The Follow: Alicia Kennedy, Food Media Outsider

In the latest installment of 'The Follow,' Abe Beam chats with Alicia Kennedy about the experience of being a food writer in San Juan.
By    March 11, 2022

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Abe Beame affirms that Detroit has the coolest home crowd in the NBA. 

The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people on Zoom shooting the shit. 

It’s easy to be cynical about the current state of professional food writing. There are still some (very) good writers doing great work at major publications, asking difficult questions, thinking critically, and reporting actual pieces, but the majority of the content has become crushed by the force of capital: content aggregating, regurgitating big money restaurant group PR that serves as advertisements for new and scenery spots, seemingly doing nothing to edit the copy they receive in their inbox, and personal interest clickbait shlock that reads like it was spit out by a hashtag generator. 

The hold of established food media, and media in general, has been eaten into by social media. Yes, it makes room for independent voices, but also has made room for “reports” from completely uneducated and unserious casuals with nice smiles or kitschy bits, who may have missed the day they covered journalistic integrity at the J school they definitely attended. It’s led to a further blurring of the lines between real reporting and sponsored content that the institutions they’re killing began erasing decades ago. In its least charitable form, the industry has become a sycophant army preaching to its monied choir. 

Alicia Kennedy was once a product of this rotten fruit. The Long Island native worked in the New York City content mines for years, before moving to Puerto Rico, then starting a newsletter during the pandemic that has made her one of the most original, distinct, and read voices in independent food coverage. Because she lives in a colony off-continent, because she’s a vegetarian, and because she’s a fucking great writer, her voice isn’t crowded with all the pandering to interest-driven bullshit, or conceived to illicit the max number of likes and RTs, that cross contaminates much of what passes for late capitalist food writing. 

She writes about our personal relationships with food, how we eat, the economics of the dying restaurant industry she once participated in, the role of colonialism and inequality in how we understand food, the actual growing and production of food and the people who produce it, our duty to engage in mindful, responsible and enlightened consumption, and many, many other fascinating subjects that won’t be covered by the finance bro who reviews sandwich spots and $400 a plate tasting menu restaurants exclusively in and around the neighborhood he lives in.

This column exists to give me an excuse to talk to writers and thinkers like Alicia, so this month she was gracious enough to allow me to use it for that purpose. This one is for the food nerds, and people who sense they’re being force fed monotonous crap when they’re reading through food “news” without being able to articulate exactly what’s wrong, so I hope you’ll subscribe to Alicia’s newsletter, and check this out. – Abe Beame

(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

So, you had what I would define as sort of a conventional path set up in food media. You wrote for the Village Voice and lived in New York. Could you explain how you ended up as a popular food newsletter author in Puerto Rico?

Alicia Kennedy: I was a copy editor for New York Magazine, then quit in 2015 because I had started to write a little bit about food because I didn’t see any future for myself there and was kind of losing my mind at the amount of work and the expectations. You can only correct grammar on blog posts for so long before you lose your mind. It’s not like working on the magazine, where you’re putting something out every week, it’s a non-stop, never ending nightmare of content. So I started writing about food in 2015, which is after I had a vegan micro bakery in Long Island from 2012-2013. After I decided owning a bakery was not a good way to make a living I combined my interests in food and the magazine world and would write about food.

So I started writing about food in 2015 in places like The Hairpin, The Awl, Munchies because they were the best way to start writing about food at the time, the I left New York Magazine for a contract at Food & Wine for six months because I thought that would be a good experience to get my feet in the door at a glossy food magazine because I think I wanted my life to go in that sort of direction, or I at least thought that would be something possible. But I was really unhappy at Food & Wine. I wrote a piece that did really well called “Why 2016 is the Year to Surrender to Vegan Cheese” (Author’s Note: reposted from a secondary site, Alicia’s piece seems to have been taken down from the F&W website for some reason), and then they thought, “Oh we should write about vegan stuff” but then they never thought to give me any assignments to do it, they just like had the full-time people do it, so I was like “Fuck this place”.

