A Conversation with Hannah Howard
Talking about vulnerability in writing and being a woman in food with the memoirist and author of the forthcoming 'Plenty.'
Hannah Howard, author of the memoirs Feast: True Love In and Out of the Kitchen and the forthcoming Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family, is a wildly generous writer. She gives of herself and her experiences with such vulnerability and verve, to the point that I wanted to ask her if she is holding something back for herself.
The new memoir chronicles becoming a wife and a mother, as well as leaving the restaurant and food retail world for writing. She spends time with women in food that have influenced her life and work, but haven’t yet gotten their major accolades. It’s a beautiful testament to the complications of a life of food and words. We talked about why she’s drawn to memoir, how becoming a mother has changed her writing, and the differences between writing and working in restaurants. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Hannah. Thank you so much for being here.
Hannah: Thank you so much for having me, Alicia. I'm a big fan, so I’m very excited that you asked me.
Alicia: Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, with a food loving mom who loved to cook and try new recipes for new cookbooks. So we didn't often have the same thing for dinner twice, which was kind of disappointing when I loved something.
But one of my best childhood memories is just our Saturday morning grocery procuring pilgrimages, where we would go to our local farmers market. And we'd go to Ma Stallone's, which was this tiny Italian grocery store owned by Mrs. Ma Stallone, who would be making fresh mozzarella in her arm. She had these big arms that would be flapping along, and she would give me a taste. And we would go to this little Egyptian grocery store and stock up on olives and halva, and just just go home with all these goodies. And it was so exciting to see what my mom would concoct from them.
Alicia: [Laughs.] That's really an exciting way to grow up, I think. Wow.
Hannah: I feel really lucky.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah.
I was thinking recently about my mom, how on Long Island we didn't have that kind of abundant diversity of things, and when-one day my mom was obsessed with cooking with bulgur wheat, and we went to a million stores and no one had it.
But yeah. [Laughs.] And then you went on to study creative writing and anthropology at Columbia. So, how did food become such a major force in your life?
Hannah: I really have always loved food. Hanging out in my mom's kitchen always felt like a great place to be. I loved restaurants. I felt the kitchen was at the heart of where the action was.
And in college, I wanted to have a job. And I was reading Kitchen Confidentialat the time, and I thought that I wanted to work in a restaurant. And I found a job on Craigslist as a hostess for a very old school Michelin-starred French restaurant on the Upper West Side called Picholine.
And I just fell in love. I fell in love with this whole world that felt both kind of familiar and foreign to me, familiar because that excitement about food and ingredients and what they could become, and that felt so innate to what I cared about. But this whole world of fine dining in New York City was a new territory for me. And it was intimidating and fascinating and very alluring to my 18-year-old self, for sure. So much so that I really dove in and worked in restaurant jobs throughout college and thought that I wanted to have my own restaurant until I spent a bunch of years managing restaurants, and realized that I wanted to be close to restaurants but that maybe the day-to-day operations weren't the best fit for me.
Alicia: Right. It's a hard life for sure.
And so, you really got super into cheese. There's so much cheese in your books, and you have a very deep expertise about it. What is it about cheese that keeps you excited, engaged, and just really obsessed?
Hannah: There's so many things about cheese that I keep coming back to. One is just that whenever I tell people that I work with cheese, or—people really love it. There is something about cheese that just has a power to make people happy. I don’t know what it is, but there’s that. And I mean, I'm one of them.
But I think there's also something cool that there's this whole history and tradition and world of cheese, and you—mostly from Europe. Cheese only has a few ingredients. It’s milk, salts, culture, and rennet. And from those ingredients, you can make a creamy brie. Or you could make a super-aged gouda that tastes like butterscotch, or you could make a really nutty cheddar. I think it's kind of this magical alchemy that you just can milk and you can get so much from it.
And then, I've also really gotten fascinated by learning about how cheese has played a part in humanity and how an-alpine cheeses kept people in the mountains basically alive through these long brutal winters. In Greece, it's the fresh cheese and feta. It's such an integral part of all these cuisines.
And then in today's world, there is also something about cheese that just seems to attract some really quirky and really amazing people. So I've just loved getting to know the cheese-makers and mongers that I've gotten to connect with.
And your forthcoming memoir, Plenty, is about forging a career and a community around food. And when did you know that you wanted to move from the restaurant and retail side of food to food media, and how did you make that happen?
Hannah: It's funny that you say that. I just had this kind of pep talk with my husband, because I still work in a way in the retail side of food. I do a lot of food copywriting, which is kind of how I pay my bills. But it's very true that my love is more, is, I write memoirs. My next book is coming out. And I love writing personal essays, and I love writing some journalism as well.
