Nov 20, 2020 • 48M

A Conversation with William Mullan

Alicia Kennedy
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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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I’ve been a fan of William Mullan for ages. He helped facilitate a piece I wrote ages ago for Vice about whether raw chocolate is real (it’s not), and from them on was always game when I needed chocolate information or some bars to raise money in an auction. Then I started to see how brilliant an artist he was becoming in his own right, through his stunning photography of apples, showcasing their diversity and uniqueness, and—for me—completely reframing my understanding of this ubiquitous fruit. (You can purchase a 2021 calendar featuring his photos.)

We talked about how he got into chocolate and apples, his current interest in free wild fruit, and why commodity everything is the enemy of just food system. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, William, thank you so much for coming on.

William: Hi. Thank you for having me. I'm super excited. I love your writing and newsletter, have loved your writing for some time. And I'm really honored to be here today.

Alicia: Oh, thank you so much. And so can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

William: Yeah, so I was born outside of Chicago. I moved around a lot as a kid because my dad worked for Amoco, which was then bought by BP in 1998. I was like nine years old. And by the time I was 13, I had lived in like Chicago suburbs. I've lived in Michigan, Colorado, and Maryland. And like, in this era, I pretty much ate what I would describe as, like this standard white American diet. I don't know if that's offensive.

My mom, I love her, and this is no disrespect, because I do think she is a good cook. But I think her style at the time, I would describe as very, like Cooking Light magazine. So at home, we ate a lot of like, lean chicken breasts and pastas. And like, you know, things that were very much of the trend of that time where people feared fat and stuff like that. And we were on the road a lot. So we actually ended up probably eating more Wendy's and Chick-Fil-A than my mom would like to admit.

And kind of then later, at places, I’ve described as fancy hospital food, places like Panera. And later, like, you know, chains like Carabas, and stuff like that. In Maryland, my mom ran the concession stand for my swim team, and we had all this bulk candy around from like Sam's Club a lot, my brother and I would sneak in the closets and get some. 

I think I would sum it up as like, I think we ate a very commodity diet, like we ate a diet that was very much indicative of the way American life is set up if you don't live in a city. And I think I was a bit of a picky eater.

But after BP bought Amoco, they moved us to England in 2002. And overnight, the way we ate completely changed.

We moved to this town called Easter, which is just a little bit outside of London and Surrey. And we lived off this high street. And suddenly we had access to all these, like small family owned restaurants, Lebanese, Nepalese, Greek, Thai, Chinese, which is very different than the Chinese that we'd had in America, Indian. You know, when I think about it was pretty seismic. Suddenly, I was eating things like hummus, you know, which now is I think more common, but you know, I think at the time was not in America. I think this is like pre-Sabra. And I was eating Nepalese dishes like Palungo saag and Gurkha Aloo, and just like things that I, you know, just had never even fathomed prior to moving over there. We ate a lot of Nepalese and Lebanese, we ate a lot of Middle Eastern food, and a lot of Asian food.

And then being in the UK allowed us to travel a lot. So we would go to like Morocco and Egypt and Spain and Jordan, I think because it was so fast, it kind of really opened me up and made me intensely curious about food in a way that I just had not considered before. Suddenly, there were all these new ingredients, there were new spices, there were vegetables I hadn't even heard of or seen in my life. There were cooking methods I hadn't heard of. We started knowing the people that would be making the food, because these were smaller restaurants. And you know, you would see the same people every time. It became such a different, more expansive experience in terms of the types of food we're eating, but then also more intimate experience in that we started knowing that people who were making our food.

As I got older and moved back to the States, I realized that so much of this is really about access. We could just walk up to the street there, and there were grocery stores, dozens of restaurants, maybe only one of them was a chain. We lived in this town where there was this cluster of access and diversity of cuisines and food and outside of major cities, America really isn't set up that way. You know, everything is so commodity based. It's all about size, scale and efficiency, which ultimately, you know, kind of sucks the diversity out of places that aren't major metros, and you have to drive everywhere. And it becomes really difficult, I think, for a lot of people to break out of this, like, big box, bland food. I don't know if that's harsh, but...

