A Conversation with Claire Lower
Listen now | Talking to the Lifehacker senior food editor and self-described "union thug" about classism in food.
Claire Lower, senior food editor at Lifehacker, and I had the idea to interview each other at roughly the same time. I did her “How I Eat” series, and now here she is in my conversation series. I’ve been very interested in her work for ages, despite our very different approaches to food and recipes. A Food Network show with us co-hosting would be a take on the Odd Couple trope—the omnivore and the mostly-vegan. (For some reason, this is the best way I can explain it.) Nonetheless, there is deep mutual respect. When she put MSG in a martini? I felt that. I wanted that.
In sum, despite our differences, we vibe, and I’d love to drink a martini with her in real life one day. Here, we talked about the importance of unions, how she writes recipes with class consciousness, and how she ended up in food despite studying chemistry. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Claire. Thanks so much for coming on.
Claire: Thank you for having me.
Alicia: How are things going? You're out in Portland, Oregon, right?
Claire: I am in Portland, Oregon. [Laughter.] And it is — it's interesting out here. It's rainy now.
But it's been a crazy past couple of months. We've got a lot more white supremacy out here that I think people realize. [Laughter.]
Alicia: I mean, I think there had been — even before all this, there had been a lot of press, I guess, about the whiteness of Portland. There was a W. Kamau Bell show, I think, about it that I watched.
Claire: Oh, really?
Alicia: Yeah, but I get — but you didn't expect all this, I'm sure.
Claire: Not when I first moved here, but it makes sense because it's such a white place. Oregon was founded to be white. It has a very racist history. I mean, I'm from Mississippi. So, it's a different kind of racism because there in Mississippi, you're around Black people. You have to live with them. And you don't get this weird racist, white echo chamber like you do out here. It makes sense. It sucks.
But yeah, every year — I mean, this isn't new. Every year, they've been doing this. Every summer they come down, the Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer come down and they yell. [Laughter.] I usually try to go down there with a union contingent and counter protest. But, they suck. But other than that. [Laughter.]
And the pandemic.
Alicia: Of course, yeah.
No, usually, I haven't been asking people how they're doing, really, for this podcast. I mean, not because I don't care, but because I don't want to — for posterity, have it all be kind of tainted. I want these interviews to happen as though we are in a — not in the worst thing that could be happening.
But, I mean, at least we're almost not in the absolute worst thing because Trump won't be president soon, hopefully.
Claire: That’s true. That's one stressor that has been eliminated.
Alicia: [Laughs.] Yes. And I think — yeah.
Well, I think the first question, though, will get me to the question I want to ask you right now from this. But can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Claire: Yes, I can.
So, I already mentioned I'm from Mississippi, originally from a very small town in northern Mississippi called Aberdeen. I think the closest town anyone would have heard of would be Tupelo, which is where Elvis was born. That's the nearest claim to fame.
And then when I was six years old, my parents got divorced. And my mother moved to Los Angeles, which was a complete shift culturally and food wise. Completely different.
My mom actually fit in really well there, because she's kind of always been into eating health healthfully or healthily, however you wanna say it. Whereas I'm not. [Laughter.] For me, it was not the best fit, but — like for breakfast, she would toast a piece of Ezekiel bread and then pour flaxseed oil on it instead of butter, and then put an egg on top of that. And she was like, ‘It's just like butter.’ I'm like, ‘It is nothing like butter. It's not like butter.’ So, that's her.
But I would go to Mississippi at least twice a year and visit my dad and my grandmother. And my grandmother and my stepmom also heavily influenced how I eat. My grandmother — it's weird, ’cause she hated cooking, absolutely hated it but did it almost every day. So, she was very good at shortcuts. She really embraced processed foods, canned foods, but it always tasted really good. But it was like, ‘Why does this taste good? Oh, you put a stick of butter in these green beans.’ [Laughter.] So yeah, it was kind of the two extremes of my mom and my grandmother, and I'm kind of somewhere in the middle.
But yeah, moving to Los Angeles, that was a big shift. ’Cause before that the only pizza I had had was from Pizza Hut, and it was the barbecue pizza. Not that Los Angeles has a strong pizza identity, but just the types of foods that I could suddenly try. And I’d love them. Like elote, the corn on a stick that we would get in the park with mayonnaise and chili powder. And I was like, ‘I didn't even know we could put mayonnaise on corn.’ [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, how does being — well, for one, how did you end up in Oregon?
So, I was in Los Angeles, and I was going to community college at PCC. And then I met my ex-husband at Coachella through mutual friends, but we met at Coachella. And then he was living in Florida. So I moved to Florida, ’cause I wasn't — I was just in school, and I wasn't so far into a program where I couldn't do that. So, then I lived in Florida for seven years. And then we just wanted to not live in Florida anymore.
