A Conversation with Charlotte Druckman
Listen now | We talked about the James Beard Awards, what the meaning of food media is, why food needs real cultural criticism, and the response to her recent piece on the whiteness of food memoir.
Charlotte Druckman is the writer of Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, the editor of anthology Women on Food, and a cookbook author, whose work includes the recent Kitchen Remix: 75 Recipes for Making the Most of Your Ingredients. We’ve never met in person, despite both living in New York for seemingly forever, and this was the first time we ever chatted not via Twitter DM or email.
While we have rather different backgrounds, there is clearly a certain level of comfort already assumed when writers from the New York metro area talk—and boy, did we talk. This one breaks the record for longest Friday conversation, because there was so much ground to cover about the James Beard Awards, what the meaning of food media is, why food needs real cultural criticism, and the response to her recent Washington Post piece on the whiteness of food memoir. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Charlotte. Thanks so much for coming on.
Charlotte: I have to tell you — and in fact, you know this. I'm very excited to do this ‘cause I really love this newsletter. It's a newsletter that brought me to newsletters — seriously.
Alicia: Newsletters are difficult. I'm signed up to so many.
I logged into Substack yesterday because I was getting all these emails about someone trying to — I think someone was trying to change my password and hack my newsletter yesterday, which was weird. I logged into my account and I'm subscribed to so many newsletters, and I don't know if I'm — I guess a lot of them aren't updated regularly, so that's not so hard to keep up with. But I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ Is everyone's inbox like this now? I guess so.
Charlotte: I'm trying to keep it to a point where I am subscribed to a number where I'm actually able to read all of them, ’cause I know me and I know if I over-subscribe at some point, I'll stop reading any of them. That's my — how my brain will function.
So, I've so far been very limited, but I went from really, from not reading them to realizing that this is where, at least for me, especially with food writing, I'm getting most of the stuff I most want to read right now. Which is amazing.
Alicia: Yeah, that's the thing. I think a lot of people are saying that, which is nice, about food writing specifically. But, yeah.
Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
I grew up in New York City, specifically on the Upper East Side, which at some point, I started referring to as Stepford-land. And I'm 45. so where — this is like, we're talking 1980s, Upper East Side, which — it's always been pretty WASPy but it was probably even WASPier then than it is now. It's not really a complaint, it's more, that's more an observation because I — it was a very privileged, safe space to grow up. And I was really lucky to spend my childhood there. And I think just to have lived in New York City as a child with that kind of privilege was — I mean, that's not — that's a rare thing. That's a gift.
That neighborhood, by the way, is also not known for its restaurants or food. And I come from a family that is one, obsessed with food, and two, completely in love with restaurants. And also, in the land of the WASPs, were Jewish. And I don't know if that — if the obsession with food, some people would argue, and the Jewish thing, is related, but maybe it is. Throwing it out there.
But the funny thing is, I didn't actually grow up with a lot of traditional Jewish food. Unless you count nova, and smoked sturgeon, and bagels. Seriously, my mom cooked, and she still cooks. She cooks a lot, and she does it by choice. I think it's like an outlet for her. But she does not cook Jewish food resolutely, almost antagonistically. Resistant, deliberate. She didn't really grow up with it, and she — I mean, she hates it. She really doesn't like it. And I think my dad has nostalgic feelings about it, but since he's not the one cooking he kind of can't really do anything about that. So, that's just how that goes.
She cooked from Julia Child's books. But really I think more James Beard, Craig Claiborne, some of the — she had the TIME-LIFE cookbooks, and she cooked out of those. My mom is a huge recipe tearer, so — and she saves a lot of them. So, she had, has yellowed pages from the New York Times and Gourmet. And then I feel when the Silver Palate came out in the early ’80s, like I feel like that changed everything.
And then also we went to restaurants all the time. My younger brother’s four years younger than I am. And I think once we were old enough to be taken to restaurants, they took us. So, I have these incredible memories of on a Sunday night, going downtown to The Odeon, and Tribeca, and being maybe 5 or something, and my brother being in a highchair. I don't know if they still do this, but they had paper over the tablecloth and they would put crayons down at every table so you could draw. I remember going — I remember drawing with crayons, and having a hamburger and French fries, and having no clue obviously at that age that it was this really cool place where Andy Warhol was hanging out with his friends. I obviously was oblivious to that. I just thought it was awesome.
And so I have a lot of memories like that, and a lot of the restaurants that I remember don't exist anymore. But then, some do, like the Odeon still does. So, yeah, I had a pretty well-rounded, in terms of food, childhood, but not — definitely not in terms of the cultural embedding, not a lot from my own Eastern European Jewish heritage.
Alicia: Well, what are the Jewish foods your mom didn't like that your dad does have nostalgic feelings for?
Charlotte: Honestly, I attribute it — any traditional Jewish food. But whether or not my dad likes them, I'm not even sure. It was more the point — actually, he does. He's one of those people who likes gefilte fish. That's an example. She doesn't make chicken soup, not into matzah balls, not into chicken soup. Yeah, it has nothing to do with gefilte fish.
I was with them this last weekend, and I made my dad start reminding me the difference between Jewish foods because I literally — I'm like, ‘Wait, what's the difference between—?’ I was like, ‘What’s kreplach again? What's varnish-?’ I still to this day get this stuff confused. I hadn't had kugel until I went to college and someone made a kugel, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is kugel.’ I didn't know. There were certain things where we would have Seder at my grandparent’s house, so I guess there I would have some stuff.
The food I hate most of all — this has nothing to do with my mom — but I hate herring. I hate it. It makes me cry when I eat it. I have a viscerally bad reaction to it.
So yeah, those are some Jewish foods I — we never had. She always says she was a juvenile delinquent in Hebrew school, and she got in trouble for smearing hamantaschen on the toilet seats in the bath. So, I also didn't grow up with Jewish pastry in particular. I hadn't really had a babka until babka became trendy a few years ago. So it's interesting because it's not like I had none of it. But the version I had of iit was probably not traditional. And in some cases, it was a really long time until I had it.
My mom would make latkes, but she made them with prosciutto in them, so then I don't even know if they're latkes anymore at that point. Yeah, they were great, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the Jewishness of the whole endeavor at that point.
It's interesting. And I was aware. My dad made me go to Hebrew school from age five to — feel like I was still going in tenth grade or something ridiculous, and then finally protested. So I had the education and I had a very strong awareness culturally, but food-wise: no.
Alicia: That's so interesting.
Charlotte: Kind of a void.
Yeah, it really is. I think it's really interesting too.
Especially because I feel like Jewish food has become sort of — I mean, whether or not it's Jewish, and that's a whole sidebar conversation, right? Because I think this sort of fixation on in some ways Eastern European, Ashkenazi food, but also Sephardic and Israeli food, but the conflation of Israeli food with Middle Eastern food. And then the question of how original actually is Israeli food to Israel? That's a whole separate thing.
But that sort of surge in interest in that food in the last few years, and then the amount of food writing that has been dedicated to it. As a food writer who's Jewish, that's been very interesting for me to see because I don't have that same connection to most of those foods.
Alicia: Right, right.
I grew up on babka, which is funny that you didn't have it until it was trendy. I remember when it got trendy. I was like, ‘I've loved babka my whole life.’
Charlotte: Yeah, it was like, ‘What is this!’
Alicia: I never thought of it — I mean, obviously, I don't know. I was a kid. ‘This is delicious bread.’ And I grew up with challah french toast and stuff like that, too. That's just what happens when you live on Long Island, I guess.
Charlotte: Yeah. [Laughter.]
Alicia: All right, so I didn't plan to talk about this, but it's timely. And the James Beard Awards are trying to kind of deal with themselves, but they're not doing a very good job. I address this in Monday's newsletter, which we're talking about actually before it comes out. Yeah, what is the deal with the James Beard Awards? How are you viewing the current situation?
Charlotte: Well, I decided that the James Beard Awards were not for me. Let me just say it that way, before I go all out in my rage.
And when I wrote Skirt Steak—because first of all, I interviewed enough women chefs who talked about their frustrations with it, and you just realized how the criteria and the rules were set up in such a way that you are going to have a really homogenous pool of both nominees, but also winners.
