From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Jenny Dorsey

A Conversation with Jenny Dorsey

Talking to the writer, chef, and founder of the Studio ATAO think tank about representation and how far food media still needs to go to be inclusive.

You're listening to From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays, I'll be talking to different people in food and culture about their lives, careers and how it all fits together and where food comes in. 

Today, I'm talking to Jenny Dorsey, a chef, food writer and executive director of Studio ATAO, a nonprofit think tank that works on changing inequitable systems in food and beyond. We discussed how she went from business school to kitchens, cultural appropriation in fast casual restaurants, and launching a newsletter as a way to find her voice in writing. 

Alicia: Hi, Jenny. Thank you so much for being here.

Jenny: Thanks for having me.

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

Jenny: Yeah, of course. 

So I was born in Shanghai, but I grew up in New York. Both my parents were getting their PhDs at Albert Einstein University up in the Bronx. So I feel when I was little, I ate a lot of just food at home. My family was definitely the ‘Why would you ever eat outside? You're wasting money’ sort of vibe. So everything was at home. 

There was a lot of eggs and a lot of breads. And of course, every meal has to have a veg. So I kind of grew up with a lots of vegetables and never really understood that idea of like, ‘Vegetables are gross. Kids don't like vegetables.’ I think pea sprouts are my favorite vegetable in the world. Ate a lot of tomato and egg growing up; I think that's a classic Chinese staple. So things that were easy for young 20-something-year-old parents that had no cooking experience and worked all the time to make.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Did you grow up in the Bronx, or did you grow up in a different borough?

Jenny: Yeah, we grew up essentially in the student's compound within the Bronx. So there was some other, yes, children of fellow students that I hung out with. I felt we occasionally were actually able to go out and be with the rest of the Bronx. But a lot of times we were kind of confined in this little area, and so didn't really honestly get as much interfacing with the world outside as I think would have been beneficial to growing up, unfortunately.

Alicia: Yeah, no, I remember Albert Einstein College from driving past. I went to Fordham. So I remember just being like, ‘Ah, the signs.’ That's all I know of it. I'm like, ‘Oh, the signs for Albert Einstein on the Pelham Parkway.’ [Laughs.]

But that's so interesting, to grow up in that kind of environment with—and that's interesting, because I think when we think of the Bronx, we think of Arthur Avenue and we think of so much food diversity and that sort of thing. Do you go back now?

Jenny: Sometimes.

I mean, I try. But I feel I don't even know. Yeah, I didn't know to know. I feel sad about that all the time. I feel elementary school, at least I was able to go to public elementary and kind of learn about the fact that there are such a diverse group of folks up in the Bronx. But so many times when we were just in the student compounds, we’re so sheltered from everyone else. You don't interact with anyone. 

And I think this is now, in retrospect, when I have kind of conversations around race and class and social status and immigration with my parents, they were so busy being students, heads down, that they had no concept of what was kind of happening, which is unfortunate. But I think that is—that's kind of a manifestation of how so many things happen here in the U.S., is that you have your own little silo and you don't realize you're in a silo until you're out of it. And that can take years. That could take your entire life.

Alicia: Right.

Well, what was your route to getting into food and becoming a chef?

Jenny: So, I had always been a food person growing up. I loved eating. I planned all of our vacations around eating. So when I was little, my parents really liked going to Vegas. This is after we had moved to Seattle. We weren't going from New York to Vegas. Because of the buffets, and there's a lot of food. And it was fairly inexpensive to go and have a good time. And so, I remember—I think I was like 10. We were going to Vegas, and we never gambled or anything. We would just go and eat at buffets. And I'd be like, ‘This one has this and this one has that. And it was all about the food.’ 

And so, my mother and father had always been like, ‘Yeah, you kind of like food. But that's not a real career.’ It was never really encouraged or allowed, I think. So I never really thought about food in that way. Just saw it as a hobby or a thing that I want—I liked and wanted to do, but not as a thing that I should pursue, so to speak. 

