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Interview by Mona Bavar
Article by Lynne Myers
“The only war is the war against the imagination.”
~ Diane di Prima
Alicia Kennedy is a food and drink writer that's beating the drum for more holistic food systems. From her freelance writing to her weekly newsletter and forthcoming book, the journalist is pushing the intersection between food systems and food culture. Now based in Puerto Rico, DLISH recently caught up with the American writer to discuss all things food and why she began writing so passionately about it.
Mona Bavar: You studied English and philosophy, how did you get to food writing from that?
Alicia Kennedy: After majoring in English, I landed a job at New York Magazine. When I was not working there as a copy editor, I would spend my free time doing some book writing and 'obsessively' baking for people at my yoga class. Following a few commissions for one-off bakes, this pastime turned in a vegan bakery, which supplied farmers' markets and a local natural food store. From there I decided not to pursue the bakery and instead put my new found experience of running a small food business into writing about food systems, with a particular focus on veganism as well as politics, climate change, and the odd cocktail.
MB: What made you first decide to become vegan?
AK: I always found it really interesting. Then when I started to take my yoga practice more seriously, I started to think more and more about it. The thought moved to the forefront of my mind: 'I really need to stop eating meat and I need to stop eating animal products. I don't feel good about my relationship to the world because I'm eating these things.' One day I did a Kundalini meditation, which is about alignment of the chakras, and the person leading the meditation made us breathe like a lion, and when I came out of this trance of meditation, I decided, I'm going to be vegan. That was it.
Photo by Alicia Kennedy
MB: Are you still practicing veganism today?
AK: I was a very serious vegan for about five years. When my brother passed away in 2016, I was obviously in a very deep mourning and I just started to eat oysters. I also started traveling a lot more at that time because I had been writing so much and people were inviting me on press trips. Then I went on a big family trip to Italy that summer and we went to a bunch of goat farms. There was all this goat's cheese and I started to understand how the industrial Americanized approach to cheese and eggs was the thing I had a problem with, not necessarily the eating of cheese and eggs. That shifted my perspective. Since then, I've been vegetarian. I'm mainly vegan, although I eat local eggs and I eat cheese maybe once a week because otherwise I am quite lactose intolerant, frankly.
MB: Do you advocate for vegetarianism and veganism as an answer to environmental concerns?
AK: For me, I certainly do not think everyone going vegan or vegetarian is the answer to our woes. I think the end of subsidies for industrial agriculture is the end to our woes. If people have to pay the real price for these foods, I think that would shift people's cultural understanding of the full cost. Not just the price, but the cost that these things carry environmentally and health wise. If there was a tax for the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that certain industries in the food system cause, would it cause people to eat less meat? Absolutely. As it would be way more expensive to produce. As would cheese and as would eggs.
If you talk to people who are doing the work on the ground, they're going to tell you, we can't make people go to a local butcher and pay a lot more money for better meat. This has to be done on a policy level. And it is true, because I can talk till I'm blue in the face about how much our consumer choices do matter in the long run but it doesn't really matter. We live in a capitalist society in which people are not paid enough and people do not have enough time to cook. We need to make it easy for people to buy ecologically-sound produce and meat at their supermarket. I try to come from that angle.
People think that because I don't eat meat personally that I have a horse in the race about whether other people eat meat, but I don't. I know that it's a personal decision. I never see veganism as the answer in a broad way, but I do see it as a means of resistance in a system that is stuck toward industrial farming and factory farming of animals.
Photo by Alicia Kennedy
MB: Do you think this will ever happen, that the food system will be 'fixed'?
AK: I can only speak for the United States and I think, unfortunately, we would need to change our relationship to food before it would become a matter of policy. There would have to be such a clamoring by the people for that to happen. Even in the left wing in the United States, it's so difficult to make people think about food in a really holistic way because there's this desire not to alienate anyone. But at the same time, you're removing such a significant part of what's important when you avoid talking about the ways in which the food system is stacked against working people. Stacked against them eating healthily and eating in a way that sustains the planet.
In the United States it's an uphill battle to get people to understand the real cost of their food because it has been artificially low for so long. The food culture of the United States is not about quality, like in Europe where there's pride in tomatoes or there's pride in the wheat that you use to make pasta. There's no pride in food in the United States.