You just saw how it was preventing people from getting recognition in a lot of ways, and there is even stuff — I mean, for me, the thing that was the most kind of telling was finding out that — so you know how you have, in each category, how many — I forget how many restaurants are nominated. Which again, this is sort of a random thing, but I always think it's weird that the chef gets nominated in the category — but it's for a restaurant. It's sort of like, why don't the restaurants just get nominated, and then the entire team, the staff, they collectively get that award, you know what I mean? It's weird to me.
Anyway, in the category of the regional but also the national ones, where it's those — the restaurants, and then you're supposed to vote, what I learned and couldn't get over and I still can't get over this because I don't think it's changed. And this is before we even get to what went on this year and trying to redo the election and rig it so that it turns out looking more ‘politically correct’ because the, again, the criteria have set it up so that demographically people are already primed to win.
But even in a sense before you get to that, you have this category. It used to be that you didn't have to go to any of the restaurants to vote for them in a category. So you could be from any part of the country. You could have heard of a restaurant in a category in a different region. And you could just be like, ‘Well, I'm gonna vote for that because all my friends say it's really good.’ I mean, that's already ludicrous.
Next phase of this, where they improve things, and they're really proud of themselves when they changed this. And I think it happened a few years before I wrote Skirt Steak. The new rule was that ‘Oh no, wait. Ok, no. You have to have eaten at the restaurant to vote for it.’ Ok, fine. If you think about it, if you're voting in a category where you're saying this is the best of this category, and you haven't been to all the restaurants in that category, how does your vote count in any way? If you've only been to the one you voted for, how do you know that’s the best one in a group? I mean, it's truly just that — so, let's look at that. That's something that's really small in a sense, but based in logic. And to me, the logic in that was already so warped that I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this? What is this system?’
And then you could start to see, if you were more cynical, how that would start to play out if you're talking about a region in the country that is, is sort of less dense with traveling voters. And so let's look at the Midwest ,and let's think about how many in that category, how many of those restaurants — maybe, probably they're going to be dominated by Chicago. And then you're going to have a few outliers. The number of people who even get to the non-Chicago restaurants, and then the number of people who go to Chicago, and which of those restaurants do they go to? Probably the ones they heard of, probably the ones that they have — they know publicists at, right?
It becomes rigged, and it really is a pop— people say that it's a popularity contest, and you're like, ‘Ok, but what exactly does that mean?’ This is a clear case where it's very easy for it to be a popularity contest.
And by the way, it really operates on an honor system. So, no one's checking to make sure that you went to the restaurant you voted for anyway. I don't think you have to show your receipt. And frankly, since I think a lot of those meals get comped, there probably wouldn't be receipts anyway.
So, learning that was the case and learning that then, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean, this thing is a sham, right? And so then we have everything that's happened in the past few years, like this sort of — from the moments of them patting themselves on the back for their seeming progressiveness, which was barely a sign of even just catching up to the times.
And now we have what's happening now. And I'm just like, ‘Guys, just get — honestly, just cancel the whole thing.’ Cancel the whole thing because the foundation is already rotten. Again, I'm not an awards person. So I'm not sure I believe in this giving out awards to restaurants in this way in the first place. It's just clearly this system.
The restaurant committee releasing a statement — to me, that committee’s been operating for years and years in this country in this clearly busted system. And it's only now they finally decided to release a statement about their outrage. I don't know, to me that almost looked more like a damage control press release than anything else. Which again, maybe that's cynical.
I'm just like there have been too many problems with this system, and actually, I think there have been enough problems with the foundation that at this point I'm just like, ‘People, let's close it down. Let's walk away. I have lots of ideas if you're all hell-bent on having restaurant awards for how you might reconsider going forward running them.’ I have similar ideas for the media awards. Happy to give them away for free. Or yes, maybe just no awards.
I wanna know what you think. I mean, you're probably — you’re —
Alicia: I don't want awards at all.
[Laughs.] It's been such an obnoxious thing to deal with as a writer, as a food writer. As a freelancer especially, it's like, ‘Ok, I have to pay $150 to submit a piece. And I'm only going to be able to pick one piece.’ And then I have to maybe strategically consider which category I can submit to, to have the most chance of being nominated.
And I've submitted twice. In personal essay a few years ago, when I wrote about oysters for Hazlitt, and I submitted last year, I guess, yeah, for this, what would have been this year, a big three-part piece on Puerto Rican foodways. And neither time was I nominated. And so it just feels really bad. And I think everyone just feels really bad when it's like, ‘I paid money to just — for nothing, to this organization.’
You're hanging all these hopes of stability on the idea of winning the award. It's like, ‘If I had a James Beard award, would I have gotten a bigger advance for my book? From probably a bigger publisher? Yeah, sure, probably.’ And that's why we care about this. And that's the only reason is because — and I think Tunde Wey talked about this in his interview with Helen Rosner, for The New Yorker. But we care about these sorts of things because we have to. Because the continued attention means we have continued stability in our work. And the only way we can do work is with the support to do it.
And so the false, weird system — and I was a judge, too, for journalism this year, in a subcategory. And it was a really dumb experience, frankly. It was like you’re reading all these pieces — have you judged the journalism awards before?
Charlotte: No, I actually have — I have a good — when you're — when you’re — I have a good story about this. Yeah. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Even though I think these things are stupid, at the same time I was like, ‘I'm honored, I guess, to be included in this.’ And so I'm like, ‘All right, sure, I'll do it. I want to be included.’
Yeah, like rating people's work at one to 10. In the category I was a judge for, nothing I rated highly was a finalist. I think there's an NDA involved, so I'm not going to talk about any more of it.
I, in 2018, held — I produced, kind of, with a friend, a dinner at the James Beard House, where we brought four chefs from Puerto Rico to cook a Christmas dinner or whatever. And it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I mean it was fun and I liked it. And it was — we were doing this sort of as a — because, to — kind of to demand attention for these chefs who weren't getting attention, because people — because of the way people perceive Puerto Rican food and who's a Puerto Rican chef.
And so we did this dinner. We had this really exhausting experience of basically just doing a fund-raiser for this organization. And in the end, I guess it paid off because the next year one of the chefs was a semi-finalist. The year after, two chefs who participated were semi-finalists for Best Chef: South. And then one of the chefs who participated was a Best New Chef for Food and Wine. But then you just see so clearly how this system works, which is — and it's so gross, because it's like, ‘Why wouldn't these chefs have gotten attention without this fund-raiser for this organization?’
And I always say this: The James Beard Foundation extorts the industries it purports to be an advocate for. It extorts restaurants, it extorts — and chefs. And it extorts writers for money, in the hopes that they will get an accolade that will ensure them continued—
Charlotte: And fear. And also the fear.
What I really saw in Skirt Steak was that there is this fear that if you don't participate, that then somehow you are making yourself ineligible for any kind of acknowledgment. And so you feel like you have to say yes. And that was really hard to see. It was like, ‘This is awful.’ They're just saying yes because they're terrified, that this may be their only chance to ever be considered. And that was really hard. That is really hard to see.
When I did Skirt Steak, when I wrote the chapter on awards, I kind of sat myself down and I was like, ‘You realize if you write this chapter, that's probably going to be it for you with the Beards.’ I think that I didn't hold out much hope after everything that I learned that it was an organization that if you kind of laid any of the reality bare, that you would then be rewarded in some way. I just remember thinking, ‘Well, do you not want to have the chapter in the book? Or do you want to have this chapter in the book?’ And thinking I'd rather have the chapter and know that I did that than be worrying about this. And also now that I see how this works, at least on the restaurant side. it doesn't make me feel that good about the media side anyway. So, I don't care if I never get an award from this foundation.
And that was how I proceeded. And there was something really freeing in it, because it was almost like I exempted myself from being allowed to care, you know what I mean? I saw what it did for writers who won. I saw all of that stuff.
This is my funny story about that, which is that — well, two, I guess, funny stories. But the first was, right before Skirt Steak came out — so the galleys had gone out. Like those advance reader copies had gone out. I got an email from a friend of mine, who was on the restaurant committee, asking me if I would like to join. And I was like, ‘I don't think this person has read my book at all.’ And I replied, saying, ‘Well, I have a lot of negative feelings about it. And I think the only way I would want to join would be if I felt like I could actually make some kind of real difference, because otherwise why would I do it?’ And I said, ‘But have you read the galley of my book? I feel probably you should read it before you ask me this.’ It sort of was a full-disclosure thing that probably, this person, or someone on the committee, maybe they all should have read the book. And so, their response was, ‘Oh, ok, yeah, let us get back to you.’ And a few weeks went by.
