From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Tamar Adler

A Conversation with Tamar Adler

Listen now | Talking with the author and Vogue columnist about the limits of food writing and food media.

Tamar Adler wasn’t in the best mood when we recorded this interview, and she apologized once we stopped recording. I didn’t think there was anything to be sorry for, but I appreciated learning that it was due to trying to get her town, Hudson, New York, to make their vaccine information available in languages other than English so that they would be accessible to people who needed it.

I think it helps to know that’s what was on her mind while listening or reading to this conversation about how impossible it can feel to make the world a better place through writing, when it is in doing that anything really happens, that anything really changes. But while Adler doesn’t think her best-selling book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace did what she hoped it would do, it did change how I cook, and I am positive it had that effect on many others as well. It’s easy to consider her a bit precious, a bit twee—associate her closely with egg spoons. But she’s much more than that, and once she gets talking, you see how much bite and real care is there.

Here we discussed her many stops on the way to becoming a food writer, the demands of social media, how she picks her topics for Vogue, and why food media just kind of sucks. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Tamar. Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat.

Tamar: Hi, it's wonderful to talk to you. 

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

Tamar:I grew up in Westchester, New York, which is about an hour and a half south of where I live now. And because you were so generous in sending some of the questions that you wanted to ask me along beforehand, I thought about this one a lot. Because I realized that there are these like—there's a tendency to try to narrativize one's own life in a coherent way, and that every time I answer a question like this, I tell one version of the narrative, and that it's actually not super coherent. 

And like I was remembering that I ate chocolate Pop Tarts for breakfast, which I've never put into any story of what I ate because I also had this kind of unbelievable, gastronomical upbringing because my mom is an incredible cook. And it was—my mom was a developmental psychologist, but she worked in a really, really hard area. She worked at Albert Einstein in the Bronx, and specifically with foster children with developmental disabilities, and their foster parents. And it was just like, it was just hard, and grueling, and she had terrible stories. And she was really beaten down and she took refuge in the kitchen. And so she cooked incredible food. Like, I used to take smoked mozzarella and eggplant and pesto sandwiches on focaccia to school and just like, it was not, you know, it wasn't standard. She loved it.

That was a big part of it, but I hated food. And she was a super young mother; she had me when she was 24, she got married at 19. The fact that I hated food meant that if ever I wasn't eating, she would like flip out and try to find a way to compensate for that. So it was like this funny mix of—my father was 11 years older than her and Middle Eastern. So we had this like, really amazing Mediterranean, homemade diet, where like, there was hummus every meal, and Israeli pickles and olives, and like, this sort of very, you know, like, rooted and real culinary existence. And then also, I was a picky skinny kid. And so I had, like, every kind of sugary cereal you could possibly want. I had, I mean, maybe not Lucky Charms, but only because they weren't kosher. But I had like, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And chocolate Pop Tarts, that was like a several year long thing. And then sometimes a chocolate Pop Tart and Carnation instant breakfast in the hope of like, you know, just like getting me to wear, you know, pants that wouldn't fall down and stuff like that. Yeah, so it was like a mix of hyper-processed, just anything that a kid would eat. And, you know, like, the Mediterranean diet before that was even—I mean, I'm sure it was a thing, but certainly wasn't going on in a lot of my friends’ houses.

Alicia: And I mean, that's so interesting, because obviously the next question is that you were an editor at Harper's before you turn to food and now that I know you didn't like to eat as a kid, it's especially interesting, I guess, to understand how you made this move in your in your career. So how did that switch happen?

Tamar: Well, that was another—it's another thing where I think I've tended to narrativize it one way and it is other ways, too. Because when I was, I was an editor at Harper's for I guess, three years, during that time, I developed a just a real, like a full, full passion for cooking. I was just totally, I was in love. I loved reading food magazines. And I loved, you know, going to the Chelsea Market and buying Italian olive oil and I loved the farmers’ market and I loved learning about food sourcing and about organic and biodynamic farming. 

