KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, this is Earth Eats, and I'm your host, Kayte Young.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I just wanted to provide context for folks, because I do think that the conversation around plant-based food for the last eight years or so has been pushed toward a more corporate, vertical lab meat: Impossible burgers, Beyond Burgers; meat substitutes that act like meat and look like meat, and has gotten really far away from whole foods and vegetables and legumes, and just how nice it is to just eat some beans sometimes. [CHUCKLES]
KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show, we talk with food writer Alicia Kennedy about her new book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant Based Eating. Stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young, and I guess I would describe myself as a mostly vegetarian. I'm not opposed to eating animals per se, but I personally can't enjoy meat if I start thinking about factory farming. So, I intend to avoid meat, unless I know for sure that the animal has spent most of its life walking around outside doing animal things. That means, the meat I purchase comes from small, usually local farms, and it's higher priced, which means I eat less of it, which is fine with me.
KAYTE YOUNG: I love vegetarian food. I've been enjoying what is now called a plant-based diet for most of my adult life. I've never been drawn to vegetarian foods that mimic meat too closely. I like beans and grains, and some tofu, vegetables and cheeses. I'd never make it as a vegan. I've yet to try an Impossible Burger, and I cannot wrap my mind around lab-grown meat.
KAYTE YOUNG: My guest today has been thinking a lot about these things. Alicia Kennedy is a food writer from New York, currently based in Puerto Rico, and her new book is called No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating. Here's my conversation with Alicia Kennedy, which took place in late July 2023, just before her book release in August.
KAYTE YOUNG: I would like to start our conversation today with a bit about your story, and just hearing more about how did you find your way into the world of food, and into the world of food writing?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I had always wanted to be a writer. I studied English at Fordham University in New York City and then I was working at New York Magazine. I got a job, not so soon out of college, but a couple of years out of college, as a copy editor there, on the digital side. So I had been working as a copy editor. I had always loved to eat, but I never really got into food and into cooking, until I started to have a sort of epiphany, or consciousness-raising moment around eating meat, and wanting to stop eating meat.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It had been something I had dabbled with my whole life. I have been kind of interested in doing my whole life, but until I was in my early mid-20s with a job, it wasn't something I was able to take control of in a real way. And so, when I finally had that opportunity, I gave up meat and that was when I started to cook, I started to bake.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Baking was a way that really opened my eyes to ingredient sourcing, to problems of farm worker rights in places like where bananas grow, where sugar grows, where chocolate grows, and trying to do my best with those things.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Starting to learn about local grains, especially in New York state, and trying to source things from mills that were local, and using local grain and that sort of thing. And so, my consciousness around food formed through baking, and through giving up meat, and through being vegan first of all, and seeing how my ethics and beliefs around those things were also influencing my interest in sustainable and equitable sourcing as well.
KAYTE YOUNG: And you also had or ran a bakery?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, it wasn't a brick and mortar bakery. I sold at farmers markets and at natural grocers and that sort of thing. I got into a commissary kitchen for a while which taught me a lot about the food business and margins, and the absolute difficulties of sourcing ingredients well and equitably, and then selling them at a price point that people will actually buy them. I never actually paid myself, ever. It was a real learning experience, in terms of the food industry and what it actually means to run a small business.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well, I would imagine that experience probably informs your writing and your approach to talking...
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely.
