'One person’s rigid, unhealthy ritual is another person’s comfort food'
A conversation with food and culture writer Alicia Kennedy.
Alicia Kennedy is a writer from New York based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who writes about food culture, politics, and media in her weekly newsletter, “From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy.” Central to Alicia’s work and mine (in different ways) is the question of why our thoughts and habits around food and eating are so important—and so joyful, painful, or complicated.
We spoke recently about why some people really don’t love to eat, negotiating the relationship with our appetites, the prevailing Americans attitude that “junk food” is the only indulgent food, and more.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
MJ: You’ve written that you are “bored to tears by books about food that don’t give me anything about the author’s relationship to eating.” How would you describe your current relationship to food?
AK: It’s really complicated right now. It’s not just my hobby, it’s my work. It’s feeding me and my husband. It’s too many things right now, I think, now that I have more of a domestic existence as a married person, and because I’m the one who works at home, and because I am a controlling person about the kitchen, it all falls to me. I’m tired right now. I don’t feel like cooking very much right now. I’ll get a burst of creative cooking energy but I don’t want to make dinner, you know?
I also don’t like to go out to eat much. It’s very expensive here—everything’s expensive everywhere right now—but [San Juan] isn’t a city where you can easily go out for a slice of pizza. While I love to procure food and cook food and go out to eat, I just have to be so much more conscious of things here than I was in New York.
Sounds like it’s a lot of thought work.
It’s a lot of thought work and it’s a lot of body work. I spent my day on Sunday recipe testing and then I was in a lot of pain in my hips because I don’t wear shoes when I’m in the kitchen, which I know I should, but it bothers my dog. It’s all sorts of labor, while also being the thing I love.
“We’re always having to negotiate our relationship to our appetites.”
You love to eat, and I do too, but I often think: “Is there really anyone who wouldn’t say that?” What do people who love to eat do differently—or how do they think differently—than people who don’t love to eat, even though we all have to?
If you didn’t grow up with the idea of food being an exciting thing, or you don’t grow up around people who love to eat, then I guess you just think of it as sustenance. I didn’t grow up that way. I often think there’s often a gendered approach to it too—I’ve met a lot more men who don’t love to eat than I’ve met women who don’t love to eat. I guess some people relate to food only on that level of sustenance, but I don’t think women for the most part have that luxury. I think for us, food is always a thing. We’re always having to negotiate our relationship to our appetites.
From “On Appetite,” you wrote: “We all have an appetite, some of us resent it, some of us relish it.” How did the idea of resenting or relishing your appetite change when you were having a more unhealthy relationship to food? [Alicia wrote in her piece “On ‘Health’” about having a “bout of orthoexia.”] Did you resent your appetite at that time?
No, actually, I felt really good. Once my friend told me, “I think you’re not eating enough, I think you’ve lost too much weight,” I was like, “You know what, you’re right.” And so I went right back to eating the way I used to. But from the other side of it, I could see that I was in a really weird zone of drinking green juice and just really, really obsessed with the idea of being healthy.
I never resented my appetite because when I was doing it I felt nourished, but just in a different way than I would have usually. I wasn’t hungry, but I was also clearly in a fucked-up place. It was the first time in my life that I noticed I was losing weight. I was getting stronger, I could do all these different poses in yoga and I was getting really addicted to that feeling; that feeling of lightness I think is what I was obsessed with, and that feeling of having a ton of energy.
When someone’s obsessively exercising or obsessively eating very healthy or doing a raw vegan diet, they're like, “I feel the best I’ve ever felt, I have so much energy,” I know what that is like, and I also know that you hit a wall—not everyone hits a wall with raw veganism, but it’s just not a sustainable way of being.
I’m thinking about your writing on caring about where your food comes from. What can come to mind when I read the word “caring” related to food—this says a lot about how I grew up, unfortunately—is “watching what you eat,” caring about how food affects the body. How do you express care for what you eat that doesn’t have anything to do with its effects on your body?
