From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Alejandra Ramos

A Conversation with Alejandra Ramos

Listen now | We talked about her upbringing in New Jersey, leaving college for a year to go to culinary school, and how being visibly successful doesn’t always translate into actual money.

Alejandra Ramos inspires me on a daily basis. From dressing up even during a pandemic to making herself elaborate dishes to reading a seemingly endless array of books, she’s committed to living well, all the time. Her work life has taken her from the international magazine division at Hearst to her own food blog to now working as an on-camera food expert, often on the Today show.

Everything about her life seems super-duper dreamy, so I wanted to understand what’s going on the behind the scenes—and of course, it’s far more complicated and deep than what you see on social media. We talked about her upbringing in New Jersey, leaving college for a year to go to culinary school, and how being visibly successful doesn’t always translate into actual money. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Alejandra. Thanks so much for joining me.

Alejandra: Thank you for having me. Excited to chat.

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

Alejandra: Yes.

Ok, so I grew up in New Jersey, in Bergen County, in a town called Hasbrouck Heights. It's about 15 to 20 minutes outside the city. I was born in New York City. I lived in Forest Hills until I was about four. And then my family moved to New Jersey, ‘cause my dad worked in Jersey, and he was doing a weird reverse commute. So, we moved to Jersey.

But, New York was very much always a part of — New York, meaning the city — was very much a seamless part of our life. So, even though we were in Jersey and kind of 15, 20 minutes away, we'd pop in and back and forth all the time, ‘cause we had family and relatives. We’d go to restaurants. We’d go to events.

And I say that because a lot of the people that I grew up with, like my neighbors even, would never go to New York, right? Like New York City was this like, ‘It's the city, and you’d go on your anniversary, and you go to the Broadway show, or the ballet at Lincoln Center, once or twice a year maybe.’ But for us, it was just an extension of where we lived. You’d go to restaurants.

Both my parents lived in the city when they came. They both were born in Puerto Rico, and came to Puerto Rico separately. They didn't know each other. They met here in their 20s. So, they had lived in Puerto Rico in their late 20 — I mean, in New York City in their late 20s and early 30s.

Especially for my dad, who lived in Greenwich Village, it was very much like, ‘Let's go to the village and walk around.’ And he showed us where he live. And he was all about Mamoun's Falafel shop, ‘cause he's like, ‘This is where I used to eat.’ And we would go there.

His apartment was on Sullivan Street. And up until I was about 14 years old, we would go by it and his name was still in the doorbell list. I'm sure the rent, he paid, I don't know, like $200 rent. I looked it up once and it was like $5000 or something for this — Yeah. I was like, ‘Of course.’ He lived the life.

We loved to come in for the festivals, and then to San Gennaro. And we'd go to little Italian restaurants in Little Italy, and we'd — my dad was a big Carmine’s fan. He loved the big family style, ordering from the wall, a giant platter of chicken parm or whatever. So, we did a lot of those. The New York food was pretty much also part of what we grew up eating.

But in terms of what we ate at home, it was — I want to say everything because it was very varied. So, there's a lot of influences in terms of our food. So obviously, Puerto Rican family, there was Puerto Rican food. But my mom cooked sort of the staples. So, we'd have picadillo, which is a ground beef thing.

And it's nice talking to you, ’cause I'm like, ‘I know you know what I'm talking about.’ [Laughs.]

Usually when I talk about things, I have to translate everything. I'm like, ‘Tostones: smashed fried plantain.’

Alicia: Oh, gosh. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: Yeah. [Laughs.]

So, it's nice to be able to just say the things, and whatever. You can Google it if you don't know. [Laughs.]

So, we ate picadillo. There was always rice, there was always a pot of beans, kind of those staples. There was always a lot of either sweet plantains, or tostones. Avocados, there was always like a ripe avocado. And my dad, for everything, would be like, ‘aguacate.’ My mom would be like, ‘Yeah, but it's not ready yet. It needs another day.’

So, those are kind of things. But then also, my mom's super health conscious and has always been. And so there was a lot of that kind of ‘80s and ‘90s style health food. So, sometimes even the Puerto Rican food was sort of healthified in that ‘80s and ‘90s style. So, lots of steamed vegetables and brown rice, which I still hate to this day. Alfalfa sprouts showed up a lot. We only had whole wheat bread in my house.

I was in Girl Scouts. And any kind of school activities and stuff, my mom would be like, ‘Don't eat what they serve you.’ And she would send me with my own little weird snacks that were healthy. But I'm an Aquarius, so I enjoy being a weirdo. So, I was always like, ‘Yes, I have my exclusive personal snacks. I can't eat what you're serving.’

Yeah, I feel like a lot of kids, the ‘ethnic kids’ talk about your sort of the stinky, stinky, stinky lunch. You're bringing the weird things into school, and the kids make fun of you and you feel weird about it. But, I loved having the weird food. Any excuse to have something strange, and different, and that nobody knew what it was, and that I had to explain it. It was probably just an opportunity for me to show off.

And, in addition to that, it was New Jersey, North Jersey. So, a lot of Italian food. A lot of those red sauce restaurants. Every restaurant in my hometown is Bella Napoli, Bella Romania, Italia Bella. Lot of that. Yeah.

So, all over the place. It was a nice, varied diet, I think.

Alicia: Right.

Yeah, similar for me, except my mom never had a health moment. But I always had to have a different lunch from everyone because I was so picky. I usually say I wasn't picky, I was snobby. Because I refused to eat white bread, and I refused to eat like what they sold in the cafeteria. I was just terrible. And then, when I got to high school, I would just eat French fries. That was the only thing I would eat that they served. Yeah, I was terrible.

But I also reveled in the fact that I wouldn't eat the things that other people ate. I guess that is a born food person. I don't know, born food writer type thing, I guess, where I have to be different in this from everyone else. And I think that's a good thing.

Alejandra: Exactly. Yeah.

There's that music thing where it's like, ‘I heard the band first,’ or ‘I saw them before they were big.’ I was that way with food where it's like, ‘Oh, I've been eating kale since before you people heard about it.’ I would always make a point of mentioning the weird things that we had.

So, there was this health food restaurant in Hackensack, which is the next town over, next town over being such a North Jersey thing to say. So, this health food restaurant that we would go to all the time, and they had probably weird random thing, the typical — again ‘80s, ‘90s health food stuff.

But strangely enough, they also sold rum cake. That was not at all health food. I don’t know why they sold it. Well, the health food place was owned by Latinos. So I wonder if it was — they were just like, ‘Oh, and then also we have our rum cake.’

So, we would go there all the time. And then my parents knew the owners, and we'd go there, and I was obsessed with that rum cake. And I would eat it all the time. We'd get it for Christmas. There were all these weird little things. There was also these sort of peanut butter cup type candy, basically healthy version of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. But they were made with carob. And then the filling had honey.

Alicia: Eww. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: Yeah. I know. Which could go-

Alicia: -Either way, yeah. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: Yeah, easily.

But I loved those. So, I used to love bringing those: my weird carob and honey cups to school. [Laughter.]

Alicia: That sounds so good. Yeah.

Alejandra: Yeah, really delicious.

Alicia: Yeah.

I think sometimes I'm doing these interviews just to get to people's health food sagas. To hear about people doing all the vegetarian restaurants that existed, or health food stores that existed outside of urban centers. That is like my favorite thing. I always want to know what the places were like.