But I had kind of a false start with food because I got—I was really, really in love with it like, like the way you fall in love with a human. And then I thought, well, you know, I was so young, I was like 22, I think, when I got to Harper's and I just got really lucky and ended up kind of like, rising there. So I was a, you know, a full editor, but I was like, you know, 23, 24, 25, really, very kind of early in my grown-up life, and I decided that I wanted to go to see if I—I like decided to give myself this test where in order to test my love of cooking, I would get Gabrielle Hamilton to let me work at Prune on the weekends, but not quit my job as an editor. And that that was just gonna like—that was going to answer the question. Which is a super like, it's a naive and charming and bold thing to do now thatI think about it. 

But she had said, like, ‘No, I'm not gonna let you do that. And I don't think you're gonna really learn anything this way.’ And then I was super persistent, and there's this wonderful story that I've told a billion times where finally she kept on, like, saying no, or no, it was I hadn't actually talked to her yet. I would go to Prune at lunchtime, and talk to people who were working in there, and they were like, she's not here. She's not here. And then her pastry chef, like the third time I went, her pastry chef was like, ‘Well, if you're an editor, why don't you write her a letter? Because she's a writer.’ It was a long time before Gabrielle started, really started her writing career. So I wrote her a letter. And she actually called me and when I got back to my office at Harper's, there was a voicemail for me saying, like, you can come in, and so I ended up somehow convincing her and I would work. I worked brunch there. Which was terrifying, right? On Saturdays for three months. And I never told anybody at Harper's, but it went okay. I mean, it sometimes didn't go okay; she pulled me off the line once, I was like burning hundreds of dollars’ worth of food. And, you know, it wasn't, it wasn't really smooth or effortless, but it was happening. But then I quit. After three months, I was like, I can't. 

At that point, I really wanted to—I was feeling quite ambitious. And I felt like I needed to work weekends at Harper's, too, because I wanted to, like rise and excel. And I just felt like I was like between two worlds. And she was like, great, you should definitely not be a cook, like go back to Harper's. And then I quit Harper's not that long after that, like maybe six months or a year. But I didn't quit to cook, I actually quit, when I did quit, I quit because I thought I wanted to go to law school. I felt like I was—it was like part of wanting to cook was that I wanted to not be sitting in this chair so far away from life. Like, you know, it was just so removed. And Harper's especially was so removed on so many levels. I just felt like my heart was turning black. And so somehow, like the fact that I wanted to cook and the fact that I wanted to go to law school seemed very connected. 

So I studied for—I quit Harper's, studied for the LSAT, and while I was studying for the LSAT, I worked as a personal chef and a research assistant for Dan Barber. And then when I ended up becoming a real full-time cook. I was supposed to be going to law school; I deferred for a year. And I was going for immigration law. So I was sort of on the fence about Georgetown versus Michigan versus Chicago and I ended up deferring from Georgetown.

And then during that year of deferral, I just became—I had to choose, and cooking sort of had me in its grips. So that's the super-long and but totally fragmented story.

Alicia: And I mean, that's so fascinating. And so when did you decide to start writing about food?

Tamar: I tried to write about food while I was an editor at Harper's, but I was too scared to do it. And I wrote one piece and I showed it to the deputy editor and he said, ‘Well, what I've learned from this is that you can write but you would have to rewrite this entire thing. It's not—it has to be rewritten.’ It took me years to just get it together to do that, and the idea of rewriting it was too overwhelming. And so then I guess it just got, I was just scared. I think I always wanted probably to do it, but it was—it was like beyond, it was beyond terrifying. Nothing else was as scary as the idea of writing or writing about food. And in particular, writing about food because it felt so frivolous. Like the main reason that I didn't just write about food from the beginning was because it seemed frivolous beyond anything else I was doing like Harper's, although it was obviously kind of removed and intellectual. And not like service-oriented. The observations in it were valuable. And cooking has always seemed useful to me, because you're literally feeding people and giving them joy. And obviously, immigration law is important if you're on the right side of it. But the idea of like, I was—I was just really like, I was scared and ashamed of the frivolity of it. And so it just, I think I always wanted to do it, it took me decades, really, to let myself do it from a combination of paralysis andmoral paralysis. And I don't know what the other kind would be personal paralysis, self-confidence.

Alicia: Well, how did you? How did you figure out a way to write about food in a way that made it not frivolous for you?