I didn’t grow up with diet culture in my life. We always had full-fat milk, food in its fullest forms. Without anyone using the term “whole foods,” it was: You eat the food in its most natural state. Of course, I grew up on Long Island, there were Lipton noodles, there was convenient stuff. But also, soda—you only drink soda for an occasion, if you’re eating pizza or popcorn. My mom was always like, “Don’t drink diet soda…you need to have the sugar because then your body will respond the way it’s supposed to, instead of putting a weird chemical in your body.”
So I grew up with a very intuitive relationship to food. You ate because you were hungry and you indulged because you felt like it, and probably the only reason I was able to get away with that is that especially as a kid, I never gained weight.
When I talk about “caring about your food,” I care about how it tastes, and I also think about where it came from, the provenance of it. I talk to farmers every weekend whose food I eat and that’s very meaningful to me. I know that’s a cliché, but I like that, it’s part of the process of enjoying. That’s what caring about food means for me, definitely influenced by growing up in a very suburban American relationship to food, but also a relationship to food that was just a bit more conscious of how things tasted and nutrition than about the visual effects something might have. No one ever told me to stop eating.
In “On Routine” you discuss your ritual of eating oatmeal every morning and how it’s your “tether to reality.” There have been times when I was eating the same thing every day but that came from a rigid habit of maybe not trusting myself with food, or worrying about “unhealthy” foods. Do you feel like you shifted your ritual from a place of rigidness to a place of joyfulness?
I started eating oatmeal all the time when I first went vegan and was super into yoga, which was probably the time in my life when I had the least healthy relationship to food that I’ve ever had. The oatmeal actually became a ritual that was part of healing from that; I’m vegetarian now but when I was vegan and realized I wasn’t eating enough and was pushing my body too hard, that’s when I would eat oatmeal with two bananas, a scoop of peanut butter, maybe some hemp seeds for protein, and it was part of getting back to eating in a way that made sense.
The oats for me are just a nice, grounding ritual and when I don’t have them I feel terrible. I need to have the oats every day, which sounds unhealthy…sometimes I do make something different for breakfast but I always end up being like, “I should have had the oats.”
You just said “it sounds unhealthy.” I’ve seen instances of celebrity diets getting published where people will say, “She eats the same thing every day,” as if it’s suggestive of something disordered, which it certainly can be, but I feel there’s room for the notion that to you, this is a kind of comfort food.
Yeah, that’s what’s funny: One person’s rigid, unhealthy ritual is another person’s comfort food. I feel like a lot of thinking about food is about context.
I feel it’s hard to talk in the public sphere about any kind of diet—meaning, literally, what you eat, not following a fad diet—without people projecting stereotypes and assumptions or accusations of eating disorders onto you. As a vegetarian, do you feel you’re coming up against these stereotypes?
I think people don’t really think anything about vegetarians anymore … vegetarians aren’t as offensive as vegans to people’s sensibilities. When you’re vegan, there is a lot of crap to deal with because people assume it’s a diet to lose weight. People assume you’re very health-obsessed. People assume you’re rigid and weird. I became vegan through baking and having this new consciousness around ingredients; I became vegan through indulgence and through trying to make the best cookies possible. I wanted to prove to people that veganism could be indulgent, too. I’ve had this back-and-forth relationship with veganism. I was never a “junk food” vegan, eating Oreos and drinking Coca-Cola. I do not like that kind of veganism because it’s very “for the animals” but it’s not for the planet, and it’s not for people.
“There’s this constant idea, and it’s very American, that if one person eats a certain way or thinks about food a certain way, then it’s a judgment on every other way that people eat.”
This idea of indulgence—you’ve said that people seem to think that caring about your food means you can’t indulge in your food. [From “On Appetite” again: “I try to care about what I eat and where it comes from, which some people would argue comes at the expense of indulgence.”] Where does that attitude come from?