And then I got this email saying, ‘Oh, you know what, Charlotte? We're thinking that because you have a book coming out, and you're going to be on book tour and everything, it's probably not the right time for you to join the restaurant committee.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that's funny, because the one time that someone can actually get to all those restaurants across the country would be on a book tour, so I see what's happening here. I see now that you've seen the book, and you’ve realized I cannot be on the committee. And that's cool. And we’ll leave it here.’ And that is my favorite personal James Beard story.
I, after this, made a point of never submitting my work, like I refused. I have editors who I think did submit my work. So, I'm not gonna pretend that my work wasn't out there to be nominated.
Women on Food was the first time that I submitted, because I wanted to make sure that the contributors to that book got whatever full possible credit and attention and visibility they could from working on that project. So, Abrams was the publisher. I think they submitted the book as a whole, and then they would — they said they would submit three essays. And I was like, ‘I will personally then make sure that if anyone else, in addition to three — if you have more than three people who want their essays submitted, I will get that done. So, I ended up submitting, I think three, in addition to the three that they submitted.
The interesting thing was it was the first — because it was the first time I was submitting, it was also the first time I really had to start thinking about the categories. And I realized how limiting they were. There's such a kind of homogenization that happens with these awards. Not just in the sense that I think, writers see what wins. And then I think they try and write things that look similar to that, whether it's in tone or structure.
But it's also that the categories — anything that's a hybrid almost doesn't fit. It's like, ‘Well, where are you going to put this?’ There were essays in Women on Food — and it was very deliberate, and it's what I loved so much about them — that you would look at it, and you would have to say, ‘Well, it's both. It's a travel essay. It's also about restaurants. Or, it's personal writing, but it's also a profile.’ So, it became this whole thing of I don't even know what category to submit this to. And I found that really limiting, and also really interesting. ’Cause to me as a reader, the most interesting stuff that I'm reading now doesn't fit categories. Again, it's like, ‘what do those awards—?’
Something I realized, and I realized it again ’cause Women on Food was nominated, which — I was so happy for the book and I was so happy for everyone in it, but I was actually really not happy for myself. I had a very strange reaction. I started crying. And it wasn't happy tears. I cried out of frustration, and I had a really hard time articulating why I was crying. And I realized, yeah, I was frustrated. I felt angry. I felt sort of like, first of all, I think that those awards are more about the person who wrote the work than the work. And I think honestly that the awards, if you're going to give them out, should be about the work. And I think it's always collaborative.
And I really thought about that for this book. But I also realized that I was getting congratulated by people I hadn't heard from in I don't know how long. I had texts on my phone where I didn't know who the people were being like, ‘Congratulations, this is great.’ And I was like, ‘What is this?’ I felt like suddenly other people thought I was validated because I'd been nominated for this thing. And meanwhile, I'd been working for so many years doing my thing, doing stuff that I was proud of, just because I was proud of it. And it was suddenly not until I got this nomination that it seemed people paid attention. It really annoyed me. I don't know. That's a very weird reaction to have. And again, I was really proud on behalf of the book, but just as a personal thing, something about it really upset me. I know that's really weird.
Alicia: You recently mentioned to me that you would write Skirt Steak differently now, that you would have given race more primacy of place in your analysis of women in kitchens. How would you go about doing so if you were starting to write that book today?
When I wrote Skirt Steak, I was clueless — in, honestly, in so many ways. I mean, I'd never written a book before. I think it was a combination of immaturity and lack of confidence, but also that kind of ignorance when you're aware of your ignorance, and you decide to work around it instead of tackling it head on.
Also honestly, there was just this — my fundamental lack of understanding of the history of feminism in this country, in the United States and how white it's been. So, I was really idealistic and naive in a few ways. At that point, I thought any form of feminism benefited all women. That's not how it works. And over the past few years, I've learned that if it's not inclusive, it isn't feminism.
It's not so much that it was naive, but it's a very kind of linear academic kind of thinking, I think. I kind of thought that I could provide a template, like a methodology with the book, that you could then apply to other professions, to other disenfranchised groups in those industries. And that was what I noted in the introduction, that as a heterosexual, cisgender, white woman, I felt — personally, I felt like I wasn't equipped to do the level of analytical work I wanted to in the areas of race and sexuality, or gender identification
But now I look back on it, and I’m like, ‘That's bogus.’ Because all I needed to have done was what I was doing anyway, which was just start with the women themselves, right? I mean, the book is grounded in the experiences, and then — and the voices of the chefs who were included. And I interviewed 73 of them. So, if I had just taken the time to include more women of color and Black chefs, especially, and to ask the necessary questions of everyone, there's no reason it couldn't have included race. And that's, of course, that's how I would do it now.
And I'd also negotiate more time in which to do it, so that I had the time to interview more people and sit with it and parse everything.
For me, it's a huge regret. I do actually still think that the methodology thing holds up. I think it's something you can apply. But I wish I'd done it myself, and in a more holistic and inclusive way. Definitely.
Alicia: Well, how long did you take to write that book?
Charlotte: I mean, I think it was really fast, because my — I don't even remember — by the time I signed the contract, it was after I'd started. But I knew that it was going to be due at the end of August in 2011. So, I started working on it — I think I agreed to the deal at the very end of December in 2010. So, I just started immediately in January of 2011. So basically, I did it between January and August of 2011.
I traveled for it. So, to interview that number of people, to travel, and then to process all of it and synthesize it into a book within that period of time. When I look back on it, I'm like, ‘How did I do that?’ Yeah, it was basically seven months. I did it in seven months, and I can't imagine doing it that way now and feeling good about it.
Alicia: Yeah, no, I'm in that right now.
My book is due July 1, 2021. I expected to be able to travel for it, and I think that that's kind of having a detrimental effect on — I mean, that, and time and money generally. I thought when I was writing the proposal for this book that I would go to places and have all this rich imagery, and atmosphere, and personality to draw on to write this. And now I'm like, ‘Wait, how do I do it without that because it's a pandemic?’
Charlotte: Yeah, it's also — it's expensive. I mean, I was not paid very much to do Skirt Steak, and I definitely invested. The fact that I traveled and did all that stuff, I don't think that — that might not have been the most cost-efficient thing.
I think because it was my first book, I felt it was important to try to interview as many of the women in person as possible, just to have that sort of closeness you could — in my mind, I was like, ‘I can have conversations that are more — that go deeper, that are more real.’ When I was doing cities where there was a multiple number of women, I would try and travel to them.
I have to say in hindsight, I'm — I think — now that I've — that we do so many interviews remotely, even before the pandemic, like we — I realize that it's not essential. But I do think, in terms of — I, so I just finished reading Isabel Wilkerson's Caste and it's changed — it's had such a profound effect on me. I feel like I'm one of the Oprah's Book of the Month converts. One thing I was thinking about when I read it was just the amount of time that she had. And also, I mean, the research that she did was — it's astounding. And the traveling she did was astounding. I wish all writers could be given that amount of time, and could have the resources to do that because you read it and you're like, ‘Oh my god,’ but then you also realize it took years.
And I feel like most book deals now, they want you to turn your book out in these really short time spans. And we do it but then we look back and you're like, ‘How did I do that?’ And you wonder what it would have been like if you'd had more time.
And sometimes I think it's better to have less time, again, almost for cost efficiency. ’Cause it means you kind of crank it out, and then you have more time to go back to doing other work that you get paid for. But on the other hand, then I look at a book like Caste. I mean, obviously, it's a special — it's an extremely special book, and she's an extremely, just unique talent. But you look at that and you do think, ‘Wow, to have that much time and support, to be able to go do that level of research and travel is just — it's amazing.’
Alicia: Right, right.
No, absolutely. The time thing, for me, it's better to have a short amount of time. Because I don't want to get lost in the woods, and so — and I want to focus on it and get it done.