It wasn't until after I had started my first job out of college. I was in management consulting, and realized, first of all, how miserable I was, but specifically because I was within fashion and luxury goods. I had this kind of sad moment where I realized so many of the people higher up on the food chain than me, they were filling their hearts, their metaphorical hearts, so to speak, with just stuff. And I could see it. And you never want to be in a position as a really junior person where you look at someone who's supposed to have their shit together, and seems to have it all, and you just feel really sad for them. And that's how I felt all the time. 

And I don't want to editorialize on their behalf. Maybe they're super happy. But what I interpreted was a lot of sadness. And then I realized, ‘I don't like this job. I've never liked this job. I don't know why I wanted to be in this industry. I think it was for the glitz and the glamour. But inside, I'm really unhappy. So what can I do about it? What is the thing that makes me happy?’ And naturally, it was like, ‘Ok, I'm going to go cook. I'm going to go take this advanced cooking techniques class at the Institute of Culinary Education.’ At first, it was just recreational. But soon enough, I was like, ‘I want something formal. I don't want the sheltered student experience again. I really want to be fabricating my lamb. I want to be breaking down the chickens. I want to be making the stock, not just have stock delivered to me from stewarding.’

So I ended up going to a full diploma program at school and wanted to give myself a chance in the industry. Ended up leaving—I was going to Columbia Business School right afterwards. Ended up leaving that and was like, ‘I just need to figure out—I need to at least give it a chance to try and see where I end up.’

Alicia: Well, and then do you think that your training and your experience, even if it wasn't what you ultimately wanted to do, and then some studies at Columbia Business School, do you think that they influence your work in food now that you are working in food media? You're also working in activism. You've founded Studio ATAO? Do those things still crop up? Do they still kind of aid your thinking? 

 Jenny: Yeah, I think a lot of what I saw at culinary school really shaped how the work that I do now just seeing—first of all, poor representation of how things are taught. 

And just the lack of, I think, empowerment that culinary students and, in general, a lot of more junior-level workers within food, restaurant, hospitality, beverage are often imbued with, because you're constantly being told that your opinions don't matter. You don't have the right to stand up for yourself, and that the system is just like this. We were constantly indoctrinated in culinary school that you just got to go to these stages, and you're never going to get paid. And you're gonna to work a gazillion hours and make $10 an hour to start. And that's normalized. And that is a huge problem if we're normalizing literally hundreds of thousands of students to that sort of mentality every year. So I don't think I had the vocabulary for it then. But a lot of the micro- and macroaggressions that I faced in culinary school really informed the desire to even try to do this work.

And in a, I guess, a positive way, by interactions at business school—which I don't want to hate on too much because I did marry someone from the business school—but business school was such a jarring and terrible experience in that I was like, ‘Wow, are we really just out here to compete and make money?’ This kind of idea of constant scarcity, constant competition, it's so toxic. And what is the real value that we're trying to add to society at large?

But I think it's hard to get into that kind of mode when you're surrounded by people who are just telling you about their Goldman Sachs résumé, or telling you how great they have it because they made so much money last year. It's so easy to get into this keeping up with the Joneses sort of mentality. 

And I think shifting from graduating from culinary school, and then three days later going to Columbia Business School, that juxtaposition made me realize these were two different worlds. We're not talking to each other. Because we're so siloed in both respects, there is so much—there's so much that we should be doing. We could be improving both industries or industries under Columbia, and then food hospitality in general. But right now, we don't even understand the problems each other are facing. And we don't have any empathy for them. So how, what do we do about that? How do we bridge that gap?

Alicia: Right.

And so, when did you start to move toward food media?

Jenny: It's kind of a strange, roundabout way, I guess.

I first went into work at restaurants, kind of had to do that as part of my culinary school externship, started working in corporate food R&D. And I think from all the just toxicity that I've absorbed over those years, wanted to find some sort of outlet to write, write about it, talk about it. 

And as you're aware, it's really hard to land some of those more difficult reported pieces off the bat. So I had this, to start with the rigmarole of doing basic recipes, and then maybe a little bit more covered recipes with headnotes. And then slowly was able to move into ‘Oh, I really want to tackle really complex or uncomfortable topics within food media. Who's going to give me an opportunity to do that?’