So I quit there, and that’s when I really started to freelance. I became an associate editor at Edible Brooklyn, which was part time, and was writing a lot on top of that. And then in 2016 I started writing for The Village Voice. I became a contributing writer on foodstuff and particularly vegan/vegetarian foodstuff for them, and I continued to freelance ever since, and in 2019 I moved to San Juan, I had not intended to move to San Juan, I had been coming here a lot since 2015. My grandmother was Puerto Rican but that had no real bearing on why I just liked to write about the food here because it’s a really interesting ongoing colonial situation in agriculture, in restaurants, etc. In 2019 I came on a trip to write something kind of stupid about a bar and met the person whose now my husband, it wasn’t a big decision for my career or anything.

Ok. Yeah, something I like to project onto you is you decided that you didn’t like the cynical, boring clickbait economy of New York food media, but I guess that’s not the case.

Alicia Kennedy: Well that’s actually true, it’s true because even before I moved here I was kind of making an escape plan from writing about food for food magazines, and I’m still on that path because I think you’re just not able to say anything, at all. The piece I’m writing right now is for Oxford American, the editors who come to write about things are not the editors at food magazines, they’re the editors at general interest magazines. So, I do hate that world. I wasn’t really making any headway in being one of those people. I was just not going to become an editor at one of those magazines, they were never going to hire me. (Laughs)

I’ve kind of come under the spell of “Food Tiktok”, viewing, not making obviously, and as a result I’m seeing this future where social media takes the place of the traditional food media outlets. I’m torn between whether or not this is a good or bad thing. First of all, would you buy that as a potential future for where the industry is going, and secondly, what do you think that future looks like? Will we be in a better place or a worse place?

Alicia Kennedy: I mean I think we’re in it. I think we’re in that future already because I find that people like to get their recipes from social media. They’re not really on blogs anymore. You know New York Times Cooking of course does insane numbers, Bon Appetit is still somewhere people go. But, I do think they’re finding the recipes they’re getting from those places on social media. They’re following the people they enjoy and then they’re following their work or they’re following a cook and they’re not necessarily interested in one publication in terms of its recipe work that it’s doing.

And to an extent, it works to my advantage, this personality driven food media. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing. When I think of a place that’s doing really great work in food media I think of Vittels and I think of Whetstone. I think of places that aren’t necessarily recipe focused. And so I do think we’re maybe seeing this kind of segmentation where there’s “food writing” and “food journalism” and then there’s recipe stuff that’s mostly social media focused. And it’s actually a really interesting feminization, because social media is such a feminine space, or it’s understood as a feminine space in a lot of ways, and I think that recipes and food media were initially part of the women’s pages at newspapers. And so we’re kind of, I guess, re-consolidating that in a different way, because obviously now we have so many different types of voices, and genders, and types of people who are able to contribute to that space, to make it a bit better than it was.

But I can’t be troubled by where people get their recipes. I’ve seen a lot of Tiktok videos that are not how I cook. So I’m like “Huh, ok that’s what’s happening there. Not for me, but, cool.” I try not to judge. What I do judge is food magazines still don’t have a real relationship to agriculture, and labor, and climate change in a way that they should, because it’s so significant. But I do think it’s interesting that people (on social) are so into a Food Network style of vibe of a personality rather than- I’m not going to say a personality doesn’t have a philosophy behind it- but I think people really don’t trust media basically, so they’re like, “I want to eat like a person who eats like me.” And they can just go to the supermarket and do something with that, which I guess was also how Julia Childs became famous too.

Yeah, I think it’s a trade off. You’re sort of exchanging this educated class of food writers for this decentralized structure, and sort of democratizing it.You discuss food in a holistic way I don’t see getting a lot of space online. It’s recipes but there’s also the politics, the experiential aspect, MFK Fisher stuff, what food is, what it means. I was wondering if it’s a function of where you’re located. You said it’s a coincidence you ended up in San Juan, but do you think removing yourself from the hubs of discourse has added to your range of subjects and given you the perspective to serve as a sort of outsider critic?

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, for sure. I think I was always going to come from a different angle in my writing because I started when I was vegan, and have been vegetarian. So I was never going to be the typical food critic/writer because I was already working in this alternative space. And because I already had experience running a small business in food I also understand food cost and how difficult it is to actually break even on something if you’re trying to source your ingredients well.

