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A Conversation with Anna Sulan Masing
We talked about her upbringing, her theatre background, the projects she’s launched, the significance of spirits, and much more.
Anna Sulan Masing, an academic, writer, and poet based in London, has been very busy lately co-founding two significant projects: Black Book, which has been running a series of talks and will be a a global agency for Black and non-white creatives, and Sourced Journeys, which will explore the origins of foodstuffs. These projects are, to her mind, perhaps adjacent, but without overlap. This ability she has to have her hands in so many discrete projects and do them all justice is unique; it goes along with her ability to connect seemingly disparate threads. Her excitement around all aspects of food is infectious. This conversation left me so inspired!
We talked about her upbringing, her theatre background, the projects she’s launched, the significance of spirits, and much more. Because of some technical difficulties, the audio is not available here as usual. Please go here to listen, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Anna, thank you so much for coming on.
Anna: I'm very excited to be here.
Alicia: Awesome. Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Anna: Sure. So I've been thinking a lot about how to answer this to be succinct. And apologies in advance: I'm not sure if I can be. [Laughs.]
So I grew up in—to begin with—in Sarawak, which is East Malaysia. It's the biggest state of Malaysia and it's on the Borneo Island. So I was there for the first part of my childhood. I was actually born in Australia, but I was there for such a brief amount of time.
So my dad, a couple years after we moved there, became a politician and he was in opposition. And I used to travel a lot with him up the river to Iban, which is an Indigenous community. So I used to travel a lot with him and I would eat a lot of food with my aunties and my family, which was Iban food and Indigenous food, which is quite simple, like rice cooked in bamboo, broth, chicken, wild boar, tapioca leaves that are kind of beaten down, lots of garlic and ginger, but not a lot of spice, per se. So that was what I ate when I would travel with him a lot when he was campaigning, but also just when visiting family.
But then in the city. When we were in the city, we—which is Kuching—we ate a lot of food that my mum cooked. My mum was New Zealander. White, Scottish heritage, white New Zealander. But she would cook, obviously, with the food that's around, that she would buy from market and a lot more sort of—I would call them general Southeast Asian spices, I guess. Which has influence from the Chinese and the Indian, the Malay, and the Indigenous food doesn't really come into I guess city food as much. And the kind of like public space eating was predominantly Chinese and Indian—and Malaysian, Chinese and Malaysian Indian. There's also Malay food, which I don't know so much about—it mixes with a lot of food. That's not a very nice word, “mixes.”
But yeah, I think it was in sort of my guess public space—simplified, but within a public space, I guess, like the street markets and the coffee shops, breakfast, coffee shops, and things like that, were leaning probably towards Malaysian Chinese food and Malaysian Indian food. Which I think is quite interesting because that's the kind of identity that I've taken with me into New Zealand and London, with this sort of public eating space and being from Southeast Asian as opposed to Indigenous, ’cause—food is such a point of reference of identity, when you might be eating and migrating and meeting new people. And so that's the kind of communities that you can kind of just slip into, I think.
So then I moved to New Zealand when my parents split up. And in New Zealand my mum—like I would say that my mum taught me how to be Asian, even though she's white. She taught me how to be Southeast Asian, how to be Malaysian. She cooked a lot with the sort of spices and flavors from black bean sauce to cumin to chili that was, you know, available. And she cooked them in Malaysia and then she really, really embedded that identity of Southeast Asia in New Zealand.
I think that was her way of doing it as opposed to—you know, it's difficult to kind of instill an identity that isn't yours into your children. We didn't have a lot of money, so my mother cooked everything from scratch. So she was a nurse in a retirement homes, so she worked night shifts and then would come home and just cook big batches. Like, buy lots of food—we had [a] massive freezer—cook like everything from scratch: bread, tomato paste, ice cream, everything. So I grew up with this incredible sense and understanding of food, which I feel incredibly blessed to have.
And then also her—so her partner for most of my childhood in New Zealand was European, so general European ’cause he’d lived in a lot of places. And he was also an amazing cook. So he would cook a lot of food and always cook everything from scratch as well for a lot of kind of European foods. And they searched to get like incredible salami and things like that.