And I think that journey also uncovered a lot of these problems that we have with the media of like, Who gets exposed? Who gets airtime? What kind of writing and language do we pay credence to, and which ones do we not? Ran into that constant issue of, ‘Can you really cover issues that aren't Asian American?’ So I think that journey continued to inform like, ‘Oh, ok, food media is a place that we can talk about it. But it's also not the end all, be all of how we're going to bring about justice or change.’

Alicia: Right. 

And do you think things have gotten better since you started to work in food media?

Jenny: Heh. I don't know. 

I would love to hear what you think, because I feel like I get this question. And I'm always like, ‘I want to say yes, I think so.’ But a lot of times, I am not sure. Because I feel optically we are saying and doing a lot of the right things. But I think systemically have we really made those big changes? I don't know.

Alicia: Right.

Well, my perspective right now is very skewed because I'm very focused on my newsletter. I think I've stopped really paying attention to food magazines, for the most part. 

I get Bon Appétit in the mail. And I read it, and I—it's very thin these days.And I don't say that to insult them. They have a huge reach and everything. And they've really hired a lot of writers that I really enjoy. And so, that's really great. But we're not seeing that much. 

Maybe this is the thing, and I would like to ask you about it, because this brings up a lot of your work with Studio ATAO, I think, which is how much does representation count if the stories and the narratives remain sort of the same? So what is your perspective on when you can have the representation, but maybe things don't really change at a deeper level?

Like you were mentioning, there's this pervasive idea in the media that people who, non-white people can't write about anything but their own background. And that is very pervasive. That continues. That I haven't seen really change in a real way. And so, in your mind, how much does representation count for in food media?

Jenny: Yeah.

I mean, I think representation is always going to be important. Of course, it's important that if you're a new reader to Bon App or Food & Wine, and you're flipping through the pages, and you see a face that looks like yours, of course, that's always going to be good. But I think what, when I say optically, we are doing that. 

However, the power dynamics of who picks those people, who gets to greenlight the pitches, who gets to shape the pitches, who gets to censor some of the words, that sort of chain of command is the multiple steps behind representation that I would like to see more change in. And there's a lot of obstacles to all sorts of those things. 

One of the things that we had been tackling through these two white papers with Well+Good and The Kitchn for the last year, so over the—over 2021 is how do we hire more BIPOC in these diverse leadership roles? And a lot of the problem’s that HR is saying over and over again is the pipeline is empty. There's no BIPOC in the pipeline. And yet, it's like yes, and no, right? I'm sure there is. But there probably isn't as many because BIPOC are regularly not promoted at the same cadence. They don't get the same titles, etc. So the pipeline probably does look a little bit empty. 

And so then it becomes ‘Well, is that one institution trying to hire additional diverse leadership going to be the person that trains that leadership? Are they going to start working with BIPOC students so that they can move them up the promotion ladder, so that in ten years, you're going to have an exe editor that naturally is BIPOC?’ 

That's a level of commitment that far exceeds just finding a BIPOC woman and promoting them. It takes a lot more planning, it takes a lot more investment, time, money, energy. And I think that's kind of the, where a lot of organizations are doing the ‘Well, that's not on us. That's an industry problem. That's not for us to solve.’ And that's what makes me nervous in terms of long-term change.

Alicia: Right, right. 

There's similar problems in terms of class or education level where the same—you have a whole team of people who have the same economic background, the same type of education background. And I think that also really comes through in terms of the content, which—and that comes through in terms of who you're speaking to, as your audience is like—

And that's a really interesting thing when you're writing about food, because the people you're writing about in restaurants, etc., are going to be probably super different from the types of people in the magazine office. And that's such a disconnect. That's a big loss, too. That's a loss for who your audience can be, like, if you're not even necessarily speaking to the people who work in, to the concerns of people who work in restaurants. That's a real loss. 

