Discover more from From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
and why they might be more useful than dietary labels.
I’ve been bad lately: I’ve not been carrying my KeepCup on morning jogs, swinging it in alternating arms so that when we arrive at the café in the plaza, I am ready not to waste any plastic for the sake of an iced americano (negro, sin azúcar). It’s not clear how I got out of the habit, as I’m rather good about carrying canvas totes for groceries, reusing plastic produce bags for dog poop, cooking 90 percent of our meals with 90 percent of those meals being vegan (the other 10 percent are vegetarian). Everyone has limits of caring, of being an active individual participant against the ever-encroaching tides and increasing temperatures. The cup just stopped feeling like a natural part of my morning. Now that I’ve confessed, though—how I love to confess!—I will likely go back to the frankly cumbersome carrying of the KeepCup. If anything, I don’t want to be spotted by anyone while holding a plastic cup. Sometimes that’s a good enough motivator.
To my surprise, the essay “On Salt” has been one that people mention to me, ask me about, return to time and time again. In it, I write about finding out that the go-to salt for food writers and chefs, Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, is owned by Cargill, a massive agribusiness company that is responsible for a lot of environmental destruction and poor labor practices. The piece has stuck in some craws because it gets at this question: What are the limits of caring? How much does this one thing on my counter actually matter, in the big picture? There is, in my beliefs, ethical consumption under capitalism, to an extent, but that extent is different for everyone, based on myriad factors. If someone believes buying a Hershey’s bar made of opaquely sourced, perhaps through child labor, cacao is the same as buying a chocolate bar made with transparently sourced cacao, that person and I fundamentally see the world differently. There are choices sometimes—limited choices, but choices nonetheless, within a limiting and corrupt global economic order. But we all have to determine our own limits, when it comes to money, ability, geography, tradition, etc.
It’s true that I’ve gotten a bit soft, if being a vegetarian who eats 80 percent locally and conditionally eats bivalves is considered “soft” toward the realities of climate change. I spoke about this with cookbook author Julia Turshen, about eating pizza out of a sense—a need, really—for openness toward communal joy.
If there’s any silver lining to feeling small in the face of disaster and crisis, of rich and powerful people doing whatever they like despite all the evidence that there are limits and that they are causing incredible pain, shows me, it’s that I have to grab all possible joy by the balls while I have the chance. Eat the pizza, drink the wine, slurp up the oysters: We don’t know what’s coming. That’s cliché, of course, but at the same time, don’t we all need that reminder? That when we’re trying our best to be good, on whatever level—for the planet, for the animals, for the people—that there’s going to be a wall we will hit? All we can hope for is to have a soft landing, to provide ourselves at least that.
And so in my thinking on these limits, which exist on both planetary and personal scales, I am also thinking about labels. Lately, there’s an interest in those public vegans who “fail”—New York City Mayor Eric Adams eating fish and being an “imperfect vegan” or the forthcoming Netflix documentary Bad Vegan about Pure Food & Wine’s Sarma Melngailis. When I started to eat oysters, I was advised not to ruin my vegan reputation by saying anything about it. It becomes a sordid tale, a story that makes people say, “See? It’s not possible to be vegan so why bother trying to cut back on eating meat and animal products!” That’s why the stories get so much press (in addition to the mayor of a major city being problematic on many levels, this just being one of them).
But to me, putting a label above being a person (and being a writer, who, as I established above, has an impulse to confess) is a mistake, and it’s one I talk about at length in my book (summer 2023). Do I think it’s useful for people to identify closely with their chosen diet? Sure, because it increases visibility and provides opportunity for conversation on why. But the labels tend to set people up for failure, for “cheating.” I’ve found it more useful to have boundaries, set limits. The labels come with ideology that may or may not fit. What is more important for people to establish, I think, is the point of intersection where their personal needs, desires, location, and limits meet up with the planet’s.
