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Cooking During COVID-19: Family Meals And Fantasies Of Future Dinner Parties

As billions of people around the world face stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19, family dinners — and breakfasts and lunches — are resurgent. Former New York Times food editor Sam Sifton calls the shift to family meals one of the "precious few good things" happening as a result of the pandemic.

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Other segments from the episode on April 7, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 7, 2020: Interview with Sam Sifton; Review of the album Cosmicomics.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Like most of us, I'm homebound these days, which means - among other things - that pretty much all of my meals are home-cooked. There are nice things about that, but it can be a challenge keeping things interesting and making tasty dishes out of what's on hand, since we're not supposed to be trundling down to the market every day.

I can't think of anyone better to turn to for help than our guest today, Sam Sifton, for many years, the food editor of The New York Times. He was recently promoted to be the paper's assistant managing editor, overseeing its cultural and lifestyles coverage, but he's continued to write regularly about food and its role in helping us cope with the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic. He recently published his third book, a cookbook with recipes for serving large groups, inspired by the idea that regularly gathering and feeding our friends and family is psychologically and spiritually nourishing. It's called "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends." Like Terry, I am working from a makeshift home studio these days, and I connected with Sam Sifton via Skype at his home in Greenport, N.Y.

Well, Sam Sifton, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SAM SIFTON: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Great to have you. I wanted to begin with a reading from this new cookbook of yours, which is about kind of the treasure of a lot of people - eating together. This was on Page 4. You want to just share this with us?

SIFTON: Sure.

(Reading) People are lonely. They want to be part of something, even when they can't identify that longing as a need. They show up; feed them. It isn't much more complicated than that. The point of Sunday dinner is just to have it. Even if you don't particularly like entertaining, there's great pleasure to be had in cooking for others and great pleasure to be taken from the experience of gathering to eat with others. Sunday dinner isn't a dinner party. It is not entertainment. It is just a fact, like a standing meeting or a regular touch football game in the park. It makes life a little better almost every time.

DAVIES: Yeah. And that's from Sam Sifton new book "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends." You know, this is...

SIFTON: Now - I interrupt right away to say...

DAVIES: OK.

SIFTON: ...I cannot allow that behavior to be happening right now.

DAVIES: Oh, well, let me tell you - that's exactly where we're going (laughter). You know, this is a lovely idea, this idea that there's just great things about gathering people together. And there hasn't been a worse time in decades, probably, for a book about bringing large groups together for dinner. This is explicitly prohibited. How are you faring without that option? (Laughter).

SIFTON: Well, I've got the family part down. I guess if it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all. My first book was about the dot-com economy, and it came out just as that economy exploded. Now a cookbook calling for people to gather in large groups - oh well.

But listen - I'm having the experience of those dinners with my family, albeit not with my friends, and I'm having it every night, every lunchtime, every breakfast. There are precious few good things that are happening as a result of this coronavirus pandemic, but one of them - small as it may be - is that a lot of us are really experiencing the joys of eating together with family regularly. And even for those of us who believe that we do that already, I think this experience of the last month or so has put the lie to that. This is what it's like to eat with your family. And for me, it's been kind of joyful amid all the sorrow.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, everybody's in a different situation. I mean, my kids are grown, and I can't see them (laughter). One is in Philly here, but we don't get together. The others is - my daughter's in Baltimore. How many folks are home with you?

SIFTON: We're the nuclear family of four - my two kids and my wife and I, the dog and the cat. And we stare at each other balefully during the nonmeal hours, but the rest of the time we're gathered around the table and trying to make the best of it.

DAVIES: Right.

SIFTON: It is hard not seeing friends and other family. My wife's parents - stuck in Florida - they generally would be with us for the summer months, the hot months in Florida. But they can't travel. And so what are we going to do? Do we gather for Zoom meals or Skype cocktail parties? I'm not sure where this is all going to go.

DAVIES: (Laughter) You're obviously an accomplished cook. A lot of us are. But this is a time when we could maybe be a little more adventurous.

SIFTON: I think that's right, that this may be a time to be more adventurous. It's also, conversely, a time to be simple. At The New York Times and at NYT Cooking, our recipe site and app, we're seeing that play out in real time in what people are searching for and what people are asking us about.

