Jun 26, 2020 • 28M

A Conversation with Korsha Wilson

Listen now | We spoke about how she began her own outlet, the pros and cons of culinary school, self-help books, social media, and more.

 
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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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I don’t know that Korsha Wilson needs much introduction. Throughout the course of our conversation—not our first, nor our last—I found myself constantly reminded of various pieces she’d written over the last few years as she’s carved out a space for herself as a sharp thinker, warm interviewer, and gorgeous writer at outlets such as Food & Wine, Eater, Bon Appétit, and more.

But it’s with her own A Hungry Society, both the podcast and website, that her voice and vision are most brilliantly displayed—unadulterated, with the subject at the center. (Follow it on Twitter and Instagram to keep up.) We spoke about how she began her own outlet, the pros and cons of culinary school, self-help books, social media, and more. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Korsha. Thanks so much for coming on.

Korsha: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Alicia: I'm excited. I've been on A Hungry Society twice, technically, and I never have gotten to interview you, so this is a big day.

Korsha: Actually, I was thinking about the last time you were on the podcast. The circumstances. Chefs running late and filling in.

Alicia: And I had no voice at all, so I was straining my throat to say anything, but I did get to eat pizza after, so that was good.

Korsha: Yes, that makes it worth it.

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

Korsha: I grew up in Maryland and grew up eating—my mom liked to cook, and she would make all kinds of stuff, like spareribs that she baked in the oven with like, you know, jarred barbecue sauce, and mashed potatoes from scratch, corned beef and cabbage, and pierogies. She just liked to cook from all over the world.

But some of my most formative food memories are with extended family. So my dad's family's from Virginia, and my mom's family is from the Virgin Islands, and I—just my favorite food memories are of those two places, eating, but in both occasions, eating seafood and just being surrounded by my family, so yeah, that's I guess my most favorite food memories from my childhood.

Alicia: Right. And then you lived in Boston for a while.

Korsha: I did. I lived there for nine years. I moved there after going to culinary school in Hyde Park. I moved there to go to Emerson for journalism. And, man, I just kind of ran out of money to go to school and hung around for several years, just working in restaurants. And you know, I met my now-husband up there and like, lived in Boston and thought I was gonna stay there until it started to feel way too small. We moved to New Jersey, which is where I am now.

Alicia: And you wrote a really great piece I remember for Food and—was it for Food & Wine, or was it for Bon Appétit, about the oysters in Boston?

Korsha: Oh, that was for Bon Appétit. When we were laid off.

Alicia: So seafood seems to be the real sticking point for you in terms of your food memories.

Korsha: Absolutely. It's always super-comforting to me. There's something very visceral about eating seafood, and actually, it makes me think of your oyster piece. The immediacy of seafood, the fact that it can't be, you know, dead for—Oh, that sounds really bad. It can't be laying around for days and days and days; you have to have it as fresh as possible. And it tastes like the sea. It tastes like—good seafood, anyway—it tastes like water. It's like, you know, the beach, and that's my favorite location on Earth, so I cannot imagine life without seafood.

Alicia: Yeah, there's something really not just visceral about it, but you know, alive and that feels, I think, so human about eating seafood, even if it's just an oyster.

You started your podcast and website A Hungry Society in 2016, and that's a time many U.S.-based food writers keep pointing back to right now as a turning point in terms of what the mainstream food media covered. Did that moment in time feel like a shift to you in the bigger food media scene, and what inspired you to create your own space then?

Korsha: I was thinking about this. I don't know that the larger food media landscape pushed me to talk about anything that I wasn't thinking about or having conversations about already. It was just like you said, like things just kind of shifted to where I finally could get paid to write about these things.

And I didn't start A Hungry Society to do that either. You know, at that time, it was just kind of a natural sort of organic way for me to have conversations with people that I thought were doing incredibly dope work and not getting enough attention for it, which was kind of my MO anyway, when I was writing. It just happened to coincide with white people realizing racism exists and then being like, “Oh, do you want to write about this for us?” And “do you want to talk about this topic for us?” and I've been able to kind of carve out a living in food writing, which I'm very grateful for, but I think I would be doing this work anyway, even if food media wouldn't pay me for it. I would definitely need another job on the side, but I would write about the things I write about.

