From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
A Conversation with Lisa Donovan

A Conversation with Lisa Donovan


Lisa Donovan has always been a writer, but it’s only recently that she’s been able to do so full time. Before that, she was a renowned pastry chef. She won a James Beard Award in 2018 for her essay “Dear Women: Own Your Stories” in Food & Wine, which laid bare the abuses and harassment suffered by women in professional kitchens. The Nashville-based writer and former restaurant pastry chef’s new memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, goes deeper into that theme, as well as into motherhood, mysticism, marriage, and more.

We discussed intersectionality, performative liberalism, Catholicism, and why baking is naturally suited to political causes, among much more. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Lisa, thanks so much for coming on.

Lisa: Hey Alicia, I'm really happy to be here.

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

Lisa: Oh, sure, yeah. I'm one of these weird army brat human beings that sort of grew up in between several different worlds.

So, I grew up between South Georgia and Germany, which was a really interesting combination to flip flop between. And I also grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. I'm a little older than I think some people sometimes realize. 

And so I kind of grew up in that golden age of everything being processed, and a lot of fast food. And it was when you could, I don't know—I think that we could all pretend in that moment in time that it was not as bad for us as it actually was. And by and large, it probably actually wasn't as bad for us as it is now. I think that mass production of food has gotten significantly worse as far as our nutritional needs go. 

But anyway, so I kind of grew up flopping between Europe and South Georgia. And I think it's important to quantify South Georgia, because I can't just say the South because South Georgia is a significantly specific part of the South. And the ways that it's incredibly—what's the nicest way of putting it? Rural, but also not in a quaint kind of way? 

And I grew up on army bases, so my parents dropped out of high school, were enlisted people. And so we kind of grew up in this—kind of slumming it on army bases, was my childhood. And so knowing all of that, it was just sort of this weird combination of what was accessible to us from the commissary on the military bases, which is just one big warehouse grocery store that everyone shops at in a military base. 

And the really interesting thing about growing up on a military base is that you are typically—well, not typically—yeah, I mean, almost entirely you are amongst of—most of your friend’s mothers are foreign women. I mean, it's a real kind of incredible collection of cultures. And so the commissary ends up representing that. So you would go down the aisle for cereal, and you would have things that Filipino women had requested from their homeland. 

So we grew up kind of with these really great, multicultural shopping experiences in our grocery store, but we were still white Southerners. And so we bought our au gratin potatoes and we bought our SpaghettiOs. And so, I grew up in a really typical way even though I kinda grew up mostly in Germany. But that afforded me opportunities anytime we would go off post, which was a significant amount, to explore and try things and have experiences that I think most American kids don't get to have growing up, obviously, if they're not traveling overseas. 

So it was this sort of weird bifurcated experiences, being wholly Southern people and also being exposed to all kinds of food. So it was really interesting. 

And I think that's probably all of those experiences walking into houses and smelling different smells and seeing the different foods being cooked by my friends’ moms and sometimes their dads, depending on who was sort of the soldier in the family. In my day and age, it was typically the father, but occasionally they would have a working mother; it wasn't that common. I can just remember walking into a lot of my friends’ houses, and their Taiwanese mother cooking food, and just—I think being exposed to those smells that are really, just really important. 

So, yeah, it was an interesting—definitely created some interesting qualities and character traits in me. Where I really like trashy food sometimes. And I really, really enjoy really incredible, thoughtful, culturally significant food experiences. 

Alicia: Right, right. I feel like that's the suburban U.S. experience, no matter what maybe. I mean depending on where you grew up, I guess, right? It’s this really—

Lisa: Interesting—

Alicia: Yeah, this really split kind of identity in your food world that can manifest because of what we're given and what we see depending on where we live. 

You're the first person I've had on who I could talk to about this, but you're—in your book, you talk about Catholicism and mysticism. And the title itself is a very Catholic reference. And so how did these take root in your life, and how do they continue to manifest if at all?

Lisa: Unfortunately, I don't think Catholicism is a thing you can easily shake off. [Laughs.]

