You're listening to From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays, I'll be talking to different people in food and culture, about their lives, careers and how it all fits together and where food comes in.
Today, I'm talking to Sarah Lohman, a food historian, and the author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. We discussed how she went from art school to historic cooking, making a career as a blogger, and how she defines American for the purposes of her work.
Alicia: Hi, Sarah. Thank you so much for being here.
Sarah: Well, hello, Alicia. Good morning. [Laughter.] I feel we’re both still a little just rolled out of bed. Yeah, I did put a face on for you.
Alicia: Thank you, I put a face on as well. I was completely ready to have this conversation and was sitting at my laptop at like 10:50. Like, ‘All right.’ And then at 11:01, I looked up and was like, ‘No!’ [Laughter.]
Sarah: It's fine. I'm just here with my tea. Just getting a start on the day. We're just gonna have a lovely chat, as per usual.
Alicia: Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
So I grew up in Hinckley, Ohio, which is a rural town about, oh, like 30 miles south of Cleveland. So Northeast Ohio. So I actually grew up in the house that my dad lived in from a teenager onwards. My grandmother gave it to my mom and dad the year that I was born. And so, that was how my family was able to have a little bit of property. And when I was growing up there, it was really pretty rural. I didn't have any really close neighbors, and we had a couple acres of our own.
As far as what I ate, some of it was regional and some of it was at—the crap that we got fed in the ’80s and 90s that I look back on, and it's just totally remarkable. Do you remember things like Squeeze-its and Gushers? And I'm like, ‘I guess we just didn't know better back then.’ But those were real foods that we ate.
And my mom was an exceptional cook. But it was very Midwestern. We did do some lasagna. We did do some chili, nothing particularly spicy. And then, kind of the regional cuisine in Northeast Ohio is very Eastern European. So there was also a lot of pierogi action. There would be some chicken paprikash, some beef stroganoff, those kinds of things.
I think the most sort of resonant experience I had with food growing up is that my mom was an award-winning baker. So basically, as soon as I could stand, I was baking with her. Iit's funny, I didn't realize that baking was hard until food reality TV started coming out. All the chefs were like, ‘Oh, no, I don't bake, I don't bake.’ So it was really valuable to me to get that experience first and do the ‘harder side of cooking things.’
And then as I got a little bit older, my parents both went to work when my brother went to college. And so, it was sort of my job to come home from school and start dinner. And so, that was the moment that I started to learn how to cook.
And so yeah, that's a really interesting mix of things. Because people associate, I think, the Gushers side of ’90s youths with other new processed foods, I guess. But it seems you had a real mix of home cooking and eating the—
Sarah: Oh, definitely.
I also feel many—at least in my world growing up, many families households are—I think a lot of families’ households are a blend. I think that we do a lot of culture and class shaming by saying, ‘Oh, you only go to McDonald's, blah, blah, blah.’ I mean, we can go into all of that, too. Yeah, of course, my family went to McDonald's, because how else you get a 6-year-old to shut up? McDonald's. And they wanted you there. And we’d go play on the playground afterwards, too.
But yeah, my mom also cooked meals from scratch for me, because this was still the era where some people had the luxury of having a parent at home full time, which I feel is really hard for someone who would even, who would choose to want that and choose to want to spend time with that child. I feel economically, that's becoming less and less available. So my mom got to raise us up until I was in eighth grade, when she went back to work. And so, that allowed her the access and the ability and the time to be able to make meals from scratch as well.
And kind of interestingly, her mom didn't really cook very much. Her mom did a lot with sort of processed food. But then, I don't know, my mom moved out to the country and just started baking pies and making stew from scratch. Something came alive inside her. And to this day, she's still an incredible cook and incredible baker. There's no stopping her from doing an all-out Thanksgiving or Christmas meal, even if it's just going to be the three of us eating it. And she’ll the table too. I think that’s her favorite part.
Alicia: Aww. That's really great.
And I talk so much, I think, about—in writing and in interviews and stuff—it's like, how do people eat differently? And it's always that answer is, you give them the time and you give them the access. And that's such an important thing to talk about, I think, in terms of our food upbringings.
And I feel that the time issue is one that I especially get very irritated with. I remember seeing a video a couple years ago with two very famous male food writers that are making a roast chicken with roasted vegetables. And they're like, ‘This only cost $14.’ And ‘Oh, isn't this so hard to do? People think this is so hard.’ And I'm like, ‘Asshole, you have no idea. You have no idea what it's like to be raising two jobs. You have no idea what it's like to be a single parent, and you have no idea the real choices that people are making. And you're just like, ‘Oh, just people hate making chicken. They're so stupid.’ It just pisses me off.
And then of course, the caloric content when you're like, ‘Man, I'm hungry. I've got all these kids to feed.’ Of course, you’re going to pick fast food as opposed to making a roast chicken with roast vegetables, which I had for lunch. I'm starving two hours later. It's just such a lack of connection to everyday people.
But also, I think in my case, it was just the ’90s and you bought your kids Gushers and Fruit by the Foot. And that's just kind of what you did.
You fell in love with historical food while working at a living history museum as a teenager and went to art school. I wanted to ask, why did you go to art school?