Alicia: And what has having your own podcast and your own website allowed you to do that you maybe wouldn't be able to do in mainstream food media or in a magazine?

Korsha: It allows me to not have to quantify or validate people that I think are really amazing. Someone who just popped into my head is Omar [Tate], who I know you've had in your newsletter before, but the first time we talked, he didn't really have that many pieces out about him. And I just—I knew and I understood his reference points, and his food is delicious, and I thought Honeysuckle is such a brilliant concept, and, you know, his poetry is so amazing that I wanted to have that conversation. I didn't have to ask anyone; I didn't have to create a pitch around him. It was just, I can see that this person's work is dope, and so I'm going to highlight them, you know, like having the space to have those conversations with people who are doing really cool work and documenting their work and where they are in that moment is—it's freeing. It feels like my own space to fully explore whatever I want to in that moment.

Alicia: Were there any challenges to launching A Hungry Society when you maybe didn't have those bylines at major publications? Was anyone kind of hesitant to talk to you? Or, you know, was it hard to get on Heritage Radio like—was there any gatekeeping that—

Korsha: No. No, like, it was honestly—With Heritage, it's interesting, because I cold-pitched them on A Hungry Society, the podcast. I looked at their programming and I remember Nicole Taylor's show Hot Grease, and I realized it was off of their weekly programming and there was this gap in, you know, telling Black stories or having a Black host even—like, there wasn't a Black host. And so I just cold-pitched them on the idea of me talking to people that I thought were dope.

Originally—I know a lot of people don't know this—originally, A Hungry Society was a T-shirt company, and a very unsuccessful one. Like, my mom bought a shirt, my aunt, and Cory [Editor’s note: her husband] has one. But that's it. Like, you know, even people I've been friends with for a long time were like, “Oh, that's such a cute design. What is it?” Like, What? Why? Why? Yeah, it was just not very successful. I was selling the shirts to raise money for an organization that was helping kids with going to culinary school, which I felt great about, but they weren't selling, so I wasn't raising any money, right?

I was realizing it would be more helpful to write stories about cool organizations. Launching A Hungry Society as a website with stories was actually pretty terrifying, just because I knew I could talk to people in a way that was really good for a podcast, but writing it down and honoring each story and what makes this person special and their work special. And maybe that's in the Q&A format or maybe that's in an essay format. Or maybe that's you know, them drawing something or just—having all of that on my shoulders, while freeing, was also terrifying because I wanted to do people's stories justice. So I'm still working through that.

Alicia: No, that's super difficult. Actually, I was thinking, you went to culinary school, you've written a bit about culinary schools and what they do and don't teach, and you were raising funds just to get kids to college. How do you feel about culinary school? I feel like it's been such a topic of controversy—I mean, all of higher education has—but culinary school especially, because you're sending people into a very low-paying profession, maybe with debt and that sort of thing. So what are your culinary school feelings these days?

Korsha: I mean, I feel differently for sure.

Beyond the fact that culinary school is incredibly expensive, there's also it's—because it's incredibly expensive—super white, and the coursework reflects that, the student body reflects that, and the administrators reflect that. I wrote a piece last year about how curriculum work needs to be more diverse and pilaf should be taught next to jollof rice and mole should be included in the mother sauces. If you're trying to teach students about the complexities that are available in these cooking techniques, why not expand the curriculum to really show the breadth of cooking and food?

I don't know that I would tell someone they need to go to culinary school today. I don't regret going—it was a really fun time. I'm still paying the loans off. But I don't think it's completely necessary, especially in this moment where there's so many questions in the air about the restaurant industry, so up in the air about what's next and what's coming. I don't think it is completely necessary.

I would say, work for someone that you really respect their craft, you really respect their point of view, and they treat people well—work there and work your way up and go from there. I think that kind of experience is way more important than a degree.

Alicia: And as you said, you wrote about that for Eater, I believe, right? And you've been writing so much for different outlets like Food & Wine; you've written for Vogue recently, I saw. Congratulations on that.

Korsha: Thank you. I have mixed feelings about that.

Alicia: Of course. But, you know, there's been this kind of food media reckoning recently with the revelations of how toxic and racist it has been at Bon Appétit. Do you feel that food media is actually going to change and if so, what would you want that reckoning to look like?