And one of my friends from school — actually, almost all of my friends from school ended up working at Intel, even though we all went to the University of Florida. ’Cause I was a chemistry major. So then, my friend Matt was just like, ‘Hey, you should move out here.’ And we were just like, ‘Ok.’
And my dad had actually — he didn't always live in Mississippi. He had lived out here for a while when I was a teen. So, I grew up coming up here for the summers. And I knew I really liked the weather, ‘cause I don't like being in sun. And Florida was killing me. It was just too hot all the time. I had to have six weird-looking moles removed. [Laughter.] The sun is not my friend. So, I'm better suited to this climate.
Yeah, we moved up here. And then like a year later, we got divorced. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Oh my God. [Laughs.]
Well, how did you end up working in food? You studied chemistry?
Claire: Yeah, so I was — how did it happen? I mean, I was always really enthusiastic about food. I cooked for my roommate in college and ended up cooking for her boyfriend somehow, ’cause she couldn't really cook. So, I would cook for all of them.
And I was always really enthusiastic about food. And I was working as a lab tech at a big — in space and defense, if you can believe it. And I was kind of very uncomfortable with the defense part. But it was the only job around at the time and it was just running an NMR spectrophotometer, which was super fucking boring.
But so in the meantime, xoJane came into being, and I was reading it. And the only food coverage I really saw was either relating to people struggling with eating disorders, which is important writing that should be done, and — or related to dieting. And I was just kind of like this — that's fine, I was like, but I just — I felt like there was a void of just talking about food as a source of fun. [Laughter.]
That’s just what I pitched to Emily McCombs. So I was like, ‘Hey, I just noticed that there's this area of content that we could’ — hell, hate that I just said content, but ‘There's this area of coverage that we could be talking about, food as like a fun thing.’ And my first article was about peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. And I think I tested out a bunch of different pickles. [Laughter.] So, that was the first one.
And then I just kept pitching them. And I kept my job for a while. And then before I moved, I quit that and I kind of just gradually transitioned into taking, getting more assignments, being able to do it full time. And then I was freelancing for Lifehacker, and then they offered me the full-time position.
Well, yeah, you occupy a very interesting space in food media. I feel like you are one of the few people who really does recipes mostly. You focus really on recipes.
And how did you kind of come to your approach, that is this really funny and irreverent — in the world of food media, which is very reverent — approach to marrying the highbrow and lowbrow? I've talked to you before, because I love that you put MSG in a martini. How did you arrive at this approach? How do you kind of challenge sort of classist ideas about what food is and what it can be and what it should be in your work?
Claire: I mean, it comes from two different places.
One, it comes from my family. Until my parents’ generation, my family was pretty poor. My grandfather, both his parents were dead by the time he was 15. And he had to quit school ’cause his older sister was in the tuberculosis sanatorium, and his younger sisters were still in school and he didn't want them to have to quit school. So, he dropped out and worked full-time to get them through school. So, I kind of grew up, particularly at my grandparents’ house, with those kind of attitudes about food influencing how I enjoyed food.
And also processed food, canned foods — a lot of them taste good. They just do. There's a reason they taste good. There's a reason they were invented. They were invented to prevent food spoilage, to make food more accessible to people. And I just feel like a snobbery against it, it helps no one.
Particularly ’cause, like, I think people are lying if they say that they don't enjoy American cheese on a cheeseburger. It's scientifically engineered to melt perfectly. If you have a really good burger, you don't want a cheese that overpowers the meat. If you really think about correct application, there are correct applications for some of these food. I'm not saying that everyone should drink only Coca-Cola and eat Doritos all the time and just eat hot dogs, but you can appreciate these things in a balanced way. And you don't have to be a classist dick about it.
So, it's kind of me being defensive of my family, my background. But also, not everyone can afford — I hated the phrase ‘clean eating.’ It's disgusting. It's so classist. ’Cause you're implying that other food is dirty, and that if you don't have the money to eat organic, locally sourced vegetables, that you're somehow morally deficient. There's no place for that in my world, in my view of food.
That was very rambling. I hope that—
Alicia: No, that was wonderful.
No, I mean, it's funny, because, yeah, I mean, you're talking to someone who's never eaten a piece of American cheese. Not because like it wasn't around — well, I've always had a very bad relationship with dairy, because I'm basically just lactose intolerant. American cheese was always, was — cheese has always been something where I'm like very, very, very picky about it, because I know it's going to make myself sick. And when I was little, I just didn't — I don't know, I just didn't like it.
