Jun 12, 2020 • 21M

A Conversation with Victoria Bouloubasis

Listen now | Journalist and filmmaker Victoria Bouloubasis has carved out a space in food media that is truly all her own.

 
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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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Journalist and filmmaker Victoria Bouloubasis has carved out a space in food media that is truly all her own. From short films depicting the fullness of labor in her local community in North Carolina, such as El Buen Carcinero and La Comida de Los Cocineros, to reporting on the human impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on immigrant workers at meat-processing plants, to food writing that brings the reader’s attention to the forces that control the global movement of goods and people. In 2018, she received a James Beard Award nomination for Local Impact Journalism while working at the alt-weekly INDY Week.

In our conversation, we talk about how she came to have such an eclectic career, the failures of mainstream immigration reporting, and the connected mythologies of both the American and Global South. Listen above or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Victoria. Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me today.

Victoria: Of course, Alicia, thank you.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Victoria: Sure. This feels like it will be a long-winded answer. But I was born in New Jersey and then moved to North Carolina when I was seven. And so my family's Greek, so most of our food at home was that Greek. But, you know, the restaurant sort of shaped our lifestyle. We were in the restaurant business. And so my grandfather had a diner in New Jersey. My father came to North Carolina to run what we call the Fish Camp, but it was basically just popcorn shrimp and fried catfish and hush puppies. And so there was just a mix of, you know, home-cooked food and then like, pulling up to some booth in my dad's place or my grandpa's diner and getting like a cheeseburger deluxe or a hush puppy.

Alicia: I didn't know you you spent so much time in New Jersey; that's interesting.

Victoria: Yeah, it was. I left when I was young, but my family is either there or in Greece, so we'd go up multiple times a year; we've taken the train up, we drove a lot. You know, my whole family and so I still visit a lot. I have very close cousins there. 

Alicia: Your work is in film. It's in journalism. You've also done food writing. How did you come to have such an eclectic career, and how do these various facets of your work complement each other?

Victoria: I went to journalism school because I really wanted to tell like—at the time, I couldn't really pinpoint what “long form” was; I don't think that was even a coined term back in the early 2000s, when I went to college. But, you know, I definitely wanted to tell more humanistic stories that didn't feel like the fluffy sort of local news human interest stories. But I did root everything I did in community-type journalism. Sorry, can you hear a dog?

Alicia: That's okay. A little bit.

Victoria: There's a community journalism approach to everything I do, and I think that parlayed into film once I realized, especially with food, like—I used food to get people to pay attention to other issues that were not just what they're eating and the people behind all that, but film was a much easier access point for that. And so I started collaborating with filmmakers and getting into it myself for that reason.

Alicia: You've made two short films that I've watched online grounded in local communities in North Carolina. Are those people and places that you had a relationship with before filming? Or did they present themselves as interesting subjects? How did you find those subjects, basically?

Victoria: I think it's all of those things.

The first one I ever did was in 2014, and it's called Un Buen Carnicero, A Good Butcher, and that was commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Their original idea was “Cliff's Meat Market is an institution; this man, Cliff Collins, how cool, right, that he is catering to the Latino community. Let's explore that.” And I thought that was not the story. The story was about how is he able to, quote unquote, cater to a community—who are the workers there? I started talking to the butchers behind the counter, and we all recognize each other from me being a customer. That particular meat market is down the street from where I went to university, UNC-Chapel Hill, and so I kind of knew them. But then since then, my other small short film was about some cooks at Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, and both the butchers and a lot of those cooks are from the same part of Mexico, Celaya Guanajuato, so I did my master's thesis work there with their families and sort of doing cross-border stories. And so I got to know them even more so after making these two short films, because I then went and stayed with their sisters for weeks and hung out with their mothers and got their recipes down and did this whole exchange with the families. A lot of times it develops into more personal relationships.

Alicia: And you focus your work on both the American South where you live and grew up and the Global South, namely Mexico and Central America. What inspired you to ground your work in these places?