Korsha: You know, I hope it changes. The reckoning is frustrating. It's like when a friend introduces you to a friend of a friend and you're like, I have a bad vibe, like, I don't really like this person, but they're like, No, no so-and-so's wonderful. Like, They did this for me or like, you know, They're so cool. They're into that. And then maybe a few months or a year or a couple years later, some shit goes down. And you're like, See, see, I told you. I told you. That's how I feel about this whole reckoning thing.

It's a reckoning for whom? I think these conversations have been happening with I—I am liking the term POC less and less—but I think among writers of color, these conversations have been happening about what it's like to be at these institutions and how they treat freelancers and how they don't promote the people of color that work within their organization. And so I wonder who we’re even centering in the response to the racism. I think sometimes, like I described—I described food media dramas like a dog chasing its tail sometimes. Like, it's so self-involved, and I don't know that it honestly does anything, but I hope—I truly, truly hope—there's a lot of introspection and then outreach, because there's just way too many dope Black folks and Latinx folks doing amazing work in this space for them not to be recognized and hired and paid way more than they're getting paid.

Alicia: It's funny you said a dog chasing its tail, because—I think I reference something Layla [Schlack] has said, like, every time I do an interview—but we were just talking about how it's an ouroboros, the mythical creature, where we talk about how we need the system to change and we know that, but the systems aren't going to change unless the individuals push the systems to change and the individuals have too much stock in the systems not being changed too much.

So many people would have to change their definitions of success in order for there to be even room at these, you know, magazines and websites that just don't do a good enough job being inclusive—and not just being inclusive and not just saying, you know, diversity and representation for their own sake, but really investing and getting the best work from people and investing in giving people the resources they need to do their best work. There's too much bound up in people's success. I think, yeah, I don’t think we’ll have the reckoning that we really need to have. I think it's gonna be very piecemeal, whatever changes really do happen. Which stinks. 

Korsha: I just finished reading—I don't know how you feel about Brené Brown—but I just finished reading The Gifts of Imperfection and she talks about defining meaningful work for yourself and creating your own definition of what is meaningful and then when opportunity comes your way or work comes your way, measuring that opportunity up against that definition and then deciding from there if you're going to take it on or not.

And so, for me, it's been really useful to think about it in those terms instead of going after an award or prestige or this publication. It also helps me center A Hungry Society, too, because I’m not thinking about the other places. Oh, this is actually what I'm chasing. It's like, Well, where would the story best fit? So the story comes in the center instead of where it lives.

Alicia: No, I think that's so important. And I've never read Brené Brown, but I'm hugely in favor of self-help, like New-Agey type—

Korsha: I don't think you can be a writer and be closed off to these kinds of things.

Alicia: I've read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert twice, so I'm all aboard—I would say read that, for sure.

But you also reminded me of something Toni Morrison wrote that I remember The New Yorker published called “The Work You Do, The Person You Are,” which was basically about the same thing, about making sure that your work and the stories you want to tell are at the forefront of your definition of success, which, yeah, like I said—I think that's so important, and I think that the shifting meaning of success is something that—if people dedicate themselves to doing that work, that'll really have some sort of change.

Korsha: Especially as Black writers, right? Oh my God, if—oh, I shivered just thinking about it—if I had the white gaze or white validation as my ultimate goal, how hollow would my work be? You know what I mean? I would be constantly chasing this validation that could never come. And for what? I'd be so sad at the end of my life.

Alicia: Last week you were tweeting about Juneteenth and it's being branded kind of a holiday. And I thought those were super interesting, especially as you discuss the fact that Black people in media are understood to be a monolith, when in reality, there's so much diversity there, of course, regionally, et cetera. So do you see independent- and Black-run media as the space where those complex narratives can be told? Do you think there is other space?

Korsha: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there's space for Black breadth across independent publications and the existing ones, too. I think there's room for all these different stories to be told. With Juneteenth, I saw a couple of explainer-type pieces out there that were like, “for Black people, it means X.” And it's like, “Hold on, Juneteenth is very specific to Texas.” Like, you know, I grew up in Maryland; we didn't celebrate Juneteenth. And I know other Black folks like that, who grew up on the East Coast and didn't celebrate that. But people from points west, even in Alaska, grew up celebrating it.

