Culture, climate, cocktails & kale

From the meatless desk of Alicia Kennedy

Image by TOPIA

Puerto Rico-based Alicia Kennedy wants a future where the ribs of a kale leaf come to mind more readily than those of a pig. Her unafraid newsletter illuminates the ethics of eating to help us create a legacy of less waste, deep flavour and care

When I was watching A Handmaid’s Tale, that vision of a fundamentalist dystopia, I would think, ‘At least I’d be cooking’.

Photo by Gabriela N. Baéz

Want to know why eggs are challenging to replicate? Or why the American beef industry was built on centuries of exploitation? Or if a cocktail can save the planet?

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy playfully and poinently challenges the way we look at what’s on our plate, while tackling issues from politics and climate change to culture and labour: “This newsletter is about food and its constellation of concerns.” Within the general kitchen goings-on, she might even drop a bit of Enya chat too. 

As the name suggests, behind the desk is Alicia Kennedy. Originally from Long Island in the state of New York, the popular food and culture writer – and firm but fun believer in the supremacy of vegetables – lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the beginning of the pandemic’s effects in the U.S., she began her weekly newsletter as a means to react and respond to the world around her, honestly and eloquently addressing topics considered unpublishable or unpopular within mainstream food media. 

On Monday, Alicia sends out a free essay to subscribers, along with notes on what she’s published, read and cooked. A podcast goes out on Wednesdays. On Fridays, paying Substack subscribers also receive the ‘From the Kitchen’ dispatch, featuring recipes and recommendations for a better cooking life.

As an advocate for incorporating sustainable food sources into the American diet, Kennedy encourages her readership to consider the source of ingredients, as well as the welfare of those working to produce it and the impact it has on the environment. She is currently writing her first book, Meatless, on the history of vegetarian and vegan based diets, due to be released in the summer of 2023. 

This writer’s gonna need a bigger desk. The accessible newsletter has grown considerably since its inception in 2020, directing over 17,800 subscribers and over 2,200 paid subscribers (and counting), towards a climate-resilient future.

TOPIA reached out to the food media pioneer to ask about the good food media movement, the nature of newsletter-ing and life in Puerto Rico

Hi Alicia. Where are you right now?

I’m in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on my laptop in bed, with my dog Benny next to me and the Mets playing on the TV. My husband is on a separate laptop trying to respond to a query from the editor of an op-ed we co-wrote. I’m waiting on an order of noodles from Mai Pen Rai, a local restaurant I love.

View from the desk of Alicia Kennedy

Tell us a bit about your project, From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. What is the ultimate experience that you want your readers to have?

I just hope it’s useful to people, to inspire them to cook or read a new writer or think about something in a new way. I want it to be an intellectual as well as emotional and tactile experience.

Why do you do what you do? 

My newsletter started as a way for me to write things that no publication would accept and it has grown into a writing practice, a community, a means of financial security. I don’t do a lot of planning for it because I like it to be an organic response to whatever is going on in my world. I’m not a planner, in the slightest. I’m trying to be better about that, especially where money is concerned, as I’m 36 and just got married, so I’d like to stop being stressed and grinding my teeth all the time. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m being a sellout for not wanting to grind my teeth over money, but whoever would judge me isn’t going to pay my bills.

In your essay On Bones, you state “When I was still watching A Handmaid’s Tale, that vision of a fundamentalist dystopia, I would think, ‘At least I’d be cooking.’” Is cooking your idea of utopia?

Yes, I am happiest in the kitchen. I like sous chef tasks – chopping and keeping an eye on everything. I don’t think I’m the most creative cook, but I know how to move in the kitchen and how to do a lot of things at once. It’s very satisfying to me.

If our bodies are the map of our gastronomy, what do you want your work’s legacy to be?

Anyone paying attention and eating less meat because of my work is a win for me. I just want to help people be more conscious of the fact that their food has a bigger life than just being in the supermarket and then consumed. In the US, we’ve really been cut off from this reality by design, for the sake of profits for big corporate food businesses. Reconnecting consciously to what we eat I think just brings a lot more joy, intention and connection to everyday life, and we all need that.