So that kind of completely changed, I think, the direction of my life—moving over there. And,

honestly, majorly through food. You know, I think, if we hadn’t moved over there, I don't know who I would be, where I would be and what I would be eating, but certainly not, I think, what I eat now.

Alicia: Was it a culture shock for you to move from the US to the UK.

William: You know, it's hard for me to say. I really didn't seem fazed by it. And I don't know if that's me having a selective memory, but I don't ever recall being upset. I honestly felt like—we lived in Maryland before that, and I really felt like an outsider. Like, I knew I was gay at the time; I was in the closet. Maryland boys were very like Eminem, and like, you know, using the F word a lot, and I just sort of knew, instinctively, that that was just not the place for my family. And certainly myself, like, I don't know if I ever articulated that I needed to get out of there. But I think there was the sense of like, you know, this can’t be forever. Uh, and I think moving to England and being in the city felt like, really instinctually right in a way that I hadn't articulated yet at that age.

Yeah, so it wasn't difficult. We've moved around so much, too; I think I was just so used to it.

Alicia: Well, you know, how did food become kind of the focus of your work? You’re working for Raaka chocolate now, you know, was that interest there before? Or was it something that has kind of evolved with you? 

William: So there was a point in high school when I was living in the UK where I wanted to eat better. And I was convinced that I could get off my ADHD meds if I ate better. I actually cannot trace the seed of this.

And I remember, like, wanting to eat salmon. Like, I think I had read that omega-3s would, you know, be good for my brain. I've always been on ADD meds; I currently don't take them, because I just find that they, like, you know, neuter me. I feel like a zombie on them. I feel like a capitalist cog. You know, they certainly make me more productive, but I sort of, I miss, like, the more sort of spastic side of me, I feel like it's part of me and helps me, at least creatively. So I was always trying to look for ways to, you know, not take the medication. So I wanted to cook salmon and my mom was like, No, I'm not cooking salmon. I don't want to cook fish in the house. And I was like, Well, I'm doing this. and I had part-time jobs. I was a lifeguard. I was a hairdresser’s assistant, barista, movie theater, custodian. So I had money. So

I just started going up to this grocery store in the UK called Waitrose, which maybe I would like, it's like Union Market for New Yorkers. I started buying salmon. And then I started buying vegetables. I started buying fruits, just the fact that I could go to the grocery store by myself, and make my own food decisions at like, you know, 15 was like crazy for me and I started almost completely eating independently of my family, like with my family, but eating my own way, and it was kind of liberating and exciting, like I could decide for myself what I wanted to eat every day. It felt very independent. 

And I also started, you know, I had to learn a lot about food. And so I would just pick up you know, anything—any vegetable I wanted. I remember the first time I tried parsnip and my mind was blown. And I was like, What is this? This is so good. And I would cook lentils and I would get all sorts of different fruits. I remember the first time I had a persimmon and in England they call it kaki fruit. Oat milk, and even back then they had oat milk. So I was just really curious about everything. I thought I could try anything. And I wanted to try everything.

At the time, Green and Blacks was such a big presence. You know, they were a big deal, like this first certified organic fair trade chocolate, andI was more like a candy kid, but I just felt this pull to try dark chocolate. I think it was like me just, you know, just feeling really adult, like cooking for myself. And eating dark chocolate. I think felt more adult. And I was like, this sounds fun. And I was really intrigued by it. There was also Divine at the time, I think Divine is still around.

And so I started eating a little bit of dark chocolate every day. And I didn't question it that much other than, like, you know, I felt like a lot of people probably feel now or felt before, you know, maybe they got into, like single origin or craft chocolate, which is that like, oh, fair trade. You know, this is good. My work was done. I've been here. I did this right.

But when I moved to California for college and found Taza you know, I saw these like direct trade labels. And, you know, they had a single origin bar from Bolivia. And it was stone ground and it was gritty and had this amazing texture. And my mind was just completely blown. I was like, What is this, this is wild.This has been kind of a cycle for me forever. I’d just try something and be like, this is wild, I'm obsessed.