So yeah, they still do manifest. I come from a really rich culture of a very specific kind of Catholic tradition, which is steeped in my mother being a Mexican woman and her mother being a Mexican woman. And if there were any cultural—if there were any Mexican cultural habits that we can maintained, even though there was a really—just a disheartening and sad erasure that my grandmother felt she had to really fix for her kids of, going as far as—I think the word is pretending they weren't brown people in this world. 

But the one thing that I think she never could forsake was her culture, her Catholic traditions. So, those were the moments, I think for me, where I got to experience, I feel like, who my grandmother actually was as a person. She mostly prayed in Spanish. and she—and I talk a lot about this in the book where we, most—a lot of our conversations were about, were kind of sort—this is the first time I've ever said it this way, it's interesting that it's coming out—but a lot of our conversations kind of felt like prayers with each other, like collective prayers.

I just remember having a lot of moments with her where we would just sit and I guess what I'm realizing now is that we were just praying together, and I thought we were just having conversations. But she was—always had a rosary. She was a really deeply religious woman, and she would sew little medals of saints into my clothes. 

And there was a lot of this sort of—I don't know, a superstition feels like a shallow way of explaining it. But, there were just details about our lives that were—it was very common to me to know that if I was going out to play, I would have to say, ‘Going out to play,’ but I couldn't walk out the door because I knew she or my mother was on their way to meet me at the door to put holy water on my head. Those kinds of things, these kinds of moments where like, I had to sit there and wait for basically the ultimate protection to go out into the world, which was my grandmother's pope-blessed bottle of holy water. [Laughs.]

And so I think those kinds of things stick with you for a long time, and the idea that your—the people that have passed away from your family are literally—sometimes it feels like they're sitting in the room with you. It's those kinds of conversations of connectivity with each other. 

And even though I lost her when I was 10, I think the ways in which I still feel like I can connect best with her are those moments of just statuary. Catholic statuary moves me. Churches move me. Mass, Catholic mass. I think I will always just fall apart in the Catholic mass because I think it taps something—I don't know. There's some little window, little doorway in me that only gets opened when certain songs are being sung and certain chants are being sung. 

And even though I am absolutely not a Catholic anymore and don't practice Catholicism, I haven't raised my children Catholic, there are rituals that are really, really deeply ingrained in me that still feel like sometimes the only ways I can connect with my women, my mother and my grandmother.

So, I don't know. I mean, it's sort of a muddy answer to—There's a lot of ways I can answer that. But that one feels like the most significant, I think

Alicia: One of my favorite pieces of your writing was for Food and Wine, about how your notebooks showed that you were becoming a pastry chef before you even knew it consciously. Do you still keep notebooks, and what has it been like to transition from the kitchen to writing in a more formal way? How have those notebooks influenced your kind of becoming a writer, yeah, in that more commercial or traditional sense?

Lisa: Yeah, I still keep notebooks. And I think I would have eventually picked up the habit had I not sort of started this endeavor as a writer. The notebooks I think were always on me anyway, because I was a writer before I was ever a baker and I just never had one of the luxury or the privilege of just being a full-time writer. Very much of the working class. 

And so, finding a job that both was really creatively fulfilling and also had the potential to help me build financial security was really significant. And writing never felt like that in my twenties or thirties. It felt like I really had to find some different work to do in order to sort of justify or earn the right to write full-time, which is twenty-something-years later now, where I finally find myself, which is a really great feeling. 

So, the notebook sort of happened because I had always kept notebooks anyway, almost like a sketchbook. But, when you get into a certain level of kitchen work, everyone keeps a notebook: keeps recipe books, keeps notes about their process of cooking, the technique, the data for the day, the systems, the out—a lot of my notebooks now are Claudette’s hours for Monday. So, a lot of it gets junked up with just, I just needed a piece of paper.

But those are also nice momentos to mark on. After all these years of—I can remember at the time sort of cringing because I was like, ‘I'm gonna really regret filling these pages with day-to-day business and like the goat milk deliverer’s phone number,’ but now those are these really sweet mementos to find in the little pages between.