Sarah: Well, I didn't really think history was my career. I ended up at that job because my mom worked there. And so when I turned 16, she was like, ‘You're too old to stay at home all summer. You’ve got to get a job.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, well, I'll apply at Hardee's and work with my friends.’ And she was like, ‘No, you're coming to work for me.’ She was a manager there. So I got the job. And I was, didn't want to. I wanted to go be with my friends and not do this super-nerdy thing of working in a museum in costume.
And it ended up obviously changing my life. Mom was right. Because the people that I worked with were such just exceptional, passionate individuals. And for me, I just wasn't in history in high school because you're not really learning about the lives of people. You're memorizing dates, and it's always very war-focused as opposed to any of the life that people led in between, right? You're learning about sort of governments and dates that this happened, duh-duh-duh. There's nothing there that makes you think that history is populated with human beings.
Yeah, but museums, like the one I worked at, or probably more famously people know Plymouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg, they are focusing on social history. So day-to-day life. And then in the house there that I worked in with my ‘family,’ there was a wood-burning cast-iron stove. And so, that's when I just loved working with the fire and with the stove, with this really kind of simple piece of equipment. And we were also working from historical books, too. I started to get the sense of what that era in history tasted like, and being able to read old recipes like that.
But I went to art school because I liked art. And that's what I sort of excelled out when I was in high school. And I was lucky that there was a really, really excellent art school near, far enough away from home that I could move but close enough that I wasn't too scary.
So the Cleveland Institute of Art. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. But that was my plan. And then interestingly, it sort of led me back to food history. I majored in a digital arts major with a fine arts minor in food and—not food, in photo and video, which obviously I do a lot of food photography now.
And it was a five year program. So I had to do a thesis project. And so I ended up doing an installation of what today would call a pop up restaurant that served colonial-era food for a contemporary audience. So although after that I sort of dropped it for a couple years ‘cause I was sick of it, it clearly was this combination that I had. I realized I had this sort of unique perspective, because of my—already for a couple years, had worked in this very strange work environment. And that I'd had this background in food and cooking at home, and it just kind of came together as part of this really great program that I was in.
Alicia: How has that art education influenced your career and food?
It's funny because when people ask me ‘what I did in college,’ and I say that, ‘I went to art school,’ go like, ‘Oh, you’re really using the degree,’ which is just what people love to say to people who went to art students anyway, which I think is bullshit.
But I mean, in a very practical way, it has helped me immensely in that as part of my degree I received training in terms of working with freelancers. Working with clients, I should say. So being able to run my own business in a certain—just learning things, invoicing. That was all part of what I was learning.
So when I wanted to quit my full-time job and start working for myself, that was much less intimidating. And I designed and launched my own website, because I knew both graphic design and some basic HTML when I first started blogging. Obviously, photography is a huge part of being in the foodie world. Whether you're blogging, or now, of course, a lot more on Instagram, or writing for a commission, you're often required to provide your own photographs. So my photography skills have been hugely helpful.
And when I'm sort of working with people who want to get into food writing more, that is often one of the hard, most difficult hurdles, that food writing and food photography are often sort of intertjoined. You're building that Instagram audience. So I'm feel very, very, very lucky to have that background too.
But I think in a bigger way, that sort of community and my professors that I work with, it, they encouraged you to think big. To think conceptually, to think of projects. And so, even formulating this idea of back when I got started: what if I did start a food blog and I looked at food history, and used to connect to the present, instead of doing all even the concept of doing this thing that I didn't really have any other—I didn't have a mentor at that point. I didn't have a concept of what my career could look like. Even just thinking about it and getting started on it, I think came from the education that I got in college, too.
And you moved to New York, where that was—where you kind of got started doing this sort of work. Why was New York the place for that, at that time?
Sarah: I mean, I think a couple things came together.
I mean, I mentioned to you earlier, too, that really professor—I was in my fifth year, and I'm doing this restaurant. And it’s all very crazy. And he was the one that was kind of like, ‘You need to go to New York. There just isn't space for what you're doing here right now.’
I went to school in Cleveland as well. And especially in 2005, when I was graduating, Cleveland wasn't doing great. People were already talking a lot about brain drain and college graduates leaving the Midwest and going to the coasts. It sounds harsh to say there wasn't the opportunity there. Because in a way, I did move back to Cleveland for a couple years, from 2018 to 2021. And it was because there were really exciting things happening here. And actually, because a lot of people had moved, went to the coast, got new ideas, and then brought them back to the Midwest. There's hugely positive things happening in Cleveland now.
But I think to me, the tipping point was I'd never lived anywhere else in my life. I’d been on one trip out of the country at that point, which I felt very fortunate for. But my family just didn’t have the money to do a semester abroad or anything. I was working. I was paying for a lot of things myself. And I just thought it was really important to live somewhere else and get a different perspective on the world.
And sort of a soft landing, I'd had a couple friends that moved out there the year before. And then really fortunately, I had a professor that said, ‘I'm from New York. I keep an apartment out there. If you ever need a place to stay for a month, just let me know,’ I was like, ‘Actually, thinking of moving there.’ So I had a place to stay when I first moved out there. And then I also then had roommates, and it just sort of happened. And then I ended up spending 13 years there.
And now that you've left after being in New York for so long. How has that influenced your work?