Alejandra: Actually, I don't even know why I've completely forgot to mention this. But we were vegetarian for a while, for —

Alicia: Oh, wow!

Alejandra: Yeah, totally. So, for a few years as kids and — actually, I totally meant to ask my mom for more details about this beforehand, that I forgot.

So, I forgot what years it was, but it was when we were young. We were vegetarians for a while. And my parents have always been very sort of — ’specially my mom's — always been very searchy in terms of faith and spirituality. And we were always trying different things and basically bringing the rest of the family along on our journeys.

And so for a while, we were going to this place where it was all about yoga and meditation. And every week, we'd have to go to this place and do yoga and meditation. And I remember my brother and I hated it, ‘cause it smelled like feet. It was that yoga studio smell, but as kids we’re just like, ‘Ugh.’

But the only thing we liked about it was that after the yoga meditation session, there was this big vegetarian feast. So, I loved that. ‘Cause then it was this awesome meal, and they used to do these oatmeal fritters. Yeah, and they would make muffins that they would — it was fruit sugar muffins. They would use fructose, because they thought it was better for you at the time even though it's very much not. They would use that. It was all these different dishes that they would make, that I was obsessed with. And we had the cookbook from that center. And it had all the different recipes. So, as kids, those were like the recipes that we ate.

And I remember, in our school would do those cookbooks where it's — they have every mom send in five recipes. And so my mom sent the recipes that were from that cookbook, and she wrote each one out that was like, ‘Alejandra’s favorite. Gabriel's delight.’ Gabriel is my brother. And she illustrated them. And they were so cute. I still have this cookbook. I'll take a picture of it and send that to you.

But it's so cute, because hers was the nicest ones. I'm like, ‘This is so my mom.’ It was typed when most of the other ones are handwritten, and hers was like illustrated. Hold. I was like, ‘Oh my God, of course my mom's is like the overachiever one.’ But it's got a lot of those vegetarian recipes on there. And it's got the oatmeal fritters and stuff.

So, we did that for a few years. And then I think we sort of slowly started easing out of it. I'm 100% sure my dad was first. I do remember there was an incident of him bringing home a bucket of chicken, where he was just like, ‘I'm over it.’ Then I think my brother kind of was next in line, and then I was kind of one of the holdouts with my mom.

I think I started eating seafood. I distinctly remember a lot of McDonald's Filet-O-Fish’s entering into my life at one point, the square fish and the inexplicable slice of cheese. And then I sort of ended up leaving it. And then my mom, eventually, I don’t know, she held out for a bit longer, and then sort of kind of went into, I don't know, just normal health food stuff, not just strictly vegetarian.

But I do remember, there was one vegetarian Thanksgiving that's kind of famous in our house because it was the first vegetarian Thanksgiving. And my brother just didn't understand that there wasn't going to be turkey. My mom made all the stuff, and then my brother's like, ‘Well, where's the turkey?’ And my mom's like, ‘Well, we're vegetarians. We don't eat turkey.’ And he burst out crying.

Alicia: Oooh.

Alejandra: [Laughs.] I know. The centerpiece was — I mean, and you're gonna love this — it was a lentil loaf with a Béchamel sauce.

Alicia: Oh, my gosh. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: I know. My poor little brother. The tears streaming down his face. And basically, we're all kind of — yeah, I think even my dad was like, ‘Wait, there really isn't gonna be a turkey?’ Is this a joke?’

So that's, my mom — every Thanksgiving we're like, ‘Remember the Béchamel lentils?’ [Laughter.] Oh, my God.

Alicia: That's funny, because I remember — you've cooked a lot of vegetarian or vegan, kind of, as a private cook, right?

Alejandra: Yes, absolutely.

So, one of the 50,000 jobs that I do is essentially — [laughs] you know it as well — my friend, Tesha. A few years ago, I ended up going on a culinary retreat in Vermont, at this place called Good Commons, and then hitting it off with the owner. Her name is Tesha Buss. She's amazing. She's a former Broadway dancer. She was in Cats. She had a dream about starting a retreat center in Vermont, and she went and did it. She's a star. You'd love her.

So yeah, so she opened up this place. And then I went there, and I hit it off with her. And so I started working with her, and going up a few times a year to be the retreat chef for these retreats. Some of them are small, some of them are like eight people, some of them are like 35 people. Occasionally, there were other events too.

It's a house, and you're basically — everybody's in the house. And you cook three meals a day, plus snacks. It's just this kind of fun way — we use local produce, we have connections with all the local farmers. They'll kind of email me their list of their like, ‘Yeah, I think I'm gonna have some carrots. I may have some squash. I'm not really sure the celery’s gonna be ready.’ So, it'll be things like that and I'll be like, ‘Alright, well give me 10 pounds of this and this and this.’ And so I make my list and then I order my groceries.

And then the one thing that Tesha never realized about me is that I don't plan my menus. So, I just order things I like, and then I figure it out as I go. I think it was the second retreat I did where she was suddenly like, ‘You don't have a plan.’ I was like, ‘No, I never have a plan. ‘Cause plans stress me out.’ I work much better organically and intuitively. And I like to improvise. So, people will always be like, ‘What's for dinner?’ I’m like, ‘Don't ask me. [Laughter.] I know when it arrives.’

One of the things that Tesha specializes in, because when she started as a dancer, a lot of her first guests were dancers and actors and people who work with their bodies and yoga people,

Yogis I guess [laughs], they — a lot of dietary restrictions, and a lot of — so, whether it's just diets, if they're keeping low carb or keto, or things — there were a lot more gluten restrictions, and a lot of, especially a lot of the yoga groups, are vegetarian or vegan.

So, her whole thing is that she specialized in basically catering to dietary restrictions. So, you get before each retreat, in addition to the ingredients that are available, I get a list of the allergies, and the dietary restrictions, and preferences, and stuff. And I pretty much try to accommodate everything. I think I once had a raw vegan, and I was like, ‘I'm gonna to need a little help.’ [laughter.] I was like, ‘I’m a little — that's a little bit much, with everything else I’m doing here.’

But we've dealt with all sorts of things. And it's always a challenge. And it's always exciting, especially because of my improv way of doing it. I basically make a list of my restrictions and kind of figure out the lowest common denominators about what everybody can eat, and then I build off extras from there.

But I've done a ton of vegan food, a lot of figuring — because a lot of times the vegan recipes are best, because those are the lowest common denominator, ‘cause that's what everything can — everybody can eat. And then I can add stuff like that. So, I might make something and then have a little bowl of the crumbled local fetta that people can put on top, or make a dairy sauce. And then I'll do a coconut based sauce, and then people can choose which one they want. So, it'll be things like that.

And it's exciting, because I find the limitations are, sort of, expand my creativity. They kind of force me to figure out problems and to experiment. I made pandebono once, and I made regular ones with cheese and the yuca flour for the people who could eat dairy. And then I was like, ‘Well, I want to do something for the vegans too.’ So, I ended up using mashed cauliflower. And I made a cauliflower pandebono with nutritional yeast. It worked out. I had no plan. I put in the oven. I was like, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ But it worked out.

So, it's been fun to come up with some dishes. And then there have been people that have come back year after year. And they're like, ‘Oh, can you do this?’ They have their favorite dishes that they remember that they want to eat that have become kind of staples over the years.

Alicia: But now you're basically on TV. Is that your primary work right now, is TV?