And it's a big problem to deal with. And like you were saying, it's a problem of a lack of commitment from folks in these higher-up positions to put in that effort to find those people and to really be a mentor to people, even if they look different, come from a different kind of place, come from a different kind of education. And that reluctance, it shows in how much people are really engaging with the work and it shows in what the work is. Because I think that it's been a really big loss of opportunity to talk about restaurant workers in a real way in the media, especially since the pandemic. I feel like it's been a bit—that distance has been very apparent lately. 

As someone who has worked in restaurants, how has this time been for you as someone who does work in the media, but also has that experience?

Jenny: Yeah.

I think it's tough because you have folks who are on the ground very concerned with day-to-day, like, ‘Is my restaurant going to stay open or not? I don't know if I'm going to get this paycheck or not? I don't know what's going on with unemployment.’ 

And then to ask them to also know kind of the fancy language terms that often are used when writers write for other writers, there's a huge disconnect, when you're supposedly supposed to be helping them understand, navigate this landscape. Because what we're getting in terms of directors from the government was confusing enough when we're talking about PPP, or we're talking about if some PPPs can be forgiven, or whatnot. There's already this barrier of people being able to access some of those funds, even if they were meant for everyone. Before we even start talking about how undocumented folks were not even able to access that, but yeah.

And then when you're covering it as a food media publication, who are you really interviewing? Are you taking the time to really interview people on the ground, versus talking to a PR company that represents a restaurant group that can easily pull you a couple sous chefs to interview versus getting into the kitchens and really asking the garde manger who's been there for 10 years, or the porter on this—and asking them like, ‘Hey, how are you dealing with this problem?’

I think that's a level of disconnect food media's always faced. I don't know how to fix that, because folks are not getting paid enough to cover their stories. They don't have enough lead time to write the stories that they want to write. There's not enough fact-checking that's happening. I don't know. It's a domino effect of all the problems from the top down.

Alicia: Exactly, yeah.

Well, with Studio ATAO, it’s a nonprofit think tank where you’re executive director, there's been a very broad approach to changing inequitable systems. And so, I was wondering if you can explain its founding and the work the nonprofit does.

Jenny: Yeah. 

So Studio ATAO is a community-based think tank. And what we mean by that is, how do we conduct research? How do we create spaces where we can really listen to the needs and recommendations of community members that are most affected by various different inequitable problems, and actually champion and put energy and money and time to support their recommendations from the ground up instead of trying to implement solutions to fix these problems from the top down?

And I think, because of the very complicated convoluted nature of the nonprofit industrial complex, which we can get into if people want, as well as think tanks, which kind of get wrapped up in all of that, and academia as well, a lot of times you have philanthropists and big level donors who see a problem. And they have their own take on what the solution is. 

The example I often use is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done a lot of great work in the world. But there's a lot of critique on how they handle child classroom access. And they're focused on getting small class sizes, which arguably, small class sizes probably is great. But was that the number one thing that communities with not great educational outcomes wanted to see in terms of structural change? Maybe not. Did they bother to ask anyone and figure that out before kind of putting all of that energy into it? 

And so what we've really tried to do is, first if we see a problem like equitable representation of the media, talk to the people who are getting affected by that and say, like, ‘What are the changes you want to see? Is it more leadership at the top? Is it changing pitch guidelines? Is it more transparency? What is the thing that you think would most make the biggest impact to make your life better, to make you feel your work is more equitable, that you have a space to have your voice be heard in some of these sort of companies?’

So, that's kind of our approach in general. And our main thing for this year and next year is looking at gentrification and hospitality, which is a whole can of worms. 

Alicia: That is really exciting though, because that is such a complicated topic. I am so excited to see what you come up with. 

Yeah, no, I'm reading a lot about gentrification because of where I live—well, so I'm from New York. So there's gentrification there in New York City. But here in Old San Juan, it's just so rapid and virulent, and it's having such a huge impact on the culture. And it's just a really, really, really intense situation to live among. Yeah. It's happening so rapidly that I don't think anyone is thinking—Well, locals are thinking enough about what it means. But in terms of the politicians and everything, there's just really no concern or no regulation, and just selling everything. 