Yeah, I was thinking about this the other day, because I really became an adult in New York City. And I do feel kind of douchey now being like, ‘Oh, but I live—I've lived here for a long time.’ [Laughter.] I moved when I was 23. And I left when I was 36. So that to me. I mean, obviously that's a time, a lot of growth. And a really incredible place to do that, as you know, being from New York yourself.
But honestly, I decided to leave at the moment when I was really happy. I felt I had done it. I was a success in the city and my life was happy there. And it was the moment that I was happy as opposed to some great disappointment of disaster that I was like, ‘Ok, I'm ready. I'm ready to go. I've done this. I'm ready to go.’
So the first move, I decided to come back to Cleveland. My parents were still here. And it was in a way a test to see if my business could exist outside of New York. This was pre-pandemic, moved in 2018. But I moved somewhere that was both close enough that I was still planning on coming back to work every week or two months and seeing if—
I mean, God, when I moved to New York City, if you had an out of state or out of city telephone number, you couldn't get a job. There was so much of this very insular—you have to be in New York, have to be a New Yorker. That was the most intimidating part. You'd have seen like, ‘Can I still do events in New York? Will people have any respect for me?’ Obviously, a lot of that has changed since the pandemic. And if there's any positives to come out of it, the fact that you don't have to be located in a certain place, whether you want to be or not to do your job.
So it was my first kind of experiment with it. And it did end up being a lot more traveling back and forth to New York, which could be really exhausting. But also part of the reason I moved at that moment to is I knew I was about to start a new book project. And I wanted to try living somewhere with a lower cost of living, and just a different pace of life. And I just knew that I didn't want to live in New York anymore. So I knew there wasn't going to be any sort of big regrets. Just wasn't quite sure what the next step was.
So I was in Cleveland for three years. Well, a little more than. I’d said two to three years when I moved out there. But then there was this pandemic thing. I don't know if you heard. And I was really relieved to be there, too, because I could be there and support my parents, which would have been so scary. And I'm sure has been so scary for a lot of people.
And like I mentioned to you, I just moved to Las Vegas at the end of August. A great new opportunity came up. I really love the city. I love its natural wonder. And so now, it's a little bit more of seeing like, ‘Ok, a lot of my money comes from doing live events,’ which obviously weren't happening during the pandemic. But it's also become sort of a weird time for doing online classes. People are sick of being online. But I did just come back from New York to try to do first in-person talks and events since the pandemic started. And people are also still a little hesitant to show up in person. All of it's understandable. I'm sick of the loss of connectivity that we get through Zoom too. But it makes total sense. If someone feels under the weather, they're not going to show up for class.
Things have sort of hit a weird moment, but I'm just trying to ride it out. Hopefully, one day be able to expand the branded events a little bit more to the West Coast, too. And I don’t know, Alicia. I'm all about learning and experiences. And part of that is just I want to live in a different part of the country so I can understand that better, and maybe sort of understand our country as a whole better, too.
Alicia: For sure.
And so, I know you started out writing about food as a blogger, you—Four Pounds Flour. How has your relationship to being a food person online changed since you started in the industry? Because it is, like you said now, probably a lot more visually focused than it was. When people were bloggers. You could take a real shitty picture and use it. [Laughter.]
Sarah: You're not gonna get those Instagram likes!
And that's the coming from art school, too. I wasn't just like, ‘My content has to be good.’ So I didn't really think of myself as a writer. I still don't, in a way. The writing, to me, is a means to an end, a way to have a conversation about food and to express ideas. So coming from art school, it was like, ‘No, my photos are absolutely not going to look shitty.’
I'll tell you this. And bless him. My friend Jay, who I haven't talked to many years—Part of the article process is going through the critique process, which, I think, is honestly one of the most valuable skills I learned there. And so in my fifth year, and I'm in my major, and we're this really tight group of people. And I'm working on opening up this pop up restaurant, I’m and doing a website. And so, I did food photography for the first time. And so I had this critique of my food photographs, and my friend Jay went, ‘That's looking like some Chinese food. China, frankly—’ How do you say it? Some, he said, ‘That's looking like some Chinese fast food menu photographs.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, nooooo.’
So it was this real kick in the pants. I mean, I think maybe the closer equivalent is it looks—it looked a little bit more like the collages that you see on the sides of bodegas. That kind of photography I was doing. Because it is a really specific skill to be able to get in there and understand. Just portrait photography, or landscape photography, or animal photography, are all very separate skill sets. Food photography, there are certain tricks that you had to learn.
And so I really had to push myself to get better very, very quickly so that I didn't have Chinese takeout slash side of the bodega. Which, by the way, I'm obsessed with bodega collages. And also noticed the aesthetic is changing recently, the last time I was in New York. Maybe that's a different definition. So to me, the visual elements were extremely important. And I knew the food had to look delicious, or at least interesting. Is every photo on that blog that I wrote from—what 2008 to 2018? Is every photo a banger? Absolutely not. But I do feel proud of that.
It is super visual. But interestingly, a lot of my work has now shifted away from individual dishes to more broader storytime about food as culture. So my photography has become much more documentarian of the travels I’ll do and the people that I'm meeting, and then the foods that we're eating together.