Alejandra: I was doing the retreats, year after year after year, and then I started doing more and more television. And then suddenly, people were like, ‘You're still gonna keep doing this?’ And I'm like, ‘This is actually a really nice break.’ There’ve been times where I would make breakfast, and then hop on a bus and basically go straight to 30 Rock for a rehearsal for a Today Show segment.

It is my primary — I mean, I have no idea what my primary income is this year, or my — It’s unemployment checks! [Laughter.] But no, as of two years ago, yeah, most of my income has been television and on camera work. And I love it. And it's been the thing that is most exciting to me.

And I kind of started out doing it, because — so, I worked in magazines. I was an editor at Cosmopolitan international for about four years. And it was a much more business-y, brand management aspect of the business. There's a lot of contracts and syndication. It wasn’t freelancers and translation. So, I was the New York editor for sixteen of the international editions of Cosmo.

It wasn't the creative thing that I wanted. So, on the side, I'd always been blogging. I've been blogging since I was in college, sort of the personal — it was mostly about boys, and heartbreaks, and my single girl life. But I had a lot of — food was always a big part of my life. I went to culinary school my junior year of college. I took a semester off and I went to this program in Italy, and I can get — I'll loop back around to that. [Laughter.]

But yeah, so food has always been part of — I started this blog on the side, and then the blog kind of started grow — I started Why did I just say ‘dot com’? [Laughter.] So, I started the blog. And then it started growing to the point where I was getting opportunities, and I was basically taking days off from my full-time job to go to blog stuff.

And I was cooking all the time. I briefly started a mostly illegal bakery. Which I know you had early in your career. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Me too, yeah.

Alejandra: You know all about being an illegal baker in New York City. [Laughter.]

So, I was doing that, and I was making — my specialty was rainbow cake and rainbow cookies.

Alicia: Oh my God, my favorite.

Alejandra: Yeah. Oh. It’s like, ‘Yeah, obsessed.’

So, I used to do that. And I would ship them all over the country. And so, I would basically come home from work and do that all night long. And then in the mornings, I would just use the Hearst shipping. I would just put it in the shipping box, and let — I’d let Hearst pay for it. Hopefully, I won’t get in trouble for saying that. [Laughter.] I’d just put them in and be like ‘Yeah, you guys take care of it.’ And then I would ship ‘em. And then I always had food coloring in my hands. And I'd bring my leftovers. And I'd be like, ‘There's leftover rainbow cookies by the Cosmo desk,’ so everybody would come over and eat stuff.

So, it started growing and growing and becoming this beast, until finally I was like, ‘I’ — I mean, there were a few other reasons, too. I didn't want to be working there anymore. I was not happy in that space. I’d hit that point where I was like, ‘You know what, I just gotta do it.’ And by that point, I'd gotten married. And so. I had health insurance. And so, that in itself was the thing that was like, ‘You know what, that's — let's do it.’ So, I quit.

And then, started doing 50,000 things in order to figure out what the thing to do was. And one of them was freelancing for the new Cosmo for Latinas magazine that my previous bosses had just launched. And so, I became their sort of food, contributing food writer, food editor. And I would do all their food pages, but I would also do — so, I would do the recipes, and the photos, and the copy.

It was the last minute every month. They'd be like, ‘Wait, can you do this?’ And it was always like a whole thing. And then I do the sidebars, and I would just — I was always offering sidebars just to get more money. So I was like, ‘How about we do this?’ I was always trying to expand it, because they're always trying to make it — me do as much as possible for as little money as possible. So, I was always trying to figure out ways to get more money out of them.

I feel they paid me like $125 per recipe. I get like maybe $1,000 to do all the recipes, and the photos, and the sidebars. But it was my first time really doing this regularly. And so it was exciting to have, in print, this regular thing that I would do.

Oh, and then I started suggesting cocktails, too. I was like, ‘Can we do cocktails, too?’ It was just me trying to get an extra $125. [Laughter.] So, I was like, ‘Let's do smoothies, also.’ So, I would do that.

And then they were like, ‘Oh, we need you to promote the magazine.’ So, then they started booking me for TV segments. And now I would be charging extra for that. But at the time, I was just happy to be there. [Laughs.] So I started doing segments for NBC on Telemundo, local, in Spanish. And I would do all the props, and I would drag a suitcase at five o'clock in the morning to get there. And the one thing I did get them to pay for was my cars, which was nice because otherwise it would have been impossible.

And then I would go in and do these segments. And then the first couple segments that I did, I think the first one was a Cinco de Mayo segment, of course. And I was like, ‘I love this.’ It was this feeling of joy just being on camera, feeling this adrenaline rush. Feeling I was coming alive.

And I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do this.’

And it was also this kind of thing, because — and we can talk more about this, but my dad worked in television my whole life. And he was always like, ‘You should be on television.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, I want to write.’ And then suddenly, I was like, ‘Damn it. He was right.’ [Laughter.]

So yeah, that was kind of how it started.

Alicia: Well, I've wanted to know how you were — how your style of cooking is improvisational, but you do TV segments that are hyper planned. How does that work?

Alejandra: Those are my two competing forces in me.

I think that's actually the thing that causes me the most stress about TV. My favorite things are at TV are when things go wrong, when things are unpredictable, when something breaks down. Because then I get the chance to improvise, and to just run with it.

And that's one of the things a lot of times producers will say is my strength. They’re like, ‘You don't even get flustered at all when stuff happens. You just go with it. You laugh it off. You own the moment and keep going.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, that's me. That's my strength.’

My weakness is the planning part. So, getting the recipes all planned out, figuring out all of the props, and the orders, and stuff. So, I have ADHD, and one of my coping mechanisms for ADHD, which obviously explains also just not liking the planning. But one of my coping mechanisms is memory, I have a really great memory. And I have a really great ability to kind of sort of just — I would never study, but then I would just look at stuff and figure out a way to remember it. So, that works really well in television. ’Cause I know my recipes. I know my mounts. I know the places where I need to be.

Writing out the recipe — I hate writing recipes. I like coming up with recipes,I hate writing recipes. I'm like, ‘Oh, why don't I tell you my teaspoons?’ I'd rather just throw it in there. Yeah, that's one thing that has been a struggle for me in terms of figuring out how — what the best way is to convey what it is is in my brain. [Laughter.] How to get it out of here on to the page. And yeah, so that's the one thing that can be a little bit frustrating in terms of that aspect of it.

But another big thing is in television, or at least, not in present day but before all of this, is very collaborative, right? You're working with a team. So, you're working with food stylists, and you're working with producers, and set-manage — all these people who help you kind of figure out those details. So, a lot of times I have my recipe, and I can send in my recipe, and there — or my tips, or whatever it is I do. And then they would break stuff down, and they break it up into the steps and they're like, ‘Ok, you're gonna do this first, and this first, and this first.’

And that sort of solved that problem for me, because they would handle that part of it. And then I could just perform. But it's been harder now. It's so much harder now. Because now, I went from basically being the talent to now doing 27 jobs. So, I'm the one that's figuring out my own rundowns, and my own — where my props are gonna go, and the lineup, and what am I going to say and stuff. So that's definitely been a struggle. I’m no longer getting to just shine in the thing that I’m the best at. [Laughs.] Now I'm muddling through 50 different things.

Alicia: Do you want to have a TV show of your own? Is that what you hope for?

Alejandra: I'm sorry, I didn't — I didn't catch — a show?

Alicia: Yeah, yeah. Is that — yeah. [Laughter.]