And I also worked in and out of the industry my whole adulthood, like right before I moved to San Juan I was working in a wine bar in the East Village and I was writing at the same time, so that was a weird point because I was reading people writing stuff about like, “How To Have The Best Experience At A Restaurant!” And they’d say, “Show up when they first open!” And I’m like, I hate when people show up then! Give me 15-20 minutes at least to chill out and have all my ducks in a row. That’s not how you get the best service. Where are you getting this information?

Kitchen doesn’t have all of their prep ready.

Alicia Kennedy: Exactly! So I already had all these experiences that set me apart from some other food writers, but at the same time I was really stuck when I lived in New York of doing all the things everyone else was doing, all the time. So I think when I moved to San Juan it was sixish months later that I started my newsletter, and I felt like at that point I had nothing to lose, I was getting money from the government, I figured that my food writing career might be over because my contracts had dried up, I wasn’t in New York anymore, I didn’t know if my book was going to sell, and I was fine about that. I felt very much like, “Ok, this part of my life is over, I have to figure out what the next part of my life is.” And for some reason (the newsletter) has been successful, and I think the reason is living here has been this other differentiating factor in my work.

I took a lot for granted when I lived in New York in terms of options and seasonality. We can get everything, whenever we want. And I think now what I have access to is more aligned with what everyone else has access to for the most part, in terms of ingredients. I have more access to tropical fruits and vegetables, and that’s great, and my seasons are different, but at the same time the access I have to staple ingredients is a lot more common to most people than they are to Brooklyn and Long Island.

And here, the restaurant scene is very small and intense. I wrote about it when I didn’t live here and didn’t think anything of it, but now living here, I don’t want to write about restaurants because I don’t want to insult people, which means I can’t write about them honestly, and I’m just far less interested in restaurants because the good ones here are really expensive, and have become far less a part of my life than they were in New York. We go to probably the same neighborhoody places I like to go to on a regular basis where I feel it’s money well spent.

That’s good because it gets me to think about food on a different scale, in a different scope, which is, if restaurants aren’t defining the way I write about food, what is defining the ways I write about food? Getting to ask myself that question has been really interesting, and really important, and has given me a renewed interest in writing about food, because I was really hitting a wall with restaurants and bars when I moved here because “Me Too” happened and it was like, what are we doing about compensation, and we’re only talking to chef owners, and reporting stories on labor without having a staff job and without having the backup of that protection is just not possible. You’re just not able to protect yourself properly. If a publicist is trying to bully you it just feels very scary and you just don’t have anywhere to go about it.

So it was about getting myself off thinking those are the most important stories in food, and those are not the most important stories in food. You know, the James Beard Foundation just put its longlist out today of chef nominations and I was like, this is stuff that I think is not what needs to be talked about. It’s not what’s interesting.

I always thought that idea was so fucking stupid. Like, how could you be The Best baker in the Southwest in 2021? Like, what does that even mean?

Alicia Kennedy: (Laughs) Exactly, yeah!

Did you eat at every bakery in the region everyday over the course of an entire year to make that evaluation?

Alicia Kennedy: This is what kills me about the James Beard Foundation restaurant awards, is that the people judging it are not on the ground. They have real roots maybe in one city in the region they’re talking about, if that. But otherwise, they’re talking to other people, they’re not getting paid, it’s volunteers trying to figure it out, and it’s all based on nothing. It’s not based on the reality of the situation.

It’s a popularity contest.

Alicia Kennedy: (Laughs) Yeah.

Fucking stupid (Laughs). All of your stuff is really interesting. I’m a subscriber, but your essay on Salt (Author’s note: Alicia wrote a fantastic essay on why she’s no longer using Diamond Crystal Kosher salt because of it’s problematic corporate parentage that you should definitely read) was particularly fascinating.

Alicia Kennedy: (Laughs) Uh huh.

