A Conversation with Angela Garbes
Talking to the author of the new book 'Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change' about breastfeeding, food writing, and care.
You're listening to From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays, I'll be talking to different people in food and culture, about their lives, careers, and how it all fits together and where food comes in.
Today, I'm talking to Angela Garbes, the author of Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, and the new Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change. We discussed how her past as a food writer continues to inform her work, what mothers who are creative workers need to thrive—spoiler, it's basically what all workers need to thrive—informal knowledge building, and the significance of having an unapologetic appetite as a woman.
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Alicia: Hi, Angela. Thank you so much for being here.
Angela: Thank you so much for having me, Alicia.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Angela: Sure. I grew up in rural Central Pennsylvania. So—people can't see this—but this is roughly the shape of Pennsylvania, my hand. And I grew up here in what I call the ass crack of Pennsylvania. And it was a very small town, about 4,000 people. And I was one of very few people of color. And my parents are immigrants from the Philippines. You know, I would say that from a very young age, I was, like, born different. But, you know, we have a fairly typical…like, my parents are both medical professionals. So we had a pretty typical, I would say, fairly typical as you could get, middle class upbringing.
And as far as what we ate, I look back on it now and I think of it as like a perfect combination of like 50 percent American, quote unquote, American convenience food, like a lot of Hamburger Helper, a lot of Old El Paso soft shell tacos, a lot of Little Caesars Pizza, a lot of Philly cheesesteaks.
And then the other half we ate Filipino food: sinigang, adobo, arroz caldo, tinola... and, you know, I remember my dad, like, hacking up pig's feet, you know, I would come downstairs and he'd be cooking up things like that. And so when I look back on it now, I think it was—I mean, I love Filipino food so much. But I also, I mean, I love all kinds of food. And I kind of eat anything. And it's partly, I think, because I was just exposed to a lot of things.
But my parents, you know, we lived in this really small town, and they couldn't get all of the ingredients that they wanted to make traditional dishes. But they kind of improvised with what they had. And because they were so committed to cooking Filipino food, sort of against the odds, I would say, you know, we did a lot of…there were not vegetables that [were] available, like you couldn't get okra or green papaya. So we would use zucchini, and, you know, frozen okra to make sinigang. But it was such a way for them to stay connected to their cultures and I feel so grateful to them because what they did was really pass that down to me, from an early age. I was like, Oh, yeah, this is—this is my food, like, this is who I am. And I've never lost that. And I've always loved [it] and, yeah, so it was sort of this wonderful, healthy mix, I think.
Alicia: For sure, and, you know, it was so interesting to realize, because I don't think I'd realized it before, that you were a food writer. [Laughs] Until I got into your books, I was like, Wait…
And Like a Mother, your first book, starts out like, so…like, such a rich piece of food writing. And I'm like, Wow, now I understand. And then I realized, I'm like, Oh, she is a food writer. So you know, you've come to write your two books about motherhood, but you know, you're also a food writer, and you're writing about food in these books as well. How did you become a food writer?
Angela: First of all, thank you for saying this now because I miss food writing. And I think at heart, I am a food writer. And I think it informs, you know, the way I portray sensory detail and physical experiences. But yeah, so the way I became a food writer was sort of, it was really my entry into writing. But it happened…the year was 2005, I think. And you know, I had gone to college and studied creative writing, but like a lot of things, I just thought just because I liked doing something doesn't mean I get to do [it], right?
And I think that's a lesson that a lot of writers could learn... [laughs] So I didn't work in these like writing-adjacent dying industries, you know; I worked as an independent bookseller. I worked for a nonprofit poetry press—which is still going, actually I should say, and then I worked as an ad sales rep at an alt-weekly. And, you know, I obviously wish that I was a writer there, but I had no designs on writing. I was, you know, I partying a lot with the ad salespeople, and we were just— I mean, alt-weeklies are— I'm so proud to have started all my writing in my career and adult life there. It was a good time.
So I was working in ad sales. And at the time, David Spader and Dan Savage, who are the editorial people, they said, “Hey, do you want to write?” I was leaving to take another job. And they were like, “Hey do you want to submit a sample food writing piece?” And I was like, Me? And they were like, “Yeah,” and I was like, why? And yes, and why. And they both said, “Well, we know you write, we know that you have a writing background” because I was friends with a lot of writers. And they were like, “But you're just always walking around the office, talking about where you went to dinner, talking about what you cooked, talking about what you ate, and like, everyone in the office wants to go out to lunch with you. Everyone wants you to invite them over for dinner.” And I was like, Oh, okay! And so then I just did it as a one-off.
