A Conversation with Millicent Souris
Talking to the writer and chef who now manages a large food pantry and soup kitchen about enacting one's politics.
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.
This week, I'm talking to Millicent Souris, someone I have long wanted to make my friend. Millicent is to me just wildly cool. She talks about food equity and drinking bourbon, and there was no one I would rather talk to you about the dichotomy of being politically engaged with food justice, and also stocking your pantry with very nice olive oil. She's also one of my favorite food writers period; her pieces in Brooklyn Based, Bon Appetit, Diner Journal—they kind of redefined the genre. As a longtime line cook who now runs a soup kitchen and food pantry in New York City, she's someone who simply knows food—its highs and lows and is cool as hell. Did I say that already?
Alicia Kennedy: Hi, Millicent. How are you, Millicent?
Millicent Souris: I'm doing all right. How are you, Alicia?
Alicia: Did I say your name right?
Alicia: Actually, we should have done that before. [Laughs.]
Millicent: I know. Yeah, my name is Millicent. And is Alicia correct for you?
Alicia: Yes. Alicia is correct.
Alicia: Yeah, I'm Alicia sometimes, but only if you're a Spaniard. [Laughs.]
Millicent: Fair, I'm not going to pretend…
Alicia: Yeah, yeah…well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Millicent: Yeah, I grew up in Baltimore County, north of Baltimore City, and in Towson, Maryland, and Lutherville, Maryland—which is of course home to John Waters and Divine, and also in North Baltimore County.
So my dad's parents had immigrated from Greece, so I grew up eating Greek food. And then my mom's family had a dairy farm, so I grew up drinking—when I was up there—unpasteurized milk, which I would say about 10 years ago, I made the connection was raw milk. And country food, you know—my grandfather would grow his own corn and tomatoes and zucchini, and that would be summertime. We ate a lot of crabs in the summer, because it's Maryland, and then also, like, oysters were definitely a part of my mom's family. Like we'd have oysters stuffing and raw oysters at Thanksgiving, because her dad would bring them and shuck them.
But then also because it's the ’70s and ’80s, straight-up shitty American processed food, was a gift, you know, for our household because my mom worked and my dad worked, and there's three of us. And, you know, even on the farm, my uncle and his wife, they would buy Steak-umms, even though they had ground beef from the steers that they sent to slaughter. You know, we would drink Tang, and we ate Stouffer’s lasagna, so it was a real hodgepodge, I think, of all that stuff.
And then there was, when my mom left my dad and there was the episode called “divorce food,” which was Lean Cuisines and Hamburger Helper and La Choy and a lot of Mandarin oranges in tins.
Alicia: Wow. Yeah. Was that on behalf of your mom’s side?
Millicent: That was on my mom's side. And then my dad would just take us to his friends’ restaurants or bars and we’d eat there.
Alicia: [Laughs.] My parents, when they got divorced, I always say, when I knew something was going wrong was when my mom started to make instant mashed potatoes.
Alicia: I was already like, 20. So it wasn't like I was a kid. But you know it was always seared in my mind that the instant mashed potatoes were the beginning of the end.
Millicent: It's the tell…it’s the tell… except I, when I did eat instant mashed potatoes and I think I was 21 I first had them, I was like, What is this magical stuff that just turns into mashed potatoes?
Alicia: No, it's super cool.
Millicent: It's…I mean, science. It's science.
Alicia: Yeah, well, you know, as you were just talking about the dairy and also your family had a bar as well, you know, how did you end up in food, personally?
Millicent: I ended up in food…uh, I mean, my Yaya would cook—Souris’s started as a restaurant in 1934. And so it was a classic Greek restaurant, which is American food and then Greek specials. And then when my dad made it a bar, there was a grill, but there was a flattop behind the bar, and so my Yaya would make totally frozen hamburgers, but she'd also have really good Avgolemono soup. But I didn't—I was just a kid and I didn't really take in all of that. So I don't have that—it would be really cool if I could lie and be like, and then yeah, romantic version of food.
I got a job at the Royal Farm Stores, it was my first job on the books, when I was 14. And that was the convenience store that had fried chicken and Joe Joe's, and then you take the leftover fried chicken and break it up and make chicken salad. So that was my first job in food and everyone who worked there hated it. And, it was cleaning cases of frozen chicken thighs and cutting potatoes and deep frying a lot of stuff. And then our neighbors owned a luncheonette in a pharmacy and I remember working there and being blown away by making salad dressing from scratch.
So, what I knew is that I would always have a job in food because I was willing to do that hard work and for girls like, and teenage girls, I would never be hired to be the counter person or a waitress, because I wasn't cute; I was tall and big and strong and fat, you know. And this is not now—this was the late ’80s. And like, no one was…no one would hire me to be their waitress, but I could always work in the kitchen. And so I—it's not anything I verbalized; it's just something that I knew, that I could always get kitchen jobs. I know that's not really passionate, but you know, you got to make money…
Alicia: Right, well did passion emerge for it?
Millicent: Yeah, I mean, I think for me I found a land that made sense to me. You know, I remember living one summer, and working um, finding a job at—I lived in Portland, Maine. And I was in this place Greedy McDuff’s, which was a brew pub, and it's still there, and English-style pub food and just working; you're just working with a bunch of heshers, you know, and a bunch of—you're hanging out listening to music, you're working hard, you're kind of gross, your skin's not great, you didn't get a lot of sleep, because you had to work the prep shift…
But, you know, I remember working with a guy where when Black Sabbath would come on, we’d take the melted butter and dip a brush in it and turn off the lights and hit the grill and the flames would come up. And it just, I don't know, it was that moment: It's just fun—somewhere that felt free when there's not a lot of places to be free, you know?