But I still keep notebooks. I'll always keep notebooks. In fact, I probably need to spend some time this quarantine getting my notebooks reorganized. Because as I'm talking to you, I'm literally looking around, and I mean, there's like five different walls of notebooks just stacked up in front of me. I probably need to sort of get some sort of organizational system together.

And it did start to inform I think the trends, just the transition from cooking full-time to writing full-time. Because what it allowed me to do is have these, basically these diaries, these journals. And it's not to say that I necessarily kept like, ‘January 5, this happened today.’ But there were definitely—there's a pretty good mix of recipe development and frustrated Lisa in a kitchen who just needed to crank out some prose in the bathroom instead of crying at her station. [Laughs.] And so there's this kind of great combination of that in all of these books. 

And then I just realized eventually, it became more of the writing. And then eventually I found my way out of kitchens. And so the notebooks became mostly about writing projects and ideas and, you'll hear—you'll be sitting at a bus stop and you'll hear someone say something and you write it down really quick because it's the kind of quote you could never imagine forgetting. 

And so they're by no means the most organized system, but they are mine. And yes, I still keep them.

Alicia: Yeah. No, I found for myself too, it’s—once I stopped putting kind of a—stopped trying to impose order on my own notebooks, they became a lot more useful to me. Where I wasn't like, ‘This is a to-do list. This is a journal. This is where I work on recipes.’ Once it all kind of came together, I feel I—my brain started to actually use them more creatively, I guess, and actually feel more free on the page because that order wasn’t self-imposed.

Lisa: Yeah, I mean I think if you can give yourself a space where—I hate to use the word messy, ’cause I do think that there's some—there is something about keeping a notebook in that way, and the same way that you're talking about keeping a notebook, that actually does help me organize my thoughts for project itself. So, it gives me a space to sort of not brain dump, but just sort of be a little messy and be a little, I don't know, a little wilder on the page than I would ever give myself permission to be when I start a project outright. 

If I know I have to write an essay, there's that initial fear of being as loose and as—I don't know, for me anyway, I definitely read these spaces to sort of embarrass myself, and no one will see it, and then go to the page and sort of have a little bit more structure in place for that starting point. 

I think that that was one of the hardest parts about writing this book for me was, especially as a retired/recovering pastry chef, is I definitely got to a station in my career where I was not—in a kitchen, you try to sort of work within certain parameters of what you know you're good at, and that allows you a lot of freedom to sort of create things that you hope to put on the menu. But you never show that process to anybody. You show people the plate, the dessert, and then you have a conversation about what needs to be worked out or what needs to be amped up or whatever measure of that desert needs to change. You never show it to anybody until you're pretty confident about its success already. 

So starting a project as big as a book, and you have these editors—I had these two really wonderful editors on this book. And they kept urging me like, ‘Just show us the shit, man, just bring it. Show us your worst.’ And I was like, ‘I can't. I don't know how to do that.’

So much of this writing of this book was about me trying to sort of relearn how to let go of my—think creative control habits that I've established. So, the notebooks help with that significantly. 

Alicia: Right.

No, I've interviewed, I think, a couple of pastry chefs, or former pastry chefs who are also—consider themselves writers that—I mean, are writers, but also self-identify as such, and so it does seem that there is a complementary thing there between pastry and writing. I don't know if you—

Lisa: It’s interesting. It's so funny, you find—for a long time, I didn't meet a lot pastry chefs because pastry chefs are, especially in the time I was coming up, there wasn't Instagram, there wasn't, it wasn't this, it—we were in a kitchen working by ourselves. [Laughs.] And that was pretty much the extent of our experiences. 

And then the world got a little more accessible, and smaller, and you could all of a sudden communicate with chefs in New York and San Francisco and L.A. And then you would find yourself getting invited to these events where you're amongst 20 pastry chefs, which was crazy. You guys would start talking about yourselves, and your work, and how you found yourself to pastry. 

