On 2021 🎇 The Year in Review
Through essays and interviews.
The best thing that happened in my year was that I got married. The second-best thing was that it turned out that our wedding photographer, Maridelis Morales Rosado, had just shot Bad Bunny for New York Magazine two days’ prior, enriching the story that we get to tell—upping the glamour quotient!
Other great things happened, too. This newsletter grew quite a bit while never becoming overwhelming—I’m thankful to this self-selecting audience that can endure my weekly missives, which can be on just about any subject. I tested some new things that have gone well (recipes) and other things that I haven’t enjoyed (sponsorships). Vogue, in an interview with my friend, the writer Mayukh Sen, replied “I read it religiously” to the mention of this newsletter; the author Jami Attenberg recommended it in New York, the magazine where I toiled as a copy editor for years, making a wonderful full-circle moment for me. It was referenced, in print, in GQ and T: The New York Times Style Magazine. I interviewed Nigella!
I spoke at colleges; I was interviewed numerous times for various shows on National Public Radio, including twice for WNYC, my hometown station that I used to listen to while commuting home from college classes at Fordham and, later in my twenties, driving around doing bakery deliveries and supermarket runs. Israel and I worked together on a New York Times opinion essay about the United States’ ongoing interference in Puerto Rico’s food system. Oh, and there’s the small matter of putting out my Pumpkin Spice with Burlap & Barrel! Plus, the first draft of my book is just about done, which has been truly the hardest work experience of my life but somehow feels insignificant—right now—compared to all the work I’ve already put into the world.
There will be three more recipes—plus a PDF recipe booklet—for paid subscribers in the next couple of weeks, plus one more essay, “On Christmas”—about celebrating after losing someone—before I take the last two weeks of the year off to be with family and also probably work like a madwoman on this book draft. May 2022 be a good year.
Here are links to writing and interviews from this year, divided by topics that I culled from my most popular essays of the year.
On Work and Creativity
This obsession with everyone’s thoughts and behavior seems to suggest a desire for a moral code, a desire for certainty in an uncertain world, and when I have asked readers (or followers, who are generally not one and the same) to tell me what they want from me as a writer, more often than not it’s help with fighting the ills I point out all the time: capitalism, extractive consumption. I hope I haven’t given the perspective that I have these things figured out for myself. I do not. We are all subject to them, and we all must do our best.
I was lured out of stable employment by my hubris, by believing I deserved more than being a copy editor for other people’s work. That led me into an insecure way of making a living, and there is no safety net to speak of—not personally, not systemically. I’m not owed the pleasure of making a living as a writer, but this is the basket in which I’ve put all of my eggs thus far.
Look, we're all going to be knocked off our perch at some stage. Nothing goes on forever. I would rather—you want talented people there. I think to be competitive is such an odd thing. Because I think if you're competitive, you must be doing something so generic that you think someone else can step up and do it. You have a voice. You do what you do. And of course, people might get tired of listening to it. But it's fine. That seems entirely fair. I don't mind that.
How things taste, how we cook them and the joy we take in that is so important, but that can’t be the only thing we talk about. I want to connect that joy to the larger political and economic issues that govern our food system. What would our food look like if we had universal basic income and nationalized healthcare? What would service in the restaurant industry look like if we didn’t really just coerce people into wage labor? I wanted to create a space where I ask and explore those questions.
“On Veganism,” March 29, 2021
In the U.S., where individual choice reigns, it is somehow here where that buck stops. In the U.S., where those on the left have been pointing out that response to crisis needs to be collective, it is with animal agriculture that the conversation stops.
I think it’s sensible to diversify whatever food one consumes, to not get too hung up on any one product. Pushing the idea that it hasn’t been a good thing for this one particular sector of animal agriculture to have some real competition? Quite predictable that we’re seeing pushback from liberals on literally any small consumer change that favors planetary health and animal welfare. Whose lives should change to stave off rising global temperatures? Not theirs! Anyone else’s!
We know what the planet needs, and it’s the radical restructuring of land use. We know what the people need, which is self-determination around farming for the Global South, as well as for the Black, brown, and Indigenous people upon whose land the United States and other nations settled. Instead, we’re getting steaks made in a lab. Who asked for this?
People are always bringing up different scenarios for me that they think might justify me eating a pork chop or a steak, and I try telling them that I don’t see meat as food anymore. You certainly couldn’t get me to eat a pig just because it was invasive, eating up everything in its path—even if this makes me a bad environmentalist. Theoretically, I would want to, I guess, just like the lionfish. But I wouldn’t be able to. This is simply where my brain can’t beat my heart. To get me to eat meat, or even a lionfish, you’d have to force-feed it to me through my tears and gritted teeth.