But chocolate was particularly interesting to me. Once I had that Taza bar, I started learning about how it was made. And I really saw it as this really fascinating way to look at the world. It's such a uniquely human food. It's a flowering fruit tree. These tiny blossoms grow these massive, huge alien-egg-like fruits. And then we take the seeds of those fruits and we ferment them, we dry them, we ship them across the world we roast or we don't roast them, we grind, mill, temper, to the point where we have the shiny confection with far more flavor than the raw material had. And you know, very little has been added. We've just coaxed it out. It's really amazing and wonderful in the real sense of that word.

But once I started reading about direct trade through Taza and started understanding more about the chocolate supply chain, I also realized that it's really an unjust food, which I think anyone sees once you just kind of peel back the wrapper, you know, no pun intended. It has this incredibly inequitable supply chain. It's a poster child for colonialist food. I mean, you can really look at cacao and chocolate, and you will see colonialism at work back then. 

I got pretty into trying to find like new chocolate bars and understand the market a little more; I guess it was pretty instinctual. You know, I just once I have the top artist was like, wow, talk is really cool. And I want to understand more about the supply chain, and what people are doing to make it better. And when I moved to L.A. after college, I got in the habit of going to stores that I couldn't afford, like farmshop and spending like my meager paychecks on like Askinosie, Dandelion and Raaka bars. This was like 2013. 

So I think, you know, it's, you know, I'm always like, why are we still being this cruel to one another. We've built these systems so large, and so powerful that people are either oblivious to their roles in them or feel powerless to try and stop them or rely too heavily on markets to fix them. And I don't think markets can fix them easily. They have had a lot of opportunities to. I guess I feel like this is kind of like a lifelong challenge. I'm not sure how long I'll be in chocolate but I really love it. I do see it as part of my independence and artwork as well, in essence, for trying to get people to see this commodity item very differently and for what it is, which is really kind of, in one way a very magical food that we've made as humans with our imagination and technology, but also,we've done it really wrong in a major, major way. And it's going to take a really long time to make it right. And a lot of collaboration and imagination, and I feel pretty stuck in it.

Alicia: Stuck in chocolate or stuck in the, you know, the supply chain? 

William: Well, I guess both. And in the end stuck, I feel like, implies I'm a prisoner. I'm doing it, you know, like I'm enjoying the challenge of trying to get people to think about this differently and really think about the way that they're consuming it and have an appreciation for it. That's genuine.

And understand that but you know, try to not feel suffocated by not being able to feel good about even a craft chocolate purchase. You know, it's still like the bare minimum, there's a lot of work that needs to be done. And, you know, join it.

Alicia: Was your background in photography—you mentioned your artwork, how did you start kind of working in photography, and specifically, you know, using your artistic skill around, you know, chocolate, but also now apples?

William: So I majored in film production. I thought I wanted to do film my whole life. And that's why I went to college in Orange County. While, you know, I enjoyed film school, I love all the friends I made, unfortunately, for me, I had a boyfriend for most of it. And that was my first boyfriend. And I pretty much stopped paying attention to the things I wanted. When I graduated, and I ended that relationship. I was like, Wait, who am I? I don't know if I really want to do film professionally. I love it. And I love, you know, thinking this way, like narratively, and images, but I just don't know if I want to spend my entire life trying to be a director. I just didn't feel right.

And so I was pretty confused. I hadn't acquired any real technical skills in the time.  I felt pretty aimless. So I mean, that was part of my reason of moving to New York was just like, man, I gotta figure this out. And another expensive city sounds like the place to do it. [Laughs.]

I needed to be like, shut up, but also have access to things which, you know, New York, can offer that. And I didn't, I hadn't practiced photography before. It hadn't even occurred to me that I might like it. You know, like, I just didn't know myself that well. And I picked it up like out of basic necessity. I took this job at Raaka and I really didn't have any real sets of responsibilities. And I would just kind of, you know, do whatever people told me to do. And also was trying to look for ways to become essential to this small company that didn't have a lot of capital. And I felt super expendable. A lot of this was my own insecurity. So I was constantly looking for things to learn to become essential, or, you know, just needed in some way. And I remember we had, one of my responsibilities is building these wholesale catalog sheets for the sales team in Adobe Illustrator. And we had this photographer that we were working with did these white seamless photos for us, and I'd gone on the shoot with him just to assist, and it looked cool to me. I was like, wow, this is fun. And it seemed—this is very arrogant of me—but it seemed easy. I was like, I feel like I could learn how to do this.