And then on Sundays we would have breakfast, when we—they found this German bakery that had zopf and really amazing krakauer and just like really incredible croissants—those were the only things that weren’t cooked from scratch, were Sundays.
And yes, so I had this amazing repertoire of food in my childhood. And you know, really lucky that my mother had this kind of skill set with not a lot of money to be able to do that.
But then again, I was the weird kid at school who ate all the weird food. I don't know what America was like in the early ’80s. But there weren’t a lot of, say, Italian people in New Zealand, so eating a salami sandwich was weird to bring to school. So on that I have my Asian foods, and so everything I ate had strong odors.
And I was also just a weird kid. My mum didn't—she'd have made our clothes or we bought them from charity shops. My sister was really amazing at being able to wear clothes and look super cool and great, whereas I would just wear ridiculous things ’cause I'd be like, ‘This is so beautiful. Look at this.’ I would make a necklace out of like a handkerchief, and they’ve got like embroidery around them, and I'd cut out the middle patches and wear the embroidered part as a necklace.
So I was like the weird kid that looked weird and wore weird clothes and had weird food. So I think that was my childhood. [Laughs.] And then in the teenage years I had got a part-time job, bought McDonald's when I was able to, discovered music, and became less weird and found my own kind of crew in the fact that I had music circles, I guess. But yeah.
Alicia: That's so funny to me, ’cause—I mean, not funny ha-ha. But my mom was not Puerto Rican, but she was the one who made the Puerto Rican food for us and kind of tried her best to make sure we knew what that food was. So it's interesting also that your mom did that for you too. It's a very nice, motherly thing I think.
Anna: I mean, I can't imagine how hard it would be to try and teach your children a culture that you don't have the words for, or the history, the language for. So, yeah, lovely, a very lovely mothering thing indeed.
Alicia: Yes. And how—when did you end up moving to London?
Anna: I moved to London—I did a year of university in New Zealand, and then came to London to study performing arts and then just never left. [Laughs.] Yes. So, 19 years ago? Yeah.
Alicia: Oh, wow. Wow. That is a long time. And, you-
Anna: Actually, it was exactly 19 years ago.
Alicia: No, that's wonderful.
And your career began in the theater, and your PhD is in identity, from what I read on your website. So, how—you kind of explain this a bit in your answer to the first question, but how did food come into it as a kind of focal point for you?
Anna: For me, I always think I was like a storyteller, I guess. Which sounds like such an overused word at the moment. But I was always writing as a kid, I was—and I found this kind of music scene, alternative music scene that really spoke to me. And I was a dancer. And I just sort of thought that through performance of any kind, this is a great way to tell stories, to explore topics, to look at things in depth.
So theater was a natural progression for me, and I did dance. And then food has just always been such a big part of my life. I don't know whether it's being Malaysian, and I think a lot of Malaysians would say that. [Laughs.] You can't be Malaysian without being obsessed with food. I don't know whether it's like the way my mother really instilled our family life with—we felt so rich and nourished because she spent all this time cooking this amazing food. We didn't have a lot of other things, but we had food.
So it's just always been there. So yes, so then performance, I studied. My PhD is how does asking questions, how identity changes in space and location changes? And I was looking at post-colonial feminist theory and performing arts theory, or performance theory. So looking at how to do performance through the lens of post-colonial feminist theory.
And I was really looking at how our stories change when space and location changes. So for the jungle specifically, ’cause I was looking at Iban culture and female performance practices. And how that changes from the longhouse to—which is like the village community—to other places, to city spaces and then globally. And I focused on dance and poetry. And then looked at space and weaving, which is kind of the female war, I would say, act of war within the Iban culture.
But food just was the essence throughout my entire thesis. And that just naturally, just everything I described, it would be—there would be like, ‘the steam top something blah blah blah’ and it was like the fire cooking the food. It was just there the whole time.
But also when I had a theatre company in my twenties for about seven years, and even through that, I would cook on stage. I did a show all about apples, because I wanted the fill the stage with apples. And then I cooked an apple crumble at the beginning of the show, and then the smell of the apple crumble was, you know. And then you’ve got all this icky apple crumble at the end, which is quite complicated. Cooking for theatre is very different from cooking in real life because what, how much cinnamon you need to make to fill a space? And then apple crumble is not a nice thing to eat afterwards. There's a lot of practice, a lot of working that out because everyone wants to eat it once they smell it. So yeah, everything.
