Very Fine Day #35: Alicia Kennedy

Brad Esposito

We’re talking about food today, people. We've got ALICIA KENNEDY on VERY FINE DAY for #35. Alicia is based in Puerto Rico, did a lot of work in New York City, and grew up in Long Island - which we get into - and I won't spoil anything but Long Island doesn't really sound like The Place To Be. I'm certainly not rushing to go there when this whole mess is over. But it was a great conversation. You might know Alicia from her newsletter, or her writing. Check it out.

VFD: The waking up early thing is fine. I was actually up at five this morning. My dog gets me up every morning.

Alicia Kennedy: Wow,

VFD: She has a stranglehold over my life.

Alicia Kennedy: I mean, me too. Mine is his right here.

VFD: So what are you up to?

Alicia Kennedy: Me? Today, my day has been extremely strange. Well, not strange. My newsletter goes out on Mondays, and because I have a deadline on Thursday for a piece I started my day with interviewing someone very briefly. Then, because I had other calls this afternoon including this one, the time between that call and the other calls means that I didn't get anything done, because I was just focused on the fact that I had other things this afternoon. But it's fine. I've watched a couple of videos about what I'm supposed to write about next week for my newsletter. But I have gotten literally nothing of any work done today. Just some emails and things.

VFD: Where are you again?

Alicia Kennedy: San Juan, Puerto Rico.

VFD: Oh, cool. So do you do a lot of your work remotely and on Zoom?

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. I moved here in July 2019. I didn't necessarily expect to stay here, but I moved in with my fiance, got the dog, and have been here ever since. I planned to be back in New York a lot more.

I'm from New York. I'm from Long Island. I lived in Brooklyn before I came here. And before I kept coming here, so much of my work was in person. I had a podcast for a while called “Meatless” that I only recorded in person, I went to events, obviously, in person, I did all my reporting in person. And then I moved here and I kept that up, really, because I just started to report on more things here. Then the pandemic came. That's when I started my newsletter, really, in March 2020. And I guess the pandemic gave me an excuse to do remote interviews and that sort of thing, because I had never liked it before. I'd never gotten into it. But now here we are.

VFD: I think that's like a lot of people who were forced into a box to work remotely and realise that it's possible. Did your newsletter start as something that was like: “this is gonna be a big chunk of what I do,” or was it a side thing?

Alicia Kennedy: No, no. In January of 2020 I lost a contributing editor job with a magazine called Edible Brooklyn. That was half of my income. Then, as of May of 2020, I completely lost a contributing writer job with a vegan website called Tenderly, and that was the other half of my income. And then on top of that I'd write for outlets freelance.

So I was doing really well, in terms of doing what I wanted to do, but it was all disappearing in March. Earlier that year I already knew the Tenderly thing was basically going away. I knew a Medium pivot was about to happen. So I was kind of like: Alright, what's the next move? I thought my next move was probably leaving media.

VFD: Like everyone,

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. That's a common thing. Then I started the newsletter because I was like: Alright, I'll have this consistent way to keep people up to date on what I'm doing, what I'm thinking, what I'm reading. Just something really casual that might keep me in people's minds for work and that sort of thing.

I first wrote an essay – in the style of what I continued to do – in March of 2020, about an episode of David Chang's “Ugly Delicious” that he did about steak, which I thought was just really a terrible episode. And so I wrote an essay about that, and that set the tone for what I was going to be doing. There was so much going on in the world, then.

Obviously, with the pandemic, restaurant workers were losing their jobs. Then it’s: how are we going to rethink the server industry? What about Black Lives Matter? There was this actual moment where it felt like we were primed for a really big shift in the culture. And I think we’ve shifted a little bit, but not that much. It was just an exciting time to dig into the type of work that I wanted to do, in terms of the labour and service industry, and just the politics of food and how we think about it. All of that.

There was also the scandal of Bon Appetit. The toxicity of Adam Rapaport and his swift resignation led to a huge number of subscribers for my newsletter.

VFD: Why?