You see people, on the one hand, trying to perfect their sourdough bread-making skills and, on the other, asking for what the simplest, easiest way to get a can of beans on the table to feed the family is. And I think that's kind of neat, actually, that we can hold these two things in our minds at once, these projects that we'll try and execute over the course of hours and days. And then also, you know, how am I going to do this fast and quick and cheap and with what's available? And I hope we can deliver answers to both.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you're writing, I think, daily now, even though you've ascended to the management ranks and are assistant managing editor of the paper. In a recent column, you talked about cooking dinner with just what you have on hand. You said, I was cooking off the top of my head, as so many of us are these days; I just stared into the pantry for a while and waited for the muse to arrive with her gift.

And the dinner you came up with was roasted black sea bass, the filets painted with a mixture of mayonnaise and sesame oil, oyster sauce, a dash of lime juice, another of honey. The fish was served over rice with a stir fry of cabbage and pickled chilis. And that just sounds delicious. I kind of think if I was staring at my pantry and waiting for the muse, it might finally say something like spaghetti?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: How do you deal with the fact it might be just a little intimidating to see some of these recipes?

SIFTON: I think it depends what's in the pantry. I mean, I stared at it last night, and it said spaghetti. So that's - you know, that's what happened that time. That dish that I described benefited from me having those pickled chilis, from having some other condiments in the fridge and from a friend very carefully, with great social distance, dropping off some fresh fish on the porch. But it wasn't really all that complicated to make. That's - the cabbage - and boy, have we been eating a lot of cabbage - was really simple. It's just cabbage and a condiment. We've done cabbage - raw cabbage - with lime and used that as a kind of slaw with a couple of different meals over the course of the last month or so.

I think that muse is kind of overrated. It'll - she'll come every time when you stare in there. She really will. I'm not, like a lot of my colleagues, a true chef. I'm a pretty good cook, and I can follow any recipe you throw at me. I could work for a chef. But I can't kind of close my eyes and conjure up amazing combinations and flavors - someone like Melissa Clark can do for The New York Times. Instead, I rely on these jarred magical potions, which range from peanut butter to pickled chilis to soy sauce to maple syrup, to deliver notes of flavor on top of whatever plain-Jane things happen to be in the bottom of the refrigerator crisper to get by. And sometimes - you know, as I think I said in that same column, sometimes it doesn't work.

DAVIES: Right.

SIFTON: You know?

DAVIES: Right. You can't be afraid to try and to substitute ingredients if you don't have everything on the list, right?

SIFTON: That's absolutely correct. I think that many people - me included - write recipes because if you follow them, you will get the result that I got and that I want you to get. But if you substitute along the way, you may end up with something that you like and that's even better. Now, I - we joke about this a lot at The Times, but - you know, about people who say, well, I tried the chicken, but I didn't have chicken, so I used sardines, and this is a terrible recipe.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

SIFTON: Your mileage may vary. But using the spices that you have or the flavors that you have to hand is more than perfectly all right; it's welcome. It's what we ought to do. It's in the nature of cooking often and being confident about what it is you're doing.

DAVIES: Right. You know, early in the period of social isolation, you had a column in which you wrote about canned fish, with the tuna or sardines you have. What's a good idea there?

SIFTON: Well, I - I'm loving the tinned fish right now. There's so many different things that you can do with those critters. If there are anchovies, there - I would use them like a condiment. They add this kind of salty umami pop to everything they touch. Sardines - frankly, I like sardines on crackers. I like sardines on crackers with a little mayonnaise and a little hot sauce. So that's me. That's what I like with the sardines.

With tuna, you know, there's so much you can do, particularly if the tuna is of good quality, you know. Then it can kind of stand on its own. If it's not, if it's just supermarket canned tuna, it's still pretty great. You mix it into a tuna salad with - again, with a little mayo, maybe with some curry powder if you have some going. A curried tuna salad is really terrific. And in the column that you're talking about, I was using tuna in a kind of Japanese-style dressing to put over noodles, a kind of tuna wiggle but much more elegant and very light and delicious.

I find those canned fishes of all variety to be hugely helpful in the manner of bringing variety to your diet and also a lot of good taste. There's - I bet you if you look deep enough, there may be a can of clams, minced clams, in the back. Add that to a tomato sauce, and spaghetti dinner is all the better this time for that addition.

DAVIES: Sam Sifton is a veteran food writer and currently assistant managing editor of The New York Times. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "SWING VALSE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And as we cook at home in an era of social isolation, we're getting some advice from Sam Sifton. He's a veteran food writer and currently assistant managing editor of The New York Times. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends."

You know, as I read your columns and the book, I mean, it's hard not to get a little excited about going out and trying some of this stuff. And it involves ingredients that I may not have at a time when we're supposed to be getting out as little as possible. How often do you get out to shop, and do you give people advice on this?