And something clicked, where you know, I had been writing fiction, I had been writing bad poetry, but when I started writing about food, I was like, Here's everything that I was thinking about, like food to me—and this is what I think it has in common really with motherhood, and mothering really—is a lens to see the world. And it's a lens into—I mean, the sky's the limit about what you can talk about, right, or what you want to talk about. And so, I mean, when I started, it was like, here write a review of this place, that’s doing mini burgers at happy hour, right? And I started doing restaurant reviews, which was very service-y, which, in some ways I hated, but in some ways I'm grateful for, right—meeting a weekly deadline, and like thinking about your audience and being of use, that's something that I think about all the time still.
But um, yeah, I mean, when I started doing it, too, I felt really—I came into it, absolutely, with a chip on my shoulder. I was like, Okay, so I'm Filipina. I never hear about Filipino food. Why do we call places holes in the wall? Right, like, that's racist. Why are we willing to pay $24 for a plate of pasta but people get up in arms when someone wants to charge $14 for pho? You know, I feel like this is where I was coming from. And there wasn't really a lot of space for that, I will say. So there was—I felt a little limited. You know, I think about sometimes, what it would be like to start my career now. I feel like people have created a lot of space. It's not like just the space has opened up.
But the scene has changed. I took a forced hiatus from food writing, because of the Great Recession, where they were like, We don't need freelancers anymore. I came back to it, though—what year was this? It would have been 2012; 2013 and 2014, I was pregnant. And I had actually decided, you know, just because I'm good at writing doesn't mean I get to do it. I need to figure out something more practical to do with my life. So I had applied to go to graduate school, actually to get a master's in public health and nutrition. And I wanted to work with immigrant communities to help them have culturally appropriate diets. You know, like, not everyone was just gonna eat kale, which is what people—or shop at the farmers’ market.
So yeah, I mean, I took classes at the local community college. I took biology, chemistry, all the shit that I didn't take as an English major in the mid ’90s. And, yeah, I got accepted, but then when I was pregnant, The Stranger, the alt-weekly, called me and they were like, Hey, we're hiring a food writer, and are you interested in applying? And I was like—this chance is never going to come around. And so I was like, Yeah, I'll take it.
And so this was, this is a really long answer, sorry, [this was in] 2014, and I started back, and it was restaurant reviews. But it was also when $15 an hour was going really strong here in Seattle. And I really wanted to explore the labor aspect of that, and what was that like for workers…and then my secret goal, I had a great editor who was Korean-American. And she and I were like, yes, like, every two weeks, there will be a picture of a Brown or Black person to go with the restaurant review. And so it was all this stuff. Like, I felt like I finally got a chance to do what I really wanted to be doing. It was like, moving towards that.
And then I wrote this piece about breastfeeding, which, at the time, they asked me to pitch a feature. They're like, You've been here on staff long enough, like what do you want to write about? And I was like, I definitely need to write about breast milk. No one in the editorial room was like, it was just like, it landed like a dead bird and I was like, Well, I kind of want to do this for myself. I felt it was very much an extension of my beat. Because I was like, here I am. I'm thinking about food. I'm producing food. I am food. I'm eating food. And so I wrote this piece and ended up going viral, which is how I got the opportunity to write my first book and I wanted to take a leave of absence because I really wanted to come back to my job. And they said, No, we're not going to hold a job for you. We're just going to piece it out on contract. And so then I kind of had to figure out what I was going to do afterwards. And so then I was like, maybe I'll just try writing books. And that's my very long answer into how I got into food writing, it was like, the right place at the right time talking about it. Because yeah, that was just like, it felt very— It was just my life.
Alicia: No, I think that that's such a common—obviously, I talk to a lot of people. Like, why food, how food, how did that happen. And then, a lot of the time, especially with women who wanted to be writers, myself included, we didn't see it as an option necessarily, but when we came to it, everything kind of fell into place, which is what happened for me too. Like, once I started to focus my life on food, everything made sense, because I was doing like, copyediting and working for like, tiny literary magazines, and just thought I was gonna have like, a weird literary career, hopefully.
And then I just started cooking one day and just never stopped. And like that, it just changed everything. I'm writing about this right now, actually, like how gender plays into this and whether, you know, the idea of being allowed to love to cook when you're a woman and that sort of thing, which actually, I wanted to ask you about, because there is a fabulous chapter in your new book, Essential Labor, called “Mothering as Encouraging Appetites” and it's so much about our gendered relationship to having an appetite, you know, like whether whether a woman, whether a girl is allowed to have an appetite and how you are actively encouraging your daughters to be okay with their appetites.
And it reminded me of when I was a kid and like, I had this friend, who I took dance classes with, and our moms would be like, Oh, you're gonna have to like, date a rich man or something because you eat so much. And then this was like a joke about how like… when I recalled this memory, it's not a joke my mother would make. So I'm assuming it was the other mother, but um, it was just this whole thing.