Alicia Kennedy: I think it’s just because of the topics I was covering and people were like: what are alternative forms of food media to look at? And Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle put my newsletter in a piece about that. It was just getting a lot more traction on Twitter, I guess, because people were realising that there are these issues in food that are big and huge, but people mostly think of food as a lifestyle thing that isn’t worthy of deep critique or thoughts. I think that there was that moment of: Oh, wait, we should maybe think about things differently. And that was a big moment for me.

Also, in the US, freelancers were able to get unemployment for a while in the beginning of the pandemic. I was able to take a breath for a the first time in my adult life and be like: OK, what am I doing?

I used to work at New York Magazine as a copy editor, got paid crap, worked so much, worked to the bone or brain stem or whatever, and then I left in 2015 to pursue food writing. Ever since then it has been this constant juggling to try and keep myself financially afloat. So when the pandemic happened and freelancers were able to get unemployment it was literally the first time in years that I had any moment to breathe.

I think that the newsletter – and my ability to focus on it – was because of that, and the only reason I’m still doing it and was able to get it organically to a place where it sustains me. All because of that insurance. Which is also why I’m a huge advocate of universal basic income.

VFD: Yeah, for sure. Well: thank you to the US government.

Have you ever felt like, in Puerto Rico, you have a top-down perspective on what’s happening in the US over the last two years? How much of an outsider do you feel?

Alicia Kennedy: I feel like I don’t really know anything that’s going on. I live in what’s basically a medieval town called Old San Juan. It was built in the 16th century, on a hill, and it connects to the rest of the metro area through a bridge. We don’t have a car – we have bicycles now, thankfully - but I leave this medieval city very little. And so I don’t know what anyone’s life is outside of it for the most part. I have obviously been reading and listening and trying to understand. I think it has been good.

Coming from New York you think you know everything and you think you’re the centre of the world, and then to just be thrust into isolation in this village has been a really interesting way to – I think – centre myself. I think most people would be like: That’s crazy! Because my newsletter is literally called “From the desk of Alicia Kennedy” and I’m very much talking about “I, I, I”. But at the same time it has given me a much different perspective on the world from being in New York where it was just like everything that’s happening is happening here and I have access to literally everything I’ve ever wanted all of the time. Now, I have to pray that there’s tahini at the grocery store when I want to make hummus. So it has been a whole different way of life, which has been, of course, challenging – but at the same time it has been really good for my writing to have had more quiet.

VFD: So is your partner Puerto Rican?

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, he grew up here in Old San Juan. So this is where we live and he works for the government as a historian.

VFD: When did you start writing online? Because I have done a bit of research, and it seems like you have quite a deep footprint into blogging.

Alicia Kennedy: Oh, well, I have been writing for the internet since I was in middle school in the late ‘90s on Livejournal and Diaryland. Then, in the early 2010s or maybe even the late 2000s, I started writing about literature a bit for free. Places like The Awl, or The Rumpus, or some other places I don’t even remember. And so I wrote about literature and I used to be copy editing literary magazines and small books for small presses. That sort of thing.

I wanted to be a literary critic and eventually write novels. But then I got really into food when I went vegan, ironically enough, in 2011/2012. And I started baking a lot, accidentally started a vegan bakery, and then -

VFD: Wait, you “accidentally” started a bakery? Like a real, physical bakery?

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, I would go to farmer’s markets with my stuff and I’d bake in a commissary kitchen and everything. But I was still working at New York Magazine. So I would bake all night, get up really early, finish baking, go to yoga, drop off muffins and cupcakes at a health food store, and then go to work all day copy editing. I was really exhausting myself.

But that really got me into food and the origin of food. Like: where’s this food coming from? Who’s making it? Just trying to be the most ethical-sourced baker I could possibly be. Through that I learned a lot about the global food system and when I stopped doing the bakery because – frankly – I was just burning myself out a lot, I decided to channel that energy and knowledge from running an artisanal small food businesses that tried to be ethical and sustainable into my own food writing.

I thought that there wasn’t any smart writing on vegan food in the mainstream food press, and since I had been working at New York Magazine I had some inner knowledge of how I could get my foot into these spaces, even though I was writing about vegan stuff, which people historically do not like.