We have to be concerned that we're moving from industrial or factory farmed meat toward another industrial system where we're not getting that diverse diet, that diverse land use. We are just creating a new system that mimics the old system.
You can throw a steak in a cast iron pan with a little salt, and that will be delicious, but when you're talking about beans, it does mean you need to get a little more creative. You have to use citrus and herbs and figure out how you're going to make those delicious, but in the end, it's worth it. It's better for our health to at least cut back a little bit on meat and replace that with legumes.
I am aware that because I have no clear ethnic identity, because of being a mutt from New York, I don’t know what flavors I have a claim to—oysters could be it. I am aware that people don’t know what to do with me, where to place me. White mom, brown dad, strange looks, incessant inquiries from strangers—what are you? People ask what raza the dog is and we say, “Sato.” I want an ethnic equivalent.
Look at Sex and the City: What does a New York or outerborough accent suggest there? It’s only voiced by cat-calling construction workers, by Steve the Irish bartender, by girls in crude outfits who want to fight. Am I more Carrie or crude girl? Do you know how quickly I give someone the finger if they fuck with me in some way? Can a writer do that?
On Culinary Culture
I think of an interview I read recently with Tithi Bhattacharya, a history professor at Purdue, that took place in April 2020. She writes about social reproduction theory, explaining social reproduction as “life-making” acts versus capitalism’s “thing-making” for profit. It dawned on me that the complications we encounter in the hospitality business arise from melding these kinds of making in these spaces: a restaurant or bar is both life-making and profit-making. Life and things are being made and exchanged.
It’s odd to me that at a time when we are supposedly rewriting said food canon with fresh eyes, new understandings of the suffering back and front of house workers endure, and the ways in which hospitality’s mores have been shaped by slavery and servitude, that we’re really… not, at all. There isn’t enough self-interrogation.
The idea of eating an extravagant vegan fine dining meal isn’t new, hasn’t been new, yet it is so new to these critics. Why have they never taken something that has already existed seriously until the great male chef Daniel Humm did some grand-standing? We know why! And still, it is so hard to meet the food as food and not as pure meaning.
I can’t dismiss their impact easily, but in the intervening years, I’ve lost sight of what the effects of their perspective really were—the best thing about the Lucky Peach voice was maybe its brashness, its certitude, even when it wasn’t in service to the best ideas or people. That allowed good writers room. Where’s that voice now? I can see, going back, that without my consciously realizing it, these essays were showing me how to write about food, especially in often showing me who I didn’t want to be.
What will Searching for Italy do but entertain, and perhaps bring new clientele to the restaurants featured once we are allowed to travel again? Nothing, and that’s fine, but new perspectives in food-travel TV just might adjust people’s consciousness in a way that hasn’t been tried at such length and depth. Food-travel TV will always be about pleasure, not learning. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it is something to take seriously because that pleasure also leaves room for propaganda, for passive influence and understanding. Especially when watching a show in which the host is comfortable everywhere, because he’s the type of person who’s never known real discomfort.
This Friday’s paid subscriber recipe will be a chocolate-tahini swirl shortbread, based on the flavors of our wedding cake (yes, the end of 2021 is both holiday and wedding themed at From the Desk!), along with a vegan coquito made with my pumpkin spice blend, developed by Israel—he was a bartender when we met, did you know?
Next week’s recipe will be gingerbread cake with lemon frosting, plus the PDF of every recipe I’ve published this year for handy reference.
Nothing! I’m editor-at-large on a forthcoming newsletter project (you’ll know when I can let you know things!) and finishing my book.
I’m deep in book work mode but I long to get back to book 4 of My Struggle! It is my reason to finish my book at all, to finish the series and get to Knausgaard’s new one.
Trying to really embody the ethos of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal and eat everything that comes into the kitchen. I enjoyed turning mashed potatoes into breakfast by sautéing onion and garlic in the cast-iron, adding a bunch of sazón, stirring in the potatoes, and then baking for a bit in the oven. I also made Tejal Rao’s black bean kofta curry recently and used leftovers for a shakshuka to which I added boiled red potatoes that were rolling around the fridge, along with some spinach for greenery. The black bean kofta can be vegan by subbing the egg with an arrowroot and aquafaba slurry.