Alejandra: Do I want a show?

Alicia: Yeah.

Alejandra: Yes. Well, here's what I want.

I want a regular — I always say, and it's — it brings it down, so — to so basic, but I want a regular paid gig, where I’m part of — I like being part of a show. The dream thing would be if I could be on a show like Today Show, or specifically on Today Show, as their regular food person, at — where I get to do the segments and the stuff that I do on a regular basis, and get paid for it. Because I don't get paid for Today Show segments.

Alicia: Oh.

Alejandra: Yeah, we could talk about that. [Laughter.]

Yeah, I'd love to be a regular paid contributor on a show like Today, or another show like that that has that sort of ensemble. Because I love the daily interaction, I love coming up with the ideas. I love coming up with things that are sort of related to what's going on, you know. Every so often, there are things that pop up, or I'm like, ‘Oh, this would be a fun thing to do, a last minute segment on or idea about.’ But it's not necessarily something that I would do, because I get booked a couple weeks in advance or more.

So, something like that would be fun, where I'd have that space. I want to be part of a cast, I guess, or a community. I do also love the idea of my own cooking show, the sort of — but I don't know. I feel it's less exciting to me, the kind of dump and stir thing isn't as exciting to me. I love when there's fun interaction.

Sometimes I say, for cooking show, the part that excites me isn't so much the cooking. It's the show. And I mean, I would still want it to be something that's substantial stuff. I wouldn't want to just have some cheesy competition or something. But it's part of — yeah, getting to be — that interaction, getting to work with other people.

I love being able to riff with other hosts, and there's some hosts that I vibe with so well. I love doing stuff with Al Roker. He's always so much fun. I love doing stuff with Carson Daly. Anyone that gets excited about food, that loves to taste and eat and try, and is genuinely curious about it. They are so much fun. I think those are the segments that are the most exciting stuff.

Generally, it's always really exciting ‘cause they're really into it. There's other shows that I've done where the host doesn't really care about food, or doesn't really want to touch anything. And that makes it a little bit harder. But when you have someone you have great chemistry with, it makes really fun television that is still so informative, and people learn cool things. And there's nothing more exciting than having people try your tips, or try out your recipe, or having it become part of their life and their moments.

Alicia: Yeah.

Well, I mean, that is interesting that you don't, you're not compensated for the Today Show things. And that's so interesting, too, I think, in terms of how people perceive success in this kind of space in the media space, where people would probably assume you're getting paid and you're living the life of Riley, by being on the Today Show, because it's a big — it's huge. It's a national show. And it's so popular. And, I don't know, does that — I mean, how does that work?

Alejandra: Yeah.

So, shows like Today, or Good Morning America, or pretty much, most news shows, whether it's local or national, it’s a news program. Even though there is a huge entertainment element to it, it's a news program. The guests that are on it, we're guests — we're being — it's essentially an interview.

So, maybe you're a Drew Barrymore promoting your new talk show or whatever. You're getting interviewed, and it's a news story, and you're talking about your thing. Or you're a politician getting interviewed, and you're talking about your thing. So, they're not getting paid.

So, it's the same thing, even with the guests who are doing more lifestyle type segments. So whether it's someone doing design, or doing a fashion segment, or doing a food segment, unless you're actually a contri — they have a few actual paid contributors on the show, that are part of it. But most people are, essentially, it's publicity, right? You're promoting your product, or your book, or whatever it is you're doing.

But then, there are some of us that mostly just do it. The goal is having people see you and essentially, and hopefully, someone sees you, and it leads to other opportunities that leads to expanding your own brand. It leads to books, it leads to product lines, that leads to hopefully your own show, or whatever each person's individual goal is.

But yeah, it's a little tricky space. And it's something that we talk amongst ourselves, me and other experts. It's different if you're there talking to promote a book, or if you're there being interviewed for something as a news story. We're developing recipes, we're testing them, we're spending money on ingredients, where — if you're doing a lot of the design stuff, or anything that's crafty DIY, you're pretty much making those props and stuff at home, and you're bringing them in.

Sometimes, they order products and stuff for you. A lot of times, we have relationships with PR companies and brands that will give you products that will then get displayed. But then, they can't pay you. ‘Cause if you get paid by it, then you need to disclose it, and then it can't be on there. ‘Cause it's standard. So, it's a whole thing.

Talk show, then it's a little bit — works a little bit differently on. So, shows like Dr. Oz, or Tamron Hall, or any of those kinds of — Ellen or something like that, talk shows work differently, because those are union shows.

So, if you're in the union — and I'm not a union person, and there's pluses and minuses to that. But if you're in the union, then they're required to pay you. And there's the right that they have to pay you. If you're not in the union, they should be paying you. Mostly, they don't. [Laughs.] So, you can kind of go back and forth. And I've negotiated, and I've gotten some people to pay me. Sometimes, they won't. Basically, if they book you more than three times in a year, then the union stuff kicks in, and they have to pay you even if you're not in the union. So, a lot of shows just won't book you more than three times, even if you’re union. And that's a Dr. Oz show, or whatever. That's how it works.

And I've had friends who have done shows that are union shows, and they've gotten booked multiple times and didn't get paid. And I have a friend who — she actually just called the union and reported the show, and then the show had to pay up, but she never got booked again. So, it's one of those kinds of things where it's-

I once had a producer, and they will not say who it was and what show. It was not Today Show. It was not a show that I’m actively on. But we were doing a shoot. And it was a hack segment. So, it was multiple — it was doing multiple tips and stuff. They had brought some of the props, I had brought some of the props, and we were in the rental space.

And it was supposed to be a one-hour shoot. And honestly, we were going on the fourth hour. It was just taking too long. Everything was really slow. There'd been some construction outside, so we kept having to pause the shooting.

So, it was a camera guy and the audio guy, and they were both like, ‘Hey, we're on overtime. So, we're doing great.’ And the producer’s like ‘Well, I don't get overtime.’ And she's like, ‘I'm salaried.’ And then I was like, ‘Well, both of you guys are getting paid. I'm not getting paid.’ The camera guy and the audio guy were both like, ‘Wait, you don't get paid?’ ‘Cause they're coming from union. ‘We're on overtime.’

And they're like, ‘You don't?’ I was like, ‘No.’ And then the producer was like, ‘Yeah, no, this is just promotion for her. She's getting publicity out of this.’ And I was just like, ‘Well, yeah, to a certain degree. But it is still also a lot of work.’ And she goes — she's like, ‘Well, you can ask to get paid. And we might pay you once, but then we just won't book you again, ‘cause plenty of people do this for free.’ And I just remember this slap in the face feeling.

But it's true. What she said was true. It's not necessarily the best, or ethical, or right — I think in an ideal world, the shows would have the people that they know they can rely on, that they love, that they know they don't have to babysit during the production side of it, that they know they are going to get great television from, yeah, and pay us something.

So, I don't get paid from — for the shows like that. I don't get paid for Today or whatever. Although I will say, Today is genuine exposure. That is genuine publicity. I have gotten amazing opportunities from it. And it's prestige that people really do respect that does lead to other opportunities. There are a couple of those shows that, yeah, they absolutely — it's worth it to do, and I love doing it.

I love the producers that I work with, I love — I miss being in a studio. It's the best feeling in the world. Growing up watching something, and getting to be on there to the point where I can — I go in and the security guards know me, everybody knows me. I can just walk around the studio by myself, because I know where I'm going, I know what I'm doing. I mean, it's something I genuinely love, and I hope to be able continue doing it for my whole life. [Laughter.]