It took like—this is a long story—but just took forever to get the photos from him. I forget why, like he had a thing and I was annoyed. And then the sales team was like, Bill, we need this wholesale sheet. And I was like, Well, I don't have the photos yet, so I can't finish it. And I just felt all this pressure and like it was such a stressful experience for me. So I was like so new to the company and internalized it so much that I was like, I have to figure this out. I can't rely on anyone. I have to be able to do everything all by myself. This is such a terrible, terrible, stubborn attitude. 

But it forced me—I remember I texted a friend who I knew was a photographer. I was like, hey, I want to learn this, can you help me? Or like pay you and oh, I'm gonna rent a camera. Let's figure this out. And so he taught me how to take white seamless photos. And from there, I was like, my imagination is kind of exploding. It's like, Oh, well, I guess I could like, save some money and get a camera. And I could just do this for Raaka. And I could be good at my job.

And that's how it started. And, you know, basically, a year later, I had bought a light and was, you know, doing this kind of product photography for Raaka. And it was really working well for us. And I started getting a sense for style. And I just started devouring other photography,

which I had liked before. But again, I just hadn't, I hadn't looked at it that way, it was just more something that I enjoyed. And still enjoy. But I hadn't really like studied it.

And about a year into that, I was like, I really like this, this is scary for me. I like this so much. 

Maybe I should do something for myself. And I would just start to see things in images and in the styles of photos that I was taking. And I remember one day I had gone to the farmers’ market and I bought a pink pearl, having known about it before, and was sitting there and eating it, like in the park and I just kept seeing, like, a lot of pop cultural images and colors and like hearing music and it just, I just kind of vibed. And I felt really compelled to take this photo of a pink pearl in the style that I felt like I hadn't seen before. And so I just did it super instinctually and it was very fun. And I just kept doing it. I had no real plan. I just was like, wow, this is I could do this for like so many apples. I have all these ideas now. And I just started doing it really instinctually and  it just became a thing. And I started to kind of articulate later what it was that I was trying to do.

But yeah, that's kind of like the long-slash-short story. 

Alicia: Well, how do you go about finding so many apples like basically I'd like sort of the photography thing has the apple thing kind of led to you becoming kind of an expert in apple biodiversity. And what's your process for finding all these new apples?

William: Yeah, so, you know, I got introduced to apples in the UK. There was this British Apple called Egremont Russet. That's still my favorite, to this day, that I came across when I must have been like 15 or 16 and I started doing my own grocery shopping.

And I saw this gold potato-y-looking apple sitting in a box at a store that, you know, everything there was very considered and purposeful, like it was a high-end grocery store. So to see this apple that did not look like all the other perfectly polished, apples and even fruits in this store—I was just like, what is this and it's like it had this name. Egremont Russet, aounds like a lord or something like that, like British royalty. So I just was so curious about this thing. And I just kind of took it on a whim and bought like six of them. I was like, it's got to be good, right?

With a name like that and looking, you know—so against looking you know, not like a supermarket apple, not perfectly polished and shiny but rusty, I was like, it has to be tasty. So I bought a bunch, ate it on the way home—not all of it, one.

And it really blew my mind. I just was tasting this intensely nutty and dense aApple that reminded me of chestnuts and warm apple cider from when I was a kid in Michigan. It was just such an intense experience. And I was like, wow, what on earth is this? This is so cool. And I immediately went home and googled it because I was like I have to know more about this and I through that just went down this rabbit hole of learning about apples and their heterozygous nature and how they don't grow true from seed. And so if you plant an apple seed from, you know, a Granny Smith, you're not going to get a Granny Smith, you'll get something that has some similar traits, but new traits, and I just found that so mind-blowing.