And then my PhD ended up being part in practicals. I did a show. It was an hour-long show and it was basically a poem for our four different performers. And then when I asked the audience to bring with—either a spice or a story that it could be, that could be written on a piece of ribbon tube woven into a loom I had on set. And we cooked curry, and then three quarters of the way through we served the curry and continued telling the stories. And so one of my performances is this amazing woman. It was her job to collect all the spice and then balance all the spice on the spot whilst performing to make sure that the food was delicious to eat at the end. And every time she nailed it, it was incredible. I don't know how she did it.
So yes, so like food has always been there. I also worked in bars from the age of 18. And really only the last maybe three years have—I've not been in some kind of bar, or working on the floor somewhere, or helping out a friend, or. So it was just this really natural gravitation towards—from working into a space and the industry, writing about the industry, being obsessed with food, or what food means. Yeah. It feels very natural.
Alicia: Yeah. No, I love that your idea of identity and how it changes depending on where you are, because I'm feeling that so much in terms of leaving New York and living in Puerto Rico and having a completely reframed concept of the self.
How did—this is kind of a backtrack, but how did you decide to to make that your focus?
Anna: I mean, PhDs are such selfish endeavors to be honest, and then I just—it's so self indulgent. And then you obsess about yourself for four years, and everyone gets bored of you. But, yeah, I mean to me, it was like I couldn't really work out what I was doing and who I was and what are these different kind of structures within my life. And also this idea of within global north spaces I identify as being Southeast Asian, but spiritually and culturally it's—my identity is Indigenous, which is very different to the kind of public spaces of Southeast Asia, I would say. Because it's more aligned to other Indigenous cultures from like the Pacific islands, or maybe even sort of Native American cultures. Which is really non-binary, incredibly spiritual, like multiple gods, very in touch with nature.
And that’s kind of how I sort of grew up, or like it was really embedded in me. And I was trying to work out how that fits and who that fits and sort of what stories I needed to tell. And I was writing this piece of theater, and I just hit a kind of rock. So I went back to my old lecturer, and we were going to talk about it. And she was like, ‘You need to do a PhD.’ So I was like, ‘Fine.’
I mean, that's the short version, but in—but my conclusion really was that migration is about the continuous meeting of audiences, and having to, on both sides, having to do work. But it's always generally up to the migrant to do the most amount of work because they often have the least amount of power. And so it's that constant adapting of who you are, wanting to choose how to present yourself, wanting to choose how you want other people to read you, articulating different parts of your identity, which actually can be incredibly empowering, but it's just a lot of work, right?
And so that—the word decolonizing comes up a lot in both your work and in discussions of food, media, culture, and systems. What does it mean to you? And how did you come to your definition of that word?
Anna: So it's funny because it seems super recent that these word—this word, is coming about, right? It’s like, we had a conversation on Twitter a little while ago about how these words that people were kind of latching onto and then losing their meaning. Oh no, you had it also in one of your discussion things, didn’t we?
And I think decolonizing has become one of those trendy words and people aren't really understanding it. And I don't mean that in a kind of negative way; I just mean that there are a lot of ways to decolonize. And I've been speaking about this, what it feels like for a very long time. And now suddenly people are listening, which is kind of funny, but that's cool. But I do think it's really, really important—I do think it’s really important to define your own personal meaning to it so that you can actually do the actions around it.
And so I've been thinking a lot about that in the last—well, within the last couple of weeks, particularly with the projects that have sort of been launched recently. And for me, sort of continuous work to decolonize is there’s lots of different ways to do it. But for me, it's focus on narratives because that's what I know. So for me, it's a shift in narrative or shift in lens. And I really like the idea, why we like the word shifting because I feel like it's like a constant moving. So we're constantly moving and thinking and reevaluating.
So I guess that comes down to us de-centering, to the point that you—like there is no center. So coming, focusing, making sure that everything is not binary, or—yeah, that there is no binary. By not having a binary, by not having binary narratives we get to complicate them all.