It's kind of been slow, because I think there's a part of me like, ‘This is the big dream.’ And it feels too good to be true, or it feels intimidating. Definitely not the easiest way in the world to make money. It's definitely a slow-burn book. I know you're in the process, so you know what a long haul it is.
Alicia: It sucks. [Laughs.]
Hannah: It sucks. It sucks.
It's like this low-hanging fruit of things that I can do and get paid for is much more instantly gratifying. So, there's a lot of reasons that I've been kind of reluctant to dive in. But the more I have, the more I’ve felt happy. So I’ve really tried to kind of find that balance between work that pays the bills and work that brings me creative, juicy joy.
Alicia: [Laughs.] Right.
And why do you think you’ve focused on memoir? ’Cause this is your second.
Hannah: [Sighs.] [Laughter.] I don't know. And people ask, I think totally rightfully so, they ask-I'm relatively young. I'm 30. I’m almost 34. But that's relatively young. I was 30 when my first book came out. Like, ‘Right, who are you to be sharing your life story?’
Alicia: No, I'm not asking that question. No, I'm saying, ‘Yeah, what is as a genre—what about memoir engages you so much?’
Hannah: I feel that I've always had this kind of compulsion to share, maybe to transform things that happened in my life into something, to make something of them. When I was in middle school, I wrote a zine about me and my friends. I just love telling these stories.
For me, it does help me make meaning of things, make sense of things to turn them into stories and share them with people. And I do think some of the memoir—my first one was a lot about my eating, struggling with an eating disorder. And I think too, that whole situation just felt incredibly lonely and difficult and really shameful. Not that it was easy, but being able to take those, even the really embarrassing things, and then turn them into something that I could share with other people. It made it feel a little bit worthwhile, and my hope was that some people would feel less alone.
And I think that has happened. And now it feels like another really cool sort of alchemy, is to take something really shitty and make something good come of it.
And have you found in food writing the same kind of community that you find when you work in a restaurant or in a store that sells—because I think that those places, when working in a magazine versus working at a bar. It's much more communal. It's a real sense of being in a fight together. And I think that, yeah, writing, it's harder to come by. But you do talk in the book about finding a little bit of that.
I think that's one of the biggest things I miss from working in restaurants, for sure. And I think I even mention in the book, one of the women, Tammy, who I wrote about, who has this beautiful restaurant, invited me just to her pre-staff meeting. And just being a part of that, I remembered what I-
Yeah, I really felt oftentimes when I worked in a restaurant, it was a sort of a family. And I don't really get that sense from writing. I think writing can be incredibly lonely. It's you and your laptop.
But yes, I think in the book I spent a little bit more time with the women I wrote about then just if I was writing something quick and I would talk to someone for an hour, and then write it and then that would be that. But I tried to spend days, multiple days and multiple experiences with these people. And that did feel much more rewarding and satisfying in that kind of connection realm, which I think, ultimately I find, is what I care about and is one of the things I keep coming back to about food, is that it provides that.
But that's been one of the biggest challenges of being a full-time writer for me. It can be really lonely, especially during the pandemic.
Alicia: Yeah, of course. Yeah. Usually, we would be able to drink and complain together. [Laughs.]
Hannah: Yeah, my days would be—even just these people that I am writing a quick story about, it was so cool to get to spend an hour with them at their kitchen, an hour with them in their olive grove, instead of an hour with them on Zoom.
Alicia: Zoom, yeah. [Laughs.]
Well, and the book is also a love letter to women in food. And it brought to mind Skirt Steak by Charlotte Druckman. I'm not sure if you've read that. But it's really, I think still, even though we're in the year 2021, such a new thing to still talk about women in food and in the kitchen in a way that really captures all the nuance of what gender has meant in food for so long, where women have always been cooking but it's the men who have gotten the credit for it. And that continues still.
And so, I wanted to know why you wanted to write the book about the women you've worked with in food. Do you think that women in food are getting more attention? What is kind of your perspective on how things have changed, or how they've stayed the same in terms of the ways we talk about gender and food?
Hannah: Yeah, it's kind of astonishing how far we still have to go, I think. Although women have been cooking and feeding people forever, when men do so it seems to automatically get taken more seriously and garner more respect and more rewards, rewards and awards and all of that.
But I do feel really hopeful. And one of my reasons for writing about women in food was kind of selfish. I was kind of answering for myself why I've had so many food jobs, and men have almost always been my mentors and my bosses and oftentimes my co-workers. And just like, ‘Why was that?’