And so I mean, it kind of stopped there, like I would read about some apples, but like, it's still like, I lacked accessibility to them. That got much worse in California, although I did

get into pink pearl there, since that is a Californian apple. It was developed by this botanist called Albert Etter, in Humboldt County, in the ’40s. And that blew my mind, again. It's pink inside, it has this translucent, yellow-white flesh, and this, you know, often, like, really, neon pink pulp. And it was kind of like, you know, in the back of my mind during apple season, you know, I just would go out and just look for cool apples, and then learn about them and read about them. And I would just kind of buy any ones that I hadn't heard of and try them and then read about them. And it became really fun to learn about the stories behind each apple.

Comparing the differences between American apples, British apples and British apples having these really like prestigious-sounding names, and American apples having, you know, more the two syllable names like pink pearl And when I moved to New York, that also really exploded because of the Greenmarkets, you know, you can get like 30 apples from Samascott Orchards on Fridays at the New York Greenmarket and more from other orchards on Saturdays.

And I think this whole process of wonder and discovery just constantly gives me energy. And I'm so fascinated by it. And, you know, apples are from Central Asia, and they were brought up through the Silk Road, and then were cultivated, again, in Europe, and then in North America. And I think I'm really fascinated by this relationship that we have with them, you know, it's, there's been this kind of cooperative coexistence that we've had with, you know, Malus domestica, which is the botanical name for the eating apple, and it seems to come with us everywhere we go. And we create these narratives around it, both in the stories of the people that, you know, maybe came across a wild seedling, or, you know, purposefully cultivated an apple to, you know, and then the narratives that come from the names that we give them. And then to sort of the experience of eating that Apple maybe not knowing those narratives yet, but your, like, personal experience of that apple and the way it makes you feel. I find it fascinating.

I just feel like I've been eating my way through the malus genus, becoming fascinated with its endless diversity and the process.

Alicia: Yeah, it seems like such a great project for, you know, showcasing that diversity in the apple that I think people take for granted. Everyone is like, you know, I don't like a Red Delicious but like, that's kind of the only opinion people have about apple species, you know? 

How was the response? Like, it seems really great. But you know, are people asking questions about apples? Like, has what has like been the response for this project? 

William: I think most people, as you just pointed out—most people don't really have an opinion of apples. Because of the commodity market. They're everywhere. You're never too far from an apple, but you're never too far from, like, five types of apples. And so you think that's all there is because it is this weirdly abundant crop. And we have this sort of set amount of them, it sort of feels like that's all there is to now.

And so when you kind of discover that there's actually like, thousands more, and you know, they're not just red, green, and yellow, but they're like, I mean, insane shapes, like some that look like candles, some that look like Toad stools, some that are thinking, some that are redder than a beet inside, some with this purple black skin, some that are, you know, metallic looking.

It's really fascinating. I don't know if there's like another word for this in another language. But it's this weird feeling where you realize that you don't know everything about something you thought you knew everything there was to know about, something that is so common. And all of a sudden you learn one thing and you're like, wow, actually, I know nothing about this thing. And there's so much more to know. And it's really exciting watching people have that experience.

Maybe when they find my account, or read an article that I've been mentioned in or something like that, it feels really good. I feel like I'm kind of watching the same feeling that I still have now, but really had when I first read about the heterozygous nature of apples and had that Egremont Russet apple, ate that pink pearl apple. It's exciting watching people feel a sense of wonder for something that can feel so everyday. That feels good. It reminds me that nature and plants we eat remain beautiful; even when we sort of try and control them through our systems, people can still be fascinated by them, and we can still celebrate them and kind of reclaim back their diversity. This is something that people are actually interested in doing.

It feels really good. I love when people will tag me when they buy like an Ashmead's Kernel apple, and it feels really good.

I do want people to get into apples, go to the farmers; market and buy apples from a local orchard, you know, and take a chance on an apple that they hadn't tried before, and see what they like and what they don't like and you know, specifically take a chance on these like, uglier, quote unquote russeted apples that just don't get carried at the supermarket because for some reason, we'll accept russeting in pears but we will not accept an apples which is very bizarre to me. Who made that decision? I don't know. Because russetting often indicates a more complex flavor, a sweeter flavor and deeper flavor.