Because storytelling and narratives are not—they’re not systems of power, but they are adjacent to, they support, they're powerful. And so I'm not just talking about shift—I'm really not using the word shifting to talk about shifting power, because that's not productive. I think we live in a world where powerful structures are not helpful, can be violently oppressive. So, I wouldn't want to use the word shift in terms of shifting power, because that's not what we need to do. But I like the idea of shifting narratives. Does that make sense?
Alicia: Oh, absolutely.
Anna: Like, thinking about? Ok, cool.
Looking at what it is that we're looking at—because I guess what I'm saying is that there's so many beautiful, wonderful, inclusive stories, and narratives, and ways to tell stories that we just need to shift. We shift our gaze and we can see them. And it's making sure that we see them. That's what I—for me, that's decolonizing.
And that's in, you can do it in so many little ways. And that's one of the other things. I think it is a big task and we all need to work out the best way that we can decolonize our thinking, but also it doesn't have to be that difficult.
So, a really simple example would be to say that to tell a story of America, which is Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas and that's how America began. Or Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, enslaved a bunch of people, kickstarted colonialism and the trade of people. And then that second version of that story, which is only adding a few words, you then open up the possibility of other questions. Oh, who are the people that were there before? What did they do? What did they eat? What was their culture? What were their names? What were they—while the first one totally erases the idea of a before.
Anna: I actually got out when I was looking at your questions I actually got out a book and if it's possible, I'd like to kind of read from it ’cause it's Raj Patel.
Anna: I know that you like—but I think this is quite a good way of sort of thinking about that.
So it's his Letters to a Young Farmer, his letter:
‘When the skies were deeper blue, it was not yours. Before white people came to this land, it belonged to no one for there was no property and land before conquest. Before white people shackled Africans to this land, cash agriculture had not been invented. If you have title to the ground on which you stand, you traffic in stolen goods. North America is a settler colony, one that has conjured away its history through bullet and ballot. People of that agriculture, the knowledge, the language are not dead. They live and fight. Listen to them.’
I think that is the—like, listen to them? Those narratives and stories all exist. We just need to shift our gaze. Because for me, that's what the work of decolonizing is about.
Alicia: I love that. I love that. That's very perfect. And it's funny. Gosh, I have an anecdote for—I have an anecdotal response for everything you say.
But no, I was on a call this morning where I was talking about an idea for a talk that I'm—I’ll give in a couple of months. And you know, what my idea that I kind of arrived to talk about is so much about that narrative shift, like how that small change in what the focus is. And I think that we're going through it in food media right now where people are saying, ‘We have to change the gaze from the chef from the owner to the worker, and what does food journalism look like when we make that change?’ And I think that that is—that's another, it's not as literal as decolonizing land that has been settled upon, but it is still another way of just doing that small shift that really busts open the possibilities of what the storytelling can do.
Anna: Like I'm sort of not that interested in solutions. I'm more interested in finding the right questions to the idea of listening to the people whose land this belonged to, then changes the way you see it and think about it and open so many other questions.
And that's where it gets interesting because we're not going to—tomorrow, New Zealand, Australia, America are not going to just be give back all their land. I mean, New Zealand put quite a bit of work towards it, but—you know what I mean? If we shift those questions and start thinking about—yeah, yeah, no, that's really, really interesting. And definitely—it doesn't take much to shift the gaze from chef to worker, because it's still a person. It's just a different story.
Alicia: No, and I love that because I am also not interested in solutions. But I think that people often think that writers, I guess, are people who are supposed to come up with solutions instead of just ask questions. But I definitely think it's not that. It's about the questions. I think that the—if there are solutions, they emerge through this new type of storytelling that comes from asking the questions, I think.
And I know that you, along with chef and food historian, Chloe-Rose Crabtree, you launched SOURCED JOURNEYS, a website that is looking at food systems and means of decolonizing them. You're also a co-founder of Black Book, which is in the process of becoming a global agency for Black and non-white creatives. Can you explain how these kind of projects came about? And whether you see an overlap in your work in both of them?
Anna: I actually don't see an overlap.
Alicia: Right. [Laughs.]
Anna: I mean, I think they’re adjacent, and related, I don't, I don't see that there—I mean, they might do but I guess they’re sort of after two different sort of things.