And in terms of the food, it actually has—people always think of the impact of gentrification on the food, and that it becomes more bourgeois and inaccessible, and the impact here has interestingly been that the food is worse. And so, because locals can't open places, because it's too expensive, it's harder to get the capital to do so. And in general, the stat is 85% of food is imported to Puerto Rico. And so usually, we have really poor quality onions in the supermarket, the garlic is from Spain, etc., etc. So there's one or two good local restaurants in Old San Juan, and then other than that it's food for tourists. It's fast food. There's one local fast, a couple of local fast food places.

It's a very interesting thing, because you always hear that, like, ‘People bring the money, and then they bring gentrification.’ The way you tell that is through the food, but—or it's through the coffee, maybe. [Laughs.] But I mean, coffee is already part of the culture, so they can't really do anything with the coffee. 

And so, it's just an interesting dynamic, because it's just—it's the opposite of how I was told, or had always read that gentrification works with food and with hospitality. And so, I'm super interested in this topic right now because there's so much to understand that hasn't, that isn't as simplified as people make it out to be. And so, I'm really excited to see that work that you guys are putting out. 

And you do such interesting work around how cultural and political realities impact food and the way people get it. You wrote about cultural appropriation in fast-casual restaurants for Eater. I wanted to ask, how did that story idea come about? Why did you see fast-casual as worthy of serious critique? Because I was like, ‘Oh,’ reading it. And I read it when it came out, and I was reading it again to interview you. And I'm like, ‘Does anyone really talk about fast-casual in a rigorous way?’ And people should, because it is the way a lot of people are interacting with these cuisines.

Jenny: Yeah.

I think a lot of what I wanted to—well, maybe not just for that piece, but that that piece had a whole just fallout. Let's just put it like that, just an insane amount of hate mail. But I think what I wanted to do is point out these systems that we interact with in our lives, where we're normalizing things.

And fast-casual, I think, is often not scrutinized because we kind of dismiss it. We see it as a quick bite to eat. What harm is Chipotle doing if I'm just giving a burrito there? And whereas that we put a lot of worthy and important attention on things like Lucky Lee’s, or Lucky Cricket. And those absolutely should be critiqued. But why not the thing that you're quickly grabbing to go? Why not the thing that you are probably interacting with way more than this random restaurant in Minnesota that you might not ever visit? I think because of Internet outrage culture, it's easier to be angry at these kind of discrete things, versus acknowledging how these small little occurrences in your everyday life actually end up shaping your worldview. 

I think back to as a culinary student, as I mentioned earlier, it's not that anyone comes out and tells you, ‘You're garbage and you're not worth more than $10 an hour.’ It's just something that you implicitly learn over the course of your time there. And I think that's a lot more insidious and toxic. And we really do need to be not only pointing that out for ourselves, but getting, I think, surfacing that for people who are still going through it, the next generation of students. So that they can identify it when their mentor tells them that, when there's—when their instructor tells them that, when their career counselor says something like that.

Alicia: Right, right, right. 

Because we're talking about a lot of serious things, and now I'm sort of—I think we've sort of enacted maybe the thought process of where you launched a newsletter to do more personal writing, loose writing. Because you are known for the very rigorous looks at diversity and discrimination in the food industry. How has your experience been doing a newsletter so far?

Jenny: Yeah.

I mean, newsletter’s been so strange. But I think the big thing I've learned is just how differently I'm writing for the newsletter versus for any publication, and just how much of my voice I'm really tailoring. I think I just didn't notice because I never wrote for myself. So I know the kind of tone I need to strike for Serious Eats or for Washington Post or whatever. You read enough of their work, you get it. 

And I'm not discounting that kind of writing. And I very much enjoy it. And I'm going to continue reading the New York Times. But now I kind of see it—I'm like, ‘I'm not gonna structure my sentences like that.’ I love to have long things that are in parentheses that probably shouldn’t be in parentheses. Instead of feeling that is a problem or that is, there's something inherently wrong with that, it's like, ‘Oh, that's actually a quirk that I like to write in.’