Victoria: I think, you know, we coin that term Global South a lot and it's obviously a physical geographical region. But, you know, these places flow into each other. The people do, commerce does. Commerce is allowed to cross borders, people are not. There are so many parallels, especially when considering the rural South here, you know, when I meet families who speak Mam, and they're from Guatemala, and I meet families clustered in this one rural area in North Carolina, but they all come from this one place in Mexico. There's so many connections because of the people and because of—you can call it academically, migration patterns. A lot of it's rooted in labor. With my work, I'm trying to make those connections of the South not being what we think it is, and as you know, as people from the United States, we tend to even use the term America and Americans to just mean the U.S., and that's not true either. I'm sort of doing the same thing with the south and sort of pushing the idea of, you know, what the South actually means, what the Global South is, what Southern is.

Alicia: And I know you mentioned in your bio that you're into the idea of dispelling the myths— and I think these are, certainly because of the things you named, because of the ways in which we conflate these places in the ways that human migration is denigrated but commercial migration is considered a natural part of our lives. These places that you cover and where you've spent so much time are places that are subject to mythmaking by this specifically like white gaze and specifically a media gaze that doesn't get a lot of nuance. I don't know if you wanted to work in more mainstream food media or if the nature of your work simply doesn't allow that because of, you know, all these issues.

Victoria: A great question, or a comment rather. I mean, I'm not sure if I wanted to work in mainstream food media. The second part is true, that anytime I've been asked to and approached by editors and have tried, I always just feel like my work has— it's not even my work. The stories that I'm trying to share have been diluted. 

You're right in saying that there's no nuance on these, like, even in migration and immigration reporting, like talking with other immigration journalists, like, we struggle with this a lot. Anytime there's a border crisis, it's labeled as such. When often a lot of those things, a lot of what's happening in that moment of crisis, is something that has been compounded over time, and these families that are being featured and stories are just sort of written about as literal foreign bodies coming in. And even when there's this tinge of empathy in the reporting, it kind of misses the point and the connection. I meet a lot of people who have just arrived who have cousins or other family members who have been here 20 years or whatever. Everyone already has a story of the North, which is what they call us. You know, they already have stories of people who have been here, and I think that gets lost too. And then when we do talk about history, a lot of the work is very intellectualized and that's important and has its place, and I do it too. But we fail to recognize the actual people and, you know, new generations of growth that are happening within demographics and social circles and families related to maybe the labor history purporting to or other things.

Alicia: And you've been reporting so much recently on the lack of protections for workers at North Carolina poultry plants during the COVID-19 pandemic. And I think you've been doing such an amazing job of presenting this kind of this empathy without paternalism that maybe is always missing from the coverage of immigration. You depicted this day in the life of a worker who also had a birthday amid the uncertainty of sickness, and you noted how local officials ignore these workers needs because they're largely undocumented. And so, has North Carolina always been home to the meat-processing industry? And in other times, non-crisis times, if that ever exists, does the lack of concern for undocumented workers—how does that manifest politically and culturally? That was a long-winded question. Sorry.

Victoria: Yeah, well, no  thank you, thank you for your commentary on my work. I appreciate that. And it's very—those things are very hard to do. Also, because I've been covering these sorts of issues for so long, I also have to make sure I don't slip into a formula as a writer and just kind of regurgitate the same type of story. And so part of that is really getting to know people and asking questions about them. It's harder nowadays during COVID. I did meet that one woman. I drove out to her home and we spoke through her window, and part of that was to make sure that she felt okay sharing, because there are a lot of risks attached to you know, being public about your story when you have precarious legal status. But, you know, I usually spend a lot more time with people and it sometimes shows up in three sentences, right?

But meat has been huge in North Carolina. We are one of the top pork producers. And there was a moment and—I'm not sure if it's still that way—but up until very recently, there was definitely this common sort of catchphrase where we would say “North Carolina has more hogs than people,” which is absolutely true. We had pigs being raised and slaughtered in our meat industry, in the state, than we had people. There was another stat about how we pumped more antibiotics into those animals than we were giving out to the human population of our state. So it's huge here; Smithfield is one of the bigger ones, but then there's also poultry. And so you know, the story you're referencing was out in eastern North Carolina. I did another story here in the more central part of the state, about a town called Siler City that has had poultry plants—it sort of revived the town, then closed during the 2008 recession, then reopened. I was interviewing workers at the current plant who had arrived here in the ’90s because they had heard that there was work in poultry. And so there's a small town that is, right now it's about 30 percent Latino, but at a moment, it was 49 percent. And it's, you know, rural North Carolina, which is another thing—like, there's no dearth of diversity here, but people just expect to hear American South and they think of just a very fine narrative. Does that answer your question?