And so I knew that. And then, when I moved to New York, 17 years ago, I helped someone open a restaurant. And I've just always been like, I'm a good worker—everything made sense for me. So I do, when I talk about food, a lot of it, I talk about work, but there has to be a sustained level of the community of people that you're working with and that you're buying from, and that you're feeding. And also the food itself, that is passionate. It's just, that's not just, I'm not one of those people who like has that language, you know, who’s just—I'm not very over-the-top with language about myself and what I like, but don't worry, there's plenty people who have that covered, you know…
Alicia: I'm one of them…so… [Laughter.]
Millicent: I don't think so.
Alicia: Well, you know, yeah, you've worked in restaurant kitchens for years, you write, you've curated social justice film series, you've been a DJ, now you're cooking. You know, well, how would you describe what you do now?
Millicent: Right now, I mean, I work at a food pantry in a soup kitchen. And before the pandemic, I'd been there for over five years and I came on as a consultant to do a culinary job training program. We didn't—it didn't work, and it didn't get more funding, but I was I was the only person there who had worked in restaurants. So I kind of had an eye for the food. And I was like, I can work here part time, and we can get more produce and rescue food and things like that, get more produce to people, take care of the food better, increase our capacity for produce.
And then I did that, and then the pandemic hit, and then it was that times a million with just the whole world shut down, so where's all the food gonna go? And all the pantries shut down, so we just got dropped all this food. So then I became—then it just became something different. So now, I mean, I don't even cook there. I just, I'm the facilitator of the pallets, you know, and trying to—
There's a good grant that came out of the pandemic called the Nourish New York grant. And I think that's permanent now. And it was to really just keep the state going. And you have to spend it on New York State products. And this grant, the director and the head of the pantry, they were just like, What are we going to spend this money on? I was like, I got this, I got this, give it to me please—let me, let me have, let me buy things and not have it all just be like, donated Tyson evil meat.
So those grants I take care of and I like to think it balances out all of the super-gross food bank tax writeoffs for giant companies and really just, because I've consulted on restaurant kitchens, I have a good eye for logistics in space. And so we just had to switch our entire building over to be a warehouse and I was like, the chapel can hold pallets and the waiting area can hold pallets. And if we open this up, we can fit pallets through here—so just really nerdy shit, you know, and also where all the food goes. So that's what I'm working on. That's what I'm working on now. And now hopefully something new will happen.
Alicia: Well, that grant is really interesting. Living here in Puerto Rico coming from New York, I'm always thinking about how—well, I never know if it's enough, or if it's actually good, what New York State has done to support local agriculture around the state and craft stuff. I know, I'm like, well, they support it in some way, so that's good. Whereas here, you have, there's nothing there, you know? So this grant sounds really great.
But what more should the state be doing, in your mind, to kind of help that?
Millicent: Well, this grant is great. Also, because I still remember the moment of, you know, you're talking about farmers or processors, or bakers, and truckers, and people were like, Thank you, you know, because there was nothing, and for all the people making food and growing food, all the restaurants were closed so there was nowhere for any of it to go. I mean, you never forget, I'll never forget, the first couple of times at different truck drivers were just like, Thank you for being open.
So that grant is permanent and that's a really important grant, because in terms of, you know, everyone's like ‘supply chain supply chain,’ and then we see what horrible things happen when we're dependent upon such a consolidated supply chain and how, you know, the Trump administration got OSHA to lift their fucking regulations and Tyson poultry workers had to process more chickens and there was no safety for them. And also, that was all the fear of, This is America, everyone has to have chicken, no one can go hungry. Where actually it's like, no, tons of people will go hungry. But to be able to have, the means, the tangible food system that you can see, I think more so, is so important. In terms of the state. I mean, I do see some holes in what's available, you know, and I do have some ideas, but I don't want to share them here, because, you know—
Alicia: —you need to get paid for them. [Laughter.]
Millicent: But we can't just—it can't just be restaurants and people who shop at the farmers’ market to support farms. Because those people have summer homes somewhere else. And they also have the ability to just pick up and go somewhere when the shit hits the fan.
Alicia: Yeah, no, it's very complicated. But I'm glad to hear that that's happening. That's—that's…yeah, I wish… [Laughs.]
Millicent: It's also, I'll say also for a lot of farms and things like that, it has skewed their—and I work with a headwater hub; there's more infrastructure for schools, and food pantries and institutional food, which also because of brigade is turning into something that's so much more important in terms of like school foods and things like that. And we need that—we can't just be like, fucking neoliberal people who care about what they eat and are—it's so short-sighted, the food, the food scene, which sometimes feels like the food system is so short-sighted and individualistic, it's gross.
Alicia: Yeah. Well, you did write an essay sort of about this in Bon Appetit in 2019. You know, where you wrote about finding kind of about—I don't know if it was about you finding a balance, but what is that balance that between the olive oil and hunger and—I think about this, of course, as a food writer, where it's, you know, what am I selling people on? Like, what is it that I want to sell people on basically, when it comes to food? Is it just that having a good olive oil is sufficient? Of course it's not, you know. But for you, what are the gaps here that need to be filled in when we talk about food?
Millicent: I mean, the gaps are major. Well, I feel there's personal consumption, right? And there's personal consumption that I prefer, and I know that, man, I know on paper, and if I told any of my co-workers the price of a glass of wine that I drink—I'm just some bougie white person, you know. Also, personal consumption is not about production and politics and everything like that—I don't quite know how to say that great.