VFD: What do you mean by “smart” vegan writing?

Alicia Kennedy: Just that people in the mainstream food media would make fun of veganism. And people in the vegan food press were just too credulous about different products. I felt like there wasn't enough ethics beyond animal welfare in vegan food, and vegan press, generally. So that's why I really wanted to do something different. I wanted to approach vegan food like a food writer who is writing about anything, and that's how I started out.

I worked at Food and Wine for six months on a contract as a copy editor. But I also wrote a little bit for them and got to understand how a glossy food magazine works, which I wanted to do. And then from there I went to Edible Brooklyn, Edible Manhattan, and that was a good place for me because I got to write about small food businesses in New York. That's where I started to write about spirits and wine and beer, because New York has a really thriving local alcohol scene because it's very supported by the government.

I do think of myself more as a cultural writer than a food writer, I suppose, because I think “food writer” has a very bad connotation. I go back and forth on whether or not to reclaim the term “food writer”: That it's just about lifestyle and “this is what you should eat”. It's like what people's idea of a “foodie” is: you’re just very superficial and you mostly just care about pretty littles microgreens on a plate and that sort of thing. And I try to write about more than that.

VFD: This is from me putting myself in your shoes, but does it make you anxious to constantly think about the ramifications of what you eat, and how you consume, and what you can really do about it? And where that stops?

Alicia Kennedy: Well, I hope that people don't get the idea that I think I'm really perfect and good at consumption in general. I wrote an essay last week about this kosher salt I've been using, and then tried to use that as an occasion to say: I don't always get everything right, either. And I talk to tens of thousands of people every week, so I have somewhat more responsibility than anyone else. But I also know that it's not an individual game to end climate change, it's a collective game. And I think that, especially living here in Puerto Rico, my choices also have a magnified effect because it's a colony of the United States that imports 85% of its food because the United States decimated its agricultural industry over 100 years.

Supporting local farmers here is 100% more of a political decision than it might be somewhere else, where that's not as much of a big choice, because of the way that the US has destroyed agriculture, implemented trade controls, and the complete economic system. I want people to know that while it isn't all consumer choices - they aren't the end all, be all, of climate action – they can have an effect on your local economics and on your local level you can have a good impact by supporting who you can and what's within reach.

I think I've leaned more towards trying to show people that caring about their food doesn't have to be a precious aesthetic act, it can be an act not just to care for oneself or one's family, but for the community that you live in. If you are making choices that support that local community and feed that local community, that even making one little choice within your own ability and accessibility can bring this feeling of…

What’s the opposite of impotence?

VFD: Yeah, yeah, I get you. Like an ownership,

Alicia Kennedy: Like, you can feel some sort of agency in a world that is constantly trying to remind you that you have no power to to fix anything. And I think that has ripple effects for the rest of our lives. You realise that these little choices that seem like nothing actually make you feel better. And that makes a difference. And you see how there's more that you can do and that it's not just about having the most beautiful, precious salts and the most beautiful kale. Taking care with those things helps you to feel power in a world where everyone is constantly like: well, 70% of emissions are caused by x amount of corporations, and that makes people feel really powerless. Because what are they going to do about that? But at the same time, I think that once we start to care a little bit more about little things, we start to understand how we fit into a bigger picture and a movement, again, to stop global warming for example, somehow, if that makes sense.

VFD: Yeah, it does, it does. But do you find – and this could just be a crossover with writing on the internet – but I imagine that the reception to you publishing things like that, at least initially, would have been people coming at you with quite an aggressive, assertive, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” attitude. This “I can’t believe you’re trying to tell me how to live” kind of thing, right? And how do you get to those people? Do you just say: look, you’ll come around eventually.

Alicia Kennedy: Well, the thing is, there are people who will put it that way. But I have put myself in a bubble of social media where I don't really see anything that anyone has to say to me that I haven't chosen. If I haven't chosen to give them access to me, I don't see what they say. And that's how I protect myself from losing my mind. Also, paid subscribers are the only people who can comment on my posts.