Tamar: It was because of the thing that I started writing about it. I started writing a few like free pieces for this, San Francisco—I was living in San Francisco because I was cooking at Chez Panisse. And my friend Sasha had zine called Meatpaper. I was involved in the meat world, because I actually started the first meat CSA in the country. Back then, because it was San Francisco, like you could do anything, it was kind of like that. You literally could just decide you wanted to do something, it started happening. 

So I was spending all of my time buying whole animals and having them broken up and then distributing them according to this crazy, sort of non-mathematical butchery algorithm that I had worked out. And so because of that, I was like in the meat world, and I started writing pieces for Meatpaper, and they're really like turgid and like so overwrought, but it was a beginning. And then I wrote one or two pieces for civil eats, which were also pretty bad. But it was like just writing for these local, these local places, mostly, from my perspective as a, you know, meat activist. 

And then I was having drinks with a friend of Alice Waters, Chris, who—wait, what's her name? Katrina, who was like one of the founders of Wired Magazine, or maybe one of the first editors, I don't know, she's like a brilliant sort of polymath. And we were having martinis. And she was like, I've always wanted to write How to Cook a Wolf for today. And I, like almost fell off my chair,

because I was like, but that's my life's work. Like, that's what I am put on this earth to do. I'm like, I was born to do that. And then I said, Why don't we do it together? And she said, Great.

And we were gonna do it by sending stuff back and forth. And then it was like, I got tricked into it. I mean, she didn't mean to, but I just kept on sending her things. And she wasn't sending anything back. But she was sending me really good edits. Like I remember one of them. She said, This seems digressive throughout. And I was like, wow, wow. Wow. But then because it was so offline and just not part of anything, I was able to write because I was just writing her emails, right? And then after like a month of that, she said, You know, I'm not doing any work on this, but you basically just wrote a book proposal, so why don't you just go with it? So that was my 20-year-long way of backing into the thing that I had wanted to do forever. 

Alicia: And so that book, which I'm assuming became An Everlasting Meal, you know, was about making cooking seem, you know, simple rather than complex. And you told The New Yorker when it came out, “One way we get back to the stove is to treat food less fetishistic.” And, you know, do you think that that has happened, it's been ten years since the book came out, is food being treated less fetishistically? In the right way, from your perspective?

Tamar: No, no. Nothing. I mean, like, yeah, so I mean, also that I didn't even answer your question. But so I thought that An Everlasting Meal didn't feel frivolous to me. It felt like, it felt like good work, you know. So that was why—that's how I was able to do it, was that I was like, this is good work on this planet. And that's what I want to do. It's gotten more and more fetishistic. I can't, I have had so many times of like, real. I don't know, beyond depression, about it, like, sense, like, real senses that I haven't done anything. And that, in general, this, the whole field is like, at a point where I can't even reach it and shouldn't try and to just find other things to do with myself to make money because I like—that was before Instagram. I mean, you know, with with obviously a little bit of a parenthesis around pandemic, thinking about food and pandemic experiences of food and a parenthesis around, you know, growing awareness of the longtime erasure of traditional and indigenous and black food pathways. 

But for the most part, over the last ten years, food has gone on being fetishized and become more and more and more fetishized, and entire personalities have been built on, you know,

co-opting food personalities co-opting traditional dishes and, no, I found it. I thought, like, I was so naive, I thought I could write a book. And obviously, not that many people read it. So like, maybe you could write a book and like every single person could read it and that could be all you had to say on it. But I was just, I really thought I was so innocent. I was like, I'll just write this book. And then everyone will have it. And then everyone can just do the stuff in it. And they'll be totally untethered from all of these awful systems, and we can, like, live better lives and be kinder to each other. But that was not true.

Alicia: Well, I mean, how do you define fetishistically? Because I think, I mean, in my perspective, people think that those who kind of care about food and where it comes from and like would be a person who joined a meat CSA are who is perceived as fetishistic, rather than, you know, people who are focused on consumption or the way something looks on a plate. So how do you define fetishistic and food? 