But look at how much food writing there is, look at how people's lives are curated. And the people who have the most influence and are influencers, they only talk about political issues when they need to, to stay relevant, or unless it's something that they actually care about where they're like, Abortion…Abortion. You know, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ when you know, especially two years ago—
But the amount that we discuss food in conjunction with the amount of people who are hungry—and hunger can be such a vague thing, especially in this country, right? Like before, generally, it was like 10 to 12 percent [in] America, you’re like, all right. But to me, in New York, your neighbor is hungry, you know? You are moving into a neighborhood, you are opening a restaurant in a place where you have to just, where so many people are just, That's just what that corner is like. And I think that there's ambition and I think this city begs people, if you have ambition, to willfully ignore things, but the amount that food is written about…
And like, I would say now, like Grub Street and Eater, and those places, now they're all also consolidated under the same media group, right? Before it used to be more competitive and they used to just be kind of a real content machine. And more 24/7, you know, because everyone's like, I can be on the internet all the time. And once it's out of the bag, then you're stuck with it.
Let’s just say Salt Bae, he'll never go back; he’ll never go away, because someone's just like, Look at this guy. And then now he's there and he's validated. But think of all the people who got validated and all the shit that we talk about. And we can choose so much of what we want to consume now, everywhere, and it's great to read about things that don't ultimately matter, because the things that matter are so painful. And it's only during a shutdown that we actually have this bandwidth to care about it.
I mean, the food media is just, they're just—most of them are content creators. They shouldn't be able to write about anything that has any politics or systematic issues and anything to do with like actual workers, you know, who are they? They're not journalists.
Alicia: No, it's an interesting thing, because I think right now, everyone is always asking me—like, well, asking me personally—do I consider myself a food writer and then asking, what is a food writer? And I think that it's important to, I mean, I'm aware of the market forces that create certain types of content and how you have—you have to do things in order to have a career at all. Of course, you have to then ask the question, if I have to do this, why do I want this to be my thing that I do all the time? Why don't I do something else? And so it's difficult, because you know a lot of food writers will say, I just want to write a recipe and then just look cute, and like, get things sent to me, and that shouldn't be a problem.
And I'm like, for me it, you know, it is a problem. And I've written about this, that food writers don't, at large, have even a basic consciousness that comes through in their work around climate change, around hunger, around, you know, conditions of factory farming, around like any ecological significance to anything.
Millicent: It’s sheer consumption.
Alicia: Exactly. And that's becoming more and more, I think, because we're in this vague post-pandemic moment, so things are sort of going back to normalcy in terms of what gets covered. And it's just restaurants, restaurants, restaurants, like cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks. And then there's that moment where we were going to talk about the conditions, the labor conditions and the supply chains. And that moment seems like it's just going away. Now it's no longer relevant.
Millicent: It's gone. And I mean, you and I both really love Alice Driver, and she's working—she and her partners are working on that book. And I am kind of stunned by the consistency in which that topic, because I thought it would be one article, one out, and if you all don't know about Alice Driver—you gotta sign up for her. She's an amazing writer. And she has interviewed poultry workers, and consistently interviewed them. And she's worked with a photographer who takes portraits of them, and she has been reporting this since the beginning. I mean, I think for her kind of a bunch of bitchy dilettantes, you know, and I think that we have been taught that you cannot hold all of this and, you know, I don't really believe in balance because nothing seems to be balanced—
But like, but what you were talking about before, like, How do I do these things and I know I have to do this—well, we certainly have to have joy. You know, and sometimes joy can't be just like—and trust me I know because I've been doing—working on a food pantry in the last two years during COVID. Like, there has to be joy. It's too hard to live like this all the time.
But the sheer consumption and the way that the world is created, it's so easy for us on phones and the internet, of everything, is so unsustainable, climate wise, food wise, content wise. And our escapism isn't escapism anymore—it's our reality. And that's a problem. Because if everyone can be some fucking content creator and influencer, is it possible that everyone's ability to figure out a way to survive like this means that we don't have anyone actually doing the real work? And that's why this world sucks so hard?
Alicia: I mean, the fact that Alice Driver didn't have a column immediately, you know, reporting ongoingly about the conditions when she was on the ground in Arkansas with the workers at Tyson—that is such a damning fact of food media, is that that wasn't some editor's dream to have someone on the ground—
Millicent: Just be like, Alice Driver, tell us about this, you know? And because—you guys, the answer isn't for all of us to buy sustainably raised chicken; the answer is for the conditions to be better for all workers and all chickens, you know? And that individualist notion of shopping, which you know, was in the early aughts was really just like, You're not going to change the world—it's such a neoliberal approach towards eating that your trip to the farmers’ market is changing systems. It's only changing you, your system, your house. And that's all part of it.
You know, we're so broken right now. I mean, I think we've always been broken. But we're so broken, because the people who think that they're doing good work kind of really aren't, and they're like—I think of them as really affluent people and they walk amongst us. I am around them in New York all the time. I'm friendly with a lot of them or I might be friends with them. They might think I'm their friend. But they're not the one-percenters, so they don't think they're part of the problem. But they are part of the problem, because they're not doing anything. And their comfort is what allows so many things to happen. Like, if they actually wanted change to happen, it would happen more, because the one-percenters are untouchable to us, you know, unless there's crazy, systematic governmental and worldwide changes—that's why they're one percent. They're like, I have so much money, I'm gonna be on the moon, you can't touch me.
But the affluent people who are never, still are never rich enough and someone already always owns one more house than they do: They're the ones who pat themselves on the back, because they read all the books, they went to some marches, their kids have Black friends, you know, they're doing all the good stuff, and they care. But they're not really sacrificing anything, they're not really doing anything to really change stuff. And right now, sometimes I hope, you know, I get a little tunnel vision, but I'm like, you guys got to do some shit. And it's not what you think you should do. Because it’s never what you think you should do, because you're still very self—centered—
Alicia: This is—I'm reading a book called The Imperial Mode of Living, which is what you're describing basically, which is that the way we live in the West, or you know, the global North is on the backs of so much exploitation and ecological destruction that we don't see. And then, yeah, and it doesn't matter what class you are, necessarily, and exporting also the idea of this mode of living as the good life quote, unquote, being basically a means of ecological destruction. Like, our way of living and consuming and just thinking about things is part of climate change, part of destruction, like people—and I understand that, but people, when I've written or said anything about the way people will regard their access to the tropical as sort of a human right, just when they need the release or the idea of a vacation to buy a cocktail or a piece of fruit that they probably just shouldn't have, and so, or vacation, etc., but like, people do treat that as though it is their God-given right to have that.