But I've actually been told that there are a lot of people who read me who don't agree with me, but they like the writing and the thought process. And so that's interesting. Like, I wrote this thing about kosher salt, and someone recommended it in their newsletter and they were like: I disagree but the writing is good. And I always want to know what people disagree with but at the same time it’s nice.

Even my uncle, who’s an engineer in Long Island, was like: oh, I got a bunch of coworkers to read your newsletter and they have totally opposite politics but they enjoy it. So it’s good that I’m getting into these people’s heads a little bit, even if they disagree completely. At least they’re thinking about it. And at least they’re not going out into the world thinking that, like, oat milk is a modern scam. Like: they know that non-dairy milk is an ancient thing now. And it’s hard because you’re writing about things that people think are useless, but it is what it is. People read it. Even if they don’t like it, they’re reading it.

VFD: You must be doing something right.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, you’re doing something.

Sorry – let me just open the door for my dog. His schedule was ruined because we went to New York and my friend who is a bartender watched him and his schedule is completely wrong. Anyway…

VFD: Did you have him in the US?

Alicia Kennedy: No, no, no. Benny is from here.

VFD: What was it like growing up in New Jersey – sorry, sorry, Long Island?

Alicia Kennedy: It was… fine. It was fine. When I think back about my childhood, I was a very introverted person, to use a word that we all hate, but that's a fact. And so I don't remember as much as other people I grew up with about how terrible people were.

But where I grew up is working class Italian and Irish people. And then it became 1/3 Latino over the course of a couple of decades. It was like an abandoned town that I grew up in: there was a main street that had basically been abandoned completely because malls took all the stores away from the main streets. So you just had a sense that there was nothing there for you and that you were just supposed to leave at the first moment and go to the city. Which is why I went to college in the city.

When you're a teenager you take the train and you go to shows and as soon as you're possibly able to you start to have a life outside of Long Island. Because it's better. It's not better now. It's very much Trump country where I came from. But a really weird, really aggro expression of that. And I'm biracial – my dad isn't white – and so that was always a thing. The racism was always something you notice there but when I was younger I couldn't put a finger, really, on what was going on. No one talked about it. But it has always been a really complicated place and I'm definitely a product of the suburbs. There's only so much living in New York City can do to remove the stain of that.

VFD: Well, a ringing endorsement of Long Island.

Alicia Kennedy: There are great oysters!

VFD: That’s good I suppose. What do you think of the fake meat movement, as a vegetarian/vegan?

Alicia Kennedy: Well, I’m not a fan of Impossible food burgers or Beyond Meat. I started saying this in interviews a few months ago, which is funny because now there’s been this huge report at The Counter about how lab meat just isn’t actually happening. Like, it has basically been a scam for all of this VC money. It will never go up and it will never scale up to a place where it’s actually accessible.

A few months ago when people would ask me: what about lab meat? I was like: I don't actually want to talk about this because it's not going to happen. It's not real. And so now I feel confirmed in that.

But yeah, fake meat that’s like seitan, or made from tofu, I love it. In general, seitan I can eat in moderation because it’s like a bomb in my stomach for the most part. But I love tempeh, I love tofu. I'm not a person who says: Oh, if you go vegan or vegetarian you shouldn't enjoy anything that is vaguely meaty. Like, our whole culture is built on meat. People need to have - even if they've made this ethical choice - they're still allowed to eat tempeh bacon or tofu fried chicken. Like, leave it alone.

So I love all that stuff. I think that these Impossible and Beyond products have been a distraction. We were really – and I'm writing a book and this is one chapter in the book - but I thought that we were getting to a really good point with vegan stuff and vegetarian stuff. Superiority Burger in New York: GQ had named it the best burger of the Year in 2015, even though it's made with quinoa and carrots and chickpeas. But then all this other stuff started to just take over.

Like, I just think it's so useless. There's Impossible burgers, there's an Impossible Whopper at Burger King, but in order to get into Burger King they had to switch to genetically modified soybeans. So you're not using meat, you're not using meat processing labour, but you're going to use monocrop genetically modified soy? This is not the direction we should be going in, agriculturally. And so I just think they're a big distraction and a big money suck and they're not actually making that much of a dent in the market.

