Behind the byline: Gretchen McKay

Last March, we launched the Behind the Byline series with the aim of uncovering the stories of Pittsburgh journalists. Our next post introduces a woman from Pittsburgh who didn’t let life stop her from making her dreams come true – even if those dreams may have shifted over the course of her journey.

Meet Gretchen McKay – wife, mother of five, runner, cyclist, and newly appointed food editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Gretchen may have everyone’s dream job, but it certainly wasn’t what she envisioned when she graduated from Penn State during the early 1980s recession. Although she wanted to become a business journalist at the time, she thought it would be more sustainable to become a paralegal. It didn’t take long when her husband got a job in Hong Kong just six weeks after giving birth to their first child. It was there that Gretchen learned how much she loved to write feature articles. After returning to Pittsburgh in the 1990s, she responded to a job ad with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette … and the rest is history.

During our conversation, Gretchen humbly shared her accomplishments, which included finishing five triathlons, one marathon, and dozens of 10k and 10m races over the past decade. Even more admirable, throughout her career, Gretchen raised five children as she moved from town to town.

Read on to find out more about Gretchen’s path to becoming a food editor, her take on the Pittsburgh food scene, and her current obsession with food.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Pittsburg. After college, I got married and we moved to Miami, Hong Kong, DC, and New York. Like so many others, I returned 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 children.

Where did you go to school?

I studied English at Penn State University. I wanted to become a business journalist, but because of the recession at the time, I decided to go to law school and worked as a paralegal for a few years. After returning to DC from Hong Kong, I went to George Mason University for a Masters in Professional Writing.

What made you decide to become a writer?

I loved writing even as a small child. I thought I wanted to be a business writer. In fact, I never thought of writing for a newspaper – I didn’t take any journalism or creative classes. But when I started writing for a magazine, I realized how much it fits my personality. I’m someone who likes to go out and do things – I grew up in a big family with lots of speakers. Now as a reporter I have the chance to meet new people and learn something new every day. You won’t find me sitting behind a desk. I am always on the go.

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 of becoming a personal shopper or a writer for Off Duty, a travel magazine for service staff. I didn’t know if I wanted to get into the magazine business, so I said no at first. After thinking about it, I called the editor back – Jim Shaw – and asked him to give me the job. Fortunately, he did what led to me being the Pacific editor for a few years. Before we returned to Pittsburgh, we moved to New York, where I wrote for First for Women Magazine.

You have been with the Post-Gazette for 23 years. Tell us about your career there.

I had a fun career with the Post-Gazette! When I moved to Pittsburgh, I answered an ad in the newspaper and began reporting on council and board meetings as a community reporter. I was also an education reporter, home and garden reporter, and real estate reporter. Eventually that turned into functions. I started writing about food 16-17 years ago. I really liked it and made as many good stories as I could. Over time it became my beat. Over the years I’ve worked for Suzanne Martinson, Amy McConnell, Bob Batz, and most recently Arthi Subramaniam. I am looking forward to rising up and taking over as the new food editor.

Would you say this is your dream job?

Writing about food is my dream job. I always meet interesting people and I always eat, drink and cook. Now, after a pandemic, I am excited to lead reporting for the Post-Gazette. People are back to socialize and entertain 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.

How will the editorial focus change as a new food editor?

I want us to be more active in the community. Dan Gigler will play a key role in restaurant coverage, and Bob Batz, who writes on beer and spirits, comes back regularly. We will also be launching 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 to make cooking enjoyable and interesting for those who consider it more of a task. I cook every day, but I don’t know a lot of people so I wanted to make cooking interesting and fun for our readers. I think a lot of people discovered cooking during the pandemic.

Now that the pandemic is over, people want to get out and restaurants are preparing for it. We look forward to moving forward and see what happens now that people are vaccinated and interested in eating out again.

What do you think of the Pittsburgh food scene compared to other cities?

There wasn’t a restaurant scene when I grew up here, but it’s so different from when we moved in the 90s. Today it stands up to other cities. Pittsburgh is such a melting pot – we have so many types of restaurants here. We have every kitchen, every price range, a great bar scene and award-winning chefs. It may be smaller in number than a DC or New York City, but it was 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 is everything you 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 watch it grow on my terrace – it’s 6 inches tall! I rooted it in a glass of water when my daughters were in high school. My goal is to have a pina colada party at the end of summer when it reaches its full size. It has caught my eye so many times over the years that it better grows to full size. This is all new territory! The marmots will eat everything else, but I think my tiny little pineapple might be safe.

What’s one of your most memorable stories?

I can think of two. In 2014 I interviewed Carol Pascuzzi or Dearheart of Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. I worked for months to get this interview and when I did I had the opportunity to visit them at home. It turned out to be such a great profile.

I also worked with Post Gazette photographer Steve Mellon on a series called This is Pittsburgh Food, which explored the roots of iconic Pittsburgh food. The first story I made was about the Panella family, an Italian family in Butler County, who held a huge party every January to serve their homemade sopressata, a pork sausage. It 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 thought it was great that it was such a feel-good story with a great party at the end.

This story inspired me to take a course at the American-Italian Club of Aliquippa to learn how to make ham. Now there is a ham covered with mold in my basement. I hope that after curing it will be edible in November.

I like stories that talk about tradition and culture. Stories that focus on funny people, who teach you something new and of course end with some really good food.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

I am a runner and a cyclist. When my oldest son was in college, I saw an ad for the Philadelphia Triathlon and thought, “I can do this,” so I trained for it and did it twice. In my fifth triathlon, I freaked out while swimming in Lake Erie and decided that this would be my last triathlon. From then on I focused more on running. In 2014, I worked my way up to the marathon and completed dozens of 10k and 10m races over the years.

It’s funny because people always think food writers are not healthy, but I try to stay active as I eat and cook all the time.

Would you like to keep up to date with what Gretchen is eating and drinking? Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

– Robin Rectenwald, WordWrite

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