So the transition to Instagram was super natural for me. See, this is the thing. I'm not in Writer Twitter. You're so in Writer Twitter and Food Twitter; I just kind of lurk and retweet. So in some ways, again, even though I have a book out. I’m working on my second book that started as a blogger. I'd never think of myself as a writer. That’s what I try to say when I’m—when somebody asks me what I do for a living. And I don't really want to have a conversation, but it still doesn't work. And they're like, ‘What do you want to write about?’ It's fine. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Can you tell me what your next book is about?
Sarah: Yeah, I can.
So I'm looking at foods that are on the verge of extinction in America. And I traveled all over the country to talk to different people who were the shepherds and the harvesters and the farmers of these different foods.
And the reason the foods are becoming endangered are for a variety of reasons. But I think most importantly, that all these foods are tied very deeply to, often, a people and a place. And the peoples that they belong to are peoples that within America have been historically and systematically oppressed. And so, that's one of the ways that America colonizes, is by taking away culture, which means taking away food.
And it's looking at what happened, and honestly a lot about the history of American colonialism. But also, the stories of survival. Survival and thriving, too, and how these different peoples throughout America had been able to hold on to these foods, too. And then a little bit of call to action. My hope for this book is that the people and the products that I'm featuring will get the attention, the money, the support that they need and want. Maybe even the legislature. I'm hoping that this book serves these people and serves as a platform for their voices, too.
I don't want to get into too much detail because I'm still writing it. Once it’s in the publication process, you can talk and talk and talk about it. But yeah, at this point, someone could probably write it faster than me. I don't think I'm a slow writer. It just takes time, Alicia. You know the work.
Alicia: I know. It sucks. It's the worst thing I've ever done. And I am a writer and I hate writing a book. I mean, I hate writing a book because for myriad reasons that I probably shouldn't talk about publicly, but—
Sarah: It’s exhausting. I mean, I'll talk about them for you. It's mentally exhausting. It's physically exhausting. I mean, it gives me anxiety. I'm thinking about it all the time for multiple years of one's life. The financial support isn't there. You said something on Twitter that I was like, ‘Same’ so hard that you—Paraphrase. You said, ‘Writing a book takes a lot of thinking. But how do you have time for thinking when you need to pay the bills?’
And that actually, with both of these books, is the hardest part. The money runs out. People are gonna get in advance. Yeah, well, lasts me about eight months of living and doing the research. It all got invested back into the book. I'm not living the high life here. And then you have to work, because you still have bills to pay. So where do you find the time to get the space, not just to write but to think about these ideas of making a great piece of work when you're also doing whatever you need to do to get those bills paid? You're working two full-time jobs when you're writing a book. It’s absolutely exhausting. It’s exhausting.
The third of my advance that I've gotten so far, it wouldn't have paid my rent for two months. Yeah, it sucks. I don't know. I shouldn't have agreed to it.
Sarah: It absolutely sucks. And then yeah, I kind of did a second one. ’Cause I was like, ‘Wow, I don't know how to make money.’ And after this, I really have to give it a think.
In some ways, I feel guilty, because obviously, this is—What we're talking about is aspirational for probably a lot of people who are listening to this podcast. I mean, I've spent 10 years of my life on two books. And yeah, I'm really proud of my first book. And I think that the second book is going to be something that I'm proud of, too. I've gotten to work with great editors, and we've made something great together. And I think that the book has done something—
I think that the big benefit of it, and probably the way you're motivated to do it, is that we can put something good and thoughtful into the world that will—I hope with my first book, too, bettered somebody's life in an indirect way. Just created more understanding around food and culture in America.
But man, am I poor. I'm single. I should say to everybody. And happily so. This is where I want to be. Now I live with a housemate, but I was living by myself for a while. And I just read some big article about how society isn't designed for people to stay single who want to stay single.
And so, it's really hard. It does feel like, really, an accomplishment every month that I do it where I'm like, ‘Yeah, rent, paid you.’ And it's hard to sort of juggle that between people's perceptions of me. And you probably feel the same way, too, where it's like, ‘I'm successful. I've got a book out. I've got some name recognition.’ I'm not a major food celeb. That's totally fine. But I think people need to look at what I'm doing. They're like, ‘Yes, that's what I want to be doing.’ But everybody—Phew. It's tough some days. It's a real haul.
And I don't want to say that love makes up for money. To get through those times of real stressful uncertainty, you really have to be—love and be invested in what you're doing. So definitely after this book, I have to really think about what I want the next step of my career to be because it's just incredibly exhausting. This will be another five-year process from proposal to publication. The financial stress is real. The artistic physicality of writing a book is really draining and uncertain and difficult on your sort of mental health.
But I got to meet amazing people and do amazing things that I wouldn't have had the excuse to do otherwise. And I think that that's the addiction and the appeal that keeps bringing me back. If I pitch this book, that means I get to go to this place and meet these people and meet them on their level and in their space and in their life. And to me, that is really—it's the access that being a writer gives you, both that people might be open to speak to you but also the allowance it gives myself to be like—
I went to the Navajo Nation and volunteered at a festival that celebrates the Navajo-Churro sheep, and assisted this cook and butcher in butchering a whole animal. I'm sorry. Course you're vegan. [Laughter.] I forgot about that. I’m so sorry.
Alicia: I’m a vegetarian, it's ok. [Laughs.]
Sarah: Oh, I actually am too. But for me, learning about, meeting people where they're at is also about learning about their food in every single aspect. I had never butchered an animal before. And especially someone who has eaten meat and does still occasionally eat meat, I feel—I've always felt that experience is really important to be with that animal.