Alicia: There is this huge population and, you know, on Long Island, where I'm from, there's been a massive influx of immigration from Central America and South America since like 1990. And that manifested in some in violence, the shifting demographic, and also in this very Trump-ist but before Trump, political, local, political, kind of I don't know—just the way that the local politicians would talk about people was insanely dehumanizing and just disgusting, and that's kind of not really changed in the last 20 years. Long Island continues to be very segregated, very racist. It manifests in policy and it manifests in something as small as a village town board, you know, where like, one third of the population might be Latino, but everyone on the board is white and that sort of thing.

People think, when they hear North Carolina and they think of this monolithic, extremely, you know, black and white, kind of population and demographic. But how does that kind of diversity that you're talking about—what does it look like in the day-to-day life of someone who lives in North Carolina?

Victoria: You know, I think it depends on where and in the more rural areas, it's still low-wage workers who aren't Latino and other immigrant populations. A lot of these poultry plants, for example, hire refugees from different countries in the Middle East and Africa, from South Southeast Asia too. So I think it just all depends on where, but from what I'm seeing, you know, the two poultry plants I did just in the last month in eastern North Carolina, there's really no political power. There aren't any Latino representatives in our state, period. There's no Latino senators in our state. Which is interesting because we are the fastest-growing Latino population in the country. And so, you know, you think of a place with, like, a rooted Latino population like Texas, for example, or even Florida where there are, you know, politicians representing their own communities. And here that hasn't happened yet. There are a couple of people now. 

What's been interesting to me is seeing that, a lot of times when I interview workers, I interview their kids and their kids are finishing college or just finished college, but very few stay. Even if they do go to a state school, they end up leaving and finding jobs in other states. And so that's been interesting to me, and I haven't really explored that much. But there aren't even a lot of native Spanish-speaking journalists here. But there are amazing initiatives on college campuses with like undocumented students and allies, you know, working to push for in state tuition for documents, students, like there's a lot on that level. But as far as actual power players to affect policy, there's no one making those decisions representing this community at all.

Alicia: For you, personally, is cooking a political act?

Victoria: I think it is, and I think you know, curing this pandemic, I often said to myself how glad I was that I knew how to nourish myself.

It was always around in my home and I think I'm realizing more and more. But it is, you know, I always had an interesting—to me, it felt very traditional, and it was always something I wrestled with. My family, I would not say is conservative at all, but my culture can be, and it can be very much—their traditional expectations of a woman, especially, and so me knowing how to cook made my grandmother and other aunties really proud, but in a way that showed that I was marriage material, right? And here I am 37 and unmarried and that's fine by me.

But you know, I had to like sort of wrestle with that. My friends growing up who didn't cook or didn't know how to do that were always these more like intellectual folk. And I'm sitting here realizing okay, maybe I didn't know how to navigate a college application or I didn't know how to do some things that they did. But here I am not starving and growing my little garden in the back while we're having this pandemic and stretching food, the way I learned just by sitting in my mother's kitchen doing homework. I do think that there's something political in that.

When you asked me that question, it made me realize that people should frame it that way more. I think a lot of labor isn't—labor in the kitchen isn't honored in that way. It's seen as, especially when it is an immigrant woman, for example, it's seen as like, Oh, you must have learned that from your grandma. Oh, you must have like, I don't know—it just kind of falls into a trope, but it's not seen as political, but you think of people now, like women I know who are texting me saying, “Hey, I'm making mole this Saturday, $12 a plate.” Great. There are folks surviving right now because of cooking in more ways than just nourishing themselves and their family, but actually making an income because there's no other way for them to do so. And that's political.

Alicia: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much, Victoria.

Victoria: Thank you Alicia. Thanks.