I know you’re writing a whole book about this, so please don’t step on any of the most important parts, but I read it and I thought, “In theory I agree with this”, but what do you see as the limits of enlightened consumption as a 21st century consumer? It seems impossible to have this informed and fully ethical diet, and not just in terms of what food you’re eating, but so many of your life decisions that cause footprint, or cause you, in an infinitesimal way, to give money to companies, as money condenses at the top of our economy and melts together in this umbrella that contaminates everything- my example was, if you’re hanging out with your husband and watching Netflix, and a movie comes on, are you looking at the production company to make sure they’re not Miramax or something?

Alicia Kennedy: (Laughing) I watch Miramax movies still because they were some of my favorite movies growing up-

I don’t think he’s even getting money off it anymore I’m just using it as a placeholder-

Alicia Kennedy: No but it’s one that I think about. Everytime I see it I think, thanks to this HU-MON-GOUS piece of shit I have these movies that I love as a kid, you know, what does it all mean? You know, I think the salt piece is interesting because I find when I write about a single kind of ingredient of consumer good, that’s when people get the most intense responses to it, because I think people always think what I’m writing about is prescriptive, but I think in the salt piece I’m actually trying to enact the problem of thinking that you can have a perfect kitchen equipped with only ethical ingredients.

I also wanted to enact the problem of listening to chefs and listening to food media, where everyone used Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, and was just like, “This is the best! This is the best!”

I have a box of it behind me in the kitchen (laughs sheepishly).

Alicia Kennedy: Of course! Everyone does, and it’s been drilled into us that this is the best salt. My mom has used Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt my whole conscious life, so then I find out it’s owned by Cargill. The problem that I saw there was no one had told me before that it was owned by them. You know no one ever wrote a story about how this awful agribusiness company was making money in meat processing and other bad dealings. So I felt bamboozled by other food people.

I don’t think it’s possible to be perfect. I think it’s possible to be informed. So I just wanted to go through the thought process to be like, “I wonder what it would be like to swap this salt out.” And the answer is, it would be really expensive to use ethically sourced salt. And because I am who I am, of course people just sent me salt! (laughs)

There’s also the ocean.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, I could just make my own from the ocean. But practically, with the salt thing there really is no good answer, and that’s why I found it interesting.

I don’t know. I think it’s the laziest and most convenient possible perspective, but my eyes will just glaze over when I think about how large and impossible the task is, and sort of get nihilistic about how my decisions would ultimately shape such a huge and intractable problem, but I admire the dedication and perspective. So, I’ll be happy to withdraw the question if you don’t feel like talking about it, but kind of the point of this interview series is talking to people about their experiences online.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah.

And as we’ve been talking about identity, you were involved in one of the most ridiculous, absolutely crazy- like I’ve been on Twitter for two years, I could not believe this happened. It was a “scandal” because somebody had found a picture of you when your hair was straightened and you had been in the sun less. And again, we can move right past this and I won’t include it in the print, but if you would care to discuss it, I found it particularly fascinating, and so stupid. So, what is it like when something like that happens to you? (Author’s note: Alicia was brave enough to leave this in. I’m not going to do the work, or give whoever tried to come after her the dignity of going looking for this year old Tweet, but basically, just to make this clear, a random person came after her after they found, and posted some very old picture of Alicia when she was younger and looked slightly more “white presenting”, I guess? In spite of the fact that she’s never misrepresented who she is, nor should she have to! It was a truly gross attempt at “gotcha” posting that was widely seen for and dismissed as the bullshit it was at the time, but I thought it was an interesting moment to revisit as a unique online experience)

Alicia Kennedy: It was really, really upsetting when that happened. It was literally almost a year ago. I’m still always kind of unpacking that and what happened and what I can and can’t do better to make that not happen again. Because people still have a lot of misconceptions, like you know what it’s like trying to interview people, it’s really hard trying to get their bio right.

Right. Correct.

Alicia Kennedy: It’s just constantly trying to put pieces of things together. The thing about your identity being something that people are trying to piece together is it’s really weird and violating. And that wasn’t the only- that was the most high profile weird shit, but because I live in Puerto Rico now, because I have more sun, because at one point my hair was shorter and was curling more voluminously, people wanted to understand what I am for some reason. I guess because I also write about things that I- I don’t know. It’s just very weird.