I’ve been reading the chapter on food systems from the latest IPCC report, which is rather dire. Does it tell us anything new about what we should change, where to draw lines? No: Those of us in places and of cultures that consume many calories need to move toward a diverse plant-based diet. This is the one option that’s in most of our hands; the one choice we can really make, the beauty of that choice being that it will look different for everyone.
But simply telling people that doesn’t work, though what does work is removing meat options, making it easier to choose a vegetarian or vegan meal. Most people aren’t the types who go post a steak because they heard a rumor Biden would limit their beef consumption to four pounds per year; most people have an ambient, at the very least, understanding of the climate and health impacts of eating a ton of meat. Beef consumption has decreased because of messaging; the flip side of that is that it’s been replaced by chicken, which isn’t great at scale on an ecological, labor, or animal welfare level either. Still, most people know there is a real limit to how much meat consumption is sustainable. The reality is that it’s hard to always make your own choice to recognize that: We are all tired, some more than others, and thus there need to be changes to make the better choice easier rather than relying on people to have a saintly amount of willpower.
The report says:
Dietary behaviour is complex: shaped by the broader food system (HLPE, 2017a), the food environment (Herforth and Ahmed, 2015; Turner et al., 2018) and socio-cultural factors (Fischler, 1988). Since most food-related decisions are made at a subconscious level (Marteau et al., 2012), achieving dietary change for personal health reasons has proven difficult: it seems unlikely that dietary change for climate will be achieved without careful attention to the factors that shape dietary choice and behaviour. Food environments, defined as “the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food” (HLPE, 2017a): 28), include food availability, accessibility, price/ affordability, food characteristics, desirability, convenience, and marketing.
“Desirability” is a key one here, especially for the media. How do we make it desirable to eat within the planet’s limits? I think about Bettina Makalintal, who from her job as an editor at Bon Appétit has made mushrooms desirable by showing people how to make them crispy from “squishing.” I think about Tejal Rao writing “The Veggie” for the New York Times and Daniela Galarza always providing meatless options in her “Eat Voraciously” newsletter at the Washington Post. These all show that there’s awareness of the changes that must happen, even when mainstream publications continue to heavily feature meat and seafood.
I also think about Vittles doing a whole season on where food comes from, covering “the farming Left.” I think, of course, about Whetstone—especially Clarissa Wei’s podcast “Climate Cuisine.” I think about MOLD, zeroing in on the significance of seeds. Independent food media is continuing to push, and we’re seeing the influence it’s having.
There is desirability, deliciousness, and inspiration in our limits; there can be abundance in recognizing them. And I can remember my KeepCup, if only to keep my conscience clear.
Last week’s podcast featured Kristina Cho, talking about her book Mooncakes + Milk Bread. This Wednesday’s podcast will feature Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine to discuss the process of writing a book, how to define “American,” and more. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
This Friday’s paid subscriber From the Kitchen will mark the beginning of a three-week pantry series, including guides to weekday meal planning, spice-rack building, and the necessities of a home baker’s toolbox. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing! I did turn in a couple of assignments and am deep in work on a new book proposal. I’m actually extremely excited about the prospects of this one! Right now, I’m focusing my energy on this newsletter, this proposal, and assignments that are really interesting and don’t require me to go anywhere (unless expenses are paid). I am feeling the squeeze of not having a car in Puerto Rico, but I will prevail against the tyranny of car-based infrastructure.
I’m on My Struggle Book 5—home stretch, baby!; I read the new Sheila Heti, Pure Colour; I am into Chilean Poet: A Novel by Alejandro Zambra, one of my favorites ever since the brilliant brilliant brilliant Bonsai! I have thought a lot about getting “The rest is literature” tattooed on me, and maybe I will, as at my age now, it would take on an ironic edge it wouldn’t have had in my early twenties. He had a fabulous piece about doing mushrooms for his migraines in The Paris Review recently, too.
Not much to write home about. The pantry staples. Trying not to go to the grocery store too much. We’re growing parsley and arugula in addition to basil and oregano brujo now. I’m really interested in making this tofu feta from Irina Groushevaia, speaking of veg food being made desirable in the mainstream!