Millicent: Yes, for sure. And they do it, they're like, I mean, that Noma pop-up in Mexico City was or—no, it wasn't it—it was in Tulum. Tulum has no infrastructure for what it has now. It certainly doesn't for a bunch of people who need to go to that.
Look at all the people who have moved to L.A. I mean, look at California—we just have a straight-up fire season and all the people who moved to L.A., it's like, did you move to L.A., because you like the weather and because then you can have tomatoes all year round? It's kind of a bratty existence.
Alicia: It's very—
Millicent: To think it's a very—I don’t know if you can hear my neighbors come home from school—it's still consumption, you know? But also, what's fascinating is that this is all also done under the mode of “health,” you know, wellness and health and like, Oh, I get these mangoes or I have to go here. And the rest of us were just having drinks, and maybe there's a cigarette, or maybe there's some weed and more drinks. But we're not doing it for—we're not like, Well, I mean, it's wellness for a lot of us, but we're not lying to ourselves about that pedestal of wellness.
Alicia: Yeah, it's no, it's interesting. Well, because especially here, here in Puerto Rico, where, you know, there's so much gentrification and displacement, because of people who come and get tax breaks for starting their businesses here. But it's been restructured so that some actual Puerto Ricans can take advantage in some ways. But for a long time, it's been, you have to have not lived in Puerto Rico for this consecutive amount of years before 2019, or [something] like it was like, or it went into effect in 2012. But you pay like a four, zero to four percent tax rate, and you don't pay federal taxes, because you become a bona fide resident of Puerto Rico.
And then these are the people paying $2,000 for a studio, so that like now, none of our friends live anywhere near us because they've been completely priced out, you know—
Milicent: It's all the loopholes. I mean, it's like everyone who holds on to their apartment even though they moved upstate, because it's their Airbnb, and you're like, or someone could live there.
Yeah, you know, my old apartment in Greenpoint. I've had the lease on that—I'm pretty sure my old landlord is not listening to this. Since I moved here, and when I moved out, my friend lives there. And yeah, because I'm like, You're not gonna find anything. It's rent stabilized, you're like, you're not gonna find anything this affordable. I mean, and that's also interesting, because I think about that—I thought about that before the pandemic, where the food pantries in Bed-Stuy, you know, and we're across, there's a rehab across from us. And then there's like, to the right of us, there's a lot of brownstones that a lot of like gentrifiers live in, and it's like, You're the ones who moved here, because this soup kitchen has been here in this building for like, over 14 years, and the rehab has been here, you know, but also what happens when people become displaced further and further away from the place that gives them the food that they need, and the services that they need? And where are they going? And how much further displacement can the city handle or Puerto Rico? Or, you know…
Alicia: Yeah, everywhere.
Millicent: Everywhere. And then I think, I mean I think about that so much is how, and I have moved in my life, like being able to move freely, and kind of make decisions based on you know, where you're trying to, just moving around, is such a privilege and we don't actually talk about that.
I think that the people who—the media voices that we hear the most are the worst representational voices of who most of the people are. I think that most of us are living pretty fraught financial lives. I think that if you actually have student loans— I think that we're haves and have-nots now, you know, and if you have student loans, you have to actually work for money and not just work for what you hope your life is. But the voices that we hear the most that tell us like, where to eat, what Airbnb to [stay in], you know, who have like, the most exposure, are the people we should listen to the least.
Alicia: The least, yeah. [Laughs.]
But it's really interesting, because people—those people are successful. People want—they have a huge audience; people want that. And that's what's troubling to me. Like, I as a person, who does, who's a writer, and then like, I have to sell myself a little bit. I think I've come around now to being like, I'm done even trying to sell myself, you know, I'm like, What is is and whatever will be will be and so—but the idea that that's a popular mode of engaging with the world is so troubling to me, existentially, because it's just like, we don't want to grapple with reality—we don't, and it becomes increasingly more necessary to do so.
Millicent: Well, it's the question of do we not want to grapple with reality or are we still having problems with—because people are drawn to your work, you know. People are drawn and there's this, people would be like, That person is so real, but people are definitely drawn to it, you know. Which came first: is it like the influencer, or the following or the escapism and the inability to deal with reality.
Alicia: Yeah, no, it's definitely a chicken or egg thing.
Millicent: It's a chicken or egg thing. But I was reading an older essay that was in the Times, written by a woman who had moved upstate before the pandemic. And I was like, New York Times, isn't it time to stop just publishing this voice? Because this voice—do we really have that many white women in their 40s who we should be listening to about moving upstate and how they're ahead of the COVID people, because there's a slight patting on the back of like, I wasn't part of that wave. And it's like, Well, are you actually doing something or are you writing about it? But I'm like, it's the Times’ choice. And I'm like, don't do that.
And then I saw that—was it the Times? They published something by a Chinese-American person who—it was all about the subway. And it was great. It was about the Sunset Park shootings, but just how this person has taken the subway his entire life, and how that mode of transportation is important. But for a moment, I was just like, Oh my god, they got an op-ed by someone who lives on the subway and don't take that away from him—Eric Adams and the NYPD, you know… And we're, I mean, look at it—media and all the people up top, how many people do they know? They just know—it is still super gatekeeper-y.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. No, it's hard. And I mean, I wanted to ask, too, because, you've written that Brooklyn is such a place of stark dichotomies, in terms of, you have the new restaurants and the extreme wealth, and you have—20 percent of its population [was] food insecure before the pandemic. And, you know, there was this moment of like, kind of what we were talking about, but there was also this moment where hunger was on the forefront of the conversation like community fridges, and mutual aid, and that sort of thing.