The response has been overwhelming. I could have never imagined it as someone who is just—I just felt like I was living in my own world taking photos of apples. 

Alicia: I wanted to ask you about the slug that you've been taking care of. Can you tell me the story of the slug? 

William: It's actually hilarious, Alicia, because yesterday—so this is like, so embarrassing to admit. I actually brought the slug—my parents have a beach place in Delaware and

they really wanted to see me because I don't think I'm flying for Christmas, and that’s like the safest way to see each other in these times. So I met them there and I was, like, terrified that Alex G, my slug, would die while I was gone. So I brought him there in this little like travel

amphibian tank and I left him there when I got back on Friday. I left him and my parents left too and where their place is—I mean, there's no way to get there without a car. It's just hours and hours away from any sort of public transport. And I had like a meltdown. Anyway, I convinced a friend to drive me down to Delaware yesterday to retrieve Alex G and what was an eight-hour excursion, all told, driving through—very interesting to do pre-election day, like driving through all sorts of America's going from New York City to Delaware and so he's back now. He's alive and well and eating expensive Union Market mushrooms.

But yeah, I was honestly losing my mind. I was like there's no way. Like I felt so horrible. You know, I was like the irony of me being protective over him and then maybe him dying a slow death in Delaware because I forgot him. I just was like, No way is this happening. I will move mountains. And thanks to the generosity of a couple people, because another friend of mine, Lucy, helped me by lending her car. So it was a wonderful moment of generosity, but also a classic, I think, insanity from a particular brand of crazy.

But I kind of got really into bugs this year. I've always loved bumblebees, I've always just found it to be like the teddy bears of the insects. And I was reading a lot about pollination and blossoms, mostly fruit blossoms this spring, and I was just trying to spend as much time as I could around blossoms, because I found it peaceful and hopeful, watching bees, and I bought books on bees. And even before that last apple season, when I was at these kind of research orchards, I would, ou know, there'd be apples rotting on the ground, and there'd be just like slugs eating them. And I just found it so adorable, like, and also like, you know, beautiful, like the cycle of life is very much in front of you, at any moment in front of an apple tree. And I think I just kind of developed—I always had a respect for bugs, like I don't like killing them, I will try to free them.

But I think I just, you know, for the first time really looked at their role in a very specific way and what they do for the environment.

And I was coming back from looking at this apple tree in Prospect Park, I think,in  early September, and I saw Alex G, this slug just kind of moving across the sidewalk. And I was like, someone's gonna step on this thing, even though it was late at night. So I kind of like my goal was to get down, get it on an apple and then move, you know, move it somewhere safe so it didn't get squashed. And honestly, it was just so cute. I just was like, I kind of wanted to take it home for a little bit. My intention was to take it home after that, and then maybe release it back. But then I start being about slugs, and they live much longer in captivity than they do in the wild. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that people probably step on them sometimes or I don't know if they survive winters very well. But, yeah, I just, I just brought him home and I just became really attached to it. Because they are hermaphrodites and, unfortunately, I am of the habit of gendering pets that don't have genders. I had all male pets as a kid, I think it's a bad habit. I love the musician, Alex G, so that's what his name comes from. But I think knowing that slugs are— you'll never be too far from a slug at an apple orchard, especially if you will come upon a rotten apple. And it just felt kind of natural. I had wanted to, like, recreate some things that I saw orchards in the studio with kind of a maybe this more fantastical memory of it that I have. And in a weird way, it felt like fate. Like, Alex G comes to the studio sometimes when I shoot and I never like it on anything. Yeah, it loves to just go on apples and then eat them and just sit on them. So that's very helpful for me. I don’t eat a lot of decaying apples.