They keep saying: oh, we're keeping animals from being slaughtered! But sales of meat have gone up! People are eating more meat than ever in the US. If people are eating Beyond burgers or Impossible burgers, they're also eating meat. It's not changing any real behaviours. Like, I know people who are super omnivorous and they'll anecdotally tell me: oh, today I decided to do the Impossible sandwich at Starbucks. And I'm like: Well, that’s great for breakfast. But what are you eating for dinner? You're gonna go eat chicken. So it's not making the dent that they said that it would make.

It's just a big distraction, all of it. It's just wild to me that they really got away with this.

VFD: Yep, VC money.

Alicia Kennedy: I mean, the Impossible burger stuff is one thing. But the lab meat thing… they just swindled people.

VFD: Yeah, just get enough people to put money into something and say that it matters.

Alicia Kennedy: It’ll just keep going…

VFD: What’s it like writing a book?

Alicia Kennedy: Terrible, terrible. It's the worst experience of my life.

I like to be honest about this. I'm writing for a small press, a very prestigious, wonderful small press in the United States called Beacon Press, really in a fabulous intellectual lineage, and I am so honoured. But the advance is extremely small. It's a $10,000 advance, I get that in three parts and my agent has 15% or whatever.

VFD: Right,

Alicia Kennedy: And so I'm writing this for less than I would write a blog or a feature. And so that has been really challenging. It's just challenging because I’ve got to keep all these balls in the air. I’ve got to keep the newsletter going, because I can't take time off from it because I need the the money. I try to take time off from assignments, and I constantly regret it because I'm like: Oh, wait, I'm used to this much money going into this account this month, because I did a thing. But if I don't do anything, I don't have that money. And you get used to a certain amount of money.

I'm really focusing on it hardcore right now because I got an extension and I just need to finish it. And it's actually going well. I needed some time to process, I think, selling a book in a pandemic. And also the entirety of my career changing to be focused on this newsletter, and having a newsletter be the focus of my work means that I have more attention on me as a human being, which I didn't intend. And of course, I appreciate it. And it means I have better things going on. But at the same time, I wasn't cultivating that, or people paying attention to me personally. It has just been a lot to process and I think I've processed it. Even though things are still bad with the virus, getting vaccinated was the thing that allowed me to focus on the book. I think I just had too much nervous fear and energy that was really keeping me from focusing on it. Having a long term project when I didn't know how anything was going to go in the world was really, I think, daunting. And so now I'm really working on it in a real way, which is exciting. But it's really hard.

VFD: Is it broadly an extension of how you write in general?

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, yeah. It wasn't necessarily intended to be, but now that I've had success writing in my own voice, and I’m comfortable writing in my own voice for the newsletter in a way that I wouldn't have if I didn't have the newsletter, that has been freeing.

It's just really fascinating how difficult it is to sustain an idea over 80,000 words. There's so much going into it. It's about the history of vegetarianism and veganism in the US: culturally, gastronomically, politically, for the last 50 years. And it's about all the different subcultures and counter cultures that took on vegetarianism or veganism as a significant aspect of their worldview and how that manifested gastronomically. So it's interesting to try and sustain an idea for that long. It's a challenge, but this should be the hardest thing I've ever done. Writing a book should be the hardest thing.

VFD: Yeah

Alicia Kennedy: But the whole money thing sucks.

VFD: Yeah, I think that’s a longterm issue with writing in general. And maybe a lot of VC bros will make newsletters the answer to that – and maybe it will be.

Alicia Kennedy: That’s true. And for me it has been.

VFD: Well, thank you so much for talking. I won't keep you much longer. I really appreciate it,

Alicia Kennedy: Of course. I hope I said anything that is normal or useful and it’s not just me rambling on and on. My dog is just staring at me with the nastiest look to take him out.

VFD: Well, I’ll leave you to go do that. See you later,

Alicia Kennedy: Bye then.