Jan 29, 2021 • 21M

A Conversation with Bettina Makalintal

Listen now | Talking to the Vice writer about cake, inspiration, and what she wants to do when everyone's vaccinated.

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Alicia Kennedy
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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Bettina Makalintal has, in a relatively short span of time, become a mononym in food media. People know who the Vice culture writer is, what her voice is, which subjects she covers, and the compelling angles she takes on them. From Bettina’s writing on cake or font trends to thoughtful longform pieces, she is an indispensable voice.

We discussed how she got into cake, how she balances short- and long-form writing, and what she’s most looking forward to when we’re all vaccinated. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Bettina, thank you so much for taking the time out.

Bettina: Hey, Alicia, thanks so much for inviting me to talk with you.

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

Bettina: Yeah, totally. So I grew up in suburban Philadelphia. And I moved there when I was five from the Philippines. So what I ate was sort of like—I feel like it was sort of all over the place. Like my mom just watched the Food Network a lot and like, read a lot of cooking books, and, you know, different newspaper columns, and just try to make foods from like, a lot of different inspirations. So honestly, I didn't actually grow up eating a ton of Filipino food, I feel like I ate sort of really inspired by the fact that I was just like, in the United States, and like, sometimes a Filipino food, but really, it was just like, not really tied to any cuisine in particular. 

Alicia: Mm hmm. Right, and how did you end up getting into the food world?

Bettina: Yeah, I mean, I think I mean, I think because of that, I was sort of, like always very into food, like, I would, I would read cookbooks, and watch the Food Network a lot. So it was always sort of like, the thing that I liked. And I sort of always wanted to, you know, I always wanted to be like, the food travel host who would go and eat things, and then talk about it. And so it was, that was sort of like not top of mind for me, I think for like most of my life. And then when I got to college, I sort of realized that, like, food media was a thing and was something that I could potentially do. And I ended up sort of working in the food in like, food service for a while. So that was sort of how I got into it. And then just started like freelancing and getting into the media side after that.

Alicia: Right, right. And, you know, I said this, that I was gonna ask you about emo, but from your tweets, you were into that kind of music. And so I wanted to ask, what are your favorite bands? And like you did that scene have any impact on what you eat? What you think about food, because I write so much, obviously, about veganism and like, how tied that was to those kinds of scenes.

Bettina: Yeah, totally. I mean, like, so basically, for like, my favorite bands. I mean, it was really just like, you know, the ones that were big. So honestly, my favorite band for a really long time was Brand New. But I also loved Taking Back Sunday, basically, like the entire Fueled By Ramen roster, and just that whole, like Victory Records adjacent like, popular internet band scene. 

And I think I've never thought about it in terms of food until you sort of brought up this question. But I think it did actually sort of influenced my approach to food in that when I was growing up, my best friend and I would go into Philadelphia a lot for shows, and sort of that was my way to be sort of like independent, like, I was sort of free to just go around the city and do whatever. 

And there was the Malaysian restaurant that was right by this venue that I went to a lot. And that was sort of like the first restaurant that I really became like a regular at, like my best friend and I would go there a lot. And she was not familiar with—she didn't really eat a lot of like, Asian food or anything like that. So this was sort of one of my early experiences of helping someone explore new cuisines and try new dishes together. And it became a favorite spot for us. So yeah, I mean, I think in the sense of like, the emo scene gave me a lot of independence. And that sort of helped me discover food and like eating on my own. And figuring out sort of what I liked, like independent from my parents.

Alicia: Right, right. Now, that's so fascinating. And yeah, how did you get into writing about cake? Because for Vice, you have a column called Cake Hole? Like, how did that happen?

Bettina: Yeah, totally. It's, I mean, I think that this has sort of just been like, a—I spent a few years like decorating cakes. And so I just sort of like started keeping an eye on like, what people were doing. But then sort of recently, I sort of fell into sort of like the Instagram cake scene a little bit more. And the column was sort of just like born out of like, my editors being really flexible and just being like, okay, you're really interested in this. So they've let me sort of explore my little internet obsessions in that way.