So then what I do get paid for doing is some of the other shows. So, everything that I do with Food Network, right now with their Food Network kitchen app, where I do live broadcasts, and I do some taped cooking classes and video shows and stuff that's sort of shot in advance. So, that's all paid work. And everything that I do with Food Network, in terms of social media or whatever, that's all paid and compensated properly.

And what I do with Amazon is also, that's all paid work as a host. And that's actually been a really cool experience. And, I mean, there are things that are not perfect, that I don't love about it. But that's also been one of the times where I've gotten to be that sort of thing when I said, right, part of a cast that I get to be a host on a show, and have regular people that I work with. Especially when we were in real life back in the studio, that was always really exciting to me.

It's the first time I got to regularly work with a teleprompter, and have the iFi in my ear, and all these things that I basically kind of grew up around and what — meant TV, and meant that stuff to me. Now, I actually get to do it in real life and expand my skills and stuff. So, I really appreciate that.

There are things that aren't great, that I don't love, and it's not like my goal is to sell air fryers. [Laughter.] But the action of it is satisfying. Or it was, before it was just on my laptop.

Alicia: Yeah, I don't think people realize how much of being, I don't know — because I — as a writer, I don't feel I'm a personality, but at the same time, I'm just — I'm realizing how much more I need to play that up, sort of, or playing that kind of a role for people. Especially on social media and everything.

And all the unpaid promotion that you do. I basically say yes to everything. Because I feel like I have to. And I don't know. Yeah, people don't understand really that just because you're doing something, and you're out there, and you're visible, that you're being compensated fairly, or at all. But it does play into how people perceive the work that we do. And they’ll make judgments like, ‘Oh, I don't know if that's worth what she seems to be getting paid,’ or something like that.

It's a very odd position to be in, where people kind of seem to assume that you have a level of wealth or comfort, and you're really just hustling constantly. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: Exactly. No, absolutely.

I mean, I think that's across the board for television. That people genuinely think if you're on television, you must be rich. I mean, I grew up with that.

So, my dad is a news anchor — or, he's a retired news anchor. He was a news anchor for 40 years for Telemundo in New York, and he's very successful. We were ‘comfortable’ growing up, so to speak. But yeah, I mean, we weren't super millionaires or anything like that. And I think that's what people always just assume about him, and assumed about us, because he was on television. But I was like, ‘Yeah, he's on television, but it’s still — it's the Spanish-language news. And it's local news. [Laughs.] It's not minimum wage, but it's not the same — it's not even the same as what the English-language and NBC anchors are getting.’

It's that kind of thing that I don't think people necessarily realize about TV. And that's how it is with a lot of stuff. There are a lot of working actors that work regularly, and yeah, you get paid really well for one job, but then you may go three months without another job. So, it's kind of like with teachers, where it's — that salaries are meant to go across the summer months, too.

So, it's that kind of thing where you're — it's doesn't — there's a lot of perks to it, absolutely. There's a lot of glamour to it. There's a lot of things that definitely do live up to the things that you imagine. But yeah, it's not necessarily always the same thing in terms of money. I mean, there are people who are obviously making a lot, but yeah, it takes a while to get there. And there are very few people who are at that specific level.

Alicia: Right, for sure.

And then, talking about social media, like I have said to you before, you do seem to live very well. But not in the way of being a billionaire or whatever, but as a person who sort of takes pleasure in life, whether it's because of what you're eating or drinking, or you have a garden. You're always reading, you're always — even in a pandemic, you're dressing up. I just admire that.

And I take a lot of inspiration for — I don't find a lot of people inspiring on that level. I’ve bought clothes because you've worn them. I can't say that about anybody else. You absolutely should have a show, because I'm a person who doesn't care about — being like, ‘Oh, gosh, I want to do what she's doing.’ But I feel that way about what you're — what you wear, and your — Yeah, you just seem to take a lot of pleasure in life, even when things are really bad.

Of course, this is, again, this is an issue of perception versus reality from social media. What is the thing that motivates you to live in this way? Or at least, put that out there?

Alejandra: Mm-hmm.

I love that. First of all, thank you for recognizing this aspect of my life. Not everybody does. I think sometimes — ok, so when I started my blog, and I called it Always Order Dessert, from the beginning, I would say that it's a philosophy, not — it's not meant to be literal. People would be like, ‘Did you order dessert?’ I'm like, ‘No, I didn’t want it. I got another glass of wine, or I got a glass of port, or something.’

But for me, it was never specifically about that. It was more about — dessert, especially growing up and stuff, or even when I went on dates in those aforementioned single days, it was about extending the moment. It's a way about not ending the meal. The thing that was always sad to me was when the meal ended.

And my dad is very much the kind of person who, like me, loves food and loves abundance and loves to say yes. And so, when we would go out to dinner, we'd see three appetizers on the menu. It was like, ‘Oh, I can't decide between-’ My dad would be, ‘Let's get them all!’ It was that kind of thing. The same with dessert, be like, ‘Let's-’ My dad literally does always order dessert, even if he just brings it home. But it was that thing of extending the meal.

And then I remember, as I was in college, and I was going out with friends and going on dates, and things like that, where it just, the meal just wrapped up at the end, or the dinner just wrapped up. And I was just like, ‘Oh, that's — ’ It's like ending it. I hated that moment. I'd love to extend the pleasure of the moment. So, that's what Always Order Dessert always meant to me.

And people are like, ‘She's a desert blogger.’ And I'm like, ‘I'm not.’ [Laughter.] Especially when people say that now. I haven't even updated my blog in a year. It's basically stagnant.

So, it was never about that. It was really just about that moment, of kind of finding ways to extend pleasure, and to appreciate these kind of good moments. For me, it's getting another bottle of wine, because then that's an extra half an hour that you get to sit with your friends or your date or your family or whatever, and talk and enjoy and laugh at the table. That's the kind of thing that I really love.

I hate when parties end. I'm like, ‘You can stay at my house until three o'clock in the morning happily.’ One of my really good friends, he's so great, ‘cause — one of my favorite things about him is that every time that we go out and we do stuff, he's like, ‘Let's go get another drink, or let's go do this. Let's go somewhere.’ He always wants to extend the night, extend the moment. He wants to go to that second party, or the third party. And I love that, because I think it just makes it — I love it. I don't want the night to end. I don't want the meal to end. I don't want the good moments to end.

So, there's a lot about that in life, in terms of finding those ways to kind of extend things. And it does read into — when I dress up, I dress up because, first of all, I love it. I love beautiful dresses, and I love doing my hair, and putting on makeup, and playing around with makeup and looks, and kind of creating — kind of, yeah — sort of decorating myself.

And I think a lot of it is also tied into kind of the idea of what it is, right? Like when I shop — and that's something that's actually been really hard during this time. ‘Cause when I shop, it's kind of I'm imagining, like, ‘Where do I want to wear this? What is the moment I want to create? What's the feeling I want to create?’

I remember, we were in Miami last year, and we went to the — oh God, it's like these botanical gardens, it's this old house. Can't remember the name. I knew that I wanted to wear a long flowing floral dress, so that I could walk through these beautiful gardens in this dress. [Laughter.] So, I went to Anthropologie in Miami and bought the perfect dress that I wanted to flow through the gardens in.