There's no pride because the food system we've been taught is just whatever's cheapest. We want it abundant and we want it cheap. And that's the things to care about, not the provenance or quality of the food. Unless we can change that, we're not going to change the systems that everyone's locked into. That's where writers and media come in. My hope is that if we are constantly beating this drum of how significant these things are, that we can change them for people's lives and for the planet. I don't see it happening unless the culture changes first, which is why I speak more toward that.
MB: How much of the responsibility do you think lies with the chefs, as we as consumers are almost being told by them what is either fashionable or what tastes good?
AK: The same way I think it's the responsibility of the food media to bang these drums, I also think it's the responsibility of chefs to do so as well because agro ecology can't make a significant change until policy changes. I think it needs to be chefs talking about it. I think it needs to be even fast food and fast casual places getting on board with making these changes and shouting from the rooftops why they are. I am a person who has been saying that we have to stop paying so much attention to chefs in the media because it allows them to obscure problems in their kitchen cultures, in their restaurant cultures, and their personal lives. They have a significant role to play. And if they are making these efforts to cut food waste, to make responsible decisions around their local ecology and food systems, and to educate diners in an accessible and approachable way, I think that is so important to eventually make these changes.
Photo by Alicia Kennedy
MB: What's your opinion of the next generation of meat-free meat?
AK: I've become more of a reformist than when I started writing about 'techmeat' because I do recognize their potential in being a stop gap between animal flesh and people coming to understand the ways in which we can use beans and lentils to beautiful effect. I feel more positive about them right now. However, these are products that are designed to be served in a fast food setting and we have to be concerned with the general lack of concern for ingredients and labor that is endemic to fast food. Is that something we want to push as a good thing?
I think KFC is probably going to be the first fast food place to put out plant or lab based chicken nuggets, but at the same time, they're still going to be sourcing chickens that have been living in teeny tiny cages, pecking each other's eyes out, or having their beaks cut off so they don't. And they're still probably going to pay their workers as little as possible and they're not going to give them benefits no matter how much corporate is reaping in the profits from selling the plant based chicken nugget.
My perspective on this is that we have to say, 'Okay, good, people are going to eat less meat, but what kind of demands can we place on these corporations to ensure that they are not also party to underpaid labor, poor working conditions, and lack of benefits?' If these companies that are making plant based or 'techmeat' as I call it, are going to pursue this, I think that they should use their clout and their publicity to also push these corporations to change their habits in other ways. But I don't think that that's going to happen because in the end, this is capitalism, and all they want is a profit. My beef, so to speak, with these companies is that they're not using their moment in the spotlight and their potential to be of use in this utterly terrible system to also make other good changes to how these fast food places operate.
Impossible Foods is using genetically modified soy, so they're already part of this other thing that we don't want to encourage in the agricultural system. Then Beyond Meat use pea protein, which uses a lot less water to cultivate but at the same time, how much are they cultivating to create these burgers and meet demand? Is this being cultivated in a monocrop system that is depleting the land in which it is grown? How is it being a holistically positive aspect of the food system? That's what I want these people to answer to, and maybe I will get them to do so for my book. We'll see.
Photo by and Newsletter by Alicia Kennedy
MB: What is your book about?
AK: It's about the ways veganism has been outside the mainstream for much of its life, but how in the last 20 years, it's been co-opted and turned into something called 'plant based' and turned into a wellness fad. And now it is this corporate fad as well.
I mean, Impossible and Beyond make sure not to use the word 'vegan' in their advertising because they're not appealing to people who already don't eat meat, which is also why I think vegans should not be super positive on them. There's an 'Impossible Whopper' at Burger King but there's still mayo on it and there's still cheese on it. It's still a part of these bad systems of cows that are having their calves taken from them and then hooked up to machines for milking to make cheese. Or the egg places where the male chicks are thrown down a chute to be killed. They're still part of all these terrible, animal related facets of the food system. It frustrates me when people write about these companies in a blanket positive way. What can we demand of these companies if they're going to greenwash their relationship to the food system and their role in it?
MB: Do you have any message you'd like to share with our readers?
AK: The writer, Diana Prema, died recently and I am really re-obsessed with her poem 'Rant', which in a refrain she says, 'The war against the imagination is the only war.' I think that's my message right now.
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