Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.
In this conversation Siobhan Phillips, author of Benefit, and Alicia Kennedy, a writer based in San Juan who focuses on food culture and whose cultural and culinary history of plant-based eating will be published in 2023, discuss food writing, labor, the history of sugar, and the revolutionary potential of recipes. Their conversation is part of the BLP Conversations series from Bellevue Literary Press, featuring dialogues that explore the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences.
Siobhan Phillips: I thought we could start with the question of genre. You’re a writer, and I think of you as an essayist. You’re finishing a nonfiction book. You are also a “food writer.” I’m interested in what “food writing” is, and if that’s a meaningful question to you.
Alicia Kennedy: That is a meaningful question. I wrestle with the category of food writer because I think that we are taught to think of a food writer as a very specific type of person who gives you a specific type of guidance or worldview. It’s supposed to come from a place of aspiration. And so I’ve always struggled with, “Do I call myself a food writer?” I think I want to reclaim it, so food writer doesn’t mean siloed—away from literature, away from journalism, away from cultural criticism.
SP: Yes. As a reader, too, reading and thinking about food is so influential to me, but it feeds into other things. About aspiration: I’ve been thinking about food labor, how an aspirational view of food can hide the labor of food. In cookbooks, for example, a genre that’s basically directing people to do work, and yet also designed to obfuscate that. I’m very interested in how we think about the work of food, how we narrate that, how we recognize that.
AK: I’ve been thinking about this, too. In my newsletter I’ve written about food tech—my constant obsession, that I hate!—disappearing or erasing the work of women and the work of people who have written cookbooks, by suggesting that food tech is first to develop things in vegan cooking that we’ve actually had for a long time. To come in and say “we’re doing it for the first time”: that’s erasing work, mainly women’s work.
And as a food writer I’m constantly trying to think about the labor of food. What does that look like and what does it mean? In my newsletter, one of my most popular posts was just me saying that, during the week, I have certain meals that are very low-work. Someone commented: all I ever needed was someone to tell me not to try so hard during the week! Yeah, just rely on the things you’d like to eat all the time and build your pantry around that. That’s also how you cut back on food waste. But we are not trained to think of the food writer as someone who gives you permission to do things the easy way.
What I want to do—and I think this is why I take so much from other types of writing—is food writing that is in conversation with everything else that’s going on. At the end of the day, the people doing the cooking are going to be exhausted from a million other things. So people make fun of food writing with that constant viral tweet: I don’t want your life story; just give me the recipe. People think these are very separate things, the writing about food and the experience of food. How do we bring those together? If food writing is thought of as a luxury, that does a disservice to how people relate to food in general. I want to think about how the politics of the food affects what we actually eat.
SP: Yes. There are some common moves in capitalist ideology (I’ve learned about this from Sianne Ngai, among others) regarding the labor that capitalism needs but doesn’t want to credit, One of the moves is: okay, tech can take care of this. Another is: we’re going to make this part of ignorable or unseen work, the workers geographically displaced or racialized, gendered, in various ways that make them unworthy of attention. Another move is to say: well, this isn’t really labor. It’s leisure or it’s personal development. What you’re saying about crediting tech, in food discourse, may be concomitant with ignoring labor and also seeing labor as aspirational.
AK: Right. And your book is about sugar. Sugar labor. Someone one hundred years later is doing a fellowship because of the money garnered from sugar labor and having a very, I would say, wishy-washy relationship to that labor. In the creation of the finance-based capitalism that we know now, we go from people dying in the fields to wealth that never actually makes its way back to the place where it came from. We detach from the physical; it’s a marker of success to detach from physical labor. Even though physical labor is the source of wealth. It’s the source of our food. But why sugar, specifically, for the book?
SP: Many reasons. Back when I started the book, if I was thinking about food—I had some good choices about certain things I eat, in produce and other products. I could know where they’re from, and some of the labor involved, and some of the environmental/ ecological impacts. I could feel more-or-less good about them. But sugar. . . I felt like there were no good choices for me as a consumer, in the place where I was, the US in the twenty-first century and in a position of privilege. That was interesting.
Also, it was about a relationship to history. The late nineteenth, early-twentieth century is a moment that has been almost erased or forgotten in our narrative—I shouldn’t say our—in my narrative, my consciousness of US history. The collusion of the US empire, forces of white supremacy and racialization, forces of capital expansion, in the period, say, from the 1890s through World War One—I didn’t think about that much. Sugar is central to that period. I relied on a lot of amazing historical and sociological work about this. What I was trying to get at was this feeling of being in a system that is wrong but seems inescapable. Sugar was a way of focusing all of that.
AK: I thought about sugar—I guess my piece is about this—I thought about sugar a lot because I was a baker. And I was using organic, fair-trade ingredients. Yet I didn’t think much about labor. There’s a rum distillery here in Puerto Rico that’s called San Juan Artisan Distillers and they’ve replanted sugar—sugar is very important to the history of Puerto Rico, obviously. I was there to interview them, and we watched people cut the cane, grind the cane, in the hot sun. It’s absolutely brutal work. Not just for people who worked the land in the 1800s and 1900s—for people now, even if we have more technology, maybe better wages. And you think: I have to take more care with this ingredient, and I have to use less of it, and I have to think about it more.