KAYTE YOUNG: ...to people about their food businesses. [LAUGHS]
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. [LAUGHS]
KAYTE YOUNG: You have been working as a freelance writer. I know you've also been on staff at publications, but your work has appeared in many places, in Bon Appetit, in Harper’s Bazaar, Eater, Wine Enthusiast and many other places; and your newsletter, From The Desk of Alicia Kennedy, has more than 25,000
subscribers. You've steadily built a career that I find truly inspiring and on your About page on your website, there's a photo of you, leaning forward, in black shorts and chunky heels with, like, a 35 mm camera in your hand, covering half your face, pointed at a long mirror. And to me, I just feel like this photo says so much about your work and your approach. You even do your own photo-shoots, you know. [LAUGHS]
KAYTE YOUNG: It just captures that spirit of your career, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how this has been for you, building this kind of career in food writing and culture writing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Having been a young teenager in the late '90s, obviously that whole aesthetic holds a big sway over me, but I also just saw being creative and making things as all related to each other. So, just because I wanted to be a writer didn't mean that I also didn't take photos, and it didn't mean that I didn't make collages or something like that. All of this creative energy all sprang forth from the same place, but was expressed in different ways.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I talked to Hetty McKinnon, who is a cookbook author, about both of us having a sort of DIY streak in our work, where we don't really wait for other people to give us the go-ahead to do things, we just do them, and I think that that's becoming all the more important. It's always, obviously, been an aspect of culture work, to make scenes, to put out your own stuff, throw your own party, but it's interesting right now in terms of the so called creator economy, where so many people are responsible for making themselves a commodity in terms of their creative output, whether that's them putting on little outfits and posting on TikTok, or it's someone like me who is putting out a newsletter and charging for subscriptions to get behind the paywall for recipes and that sort of thing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It's an interesting double edged sword because, while I grew up and really love DIY, I think that we're at a point where we're being kind of taken advantage of in terms of how much we're expected to produce, how much attention we're expected to maintain, in order to make a living. I love being able to publish my own newsletter, but there are fewer places for me to write, so I was sort of forced into that. It's given me such great opportunities, but at the same time, I have to endlessly produce and navigate that, and do the administrative work and I had to hire an accountant to do deal with it. [LAUGHS]
ALICIA KENNEDY: It's a lot of stuff on top of everything, and it's more than a full time job really, because everything around you constantly, whether you're doing it, or you're seeing it, or you're being it, is potential content. It's a potential essay, or a potential video; it's a potential photo. It's something to get attention and continue to keep the money coming in, and that just never ever stops. It's interesting, because I think I would always have been a person who takes the reins and does their own photos and publishes themselves and that sort of thing, but at the same time, it's become such a requirement in a negative way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And of course, with social media, the necessity of maintaining people's gaze all the time is just relentless. It's an interesting space to be in. [LAUGHS]
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, what you said about, "It's more than a full time job," it's like anytime there's food involved, you're probably questioning, "Should I be doing something with this, or can I just enjoy this meal right now?" [LAUGHS]
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. I mean, it's a dream and now so many young people want to be influencers, which I never wanted to be an influencer, I just wanted to be a writer, but at the same time, now, you kind of have to do all of it.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, you also have a podcast called Meatless, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that, and what a podcast allows you to do.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I started the podcast in 2018, in the hopes of selling this book, which the working title had been Meatless. So, I wanted to interview people in food and in culture about their relationship to meat and to eating and cooking in general, and where it intersected with their other commitments, whether that was aesthetic, or political, or spiritual, and it was really interesting and provided a lot of the basis of analysis for the book. I've probably done over a 100-something episodes of this podcast, but I've done it intermittently over time. Now it lives in the newsletter and I put out one episode per month, specifically talking to cookbook authors, because my current obsession is how to navigate domestic labor when your job is recipe development, and how we navigate the tension of cooking for ourselves, and cooking for work and cooking for our families and friends, and how we approach those things
ALICIA KENNEDY: That's my current obsession. I think I use the podcast as an excuse to interview people about things I'm thinking about. [LAUGHS] It's very, very selfish in that way, but it's been really useful and helps me think through things that I can't navigate completely on my own. I also think it's a huge boon to my audience, too, to find out about other peoples’ work and understand which cookbooks they want to buy right now, and that sort of thing. I'm not a person who cooks a lot directly out of cookbooks, and so I'm not a person who's going, "You're not going to come to me for a cookbook review," like "I made this dish, and this dish, and this dish," but I do want to talk about the ideas that go into how someone approaches recipe development because, to me, that's a bit more interesting.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's my next question! I wanted to ask you about recipe development. I know that you were here on the IU Campus talking about recipe development, and you did a workshop with the IU Food Institute. Could you talk about what that process looks like, and is it something that you do at home? It sounds like it is.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes, 100 percent. For me, when I've tried to do recipe development, separate from my home cooking, it has been really tedious and wasteful, honestly and much harder work. And so, when someone sets out to do a cookbook, that is a lot of work, that's so much labor, because you have to figure out what you're doing with all of this food; you have to figure out how you're going to store all of this stuff. Most recipe developers work from home; there are only a lucky few who are in a test kitchen. It's something you have to navigate, aside from your daily cooking, when you're working on a bigger project.
