it’s like, okay, there’s a story here I have a story. Now that I can tell there’s a beginning and a middle and an end. Or there, there are enough interesting tidbits that I feel like I can craft six to eight minutes of talking on, though now it’s usually much more than that. And then, and then I have a dish. 

Sometimes the history comes first, sometimes the dish comes first. Personally, I prefer it when the history comes first, because it’s a lot easier to find a dish to accompany the story than it is to take a dish and then hope that there’s an interesting history behind it because 95% of the food’s the dishes in the history don’t have any story. You know, it’s like, oh, this recipe exists. That’s, that’s the end of that. Because people just didn’t write down who made it or when it was served, , all that kind of stuff. So, usually, it starts with the history.

Once I have a story, and then I have a recipe that I want to follow. Then I get out my camera and I start futzing around in the kitchen. And, make whatever the recipe says, depending on the era, depending on how well the recipe is written. Sometimes that’s literally like last night I made corn chowder from the late 19th century. And I just I didn’t do any testing. I just looked at the recipe and started following the directions and that’s what I prefer to do. For me, that’s kind of the point of the show is just follow exactly what the recipe says. But sometimes the recipe doesn’t say enough to be able to follow it without some more information. So in that case, and usually it’s the older recipes. In that case, I go to other recipes from the period, sometimes that I’ve already done. So I know some of the pitfalls. Or I’ll go to modern recipes and be like this, this says to make a roux, well, let me look to a modern recipe that actually tells me how to make a roux. And then I can apply that or whatever. But usually, it’s just one and done, I do as much research as I can before cooking, and then I cook it once. And that’s it.

Once in a while, I’ll cook it twice, if something goes terribly wrong. But usually, it’s one and done. And then I finish up the script, usually, while I’m cooking, and set up all my stuff, and then film and then edit. I recently, just recently, started working with an editor who does the first portion of the editing process, which is the more tedious part and takes, you know, maybe five or six hours. So, she handles all that and then sends me something. And then I can go in and do kind of the more creative stuff, adding images and things like that throughout. So that saved much time, which has been great. That’s it. Your next one?

I next asked how long it takes to make a single episode. Most of Max’s shows run about twenty minutes. It really is a great way to escape on a break and learn something at the same time. Max replied.

30 to 40 hours. Sometimes it’s a little bit less. If I finally really know what I’m covering, and I don’t have to do much research. That’s usually what takes the longest part.  If it’s a story, I’m like, I know this story. Let me just kind of write it out, in my own words, much easier. 20 to 25 hours. If it’s something that I don’t know anything about, or especially if it’s something that I need a lot of help finding sources or translating sources, this is usually Chinese Japanese Indian Recipes. Arabic recipes that haven’t been translated. I need help with that. I need help finding sources because I know it exists but only at a library in Beijing. And I have to find somebody in Beijing to go to the library and make and send copies to me. Those can take 50 or 60 hours and there’s a reason that those don’t happen as often, they take sometimes twice as long as another episode.

Max”s show has many corporate sponsors. Max has a way of seamlessly incorporating the sponsor into the program in a way that makes you feel as if you aren’t watching a commercial. I asked him about this.

 I think that the big, the biggest thing for me is, I only take on sponsorships from companies that I either use myself or at least really enjoy, like, I, I actually believe in this product. So that helps, it makes it just a little bit more organic. I also try to, to find sponsors that fit in the world of Tasting History, they’re either food-centric or history or education-oriented you know like learning a language or travel, that just makes it a little bit more seamless. But yeah, I mean, I like it to seem seamless when I’m watching something. So I would just try to make it a little bit more integrated. If possible. There are times now when I’m able to put the sponsorship at the end of the video, I wish I could put them all at the end of the video, but they just don’t they don’t allow that. But, I try to make it smooth. There are other people, I feel, do it even better, but  I think I’ve gotten better as the years have gone on.

I next asked Max about his strongest influences.

Well, when it comes to storytelling, obviously, multiple places. But the earliest I can remember was my grandfather telling me literal war stories from World War Two. And, you know, from the Great Depression and stuff like that his storytelling was just great and effortless. It was never like he was trying to tell me a story. He was trying to tell me about an event. But the way that he did it wasn’t boring at all. And so when I realized, this is history, this is how I like history to be told to me. Then, when I started researching history later on in life, and really studying history, I would read those rather dry history books. And then in my mind, I would turn it into a story. And I’ve always kind of turned everything into a story, at least in my head. And so I feel like I remember it better if I do that. And so I think other people do as well. My mother was a humanities teacher. And I think that that’s kind of one of the ways that I was able to combine food and history because she would teach history, but never as history.

It was always through architecture or politics. or literature or theater, food, you know, all of these different things that are very easily to relate to, because everyone likes literature and food and people think “I’ve been in this building” or “I’ve seen this piece of ar”t or whatever. But then she would wrap that in the story of, well, yes, this is an amazing piece of art, and it’s beautiful. And it was painted during the revolution in France. And so and then you would get this history lesson kind of around, the piece of art. It made it an easy pill to swallow. For a lot of students who didn’t like history or didn’t think that they liked history. And that’s, that’s one of the best compliments that I can get, which I often do receive is I hate history, but I love watching the history portion of your show, then you don’t hate history. You hate how you’ve been taught history. And you know, it is those dry books. Some of those dry books have a place, and they’re very important. But not necessarily for the majority of people.