But I never, I'm not just gonna pick up and volunteer fly to Arizona and then drive for hours to volunteer at a sheep festival. And I do want to do that. If someone asked me if you want to do that, it’d be like, ‘Absolutely.’ But writing it in this book allowed me to do that. And now, I've met people that I feel so connected to.
And I'm just rambling now. But, yeah.
This book is really special. I feel connected to the people that I interviewed and spent time with in a way that I didn't get to do in the first book. And in this really meaningful way. So that's amazing. That's a moving life, right?
Alicia: [Laughs.] It is great. I am too bitter about the book process.
But I also like to talk about it because I do feel as writers, we feel a little bit like we owe it to the fact that we make a living being writers to be nice about it. And I think that that's not fair necessarily to people who are coming up and get a, an idea of it as something—I grew up looking at magazines and looking at the contributor page and being like, ‘These people are living the great life.’ And now, I know that that's not true. [Laughs.]
Sarah: It’s fucking hard.
And you really have to fight to get paid. I mean, especially now, both the amount of money paid for both articles and books has just dropped in the past 10 to 20 years. And a lot of it comes from online. For some reason, when your words live online as opposed to on the page their value’s less. Which doesn't make any sense. I'm gonna write just as good, no matter where that's appearing.
And I don't think that the publishing industry as a whole actually supports great art right now. I mean I appreciate that every publisher has got a couple authors that's making bank, and that they're essentially taking the gamble. It's literally gambling on us, where they're investing money. And they're gonna see if they get their investment back. But I have been with two publishers now. I have never felt financially supported. My third publisher, I feel supported in many other ways. But money is one of the most important ways to be supported.
And I also don't like this culture of you’re an artist, you can't talk about money. I got bills to pay. I got food to buy. How do you have space to create good work when you don't feel secure in those things?
I teach a nonfiction book proposal and publishing process class with a friend of mine who published an amazing book about bedbugs. She's a science writer. And one of the things we talk about is we're also very brutally honest about what this process is like, what your financial situation is going to be like, especially as a new author. Unless you were already a super famous name, you're not going to be pulling in the big bucks on your first book. The fact that you might never see royalties. My first book, Eight Flavors, has done really, really, really well. I have not seen a dollar.
That being said—and this will, I think, happen for you Alicia—is the best part about it, maybe even more so than the getting to go out and connect with people, not writing the book, is that then for at least a year after the book comes out, you get to talk about it. You get to engage in this conversation that you don't have to give any introduction to, because people have read the book. And you can engage with people about these concepts. After the first book, I got to travel for almost two years. There's no official book tour. People are surprised about that nowadays too. But now, they'll do a media tour.
But for certain authors, public speaking becomes a part of your job. And I got to speak in a huge diversity of places. And that was really amazing, getting to talk to people about this work that I had done and have these conversations that I've wanted the book to prompt feels so good. And then that, for that one year, you're also just in the money. There's just money coming everywhere. And then you’re like, ‘You know what? I could do this again. I could do this again.’ And the cycle just repeats. And now, I'm 40. So this is why we have to figure things out going forward.
But when your book comes out. It's going to be amazing. You're going to have great conversations and—about something that I know you're really passionate about, too. And then that will make you start to think you can do it again. And then you might.
Alicia: Ha! [Laughs.] The next one will be very, very different.
But in your book that actually is out there that people could buy and read, and hopefully get you royalties, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine—
Sarah: But in the end, I don't care enough. Now that the work is out there, it's like, ‘Get it from your library. Buy it secondhand. Borrow it from your friend.’ To me, in the end, now that the work exists, the money part, in my mind, should not be on the reader. It should be the publisher, right? And the full system that doesn't support artists. Now the book exists. Don't steal it. Don't steal this book. Buy it from a small, independent bookstore, if you want to. Yeah, get it from your friend’s shelf. I don't care if you enjoy it.
Alicia: I actually did buy yours second hand at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. Or was it Book Revue in, on Long Island? I don't know. But it has the price in pencil, so I know I bought it second hand. [Laughs.]
Sarah: I'm totally fine with that. I think that’s lovely.
Alicia: [Laughs.] But I wanted to ask how you came up with parameters for your definition of American cuisine.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think that that's the idea that I wanted to play within this book, because I think American cuisine is famously difficult to define, right? And if people do define it, it's in this really negative way. ‘Oh, it's all McDonald's, all hot dogs and hamburgers, or whatever.’
And I think that internationally, that's often what people think of American food. And I think that Americans often do that to themselves. When, in my experience, I find quite the opposite, that there's a lot of worry about American food becoming homogenized. But it's so often that I'm doing an event and people will come up and be like, ‘Oh, have you tried this local dish? And do you know about this thing? And if you go to this restaurant–’ People are so immensely proud of their local culture and cuisine. So I think a lot of American food is based on physically, graphically, where you grew up.
And then of course, I think that saying American food is hot dogs and hamburgers presents a very narrow and, dare I say, racist view of who an American is. Because I'm an American. You're an American. Someone whose family immigrated from China in the 1840s is now fourth, fifth, sixth generation American. Someone who came from India in the 1960s is American if they want to define themselves that way. So it's both a, you mentioned the word sort of erasure when we were talking about this. Using that narrow definition of American is erasure of all of the facets and complications of who Americans are, right?