Like, has that died down? Or, you know, what is the conversation? What is the landscape like?
Millicent: That has definitely died down, and it started to die down when people had to go back to work. And like, but also like, the community fridges kind of blew too big too fast. You know, like we worked with a bunch of community fridges, and there was a lot of in vogue writing about them and anyone could open them, but they also need a community to sustain them. So, that kind of ballooned and, and some have closed.
Mutual aid—there's still smaller groups that are really dedicated to their mutual aid and working with people and especially working with people who are being kicked out of shelters and all the really terrible things that the city is doing in different tenants unions.
I feel like what really emboldened me over the past two years was how radicalized a lot of people became, like younger people. I'm 48, okay, so I'm Gen X. I think we've got—the boomers can move on, you know. Gen X, we're gonna die before the boomers because that's just—they got all the good stuff and we're just depressed, but it feels like a lot more people have been radicalized. But now the question is—I mean, it's a small percentage that I feel like is left because now that people are kind of going back to their really kind of decadent, made-for-Instagram ways. But things are really bad for people in this city, and there's not a lot of support. And I guess that's the part where I'm like, you have to be so willfully blind to people as you walk by them to not think that there's problems and to still stay so committed to whatever you think your life is supposed to be.
And for me, I was just really tired of feeding rich people. You know, like working in restaurants, it was always a community and feeding friends and feeding community and whatever. And then it just became rich people, and I don't like rich people.
Alicia: When did that shift happen? Do you feel like you felt that shift, in terms of who was able to go to restaurants?
Millicent: I don't think so. I mean, I think that I challenged myself to work outside—like, I worked in Brooklyn restaurants for a while and it was when there were a lot of artists opening things because the rents were low. And then that slowly changed and I was really tired of how homogenous the kitchens were, where it was just this is all the same guy with the same liberal arts education and everybody's the same. And then I would go—and then I went to Manhattan, and I tried to learn more and it was way more intense. It was all—it's all intense, but I think there was just a point where, I don't like anyone here anymore. I'm not looking for validation from food-obsessed—I don't know.
Because also when I moved here, it's not like I went out to restaurants all the time; I just worked in one. And I knew that when I was in the kitchen, friends that would come in, or people in the neighborhood that would come in and different kitchens and things like that. But through elevating or going into different restaurants or whatever, even just the concept of elevating, I just didn't—it wasn't for me. And I don't care for the status of it. You know, and also I was never the person who got the status of it, because I wasn't the chef or I wasn't the owner or I wasn't anyone.
You know, for me what's always been so confusing about food—I read Kitchen Confidential when I worked in a kitchen when I was 27 and I totally got it because I also grew up going to bars, like my dad's place. And when we would go to Rehoboth Beach, we would go to the Rusty Rudder and count the bartender's tips. I've been going to bars since I was born, so I got Kitchen Confidential.
And then I just didn't understand when I moved here why no one—you know, I grew up on a farm, I grew up in the business and I've worked, but no one was ever interested in me, in writing about me or talking to me, or anything that I wrote. I mean, I can only assume it's because I'm not making anyone feel good about anything, you know?
Alicia: [Laughs.] They don't like that.
Millicent: They don't like that! Or the way that they like it is that you have to be—it has to make people feel edgy and you have to be super charming. And, yes, I'm really charming, but I'm not going to blow smoke up anyone's ass to make them feel better about how hard it is to be a farmer or work the line or anything.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah—no, that's so interesting. I feel like for me, I think leaving New York and kind of getting away from it made it a lot easier for me to divest from traditional notions of success as a writer or as a food writer. And so you know, it's been so freeing, which is great. But you know, yesterday, the James Beard media nominations came out or whatever, and someone was like, I can't believe Alicia Kennedy's newsletter hasn’t been—I didn't submit. I didn't pay $150. [Editor’s note: It’s now $100 per entry.]
Millicent: Right? You have to submit, right? Oh my god, I gotta say that I learned about that through one of your podcasts about submitting and how you have to pay, because I was like, I'm sorry—are you telling me that neither you nor I, in the year 2020 of what we wrote about food, are you saying that wasn't, that shouldn't be in an anthology? I mean, I'm not a very hubristic person. But that shit that I wrote about the partially dried duck that I got during shutdown, that two-part thing and like, nobody's writing that, okay? Nobody's writing that. Nobody is coming at it from that—nobody's experiencing that dystopia and writing about it. There were plenty of people experiencing dystopia, for sure.
But it's—you gotta pay to play. And how do you—so if you always have to pay to play, then you just have the same people in the room, and even if they're different people, they have to do the same things, so how are they ever going to be different? Or there's a fucking scholarship, you know, but you're still working with the same systems of like, restaurants are perfect. You just want them to be perfect, so you can always go to them and feel good about stuff. But they're based on ultimately exploitative work. They're based out of people who couldn't afford servants, but didn't want to cook all the time. That's what restaurants are.
And the systems are all the same and the people who try to keep opening the systems up, they still want themselves to be the gatekeepers, you know, and that's the media—that is totally the media, that the person who was criticizing all the memoirs by white chefs, white female chefs. And it's like, Well, you're still here, because you're gonna gatekeep who? The Black female chef whose memoir you're gonna do? You know, yeah, you guys still just want to be the gatekeepers and make sure that you stay relevant—because you have to stay relevant, so you have status—so that you stay relevant, so you have status, so you can still make money.
And your perspective of moving to Puerto Rico kind of broke that. And for me, I feel I was still trying to chase that to be an outlier. But I was still—the only reason why I was in Bon Appetit is because a friend of a friend. My friend was having a pie contest at his shop, to raise money where I worked. It wasn't because anyone at Bon Appetit was interested in me: It was a friend of a friend who's connected who hooked me up with someone. And then anytime I pitched to them, they were like, No, no, no, but they were like, Tell us about the poor people, how's it going? So I had access, but only in one way.