I just find like, you know, bugs do work for us. You know, I forget this. This piece but it was on bee labor and capitalism. Well, and someone had pointed out to me after I had taken some some still-lifes with bees, and camomile flowers this summer, and I was thinking about bees and capitalism, thinking about the labor that bees do to pollinate, you know, the trees that then make fruits that we eat and how important that is. And like, you know, in this there's so, you know, technically nothing's supposed to be unaccounted for in capitalism, but many things are unaccounted for in capitalism, as far as labor is concerned. And I just found that really interesting, which is like, wow, this is, you know, not only are we not counting the labor of many actual humans in the system, that are, you know, I wouldn't say I don't know, willingly participating in it so much as this is what we did, this is what we got. But then we've

forced, not forced, but these other creatures that it, you know, live on the earth are also part of it. Because we have, you know, taken over so much of the environment that they just, you know, unknowingly are part of it. And that became really fascinating to me.

And it just kind of opened up this world of bugs and fruit that I liked before was just something that was cute to me. And I liked the images of and now, those images have just more meaning to me and what they represent. And sort of like the process of flowering fruiting, and then, you know, natural rotting and decay of fruit.

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

William: Yeah, you know, I think if you'd asked me this question, a couple years ago, I would have—I don't know if I would have said no, but I wouldn't think so. But it has become for me.

I'm quite an inept cook, I will say, I do try. And I love to try, but I think it is political in the ingredient choices that I make. I really, especially in the last year, felt it very important to, like, go to the farmers’ market and buy produce from there, and support a non-supermarket kind of system. I'm basically trying to eat outside of the commodity market as much as possible. And I think part of that comes as a natural extension from my interest in apples and fruit, and their diversity and wanting to enjoy that and take part in that rather than just select from, you know, the choices I have at a supermarket that had been selected for me.

As we learn, collectively, as a culture, more and more about our food supply chain, I feel like one can't help but hopefully try and cook politically in the sense that no matter where you are on the economic spectrum, there are choices. Obviously, they're much, much harder if you're not wealthy; it can be really difficult to make ethical choices if you're not wealthy. You have to make a lot of sacrifices. And your plate might even look meager. And sometimes that feels really unfair, like personally—I mean, it is unfair.

But it's become really important to me to support small businesses, that I want to see small farms that I want to see and to play a role in a system that is, unfortunately, still shaped by the commodity market, which is so large and all encompassing that, you know, it will shape things outside of it, but trying to participate in those things outside of it.

I have this friend, Benford, who introduced me to a lot of native fruits like wild persimmon. I got into pawpaw and he makes cider and has made ciders from our wild apples that he's, you know, found on the sides of highways and foraged and kind of really got me into this idea of like anti-cap foods, anti-capitalist foods, anti-commodity foods and using them and celebrating them and introducing people to them.

Like, I mean just wild persimmon, for example, is so delicious. It's native to North America; it's been consumed by indigenous peoples well before us and, you know, mastodon; and it can't really be commodified because the way you know it's really not ready until it falls off the tree when it's overripe. It's kind of gross before that; it's really intensely tannic and kind of punishing. But when it's really ready, it's amazing. It feels like this delicious custard, pumpkiny treat.

And it's free. Like there's trees in Greenwood Cemetery. Once you start to know how to look for wild fruit trees, you kind of start seeing them everywhere. And it's really incredible. And I know a lot of people are kind of scared to eat like wild fruit, which feels like, you know, maybe a good survival skill.

But for the most part, a lot of this stuff, I think, aside from berries, which one needs to be cautious of, but you know, wild apples are not poisonous. And it feels really cool and good to pick from what's there. And what's free. Benford and I have talked about, like this idea of public fruit, like how cool it would be if parks had fruit trees. Some of them do but they’re secret, you know, like there's persimmons in Prospect Park. I haven't found them. I'm still looking for them in Central Park as well.

But this idea that this can be for anyone, because it should be for anyone. But it's not right now. The fact that we can't feed everyone—well, at this point in our advancement is just shocking.

And I just, yeah, I feel like cooking is political for me in that I'm constantly looking for ways to embrace what is public, and also support people who are trying to make the very broken food supply chain that we have here better, you know, trying their hardest, and it's really difficult to do that.

That feels increasingly important as I get older, and as our very interesting political situation progresses.

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

William: Thank you so much for having me.