SIFTON: Yeah. I think that we should be getting out to shop as little as possible. I think social distancing means maintaining social distance, which means that we shouldn't all be crowding into the store every night as if we were living in an imaginary Paris to pick up our daily baguette and, you know, a couple of duck legs for dinner. Life isn't like that right now. I try to go as infrequently as possible to the market to stock up, and when I do, I try not to shop like a panicky person. But I do want meals that stretch. If I can find a pork shoulder that can become four meals over the course of a week, well, that's great. If I can lay in starches and grains to put next to those various pork dishes, I'm happy.

I mentioned earlier in the interview that we're cooking with a lot of cabbage right now. I think that's because I like cabbage for its ability to be many things, including - once you get rid of those outer leaves that may or may not be infected with the coronavirus, you've got all that tender, fresh, clean, perfect cabbage flesh inside that makes a beautiful, crunchy, raw deliciousness thing on your plate at a time when, you know, sometimes fresh vegetables are few and far between. And we're cooking more with canned tomatoes and beans, beans and - yep - more beans. So I like a little crunch if I can.

And then, of course, trying to make a lot of stuff. This is - I - we talked earlier about the duality of simple meals and project recipes. And trying to get a good bread game going or making an evening cake or a batch of cookies is a great, great pleasure. And I enjoy the moments when I can shop for that.

DAVIES: We should know that you're now at a home that you have on Long Island. You normally live in Brooklyn. There's a lot of news these days about the toll that the COVID-19 epidemic - pandemic is taking on New York. What are you hearing from friends there?

SIFTON: It's really difficult in New York City. It's not easy here in Greenport, where we are. There is a nearby retirement community which has seen - which has just seen a horrible run of deaths. But I talk every day to people who are in New York City who have cases in their buildings, deaths in their buildings, deaths down the block.

One of my colleagues in Queens turned a corner to head to his regular supermarket for his dash - safety dash to the supermarket. And they were, you know, setting up the tents outside of the hospital on that street, and he backed away slowly and took another route. There are kind of terrifying images all across the city that come to us across the screens. And it just looks - Central Park looks transformed into a horrorscape (ph) by those tents outside Mount Sinai. And I think it's scary to - I know it's scary to people because it's scary to me.

DAVIES: Talk a little bit about your career here. You went to Harvard, spent most of your career in the newspaper, journalism. How did you get interested in food?

SIFTON: Food has been part of my portfolio as a journalist since the very beginning. I've always felt that the subject of food is one that can be broached with anyone at any time. It's an instant icebreaker and a really valuable window into who people are. Even people who say that they're not interested in food are interested in food and have things to say about it. I hear that all the time. I'm not interested in food. Really? What'd you have for breakfast? And then they tell you, and they have strong opinions about it. And this allows a conversation to ensue. And that's as workable a gambit with a United States senator as it is with a guy who works at the gas station. Everybody's got something to say on the food front, and I'm eager to hear it.

So I've been - I wrote about food for a free alternative weekly in New York for years, the New York Press. I was able to move to the Times eventually, and I worked first on the food desk before moving to arts and culture. I returned to food after working as the culture editor to be the restaurant critic of The New York Times, which is an incredible, incredible privilege. What a fascinating way to make a living, to eat in restaurants and write about them as if they are what they are, which is cultural products that reflect the city that we live in.

DAVIES: Right. You succeeded Frank Bruni as the restaurant critic - right? - 2009. Yeah.

SIFTON: I did. I followed Frank Bruni's big footsteps and held the chair for a number of years before passing it along to Pete Wells, who sits in it now. And at that point, I went to the national desk to be the national news editor, overseeing the 13 American news bureaus that are not in the New York metropolitan region or in Washington, D.C. That job was just fantastic. Every job I've had at the Times has been the best job I've ever had. And I left it to launch NYT Cooking, to start this new database of old recipes that I had a hunch would capture the attention of subscribers. And that hunch, which I shared with a lot of people and who had it with me, paid off.

DAVIES: Sam Sifton is a veteran food writer and currently assistant managing editor of The New York Times. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends." We'll continue our conversation after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO'S "FRIENDS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're talking about cooking at home at a time of enforced isolation with Sam Sifton, for many years the food editor of The New York Times. He's now the paper's assistant managing editor, overseeing its cultural and lifestyles coverage. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends."

You know, we're in a time now when restaurants are just being hammered by - you know, they've lost all their traffic in the pandemic. And are you worried that many won't survive? Are you talking to restaurateurs about this?