And then I feel the pandemic kind of—I was like, Millicent, you're part of the problem, because you want to be invited to everything. I mean, I'll spite-crash any party, you know, it's fun. But I wanted to be the kind of classic—I mean, this is a very white male thing, outlier, you know, but who's still invited to everything, and has status.
Alicia: But you only get to be that if you're a white male.
Millicent: You only get to be that if you're a white male or there's a couple, there's a couple of females—there's one who's grandfathered in. But you only get to be that. And I was like, my desire for status is not helping me and it's not helping anything. And so I'm like, fuck status. It's more freeing. But it's also something I have to keep in check.
I mean, I'm always interested when you write about like, Vogue or the New York Times, and I think for a lot of us who feel like we're outside, how do we participate in these institutions? Like, man, if I was ever in the New York Times, my mom would be so excited. I've been a part of restaurants that are in the New York Times and I've never been mentioned. And it's so meaningful to our family when that happens. And also, I would imagine, for me at some point, but I'm not going to pretend that's ever going to happen. There's such weird relationships with those institutions.
Alicia: Oh yeah, super weird. Like I—yeah, for me, it's always like, okay, it's nice to be seen, because it just allows me to keep doing my work. You know, if everyone stopped seeing me, then I don't get to do it anymore. And for me, and I've been really lucky, of course, like I wrote—my book will come out eventually, who the hell knows.
Millicent: Supply chain issues, right?
Alicia: Supply chain issues and edit—like issues of… The funny thing is to have your book sort of pre-mentioned in the New York Times, like in the T magazine by Ligaya Mishan, who's a fantastic food writer, but my publisher doesn't talk to me, so I don't actually know anything. [Editor’s note: It’ll be summer 2023.] You would think they'd want to get the book out by me because I have had moments of success and should ride it. But no, they're making you have to keep it—yeah, I have to just keep going and—
Millicent: They're making you doggy paddle. They're like, when you've stuck your head up, keep your head up. And then right when you're like, I can't do this anymore, they're like, Don't worry, we got you a PR person. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Exactly, exactly. But until then I must just—doggy paddling is the best fucking metaphor for that, for how it feels, because it's, you know, I don't want to be a food writer because I want everyone to look at me. I just want to talk about things. You know, that's what I like to do! [Laughs.]
Millicent: Well, and I really like how you've loosened that up for you. I mean, two years ago, we both know Melissa McCart from—she's an editor and she's great. And I had written some things for Heated. And she was like, You should be writing all the time. And I was also like, Oh, I'm out working during a deadly virus pandemic and trying to not kill my partner, or anyone I work with, and trying to figure out like, we're nowhere and we're everywhere. And I couldn't—and I had to let go of that feeling that I need to capitalize on this moment, because I had to figure out a new way to take care of myself or else I wouldn't have been able to do what I do. And it was also so physically brutal, just moving food. And I kind of gave that to myself instead of being like, I could have been somebody—because, yeah, I was like, I just I can't—I’ve just got to survive this.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. It's a hard negotiation.
Millicent: It definitely is. It definitely is. I mean, hopefully I can change that. I mean, my goal is to write more and to actually have a newsletter. I've just, I think, two months ago I was like, Shut up, Millicent, just stop qualifying it and being like, there's too many newsletters and what if—just do it.
Alicia: Yours would be wildly different from anyone else’s, so.
Millicent: Well, because I'm writing anyway, you know, yeah. But they make it. They make it hard, does it ever—I mean, how does anyone read all the newsletters?
Alicia: I do. I mean, because I was a copy editor at New York Magazine, a digital copy editor, I became a very, very fast reader.
Millicent: You're such a good reader, too.
Alicia: But the reason I can read fast is because of that job. Like I would have to read 10,000 words of TV recaps before 9 a.m. So, like… [Laughs.]
Millicent: I mean, let's just talk about that for a second. When I was in my 20s, there was one person who had a job doing TV recaps, Heather—what's her last name? She's a great writer. She writes for…Heather Havrilesky? I'm not sure.
Alicia: Oh yeah yeah yeah, Ask Polly.
Millicent: Yeah, she would write about it. Now that can be a job for everyone. But shouldn’t someone who has a job writing TV recaps be in charge of making society better instead of writing TV recaps?
Alicia: I think—who is, uh Mindy Isser, she did—she is a great human, she's a great writer, too, but I think she's a labor organizer. But she was on Twitter the other day, quote-tweeting someone who was like, ‘Every job deserves, deserves respect,’ it's like, or ‘every job is a valid job,’ something like that. And she's like, Actually, a lot of people should be doing something else. Like, instead of being on their computers, they should be planting trees.
And I agree for myself even. The nice thing about having the freedom of what I do, and now that my book is done, and so I don't feel like I'm going to die every day—because that's how that felt—but I'm like, I need to put my energy, my excess time and energy and fruits, you know, existence into doing something to make the world better, not to make anything better for myself, because things for me are as good as they're probably gonna get. Unless, you know—Okay, I have extra time and extra, so I gotta put that energy somewhere where it'll do good for the world, like and I'm gonna figure that out. [Laughs.]
Millicent: I'm always—I feel like that always, that's the balance, you know? And like, when people are like, Don't you feel good about yourself? And I was like, No, I don't feel good about myself—the world is hell. But we can't all just write TV recaps. Sorry, TV recap people, I read you, but that used to be 20 years ago; there was only one, and now it's just too much.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. No, there needs to be a big transfer of energy for doing things that actually matter. And I feel it for myself, and I feel it for the world. And I think a lot of people feel it, you know. I mean, even before, years ago, a lot of people find a lot more satisfaction in jobs that are physical, like in jobs or doing work that is not considered prestigious, than they do find in the job they do that gets them more money. And of course, you want to make an amount of money that makes you comfortable. I mean, there's a difference obviously between being comfortable and being a hoarder.