Angela: But it's definitely like an ambient joke, right?
Alicia: It’s an ambient joke, yeah. And this chapter certainly reminded me of that. And I, you know, I was really lucky to grow up without anyone ever questioning my appetite in a real way. It was always something to be proud of a little bit, to be a girl who ate a lot. Like it was okay, in my world, at least. And so, yeah, I just wanted to ask, what was what was your inspiration for putting this piece in this book, specifically, and how that worked, because it is about the labor of feeding, but it's also about the labor of, like, self-acceptance and and excavating ourselves from these societal expectations.
Angela: I mean, I want to back up a little bit to what you're saying about how when I started writing about food, and when you started writing about food, a lot of things started to make sense, right? And I felt that way, very strongly, like, inside of myself, but it felt like there wasn't quite an audience that was keyed into what I was trying to say. And I will say, at the time that I started writing about food it was very, like, you can have an appetite, and you can write about loving food. And you can be—there was a lot of, you know, like, I think people use the phrase like the, quote, golden era of food blogging. And to me, it was never really that; I didn't feel like those things. I didn't feel represented in that. It was a lot of, you can have a tremendous appetite for baguette. Right? But, um, no diss to baguette, right? But it was very Francophilic. And it was very, like, be fit and be white.
So I don't, I just don't really understand. I didn't, I couldn't square having the sort of appetite and having the body that I had with, you know, quote, unquote, mainstream food writing by women. I want to say that because I think that that's true for a lot of women of color. And I think that that space is thankfully growing. But I think it's because it's an insistence on taking up space, and an insistence on not being pushed to the margins, which is really what the motivation of that chapter was. I felt like there's so many things I have been thinking about in terms of food and that like, I mean, that chapter to me is very much food writing. I was real jazzed when I was writing; I loved being able to describe the flavors, and the Filipino food that I grew up with.
And yeah, like, I wish that I could explain, and I write about this, and I was like, I don't know why I never—diet culture never got to me, you know, and I think for a lot of girls, who are lucky enough to come from a family where it is a beautiful thing to have an appetite, the thing that often happens, though, is around like when you're 12 or 13 or 14, then suddenly it's not great to have an appetite, right? Like or it's a thing to be managed, because everything's changing, everything's expanding, right?
Everything's growing. Before, when you're eating a lot, you're chubby and you're healthy, and suddenly you become fat. And so I was sort of wrestling with that. And also this feeling that my body just never really fit into the culture, into that small town where I grew up in. And then my body is just larger than my mother's who's a very, very small, Filipina woman. And, you know, Filipina elders are the first people to be like, Eat, eat food, eat so much food, come in here, eat food. And then they'll also be the first people to be like, Wow, you got really fat. [Laughs] It's an interesting thing.
So, you know, this chapter was me sort of working out a lot of those feelings and how I did it at a young age, I had just decided, well, I guess—I've never been interested in taming my appetites. And that's not just for food, it's like, for pleasure, for like, you know, I've always wanted another round of drinks, you know, I think I always just decided, like, being a little bit too much, being a little bit fat, that was okay with me, because I don't know how to control my appetite. And I didn't want to; I don't want to say no to that. And then I think there's something really powerful about, you know, again, like my love of Filipino food helped me take up space. And it helped me clarify who I was and how I wanted to take up space in this world. Like, I did not want to quiet that part of my identity to write about food, which also meant that for a while, I didn't write about food, or figured something else out that I would do.
And so when I think about that, I just think about—it is about encouraging appetite in my daughter, but it's really, to me this book is—I hope it's relevant to everyone, you know, for me, a lot of this is like how I mothered myself, into the place where I am now and seeing the way I was mothered and the things that I kind of wish I could have had, and I don't fault my mother for this, but she just wasn't, she just wasn't able to do that.
But the things that I had to mother myself into were acceptance. And that's like, work that I'm still doing every day. But I think you know, we don't write as—I don't hear as much about people who are trying to manage that, and who are trying to take up space, but who still struggle with feeling like, I wish I looked a certain way, even though I'm so proud of being who I am. It's really complicated. So yeah, I mean, appetite and identity and food. And all of that has, it's a very tangled web, in my mind. So this was kind of my attempt to, you know, just sort of unpack and understand.