Tamar: You know, I would like to look up what the word actually means. Like, you know the answer? I think it comes from, like charm, like, lucky charm. I don't know. Like, I'm going to look it up while we talk. Because I have this really amazing dictionary. Um, just the sound of it. It's really old. So it has to be in a special box. 

I think that some people could join a meat CSA out of a sense of fetishizing food and I don't know how I interpreted it. I think that food has to be, I mean—some people would say that like Italians fetishize food, right, but it seems like when we eat… I think Wendell Berry, but I forget who said it, but that when we eat we're consuming existence. We are killing every time we eat. There is a degree of kind of the magical and the sort of the mystical and the horrible about all of it and it should be treated like that. 

[Finding the word in the dictionary] Fetishism, fetishistic. Oh yeah, I'm right. Fetish, artificial sorcery charm made by art; artificial factitious material objects supposed among certain tribes to represent in such a way or be so connected with a supernatural being? 

Alicia: That's not how we use it now. 

Tamar: I think that, to me, it was the determining of something that should be sort of personal and simple and human and sensual into this level, into this—the system of capitalistic symbols that everything seemed attached to like whether you could get it and like kind of, like having the— it's like having the experience and not reflecting on you and consuming it seems very detached from actual personal experiences. And I guessI've thought of he way certain personalities get fetishized, turned into like a symbol of your own value, or what you are rich enough to have access to and the way certain objects, you know, that if you have a certain kind of pan means you're a certain kind of serious cook and like this, this sort of identifying it with a projection of yourself as opposed to experiencing it. That's how I guess I thought very, very vaguely of fetishization.

Alicia: And it's so true that that continues and kind of proliferates, and maybe is more true now, as you said, now that Instagram exists, and I, you know, I struggle with this, of course, it's like how much I'm performing a personality for other people around food that is bad, or it's just yeah.

Tamar: The fact of performing it is bad or the personality, your performance.

Alicia: I mean, I don't think—I hope the personality isn't bad. But I think the fact of performing it is, is bad and inauthentic. And I'm trying to figure out a new way of doing that, I think, so that it's not, it doesn't feel bad. But yeah, it's like, I don't know, it's funny, because, you know, Instagram. I mean, this is an interview of you—but you know, Instagram reminds me of what I would post a couple of years ago, and like it was, you know, different from what I would post now. In terms of how thought out it would have been, you know. I didn't think about it as much back then as I do now. Which I don't like, but at the same time, it's hard to get back to being having it be more natural.

Tamar: Because you feel like now you're plotting it? Sort of because you're plotting it in a maybe strategic way. And then it felt more—you weren't so strategic?

Alicia: No, absolutely. Yeah. But I mean, I also have like, way more followers now. So it's this kind of necessity of not being as personal, I suppose. Which is just a weird thing to happen. Like, the more popular your work becomes like the less you can actually be yourself for people, I guess. But maybe that's not true. Maybe it's just a—

Tamar: Yeah, I don't know if it is or not. It's definitely something that I have been thinking about because I never, I was never on Instagram. I resisted it during the writing and publication of my second book. I'm working on a third book right now and I have like, after hearing people say for ten years, you have to engage with people on social media, I finally started posting stuff on social media and it's been on Instagram. I've always been, I mean, Twitter—I’ve always been just like, I'm just, you know, upset about the state of the world and my message and nobody really knows what I say, but it's different pictures of food. 

But I have been thinking a lot about it because I've been thinking about the way it’s cultivated, personality is actually often. Some reckoning happens when people realize how cultivated they've been? And yeah, there's a degree to which there are individuals who are really, who are extroverts and who benefit from a kind of open exchange, like who actually it doesn't cost them. 

Like it costs me. I share things with people and I find I find it all very costly. Anything that isn't just like my actual life is costing me. But there are people like really thrive, I think, through an honesty that is nourishing to them that it's interesting that that it is a medium that can bring out, you know, a kind of like this—there is a channel on which lots of people can talk to one person with some amount of clarity and honesty, but I don't think very many people are good at that. And so there's just like—high jinks ensue.

Alicia: Absolutely. Well, I mean, how has being on Instagram been? I mean, did you get on it because of the publishing ecosystem kind of forcing your hand?