So with Black Book, I've known Zoe for a few years, and we've spoken a lot and we talk about very similar things. The end of last year, she sent me a message saying like, ‘Gotta talk. I've got an idea.’ And what—you've interviewed Zoe, and she's so enigmatic and energy and she's just incredible. And kind of like, ‘All right, I'm down, whatever, you know.’ And so—we’d still been talking, we hadn't really had a chance to properly catch up. And she's like, ‘And bring Frankie as well—it shouldn’t become competition too.’ So me and Frankie, we've worked together for years.
So originally, I would get jobs, I would often get jobs where it was about rebranding and recreating new narratives within corporate spaces or—and, for example, I’ve worked with the Estonian Tourism Board to try and create a new narrative of what Estonian restaurant food that has been taken globally. Anyway. So then, so—projects like that were like, ‘So there's a PR element. Do you have anyone to recommend?’ Well, I'd say, ‘Frankie, because we work together really well.’ So then we ended up working together on lots of projects and started a sort of communication agency.
So that sort of—yeah, that's how me, Frankie, and Zoe kind of hooked up. And then in February, sit down, had a proper conversation. And we've been working on like, ‘What's our intent? What do we see in the future, how we want to create this thing?’ And then ’cause it happened, and obviously Black Lives Matter protests, more of those happened and sort of push a lot of these conversations into the forefront again. And we thought, right, we've got to do—actually, we really have to do something.
And then another conversation between me, Zoe, and another foods person—we’d all been asked to be on a panel that was white-led. And all of us were like, ‘I don't want to do that. Because all we ever do things is for free, and well, we've been having this conversation where we want to do it, let’s just do it.’ So that's how these—this eight-week talk, talks, happened.
And it was a really good way of kicking off the projects so that we’d see what were the issues, I guess. What was happening in the world? What were people talking about? How do they want to approach being represented or being part of a community? Yeah, so that's how—it's been happening for a while, and it's definitely driven by Zoe in terms of her experience in the U.S. and seeing how people are collegiate around race.
So, in this project with Chloe, with Chloe-Rose, she—so I've been writing sort of this book, or researching this book, and being bounced around publishing houses and agents and whatnot, which is about looking at ingredients and through ingredients talking about sustainability and colonialism in food. And it sort of hadn't really gotten to where—and I got bored and all—I guess—not of the subject, but of trying to get it into the public eye and all of the research that I've done into the public eye because very few publications want to publish it. I mean, like, Whetstone, and, and YES & NO MAGAZINE, which is a culture magazine. And that's sort of right now—it’s like, ‘I have way more research.’
And then I've been talking to Chloe about it, and she's been doing similar stuff. She's an historian. So about almost a year ago, we just kind of thought about doing small, separate clubs to do this and talk to—investigate these things. And then when COVID hit, well, obviously that went out the window.
And we thought about stuff and we realized, ‘Actually, the kind of key point of our work and our research is important.’ And that's quite hard to, to sort of sate yourself some time. And that we should have a platform for it. And we should have a way to hold each other accountable.’ And so therefore, it kind of—we realized it was more of a publishing platform, more of a media project. But again, we wanted it to be open access. We wanted people to share in the learning, be part of it.
Yeah, so then trickle the next six months, I guess, almost five months, five to six months to work out how that could work. And that's when we came up with things like, ‘Well, this syllabus. And, well, let’s focus things on—like every three to four months, let's pick a new topic to focus on. And through that, we can explore different things.’ Yeah.
Alicia: No, and it seems so—it's rare to see someone kind of launch two big projects. And then also it's in the middle of a pandemic. You're kind of going against the grain in terms of being super productive during this time. I don't know if it feels that way.
Anna: Funny, because I was watching you and Jonathan [Nunn] and James [Hansen] and being like, ‘How are you guys being so productive? This is crazy. All I know how to do is cry and drink whisky.’ All I know how to do, you know?
But I guess ’cause I've been sitting in my head for so long. And then I could just, it's—all of that stuff is a slow process. It's like with everything. I'm sure it's the same with you. You'd be so busy for years or now you've got—I don’t know, you've got the space or whatever. People have the space to kind of let all that stuff that's been going in your brain for years kind of find a way. And it takes a little bit of a while to sit at the back of your head.