During the time of this interview Max had recently published a companion cookbook to his show called, of course, Tasting History. Amazon and Target began a price war over the book which made the price go down and sales go up. I asked Max how he felt about this.

Yes. It’s Still going they sold out at Amazon and they just got more this morning. And so now it’s back up at at that price, (The price was 7.99 for a 30.00 dollar book) which is crazy because they’re losing money with every book so I don’t understand the business logic.

I asked Max how he felt about that.

Oh, it was shocking because when the book came out, it was unbelievably successful. We were all so surprised at how popular it was but then, as do all things, it tapered off and there have been other books that have come out since. Other history cooking books and summer is usually just a dead-dead time. And then this happened, and I posted about it and we ended up selling I think four or five times more copies that day than any other day including the release day which is just insane.

I admitted to Max that I took advantage of that insanity and bought four copies. I then asked Max, in his opinion, what are three things every cook should have in their Kitchen.

A scale with grams on it. If you’re going to do any baking, a good heavy-bottomed pot that won’t let things burn to the bottom of it at least as easily, And parchment paper, I use it for all sorts of things.

I let out a sigh of relief as I had all of those items in my kitchen. And I also agreed that there are a lot of uses for parchment paper. Max is a very healthy-looking man. I asked him, with all the stuff that he makes and at least tastes how he stays so healthy.

Well, I did get a trainer this summer who has been doing quite a bit because I had put on more weight than I had wanted.

I make the food but it doesn’t get all eaten because after I’ve made it, even if it’s something good, I have to take photos, I have to film—Yada yada yada. By the time I’m done with that, it’s been sitting out for four to six hours. So, it’s not always like something I’m going to keep. The things that get eaten are baked goods like that damn upside cake, which I ate the whole thing over the course of several days but the whole thing by myself. I just made butter the other day. So that’s you know, that’ll get You, The stuff that does me bad is actually eating out and ordering in and stuff like that. And that is part of the part of the problem with cooking all the time for the show is that I never want to cook for myself. We cook a few a few times a week we do HelloFresh so, you know I cook those, but mostly, we eat out a lot and order in a lot, and so that’s actually where I need always to watch myself.

It’s the same thing at Christmas, my mom makes this wonderful coffee cake, and for the next three days, I devour it little by little. You leave a knife like a little butter knife with the cake, and so every time you walk by it it’s like I don’t need a slice but we could take off a little, and then three days later there’s no more cake.

The Last thing Max and I discussed was cast iron cooking, How do you feel about cooking with cast iron pans?

I love it. I have multiple cast iron skillets and cast iron pots. It’s the easiest way for me to not burn things. I love it.

What about cleaning?  They’ve always seemed difficult to use.

The whole idea of not using soap is antiquated I use a gentle detergent on it and just rinse it out. it doesn’t dry it out. It doesn’t take off all the oil and everything like that. If you don’t use soap, then it tends to end up building up the flavors of what you’ve cooked. Which if you’re only using it to cook one thing is great. But if not then you get to a little bit of soap. A little bit of soap goes a long way.

All of the manufacturers of cast iron say no just so that idea does not apply. Soap used to be super caustic so it could damage the actual pan but Dawn dishwashing liquid does not do that. You know you’re not using borax on it or anything.

We were once camping, and my uncle made fish in a cast iron skillet, and it was delicious and then he cleaned it out. And the next morning he made biscuits in the cast iron skillet. Without soap those biscuits tasted horrible. We still give him a hard time for his fish biscuits. So yeah, I use soap.

you have to season the cast iron every once in a while. It does help. If you see that it is drying out or anything like that. Just put some oil on it but the most important thing is to Let it dry completely. So usually what I end up doing is I’ll just put it back on the stove and turn up the heat to high and leave it there for two minutes. That’s it bone dry, but cool it down and there is no rust.

One last question. You got inspired by The Great British Baking Show do you still watch it?

Oh, yeah, I still watch I don’t like it as much as I used to. It’s lost a little bit of its charm. For me, partly it’s the hosts not that I don’t like the new host that just It’s just different. And frankly ever since Mary Berry left and Melony and Sue it’s just it’s been different. It feels a little bit more like a reality competition show rather than a bunch of people getting together in a tent some Sunday afternoon which is what it used to feel like to me but we do still watch it and add it’s one of those shows where I can watch it on repeat while I’m cooking or baking and I just still love it

I hope this interview gives you a glimpse into the mind of Max Miller, a gifted storyteller and an imaginative cook.  A YouTube entrepreneur who has done well. His show has something for everyone. Kids can watch it and learn, and adults can get great ideas for dinners and desserts. It’s highly recommended and in this author’s opinion, one of the best shows the internet or television has to offer. I can’t help but look forward to see the future success of Max Miller.

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