Alicia: And how did you kind of get into writing about not just food but you know, trends really on the internet, you know, the font of gentrification, and that sort of thing? Like, does that intersect with your food writing at all? Or, or do you see these things as separate?

Bettina: Yeah, I mean, I think that like I don't, I guess I don't really think about them too much. As far as like, what the writing I do is categorized as and I think I mostly just appropriate from the point of view of like, writing about whatever is interesting to me and whatever, sort of like taking up a lot of my mental space at any given moment. So yeah, I think that just like, I think that the internet is a really interesting space to sort of look at the way culture is formed. And so I think most of that, like most of my attention is in the food side of things. But I also do, I feel like, I need to be limited just to writing about food, you know?

Alicia: How do you kind of balance you know, bigger ideas of what to cover with having to write at that staff writer pace of getting stuff out there? You know, I know you've had a few features lately that have been really big hits like you're right about your work on that. The book by the Filipino food writer, that was a big hit, and other things that kind of really grasp people as more long reads, but how do you balance, like the ideas for longer pieces and the ideas for shorter pieces? And that kind of workload?

Bettina: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel like one of my big problems is sort of like, I sometimes can, like, be I generate ideas as sort of a form of procrastination. Like, the idea part is never really the hard part for me, because I feel like I'm always like, adding like, a bunch of new ideas to my list. But yeah, I think that for me, and like, also I’m like huge sort of perfectionist and wanting, feeling like everything, you know, everything could be a little bit better, I could find a slightly more perfect source, stuff like that, I feel like for me, part of it is sort of understanding that at a certain point, you sort of just have to accept that like, the thing is done, like not everything is going to be is going to be written with the goal of being like, you know, really long or like really, like, really incisive, or something that you're going to submit for awards and just sort of figuring out there like, some things are a little simpler.

You don't necessarily need quite as much sort of time. Or as many birds even.

Alicia: And you know, you have a very, you know, personal food aesthetic as well in your food photos. So how did you come to be really a cook, because I do feel like some food writers don't necessarily have to be a good cook, but it always helps, I suppose. But you do seem to be a very good cook, someone who can work with recipes, change them. I saw that you made a miso carbonara but you use mushrooms instead of bacon. You know, how, how did you learn how to cook? And how did you develop your kind of personal approach to cooking?

Bettina: Yeah, totally. I mean, I think that's an interesting point. Because I feel like some food writers are very much on like the restaurant end of things. And some food writers are much more on the home cooking end of things. And I feel like I've, especially over this year, I've realized that like, I feel like I'm much more drawn to sort of the home cooking side, in part because it works a lot better for my budget to cook everything. 

I mean, I think I learned how to cook mostly just by like watching my mom, like if I think about it, there's only like, maybe two or three dishes that she sort of, like explained to me like how to do, but it was sort of just like out hanging out in the kitchen a lot while she was doing stuff and sort of just like ambiently learned techniques and things like that. 

Really, for me, it's sort of just been, it's like, especially over the pandemic and I have to like cook a lot more for myself, it sort of just been drawing on all of those things and realizing like, you know that I just know the technique for doing certain things, and I can play around with it. I'm definitely not a very, like recipe-oriented cook. And I feel like when I do use recipes, I really like mess with them a lot. Like, you know, like, I didn't follow like that miso carbonara, you know, super closely, but I think I like to use recipes as inspiration and then sort of play around based on like, what I know and like what I have around. 

Alicia: And how has the pandemic kind of influenced your cooking at all?

Bettina: For one thing, I'm cooking a lot more. I think that I've since I've sort of been living on my own, I have like always cooked a decent amount. But you know, living in New York and then like working a full time job and commuting, I feel like it was really easy to get into the thing of just like, Okay, well I'll just get like a slice of pizza on my way home or like I'll stop by this place. But I think that since the pandemic has started I've sort of just realized that—and it sounds so full of myself, right—but I realized I'm actually a pretty good cook. And most of the food I can make I'm very happy with and I don't necessarily feel the need to like get food elsewhere. So it's been a fun way to sort of like lean into that and just sort of like play around a little bit more and I feel like I've just landed on a lot of things and formats that I make that like are foods I really enjoy eating but are also are really fun for me to cook.