And the book started out when I was just in that really early idea stage I had—I was thinking a little bit more about sort of profiles of more prominent, big deal women in the food worlds. But then I kind of was more interested in people in the trenches doing this work every day. And I did find myself completely inspired and impressed. And it just made me feel like if these women's stories are in any way representative, which I think they are, that there's going to be a much more-
And I think, too, in these last few years, people are paying a little bit more attention to the voices they're listening to and caring more about where their food is coming from. And I’m hopeful. I'm optimistic.
Alicia: [Laughs.] Yeah.
And you write so candidly and vividly about your experiences with an eating disorder, a miscarriage, pregnancy. Why has it been so significant to your work to document those vulnerable aspects of womanhood? And how do you decide—because I think every writer is always making these choices, how do you decide what to tell people and what to keep to yourself? How do you walk that line?
I mean, I think for me, these kind of personal things are, do occupy such a big part of my headspace and heart space. And so, not sharing about them would feel like I was missing such a big part of the story.
Same thing about how eating disorders to me felt so secretive and so shameful, and then getting to share really shifted something about that. I think that was a similar situation with having a miscarriage, which I did—I was kind of surprised, because I hadn't really thought much about the whole thing until until I experienced it. And then I started to realize that I knew—Why didn't people talk about this? And I was almost hungry for these stories.
I watched on YouTube about Beyoncé’s miscarriage. And I was so heartened to read about Michelle Obama's miscarriage. Of course not because this happened to these people, but just to be like, ‘Ok, this is a part of life. And I'm not alone.’ So being able to kind of pass that along and diminish some of the weird stigma in silence, I think, is really important to me.
I think that is such a fine line, hard question, as someone who writes about personal things, is how personal, how much. One of my writing teachers that I really admire kind of reminded me that we also get to decide what we don't share. I think that's just as important, right, as what we do. And I share a lot. I do open my heart to the page. But I think of it just as kind of one part of me and one part of the story. And then sometimes, you look—I look back on it. And I cringe. But I think that's life too.
Alicia: I think that's definitely life as a writer, where you put things out there and you see what lands. I mean, so much of understanding writing comes from how people interact with it, I think, even more so than what we think we're doing when we write. [Laughs.]
But one thing I wanted to ask you is because I don't think we hear enough about what it's like to be a writer and a mother. And when people do write memoirs about this, I'm thinking of Rachel Cusk’s A Life's Work, people are wildly critical. You are just not supposed to talk about being a mother and being a writer, because—I don't know why.
But as a freelance writer, especially, you write, it's about—we have a life of constant anxiety, where it's like, ‘When is our next work coming? When is this check coming? Do I have the stamina today to write anything at all?’ And so, how has motherhood changed your relationship both to writing and to food, if it has?
Hannah: So, I've been a mother—also, I became a mother right as the pandemic started, in April of 2020. So everything changed in the world and everything changed in my little world. And sometimes it's hard for me to separate out which was which. And I feel like I'm still a new—so my daughter is six, about 16 months old. So I'm still, feel I'm still very much figuring it out, for sure.
And I don't have it figured out. I have found the whole—I don't think I've ever been so challenged creatively as in this last year and a half. I have found it enormously—being a mom has been so consuming and relentless. And it just really requires a huge amount of, such a different part of your brain than writing, but some—one part, and then it's hard to find sometimes that energy with the other part.
But I've also surprised myself in how the process of being, becoming a mom has made me value writing in my creative work more in a way. I think it just feels almost more sacred than it did before. I don't know if that's just the kind of silver lining of having such time constraints. The time I do have feels magical. In April 2020, like so many people, my life shrunk in such a way that it was this tiny world of me and my little family, that was something about writing and getting to—and being a freelancer in a way, just doing work that felt valuable to someone, where I got to connect with other people. And it just felt really rewarding in a way that being a new mom didn't, because it was just so thankless, rote tasks over and over again.
So it's been interesting. But I think it keeps changing for me, right? Yeah, definitely. And I'm pregnant again. I'm expecting another in, around Thanksgiving. That's one of my biggest fears, because I feel like I'm barely managing with one. But I'm really excited, and I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't also find it such a amazing challenge,
Alicia: Right. Of course, of course.
And for you, is cooking a political act?
Hannah: I think cooking is always a politi—I thought about this question a lot. And I know it's very much at the heart of your work. Yeah. I think it has to be. I think that there's, like so many—I think there's a part of me that would like it not to be, because after a long day, cooking can feel, for someone who loves to cook, it can feel like an escape. And I think it can be that, and it can still be political because it's part of who is—who creates, produces, makes, feeds our world, is a political thing. So, yes.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much, Hannah. for taking the time. Good luck to you with your book launch and everything, and also having another baby, which is so exciting.