Sugar grows here; there’s wild cane that people use to make pitorro,which is a moonshine rum, and guarapo, which is a sugarcane drink that’s unfermented. But then you have all these abandoned refineries everywhere. Because of the US empire, which took Puerto Rico from Spain and then forced sugar upon the people, forced that labor upon the people. Towns were built around sugar. And then the industry died a slow death over about 50 years. Now sugar is imported. A sugar-growing place where, now, you cannot buy ethical sugar—you can’t even get organic fair-trade sugar. Meanwhile the legacy of sugar has very clear, daily repercussions for agriculture, for how we eat. Agriculture here became so focused on sugar that now we’re importing almost ninety percent of the food in the supermarkets.
So, it was interesting to go from my position of being a baker in New York and trying to do the best I could with sugar to being here and seeing there’s no way to do your best with sugar. The thing is—and this is what I’m always hitting up against—what do we do with these inheritances after they’ve proven that they are disastrous?
SP: I want to share a great sentence from your piece about this question: “I would argue that if we ever learn to value sugar, the land it’s grown on, the labor of the people who work that land, and the fruits of sugar’s existence in our kitchens, it will mean that we have created a whole new world.” Yes. I’m interested in your reporting on the reclamation of agriculture in Puerto Rico. There’s other reporting about reclamation of sugar’s agricultural heritage, for example on Sapelo island in Georgia, where the descendants of people who were enslaved for sugar production are working to reclaim and continue their culture. Maurice Bailey and Nik Heynen, two of the people working on this project, write about this “liberation farming” in an article; they explain, “It was never that they forgot about how horrible slavery was. Rather, the Geechee community created new experiences and activities to celebrate the crops they enjoyed and were skilled at growing.”
AK: Yes, here there’s been reclamation of agriculture. Through disaster, through hurricane and economic recession, you realize that the most important thing is having food, having culturally significant food. We can argue about what is culturally significant, if a cuisine has been built through forced migration, through colonization. It’s difficult and complicated. But if we don’t create, if we don’t grow food, we’re up for total disaster. Current laws give people huge tax breaks for moving here—it’s driven now by Bitcoin; Puerto Rico is being used as a space for growing capital. Because of this capital influx people are being displaced. Rents are unaffordable. A new kind of displacement—but there are so many parallels to the impact of sugar. And Puerto Ricans are saying, we need to get back to a relationship with our land as the land becomes more and more precious.
SP: That relationship returns us to more care with ingredients, using less of some ingredients, more of others.
AK: And this goes back to what food writing is. One person’s access is noteveryone’s access. We have recipes that not everyone can make. When we talk about food, there’s the fancy-aspirational and then there’s the utterly un-aspirational, but where are we talking about the middle ground: what is possible, and how to change what’s possible for more people?
That’s where I try to come from as a food writer and as a recipe developer. My friend Daniela Galarza writes a recipe newsletter for the Washington Postand has so many substitutions and variations. That isn’t about being pretentious. It’s about reality.
SP: With climate change and increased migration, the availability of certain foods is going to change. People need culturally appropriate foods and they may be living in different kinds of environments. So, this becomes a matter of sheer practicality.
But there’s a beautiful tension, because I also like the argument—it was in the New York Times, an essay against substitutions, for cooking recipes exactly as written. . .
AK: Genevieve Ko.
SP: Exactly, yes. It’s a way of entering into or respecting other cultures. I really appreciated that. I think we need more of both of those ways of looking at recipes.
I want to talk more about preferences and culturally appropriate food. Sidney Mintz’s work about sugar, and the work that comes after that, like April Merleaux’s, shows not just how sugar created and perpetuated a system of colonialism and capital, but also how sugar changed people’s tastes. But is liking sweet things just wrong, or false consciousness? There’s a great, provocative essay by Gabriel Rosenberg about the status of pleasure in food, and how re-shaping our food system can’t ignore people’s actual pleasure. I wonder if you have thoughts about the tension between what people want, or feel is necessary for them to keep going in this very difficult world—and what people could want in a better world.
AK: Yes, I think about this all the time. I straddle the line. People say, “I just love a Hershey’s Bar.” That’s fine, but you can’t ignore everything else that goes along with that. It’s like saying: there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism so I can eat whatever I want. I run into this a lot, of course, writing about meat. People have this idea that they’re supposed to have a lot of meat, all the time—regardless of how this affects workers, the environment, and animals. At what point do you say, that preference is not worth the pain that it causes? These things are difficult to talk about because there’s so much nostalgia at play. And the world is a very difficult place. But what are other ways of giving pleasure? Hanna Garth’s book Food in Cuba really changed my thinking on this. I do think, again, this is where the food writer or the cookbook author comes in: “Here’s how we get pleasure and joy without perpetuating bad systems that create so much pain and toxicity in the world.” Reframing that isn’t a loss; it’s a new way of interacting with the world.
SP: Also recognizing that people are all different; there are all sorts of different needs and wants that no one can know from the outside. But the two alternatives are not the pleasures we already know versus no pleasure. There may be other pleasures to discover.
Siobhan Phillips is a Rhodes Scholar who studied English Literature at Yale and Oxford Universities and Poetry at the University of East Anglia before earning her PhD in English Language and Literature from Yale. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, Artforum, Aeon, and elsewhere. An associate professor of English at Dickinson College, she lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Benefit is her first novel.
Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan who focuses on food culture and whose cultural and culinary history of plant-based eating, Meatless, will be out in 2023. She writes a weekly newsletter on food culture, media, and politics, From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, and hosts a podcast of the same name. Her work has recently appeared in the New York Times, Bon Appétit, Eater, Gawker, and other publications.