Alicia: Right, no, and I loved it, because I do think…as women, especially when we're writing about appetite, we're writing about diet culture, and you very rarely hear from someone who makes the decision to just not ever decide to tame the appetite, you know, and what that means and what that looks like, and that's why I thought this chapter was really important, because of that, because for me, you know, yeah, I was like, Oh, I see myself, I recognize myself in this because, yeah, I love to eat, I've always loved to eat, and I'm never not going to eat a lot…[Laughs]
Angela: No, and that's one of the things that I love about your work is that I feel like you are unapologetic in your appetite and in your consumption. But you also are deeply thoughtful about it, like these things are like–they are nuanced. Do you know what I mean? And you'd never, I just feel like we're not allowed—we're supposed to not have an appetite. We're supposed to have an appetite, but somehow pretend that we don't have an appetite, or, I don't know, like, really, I mean, I think also like, when I am indulging my appetite, I feel like an animal. I feel I'm no different than an animal. I'm a human animal. And I just think like, we're not encouraged to do that as women, we're not encouraged to just fully inhabit ourselves. I mean, I think all people but especially women. And so I mean, I love seeing people out there doing [it], we are out here, you know. [Laughs] And this is my like, you know, a little bit of my stake in the ground, I'm planting a flag, you know, there would be no mistake—
Alicia: Well, to talk about the animal aspect of food and appetite and also being a mother, which is that you wrote, obviously, the piece that went viral is about breastfeeding. My only experience in thinking about this, of course, because I'm not a mother, is the way vegans or vegetarians write about the ways in which breastfeeding changes their relationship to dairy, like that's a really common thing.
But I wanted to ask how that topic and writing about that topic and that topic changing the trajectory of your work, how did that change your relationship to food or food production, if it did?
Angela: Yeah, totally. First of all, I wish that you had been asking me these questions when my first book came out because like, I love how you're like, “It's really common for vegans to talk about, you know, dairy and how breastfeeding changed their relationship to it.” And I was like, I'm not aware of that, like, literature…[Laughter] And so I think it's kind of, just that question is really exciting to me. And I wish that there was more conversation around that.
Part of writing, you know, this article about breastfeeding was me being like, why do we drink the milk of a cow? Right? Why is that? Like, that's strange, right? Like, it's strange. And why have we created an entire industry around this? And like, Why do, when we look at a food plate, dairy has a very large section? And that's because of the dairy lobby, right? That's not because of our innate biological needs as human beings, right?
So, yeah, I mean, how I thought about food production, 100%. This, you know, sort of lays the path for so many things that I'm thinking about. It’s work, you know, this is what your body—this is what female bodies are built to do, right? That's just true. This is what sets us apart as mammalians, you know, like, we produce milk to feed our young, but I just went into it so naive, like, it was a job. You know, I was spending the eight plus hours feeding—eight plus hours that I was like, am I supposed to be being productive? Like I'm being productive, like I'm keeping, I'm doing nothing less than keeping a human alive. I'm not being paid to do this. I'm not being given time. I'm like, in a weird office with a noisy radiator, you know, with another woman—our breasts out, just like pumping. Right?
So it made me think about time and how we value time. And it also like, again, like this was all happening when I was writing about food. And there was the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. And my God, how that was so polarizing, and how people just showed their whole asses about how they don't think the workers are valuable or deserving of this thing. And so I think, you know, there was the labor aspect of it that really came into play for me, that made me think about—I grew up saying grace, because I grew up Catholic, right? And when we remember to say grace, my girls do it with my parents. So when we remember to say grace at our house, we say, you know, thank you to the people who grew this food, who picked the food, who you know transported the food, who prepared the food.
So I think now this sort of supply chain of food and how it is produced is something that's always top of mind and like, how do you negotiate having like an ethical relationship to that? I know this is stuff that you have thought about. This is stuff that really came to the forefront, right? And then also balancing that economically because, you know, breastfeeding is, in a country that does not give paid leave, it’s an economic privilege to be able to do that. And then people who cannot breastfeed, there's very little money put into understanding that and seeing is that, oftentimes people feel like that's a failure on their part, not as opposed to like, is it a signal about something about the health of the mother, right? Could we be—this is sort of going off a little tangent, but I think that there's a lot of that kind of stuff, like in the labor of it, and how we value women's bodies. And also just like the general chain of food production, for sure. It 100% made me think of all of those things.
And so now I'm always thinking about, someone made this food, right? Someone produced this food in some way, a being—a living thing, whether it is a plant or an animal, or a person. Yeah, it’s just, I mean mothering and becoming a mother really reframed everything for me. You know, it is that care that my body couldn't help but do, you know, like my body did. And then suddenly, I felt like, it's a very beautiful thing to be able to do this. It's a very important thing. It was very meaningful to me. It was also that I was chained to a chair and chained to a person. And so yeah, I mean, that's what—that's where I'll leave it. That’s another long answer. [Laughter]
Alicia: No, no…have you read the book To Write As If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno? It came out last year, I think you'll like it. She writes a lot about the body and like, I think it has a lot of parallels to your work. But it's also, you know, just more personal I guess, but she writes about having her first kid and then getting pregnant and then and like, amidst the pandemic, not being treated like a human being but a vessel and seeing the labor of the people bringing…anyway, I think you'll like the book. [Laughs] But you know, and there are so many parallels in both Like a Mother and Essential Labor to what I've been thinking about in food: formal versus informal knowledge, institutions versus communities, individual versus systemic, the political role of care…
And so I wanted to ask how the understanding of the significance of something like informal knowledge building when it comes to motherhood affected your perspective on, you know, other subjects as you've said. Motherhood changed your whole lens on the world, but specifically figuring out where, how to learn from community and informal knowledge rather than constantly just taking the word of the institutions.