Tamar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, not forced my head. But like, realistically, I need people to be conscious of my next book, because my second book, I really didn't do anything to promote. And I think I also made a lot of assumptions about, like, what people needed and wanted in a book, and it really didn't sell. And that that stinks, because this is how I make money, right? And so there are all of these things that I have not done. And I'm not a very visible, just not very visible person. I never tried to be or wanted to be. I just had this idea that I could like, write the books that I wanted to write. And they weren't—like, they weren't platforms. I didn't want a platform. I wanted to go on writing books. But that's, I mean, I think that probably works for a novelist, but it doesn't work for like a slow-writing, hamstrung, paralyzed food writer. And so I did join it in the hopes of it making more people excited about my next book, because I

need people to buy it.

Alicia: Right now, it's such an odd situation to be in. I have a friend who writes cookbooks, and also does not want to be on social media, and just is in this situation of, you know, where does that leave her in terms of whether her books will actually sell and it's so strange that basically, it seems like social media is such a massive part of that in a way that maybe it wasn't before. And it is really, it's costly for people who don't have a natural inclination toward it. And it's, it's not, you know, a fair situation. But who knows.

Tamar: Tell her to call me if she needs someone to listen and totally understand. I'm here. 

Alicia: Yeah, I know, it's a very strange position. Now I feel really, you know, I feel you know, very sympathetic toward it, even though my situation is like basically the opposite situation. 

But you're also now a contributing editor at Vogue and you've been there for a while, you know. How do you decide which food subjects you cover for that kind of audience, like the more fashion audience?

Tamar: I don't think anybody reads my Vogue stories. I've been in doctors’ offices, I mean, not in the last year, but I think I've been writing for—I've been writing for them for like five or six years, I think, maybe. A long time. And all of my doctors have always been on the Upper East Side, because my uncle is affiliated with Lenox Hill on the Upper East Side. So I have lots of doctors’ waiting room experiences on the Upper East Side and all of them have Vogue in them. And I mean, it probably hasn't been like five times, but I have seen at least twice people thumbing through Vogue, stopping—I've seen this happen in a hair salon, too—like stopping, you know, for the amount of time you do when you're reading Vogue on the pages and just like “$1200” and then get to the food and just like, go right past it, like nothing. So I think there are like five people who actually read them. And I think I know those five people, and they write me and they're like, I love the Vogue story.

So I don't—that's not really there. It's more like there are elements that need to be in it to evoke story. But I have always chosen what I'm going to write about for them based on what I wanted to spend my time finding out about, for the most part, so, like, weirdly, I mean, I've only done two or three profiles for them, but they were of Questlove and Enrique Olvera. And you know, I've written about like, sardines, broth, food scraps, like it's very—and to some degree, you get, like, because it's Vogue, and there is a tongue-in-cheek quality to a lot of their photography, certainly, like a lot of their art, and, in general, it's a lot of smart, mostly ladies, sitting around a room. So like, you know, kind of the weirder something is often the more attractive it is there. 

But I've always—that has always been a place where my choices have. I mean, they haven't been immoral. But there have been certain pieces that have been amoral. Like, I did write about learning how to make mille-feuille, just like, who cares, right? I am terrified—well, post pandemic, I'm not terrified of baking, but I used to be terrified of baking. So it was just like, you know, a stressful and funny experience. But a lot of the stuff that I've written for them has been about, you know, ecology and environmental responsibility, and using all this stuff. And if a trend shows up that happens to allow me to talk about—I just got to write a piece about, oh, well, whatever, it's coming out. There's a piece in April that sort of could have been a trend piece, but actually is about how it's not a trend, you know, so I think because nobody reads it, it's kind of been the secret place where I get to write about things that are interesting to me.

Alicia: And, you know, because you're writing mostly for Vogue, and you're writing cookbooks, you don't necessarily have to kind of wade into  the more food media sector, I suppose, and you've mostly written for non-food publications from what I can tell. How do you perceivethose magazines? How have you kind of negotiated your place in that ecosystem? Or lack of place in it? 