That being said, the fact that—acknowledging the fact that we were a really diverse country, I then got curious about how individual ingredients. What cook doesn't have black pepper and vanilla in their kitchen? So how can someone come from this huge variety of backgrounds—And I mean, when you travel around this country, it often felt like I wasn't going to different states. It feels like I'm going to different countries that both have their own idea of like, ‘This is what America is,’ but one state over, it's completely different. And they’re speaking a different language one state over, too.
So why, then, are there these handful of ingredients that both define us and that Americans consume in massive levels compared to the rest of the world? Why do we have a particular love for these? I think American cuisine can be delightfully undefinable. I think that the idea of cuisine, of a certain way of eating and doing things has a more specific definition. And I think then there can be lots of arguments about what is or isn't American food. And I think that that's all a fun, interesting conversation to have. But so, then I got curious about what does unite us? And apparently it's a few pantry items. And why.
Alicia: Right, right.
Which is so interesting. And I loved when you wrote about Food Network. Again, as a person who, born in the mid ’80s, watching Food Network, reading Food & Wine, reading Travel + Leisure as a kid was how I understood food other than what my mom was cooking. And you point to how they kind of led to this increase in sales for whole black peppercorns versus powdered.
And I think that that's such an interesting thing, because we don't think in the U.S.—Or even I, as a food writer, it's difficult to talk about what ingredient people use that is actually, I don't know how to sit—But people don't use things in their whole forms necessarily in an American kitchen. It is a rare thing to grind your own coffee or grind your own peppers. But for whatever reason, whole black peppercorns really became a thing. It was a joke on SNL that, the huge waiter with, the waiter with the huge pepper mill. ‘Tell me when.’ [Laughs.]
But people take for granted the whole peppercorns now. But I wanted to ask, I don't think it's Food Network anymore that's influencing how people eat. What do you think is influencing how people eat now?
Sarah: That's a great question.
I mean, the Food Network stepped in to fill such a gap that wasn't, that was there. A lot of food magazines, at that point, even in mid ’80s were super high end, let's say. Or very, very low end, Budget recipes. And the Food Network just sort of normalized cooking, and normalized olive oil. And just these whole and fresh ingredients that weren’t out of reach in any way, that you could get at your grocery store, that it didn't cost that much more money that we weren't using. It sort of leveled up home cooking in a lot of ways too. Even for people who mostly were just watching it, as opposed to try and replicate every recipe.
I mean, I think that the major food influence right now is Instagram. And I think that there is some negative aspects to that, in that ugly food is delicious. And Instagram really only elevates beautiful food and incredible colors. I try not to be a crabby, elder millennial. Just hates things ’cause they're new. But something really bothers me about venues that are clearly just setups for Instagram pictures. You know what? I just like honesty and logic in any viewing. And so, I don't want food to be set up so that it looks good on Instagram.
And I see that in retail and restaurants. They're like, ‘Well, this is going to be our Instagrammable dish.’ But then on the flip side,then I’ll get that. I'm like, ‘Oh, it's gonna be such a tight Instagram photo. I’m sure I’m gonna love it.’ So in some ways, it can be a really negative influence, I think, ‘cause if we're just thinking about—Obviously, we do eat with our eyes. But if we're just thinking about the visuals, we're missing the whole ugly, delicious panoply of amazing foods out there.
That being said, it has sort of a positive things, too, because a lot of those really vibrant colors are coming from East Asian ingredients. And so, now things like ube and matcha—Matcha, I did predict being an up-and-comer in Eight Flavors, but I never would have called ube being a thing now, which is not only beautiful, but really delicious. And so, even though I think there can be some negative aspects to just judging food visually, I think that it has allowed us to not ‘ew’ when something is an unexpected color, which I think is a very Midwest, white Midwest, to do, to be like, ‘Eww, why is it that color?’ I think that embracing the beautiful, the beauty in food that often comes from around the world. And I would say particularly East Asian countries do these incredible exclamations of color with their ingredients and flavor and appearance and trompe l’oeil, and all these amazing presentation things that I love seeing embraced in American food, because that also means that those people are being embraced as Americans.
Well, that leads me to my question of so many of the ingredients in the book are so many ingredients that we have come to kind of consume in the U.S., aren't indigenous to the U.S. And so, you write that in the conclusion that it's our lack of tradition that is allowed for this diversity. And of course, diversity is good in every aspect, but at the same time, I'm always wondering now, what is the difference between assimilation and erasure of origins of food. And what is lost when something becomes American versus retaining its identity at origin?
One thing I've been talking about with my husband because he's applying for PhD programs right now in history, and he's going to focus his research on rum and Puerto Rico. And we were talking about people calling coquito ‘Puerto Rican eggnog.’ And then talking about how is that erasing the idea that it probably has roots that are deeper than U.S. colonization and industrial canned products coming. But it's so hard to find that. But then the story ends up just being like, ‘It's eggnog with coconut.’
And especially now that you're writing about Indigenous foods, but what is that difference between assimilation and honoring origin?
Sarah: Yeah, couple things to comment on. And I'll see if I can start on a larger thought here.