Angela: Yeah, you know I mean, motherhood was a big part of that. But I would say that it was all, I don't know, I just feel like my whole life is learning. And I love that. And that's one of the things that I love about my life.
I definitely feel like when I arrived at college—so again, I came from a very, very small town in Pennsylvania. And I didn't know about a lot of things in the world, you know, and I was like, I'm gonna go to New York City. I went to Barnard College, right? Like, I arrived there. And everyone there was like, I went to Milton Academy. I went to, you know, I went to Stuyvesant High, and I was like, like, Googling like, “what are the regents exams,” right? Like, I was like that. And I felt so out of place. Y’know what I mean, like, I felt unprepared. And I felt very self-conscious in a way about that. And I also feel like I came into, like a formal racial consciousness, right, and class consciousness. Like, I mean, when I was at Barnard was when I was like, Oh, this is how we re-create a ruling class, right?
Like, what I'm saying is that I had a lot of informal knowledge. And a lot of wisdom growing up, you know, that I kind of trusted and knew. I was always like, why are we Catholic? So, is colonialism…like, what would we have been if we weren't Catholic? And my parents were like, God will provide…like, what are you talking about? Why are we asking these questions, right? And so I've always had it in me to like, question the institution, right, unfortunately, for my parents, and then our family institution for many years.
So I came to college, and then I was like, Oh, it's also reckoning with for many, many years, my definition of success was, you know, grammar, spelling, right? Like, all of that shit, which is like, those are just rules that some guy made up, right? Like coming into this and wanting to succeed on terms, you know, set by white people, being legible to white people, and being legible to institutions, which I will not deny, like, that has served me well. And this sort of like, ability to kind of code-switch in a way that I sometimes can't even tell the difference. Like, that's just been a part of my life, right?
And one of the things, though, that happened is coming into consciousness as an adult, and just realizing like, Oh, no, like, I was privileged enough to, like, be educated in these institutions to figure out how to slip into these places. And then to realize, like, no, this doesn't, this doesn't speak to me. It's actually not my vibe, right? Like, but what is your vibe, then? So you have to kind of go and like, figure it out.
And I felt sort of free in that, you know, when I always felt really drawn to creative people, but I was never encouraged to, you know, pursue the arts or to pursue creativite work, or my parents were supportive, but they don't really understand what I do. I think to this day, still, it's a little bit confusing to them.
All of this to say that one of the other, before motherhood, one of the big things, and I really need to shout out is my spouse Will, who [when] I met, he was a community organizer. He's now a labor organizer. And there was just something about, we are so different, but when we met, there was a shared values. There was a belief in, everyone's story is important. You know, he was all about, his thing was, people come up, and they speak their truth to power. And that's when I realized, like, Oh, yes, like our lived experiences, our informal knowledge, when collected, just because it's not in a book, just because it's not what's reported, like, it is so real, and it is so powerful. And he really, like his work helped me see that. And I feel like that was kind of the start for me of being like, I want to take what I'm doing, and I want to put it in service of something else. And I want it to be a harnessing of collective energy and community knowledge.
And then mothering with the whole sort of like, ask your doctor even though no one has, no one's done any studies on this and everything that's going on was something someone said in 1890, right, no one’s challenged this wisdom. Meanwhile, the greatest wisdom that came from birthing and mothering came from midwives and female elders. And that's informal knowledge that was never put in a book, y'know, doctors, when we created medicine, when people invented—when white men invented medicine, they discredited the experience of midwives. And at the turn of the 20th century in America, 50% of babies were born with midwives, who are mostly immigrants and Black women, right? This was very much a working class woman's job.
So I mean, this is just my way of saying I feel like my whole life has been leading to this moment, and motherhood, sort of refined that lens, a place to put all of these things, but it's been multiple steps along the way, and it's been sort of painful. You know what I mean? Like feeling like, Oh, I wish I had known this earlier. But then realizing like, Oh, like, but I know this now. And I think there are many people who share these values and who want to put their faith in more informal knowledge, and who don't trust institutions, but don't really know how, you know what I mean? And I feel like that's a journey, like we're all learning. And I feel like, I don't know…I'm old enough to remember when we weren't supposed to know everything. I feel like now there's this pressure to have some sort of expertise in everything. And I'm like, I still don't know what the fuck I'm doing. Like, everything I'm doing is learning, and that's what's fun. That's part of why I like being a writer is just doing homework or whatever.