And it was really funny. It sort of became a joke. It was like you were either a writer or a dancer, or you had been a writer or a dancer. And that was sort of like the two categories that pastry chefs fell into, was ‘I'm a recovering ballet dancer,’ or ‘I am an aspiring writer,’ like those were the two—or you're some combination of both, which is also that's my combination. That's Phyllis Grant’s combination. There are definitely people out there who are a strange combination of both. So, it's really interesting. It definitely pulls a certain personality towards it, that's for sure.

Alicia: Right, right, right. 

So, you have used baking sort of as a political tool. And so have many, very recently and in history. Why do you think baked goods specifically are such an effective tool for fostering these kinds of conversations, for fundraising, for protest? 

Lisa: Well, I mean, it's a fast track to your community, right? It's one of the friendliest, most accessible ways to, I think, get people involved who might not have the courage, or the tools, or the privilege to know how otherwise. It's a generous way of helping people meet the moment, meet the movement, meet the revolution. 

I mean, you can go back and talk about the significance of the hearth, and in the context of human culture, and how that's always been the center of communities. And I think there's something really significant in that regard. But I think the real—just the real clutch of it is that's, it's just a really easy way to reach people. You get access to people, you—and there's something comforting about baked goods, obviously, that I think speaks to the generosity of humans.

I just think there's some power, there's a lot of power in feeding someone. I think it helps you gain access to some people that might otherwise just sort of sit on their hands and be a little scared, or a little unsure of how to participate in these really important conversations. 

So, the people that I see turn up at bake sales are both definite street pounders who go out there and protest and are active in the most righteous, amazing ways. And then a lot of them though are women that have eight kids and are exhausted, and the best they can do is show up and buy some brownies and buy as many as possible so that they are hopefully making a bigger impact. 

And I see most days—it's so funny, this whole quarantine has been—I'm usually a pretty measured person, and I don't tend to extremes. I'm deeply pragmatic. And I'm deeply measured in ways sometimes that even frustrate me. I wish sometimes I could go back to resting on sort of my absolute radicalism. I've definitely matured and sometimes I'm even frustrated by that. 

But I recognize something in these moments when I, when—anytime I'm ever at one of these bake sales, and in a lot of—women in particular that want to engage. And, again, whether or not they have the time, or the ability, or the courage. It's a generous way to offer people a place to participate in something they seem to truly believe in. 

I try to keep focusing on those things, and I'll tell you, man, this year and this quarantine, and these moments, have made me a little bit more polarized. Some days I'll feel really hopeful and I'll focus on women and people like that, who keep showing up for every bake sale. And then some days it's harder, so it's interesting. It's interesting. 

I think that's the real catch of it is—it’s just a powerful and generous way of helping people be involved in something that they might not otherwise know how to. So, it's accessibility. It's real easy to encourage people to show up when there’s sugar and butter involved. [Laughs.]

Alicia: [Laughs.] Well, recently—and I'm sure that my taking note of this is—there’s—about my own preoccupations. But you tweeted about mezcal being a truth serum, and about food media. Which, food media: consistently disappointing. There is a new appointment of editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit. Hopefully, there is some newness being injected into the whole shebang. But do you think there is a way for food writing to kind of shed its very patriarchal white gaze, and get rid of—stop prioritizing the greatness of male chefs always over and over the—at the expense, really, of anyone else? 

Lisa: Yeah, I mean, kind of going back to what I was just saying about your much easier question about bake sales is—I was having a hard time even answering that question with any optimism. So this question is gonna be a real downer. There's our pre-apologies. 

I'm not in an incredibly optimistic phase of this year right now. What I want to say is look to Stephen Satterfield, look to Kat Kinsman, look to these new appointments being made. And I think right now I'm sort of—I'm really acutely focused on the system that those people are still up against. We haven't undone the system, and I guess I'm just feeling discouraged in this moment. 

Because this book has brought so many really beautiful opportunities, and really so many incredible—I mean, I don't like to dwell on the small people that can otherwise jank up a good opportunity, and good experience, and good platform to talk about the things that we need to talk about. But it also is an opportunity to talk about the things we need to talk about because so much of what I'm seeing. 