Yeah, so now, all of a sudden, everything happens, But that’s because I think I took three months of meltdown and then going like, ‘What do I want the world to look like? Ultimately, how can it look like—what do I want to look like, blah, blah, blah? Who are the people I want in my life?’ That's another thing I think is important.
Yeah, but no, I feel really excited about it. It doesn't take much. We've got a paid subscription—newsletter subscription thing, which—and, transparency, if we get 1,000 people subscribing, that means that both me and Chloe can spend a day a week dedicated to it. And we can commission two people a month to do research and writing. And that, the stuff doesn't take much, and that's, I think is, would be beneficial for a lot of people, what we have.
Alicia: No, absolutely. No, it's true. It doesn't take—I mean, it takes so much work and it takes so much thinking. And like you're saying, it's—everyone who's come out with what looks like a new big project during these months has been considering these things for years. And so it's only now that kind of—either because of timing, or because of actually having time to put in the effort in there, they're coming out now. And people are actually paying attention, which is also, an upside to what is otherwise a very miserable experience globally. [Laughs.]
But you mentioned whisky already, so yeah. I don't—[Laughs.] But I—I'm always excited and intrigued by people for whom what they drink is kind of as important as what they eat. So, how did your thoughtful consumption of wine and spirits come into your life? And do you think that there will come a time when spirits are—and maybe you've seen it, I don't know if I've seen it—but when spirits are as deeply considered as both food and wine? Do you see that coming?
Anna: I hope so. And the same with you. I don't think there's a lot of work like that happening. I mean, there's some obviously.
Yeah, so in—throughout the Iban community, and a lot of the other Indigenous communities, make rice wine. And so you’re in a longhouse and every family has a bilek. It's got a room that you have, but more than a room. But it's like little houses, and then you have a strip in front which is the veranda, which is communal. Everyone has their own patch of farmland where they farm rice or whatever vegetables they have. Everyone makes their own rice wine.
And party situations, like for the harvest festival gala, you have to try everyone's rice wine and rate it. And someone tells you theirs is the best and then up—rice wine is as important as food, as life, as culture, as ritual. I mean, you give it to the gods. And I think I had—booze is given to God, like in the name of God, in multiple religions. I mean, in Catholicism, it is the blood of Christ. Booze is everywhere. It's part of ritual and part of life. It's also part of farming cycles.
So it seemed weird to me that no one talks about it as a part of identity and sustainability and flavor and as an ingredient. And it’s so entrenched in colonialism and violence. [Laughs.] And then now it's so dominated by white boys, right? I'm not—yeah, no, it is. It is.
So—I'm trying to be kind but actually no, it is.
And that seems like such a shame. So I'm—and I've been really lucky that there's actually a couple of—for example, this great PR, in London, who, every time that one of the clients is doing some kind of learning or experience, she calls me up and says, ‘Do you want to go to this lecture?’ And I'm like, ‘Yes.’
So I've had this really great thing where I heard—he’s affectionately known as the Bat Man of Mexico. He did this lecture about agave clouds and how they’re ruining the ecosystem in terms of tequila. And in terms of the bat. And I was just like, ‘Wow, why don't we know that stuff? Like, this is so crucial. Everyone's talking about tequila and no one's having—the hot trend is Mexican food and drink and stuff, and no one's talking about the ecology, like the sustainable system behind it. It’s just seems bananas to me.
So it's partly to do with my learning, but partly because it's always been so embedded in food. And one of the things my mom had always in the fridge is a—or, out—is a cask of wine. I mean, that sounds so uncool right now, but—I don’t know, she would have a glass of wine most nights. It was passing—and that’s part of the conversation. It's part of who you are or what you think, and you cook with wine and you—yeah. So I just want to know more about it and I just don't understand why we don't talk about it. And it feels impossible to pitch their story, so again—which is why Sourced, it’s—’Oh, drink is exactly as important as food in there.’
Alicia: That's very exciting to me to hear that, that you're gonna cover drink at Sourced. Because it's really wild how these things are ignored. And I think it all—I don't know if it all has to do with it, but I think a lot of it is the continued puritanical culture in the U.S., which dominates kind of beverage media. And so there's this attitude toward alcohol that's very—ugh, just no one wants to think of it as anything other than a route to inebriation. There isn't this more meal-based, social-based relationship to it. It's just—‘How cheap can I get drunk?,’ or it's this—people who drink are bad, devious people. That's how it is in the U.S. culture, really, as I understand it.