That's how I am about all my clothing. I imagine the sort of romantic feel that I want, or the — or sometimes it's a completely different — sometimes I want something that's got a little bit more edge to it, or that's sexy, or is it — something has a harder edge.

Or even just nerdy and things. I remember as a kid, we — for school picture day, I totally used to do this, too. So, we could pick our backgrounds, or they had those weird laser backgrounds, and all the backgrounds. And so there was a background that was a library. It was just books around—

Alicia: I picked this one, too. [Laughter.]

Alejandra: I was like, ‘Yes. The library background is mine.’ And then I had to find the perfect outfit to wear. And it was very much this plaid skirt, and a little ruffled collared shirt. I was going for full librarian nerd, with my librarian background.

And that was the thing. So, I would kind of orchestrate this perfect kind of image in my head and then live it. And that's something that I still do. I think that's why I buy so many dresses, because it's not just — everything is a moment, right? I have a whole backstory for every dress, and I have this whole idea of what I want.

And it's been a little bit rough, because now most of my — not flowing through gardens — except for my own gardens, I’m not flowing through gardens anymore. It's pretty much in my living room and my couch. But dressing has still kind of helped keep me feeling like myself, and like I’m together.

Especially since a lot of this time has been unemployment, especially — now I'm starting to get back into working a little bit. But I spent almost five months doing absolutely nothing. So, getting dressed was the thing that — I'd spent two hours getting dressed, and doing my makeup, and putting on — and making me feel like myself. So, I felt at least that part of me was still together. while the rest — everything else kind of felt at loose ends.

Alicia: Yeah, in terms of your eating and your drinking, which it seems like you've been doing a good job of that, too. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: I've been eating and drinking a lot. And that's kind of ebbed and flowed.

So, for eating, for — I went through these — basically, I wanted to fill that feeling. I was home all the time. And so I wanted to find things that would be exciting to me. And that would be creative to me, and they would sort of, kind of, spark that — inspire me in a way.

Because a lot of my inspiration, in terms of food and stuff, comes from things that I eat. I like eating what other people make, and I love going to restaurants, and seeing how people are using ingredients together and combinations together, and just — I'm seeing something like, ‘They're cooking the cucumber in this. I've never thought to cut cucumber,’ and then taking that idea home and playing around with it.

Or combining herbs and fruits, and things that I'd never expected before, and then taking those flavor patterns and coming home. And not necessarily recreating the exact same dish I eat, gonna eat, although I have done that. But a lot of times, it's just kind of taking little, those kernels of ideas, and then playing around with them.

And I wasn't getting that because the only food that I was eating was food I was making myself. My husband doesn't really cook. He makes my coffee in the morning, which I appreciate. But other than that, it's pretty much all of the food that I was eating was food that I was creating with my own hands. Everything was just recirculating. It's all recirculated air. There's nothing fresh coming in. So, I needed something that was kind of exciting.

So, I just started buying weird ingredients. [Laughter.] Getting Fresh Direct, and I was getting my groceries delivered. And I would basically go and see, and they would have the categories. There's the specialty category or — so I would click on those, and seeing what sort of unique — because I started buying octopus in this very blank — squid, and all sorts of clams, and razor clams.

I had a lot of seafood. I was basically playing around with the seafood, ‘cause the seafood especially is — it would always — that changes a lot. And that's something that's very kind of seasonal, and local and stuff, that would be what's good now, what's happening now, what that isn't just chicken. [Laughter.]

And playing around with condiments, and spices, and whatever kind of new fun things, buying different breads, flowers, and just stuff like that, and kind of pushing myself to cook with it.

Another thing about buying seafood is that there's a very limited lifespan of when — basically, you get it and you need to kind of cook it within the next day or two. And that was good for me, just in terms of if I would get kind of depressed and I wouldn't — it would be my motivator, ‘cause I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta cut the razor clams.’ I want to curl up and cry, but I got to get those razor clams. [Laughter.] So, it would be kind of another thing to give me at least some urgency to get some stuff done.

Alicia: Right, right, right.

No, that's so important to actually, yeah, feel like things need to be cooked, and so you actually can't say no, that's one of just — ugh, yeah. I'll make way too many beans. And that's been my way of, my vegetarian way, of needing to do something with them, because I can't let them just languish. It's ‘what new things can I do with this giant pot of black beans that I made’ that's been keeping me going in the cooking? Yeah, it's hard after so many months.

Alejandra: And it's hard.

One of the things that I’ve been — so nothing's because we're talking about pleasure. I love to seek out pleasure and stuff, but it was — it's harder. It's much harder now. I definitely feel like my life was much more pleasurable beforehand.

And it was easier, when you're traveling, when you're doing — at the end of last year, when I started working with Food Network, and I started — I was getting booked regularly on Food Network and on Amazon, and I was doing regular stuff with Today Show. And I had lots of other events, another — did some commercials, and I did some other on-camera projects and stuff. And so I was, as — people would say, booked and blessed. [Laughter.]

And so, that's how I was: booked and blessed. And I was making way more money than I’d ever made before, and finally feeling like, ‘Yeah, this is it. I've got the momentum of doing this.’ And then, it just came to this screeching halt. And all that went away. I was like, ‘God.’ I'd finally hit this point where I had the momentum, I was doing it. Now, all of it went away. Obviously, I got super depressed. I got sad.

The things that gave me pleasure, the — my job, which genuinely gave me pleasure, not in terms of the — it was fulfilling work. It was exciting work.

I loved the people that I worked with, and having those moments of connection with people who do this really weird thing is so rare and so important. I missed the hour in the makeup room beforehand, where we all used to share our joys and woes and life, and learn from each other and talk about things. Not having that is frustrating. And I can talk to my husband, but there's only so much that he really understands about this industry. And it's not the exact — it's not the same thing. And you can text, and it's still not the same kind of organic conversations that you can have when you're in the same space with other humans.

What was I saying? Wait, well — Oh, yeah. I was getting a lot of joy from that. And I was getting joy from traveling, and from getting to go to events, and from seeing speakers, and all these, going to — yeah, you're just moving about the world. A lot of my joy comes from that.

And I'm also a person who needs solo time. A lot of solo time that we got in divided space, which I've not had very much of in six-plus months. And that's been really hard, too, because it's — I don't have that moment of — my husband would leave for work in the mornings, and it was — I'd have my quiet, empty space mornings where it's just my own energy filling the space. And I missed that. And it’s not that I don't love my husband, and I don't want him around. But, I want those breaks.

One of my friends, Shauna, you know Shauna Sever. She’s amazing. She's like, ‘I don't think humans are meant to be — no matter how much you love someone, you're not to be together, 24/7, constantly.’ That's not healthy. [Laughs.]

So yes, I felt like a lot of those things that were giving me pleasure just sort of disappeared. My philosophy is essentially pleasure, is finding the joys in moments in life. And now, how do I do that in this environment, or this life that basically is devoid of so many of the things that we think of as pleasure?

So, that's been kind of my obsession lately. I’ve become obsessed with the concept of anhedonia. You know the concept of anhedonia? [Laughs.]

Alicia: I think I know the word, but I — yeah. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: Yeah.

So the word, it essentially means loss of pleasure, or inability to feel pleasure. And there's versions of it. I mean, there's physical versions of it, where you physically can't feel pleasure. But then there's also psychological ones. I almost feel this is a time of that, where it's much harder to feel joy, even in the things that genuinely — the small joys. Because everything else is so much bigger, and everything else is so much — so overwhelming, and things are burning down.

