Jim Spencer

by Robin Chotzinoff • Photography by Kate LeSueur

“I never cook,” says KXAN weather forecaster Jim Spencer. “It’s embarrassing. I like to blame it on the fact that I’m so busy, or that I don’t like the cleanup part, or that I’m on a diet. Actually, I am on a diet. I work out with a trainer and he has me on this warrior diet—it dates back to the hunters and gatherers. It sounds completely crazy, but you don’t eat before 6:30 p.m., maybe three days a week.”

Okay, but what stops him from cooking himself a late dinner? “Busy,” he says sheepishly. “Really, really busy. Over the Memorial Day weekend, I was overwhelmed with emails—it topped a thousand. People sending crazy cloud photographs; people thanking us for our coverage; people commenting that they’d never seen a stretch of weather like that.”

Neither had Spencer. May 2015 saw the worst tornado outbreak since 1981 and record-breaking catastrophic flooding in the Hill Country as well as the “all-time historic Shoal Creek flood.” But even without epic weather, Spencer gets more than his share of calls and emails. He’s been on the air at KXAN for 25 years, and at this point, a lot of Austinites think of him as their own personal emissary to the climate gods. “I get letters asking me to forecast the weather for someone’s daughter’s wedding—in October,” he says with a laugh. “I try to get back to them and tell them what normal is for that time of year. People ask me what to do about mosquitoes. I hear from farmers wondering about rain.”

And why not? Spencer’s fans seem to share his fascination with weather. He credits a childhood in Oklahoma’s “Tornado Alley” as setting his stage. “When that tornado siren went off, we had to get down in the creepy cellar with the spiders and the storm would rage over…it was scary,” he says. “By third grade, though, I was dying to see this tornado we had to run from.” At age 11—already a seasoned viewer of local TV news—he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a weather forecaster in Oklahoma City, the Hollywood of meteorology. It took him a while to accept Austin as a hometown. “But now I love it,” he says. “The weather is just severe enough.”

Still, this past spring’s weather was over-the-top traumatic, tragic and exhausting for many. Which brings us to the one dish Spencer actually does know how to prepare. “I learned it from my mother,” he says. “She made it any time we were ill, because it’s a kind of comfort food. It’s also inexpensive, and I guess I’m kind of a cheapskate, so I make it in big quantities, just like my mom did.”

Following a method his mother pioneered 30-some-odd years ago in the small town of Lindsay, Oklahoma, Spencer opens three large cans of Campbell’s Family Size Tomato Soup. Elbow macaroni gets thrown into boiling water. “And here’s the secret,” he says. “Instead of adding a can of water for each can of soup, you fill that can up with milk. Making it into CREAM of tomato soup.”

spencer2After stirring the salmon-pink concoction around for a few minutes, he adds the cooked elbow macaroni. “How much depends on how you’re feeling about your carbs,” Spencer suggests. “Do you want a piece of pasta in every bite? How filling do you want it to be?” He fixes himself a bowl, salts and peppers it fastidiously and adds saltines—not in just any old way. There’s an art to it. “I like to float them whole on the surface and then tap them with a spoon till they go under.”

Spencer has eaten this soup in bed on a tray with foldable legs, but also on his sofa on an autumn afternoon while watching football with friends, because you don’t have to need comforting to appreciate comfort food. “I make enough to last for DAYS,” he says. “I will feed it to myself, I will feed it to my friends and they will eat it right up.”