Anna: Blown away! When I was last in the U.S., I began to hear about the different laws around that that we don't have in the UK or New Zealand. And of course, it's a lower drinking age.
And of course I'm sure Europe has a much better understanding or relationship with alcohol. And there's so many—this whole disease and stuff in lots of places. And that's really—so there was definitely a difference in approaching in Europe, I guess. But it still doesn't translate across into stories unless you go to the regional space. And even there I think we romanticize—we can talk about wine in this way in the global north and talk about wine in such a glorified way.
And then we could just forget—and we can talk about—something I’ve been talking about last week with Julia is that wine gets to be spoken about in this sort of natural—wine in these hallowed terms. And yet, we won't get—and we don't talk about spirits in the same way.
I do think colonialism is—people not wanting to address colonialism is a huge thing. And then I also wonder—and I don't know, this is a thought process, more questions—is that I wonder—’cause spirits, like alcohol, is an ingredient and such, and popular to drink, which is consumed, can travel really easily. So there's sort of a neutrality that gets put on it because it doesn't expire. So you can—it can be around, it can travel the world, it can—so you don't then talk about the prominence of something because it's—the prominence is dashed, because it can travel for so far. I don't know. I wonder if that plays into it? I don't know. I think it's—
Alicia: Yes, it's definitely true. I'm interested—I'll be doing a conversation for the newsletter in a few weeks with a bartender, Ivy Mix, from—who has a bar in Brooklyn called Leyenda. And she had a book just come out called the Spirits of Latin America, which really delves into all the—there's so many spirits of Latin America, and all anyone ever talks about is rum as this monolithic thing when rum is so regional and has so many different textures and fields and flavors and styles. And tequila is what we talk about, and now we talk about mezcal.
But like, you know, all these little regional, agave distillates that don't get as much—yeah, that don't get talked about as much or taken as seriously. And yeah, I'm really excited to do more, more conversations about the ecology and cultural role of alcohol.
But also, even I have a bit of a thing where it's like, ‘Oh, is this going to be alienating the people?’ But it shouldn't be. It's just—it is part of life.
Anna: Yeah, and I'm really curious about—and also, the history of distilling. We think it's this European thing, or we think it's—it's got deep roots. No one really knows about that. I mean, I barely know about this. I know that it’s old and not Western.
Alicia: Right? Exactly. No.
Yeah, my boyfriend has done some deep research into rum in Puerto Rico and was talking about how the Taínos, who are the indigenous people, had been making a distillate from sugar. And they just didn't call it rum. And thinking about how—yeah, just the differences in these perceptions. Especially also, yeah, with cultures like this who or where there is a culture of making your own. What is here is called pitorro, which is like a moonshine.
And yeah, there's just this different culture around it that people aren't as willing to discuss as they are Bacardi, or—so it's such rich soil for further discussion.
But yeah, I can't wait to see more work that takes spirit seriously.
And, for you, is cooking a political act?
Anna: Yes, yes. I think Yeah, obviously it is.
It's because it's history. It's race, it’s gender, it's who and how foods get to the plate either at home or restaurants. And, I mean—I don't really cook, to be honest, I don't—and that, to me, feels like a political act. Because growing up with my mum, I was very aware of the labor of cooking and had such huge respect for it. And in some, in some way, I discovered feminism really young. I was like, ‘I'm not cooking.’ And I was lucky enough to have partners and flatmates and lovers who have cooked, so I've been able to not do that and be very privileged to kind of be shallow about it.
But yeah, even not cooking feels political. But also food is political because it's about policy. And sometimes I think we forget about that. The fish that we can eat or have access to is because of the fishing policy that governments put in place, or advocate for or against, etc.
I mean, the UK, for example, the EU supports farming and fishing communities. I mean, what is going to happen to that when we permanently sever ourselves from the EU? So that is absolutely political, like it's ingrained at every level of just policy, not just the sort of wider idea of politics.
Alicia: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for coming on.