I think it’s a very American idea that the only pleasure from food is from eating crap food. Bon Appétit did this big “junk food” package; there’s this very strange idea that the only way you’re really treating yourself or enjoying yourself is by eating McDonald’s or Lay’s potato chips.
[The idea] that eating crap and eating things that are demonstrably bad for you is the only way to have pleasure, I think, is because our vegetables usually taste really bad. We don’t have a real food culture beyond hamburgers and hot dogs and French fries, even though I love French fries. There’s just this lack of appreciation for beautiful foods. It’s like, “Well if I’m eating a brownie then I’m indulging and really enjoying myself, if I’m eating a Big Mac I’m really enjoying myself, but if I’m eating a salad I’m not enjoying myself,” when you can make a really great salad.
I understand this is kind of how we’re trained and raised in the U.S. Remember when Obama ate arugula and everyone was flipping out? [He said to farmers in Iowa in 2007, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?”] There’s this constant idea, and it’s very American, that if one person eats a certain way or thinks about food a certain way, then it’s a judgment on every other way that people eat.
The way people get about Michael Pollan and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the way people get about, like, Gwyneth Paltrow—these people have nothing to do with you if you don’t want them to. People act like local food, seasonal food, going to the farmer’s market, that is an oppressive idea when, no, the oppressive idea is that it’s really difficult to afford or access different kinds of food if that’s what you want. It’s the fact that McDonald’s is everywhere and that is the powerful force in American food.
It’s very strange to me how people try to act like farmer’s markets and local food have power in the U.S. just because they have this elite connotation, when it’s like, hello, we give $38 billion to industrial meat and dairy, what are you talking about?
I was reading the Bon Appétit package today too and Anne Helen Petersen, who I love, wrote something about Coca-Cola helping migraines. Are we really going to go hard for Coca-Cola?
Coca-Cola is terrible! You can look up what they’ve done in Latin America as a company, you can look up high-fructose corn syrup, that’s not a good thing. The way we use land for corn in genetically modified corn, this is all terrible.
Having indulgences, enjoying different corporate food products is not a crime. But the thing is, people treat them or talk about them publicly in a way that suggests it’s totally A-OK and absolutely fabulous to eat McDonald’s every day and drink Coca-Cola every day—no, we already know this isn’t nutritionally sound, this isn’t environmentally sound, the labor issues are extensive. You can talk about, “I occasionally eat McDonald’s,” but you can’t be like, “McDonald’s is a good thing in the world.”
Last question: What food or eating-related topics are most on your mind right now?
About what we were discussing about local food being elitist: I’m going to be talking to some local farmers about how their work is perceived versus what it actually is. Just trying to dig into what does caring about local food look like what it’s not an inaccessible type of elitist discussion—can we talk about it rationally and not get into this weird idea that you’re being force-fed asparagus?
That’s the question, right, how do we talk about this stuff rationally? It’s so hard because food is central to our humanity, our personalities, how we think about our bodies, and all of this baggage and complicated stuff, but how do we separate it out?
Yeah. For someone who grew up with a more diet culture-infused way of eating, they’ll read my work differently than I will understand my own words, you know? It’s all about trying to have a good faith conversation about all our contexts that we bring to what we do. I hope this gets us to a better place with food, because it is very possible.
I very much agree on America having no particular "food culture." I think it's why people find it so dang hard to eat sometimes. In other places, you just eat. In America, it's like, "Should I do Keto? Paleo? Atkins? Whole 30? Should I do intermittent fasting?" Etc. The lack of a food culture means that corporations have stepped in to tell people how and what and when to eat, which has been a disaster. Especially when you grow up in the thick of diet culture, it's a total mind-f*ck to figure out a way of eating that's sustainable and enjoyable. (At least, it was for me.) I also really liked her thoughts on the perceived "elitism" of local, seasonal food and farmer's markets--it's so true. But that's the way people used to eat, so it's crazy how it's been flipped.