But, you know, there's a reason for that. You want to—it's a way of protecting yourself and it’s way of protecting your loved ones, is to have a job that pays you a salary that is comfortable, and that's an ever-changing goalpost, especially with inflation, etc. But like, how much more satisfaction in my life did I get when I was baking, or when I was bartending, than I get from tapping on a computer? I mean, I don't know.
Millicent: The visceral aspect, and I think it's also, because I feel the same. I can be a real heady person, but that's why I liked line cooking. There's a certain point where—I love working with my body and it's a different relationship with it, because it's also a relationship not built out of being seen and how do you look, but how do you function and what can you do and how strong are you? And that's such a better way to live in your body, for me, which is also—so the work I've done, you know, I had moments of being a real egghead. But I've taken care of cows. You know, I've worked in restaurants. When I worked at a record distributor, there was certainly a lot of moving of boxes of records. And like, that is—whenever I'm living like that, it's better.
But then there's also the capitalist exploitative line where you're like, And you crossed it, and now I'm crumpling, which is something that restaurants are really good at doing.
Alicia: Well, I mean to talk about your writing work, the issue of Diner Journal: Dear Island about doing private chef work upstate. I think upstate, right? When I say upstate, I mean New York.
Millicent: It was in the Adirondacks, so it's upstate, but not like upstate—it's like closer to Canada, around Lake Placid.
Alicia: Oh okay, wow, that’s up there.
Millicent: It was great because it was mainly free of anyone from New York.
Alicia: [Laughter.] Yeah. Well, you know, it's such a—it's so good. And like, I meant to ask you more specifically about your writing in this conversation, but I was just kind of winging it. But you know, it's such—you really are such a brilliant writer—like self-reflection, humor, the self-awareness that I think anyone listening to this is understanding exists, which is always refreshing.
Millicent: I'm so red with anxiety and like, thank you!
Alicia: No, it's absolutely brilliant. And I was actually, I was super floored reading it. I just read it like a book and was like—holy shit. I knew you were great from what you wrote on the internet, but then I was like, but here you're getting like—
Millicent: But the internet wasn't funny, that was COVID. That was like, Listen, and this is, What the fuck am I doing here? Who is this Wes Anderson family?
Alicia: And I think that's—I'm so excited for you to launch your newsletter because I would hope to see kind of that mix a bit.
Millicent: For sure. I mean, I think I've just been real—I mean, the whole reason I started an Instagram account when I started that job, and it was private chef but it wasn't like private chef money, like what private chefs would make like, and of course, I have to qualify that because I'm all—‘I’m working class,’ but not really.
But it was such a weird and interesting place. But I started my Instagram account, because I was like, I'm going somewhere very strange. And I just say that because then, if anyone follows me, and then they're like, Wow, she's so intense about politics and hunger over the past two years. And well, it's been a pretty intense past two years, but I am a funny person.
Alicia: Yes, yes. [Laughter.]
Millicent: Not that statement. No one ever believes that when someone says it like that.
Alicia: No, no, no, but I mean, I think for me, I want to be thought of as funny, which is a terrible thing to want, I guess. Because it's corny. But for me, it's funny, because I'll make jokes, or what I think are jokes on Twitter, and people will just be so serious in the replies and I'm like, Forget it. But then I did see a comedian today make a joke and people be very, very serious in the replies. And I was like, All right, like this is just, this is the environment in which we’re living in…
Millicent: Our way of communicating—and you actually wrote about this, where it's like people are like, That person's right and I agree with all of it, or That person's wrong. And it's like, jokes never come across in texting. And it's real, it's real hard in any version of social media. It just doesn't work like this, and also, then that beg to—like we're communicating mostly with a really terrible means of communication, if these things aren't conveying humor and nuance, it's pretty shitty.
Alicia: What good are they for? Yeah.
Millicent: Fights. They’re good for fights.
Alicia: Good for fights. [Laughs.] Well, I wanted to ask, because in the introduction to that, you wrote about choosing which cookbooks to take up with you and you wanted to bring Prune, and then you decided not to, and I wanted to ask, you know, what cookbooks you would take now to an island?
Millicent: I mean, I've thought about this, because I was also like, I don't feel like I've purchased a lot of new cookbooks. I would take—I did just get the Gullah Geechee Home Cooking…
Alicia: Oh, nice. Yeah.
Millicent: Well, first of all, it's a matriarch of an island. And that is, you need someone who is on an island, because it's very specific. You don't have access to everything. Also, all of this, Emily Meggett, all of this is in my wheelhouse, of kind of like very country cooking. There's stuff, you know, there's crabs, I'm there.
I would say the Olia Hercules books. Those are, I think this is what I know about cooking on an island, is that when you want to spread out a little bit, or any kind of like cooking that you're doing for hire, you don't want to like, jump to who you aren't, you need to kind of, for me, I need to have different ideas of variations on a theme and like I do, I can bake. I make pie crust, like I have variations of crust and ideas of things that I do. And I think that this cookbook, the Gullah Geechee and Olia Hercules. There's always variations on—she has so many doughs, you know, and things stuffed, greens and things like that. And I'm like, all right, that's a variation I can do.
I always take a version of The Flowering Hearth, because I just want to live there. And then, I always take The Saltie Cookbook—I don't know if you have that one.
Alicia: I need it! It was out of print.
Millicent: It’s out of print, you better find it because—
Alicia: I know, I have to buy a copy.
Millicent: I use that one the most, because it's vinaigrettes, bread, desserts, and like, it's the most cross-referenced for everything. And then I always take—you ever read the Jim Harrison, the writer, Jim Harrison?