So, just to sort of be really clear, because I'm talking and I'm talking around it right now, because it's such a bummer to talk about. But look, do I think that we're ready to stop prioritizing the male ego and are we actually pulling ourselves out of the system the patriarchy and misogyny has built? No.

I'm really starting to sort of feel this deep sense of frustration about—I'm facing this whole situation in Nashville. And again, I want to emphasize that this is a really small, small minority of people in this town. 

But there's supposedly liberal women in my community, women who fancy themselves anti-racist in the world. And if you were to go on their Instagram pages, you would—you might not take much notice, because they have 12 followers and they're sort of shouting into an echo chamber. But they can't even deal with sort of their own accountability in this moment. And instead of actually trying to have some conversations that do the actual work of anti-racism and undoing internalized misogyny, that's not a thing that they even know how to address. 

So I'm feeling this sort of ultimate frustration, because I'm watching in real time that it's easier and more reflexive for people to protect a wounded white male chef ego in my own community. Someone who frankly I was incredibly generous with in my book, because my aim for this book wasn't to indict anyone, but to really deal with my own internalized misogyny. And instead they'd rather elevate his narrative, a white male narrative that's very egocentric and very based in his image in our community. 

And that's what they're conditioned to believe. Instead of hearing a woman's experience and believing a woman's experience—and in this case, my experience. I mean, sounds familiar, right? A woman tells a story, spends three years putting together a collection of her experiences, and their reflex is to call me a liar. Because it hurts his feelings, instead of trying to think about the bigger point and the bigger conversation of a white woman facing down the bullshit that she's both dealt with and contributed to her whole adult life. 

And I don't know. Maybe it's an opportunity for them to do the same. Because that's the way through to actual anti-racist work, and cultural change, and shifting societal norms. And that's the real thing they have to deal with in order to do the work they say they think needs to happen.

But they won't. So instead, they'll go through the motions and look like the good white liberals. But the conversation has to be about how to dismantle the system that actually built these sexist and racist infrastructures that they're so incredibly mouthy about fighting on Instagram, right? I mean, they're kind of just a lesser degree of the white women who vote for whomever their MAGA-hat-wearing white husbands vote for to protect their station in life. 

And so I get fixated on sort of—yeah, we can keep replacing people. But there are people—and these people aren't in any kind of power. The ones I'm dealing with, the ones that are trying to sort of devalue the—my book in our community, because it hurt this one white male chef’s feelings, and literally calling me a liar in our community, which is one too far for me, which is why I'm a little riled up about it. 

Because you can not like the book. I don't give a fuck. You can disagree with the book. I don't give a fuck. But to go out there and sort of perpetuate this habit of calling women liars because they've shared their stories is such an insidious part of the systems that we're trying to undo right now. 

And so when you ask a question about—is the food media industry ready to make these changes? Fuck, man, I can't even see it in my community right now. So, the whole industry? Beats me. I don't know. [Laughs.]

Some days, I feel way more hopeful. But today, I don't really see it. I don't know. 

Again, I want my answer to be like, ‘Look at all the people that are out there really doing the work.’ I think you're doing the work. I think Stephen Satterfield is doing the work. I think there are people out here who are doing the work that needs to be center stage. I think that we're still dealing with such really deeply problematic, structural, systemic problems in just who we are as a culture that no matter how successful this book becomes, for example, or how successful that Bon App might become, I just worry that we're always going to have this part of our culture that can't meet the conversation and and that's obvious with people who are so clearly opposed to what we're trying to do.

I'm not foolish enough to think the whole world's gonna get on board with this movement. But I think the real reason it worries me is that there are people out there masquerading as liberals who are trying to advance the conversation of anti-racism or anti-sexism, the moments that we're all out here trying to have conversations about, that are actually still actively contributing to them in real time. 

And so today I'm just not feeling incredibly generous about the shit I'm seeing. So, sorry. [Laughs.]