Alicia: And you know you write for Vice and so I've kind of noticed over time and have been frustrated over time by how a lot of food writers really can ignore things going on in politics that or business that have an effect on food, but at Vice it seems like you have a little bit more freedom to make those connections, especially because you know people that you work with are all are covering those those aspects. You know, I was just citing a piece about how plant-based meat that people are coming out with now, like Impossible or Beyond, that has its roots in Chinese cuisine, which was not something that other people were tackling quite as deeply or as kind of just blatantly, like explicitly covering that. So how do you feel, you know, that you're allowed to kind of make more bigger statements about food, because you also did one of the few critical pieces of Tastes the Nation as well, which was Padma Lakshmi’s food show that was, you know, a bit nationalistic?

Bettina: Right. I mean, like, I think that, like, the thing that really has worked in my favor, sort of at Vice, is the fact that we're not, you know, I feel like we're doing the food coverage that not a lot of other websites are doing, I think, just sort of in a really sort of different space, like, we're not doing a ton of restaurant coverage, we're not really telling you, like, what to eat. And so I think that gives me a lot more chance to sort of take risks and sort of think about things like food in terms of much bigger context. 

And I think that also like, you know, these are like the way that class and race and colonialism have influenced food or things that just like personally, interest me and that matter a lot to me. And I think I've just been really lucky that like, if I come to my editor with ideas that want to get a little more critical or incisive, about what food culture is, you know, they sort of trust that it matters to me, and therefore it's something that's worth pursuing. Yeah, I mean, I think that's been really helpful, but I'm sort of not like, hampered by having to do product announcements, or restaurant opening pieces and things like that. I can exist in a very, almost like looking at food, culture, and food media with a much broader eye.

Alicia: I mean, you do write so much about social media and so much about being online quote, unquote. And, you know, for me, and I think because of the pandemic that has become so much of a piece of our lives, even more so than it was before where it's just really our only venue for expression and contact with people in the outside world. And you told James Hansen for an interview at In Digestion like, “what's exciting to me is that now foods relationship with being online appears to see people favoring things that are less branded, and more individual.” And it's interesting to me, because I'm writing about cake right now in cake decorating, and you've written a lot about cake, and how kind of the aesthetics shift over time, and you can see people kind of going into the same vein as other people. And, you know, I think in cake, specifically, there's a very heavy social media influence on what people want and what people you know, think is a good cake. And, you know, right now it's like, very organic. In decor, it's not using fondant, it's not using heavy food coloring, but like, before this moment in cake, I thought there was there was a lot of—there was that, you know, tons of food coloring, like make a shag cake, make a unicorn cake, and now we're in a moment of a really organic cake decor. And, you know, so like you said, things are less branded and more individual, but at the same time there is this kind of constant influence that is, you know, not necessarily something you can shake off. So how have you been thinking about social media and food right now? Like, do you see that continuing the trend toward being a little bit more individual, even if it's not, you know, what everyone else is doing?

Bettina: Yeah, absolutely. I think cake is a really interesting way to sort of watch how these things play out, in part, because like, it is such a distinct niche on Instagram, but there's also so many, like, styles and like, different sorts of ways, the way cake is playing out. It's like, really interesting to watch, I think. Even a few months ago, when I started sort of writing about cakes, I was thinking, these messy cakes, I think that's going to be maybe, this will be the peak of the trend or so sort of, it'll become like, over after that, you know, but I think that even in the past few months, I think that there have been so many other trends sort of coming out of that scene, that I think that even if something feels very, like popular, and like it's been done a lot.