Alicia: That's so interesting. Yeah, I feel like this is something I've been thinking about a lot, is there is this kind of—you're not supposed to ask questions. You're not supposed to say “I don't know,” you're supposed to, we're all supposed to have sort of absorbed some sort of bastion of knowledge that we might not even know exists about things that we've never thought about before. But like, you're just not allowed to not know things anymore, you're not allowed to be learning. I don't know. It's very weird. I mean, that's more social media than anything else.
But, because I'm always interested in this. So you went to college in New York? How did you come to live in Seattle?
Angela: So when I was in college, my parents—long story short, they had a midlife crisis. And my dad became very disillusioned by managed healthcare. This was 1997, by the way. And so they just decided to make a huge change. Like, my dad was miserable, and my mom was miserable; they're miserable together. And so they decided to start over, and they moved to Washington State. And I was in college, and I was just like, I need to get out of New York. So I was like, okay, and now they seem to be doing better, so I'm gonna go spend a summer with them. And the Pacific Northwest in the summer is heaven, it's so beautiful. And I was like, oh, I’ll like, come out here after I graduate, and I'll stay for a couple months, and then I'll go back and get a job in publishing as an editorial assistant. And that was 1999. And then I just never left.
You know, I spent many years comparing it to the East Coast. And then I just was like, it's easier here. And I used to feel some sort of shame around that. But um, I don't know, it's just more laid back. I feel really—I've written about this—I just don't, I don't want to say that I'm not ambitious. But it's just like, there's ladders that you climb, there's like places you could try to put yourself into institutions, I guess. And I'm just really not about the hustle. I feel like I work really hard and I'm really not trying to work harder. Like, I like my little life.
Before I had a chance to, you know, publish books, having a job as a staff writer at an alt-weekly, it was like—that was great. Like, you know, I feel like it's easier to do, I don't know, community building can be—I don't want to generalize too much. I just like being in a city. It's a young city. It's a weird city, in some ways. It's changing. But um, yeah, but I like the West Coast. I think I'm—
Alicia: I'm always interested in how people leave New York, because obviously, I'm from Long Island, but I spent a lot of time in New York City. And so then, because I left in 2019, but like, didn't really think about it, about what I was doing. So I'm always like, What was the choice? What were the choices that led you away from New York? [Laughter]
Angela: I think it was the thought that I would come back. And I think there's always a little bit of like—I couldn't go back. You know, like, it's all the same, like things are there. They're not going away. But New York also still has the same ugly, modern, new high rise weird, like townhome architecture that we get here in Seattle. It's not, you know, not to be I mean. I went to college in New York from ‘95 to ‘99. And, you know, I go back now and I'm like, This is so different. I was like, you know, it wasn't even like dirty New York, y'know. But yeah, I think I just like being a little bit outside things.
How was it for you? Like, do you feel like returning or do you feel like you're home? Or do you kind of feel like it's all open?
Alicia: I would prefer to stay here in San Juan ’cause it's an easier life, like you're saying, and I talked to Jami Attenberg about moving from New York to New Orleans. And same thing. It's like, it's just easier, and for me, especially as a food writer, I feel like it gives me a lot more to talk about and I don't feel like I have to go to the same restaurants as everybody. And like, obviously, I don't even think I could move back until everything goes differently with the housing situation. Like it's just such—I mean, it's happening everywhere. But I'm just like watching on Twitter, and everyone is like, my landlord just raised my rent $700, $1,200. And I'm like, I'm never going back. I can never go back.
But I mean, we have that problem here, too, because it's become like a tax haven. So there's like, all the real estate is absolutely mind-boggling. And like the daughter-in-law of the governor is sort of instrumental in it, which seems like a problem, so— [Laughter]
But, yeah, so everywhere has its challenges. But yeah, I feel really good. You know, having gotten sort of away from New York. You know, when I left New York, I was bartending and writing. And here, now I just have a newsletter. So, I'm working a lot less hard. [Laughs]
Angela: I mean, I think there's something to be said to of space—physical space. I have a house, you know what I mean, to have physical space, which is also, it's not necessary, but it does lead to mental space. You know what I mean, things feel more expansive here in a way that like, I can go on a long walk, the mountains are 45 minutes that way—wait, sorry, going West. Sorry, the East actually—
But I think there's just something there where I feel. I don't know. I just—there's something here where I just feel like I can be myself in a way that—I'm less like, thinking about myself in the context of other people and other things, like I could just sort of be in an easy—
Alicia: Exactly, no, no. And that's really key. Obviously, like I'm homesick a lot. But I, then I just go back, you know. And then I'm like, I'm sick of this. Goodbye. [Laughter]
But also, to get back to your book, in Essential Labor, you talk about the flattening of creative identity that came through being a mother in the pandemic, do you think that it is possible to change how work and caregiving are structured and perceived in the U.S.? And specifically, what do you think mothers who are creative workers, thus doing work that's kind of already devalued in our society, what is really needed to thrive?