Shauna is probably the person I talk to the most, ‘cause she also does TV, and she does food and stuff. So, she understands that same thing. And we texted a lot. And it's like, ‘How can I be excited about this new biscuit recipe when the world is burning, right?’ It's hard to find, to say, like, ‘Oh, these things are so great. But, it's not important! None of it is important, right? There's so many bigger things.’

And while I do feel that we still need those little things, it's harder. I'm struggling with it. I have ordered 50 books about pleasure. And I've been reading my way through them. And part of me was like, ‘Maybe I'll start a newsletter about pleasure.’ [Laughter.]

But, there's things I want to figure out. I remember in 2016, after the election, that it was harder. It was hard, but I feel like this is harder. Because, even then, I still felt that — even then I remember being like, ‘Well, the recipes are important. And the cooking’s important. And these things are still important, because people need these joys and need these moments of connection and stuff.’

But now, I feel like it's even harder. Because I'm like, ‘Well, people can't necessarily get together with their families. And then, people are literally dying.’ And it's — you're stuck in places. My brother lives in DC. I haven't seen him since January. And we used to see each other all the time. So it's things like that, where I'm — it's — these things are important, but it's also — it is harder. I think it kind of maybe is a time where, maybe we just don't get as much pleasure anymore. For a time. Not permanently.

Alicia: Yeah, I hope so anyway.

Yeah, it's been super fascinating. I always work at home, and I always work alone. And I'm not a collaborative person, necessarily. I like to do things alone. But then, the thing that makes that worthwhile, and the thing that gets me out of that space is that when the day is done, it's being with people.

Even if I'm going to have a drink alone at a bar, I'm either eavesdropping on people, or I'm engaged in conversations with strangers and things like that, and missing that — those sparks that can happen, though — that's really been, for me, such a huge mental struggle. Especially with writing, because so much of your inspiration comes from being around other people and just the things that they bring up in you.

And yeah, no. And for me, too, the solitude thing is super important. And so having that —

Yeah, just my boyfriend had been at home for three months. Now, he's back in the office a little bit, but at the same time it's so hard to get into a writing groove when someone's always around and I can't — I used to just go to this local beer — my whole life is drinking, I guess. [Laughs.] But I used to go to a beer bar, and I’d just order a whiskey soda, and I'd really pound through things because it just — I needed to change my atmosphere. Or, I'd go to the coffee shop if I needed air conditioning. I don't have that anymore.

And in New York, I used to go to the public library. And I’d work in the huge — in the Rose Reading Room, and just that entity that's there, it would be, just — it's so hard not to focus, and not to work and get things done. Just being home all the time when I'm already have been a person who is working at home and enjoys that focus. Like, oof. Be careful what you wish for. [Laughs.]

Alejandra: It's true. It's the same thing, ’cause I — yeah, I always loved my solitude. I loved being able to work from home, but I loved having those moments.

And the thing with on-camera work is that you go — if I have a Today Show segment, I might leave the house like 6 a.m., and I go and I do stuff. But I'm usually home by 11 a.m. — or no, by then or 10 — I'd be home by noon at the latest, right? That was my day. And I’d come home, and my — but the adrenaline would wear off slowly. And I’d usually take a nap, and then eat lunch. And it would just be this kind of shift into this sort of quiet space after this rush of what I was doing beforehand.

But yeah, now it's just this one constant space and the same energy. And I was thinking a lot when you were talking — during your — in your piece about travel. It's that idea of the, you take yourself when you're traveling. And my thing about traveling was always, it was less about the place and more about experiencing myself in a new place. And also what aspects of myself that would bring out.

Especially because my husband is not Latino. He's white. [Laughter.] Well, you can be white Latino. He's Jewish, and was born in the Soviet Union. He was born in Kiev, and came over as a kid. But yeah, so it's a totally different culture. I went from having a sort of regular Latino influence, from my Latina friend, girlfriends, or being with my family, to not really having much of that in my life.

So, I’ve actually gone through a period of reading books in Spanish, and watching movies and TV shows in Spanish. And I didn't even realize that I was doing it. I just saw that the only things I ever wanted to read or watch were all in Spanish. And I realized that it's because that's — that aspect is something that I'm not getting to experience. I used to go to a lot of Latinx events, right? Or I used to go to conferences, and I'd always have these pockets of time where I was surrounded by people who I didn't have that learning curve of explaining stuff to. Kind of understood a lot of the same issues, and had a lot of that same cultural language. And I don't really get much of that right now, except for the few times I've been able to see my parents.

And yeah, so I missed that. I love Miami, and I love going to Puerto Rico, obviously. And the thing about those two places, and even LA to a certain extent, is that they sort of bring out that Latina side of me. It's a home, right? I love when I get to Miami, and suddenly I realize I haven't spoken English in a day and a half. ‘Cause the flight attendants, and the Uber driver, and the reception at the hotel, and everybody that I've talked to, it's all in Spanish. You feel you're at home.

It's this nice thing that sort of wakes up that side of me. And I always feel like my most beautiful, sexiest, truest self in that air — environment. I need a few, a dose of that, right, every so often. Whether it's there, or going to LA and being with a lot of — I’ve gone to lot, Latina conferences in LA. And being around other women, and just talking and sharing in a lot of things, in terms of music and fashion and beauty. And just talking about these little stories that you have in common, that sort of feeds that aspect. And then I can kind of come back to the other side of my world, where other things are fed but then it creates balance.

So, travel creates that balance for me. When I go to places, like I go to New Orleans and that kind of feeds that love of food, and slight hedonism, and music, and a little bit of recipes — my spiritual, believes in ghosts, magical side. There's a little bit of that. I like a haunted city.

And so, I’m missing all of that. Because right now, all I have is like my own space. And I try to create variety and things here, and I — but it doesn't — yeah, doesn't fill it the same way.

(1:04:57) Alicia: Yeah.

Well, I wanted to talk to you about translation, because — and I know you're reading Hopscotch in Spanish and English, which is crazy. [Laughter.] But, as someone who is bilingual and has this experience in kind of international publishing, do you think that there should be more of this kind of — not even necessarily just translation, but of course translation, but also collision of languages because — and people have been talking a lot about not italicizing words that aren’t English in food writing, especially because food is so global.

And we all use different words for the same thing sometimes. Okra, I'll — sometimes I'll call it in its Hindi name, because I'll be cooking that kind of recipe or something. And obviously, porsche, passion — all these things are — I don't know. We kind of just know. Or you can easily find out now, too, what it is.

What do you think? How do you feel, by being bilingual, being Latina, affects both your understanding of food and of food media? But also what do you think could happen if there were more of this convergence between languages?

Alejandra: Yeah, so there's a few things there.

On one hand, I love the idea of — and I know, this puts much more of an onus on the viewer or the reader — but I love the idea of making people look stuff up and educate themselves on things they may not necessarily know automatically.

And it's a delicate balance, because on one hand, part of what we do is teach, right, and share knowledge. And I do want to be a guide. But I also think that sometimes, there's a few things that people should be able to look up themselves and figure out themselves.

It's an opportunity, right? When you look something up, there may be something that sparks your imagination, or that feeds you, in a way that may not necessarily speak to me when I'm talking about something, right? There may be something about an ingredient that is exciting to you, that may not be the thing that is exciting to me about it.