I think the scene is sort of just continuing to expand and try new things. I think it's really interesting because so much of this is not being guided by any one creator on Instagram. Like, I think it's a lot of people are sort of in communication with each other in a various, in a very friendly way. It doesn't seem like people are sort of trying to take over the scene, like it doesn't seem like one person wants to have, like, the monopoly on this stuff. Whereas like, you know, some of those sort of other trends did feel like, you know, someone was trying to build a brand out of a certain cake visual that was very polished and instagrammable. But this growing wave to me feels much more like, everyone just sort of wants to be inspired by each other, and create work that's fun and exciting, but isn't necessarily something that they're owning, or that they want to be the only person who's doing that, you know,

Alicia: One you've been posting a lot—what trend you've been focusing on a little bit, right, is the more like maybe classic American bakery style cake, but that has kind of gone in a weirder direction, like a very, maybe Amy Sedaris type direction. When did you start to notice that and do you feel like it's very interesting that that is happening alongside like, these more organic like, maybe rooted that Sqirl aesthetic cake?

Bettina: There is a big resurgence of vintage, playing off the like classic, like Wilton designs look. But the thing that's really interesting is that over the past few months or so people have taken to write much like sillier statements on top, or use colors that are not necessarily, you know, traditional American dessert looks. A cake has frosting that’s traditionally and vintage inspired, but it's completely black, for example. Or there was one the other day that said, like, “I still can't believe Dan was Gossip Girl,” just like things, like, your expectations about what you should see on a cake.

Alicia: Do you bake cake like, or is it just kind of a more intellectual pursuit?

Bettina: So I used to decorate them for work several years ago. But the thing is, I actually don't really like eating cake. I don't have a sweet tooth at all. I'm very much like a salty food person. So I sort of prefer cakes from an observant and like visual standpoint and sort of like what are the trends, but I'm not really—I keep saying that I want to bake cakes. I finally got a stand mixer. And so I have baked a few cakes, but the thing is, I want to bake them and I want to decorate them and I want to experiment with what they look like. But then I'm sort of left with this cake that I don't want to eat. Like when the pandemic is over, and I can have people over I can like bring more people food. It'll be something I wrote for the moment. It's sort of like, my boyfriend and I don't need a bunch of cakes.

Alicia: For me, it's great to have family and friends very close by to bring cake to because I also make a lot of cake. And have to do something with it. But yeah, you mentioned, you know, when the pandemic is over, when we're all vaccinated, you know, in that beautiful future, you know, what are you looking forward to most food-wise for when, you know, you don't have to cook every meal at home yourself?

Bettina: I mean, honestly, that's the thing I'm looking forward to the most, is—over the past almost year, I feel like I've really honed my cooking skills, but I feel like I'm not really able to share it with anyone other than posting pictures of them. So that's really the thing, because I feel like before this, I really took the concept of gathering for granted. And I was like, you know, always coming up with an excuse for why I couldn't have people over for dinner, like I didn't have the right plates, or I didn't have the right serving bowl or whatever. But now I'm realizing that that stuff doesn't matter very much. And really what I want to do is just cook for people and come together over meals again, in a way that I'm creating the experience.

Alicia: And for you, is cooking a political act?

Bettina: I mean, I think so I think that, I think that my daily cooking, I don't know that. I don't know that I think about it terribly hard. Like I'm sort of just sustaining myself. But I feel like the part that feels really political to me is sort of like revisiting those cultural dishes, and the things that my family used to make or just learning more about Filipino food than I maybe haven't even eaten before. 

Because I do feel like this act of understanding your history and understanding this broad culture that largely has not traveled from the Philippines to here like in my family, like I think that it's political. And then I'm sort of reviving these histories that may have gone unspoken or not written down. And understanding the broader history of the culture that I come from. 

I feel like I'm always sort of searching for more understanding of what being Filipino means, and I think that I have found a lot of resources. I felt there's a lot of things that I've learned about recently, but I feel like one one thing I struggle with is making those foods. 

I do a lot of like versions of things that I grew up with. But there are also a lot of those new dishes that I'm reading about, that I've never had before, I haven't necessarily made some of them because I feel like for one thing, I don't cook a lot of meat. So sometimes I'm trying to sort of get inspiration from these cookbooks, but they are sort of more meat-centric than I want to cook with. So yeah, I feel like I think that cooking is political in the sense that learning these things, and understanding these histories, but I also—I'm figuring out how I feel about actually cooking some of these dishes.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time today. 

Bettina Yeah, totally. Thank you so much for taking a minute for reaching out to me.