Anyone paying attention and eating less meat because of my work is a win for me.

Tell us something you love about Puerto Rico that isn’t mentioned enough within mainstream media.

Puerto Rico has many challenges, none of which are due to its people, who repeatedly get into the street to fight for their rights. But it’s here that I’ve met people who care for me quite genuinely, in a way that’s made me see what care really is, and that has been a real blessing.

Alicia in San Juan | Photo by Gabriela N. Baéz

How do your worlds of writing and food overlap?

I have to cook to write, so storytelling and food overlap for me in a very literal way. I’ll have weeks where I write a ton but my cooking is very perfunctory, not very active or thoughtful. Then I have weeks where I don’t write very much, but I cook and bake a lot, and am very physical in the kitchen, and that makes the writing weeks possible. Writing requires, for me, a relaxed state that I cultivate through active cooking and baking work.

You mention a wealth of fellow writers, cooks, academics and artists within your newsletters. Tell us about an “outrageously good” food media that we should know about. 

Sourced Journeys is just absolutely fabulous. Anna Sulan Masing and Chloe-Rose Crabtree, the editors behind it, are wildly smart, wildly empathetic, and are just two of the best thinkers on food that I have encountered. I feel lucky when I read their work, even just their Instagram Stories!

Why do we need to go ‘beyond the stale’? 

I see this movement in food media as creating a really strong alternative to big magazines and newspaper sections that have owned the narrative. The indie publishing sphere isn’t quite as big yet, but the people who care know we’re here and more people are finding us. To be part of it, I’d say be true to the uniqueness and specificity of your life. The best thing about working outside of traditional media is that you get to be hyper-specific to your location, your perspective, your politics.

What is a simple ritual that brings you joy or satisfaction daily?

My morning run, which I undertake every weekday, even though it’s wildly hot here in San Juan by 7am. I get to see the ocean and it just gives me so much energy for the day. I also finish the run at the coffee shop, where I get a black iced Americano, which also gives me so much energy for the day. I also let myself rest, which is a privilege not everyone has but is not a luxury in the least. Other than that, I put on perfume every day. It helps me feel like I’m taken care of.

What food do you or could you eat every day?

A thick slice of sourdough toast browned in olive oil, spread with peanut butter, topped with sliced banana (preferably guineo manzano, which has the tartness of apple), sprinkled with Maldon – nothing better.

Alicia’s banana bread

Now let’s play ‘Protect, Create, Avoid’. In your idea of TOPIA, what would you choose to treasure, invent and banish forever?

Protect the land and sea; create a collective sense of responsibility; avoid monocrops.

What’s your rallying cry to people who think they can’t do **** to make a difference and make the world just that bit better?

Do it anyway, because a change in yourself and the energy you put into the world is a change in the world. We aren’t separate from the world; we are of it.

Lastly, what’s the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on earth?

I don’t tempt death! I’m a very superstitious Catholic.

Thank you for speaking to TOPIA and being part of our World of Good.

What’s so good about this?

BEYOND THE STALE is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the indie storytellers and tastemakers changing media for the better – whether in food, science or sex – by addressing its blind spots. Thanks to honest blogs, rich podcasts and the rise of the newsletter, these rock ‘n’ roll raconteurs, many of whom have yet to see their identities reflected within wider media, are building communities and creating spaces that don’t have to cater to the masses and mainstream narratives.

Alicia Kennedy is part of a new generation creating fiercely engaging and compelling work that provides a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, histories, neighbourhoods, politics and global perspectives. Subscribe here for essays, the and recipe dispatches.

Meet the writer

Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a London-based food and culture writer. The former Clevelander and former New Mexican dance anthropologist is a contributing writer for the travel cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has also been featured in Whetstone Journal, Pit Magazine, Heated by Bitman, Courier Media and Sierra Magazine. Her work focuses on storytelling, identity and communication – whether through dance, food, cultural practices or Instagram Stories. She often wonders how she ended up living on a chilly island, and how late is too late to make the day’s last cuppa without risking the sacrifice of sleep. Follow @AKatzKennedy.

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