I remember years ago, I wrote this piece that was very personal. And my editor shat all over it, and was like, ‘Stop anthropomorphizing your food.’ It was this whole thing. And that piece is fine. I'm fine with how it turned out. But I look back. And I feel like, ‘Again, see, this is those small things that get normalized.’ Editors say that all the time. And I was like, ‘There's something wrong with my writing style,’ versus ‘Oh, I'm just not writing in the tone that they want.’

So the newsletter has given me a little bit of that perhaps needed confidence to say, ‘These are my personalities.’ As a writer, I am allowed to find value in them, even if it's not well suited for a bigger publication. And also explore things that maybe some people don't want to talk about. I wrote a thing about fanfiction, and fandom. And that was really fun. I just had a good time writing about it. And so, I put my energy and time into that. And I hope that people care. And I think people, the response was like, ‘Oh, I never even thought about this before.’

And this is that problem with food media, or media in general, if you can't prove that people will care about it to start. You can't ever land the pitch. But once you actually get it out in the world, people did care. I don't know. Yeah.

Alicia: [Laughter.] No, that's so interesting! 

And I've found the same thing. And in my newsletter is like, ‘Oh, there is an audience for cultural critique, it—of all these food issues, but also for personal essays about why I eat oatmeal every day.’ It's such a shocking thing, I think, because we have been trained to think that we have no story unless people are already talking about it. And it's like, well, by the time people are already talking about it, it's like the story's boring. They've taken the story and they've gone with it, and then it—you have to find a new angle on it, and that sort of thing. 

And I think there's so much value in—and this is, I guess, what we sort of lost over the last—in the 2010s, the blogs kind of died out. And then we lost this really more informal and raw and voicey way of writing on the internet. And we had social media, but at the same time, it's very different. And so, I think newsletters are giving a little bit of a more informality and space and structure to the fact that people really do want that kind of work and want that kind of thinking and miss that kind of like, ‘Let me just hear what someone's thinking about something, even if they've never thought about it before.’ 

Because that's true. If the writing is good, and the writing is punchy and interesting, people are gonna read about anything. And that's, I think, something people have lost in this obsession with SEO and views, etc., etc. I published something on Monday that was just my thought process over a couple of weeks. And it's gotten 30,000 views in two days. And so it's like, that's not bad. [Laughs.] For just a person thinking out loud, I think that there is more space for that. People want that, then—I don't know. It is interesting. 

And my advice always to younger writers—and I've sent it twice today to two different people [laughs]—I was like, ‘You do have to write for editors,’ because now people think that they can just start a newsletter and then boom! Career takes off. And it's like, ‘It's probably not gonna happen.’ Even though it hurts a lot of the time being edited, especially when you're just starting out and you have to learn and you have—

But at the same time, you have to figure out that balance for yourself of where you're comfortable with an editor taking away from your voice, and sometimes where you can push back and that sort of thing, or when and where you can do a long parenthetical that maybe someone else would take out. You have to have that understanding of the rules in order to break out of the rules. It's interesting to hear you say that the newsletter now has given you a whole new lease on writing, because I think that that's true. And I mean, I don't want this to sound like gatekeeping or whatever. But I do think you have to learn the basics first.

Jenny: Yeah, I think it's important to understand where every—but where everybody's boundaries are. It's very difficult as a person who's starting any career, writing or otherwise, to set those boundaries for yourself. So the best way we usually go about them is by emulating other people's boundaries. So I think it's really valuable to have an experience at a corporate entity or a small organization or nonprofit, whatever, because you start seeing how different people approach the world. 

And similarly, with writing, if you don't ever get edited, you're never going to see other people's criteria of what they think good writing is or what they think good editing is or what they think something voici or newsy is. And then, you don't—you kind of can't set those parameters for yourself. And you also can't really discover what you—I know what a voice EP sounds like. Maybe I just don't want it to sound like that, because that's not what I'm feeling right now. But you can't really have that kind of self-reflection without having the experience first. 