Angela: That's a great question. I do think it's possible. I have to think it's possible, because—I'm glad that your question wasn't, do you, like, do you hope that this is, you know, like, I find it hard to be, I find it hard to be hopeful about it in this moment. But I mean, I wouldn't have written this book if I didn't think it was possible. And, you know, maybe it will take a very long time. But I think we are due for, I mean, the United States has never reckoned with all of its original sins, right. But one of them, you know, one of the biggest ones at this point, that's like a foundation to it is that care work doesn't matter and has no financial value. So I think, you know, we had these moments, there was the advanced check, tax child credit. And then also, when we were doing direct stimulus payments, that was not specifically like, here's pay for mothering and care work. But, here's pay for keeping yourself alive and keeping people alive, which is what care work is.
So I think that people are—that conversation is happening, I think, you know, part of writing this book was, there were all these, there were so many people who were suddenly awake to, like the child care crisis is a pre-pandemic problem, right? Like that childcare workers are three times more likely to live in poverty. The fact that until your child is age 6, in the United States, like you're on your own, to figure all of that out, and suddenly a lot of white affluent women, to generalize, were realizing that, you know, when care structures fall apart, when your nanny and childcare and babysitters go away — they are left to do all of this work. And that to be a woman in America is to be defined by a condition of servitude. And that was a hard fucking lesson. And people reacted in a way that they were rightfully so, really angry. And part of writing this book was, I was like, this is going to go away, right? Like when schools reopen, people are gonna think we solved the childcare crisis, right? When things are not inconvenient, when people can start outsourcing that care, and we're gonna lose that momentum.
And so to a certain extent, like, why I also believe it's possible is because I know that for myself, and for other people, like, I will never shut up about this. This is something that is foundational and essential to our country and how it functions and until we properly value that, we're going to have an inhumane and dysfunctional society. So yes, I think it's possible. In this particular moment, I feel that it's a much longer fight, and then it's going to be a much harder fight. I don't want it to be a fight, but that's that's where I am on that.
You know, and in terms of mothers who are doing creative work, I mean, I just think of all people doing creative work again, like, care is an issue that, obviously, yes, I'm writing about mothering but like, care is the work of being a human being, you know, needfulness is the state of being a human being. And so, you know, if I'm just like, allowed to say what I would like to do is like, we should just give people money. We live in a very rich country, there is enough money to do this. If we gave people a universal basic income, a guaranteed adequate income, which is not a new idea—you know, people were working on this, the National Welfare Rights Organization was doing this; they came close to getting it under Nixon. If we paid people money, if we gave people money and guaranteed a floor of what a decent life is in America, people could be creative. You know, people could do their creative work, people could mother, people could still be really fucking ambitious and try to get a six-figure job, like six-figure salary job, like, they could still do that.
You know, and I think that that's, you know, we made up money. [Laughter] We can, like, if we can make up a new system, you know, that, that gives people—you know, I did this interview for this the future of things, it was like the future of work. And I was talking about this, and the producer was like, So in your world, when you like, meet for drinks with your friends on Friday, and someone asks you how work is doing and you're like, well, Tommy's like, struggling with potty training. And I was like, No, dude, like, in my world, you meet your friends for drinks on Friday, and they're like, how are you? Like we don’t talk about work—we just talk about like, what are you doin’? Right? And so I think that, yeah, like, I think so what we need to do is like, guarantee—I mean maybe it's not just an adequate income or guaranteed income, maybe it's just like, health care, where you like, leave, like, they need people need to, like be able to live a dignified life, that doesn't involve work, you know, that is like, not defined by work that just that allows them to exist. That's what people need. And that's not just mothers, and not just mothers who do creative work that we need that. We need that. I mean, I think it's really like for me; it's for everyone.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah, no, no, I mean, these are all the same answers I give when people are like, How do we fix the food system? And it's like, you have to make sure people have a good life. And then, that they don't have to work two or three jobs just to eat crap, and that they get to cook with, I mean, if they want to [they can] eat whatever they want, but like, you know, you get the option to cook, you know. Right now, it's like, so much of that moment, I guess when you started writing about food, that moment of like, go to the farmers’ market and eat kale and everything will be fine. It really stopped short of talking about poverty, it stopped short of talking about the systemic, obviously, disadvantages. It's like, some people won't be able to do this—sad for them. And then like, moving on—
Angela: Yeah, look, we don't talk about how poverty is a condition we have created —it's an unnatural condition. We made this, right? And there's so much, I mean, also like the farmers’ market thing. Like, what is it, maybe now it's higher, but it's something like 6 or 12 percent of people get their produce from a farmers’ market here. I mean, so not even like, forget, like how much money you can spend. It's just such a small—you're not tackling the system. And that's not to say they're not great and you should keep money in local economies. Like I think it's all of those things. But yeah, we're not even getting to that.