Alicia: No, I mean, I rarely ever feel optimistic about the state of things. So—

Lisa: I mean, there's so much of me that really always tries to stay on the hopeful side. I really try to mine for hopefulness. And I do see the potential in this moment. I really do. I think there's so much bullshit out there, and so many people masquerading as something that's actually going to make it so much harder for us, for the world, to get where they need to go with this conversation. So.

Alicia: No, for sure.

I mean, I didn't intend to talk about this, But I don't know how you felt about the Washington Post piece that Charlotte Druckman wrote about numerous memoirs and kind of naming—including yours, of course—and naming whiteness in it, but she got a lot of backlash to it because she is white. 

And I thought that that was kind of a fundamental misunderstanding of the conversations that we're supposed to be having right now where you can—there's certainly things to critique about any piece of writing, or any piece of work, but at the same time to say that a white woman who's benefited from her whiteness is not allowed at this moment to interrogate the whiteness of an industry? And it's like, well, who should be doing that work? Is that work we're supposed to be putting on the shoulders of Black women, of brown women, or is that— No, this is the work that we're supposed to be doing among ourselves, I thought. It was a very interesting reaction.

Lisa: It was an interesting reaction. I thought it was really interesting, on a couple of different counts, right. 

I think I benefited from knowing, as someone—excuse me—who she interviewed, knowing what her intentions were. And I thought that she tried to sort of reach a conversation that needed to be had. 

And I think the thing that I think was problematic for me—and this is the first time I've ever spoken about it, and I've actually—Charlotte's a pal, and I think I wish that I would have said this to her first. But I've been thinking about it over the last couple of weeks, because I've definitely had people come to me saying, ‘What the fuck did you think about that? What do you think about that?’

And I thought, ‘Well, I know what her intention was. I understand the conversation she was trying to have. And it is a valid conversation.’ I think the thing that keeps lingering for me is

more of a conversation about class and privilege. 

I'm not sure how we start having conversations about—or if we even should start having conversations simultaneously about class privilege, with race privilege. But I think there's some deeper vein of the conversation that she missed, and that was a little frustrating for me, who has been someone in the world who has literally fought and earned from a place of damn near almost poverty to sort of support a family and earn and be a working-class person who earned the right to be a creative-class person. There's a conversation there for me about the privilege of being a creative-class person. 

If there was a rub for me there, it was that that came from frankly a Manhattanite who has some class privilege in this world, who's—and I don't want to speak disparagingly about Charlotte and her experiences—but I think if there was a rub there for me, it was that there was not a lot of room for her to sort of address—I don't know. 

To be categorized in a way frankly, of—this was just something that got thrown to me because I happen to be a white woman, and that I didn't work for 30 years to earn it, was a little bit of a rub from a woman who's been a—who's been privileged enough to be a writer in Manhattan her whole life. [Laughs.] That to me was the rub. 

And I think I was less concerned about a white woman talking about white privilege from—I understand that argument. But I think the rub for me was sort of assuming that I just sort of materialized and got this book deal. And this was intentional. This was my hard work. This was my working for $8 an hour while raising two kids, four jobs at a time sometimes. And this was not an accident. This was my dedication to a goal. 

And so I think there's a conversation there about earning your right to be a member of the creative class, because the creative class is a very different space than the working-class space I have lived in my whole adult life. So, that to me felt like a little bit of a miss. And if I was rubbed by anything, it was that, you know?

Alicia: No, for sure. 

Yeah, I mean, there's just so much nuance that gets lost in these comments. We have to think of everything as intersectional. It's not just one thing ever. It's not just gender. It's not just race. Race, class, it's all these things at once. 

And, yeah, it's very difficult to have these conversations, because—especially when you're trying to have them in public, in a publication. Because, I mean, kind of as we were saying before, the culture is in one place, and we're all in another place, maybe. Especially if we're discussing kind of individual lives.

And, I mean, I don't know if you've had this experience at all. But I've had this experience where people are constantly putting me on lists of women of color, and—because I don’t know, my dad is a person of color. And so—but I'm not. And so it's this interesting—I don't—people always want to put everyone in a very tidy narrative, you know?