I get pretty upset when I see Black people and Black culture being referred to as if it’s ubiquitous when it's not. I mean, the regional differences with what you serve with fried fish alone, like it shows that it really depends on where you're at in the country, what you have access to, where your family comes from. I think those are the types of stories I want to see told, are these very specific regional stories, because I think for too long there hasn't been enough exploration of that.

Alicia: And yeah, it's funny, I think, because you're not on social media—I admire this about you—but you're not on social media in a really intense way the same way many other writers are. I'm implicating myself here. So I do think that when you kind of show up on the Twitter timeline, I'm like, Oh boy, Korsha really has something to say. But at the same time, it's funny, because the way you said that there are explainer posts about this day and that they're not grasping the real nuance of it, and it's because, or it's seemingly because—and this is the way that the content machine works—people were like, Oh boy, we have to kind of make up for a lot of stuff right now by doing a Juneteenth explainer, and then not even doing it justice. And it's like, you know, take a step—everyone needs to take a step back and maybe you only publish something when you know it's solid. There was a lot of this with the Bon Appétit thing, too, in terms of the way people were talking about it. It was like, Have you talked to anyone from this community to understand what actually is going on here? There's just this rush to comment, but I admire your restraint in commenting and that you really only get on Twitter when you have something to say.

Korsha: I appreciate those words. It's just so bad for my mental health that I have to take a break. I honestly, like, in quarantine, I've been doing this thing where I turn off my phone for a day or so at a time, which is really freeing; it just becomes this like little plastic brick that's useless and I love it. Maybe that's my Scorpio thing—I don't know what that comes from. I figure if I'm gonna say something, I should say something useful. I don't know.

Alicia: But again, it makes sense—you’re a writer. I'm a Scorpio, so I don't know what my excuse would be. It's my Gemini rising, I think, that keeps me too chatty.

Korsha: I don’t think you’re chatty.

Alicia: I'm not really chatty as a human being, but I talk too much on the internet for sure. Like, I just—I post too much stuff, but like if someone actually wants to talk to me about it, I'm like, Yeah, like, no. It's like, Read what I wrote.

Someone emailed me today—this is totally irrelevant—but someone emailed me today and was like, “you should write about like colonialism and cocktails,” and I just sent a link to my piece that I wrote last year about colonialism in cocktails because it's just like dude, Google something. Too many people just want, like—when you're a writer and you seem available on the internet, people just want you to do things for them. I don't know. Anyway—

Korsha: They think you work for them.

Alicia: Yeah, it's very interesting. Yeah, it's super weird.

But for you, is cooking a political act?

Korsha: Oh, definitely. I would say, you know, even before it gets to the cooking, it's like, you know, shopping is a political act.

I'm working on this piece about my conflicted feelings about Johnnycakes. Like I said, my mom's side of the family is from the Virgin Islands—and not far from you, they're from St. Thomas and St. Croix—and Johnnycakes are this frybread that's flour and shortening, and baking powder and a sweetener of some kind—sugar or honey—and when you look at the history, that recipe is only possible because of colonization and because of not having access to adequate sustenance and the food supply chain in the Caribbean being completely disjointed by colonization.

I’m reading—goodness, what’s his name, it just went out of my head. Chef Sean Sherman, an intro in that book [The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen], where he says, you know, you won't find any sort of recipe for frybread in here because it represents a dark period in my tribe’s history—like, it represents us being cut off from natural resources, being cut off from natural food supplies. I won't make you an Indian taco—absolutely not. And so it made me think about my relationship to Johnnycakes, which my family makes every time we get together when we're in St. Thomas. It's something we have with fried fish and rice and escovitch sauce with butter and Scotch bonnets and I love it so much, but it does also represent this disjointing of a people from the very land that they're on. And so what does that mean? And am I willing to never have one again, or do a bit more research into what actually makes sense? You know, from a culinary standpoint.

Alicia: Thank you so much for coming on today.

Korsha: Oh, no problem. Thank you for having me. It's nice to be on this side. I usually have to come up with interesting questions for you. And yeah, it's nice to be on this side.

Alicia: I'm glad, I'm glad. Well, thank you again.