Alicia Kennedy: And it’s like, when I lived in New York, no one asked me about any of this. In New York many people are kind of-

Ethnically ambiguous.

Alicia Kennedy: Right. So I’m so comfortable in that sort of space. So the whole thing was very weird, and very off putting, and it makes you feel like you’re nuts. Like you’re putting something out there that people are misinterpreting in some way. Because at the same time, I do want to have claim on my whole self. To be like, “No, I’m not Puerto Rican.” Is not the truth. It’s a difficult space to navigate because there are many truths and people just want you to say you are one thing all the time. And I’m not going to say that. I don’t take up space and for years, I actively have not taken up space on lists of women of color writers. I actively have taken myself off anytime anyone has put me on. If they put me on a list of Latinx writers I take myself off. And it’s because I’m not comfortable with that.

It’s hard to talk about because it was just so weird. It was really nice that so many people came to my defense, that I didn’t even have to say anything, but then there were like weird strange accounts that had no interest, and had never heard of me, that were like, taking the person’s word for it? And bringing up pictures of me where I looked a certain way that they thought signified something, and it was just really strange because I have never been dishonest about it in my work, or my writing, I have never misrepresented myself.

But it’s social media smoke, right? No one was even interested in what was actually going on.

Alicia Kennedy: Exactly. It was a very strange moment, but at the end of the day I’m glad it happened? Because it clarified some things? I don’t know. But there are still some people, sometimes, who misinterpret who I am. This is why everything isn’t real (laughs). We’re all making this all up. Luckily, no one really wants to talk to me about it anymore.

Yeah, I’m sorry, this was just because it’s essentially about Twitter. I thought to your credit you were really patient and respectful where I think a lot of people would be like, “Hey, what are you doing? Go fuck yourself.”

Alicia Kennedy: I think I had to be because I was in a-

Dangerous space.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. I don’t talk about it. It’s so frustrating because I can’t even talk about myself.

You’re half Puerto Rican! Why can’t you talk about it? It’s so bizarre.

Alicia Kennedy: It’s weird.

Jews would never put up with this. Even if you convert you’re allowed to make Jewish jokes.

Alicia Kennedy: Well, I’m only a quarter Puerto Rican, so it is a weird space.

Having to fill out a 23 & Me to identify as who you are seems kind of fucked to me.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. I posted pictures of my parents to clarify for people.

That’s horrible! That’s insane!

Alicia Kennedy: I know, it’s insane. But that’s the only way I was going to make any sense of it, I think, for people.

Well, thank you for humoring me. Let’s never talk about it again. You Tweeted, maybe fancifully, that you’d like to open a restaurant someday, and you used to have a bakery, what did Covid teach you about what that experience might look like?

Alicia Kennedy: I think Covid taught me that it would have to be a more diverse approach to the business itself, I’ve always had fantasies of a Barefoot Contessa place where you have your groceries, and you have your restaurant/cafe thing, so my plan in life for now, is maybe do a couple more books, then in my 40s, open a place. That’s my plan.

Well that’s great. From what I understand, it only gets easier as you get older, so. (Laughs)

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. (Laughs) I mean, the thing is, not to go into specifically what I think it would look like, but of course chefs were like “Don’t do it.” And I deleted the Tweet, which, all my Tweets delete after two weeks, but whenever there’s too much annoying conversation on something I just delete immediately. But I was like, “I don’t want people to ruin my plans already.”

(Laughs) I just delete Tweets when nobody fucks with them.

Alicia Kennedy: (Laughs) That too.

I’ve seen, earlier when we were talking about some of the cynical Tweet bait things, that food sites will publish now, a lot of it is about the misoperation or labor abuses of the restaurant industry. What I don’t see is a lot of prescriptive solutions for how you solve these problems and make the business work. They just seem like these kind of, classic liberal, point at a problem without offering any solutions. Do you have any solutions, what do you think is the future for how, you pay the back of house as much as the front of house, or you have a system that allows people to take sick days and still keeps the doors open?