SIFTON: Yes. Our reporters are laser-focused right now on this issue. And they came back to the paper with a report, I guess, a week or so ago that suggested that it would not be insane to think that 70% of independent restaurants in the United States could be closed by the coronavirus pandemic. And that's a staggering number.

The size of the restaurant industry in the United States - and this is, you know - the restaurant industry outside of the fast food industry is gigantic. And it has ripple effects across the country with small farms, with larger farms, with fishermen, with wine salesmen, with all manner of related businesses that are going to suffer. We had a story that spoke earlier this week with a woman whose business is providing flowers for restaurants. That's gone. You think of the laundry services - gone. It's really scary.

DAVIES: Right. You have to believe that a lot of the demand will return. And restaurants will come back, but they might not be the same people.

SIFTON: That's true. And they - I mean, we just don't know what's going to - if a restaurant can't make payroll, it can't make rent, you know, how long can they stay socially isolated and return in the same form? Everything is going to be different on the other side of this - everything.

DAVIES: So let's talk about this cookbook. I mean, it is a lot of recipes in large portions because it's about feeding a lot of people. But it's not just about the food. It's about the value of doing this. And you say Sunday supper, which doesn't have to happen on Sunday, is not a dinner party. What's the difference?

SIFTON: Well, we're not gathering for the purpose of celebration. We're gathering for the purpose of sustenance, for the purpose of an almost literal communion. And I think that if we do that, if you do that regularly enough, you'll see a change in your relationship to both the cooking and the people and, perhaps, see a change in yourself and how you regard the world. Now, obviously, I wrote a book saying, invite as many people as you can. Always welcome the stranger. I believe that passionately, but that's not something that we can do right now.

DAVIES: Right.

SIFTON: But I warrant that my argument holds true for those of us who are stuck at home right now, that it's not always easy to put that meal on the table at night these days because it happens every single night. But there's something about the repetition. There's something about the practice of doing it that I think is going to bring a measure of something good to those who can see it for what it is, which is an act of giving to others, that you are - that the making of the food is important because you are serving others even if the person you are serving is super-annoying right now because you've been living with them for four weeks.

DAVIES: Right. And when you say it's not a dinner party, this is not entertaining, right? You don't expect people to bring flowers or necessarily sparkling conversation. I mean, it's an every-week thing, right?

SIFTON: That's correct. And what - I mean, look; if you want to bring flowers, bring flowers. But then you should bring flowers every time because this is a regular thing. Maybe that's your thing to bring flowers. But the idea of this is that it's not special. It's not - it's - or it's not intended to signal its specialness. It's special only in aggregation, only over the course of weeks or months.

I kind of came to the idea of this book by cooking a regular actual Sunday supper in a kind of drafty parish hall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at the church of my friend John Merz, the Church of the Ascension. And in doing that, in providing food for congregants - strangers, children, whoever happened to be there - every Sunday for the course of a couple of years, I kind of picked up an expansiveness in the moods of those who attended regularly and in the moods of those who were working in the kitchen to make the meals that suggested to me that this might be something that would translate into the lives of, you know, nonbelieving believers, unbelieving believers, believing nonbelievers, people at home who, as I said at the top of the show, are lonely. And we're all lonely. And it's through these meals that we find connection.

DAVIES: Another interesting thing about your background - your mom was a kind of well-regarded book publisher and an intellectual force who died last November, I think, right?

SIFTON: December.

DAVIES: December. And in the obituary, it explored the fact that it was her father, your grandfather, who's credited with popularizing the Serenity Prayer, which people know from 12-step programs - you know, God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Was that something that you grew up with, knowing this? Was it a part of your life?

SIFTON: Absolutely it was a part of my life. My grandfather, Reinhold Niebuhr, was a kind of towering figure in our - my young life and my brothers' young lives. He died when we were quite young. But the ideas lived on not just through the serenity prayer but through his books and sermons and teaching. I think often of - one of his books was "Moral Man, Immoral Society." And I think of the teachings of that book quite often, about the dangers that society can kind of deliver on to moral men and women. And it's a reminder to me that the individual, the person who is at your table, for instance, is a moral being and is someone to listen to and care for and perhaps forgive. So, yeah, it was around a lot. It was around a lot.

DAVIES: Sam Sifton is a veteran food writer and currently assisting managing editor of The New York Times. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends." We'll talk some more after this very short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY SONG, "TWELVE'S IT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and as we cook at home in this era of social isolation, we're getting some tips from Sam Sifton. He's a veteran food writer and currently assistant managing editor of The New York Times. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends." Let's talk a little bit more about cooking for a lot of people. There are a lot of recipes in the book. One chapter is called "Pots" - P-O-T-S. What's the idea here?