I do think that assimilation and erasure are the same thing. I think that when, we are for a large part, especially the last 100 years being an immigrant nation. And so when someone comes here and you say, ‘You have to speak English, you have to cook this way, you have to dress that way.’ That is both assimilation and erasure. And I think that's a horrid concept. And I think that it's a way that, luckily, immigrants have been able to resist in different ways, too.
But I spent many years working at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum teaching immigration history about the Lower East Side, but in this broader way. And we did these tours in a way that we could also learn from the people's experiences on the tour. And maybe one of the most heartbreaking things that got sent to me said to me pretty frequently is that someone whose parents were, for example, whose grandparents are from Italy would talk about how they were so sad that they didn't know how to speak Italian because their grandparents would not speak it in the house. They’d refuse to and they're really upset they didn’t get that cultural connection, but then will turn around and talk about how immigrants from Central America don't want to be American and don't want to speak English.
And luckily, I had a job where I could call people out. That was part of the process of like, ‘Oh, didn't you tell me earlier that you duh-duh this?’ So I hate that turning around and shitting on the next person, because it just means that we all sort of lose. And luckily, because of the stubbornness of Italian immigrants, we have this really incredible Italian American food way here to go get, to experience and enjoy.
But one of the downsides, though, of having a culture that is made up of people all, from all over the world coming to this country, is that we also have erased Indigenous foods and Indigenous ingredients. And that was done purposefully, again, because the American colonial government wanted to come in and take that land, and just push Indigenous peoples into the least desirable sections, or in some case, people—It's an incredible story where people were able to stand their ground and stay, remain on their sacred land. In the face of the deception, manipulation and violence of the American government, that was a very, very difficult thing to do.
So we have an incredible number of native ingredients and spices, plants. And in some ways, it has spread all over the world, like tomatoes, and peppers. But I'm seeing a resurgence of American spicebush, which is a native spice from the Midwest and the East that has notes of clove and nutmeg and allspice in it, that's just a plant I could probably go into the woods and find right now. But we’re totally unaware of it, because it wasn't cinnamon. It wasn't these spices that were revered in Europe.
That being said, too, Indigenous people have also adapted and brought in new ingredients and new animals and new ways of living. Indigenous people in the Americas are incredibly adaptive. And so, they took the best parts of the colonist’s culture and the parts that suited them, and then made that a part of their culture too. So of course, all of modern Mexican cuisine, a lot of that has to do—
I guess the biggest thing I can say is that the Americans didn't have many domesticated animals. And so, that was one of the biggest ways that Indigenous people's lives changed. And Indigenous food changed here, too. But of course, also, there's no way we can also say, ‘Well, that's not real Indigenous food.’ For example, coming back to the Navajo. They've been shepherding the Navajo-Churro sheep for 400 years. So we also tend to have different ideas of tradition. If a white person does something for 100 years, it’s traditional, but if a native person does something for 400 years, it's like, ‘Oh, we just took that from the colonists.’
So all that aside. I think that there's also a really positive ways to think about it. Because we are such a jumble of people, both in our country and our cities, we get to look in each other's cooking pots and go to someone's house to experience a new recipe, or Google a restaurant in our neighborhood. So there is also this mutual sharing of food, and I think in particular flavor. It's always like, ‘What is that spice? What is that ingredient?’
And I think that's why I was drawn to looking at individual flavors, individual ingredients, because often it's not necessarily the whole dish that comes into our broader culture at once. It's the sriracha sauce or it's the cardamom. It's this introduction of something that's new that we begin to play with. And when I say American, too, its broad American culture. You see that same kind of playing with a new ingredient for someone who is white Midwestern, or Mexican descent in the southwest. It is this broader idea of a grilled cheese sandwich is delicious, probably no matter where you're from, so that everyone gets to play as opposed to the dominant culture, I think. And maybe think about it as more mainstream than dominant.
Alicia: No, no, that's super fascinating. And I think that that's a really great way of thinking about it. Because I do think that the conversation has been really skewed, especially online and food conversations around, what is cultural appropriation? And a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, does this mean I can't cook tacos in my house if I'm not Mexican?’ And it's like, ‘No, of course. That's great. Everyone should eat tacos.’
Sarah: Just don’t claim you invented the taco!
It seems very simple in some ways, right? I mean, one class I taught, I wish I'd gotten this woman's name. But we were talking about the importance of attribution. And we're talking about it specifically in just recipe writing. I was like, ‘Even if you were just inspired by somebody else, why wouldn't you attribute that person and create a community? Why is there this pressure that we have to—No item of food is new. It's all inspired. No item of art right is new. It's all inspiring to be something else.’
And this writer in my class turned to me and said, ‘When in doubt, shout it out.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, when in doubt, shout it out.’ If you're worried that you’re appropriating someone's culture, shout it out. Credit somebody.
But also, if you're worried that you're appropriating someone's culture, maybe don't do whatever it is that you're about to do. Is this appropriation? It probably is. I think that cooking within someone's culture is an incredible way to learn about someone else's life and mode of living, especially at a time when we can't travel very much right now, right? Because it's not just the food and the flavor. It's the process of making it that teaches you about how other people live. And that's an incredible bond.