But at the same time, I just wish I had the resources and the global ability to do some sort of research that I had really intended to do. And it's funny, because I've basically been doing research for this book already for a few years I guess, kind of with other stuff I've been doing.
But there's still so much I wanted to do, and I tried to convince — the last time I had a publication offer me to cover expenses and to pay me a proper amount of money for a project. I was like, ‘Can I please go to The Farm in Tennessee, which is a commune where they still produce tempeh spores that make like most of the tempeh, I think, in the United States?’ And then also to San Francisco to go to Hodo Foods, where they make tofu and yuba and other soy stuff. And then there was some other thing I was gonna stay in New York for.
But I was like, ‘I want to do a whole audio project on tofu, tempeh, and seitan and go to these places.’ And I was like, ‘This will be really good as a project, but it also it'll be really good research for my book, and I'll have it actually funded.’ But then they didn't want me to do that. [Laughs.]
Charlotte: Why, of course. Because that's the thing, they’re always like, ‘We could get you to do a story for less money.’
I'm an optimist about that stuff. And I'm like, ‘But Alicia, that's an amazing, that would still be an amazing series.’ And the thing is that you can do the book you're doing now and then maybe that will be your next book, or maybe having done this book, you'll get the opportunity to go do that. So I just look at it that way, ‘cause that — you have to. And because the amount of information out there is unlimited, and the way your brain processes it is always going to be that unique thing. So, if you can't get it into this book, that doesn't mean that's it.
Alicia: Right, no, for sure. And that's a good way of looking at it too. Yeah, I'm trying to not be in despair about not being able to go do the reporting I wanted to do. Because even when I was on the call to sell the book with the editor I eventually went with, I was like — she's like, ‘This is gonna take reporting.’ And I was like, ‘I love reporting. I'm excited to do it.’ And it's like, I am excited to do it. But I'm not excited to do it kind of virtually.
Anyway. There are bigger problems. [Laughs.]
Charlotte: There are. [Laughs.] That is true.
Alicia: But for Women on Food, the anthology that was nominated for best book at the James Beard Awards. [Laughs.] You also kind of had a wide array of voices, and what was your vision for that book? And how did you decide who to include there?
Charlotte: Well, for that book, most of all, I wanted — I really wanted to make a case, or a declaration, that if women were given the space and the freedom to write what we wanted to write, how we wanted to write about it, and to talk about things that we don't get to openly, that we could produce something that was as good as or possibly better than what you see in so-called mainstream food media. Which is why that part of me was proud when the book got nominated. ’Cause it was like, ‘Oh, I guess on some level, you could say that the point was made.’
But really, I wanted to show that analytical critical thinking, that — yes, things that mix genres together. And just honestly, creativity. That it makes for better reading, and that women are more than capable of that, and that we should be encouraged to do it. And I wanted to do it in a way that was inclusive, and somehow both no bullshit but then warm, that felt it kind of had a kind of a warmth to it. And I really wanted to make sure that it felt like a safe space for the women who are involved. So, that was sort of my overall thinking just going in.
I also really did not want it to be a traditional anthology. The way my brain works is that if you're going to challenge a type of writing, if I was going to go in and challenge what food writing was, then I felt like the container it was in, like the format, then that should also be messed with. I was a little bit meta. If you're going to do that, then if the box you put it in feels just as sort of confined and generic and — what have you actually accomplished?
The same way I'm not really into awards, I'm not into that typical anthology scenario where it's like, ‘This is the best of this genre.’ ’Cause most of the time, it's like, ‘What does that mean?’ And then you look at what the criteria for it is. It's a lot of sociological and cultural bias. And again, as I complained about before, just you — again, you see a homogeneity in the work. So, I really liked this idea that you weren't choosing the work, you were choosing the writers and saying, ‘No really, let's try and do something that you haven't been allowed to do before. Just, what do you really want to write about?’ So that we could mess with that.
And then I wanted it to be a mix of essays, but also not essays. My vision for it was, ‘Could there be an anthology you would want to take to the beach? What would that look like? What would it be?’
So, I anchored it with the essays. Getting the essayists on board for me, even just psychologically for knowing that things were moving along and under control, that was where I felt like I just needed to start. It was very organic in that I was like, ‘Well, before I start doing the mathematics of who should be in here, what the demographic breakdown is.’ Haha, Beards, sorry. I just was like, ‘Well, who do you like reading right now?’
And I had a list of — first of all, I've noticed that the — well, two things I noticed while making my list. Number one, I really seem to gravitate toward women's food writing right now. I don't know if this was always true, but definitely right now, most of the food writing that I like — and of course there are exceptions — happen to be written by women.
But I also realized that most of the stuff I really wanted to read, and the writers I was gravitating to, happen to be Black women and women of color. That made it, in a funny way, just the whole thing very organic for me. ’Cause coming from Skirt Steak and being very aware of the lack of inclusivity there, Women on Food for me, it had to be inclusive, or else I did not want to do it. I was nice to be like, ‘I just have this list of writers I love. And I don't have to start thinking about some kind of quota thing or something. It's literally just, this is — these are the writers I really would like to have.’
You also had the issue of how many essays can I have? How many essays does the book need? How many are too much? Also, how much can I afford? How much can I afford in terms of how much money I have and what I'm paying everyone? So, I just kind of was like, ‘Ok, I think I can afford like 13 essays.’ And so I just started with the 13 writers that I most wanted to read. My list was longer than I had essays for.
But I just kind of started with 13, and then I was really lucky because they all said yes off the bat, but then we had two drop out early. Everyone was very responsible and gracious with their dropping out. So, don't want to make it sound like people were delinquents. They were not. And then again, it was really easy for me to fill the slots because I had more people I wanted then room so it was — and I just got lucky.
I still think I was so lucky that people said yes, and that they said yes so readily. I still kind of can't get over that. I remember every time someone saying yes, being actually slightly floored just because it was like, ‘This is an experiment. It doesn't exist already out there, and I can't tell you what it's gonna be. But I know what I want it to be. But I also know that what I want it to be is going to be shaped so much by the people who contribute to it.’ That's a hard thing to qualify, or even when you're trying to explain what a project is going to be.
I was just really lucky. It was literally like, ‘These are the people I love to read. Ok, let's see if they want to do an essay.; And it was like, ‘Wow.’ It's like everyone's at a party in one place.
And then the questionnaire was very much like, ‘Ok, you need to send this questionnaire out to way more people than you know are going to respond.’ And the questionnaire was how you get all those outtakes in the book, right? The question that's thrown out, and then you get this — all of these different responses to it. That came from all of these women filling out questionnaires that I sent that were huge, as you know.
So, I knew that not everyone would respond. What I wanted was people to only respond to the questions that they felt compelled to answer. If a question leapt out at you, that was what I wanted you to answer. And so that meant sending it to a lot of people, and then knowing that you're probably going to get maybe half of those back. And then that would sort of dictate — that everyone's responses would dictate what that content would be.
And that was interesting, ’cause again, it was organic. And it started with me being like, ‘Who would I like to have fill out a questionnaire?’ It was the part of the book where — one of the parts of the book where — it was, I wanted food writers, but it also meant I could ask people from other areas of the food world. I could ask chefs, I could ask food entrepreneurs, I could even ask publicists. And so sort of kind of figuring out that balance.
And then this was interesting, too. I am part of, some — this Facebook group that's — it's food, women food writers that someone started a very long time ago, I think. I do not like this group. People up there are always posting, basically trying to get other food writers to do their homework like basically being like, ‘Hey all, for a story on the best hot dogs in Arkansas, what are your picks?’ and I'm like, ‘Wait, are you being paid to do that? Hi, what do you think our job is? And we're just supposed to start feeding you our favorite hot dogs in Arkansas?’
I thought, ‘I'm part of this group. I should reach out to these women. This is perfect.’ So, I put up a post of how I was working on this book and who — was anyone interested in being part of it, and filling out a questionnaire. And I got all of these women responding, which was great, ’cause it was a lot of women actually I didn't know, and I ended up getting to know them because of the book and that — I actually loved that. But what I realized was like, ‘All of these people are white.’ And I realize in this moment that this Facebook group, I don't really know why — I don't think it was, it definitely wasn't deliberate. There was just a lack of consciousness about it. It was just all white women. They themselves basically just realized this, by the way, a few months ago. Now it seems like it's expanding.