Alicia Kennedy:Well, I think Dirt Candy is such a good model. Amanda Cohen, for doing a fine dining tasting menu restaurant that’s very affordable, I think it’s $85, plus like $40 if you want to add wine, and is paying minimum $25 an hour, with health insurance, with vacation, she provides such a good example of how it could be done.

Is she tipped or untipped?

Alicia Kennedy: Untipped. Hospitality included. So I think that’s what we’re seeing. If you want to have a well paid, well run restaurant, you have to set limits on what you’re doing. Maybe you have to set a smaller menu, you maybe have to make less money as the owner, which I think is something a lot of chef/owners are not willing to compromise on. I think it’s great we’re seeing unionization hit the service industry, The Starbucks unionization is going to teach us a lot about what’s possible, I think.

There’s been this big push towards unionization since before the pandemic, we’ve seen some union busting happening of course, but I do think the solutions are never going to come from food media. You’re never going to see food media talk about what’s the solution here. The solutions are going to come from the workers themselves, and by workers I mean chefs who are actually involved like Amanda Cohen. The solutions are going to come from the people who are in the day to day operations. Because when we’ve seen the media report on hospitality included restaurant it’s been very one sided. If Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park is bringing back tipping, then there’s no way to make a restaurant work without tipping. And we know that isn’t true.

I do think something like communal equity is the way.

Alicia Kennedy: The bar I worked at in the East Village, which closed during Covid, but where I worked before I moved to San Juan, was hospitality included, and we all got profit sharing after we hit a certain threshold that given week. So if the bar hit certain numbers, we could get $5-$10 extra an hour, depending on what happened. So there are models that work and make it so people want to come to work and make it a helpful environment. But you don’t see a lot of “dude chefs”, a lot of them are dudes, adopting that model because it’s going to tap into their profits.

So I don’t think a lot of them take it seriously, and honestly it’s because the media let’s them get away with it. They’re not attacking power on a structural level. You claim it’s better for the workers, but we do have these models that show you can run a restaurant with everyone getting paid above minimum wage, with insurance, etc. etc., it is possible, so why are you saying it isn’t, and why are we letting you say it isn’t? Why are we continuing to give you so much attention when you continue to not make changes to make your restaurant more equitable?

I think the media has to ask itself those questions. Where is it giving attention and why isn’t it more focused on places making demonstrable changes to their structure of compensation, and why is it constantly giving a platform to these chefs who claim it’s not possible to do any better, and have some actual critique there? I just think there’s an actual dearth of critique from food media that’s not about meals at restaurants. There’s just- the cultural criticism that exists in other fields doesn’t exist in food. So that’s what I try to do to an extent with my newsletter.

People don’t like when you do media criticism in the media. I will make a comment on the Twitter incident, that I will share. There were people who thought, in the food media specifically, that I was basically cruising for some sort of onslaught of bad attention because of the way I write about things.


Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. Basically that I had it coming to me. By doing any sort of criticism, I was asking for someone to attack me. So it’s very much like, you’re not allowed to say anything about anything, or think critically about anything. You’re just supposed to be nice to everybody all the time. And I don’t think that’s useful, like when big chefs in food media are getting all the attention, I think it’s important to ask why, and what power structures are upholding that attention, and whether it’s a good thing, and what’s going to come of it.

And I think even when they do criticize, it’s like, you know, it’s in a bad faith, cheap shot, un-nuanced way that’s trying to rally people with torches and pitchforks.

Alicia Kennedy: And I think that’s important. I think you can’t have a healthy- especially in the food industry, being a writer is the easiest job you can have in the food industry. We’re talking about, there’s people breaking there backs, farm workers, meat industry, the orders of magnitude from the people picking food, cooking food, processing food, running around a restaurant all night dealing with assholes. The level of remove that a writer has from the reality of the food industry itself is so far. It’s lightyears away from the industry it purports to cover. So I think the most you can ask of the people working in media is to criticize their own perspectives and biases in a way that’s productive.

Well I can’t think of a better or more positive note to end on. And I can’t thank you enough for your time. I do appreciate, not just you doing this, but the work that you do and I will continue reading.

Alicia Kennedy: Thanks so much!

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