And interestingly, speaking of American erasure and assimilation, food is often the thing that people are the most prejudiced against. 100 years ago, we stopped eating garlic, because Italian and Jewish immigrants smelled like garlic. And that was seen as a negative. The ’80s or the ’90s, kids coming from India or South Korea, or opening up their lunchboxes and getting the ‘ew’ and all they want is Lunchable. So there's definitely that side of it.
But at the same time, those same kids grow—Italian food exists because of stubbornness. We have an incredible amount of Korean food, Korean American food now. There's also a stubbornness in giving up our food culture that then ultimately benefits everyone. It's one of the things that almost a dominant culture allows people to maintain. But also, thankfully, it's one of the ways that we can make incredible connections with people, even if we don't speak their language or believe in the same faith. Sitting around the dinner table, experiencing those foods, we all taste, we all eat, we can all talk about food. And it's really an amazing thing.
And I wanted to ask, because working on my book, a lot of narratives around vegan and vegetarian food for the last 50 years, has—it's been historicized as a white thing, which is just so wildly inaccurate. Even within the United States, this is—there is diversity in people who eat ‘alternative natural foods’ or eat a vegetarian diet.
And I wanted to ask, how do you—what are your techniques? What are your methods for helping you see beyond the narratives of the dominant culture, or the dominant historical narrative? Because also, a thing that is perpetuated because we're creating so much content online. I've perpetuated this myself, is that we're just writing stories. And we're grabbing a random source, and we're just repeating it. So as someone who's actually digging into history, what is, what are some good resources? What are some good techniques for not just perpetuating stories that are incorrect?
I think that the biggest way I want to frame this is just because they're the easiest source to find, doesn't mean that they're the best source. Going into the book that I'm currently writing, someone is going to perceive this as racist. But here I go. I wanted to make an effort to include as few white men as possible, because when you do a Google search for anything, the first hits that people with the most media attention, that people with maybe the most sort of money and power and businesses, are going to be white men in this country, because they are the dominant people and have been for a very long time. Does that mean that that white man is the best resource for you? It absolutely doesn't. So the easiest, the most powerful, even the most written about person may not—and in fact, probably is not the best person to talk. Does that mean never talk to any white guy ever? No. Absolutely not. There are white guys in this book.
But just making that promise to myself made me keep pushing and not be satisfied with the first answers that I got. Because even in maybe that first phone call with that white guy, they start talking about other people who have inspired them or who they support or who they're linked to. If I just stop at that one phone call, I wouldn't get to all those other people that actually that guy thinks is really important to talk about.
There was an Amazon review for my first book, which you should never read. But of course I did. And someone said, ‘It seems like she went out of her way to be inclusive in this book.’ And the answer is, yeah. [Laughter.] Yeah, I did.
But also, I also wanted to tell the real history, which is an inclusive history. That's why I study food history, because looking at what we eat finally allows us to access the stories of women and people of color in a way that traditional histories do not. And traditional histories are several generations of both saying that white male history is the only important history, and also because only white men were allowed to do things for so fucking long in this country means that we never get to acknowledge that everybody else was there too. That we were all there at the same time.
So my advice is to keep pushing. Don't go with the first Google search. Don't go with the first phone call. Keep pushing till you find the person you're like, ‘Whoa, this is it. This is where the story is. This is how I can understand this deeper.’
That being said, I think part of the issue is that the money doesn't support that kind of writing, whether things get repeated again and again online because maybe you're getting 100 bucks or $150 to write your 250, 500 or 800 word. Or maybe you’re not not getting any money, because you're trying to break into the industry. So when you are making negative dollars per hour to write an article, of course, you're going to take that first Google search. And of course, you're on deadline. And of course, your editor just pressure you to copy something else if they're not a very good editor. So that's how those stories get supported. So it also takes a certain denial of like, ‘Oh, man, if I didn't do this much work, I would be more financially stable.’ But that's also just not the right thing to do.
So it really is a battle and it's not easy, and the system is not supporting good journalism right now. That I think is the biggest issue.
Alicia: No, absolutely.
Well, for you is cooking a political act?
Sarah: I've been thinking about this a lot as I know this is your question.
I think for me, it is a cultural act, which is a political act in its own way. When we cook, when we cook from home, when we cook within our own cultures, it is an act of preservation. It can be an act of defiance. I mean, sort of speaking about veganism, a friend of mine who is a devoted vegan, which I really do respect, said, though, that he thought that everyone was gonna eat this way in the future and this is definitely the way that we should be going.
And at that point, I had just come back from the Navajo Nation. And I'm like, ‘You're gonna go to these Indigenous people and tell them that they can't eat meat anymore, because it's bad for the planet, despite the fact that this particular animal has been a part of their culture and their religion for 400 years? So that's not like a colonizer attitude at all.’ So I realized at that moment that food is religion in a lot of ways. It can be directly tied to religion, but it is such a big part of culture to march in and tell someone you can't eat that way, is—it's really destructive. That can be erasure, too.
So just, I think sometimes living your life and eating the foods you want to is this political act, but I think that most people would see it as a cultural act. An act of preservation. And especially around the holidays, that is the time when even people who are maybe many generations removed from an immigrant or enslaved or colonist ancestor, that's when they're cooking the foods to reconnect to that story and to their own history.
Alicia: Thank you so much, Sarah.
Sarah: My pleasure! Yeah, I got really riled up about some things. [Laughter.] I may have offended some people. It's probably fine.