So, after that, I was like, ‘Oh, ok, wait, now you've got to balance this out. ’Cause you now have all of these white women who just agreed to do the questionnaire, and anyone who does it is going to be included. I'm not going to be like, ‘Oh, you can't do it, now that you said yes.’
So then, I already — I had had in my mind what felt like a pretty diverse group of women. But at this point, it was — now we're oversaturated with white women, truly. And so then I will like, ‘Ok, you know what, I'm gonna start from the really obvious but such a useful resource, Equity at the Table. And I'm going to branch out from there.’ And I did that ’cause again, I was like, ‘I don't want a book that is just about the perspective of white women. I've already done that, and it's just not what I want. That's not what this is meant to be.’
So, that was interesting. That was interesting, because the essay thing had gone so — just, really was so organic and fluid that it wasn't something I had to consciously think about in the same way. But for the questionnaire, I found myself having to be more focused on it just because I realized that: yeah, there are so many white women in food media and in the food world. There really are. It's not to say that there aren't women of color and Black women. It's just there are so many white women, right?
Alicia: I've been in a food writers’ group, like the food binders or whatever. But I think that's a different group.
But that one has had so many freaking, I don't know, drama aspects. And so many splinter groups that have had to form as a result of the drama, and it's — I just don't, I just don't mess with it anymore.
When I was an editor at Edible [Brooklyn, Manhattan], it was useful to be — put out a call for pitches or whatever. But again, there was so much — there were circumstances where it was — I was trying to suggest that I wanted a writer from Crown Heights for some specific story, and that I didn't want it to be a white person. But you would still get people who would — a white woman who would be like, ‘Well, I've lived in Crown Heights for three years. Is that not enough?’ I’d be like, ‘No, it's not enough. You're not bringing the context that I want for this story.’ It's just endless, that sort of reaction.
Charlotte: It makes you feel self-conscious, too. Because you're like, ‘I feel like I'm doing some sort of really strange form of central casting, and that’s not how this should be working.’ You just want it to be organic. I mean, I wish I had the kind of mental rolodex where it's like, ‘I already knew that person in Crown Heights.’ That's the thing. But we work in a field and a society where it's gonna take a while for that person to be someone that everyone just knows.
Charlotte: Exactly. That's why we — you want to assign the piece to them too. It's very frustrating.
Alicia: I mean, navigating all of these people's crap all the time is very exhausting.
And also, you know that thing where you, when the white person who's like, ‘I lived in Crown Heights, why — for three years. Why doesn't that count?’ it's — you don't want to be rude to that person, and you also don't want to start giving them a sermon. You know what I mean? There's also that too, which can become exhausting, where it's like, ‘I shouldn't have to explain this to you.’ And then, ‘Should I take the time to explain it to that person? Is that a good thing to do? Should I let it go?’
Alicia: It's always that. It's always like, ‘Is it worth it to explain to this person why they're wrong?’ when they're coming at me kind of aggressively, about — And it's like, ‘I'm just trying to do a job. I'm not getting paid enough for this.’
Charlotte: I know. I’ve used that phrase like, ‘This is above my paygrade.’ Yeah, it's that.
Alicia: And people talk about the emotional labor that men demand, but if you're in these groups, the emotional labor and the literal labor, the literal, intellectual labor that is demanded sometimes is just excruciating.
But yeah, so many people don't do the work themselves, which is — Yeah. Yeah. [Laughs.]
Charlotte: That really frustrates me.
It's like, ‘What rock do you live under that you don't understand all of — what's going on in the world?’
Charlotte: But then you know what happens? What I realize is that someone puts out the call for the best hot dogs in Arkansas, and people do respond. And those are the same people that will then go on and ask everyone for a recommendation for the best falafel in Wyoming. So I see that there's a certain thing where it's almost they're all on the same wavelength, right? But that's just not something I really want to be part of.
Alicia: No, I don't want to be on that wavelength anymore, either. Luckily, I feel like I've gotten off that particular hamster wheel.
But you've been writing about food for so long now, and often discussions on social media lack real nuance, or not big on looking backwards. For me, it's been really interesting to do — I don't know, to just do deeper research before you just announce something, or I don't — I mean, maybe you can talk more to this, too, but the way that everything has become so shallow. So many people who are just dependent on $200 garbage that that becomes what people think of as food writing now.
But you know, are there books, or magazines, or writing, or resources that you wish people talking about food right now would go back to? How would you tell people who want to have a more well-rounded picture of the genre, what would you tell them to look at? I know this is like a random— [Laughs.]
Charlotte: I'm gonna preface this answer by saying it's sort of not a good answer. And it's kind of gonna make me feel like a hater, or possibly a self-hating food writer.
But if I could send people a reading list with some older stuff on it, it would actually probably not include food writing or food publications.
Alicia: Ah. Ok.
Charlotte: Yeah, but there's a reason for it. And I actually think the reason is — it’s interesting, and it kind of gets to why we're at the place we're at. This is my theory. Food, as a cultural genre, or really a pop-cultural genre, in the same vein as you look at art, music, film, television. It's really young, it's really amateur. We're barely out of the lionizing profile with a PR news hook phase. So the critical work, like capital C-critical work in our field specifically, is lacking because it hasn't had the time to develop.
So I think mostly, if you look at the so-called ‘critical pieces,’ they've been limited to restaurant reviews. And I'm not even sure how much of what we would actually label criticism in the disciplinary sense, or just there being any real critical thinking, or even contextual I think applied, even applies to those restaurant reviews, by the way.
And I was thinking about Jonathan Gold, and how we celebrate him as a food critic. But you can love his way with words. You can love his use of language in his writing so much. And you can love the Los Angeles he wrote about. But I don't think you can say that was criticism. And if you think that it was somehow countercultural, because he was writing about ‘other restaurants,’ forget the fact of his being a white guy, ’cause it’s honestly — that's not my point here. But it's this line of thinking that suggests that if something is not part of white or Eurocentric culture, it's outside of culture in general, which I'm not cool with.
So yeah, I look at that, and I'm like, ‘Where's our legacy of cultural criticism in food?’ I think the good news is it's actually just starting to be written now, and I'm psyched for that. This is why I like the newsletter so much, because I — that's where I see it happening.
But personally, my love of critical theory came from studying film and, more than anything else, modern art history. So, it's very nerdy, and that's what I get off on, but that's what I would be sending people to read. Just so that you see it in a field where there's been a rich history of critical thinking and critical work, so that it's actually — and you can see these generations of critics or philosophers talking to each other. You can see how one builds on the other or rejects the other. You really get a sense of that. We don't have that.
For me, too, I think some of the most beautiful food writing actually exists in fiction. So, I would make people read Monique Truong’s novels, just because she gives you historical context, she gives you cultural context, and then she gives you tension. And she gives you a — this pure love of food written in just the most poetic prose. I think I would send people off in those directions, just because I don't think we have enough of an archive in our own backyard for people to necessarily even understand sometimes what criticism or critical thinking looks like. And I think that's the kind of depth that we're missing.
And I feel bad, because it's not so much that I want to trash food writing. It's just that I don't think it's existed long enough in that same sense.
Alicia: No, I feel this way so much. You’re articulating a thing that I didn't fully comprehend for the first few years that I was a freelance food writer where I was like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna — because my idea about being a food writer, which started in 2015, or whatever, where I was like, ‘Oh, I know all this stuff about vegan food and all this cool stuff that no one writes about and I have this understanding of what it's like to own a small artisanal food business, and I have this understanding of how power sort of functions in these — ’cause I studied English literature.’ My background is also similar, though not to any sort of incredible level. I read all this theory in college ’cause that's what I was supposed to do. And then I was like, ‘I'm gonna bring this new perspective to it,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, no one actually wants this.’
Charlotte: Really, it's heartbreaking.
Alicia: And similar I guess to the James Beard Awards, in trying to get nominated but not getting nominated. But I've done all of my best food writing outside of food publications, and mostly even for publications outside the United States, like for a Canadian literary website and for a British-based website and stuff like that.