And we're not talking about the profound way that we assign morality to food, like people who are poor make bad choices about food. Those are choices created by poverty and scarcity. Like, anyway, this is not like a…I think you and I are on the same page about this.
I think it's like the conversations that we have about food are so not the conversations we need to read. Right, like we spend a lot of time on that. And I think the same is true for care and mothering, right? It is an issue that affects everyone. And it is an issue, it is systemic, like we're talking about, I think we're both talking about giving people a decent life, which doesn't—we've come so far from that, that it seems really radical to be like, let's just, you know, take it back a step. You know, like, it'd be like—money is made up, are you with me? Like, that seems really destabilizing to people, but it's just a truth. And I think like we just drifted so far from it, that it's really, it's discouraging.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, no, absolutely. I'm hopeful, I think that now people are more, even if it's just jokes or memes on social media, people are more willing to say— people are more willing to say that the all of this is bizarre. Like, even if it's just—today, we're talking on Tax Day, which is—I feel like vomiting because I still haven't done mine. But the idea that people are now talking about, why does the government let it be so difficult and complicated when they know how much we owe because they have the documentation and, you know, what are we actually even paying for? Like, I think it's important that we have a forum now for those like people to have that conversation, even if it's a joke, most of the time.
Angela: One of my favorite things that I've seen recently is like, I mean, I saw it on Instagram, but it was a tweet, you know, that whole thing. But it was like, you know, humans really could have had stargazing and like pottery making and drumming, and now we have credit scores, and like, you know, but this idea that, like, we could just be fucking living. Now it's like, we need money we need like, I just, ugh—
Alicia: Yeah, we do need a general strike, and to not pay anything, not pay our taxes, not pay our student loans, not pay rent, just like let's stop and get this shit sorted out before we keep moving.
Angela: Yeah, I mean it’s really…we shouldn't be privatizing human rights. We could have this conversation, like in a circle for like, a few days, and it would be great but we should probably move on… [Laughter]
Alicia: No, no, no, of course. No, well I just wanted to ask you what are the other things you're thinking about that you want to write about? I do love that you characterize being a writer is ongoing learning, you know? So what are you learning about these days?
Angela: I'm learning about—so again, since I started as a food writer, the fact that I've now written two books on motherhood and mothering seems like a great surprise in my life. I mean, I think it's very—it's been great for me. But I mean, this is really just one aspect of my identity. But right now, the things that I'm really drawn to are not privileging one kind of care. I mean, I think care is a conversation we need to continue to have. And so I want to explore care. Like, so I've been thinking about it in terms of, you know, raising young children, but what is it like to have everything from like, you know, how do we encourage people who are not parents to have meaningful relationships with the youth and the elders? Right, like elder care, disability care. And then also, how do we build, one of the things that we lack, our institutions don't care about people; care is not a value that's at the center of institutions. And so I'm interested in exploring, how might we make that happen? And so care in general, an expansive and inclusive and surprising view of care, is one of the things that I'm thinking a lot about.
I'm thinking a lot about the concept of service. Service, to me, is very clarifying. I think my work as a writer is about learning. But what gives me meaning is that it is definitely of service to people. And that's one of the things that I cherish about the feedback that I've gotten from people. And so this idea of service, and how we can encourage that, and people are exploring that.
And then the other thing that I'm really into is middle age. You know, I'm about to be 45. I never—and I don't mean this in a fatalistic way, but I just never really imagined myself at this age, and realizing that my imagination really was pretty short. And I feel like I have to believe and I do believe that, you know, some of my most interesting transformations are still ahead of me. And so there's really not a literature of middle age for women, there's like some menopause-y stuff. But the choices that we make, and I don't know, there's like in the pandemic, too, I've done a lot of self work and therapy. But I've also, like—I haven't been able to escape myself, even though I've tried very hard through various attempts and substances. But I feel like, I don't know, if I'm about to be 45, like I said, I just feel like I don't feel confused about who I am. And I really like that. And I'm kind of curious, like, where that goes.
Yeah, so those are the things I'm thinking.
Alicia: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Angela: Yeah, of course. Thank you.
Alicia: Thanks so much to everyone for listening to this week's edition of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. Read more at www.aliciakennedy.news. Or follow me on Instagram, @aliciadkennedy, or on Twitter at @aliciakennedy.