But I understand that you — that it has a purpose, and it has its place. And it really is very difficult to kind of marry the perspective of we should make locally sourced organic food accessible to people, but at the same time it doesn't have a moral significance beyond its ecological or economic impact. It doesn't say anything about the person who really likes American cheese.
And yet, if we even fix the whole food system to be agro-ecologically locally sourced and everything, there would still be American cheese. And I think that people come from a very either/or perspective on food.
And in your work, how do you speak to kind of a broad audience? I mean, I think I know this now, because now I know that you studied chemistry. And so now it makes a little more sense. But how do you make sure that you're speaking to people in a way that, I don't know, just acknowledges all the complicated realities around food? And what is the response from the Lifehacker audience to what you do?
Claire: I mean, I think I've cultivated a fairly friendly comments section. Which is, I mean, it's very different from the comments section I had at xoJane, which, I mean, I actually — I liked that comment section in its own way, ’cause the ones who regularly commented on mine were — they were pretty nice, actually.
But, I don't know. I mean, it seems well received. I do get the occasional very angry email. I don't know, I get some really weird emails. But it's usually a fringe thing. If it gets a lot of traffic, I start getting weird emails. And that's why I know like, ‘Oh, this has reached a different audience than I'm used to.’
I don't know. My kind of philosophy to a lot of the bigger food problems is I'm really hesitant to put the blame on the consumer in our current system, ‘cause if you take something even that sounds like it's gonna be more ethical and good from the beginning, like Beyond Meat. People think, they’re like, ‘Oh, good, it's vegetarian. I'm not hurting animals. Therefore, it's better.’ But now you look at how it's being scaled up. What are the labor implications of that? How is that stuff being farmed? Who's farming it? It's really hard to find that information out.
So, consumer politics don't really go that far in — under capitalism. I try to stay away from that. I think people can make all the best choices within their means. It's also again, if someone's working jobs and working two jobs and barely surviving, I'm not gonna nitpick their food decisions. I can say that they're not ethical, and the system is not only making it hard to make ethical decisions, it's making it hard for them to make enough money to make ethical decisions.
I don't know if that answers your original question. [Laughs.]
Alicia: It does.
And it's interesting, because I see you kind of tackling this and being approachable to your audience in this, and still teaching people how to eat well. And when I say well, I mean in an enjoyable and pleasurable way. And I think that that's so — that's not present enough, the idea that you're not just writing for people who live in Brooklyn and work in media.
And I don't know if you feel this way — I know. Because, I mean, I grew up in New York. So, I was always in New York. But because I'm from Long Island, I always had this other perspective on things that — and I wasn't trying to be someone who was not from Long Island. And so, I always had this different perspective on things. And you're living in Oregon; I don't know if you've ever lived in New York.
Claire: No, I haven’t.
Alicia: So, I think it's a completely different perspective on how people eat and how people survive.
What is your perspective on the more — I guess, I'm gonna say mainstream food media, which makes me sound, I guess, like a right-wing crazy person. [Laughter.] That media, New York–centric, major urban center–centric food media, from being recipe focus, from being at Lifehacker, which is not a food publication per se. How do you see everything that's kind of going on in food media and what's being published?
Claire: I will say, being at Lifehacker, I do feel very lucky because I have a focus. And the focus is to make eating and cooking easier for people. It's Lifehacker, it's not — so it keeps me from spinning out into weird super niche, sous vide projects and things that take — because for one thing, I write two articles a day. So I don't have time to spend weeks developing a recipe. So, there's that. That kind of keeps me very focused on service journalism.
I mean, I don't mind a bougie recipe. And I don't mind a super-scientific recipe, where it's honed in to be optimized or whatever. But I take issue with the idea that either one of those is the best way to do something. I really don't like in food media, where they're like, ‘This is the best way to do it. And if you're not doing it this way, then you're shit. Then you shouldn't even bother.’ ’Cause that's so stupid. And it's so prohibitive, and it's — frankly, it's just, it's classist.
I mean, there's so many ‘reckonings’ going on right now. But I mean, you can tell looking at the outcome of some of these reckonings that the people who own these companies, the CEOs do not care about these reckonings. They don't care about these issues. They will say they care. They will make little changes. But at the end of the day, they don't care.
I do think that a really important part of both restaurants going forward and food media is we need to unionize more. And I know the L.A. Times is already unionized, and they're still treating — I'm blanking on her name. I'm so embarrassed.
Alicia: Patricia Escarcega.
Claire: Yes, they're still treating her like shit. But those are things — you can put salary minimums in contracts. We have, in our contract at least, every role has a salary minimum, which kind of prevents huge discrepancies of two people doing the same jobs. But I think it's important to keep unionizing, keep building strong contracts, because that's the only way you can actually fight CEOs and fight bosses. Collective action is the only—
And Twitter's kind of a weird sort of collective action that can kind of work in that way, ‘cause you get enough people piling on and you will see some shifts. But for real systemic changes, I think you have to organize. And you have to contractually organize against these people.