And that's been a really interesting perspective to have, too. It's like, ‘Oh, the people who are letting me do the writing I want to do are not food publications.’ So this year, I've kind of made my peace with that in a real way. I've just stopped even pitching. I don't want to do it.
And the newsletter I started because I was like ‘Oh, I want to be able to do, I don't know, mostly like personal essay, or just random writing that I didn't have a place for.’ And it just kind of morphed into what it is. But yeah, it's been really interesting to see that so many people want more critical food writing and just — yeah, the only people that anyone ever cites as [food critics] are people that I'm like, ‘I don't think they were doing anything that new or interesting.’
Like you said, with Jonathan Gold, where it's like, ‘Yeah, he was writing about restaurants that the major critics weren't writing about, and he was doing it in a way that was beautiful. But what real criticism of—’
Charlotte: Yeah, what criticism was there?
It wasn't even like he would necessarily compare one restaurant's version of a dish to another. It was just really a love letter to a restaurant every week. And that's a great, beautiful thing. That's not criticism. We're talking about something different.
And I also just want to say, ‘See, this is what happens. This is how you end up writing books.’ Because you get so frustrated with these babies that you're given, literally and figuratively, in magazines and newspapers. And you're like, ‘The only way I can really say these things, or go deep in the way that I want. I guess I'm just gonna have to make my own thing.’ So yeah, it's a newsletter, or if you want to do something really deep and researched then it's a book.
I don't know, I never thought I was gonna write a book. It wasn't something I thought I would one day do. It was more just, ‘But I want to say all this stuff, and I want to learn about all this stuff, and I want to hear from all these people. And I don't see how I can do that and make it analytical in any of the given outlets that I'm supposed to be technically writing for.’ I don’t see that.
Alicia: Yeah, it's just really frustrating.
When I used to write for The Village Voice, that was the closest I guess I got to being able to do something interesting while still being under the rubric of the food section. But that space doesn't exist anymore, either. And I think every time I get interviewed about the newsletter genre, I'm like, ‘Well, it's kind of trying to replace the alt weekly, I guess.’ Yeah, create this thing of actual criticism, where you engage with food and all the things that touch food, and also bring in other aspects of culture.
It's really interesting to me, and I talk about this all the time, I think how food is siloed as its own thing with no connection to art, or film, or literature, or anything like that. And it's really frustrating.
Charlotte: I mean, I think a lot of it comes back to money and what can be monetized. And this idea that food can only be monetized when it's seen as Lifestyle content. What that means is that it has to somehow be in — again, I feel like I put everything in quotes, but ‘service-y.’ Or what people would call fluff.
And so, if you want to try and go deeper, and that's why — even — I look at the New York Times, and I'm like, ‘Why is it that I'll read what I think is a really fascinating food piece, but it'll be in the science section, or the business section?’ I was like, ‘Why could this not have been in the food section? Would have been — why?’ And I get so frustrated, and then I'm like, You got to stop.’ But you know the answer. And it's not changing, and you need to move on and get over it. But yes, it's that.
Alicia: You studied art history, right?
Charlotte: I was an English major and an art history minor. And within my English major, also did a weird film studies thing. It was very creative.
But, I decided — this is like a whole side story. But I had this very kind of reactionary response to my first job, which was technically in corporate America, and was like, ‘I don't want to be here. I want to be an art history professor.’ And felt it very, very strongly, and decided that that's what I was going to do.
I went and worked in an art gallery, and then I went to graduate school, got my masters, got accepted as a PhD student at that point knowing that I missed the real world too much. I was part of this very old-fashioned, kind of absurd program where once you get accepted to the PhD track, they have to take you back at any — I could be senile and knocking on the door and be like, ‘I'm here.’ And as long as I could pay tuition, ’cause — I don't think at that point, like probably not gonna be getting any funding, but I could still come back. I liked knowing that. In my mind, if I'd had some other life, where I was making a lot of money at my job and could dream about retiring and getting my PhD just for the love of learning when I was older, that would have been a great dream.
So, I did that. And then I went, technically went back to what was always my sort of first professional love, which was publishing, and magazines, and journalism, and writing. So, I had that. I'm actually very grateful for it because it did help train how I think, and how I look at things. And it also really helped me hone my appreciation for visual culture. And all of these things, I think, have ended up having a huge influence on my food writing. They're so related that it doesn't feel completely like it was useless.
Alicia: I don't think education could ever be useless necessarily, but—
Charlotte: I agree, I agree. You're not learning like a trade or — in that sense, you didn’t. I’d love to teach, honestly.
Alicia: It's funny, ‘cause I have this vague memory of when I was in high school and wanting to go to the Culinary Institute to study pastry. This was just based on watching the Food Network and being like, ‘I want to make humongous sugar sculptures.’ And then not doing that, and then always, kind of until I actually accidentally became a baker, then realizing like, ‘Oh, it was a better idea that I didn't do that.’
Charlotte: Don't you love your baking now, so much more than that? The idea even of a sugar sculpture?
Alicia: And I think I still probably would have ended up writing about food, but I'm also so happy that I have this education in something completely different from food.
And like now all I read are art magazines, basically. And I feel like that's helped me write about food in a better way. I don't know.
Charlotte: It's so helpful.
It's really funny, a small thing that I noticed — not just sort of the theory, and the way of looking at sort of material culture, which I found it really helpful for that. I always used to think that it was kind of silly. I remember I think I even said this to a professor, and it was — you were not supposed to say that.
But you were supposed to spend all of this time describing the work of art. And I'm talking about like, you would be writing an essay for a seminar. And the thing is, you would always be including the images in the work. So I was like, ‘Why am I describing it if you can see it?’ It really would get — and then I realized, ‘Oh, this is actually a kind of a discipline, because it means that you're really looking at it, and then that you're forced to find the language.’
And I realized that it actually comes in very handy when you have to describe food. ‘Cause mostly you're actually kind of describing what it looks like, because it's so hard to describe flavor in a way that's going to be helpful to anyone. But you can always describe what it looks like. And so even that, I look back and I'm like, ‘Ohhhh, oh, okay.’ [Laughs.]
Alicia: Well, to get back to kind of the food media question, what have all these recent kind of kerfuffles looked like to you in terms of Bon Appétit, where we're having — here's going to be the new editor, Dawn Davis. And Peter Meehan leaving his job at the L.A. Times. Was this all very, I don't know, predictable to you?
Charlotte: It wasn't predictable in the sense that I felt — after we went through the kind of #MeToo wave, back in — what was it? I feel like it was at the end of 2017, right? That the Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, thing happened. I was kind of like, ‘Well, what about food media? Hello?’ And then it didn't happen. And so, I think I kind of was — kind of resigned myself.
So, in that sense, I was not expecting it. And I also think it's interesting, again, to go back to this idea of the inherent whiteness of feminism, as we've known it for so long. That #MeToo was very much co-opted by white feminists. And look, in our field, we were not able to get anything done. And then I look at what happened in terms of Black Lives Matter, which I think had a huge impact on what we saw with Bon Appétit and Adam Rapoport and a lot of conversations.
And I'm like, ‘Yeah, look who made this happen. It was Black women and women of color mostly who spoke up.’ That made me feel both a kind of awe and gratitude for all of those women, but also very disappointed in — I mean, even in myself. I was like, ‘Well, so much for the white women who dominate food media. Let’s see what we accomplished.’
That was a one sort of tangential thing that was going off in my head. But I was pleasantly surprised. There's another part of me, if I'm just looking at the big picture of it. I think my problem with these dust-ups is that they tend to focus too much on the personal, or this singular person, or the actors involved, and then not enough on the systems that created them, or got us to these situations as they are. That is the thing that I wished we could somehow change, that dynamic.
I'm so glad for the people, and I really — I think that we need it. I realize that I'm very much of the Tunde Wey, let-it-die mind-set. Which I used to not be. I used to be very much that sort of Trojan horse advocate. I used to think if you could infiltrate and change from within, you could really do something.
And now seriously, I'm like, ‘F- that. We need new models. We need a lot of them. And they need to be decentralized.’ And so yeah, my thing is more — can we start having these upheavals in a way that feels like we're having a systemic conversation?
I have been sitting on that and trying to figure this out, and it even started — I think before the pandemic, just coming off of having done Women on Food, and being like, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ And then everything that's happened in the past few months has really made me question that even more, and in different ways.