Tamar: I mean, it's much more lack of place, right? I certainly have been—this is certainly something I've been very plagued by recently, but by remaining outside of an ecosystem that I really didn't like, I may have rendered myself entirely irrelevant. And that is just in terms of like, you know, self-image and self-confidence and earning potential that I feel a little bit like, that might be coming home to roost. Um, that is not the right way to use that. I don't know how to actually, you know, right. 

I've stayed outside of the food publication ecosystem, because I don't—I've never liked it. When I first moved back to New York, and I was writing An Everlasting Meal and right after it came out, I had a personal, a modus operandi, I guess, a kind of like a principle, which was anything that paid me $1,000 or more, I would write. I was just like, I can't afford to turn down something that is $1,000, more than $1,000. 

But then, I had a column in the Times Magazine for like a year, year and a half, and then I was feeling overwhelmed with that and Vogue and books, and so I chose just Vogue, but I was able to not change that. I didn't use that rule anymore, and I didn't want to write for—I don't really like food publications very much. I mean, I love Whetstone. I think it's gorgeous. I'm so excited about For the Culture. A billion years ago, in like the year 2000, I loved Saveur

I've never really been into the other stuff, ao I haven't navigated it probably great to my own detriment professionally. I was reading, I guess, probably via Twitter, this interview and statement that Food and Wine did with the chefs of a restaurant called Masala y Maíz in Mexico City. That I thought was a great interview. And I loved the things that the two chefs said, and one of the chefs whose name I now forget, but it's a couple, and one of the two chefs said, like, you know, food media is—I'm totally paraphrasing—but he said, food is processing all of these, all of this food tradition, and all of this food history, for a general audience, and so there is a lot of levels of processing that you have to think about, like it's taking something. I don't think he used the word processing, but as I was reading it, I thought of like taking a potato and turning it into a Pringle. You know, like, I would rather it be a potato. 

And I think, I've always felt a little bit like, what am I doing here, like, you end up with all of this, all these side effects and like, in recent years, a lot of it gets everybody sticking their foot in their mouth, but actually, people have always been sticking their foot in their—their feet, their foot—their feet in their mouths, and like having a white guy write about how you eat pho and, you know, putting hot sauce on on mole, which is what happened with the Food and Wine thing. Like, right? I'm not totally comfortable with that. With that processing, I think it's—I have certainly been part of it, I don't mean that I'm like, somehow above or outside of like having done it, but I think there's, I think I have a level of discomfort with it as a way of, like, interacting with the foods and the traditions and I don't take a ton of pleasure in it. I think it tends to cut a lot of important people and things ou, and it's a shitty way of making money in a shitty system right now.

Alicia: It was interesting, because that interview, it didn't really start to make the rounds on Twitter, except when Soleil Ho shared it. And I had seen it being shared a lot on Instagram. And it was interesting to me that I didn't see the writers from Food and Wine sharing it and it's been interesting to me to watch food media sort of perform its own, you know, quote unquote, reckoning and kind of not really interrogate itself, you know, to kind of treat things as isolated incidents and not as kind of a pattern of behavior, as you explained, of taking things and kind of dumbing them down and making them palatable to to the the American audience. It's really been an interesting moment, I suppose, but a very alienating one, I think,or anyone who's thought of these things before.

Tamar: Now, you always seem like you think there is some—I don't know if hope is the right word, but like, that you could envision a food media ecosystem that is less extractive?

Alicia: I do. I do. And I think you know, as you mentioned, Whetstone, and I think that's a great example of it. And I think that I've been, I guess, you know, I've been writing about it in my newsletter, you know, with the idea of translation and kind of approaching a food magazine in the way that some art magazines approach art—not to say that they're perfect, but to say that, you know, they are taking perspectives from the places of origin and translating them into English, not translating them for the audience, but simply translating them into an legible language for the audience. I think that that's a really—there's so much potential there. And now I've seen a little bit of translation now happening more, but it's mostly just translating words into Spanish for that audience, which is, you know, that's a start, but I think that the global perspective of a magazine like Whetstone is extremely, you know, non-extractive. And I think that in independent publishing, we're seeing models, but I mean, of course, I would like to see, you know, Bon Appétit, you know, because it has such a huge audience, take kind of that perspective, but I don't know how it would work with its voice because you know, it's a bit frivolous in tone. And I don't know how it would work to not be frivolous.