And were you into unions? Were you with labor? [Laughter.] Was the significance of unionizing, when did that become significant to you? The importance of unionizing?
Claire: That became significant to me when I joined a union, really. Gawker (RIP) was already unionized when I got the job at Lifehacker. So, I just joined. And right around that time, actually, I started dating my current partner who is in the painter’s union and introduced me to a bunch of other people who were in various unions. And those two things, really.
I mean, I can immediately — joining the union, I can immediately see how much better it was to have a union than to not have a union. To have salary minimums, to have health care, to have paid time off, to have severance. Those things were, to me at least, unheard of in media.
And that was all five years ago, and now a lot more sites are unionized. So, it's a lot more commonplace. But at the time, it was not common for a media blogger job to have these built-in protections.
Alicia: Yeah, no, yeah.
I came from bigger magazines, that it was never even talked about. I never thought about it. I never knew that it was something possible. I was like, ‘Well, I have a white collar job. And so I don’t get to complain about anything. I never get to say anything. I don't have to care that I’m worked to the bone, because I sit at a computer and I don't get the same rights as everybody else.’ I mean, I don't know where I got that idea. But I mean, it seems pretty common.
Claire: Yeah, and I think it's petite bourgeois guilt, kind of. You're not working class.
I mean, ’cause you look at construction unions. And sometimes, I do get — not frustrated, but you look at construction unions. And people will die on those jobs, right? It's different. The stakes are very different. But that doesn't mean that even though it's a ‘cushy job,’ you still — no matter what your labor is, you deserve a fair wage for your labor. You deserve health care. You deserve time off.
America is so insane around the issue of earning your time off, or earning your salary. Earning the right to just live in a space that isn't a complete dump. These aren't things you have to earn. These are things that everyone deserves. Everyone deserves a decent space to sleep in, and some time off every once in a while.
I do think it's interesting, yeah, because when — actually when I first started dating Wyatt, I was a freelancer. And he was like, ‘Oh, have you ever thought of joining the Freelancers Union?’ And I was just like, ‘No, why would I think to do that?’ And now, I'm a union thug. [Laughter.]
Alicia: I love it, though. I'm so excited that this is happening, and that it's been happening. And it's funny because I left my full-time magazine job right before this kind of started, and so I was always a little bit angry I haven't gotten the chance to do the union thing. But it's just such a necessary thing that's happening.
And it's funny because I was writing a little bit about what is happening to Patricia, and ideas of prestige and how they manifest in a material way for a lot of people. But for people who don't already have money, working in media is really difficult. And so, you count on accumulating prestige in order to even make a living. And that shouldn't be how it is.
Claire: Prestige is fucking nonsense. Any form of it, whether it's hipster cred prestige, or this kind of older, New York media prestige. I just read — it came out in October, but Chris Crowley wrote about Mission Chinese, and just how there was rampant abuse at that place. It presented as such an inclusive, progressive — and it doesn't matter how these places present, whether it's a media company or a restaurant. It does not matter how they present, unless you have a — what's the word?
Unions are workers defense organizations. If you don't have some sort of worker’s defense organization, workers will be exploited. That's what happens under capitalism. Even the bosses with the best intentions, eventually, things go bad because of capitalism.
Alicia: It's so hard to just not finish every piece with just, ‘It's bad. Capitalism is-’
Claire: I know. I feel like I overly simplify it. But it really is so hard to make any real changes in the current system.
Alicia: No, it's real. It's real.
And for you, is cooking a political act?
Claire: Cooking is something that pretty much everybody has to do, outside of politics. I think it can be political. I don't think it's inherently — I mean, again, it's hard to divorce — it's not done in a vacuum. So everything we do has little political consequences, but it shouldn't be. It should just be the act of keeping yourself alive. Even staying alive can feel political sometimes.
Alicia: For sure. Yeah. Well, thank you
Claire: I just — Oh, you're welcome. Sorry.
Alicia: No, no, thank you so much for coming on. I'm sorry. I think we have a little delay, causing me to make noises that I shouldn't be making. But yeah, no, thank you so much for coming on. And I love everything that you do. I think it's such a breath of fresh air in food.
Claire: I love everything you do. I feel like your work is so much more serious than mine. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, we don’t need everyone to be so serious all the time. [Laughter.]
Claire: That's true. You're so thoughtful, and I just — Yeah, I love the work you do. So, thank you so much for having me.
Alicia: No, thank you. Thank you.