And so when I'm telling you something, I'm just telling you my point of view. But letting people sort of do a little bit of their own work, and a little bit of their own research, kind of opens things up further.

And this is something that we talked about in the Black Book panel that I did a few weeks ago. ’Cause when you're on camera, especially because time is so short—I’ve done segments that are two minutes long. I think the most I've ever had is maybe 10 minutes. If you want to talk about things that—you have to explain everything.

If I want to do a French fry recipe, I say, you peel the potato, and you chop the potato, and you fry the potato. But if I want to talk about tostones, I need to explain what kind of plantain to get. How you peel it; it's not easy to peel. Explaining those little things is an aspect of it.

It's a higher learning curve. There's so much that you need to get through before you even get to that basic thing, that you're always kind of starting at the bottom. So, you're constantly pushing this boulder up the hill, and then you need to start all over again. And so you never really get into the juicy parts. Because you're so limited in terms of time, or in terms of—whether it's just inches in a printed page, or word count, or minutes on television.

I would love to. It's impossible to ask, right? We can't even get people to wear masks, right? [Laughter.] We want to expect so much from people, and yet, it's—that's not really the case all the time.

But it would be so great if some people could do that, just because then it would let us kind of skip the basics and jump into stuff that's much more exciting and more interesting and cover stuff that we don't get to do. Like I was saying earlier, I can say picadillo and arroz con pollo, and things like that. And I don't need to translate it, and I don't need to explain it to you.

And that's part of that thing, the other thing I was saying, about when you're amongst people where you don't have that learning curve. Because then you can just go so much further than when you have to constantly explain. And that's important in personal relations, and I think it's important in terms of the writing, and the work that we're doing, and just letting people learn new things. I would love to not have to translate everything, or not even italicize things.

I've been reading a lot of things in Spanish, and also even in English but with Latino character — I've been reading a lot of Latinx romance novels. They're so hard to find, trying to find more and more of them. But something that frustrates me is the way that everything, even when they have Spanish language in it, then it'll say something — so, it'll immediately translate it in the other word. I can't even think of an example. Basically, she might say, in Spanish that she's always late, and then the other person in English would be like, ‘Yeah, she is always late.’

So, for me reading it, it's annoying. This is written for the person who doesn't speak Spanish, or who doesn't know these phrases and things. It's not written for me, because I, now, from you, I'm getting double of every single thing that's in there. So, it would be nice to just say, just have it and not have it — I mean, it's not easy, right? I don't know what the perfect way to do it would be. But you do lose so much. You lose so much.

Alicia: For sure.

Yeah, for you, is cooking a political act?

Alejandra: Ah, I've been thinking about this, ever since you started talking about this. Yes and no, yes and no. I'm gonna go with yes and no.

But what's interesting to me is that in terms of cooking, I started cooking to get away from politics. ’Cause I went to college at George Washington University. And my major was political communication, which was a special program that combined political science, journalism, with like a little bit of marketing and communications. So, it was essentially designed for people who wanted to go into campaign management and in to — the spin sort of world of politics, which is what I was fascinated in, at that time. And that's what I thought I wanted to do.

And then I was in these classes, and I would look around me and be like, ‘Oh, my God, I hate all these people.’ You're in D.C., and you're in your class. These boys would show up in khaki pants and blazers, and everyone was always running off to their internship. And everyone was just terrible. I mean, not everyone, there were great people too. But I just did not feel comfortable. And I didn't feel happy. I liked the content, but I didn't like the people. And I was like, ‘These are the people that I would be working with, and I do not want to work around these people.’

And so for me, I started skipping classes and not really going, and I would stay in my dorm and I would cook. And I would cook these elaborate meals, and GW has — each dorm had its own kitchen, each room had — it's just basically better apartments than I've lived in ever since.

And so I would just stay and cook, or my roommate would come home, and I'm like, ‘I made moules frites.’ Or like, ‘I baked madeleines.’ And she's like, ‘Didn’t you have a class today?’ I'm like, ‘Ah, I didn’t go.’

I remember, at one point, my mom was like, ‘Why don't you just go to culinary school?’ And I was like, ‘I'm already in school.’ And she's like, ‘Yeah, but you don't seem to want to do the school stuff. You just want to cook.’ That's when I ended up taking off, and doing — and going to culinary school for eight months.

It was my escape from that world that I just didn't like. It felt icky. It had a lot to do with the specific major I was in, because these were people that wanted to be spin doctors, basically. But I wanted to get away from that, and the food just felt more pure. And it felt more tangible and real, and solid. Something that I could start to finish and enjoy, and something I could share. And that brought people together instead of the fighting aspect of it, the political stuff in that.

It's been years since then. It is absolutely political still. There's that aspect of it, of, again, of bringing people together. But, I think that that's not necessarily always the case.

You're bringing people together when it's — generally, people talk about food bringing people together, but I think it's more about food is what you do when you're already together. You're already at that table together. And then the food is the thing you're doing.

It might bring your family together, but — from the different rooms in your house, or it might be something — or, if you're at — if you're at college with people, and then, yeah, you're all eating in the dining hall together. But here's already things in common there. You’re already going to that same school, you're already in the same family, you're already in the same city. There's already something that has brought you together, that's not necessarily the food. The food is an action. It's a thing you're doing.

But if food brought people together, we wouldn't have the jokes about Thanksgiving, and the racist aunts, and stuff like that. It's not a Hallmark card. It's not as poetic as I think people think it is. I think it is tricky.

Everything that we do is a decision. And in Vermont, when I'm cooking and trying to figure out all these dietary restrictions and stuff, my goal is making sure that everybody gets to eat, and everybody gets to enjoy, to feel safe, regardless of what it is that they can or can't eat.

But then also, to try to make the best choices possible within what's available. And I have restrictions, I have budgets, and I have access to some stuff and not access to other things. God, I love a container of peeled garlic, especially when I have to cook food for 35 people, right? I know that the peeled garlic is not necessarily the best choice.

Ok, so I'm weighing. I'm constantly weighing things. And I'm like, ‘Alright, so what is the priority at this point? And then versus this point.’ So, it's things that are constantly always changing.

And I think that with anything else, that varies throughout the day. I might feel about something someday, and my priorities might be different today, or even at breakfast then they are at the end of the day, right? They’re constantly shuffling.

It is obviously impossible for us to be 100% ‘good.’ [Laughter.] I think we all have our compromises that we have to make, the compromises that we're forced to make lot of times. It's not even an option for us.

You've talked about your limitations on the island. And even in my neighborhood, or what's available, especially during this pandemic, I was getting a lot of food delivered, ‘cause I didn't want to go into the grocery stores, because I want to stay healthy so that I can interact with my parents, right. My priority is being able to stay healthy so that I can be with my family. So, that means that maybe I'm ordering stuff on Amazon, or I'm getting stuff delivered from Target, or whatever I know that isn't the best choice, but right now I'm prioritizing this. And that makes sense. So, there's things like that.

So, yeah. Did I answer the question?

Alicia: You did. [Laughter.]

Well, thank you so much for taking all this time to chat.

Alejandra: Oh, my God. Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about some of these things that are usually just kind of rolling around in my head. Yeah, and having a place to share. And obviously happy to chat anytime. I'll send you those ’90s vegetarian recipes that my mom — [Laughter.] I'm telling ya, the oatmeal fritters are pretty awesome.

Alicia: I can't wait. I can't wait to see. [Laughter.]

Well, thank you again.

Alejandra: Thank you.

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
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.