How do you do Bon Appétit without being frivolous when its whole thing is being frivolous? I don't know.So, you know, they took away Gourmet to make, to just have Bon Appétit. And now it's like, you know, this is what we're left with. And this is, you know, the most widely read food magazine in the United States. So, you know, you can't completely ignore what they do. But it's, it's really terrifying to see what that is. And what kind of influence it has. 

I do have hope, though, that things could change. But I do think that, you know, for that to happen, like I was saying—like when you have the Food and Wine situation where you're going to do an interview to talk about how they got this wrong, or you have, like Grub SStreet writing about the abuse at Mission Chinese Food, you need to take more of a look at the whole process that has created this moment, in terms of how the media has been culpable in contributing to these things. And I think not having that kind of media culpability is where, you know, things are gonna just keep being wrong.

Tamar: I've been curious and watching and reflecting on my reactions to things over, you know, the sort of, I don't know what the right word is. I mean, you said reckoning, so let's do like reckoning and quotes. But, you know, I do wonder—I get this image of a kind of people, people being, I don't know, the suits upstairs, going like, ‘have we slapped ourselves on the hand sharply enough?’, like, ‘Are we forgiven?’ You know, this sort of like, I think that they're there. It's not that I don't have hope. But I do wonder whether there's a little bit of an irresolvable power issue, where I feel like the people in charge want to be forgiven by the communities that they have never written for or given any power. I don't know how you as a person in power get forgiven by people you've never given power to. I don't know what this is like, I don't. I wish I were a philosopher so I had models for how this could be like, I don't know what the catharsis and shift would be.

And I, again, I don't mean to, like, make myself not part of this. I'm a white writer who's had tons of opportunities. And I've never run a magazine, but I can't, you know, I don't mean that I'm excluded from it. But I do wonder how—I don't know, any models for how it happens.

Alicia: Neither do I. I mean, I have ideas, of course, but you know, no one's gonna put me in charge of a magazine. But for you, is cooking a political act?

Tamar: Of course. Yeah. It's, I mean, it is always it ever for it is for everybody. I, again, stupidly really thought that when I wrote An Everlasting Meal, I was providing people a tool for self-sufficiency and sovereignty and a way of becoming less reliant on the food industry and the, you know, the mendacity of our corporate industrial food culture.

And, you know, it's not that easy, but I continue to believe that the more skill people have in their kitchens, the less reliant on corporate America and corporate global north we are—I think that's  actually pretty common sense—when we don't need them anymore, then we have more power, and I've always felt like the means of production in our hands. It's a vital shift. I don't think it can happen super usefully independent of structural change, you know, our agricultural system that demands huge surpluses has a bigger impact than whether or not you make your own flippin’ pizza dough. But I think it's absolutely political and for 100,000 reasons, but one of them is knowing how to cook is actually liberating and can make you less dependent on all the other stuff, and and I think that for so many and all of these beautiful ways for so many cultures

to have an ability to, you know, persist. 

I'm thinking of, you know, cultures where there were—like Syrian food. A lot of refugee populations were like, when you’re un-land-ed and the thing that you are able to keep are tastes and smells and all of that. And that eventually the hope is to have land again. And then as soon as one does, one would plant the things whose tastes and smells one remembers. I mean, that is the most fundamentally political thing, right? What we want when we want land is to grow our food. 

I think maybe that's part of why I, you know, have felt so—there was so much discordance between the inherently political nature of food and stuff like, you know, unicorn ice cream trends. Because that's a political statement, too. But it's always felt like, no, you're just saying, fuck you. I know you know. 

I always keep Wendell Berry somewhere on my desk. And there's one part where he writes about how the impulse of charity is, like, true it might come from some idea of doing good, being divine, but that actually, you can't be good. You can't do charity, unless you have skills, like you have to be able to be a good neighbor. And cooking is, you know, one of the simplest ones. I'm not a good builder; I’d like to be a good builder. I'm getting a little bit closer. But you have to be able to do stuff in order to be a good community member, and you have to be a good community member in order to be able to do anything on a larger stage.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time.

Tamar: You're welcome. Good to talk.

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