I think if you look at, just in terms of my work, right? If you look at Skirt Steak, or Women on Food, or even like the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, right? You can see a cry for help. It's the wrong way to say it, but you can see someone who really is interested in the why of things, and the underpinnings. And I sometimes like to look at that in mischievous ways. And I'm always like, ‘How can we find other approaches to talk about stuff?’
And I think the nice thing about what's happening now — just personally, this is selfish — but for the first time, I feel less alone in that. I don't want to take up too much space, and I don't want to take up the wrong space. So, it's like, ‘How do I keep doing that kind of work, but in a way where I'm giving the attention and agency to other people, not taking it for myself?’ And I think that that's the thing that's like the negotiation right now. That's the hard thing to figure out.
Alicia: No, I think it's hard for everyone right now to be like, ‘How do I fit into this dying industry?’ Yeah, it's complicated.
Charlotte: And how do I make a difference? I mean, which is a corny thing to say, but it's — if I'm going to do it, I want it to have some impact, or be of use in some way. I don't want to keep contributing to the — to what we were talking about before, the sort of lifestyle stuff.
But on the other hand, we have to get paid, right? I need to get paid. Yeah, it's hard. Yeah, we were all talking about — I wish we could find ways to talk about it together more, literally just — how do we? For freelancers, I think, especially.
Alicia: Yes, for sure.
No, and I mean, that's why I guess we had the Food Writers’ Workshop for two years. But this year, we had to cancel.
Charlotte: That was so, so good. You'll do it again.
Alicia: [Laughs.] But yeah, just to create that space for these conversations that can be difficult to have. Yeah, because I think it's necessary. And I mean, this year, it would have been — yeah, if next time I guess we do it, it'll be quite interesting because of all of this. And because we'll be in the midst of the sort of recovery, I guess, from what's happened. But yeah, so we'll be able to see it, I guess, with better — with clearer vision. So, I hope that that happens, and that it’s interesting for people still, but we'll see.
Charlotte: I think it will be. We can imagine.
Alicia: Food media — I talked to Lisa Donovan a couple of weeks ago, and she was included in a piece you wrote for The Washington Post about kind of the whiteness of food memoir, which, I thought was a really necessary piece, especially as someone I had — it's funny that you even wrote it, because I had bought a million food memoirs and was like, ‘I'm gonna figure out what the hell's up with this genre.’ I was like, I'm gonna read all of these books and then I'm gonna figure out why food memoirs are really — I don't know, just something — just all the same. You were talking about before with the homogeneity of the way the Beards do things and the way the media, — how do we break out of this mold?
I do think Lisa’s memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, is a really fresh addition to the genre. It did create a lot of talk on Twitter, that piece, a lot of which I think was completely misguided and totally incorrect and total misreadings of what you were trying to do. But Lisa's critique was that there was short on class analysis. So, what would your response be to that?
It was concerning to me. And not because I don't think there's a glaring issue with the socio-economic disparity or class dominance in book publishing and in food media. There clearly is. I would never argue that. There is.
But it was concerning, because that was a piece that was primarily about white privilege and about race. And as soon as you start saying, ‘Well, wait, wait, what about socioeconomic privilege?’, as a white person saying that, whether you're doing it as a way to justify your own work or to devalue someone else's, or even if you're looking at it systemically, what you're doing is decentering the conversation, right? You're taking the focus away from race and you're shifting the conversation so that, in this particular case, it no longer calls attention to the idea that Black women and women of color are not being given the opportunity to tell their stories, and are not getting memoir deals.
One of my friends actually said to me, which was a very strong statement, ‘When the discussion is about race, you have to be absolutely destitute for poverty to erase white privilege,’ which — that really struck me. And again, as I said, I just finished reading Caste. So, it's very fresh in my mind. And, by the way, that would go on my reading list even though it's contemporary. But it really underscored that point for me, which is in the United States, race is the defining marker of caste. And class is fluid, but caste — race is fixed. So, I don't see this as like a chicken-egg dilemma, I think it's always going to be race first. And I think it definitely needs to be right now in these conversations.
And when you see a white person push back against that, even when they have the best of intentions, and an otherwise, I think, seemingly clear-eyed understanding of how things work, for me, I think you're basically witnessing a form of white fragility. So, that's disappointing, obviously. But on that, it also makes me think about where my own white fragility is coming into play, now, or how it might in the future because truly, we're all trying to self-correct and be better, and it's an ongoing process. So, that is something I also understand.
But yeah, for me, that was upsetting. And then also, ok, this idea that somehow my being privileged needed to be addressed or made me ineligible to write about white privilege and memoir publishing. I get how it could be confusing for people who think that food writing is personal by default, or who are taking it personally as readers. I am extremely aware of my privilege, and in real life I'm actually — I'm very, very open about it. And I'm also pretty open about how my career has benefited from it, and how also — how I've been able to sustain my career because of it.
But if you look at my work as a writer, I don't do personal writing. I don't think I'm that interesting. I don't think my life's that interesting. Or, alternatively, that I'm a gifted enough writer to make it seem like it's that interesting. In related news, I haven't written a memoir, and I’m probably — not probably going to write a memoir ever. It's not what drew me to writing or journalism. So, I don't write about my privilege in my work, because there's no place for it in non-personal writing,
This whole thing made me think about it, and I was like, ‘Oh, where would I have included this information?’ And then should there have been a disclaimer at the bottom of the piece that read, ‘Charlotte Druckman is the daughter of privilege from Manhattan’? To me, in the context of that piece, it just really didn't seem relevant, right? Because it was about white privilege. And also because it was about memoirs.
So, that's the kind of thing where you find yourself feeling like, ‘I shouldn't even have to defend this or explain it.’ For you realize that we live in a world where, at some point, you have to, because that's what people seem to want to focus on instead of focusing on the actual piece and what it was trying to say.
No, I thought it was really interesting, especially — this Friday's interview with Klancy Miller. The timeline of this interview now is all over the place. Before she proposed Cooking Solo, she proposed a food memoir about her time in Paris that was rejected by 30 publishers. And I was like, ‘Well, I think Klancy Miller's food memoir about Paris would be really, a really interesting infusion into a genre that is so white, that loves France, but doesn't like the — loves the story of an American in Paris, but apparently not a Black woman American in Paris.’
And so many people who argued in response to that piece were just all over the place, for one. But also, were citing memoirs being like, ‘I think lots of people of color have had memoirs out.’ And it's chef memoirs and that sort of thing. Being like, ‘These have all come out recently.’
Charlotte: Some of them weren’t even memoirs! Something I observed, which is that I've noticed that when women of color and Black women, instead of seeming to get memoir deals, they get cookbooks where — that are personal. And I wonder if that's a publishing tick, where that's being thrust upon them. I don't know.
But I found out people were holding up things where I was like, ‘But that's a cookbook, that's not a memoir.’ You're proving my point. You don't even realize that you're proving my point. But you are. It's the pigeon-holing. It's the sort of place where erasure and pigeon-holing overlap,
It makes me think of Kristina Gill and Tasting Rome. And how it was kind of like, ‘Well, we're not, as your publishers who bought your book, which was your idea, we're not comfortable with a Black woman being the face of Italian cooking. But we're very comfortable with your white co-author doing that.’ Which was unsaid, but I think very much what happened. And to me that's very similar to all of those publishers being like, ‘Well, we like the Paris food memoir thing, but we're not feeling the Black woman writing it.’ It's that same kind of thinking.
This was also crazy to me, because I think if it hadn't been for the pandemic, the books actually would have come out within five months of each other. I don't think I have seen seven food memoirs come out in one year before this ever anyway. Maybe I'm wrong, that's already seemed like a lot. That we had seven, and they were all written by women, seems like a big deal because that also. And then it's the fact that they were all white, it was like, ‘Oh god. Oh no.’
And it was funny, ’cause at first when I first started paying attention, I was more sort of just like, ‘Why are there all these memoirs?’ And then I started looking at all the authors, and I was like, ‘Oh my, what is happening?’ And it ends up being indicative of how book publishing works, or at least food and book publishing works.