Lisa: Well, I will tell you, I have—I won't name names, and I won't name publications, but thrice times now in the last couple of weeks, I have been eagerly sought after by writers who wanted to talk about in particular the bake sale efforts and things like that. 

And it's mostly just funny and anecdotal more than anything, but they'll get on the phone with me and they will, within the first couple of minutes. say, ‘Well, you as a woman of color, duh-duh-duh-duh.’ And I'm like, ‘No, I'm not. I'm not a woman.’ They're like, ‘Oh, we were sort of thinking about your Mexican mother.’ And it's like, ‘No, I identify wholly as a white woman. I have been raised as a white woman. My experiences are that of a white woman in this world.’ And I can't tell you how fast they get off the phone with me. It's really funny.

But I've only had a little bit of that experience where I've seen sort of that hunger for them to tap the right people. So, just to kind of speak to what you were speaking to. But yeah, it's interesting.

Alicia: No, it is interesting. 

And I do feel like there are people who don't want to talk to me when they find out that I don't identify as a woman of color. And, even though—my work is one thing, and it's just—it's such a weird space to be in, because my experiences are of growing up with a brown dad and a white mom. And so, that, of course, influences how I perceive the world, and—but it really depends on who a person is, whether they—I mean, this is the whole bullshit of the whole thing, I guess. It depends on a person's perspective, whether they see me as a woman of color or not, but I never know whether someone, what—how someone is seeing me. And so I never know whether I’m being regarded as a white woman, or if I'm being regarded as a women of color, of someone of ethnic ambiguity or whatever. Yeah, it's just an interesting thing to have to contend with. 

And yeah, I've been trying to just be super vocal about—now I have other people, kind of, when I'm put on a list by someone who has like a million Twitter followers saying I'm a woman of color. I start to have a mental breakdown about it, and other people deal with it for me, which is nice, but I don’t know, it’s just such a—

Lisa: Well, I think you're getting at sort of the complexities of how we are learning how to have nuanced conversations in this country. I don't think we're inherently gifted at it, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs.] I think we are failing in a mighty way at knowing how to have any sort of measured complexities in these conversations. I will say I think we have to keep trying. 

And if I can kind of go back to the Charlotte article, I think she was attempting at having one of those kinds of conversations. And I can see the ways in which people felt frustrated by that article; I can see the ways in which I might have felt frustrated by that article. I will be really honest, it was the first time I ever really sat and thought about class disparity as a creative person. 

I've always lived it. I've always known it. I've always been aware of it. But it really started getting me engaged in a more— think if I'm coming at this from any place, it's really interesting, the ways in which the—kind of going back to sort of what you were just saying—the kind of the ways in which the world will categorize you. 

I had a man. I can't even remember his name, but Jesus fucking Christ, he was like a guy in New England. You could tell he had some conservative leanings. It was one of the things that I did because I was kind of tasked to do it, and he kept saying, what—you could tell what he really wanted to do was to call me an angry feminist. And he couldn't—he wouldn't do it, but he kept using the language to sort of suggest it.

And he kept saying, ‘Well, you're really definitely angry in this book.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don't actually feel like I am angry in this book.’ Maybe explain to me what you mean. 

And he felt so threatened by I think so many of the things I was talking about, but what it really boiled down to was he ended up saying like, ‘I mean, what's wrong with capitalists trying to make money off of their money?’ And I realized—and then he showed his hand and said, ‘I mean, I own four restaurants. I own—’ He's a white guy who needs to—yeah, he's a white guy talking about all the sushi restaurants he owns in some New England place. 

And I'm like, ‘Well, yeah,’ I guess I said. And so then I had to have a conversation with him about, ‘Ok, I see why you would think I'm angry. I thought you meant—’ and I didn't say this to him. But I thought I was being categorized as an angry feminist, and what I was actually being categorized for him was an angry labor workers’ rights advocate.

So much of the conversations that I'm trying to have about the restaurant industry reside in labor rights, and taking care of your work—but taking care of the working class, and how this country has essentially built everything on the backs of exploiting the working class. And that ended up becoming our conversation. 