SIFTON: The idea of cooking in big pots is to make it easy to stretch a meal. And maybe this is helpful in the time of the pandemic as it is when you're feeding large groups of people. But if you have a stew, say, or a chili or a bog, which is a coastal Carolinian dish that I write about in the book that's really quite delicious, if you have a gumbo, it's nice at the end to be able to stretch it a little by adding a little bit of stock, a splash of cream, to give maybe a half cup to yourself and a full cup to someone else to get, you know, 12 instead of 10 servings out of it. It's very flexible, big-pot cooking, and therefore, I find it really helpful for a crowd.

DAVIES: Do you serve alcohol with a Sunday supper if it's on a Sunday or a Tuesday night?

SIFTON: I'm not an abstemious person, so, sure, we can - there'll be some wine but not perhaps as much wine as there would be on a Saturday night. And certainly it's not an occasion for a round of cocktails and then champagne and after-dinner drinks. This is not what we're here to do. What we're here to do is have a supper with those we can gather around us, have a good conversation and then head off into the night.

DAVIES: You wrote a book about Thanksgiving, which is, you know, the family meal of the year, in a way. And one of your principles is there should be no appetizers. I like this idea, but why?

SIFTON: Well, we've been talking about simply cooked meals during the time of the pandemic. We've talked about larger meals that we serve to family and friends that are not dinner parties or celebrations. And now we close by talking about the biggest meal celebration of the American year, Thanksgiving. Every year when Thanksgiving comes, I wake up early to begin the preparation. I'm on the job by 7 a.m. And I work and work and work to deliver the best meal I can to be on the table by 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the afternoon. That's a full day of cooking. Now - and I'm proud to do it, and I'm exceptionally proud of the results of the work. So if you were to arrive at my home at 3 o'clock and I put out appetizers in advance of my meal and you hoover down a half pound of salted cashews and half of the olives and a bunch of cheese and then declared yourself a little too full to have seconds of the fruits of my labor, I'd be bummed out.

I think the thing that is super great about Thanksgiving is that we pile our plates high with food, with double and triple starches, with vegetables of every hue, with a big hunk of turkey that we douse in salty, silken gravy. And then we put some cranberry sauce on top and we sit down, and we give thanks to one another, and we eat and eat and eat until we want to go sleep on the couch. And I think appetizers get in the way of that. So I say no appetizers.

DAVIES: When we get through this period of social isolation, whenever that is, I'm wondering, what would be your first meal out? And what would you cook when you had a big family and friends gathering again?

SIFTON: Well, I'm really looking forward to going to a restaurant again. I don't know which restaurant. I don't know what restaurants will be open.

DAVIES: Right.

SIFTON: But the idea of being welcomed into one of the establishments where I can count myself a regular - you know, the Chinese restaurant near the newsroom in the middle of Times Square, the neighborhood restaurant downtown where I know the owner by his first name, the pizzeria that I love more than any other pizzeria - to be able to go into one of those establishments and sit down and be greeted by a friendly server and eat food prepared by others with as much professionalism and love is - I provide amateurism and love to my own cooking. That'll be a joy, and I'm really looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to having friends over, to recapturing the spirit of this book, "See You On Sunday," and having a big, crowded dining room full of more than just my family but all our friends and neighbors as well.

And I'd like to celebrate with some of the foods that it's been hard for me to get during a pandemic. I particularly miss clams for some reason. We're not - I'm not getting any fresh clams from our beautiful, clear Long Island waters. And I would love to just do an immense pot of steamed hard clams for a crowd. Everyone crowded together around it when it's done, you know, our shoulders touching and people reaching over one another to get at the drawn butter and tearing off pieces of bread to dip into the broth. Everyone really too close to one another - that's going to be joyous when that happens.

DAVIES: Sam Sifton, it has been fun. Thanks for all of your advice. Stay safe. And thanks for speaking with us.

SIFTON: It's been a great pleasure, and I hope you stay safe as well and that we can all gather safely on the other side of this pandemic.

DAVIES: Sam Sifton is a veteran food writer and currently assistant managing editor of The New York Times. His latest book is "See You On Sunday: A Cookbook For Family And Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY OWENS' "STUFFY TURKEY")

DAVIES: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews "Cosmicomics," the new album by the Lisa Mezzacappa Sextet. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY BURTON'S "MOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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