I wasn't expecting that pushback, because again, I have a certain — I realized this, that I'm not even, certain ways, where I don't think of myself as a controversial person or a controversial writer. I don't know what I thought would happen, but I wasn't — I just didn't expect that. I thought I was almost writing about something that to me seemed obvious. And I thought it was important for a white person to say it because again, I think it's been made really clear that it's like, ‘Why does it always have to be BIPOC who are having to carry the weight of pointing all this stuff out, and then ultimately being ignored?’ But I thought it was pretty obvious.
The interesting thing was that all that Twitter stuff, if you look at it, it was mostly coming from white women. Which I found really interesting and sad on a certain level. And I almost felt like it was like white women policing other white women about how to be white women. I almost felt like I had broken rank or something. And that was before I read Caste and now that I’ve read Caste I really am like, ‘Wow. It's really like I broke rank. I didn't stay in some place I was supposed to stay in being accepting of a certain status quo.’ I was not expecting that response at all.
And I do think class analysis is required, especially in publishing and media because it is a — Yeah, it's complicated for me to talk about because it's — I don't feel like I came from a super-privileged background and so it's — I feel like I had to kind of bust my way into this, but even the fact that I was able to bust my way into it is a fact of great privilege. Even though the only time I was able to take a magazine job was ’cause I — finally someone offered more than like $28,000. It needs to be part of the conversation, but I think that it is true that when you're writing explicitly about race that it — that should be able to be the focus. But it is so complicated and everyone brings so much.
Charlotte: I think it should be addressed. I just — I think you have to do it separately. And I understand, because you — it's like, ‘That's my memoir. I wrote that memoir. I put all of this into it. I worked so hard to get to a place where I could write that memoir.’ I understand that. But when you start being like, ‘But wait, but wait, because this is what happened to me in my story, and it's not fair that you didn't talk about socio-economics,’ it does — it doesn't — that's not right for this scenario, where this is about whiteness.
The bottom line is that you did get your book deal, and that we're talking about your whiteness in this context. And like that's this conversation. I mean, I look at how lucky I was, just like, it's even — For me, everything started with privilege. Everything. Let's just forget my education, and you look at my resume of where I went to school and all of that stuff.
But even my first job in publishing was — I had just graduated high school, and my favorite relative who — she was my dad's mother's first cousin, so I think of her as a great aunt. But technically, she's a cousin with some removings. I'm not good with the once-, twice-removed stuff. But she was this special assistant. She ran the office of New York magazine for the then-editor-in-chief, who was Ed Kosner. And so I got to be an intern at New York magazine at age 18. That's ridiculous.
And of course, I wasn't paid, which was fine ’cause I'm from New York City and I lived at home under my parents’ roof so I didn't have anything to pay for. Well, I didn't have to pay rent, you know? Do you know who the other intern was that summer? It was Ed Kosner’s stepdaughter. And there we were, in our internships and it was — I learned a ton. I worked hard. But, just that, look at that. That's how it started, and then look at everything that happened after that.
So then, that's on your résumé. Look at everything, forget the fact that publishing in general tends to be about connections. And it can be about connections that you had even before you started as a professional. And then once you start it's always about who knows who,
So, the whole thing is so — and, you're — it's operating on a very low paid salary for most people until then you get to the level of Adam Rapoport, and his golfing, and all that stuff. That's someone who also had already come from privilege.
So, it's a disaster. It's a full-on disaster. So yeah, we do need to talk about it, but — that, when you're when you're having a conversation about white privilege, it's not the time to raise your hand and be like, ‘But can we talk about socio-economics and how hard it was for me to do this thing?’ It's just not the place for that, even though I understand it completely.
Alicia: I mean, just for everybody who is reading, when I was in college, I couldn't do any internships because they didn't pay. And I commuted to school in New York City from Long Island and I had to have a regular job to pay to commute.
And then when I graduated college, because I'd never done an internship and I was, ‘Oh, but I'm just gonna apply for all these editorial assistant jobs, work in book publishing.’ And then I never even got an interview, but also when they put the rate there, it was $28,000 and it was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’
I worked in the publications department of an offshore Caribbean medical school, because they had their offices—because in college, I had done work doing web design, and then doing web design, that's how I made, started to make more than minimum wage, was because I learned how to do web design. When I got fired from that job, which I got fired from when I was 22, ’cause I don't know, I just hated it. My parents got divorced, and I was just sad. And then I got brought into the office and they were like, ‘You don't seem to care about this job.’ And I was like, ‘I don't.’
I got hired at, actually funny enough, New York magazine as a freelance copy editor a month later. I got hired there. They paid me $20 an hour when I started, but I was working 10 hours a day. And then I got hired full-time at the end of 2009, and just stayed there ’til I started writing in 2015.
I was still working 10 hours a day for the first two or three years I was there. So I was still in this position of like, ‘Well, I'm finally at a magazine, so I can't say anything.’ But I was getting paid like $45,000 and working 50 hours a week, sometimes more when it was Fashion Week. This is what this industry is.
And I'm guessing, too, though, you were surrounded by people who were full-time. And who were coming from a place where they did not have to hustle that much, and didn't have to hustle as much at New York magazine either, right?
Alicia: I was hired full-time, and then I was able to work from home. So, it was like, ‘All right, great. I love this.’ It was this feeling of like, ‘I'm not allowed to say anything.’
Right before I quit, I was starting to finally feel comfortable and was like, ‘I'm gonna go talk to HR about all this sorts of stuff, and how there's no movement for copy editors here, and that sort of thing.’ It was just stupid. I just left, and I went to be a copy editor at Food and Wine for a little while, which was also bad.
Charlotte: I worked at Food and Wine, but I worked at Food and Wine before you got there. I was there from 2003 to 2005.
Alicia: It was not a fun time. I had a six-month contract there, and I was like, ‘F- six months.’ I was like, ‘Good-bye.’ It's like, ‘I'm done.’
Yeah, well. For you, is—
Charlotte: Do you think maybe—
Alicia: No, no. Go on.
Charlotte: Don’t you think that the copyediting experience has made you though better at your job now? ‘Cause I feel like there's not enough — First of all, there aren't enough copy editors out there, and there's not enough emphasis placed on how important copyediting is. I just feel like it would probably make you a better writer and a better editor anyway.
Alicia: I hope so. I mean, it's funny. Today I was like, ‘Oh, I should create — start a style guide for the newsletter.’ And I was like, ‘What a nerd.’
I love copyediting. I get to do it sometimes for print magazines, and it's always a fun experience to get back into those shoes. But then it's not a fun experience when I get back into the shoes of writers who think I'm an idiot.
And talking about caste, someone wrote a great piece for the New Republic years ago about the caste system in publishing, and how copy editors are kind of the bottom. Even though copy editors are the ones who know how language works and how grammar works.
Charlotte: Same with fact-checkers. Now that I think about it. I feel like they weren't even invited to our editorial meetings at magazines I worked at. [Laughs.] This is just Dickensian
Alcia: No, it's so interesting.
For you, is cooking a political act?
Charlotte: It's funny, ‘cause I'm not sure how much I used to think about this. For me, once you start thinking about this question, I don't see how the answer's no, I'm just gonna say that.
I think yes, it's a political act, because even when you think it's not, where did you buy your groceries? Which ones did you buy? Do you only eat what you grow yourself? Maybe you're not going and buying anything, you know? How are you growing them? And then, how are you making those decisions? And if you weren't thinking about where your ingredients came from, or the labor involved in getting them here, you're part of the problem, but doesn't make it any less political.
We are still contributing to an overall process of culture, or shopping, or producing in cooking. So, you're still part of that system and you're upholding it. When you're in your kitchen stirring your pot, I don't think that's necessarily political in the same way. Unless you're trying to make a statement with that food for whomever you're serving it to, or selling it to, or if you're supporting a cause with it.
But I think if you're cooking commercially, where it's an exchange of money or goods and transactional, again, that — it can not be political. But me at home with my experimental baking, I don't see the part where I'm actually making my batter and putting it in the oven. To me, that's where it stops being political because it's no longer part of that exchange. But in the sense of the buying ingredients and choosing and all of that stuff: yes, it's political.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much, Charlotte, for coming on.
Charlotte: This was great. Who knows when I said, but I had a great time. I loved talking to you. So, yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me on, and doing this with me.