But it just was really interesting to me that he really wanted to sort of categorize me as this radicalized angry person because I had an opinion that spoke against his—the ways in which he's benefited from our really failed capitalist structure and system.

Yeah, it's just been interesting to me also to sort of see how the lack of nuance in the world for these deeper, more meaningful conversations about how we actually move forward and make the changes. And I guess that's partly why I brought up the little collection of women who are in Nashville that want to go around and call me a liar about this book is—am I angry about it? Yeah, I'm angry about it because calling someone a liar is again such a tool, such a trick. It's such a part of what has kept women down for so many generations.

But I think that sort of speaking again to this inability to think about the nuance of who we are as a culture, and who we are as a people, and who we are as a person in our community when we engage, and just these things that you think are somehow protecting what you've earned in your life. 

Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I could talk circles around that all day. But that's, I think, for me right now, sort of the thing that's a real source of anger and frustration for me right now.

Alicia: Yeah, no,

We're way overdue for real conversations about class and media, and who's allowed to be a member of the media and the creative class, as you call it. It's very interesting. Because I grew up on Long Island and was—New York was right there, I feel like it was always so easy for me to be like, ‘All right, well, I'm just—my goal is to get there. Get back there, even though all my ancestors left this for the suburbs.’ So it was very easy to imagine that.

But then onceI got to my first magazine job, and I realized everyone went to Harvard and everyone—once you realize where all these people come from, and it's just such a shock, always. 

And it's such a conversation that's hidden because for most people in media, this is their milieu. Who they're around all the time. It's people who grew up in money, people who went to Ivy League schools, and so they never even think about it. 

So, I think that conversation is probably going to be a more difficult one to force than other conversations because it's going to knock down a lot of walls. 

Lisa: Yeah.

I mean, because it is the team everyone's trying to play on. [Laughs.] Everyone wants to be able to make a living the way that that level of creative class makes a living. And there is some real privilege and luxury to that.

And I don't know. Yeah, I just don't know how far we get unless we're willing to sort of address that a lot of this is major class disparity conversations. And, in that—I don't know which umbrella, which is the umbrella? Does the conversation of race fall under the umbrella of class? Or does the conversation of class fall under the umbrella of race? It starts to become a chicken and egg conversation for me. But I do know that you can't have one without the other. And if we—

Alicia: Everything has to be intersectional. 

Lisa: Exactly, so. And yeah.

You're gonna have so much editing to do, Alicia. [Laughs.]

Alicia: But, for you, is cooking a political act?

Lisa: I think for me cooking was an act of survival. And at first it was an emotional, and then a financial act of survival. So yeah, I mean I think when you're a woman and a member of the lower income bracket, working class sector of a country and a system that's absolutely built for you to fail, every act is political. Or, it should be, especially if you're raising kids in that system. 

Food’s an opportunity to, I mean, be heard, or at least to be seen. And that's powerful. It’s powerful in a world that might otherwise prefer you stay passive, and silent, and invisible, and dumb. And so much of this country really wants that of us. They want us to stay passive, and dumb, and invisible. And how much you choose to use, whatever your tools are—and my tools were food—to amplify your voice is, it's up to you. I mean, I chose to write a fucking book. [Laughs.]

I think food by nature—obviously, this is—that’s such a catchphrase in 2020. Food definitely gives you access to having political conversations. But for me, I think it came from a real space of survival. 

If you care anything about justice, you take your opportunities that you can to just say this—these were the times, these were the moments, these were the experiences where I am wholly aware that the system was built to make me fail. And you say it out loud as much as you possibly can.

And if you're lucky—

Alicia: Thank you so much. Yeah.

Lisa: And if you're lucky, you get a book deal and you get to write about it. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Well, thank you again.

Lisa: Thank you. It was fun talking to you. I'm sorry, I'm in a downtrodden—not my most hopeful self today. So hopefully, I didn't muck up or— [Laughs.]

Alicia: Not at all. Thank you.

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From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.