Alicia: Oh, that's such a good way of putting it. [Laughs.] I'm gonna steal your work. [Laughs.] The next time, I'm gonna send a copy of the transcript. 

But I wanted to ask, because you do so much. You're writing for other outlets, you're writing your newsletter, you do—you still are doing recipes. You still are working with Studio ATAO. What are you hoping for this year, 2022?

Jenny: Yeah, I think the big theme for myself personally this year is to create more and to create things that bring me joy. Because what I think is very hard for any sort of creative type, whether a writer or a chef or whatnot, is at some point because of money, because of the world, you start creating things for other people so much so that you kind of forget like, ‘What actually brings me joy? I have no idea sometimes.’ I'm sitting around in my kitchen like, ‘What do I want to make today?’

And sometimes I do have the envy of people who are pure content creators, and they go in and they're like, ‘I'm going to create content. What do I want to make?’ Because I feel so much of that has been taken from me, because I have to think about what other people want. And not saying that content creators don't have that outside pressure as well. 

So that's number one for me for the newsletter, is how do I explore things that I care about? If 100 people read it, so be it. It wasn't for them anyway. Ithink it's really hard to have that mentality. And I'm already struggling with it three weeks into the year. So we'll see how that goes.

But for the studio, the big thing is sustainability. We have been actively trying to resist being part of the nonprofit industrial complex, to not have all our funds come from big donors or corporations or grants and big philanthropists. But it's very difficult to not only make sure that we can employ people, but give them the employment length and the benefits and whatnot. And we're really struggling with that. And it's kind of a what do we have to sacrifice in order to have some of the runway that we want without compromising our values? 

And I, we’re struggling through that, to be totally candid. It's just an ongoing struggle. I don't know how to fix it, because the whole system is broken. Everyone's heard this before. So I won't belabor the point. But I don't know how to make it better. I think we're just trying to do less, and figure out if the—we have four initiatives for this year. How do we do them the best we can with what we have?

Alicia: Right.

And is it on Patreon? 

Jenny: Yes. 

Alicia: Ok. 

Jenny: Yeah, you can support on Patreon. You can also give one-time gifts. We really would prefer most of our comes, coming from the community, because obviously we don't want kind of this big overlord telling us we can't say this, or you can say that.

Alicia: Right, right. That's very important. 

So how do you define abundance?

Jenny: I think it's feeling you don't have to worry. Abundance means kind of that absence of scarcity. So you don't have to worry about—the thought of being hungry never crosses your mind, right? It's the absence of that worry at all. 

I grew up in a very privileged environment where I wasn't worried about hunger, and I wasn't worried about shelter. And I don't know what it feels like to truly be actively worried about that. And I think that is a feeling of abundance in its own way. I don't think it's necessarily about having more. It's about like this—yeah. A lack of worry.

Alicia: Right. I love that. I love that definition of it. 

And for you, is cooking a political act?

Jenny: Yes. I think cooking is always a political act. And it doesn't have to be—And I think how people define political, of course, varies. To me, it's like it's always an expression of all the systems that be.

For example, last Thanksgiving, it was the first time that we had a Thanksgiving after my father-in-law had passed. And my family had come down. My husband's family comes down. Cousins were there. And I made an active effort to make sure to make food that people have probably had never had before, so that what—

Did they totally fit into the classic American Thanksgiving table? Probably not. But there were things that I knew that they probably would not be able or not have interest in going to those restaurants they experienced themselves and could give a little bit of texture and nuance to the conversations, which already there's kind of a cultural gap, right? Because we have different cultures. We have different backgrounds. People live in different places. 

So I think food served as both a connector in that way, but also as a way to kind of challenge people. And I think that is very political, where it wasn't like, ‘Hey, let's talk about Biden in this dish or whatnot.’ [Outro music kicks in. Drums with a chill vibe.] It was more just like, ‘Let's talk about all of these interesting systems that brought this dish to be here.’

Alicia: I love that. 

Well, thank you so much, Jenny. 

Jenny: Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for having me.

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.