Alicia: I have one of his books on my shelves, but I haven't read it yet.
Millicent: You know, he's a big cook and hunter, and he had a column in Esquire called “The Raw and the Cooked”—the book is all of his essays. And for Saltie and for Jim Harrison, I always take them with me and whenever I've opened a restaurant and I haven't been able to see any friends forever, I read them because they're my friends’ voices. It's like Caroline, and A.D., and Rebecca, and Elizabeth and Saltie…
And then Jim Harrison. I mean, he is—whatever. He's an old white American male; there are going to be problems. But also, he was a screenwriter, along with a fiction and poetry writer. He has an amazing essay about eating with Orson Welles where they try to like both jump out of a check, and I think there's lines of cocaine somewhere during the meal. There's an essay about a gout flare-up in the airport wearing his favorite leather boots, you know. And so, for me, cookbooks, sometimes I feel like I don't cook from them, I just like to read from them.
And then also, I would totally go with vegan or vegan baking because you can really stuff someone on an island. And so I think vegan baking, also because you can have more shelf-stable things to substitute. And I don't do it enough but I like cooking with different grains, just because it gives different textures and like AP flour, just—AP flour, sugar, butter, like, we've all done that, you know?
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I'm in a big flour moment right now—
Millicent: What does that mean?
Alicia: [Laughs.] It means that, it means that people were upset that I am always doing recipes with AP flour, and not with whole grains. But I don't have access to a whole grain flour here. So I, now I have to, I'm trying to get into working with different root vegetable, quote, unquote, flour.
Millicent: Oh, fascinating!
Alicia: Which is cool—and it's, but at the same time, I can't, you know, when I write a recipe for a cake, it's still gonna just have AP flour in it, you know. It's just because I need other people to make it.
Millicent: It's also about access, you know, and that's something that people don't talk about that much. And when you write about food accessibility in Puerto Rico, and when people write about Cuba and food accessibility there, that's really important, but also the access of people anywhere, you know? And we can get anything, I mean, this is—we talked about this—we can get anything all the time; we shouldn't be able to get anything all the time now. Things should be harder for us.
Alicia: In general, things need to be harder. And that's a hard thing to tell people, but I think if my writing has a thesis point that I haven't explicitly articulated, it's: things need to be harder.
Millicent: Things need to be hard, because guess what, they're hard for a lot of people. And we're—how many people for you to lead your life are exploited so you can do what you want to do? I mean, people—and I'm not, listen, there's nothing exploitation-free about me. But I think about it a lot. And consumption for me now, I’m finding how there's a shift in me where it's just what used to be satisfying isn’t necessarily satisfying for me.
Alicia: No, absolutely.
Millicent: I drink tea now.
Alicia: Instead of coffee?
Millicent: Yeah, I mean, now I think I'm back to a cup of coffee a day, maybe. But I have—that was just like the past two days. I was like, come on, let's get some life back into us.
But yeah, COVID in December, and I had it again and I was like, Tea tastes so nice! But I used to drink so much coffee and smoke a pack a day and drink bourbon you know, but some things—and that wasn't right before the pandemic, but I'm just saying, I've noticed the things. I liked shutdown.
I'm gonna say something real unpopular: I liked shutdown. I liked being—I also had a different life for everyone where I went outside and worked and my partner's a musician, so I had live music every week for his Instagram show. But the stretching everything and being really intentional and all of that, and not getting to have whatever, and really having social interactions sustain me—and for longer than they used to. Everything was way more meaningful. And I really appreciate that. And I hope that some of that has stayed with me, you know?
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. Well, how do you define abundance?
Millicent: I think—enough, you know? The feeling of enough, because I think the feeling of enough is kind of contentment. Because abundance is dangerous, look at all—everyone who has abundance, it's never enough, you know?
Alicia: Right. Right. No, yeah. I think this question is about being, you know, redefining abundance to me and I have enough because, we're talking about so many people do not have enough. And so trying to reframe the thinking around what that means is, I think, a powerful tool, imaginary tool for reconsidering.
Millicent: I think what they're calling it now, Alicia, is a perspective shift.
Alicia: Yes, a consciousness shift or consciousness raising. [Laughs.]
Millicent: I am not going to say that working at a food pantry makes me feel good about myself or like I've done anything good, but it has recalibrated what I think about my life.
Alicia: Yeah, well, and for you, and in general, is cooking a political act?
Millicent: I don't think cooking is but I think feeding is, and I think that they're different. And that's got to be talked about more because cooking is—no. I think people pat themselves on the back too much thinking they're doing something political.
And I know, years ago, a friend of mine, we were catering—it was a social justice food award that this Episcopal Church in Long Island gave out. And I was all, I work in restaurants; we buy from farms, and I grew up on a farm and I know—and I remember one of the farmers, he was from Iowa, and he was talking about how worried they were because they'd heard that white supremacists had moved into the neighboring county and so they're just really worried about the people who worked on their farm.
And I heard his speech and I was just—and this was before Trump was in office, you know, this was, this was in—let's just say before Trump was in office. And I remember feeling humbled and being like, You don't know shit, Millicent. You know, and money's politics, but systems or—money needs to be systematic for it to be political, you know.
Alicia: I think that's so important and that you allowed yourself to be humbled and have that change your approach to things is such a rare, I think, a rare characteristic to encounter.
Millicent: I'm humbled all the time. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, thank you so much for being here. This has been so, so great. And yes, it's been interesting of course, that I just get to meet people over Zoom and record it, that I've just wanted to talk to, and this was one where I've just—I just really want to talk to the person and so here we are.
Millicent: Well, you know, when you, when you come to town, we'll get some tea, or a martini.
Thanks so much to everyone for listening to this week's edition of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. Read more at www.aliciakennedy.news or follow me on Instagram, @aliciadkennedy, or on Twitter at @aliciakennedy.