ALICIA KENNEDY: For me, when I write the recipes for my newsletter, or if a magazine commissions a recipe from me, I always try and have it fit into the flow of what my daily cooking is. Recently I had a bunch of mint and cilantro around, and I decided to blend it into a sauce with some garlic, onion and a few spices, and I was like, "Oh, this is really good, I'll write a recipe for this," so I just did it again later and actually took down the measurements. But it has to be something I really want to eat, and I think this is what most recipe developers will tell you, and I found out, is their recipes are governed by what they want to eat.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Mine are also governed by what is really over-producing here in Puerto Rico. I have so many lemons right now, so I'm trying to develop a new lemon cake, [LAUGHS] and trying to figure out how to make it interesting because I've done so many citrus cakes in my life. I think that's also the challenge of being a more seasonal cook, you have to learn how to deal with that over production and figure out different ways to navigate it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It's summer now, so everyone is dealing with zucchini, so it's the season to go look for zucchini recipes, and it's like, "What new thing can we possibly do with zucchini? Do we just need to be reminded of the old things we know already how to do with zucchini?"
ALICIA KENNEDY: Coming to recipe development from that perspective, now, I'm never going to be the recipe developer that people come to, to give them new weeknight meals or something like that. I can give you ideas for how to think through what your weeknight meal should be, based on what you like and how your pantry functions, and maybe how to deal with seasonal gluts of, let's say, watery vegetable like a zucchini, or with citrus, or with eggplant, depending on what's around.
ALICIA KENNEDY: For me, recipe development is more of an extension of thinking about food system problems than it is about, "How do I tell people to make the most delicious thing?" I don't believe every recipe has been written already, but I think we've done a pretty good job. [LAUGHS] I think what people need help with a lot of the time is thinking through the kitchen for themselves, how to navigate it to their own tastes. Because I feel like a lot of people have been alienated from cooking and the kitchen, and just need that push to figure out how to build the things they want to eat every day, and how to build a kitchen that will kind of nudge them toward having a happy existence around food every day.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, sort of support their own lifestyle...
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
KAYTE YOUNG: ...and tastes, and time and so forth, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. [LAUGHS] I had a lot of mint and cilantro, maybe you have a ton of dill and scallions, but kind of the same concepts apply.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm speaking with food writer, Alicia Kennedy. After a short break, we'll talk about her new book, No Meat Required. Stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with food writer, Alicia Kennedy.
KAYTE YOUNG: You have a new book, released August 2023 with Beacon Press, and your book is called No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating. Can you talk about what drove you to write this book, and what you felt like was missing from the conversation that you could speak to?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, I think I've been in my career as a baker and then as a food writer, I've just been working towards this specific book the entire time. I'd been doing this research and doing this thinking, and going down these rabbit holes for years and years, and so this book really just collects a lot of thinking that I had been doing and a lot of conversations I'd been having, and all the reading I'd been doing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think it was a very timely moment. Right now, we're a little bit past the 50 year mark, in terms of when Diet for a Small Planet came out. I find Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Lappé, which originally came out in 1971, to be such a watershed moment in terms of vegetarian and plant-based eating in the United States, because it really developed a language for a secular argument for not eating, or cutting back on meat, and why that would be really important for people in an affluent nation such as the United States, to use land differently, to think about distribution differently, to just kind of readjust the way we consume in order to better feed the entire world.
ALICIA KENNEDY: In those 50 years there's been so much that has happened from that secular perspective, in terms of ecofeminist and feminist restaurants like Bloodroot in Connecticut. I write about how the punk and anarchist movement has sort of influenced vegan cuisine as it exists today. I wrote about raw foods and the good that's come from raw foods, and also how it gave veganism this kind of wellness, health halo that has kind of done a lot more damage than good, maybe; and also like innovations in non-dairy dairy and that sort of thing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I just wanted to provide context for people, because I do think that the conversation around plant-based food for the last, I'll say, eight years or so, which is truly as long as I've been writing about food, has been kind of pushed toward a more corporate, vertical, like, lab meat, Impossible Burgers, Beyond Burgers; meat substitutes that act that meat and look like meat, and has really got away from whole foods, vegetables and legumes, and how nice it is to just eat some beans sometimes. [LAUGHS] And so, I wanted to provide that context, because I do think that it's so easy when the dominant narrative is, of course, coming from the most moneyed corporate position that we step back and say, "Is this the actual narrative around the future of food that we want to put forth, or do we want to kind of understand where environmentally and politically vegetarian and vegan thinking has been, and so how we can
re-shape it for the future?"
ALICIA KENNEDY: And what would that food look like? What have we learned from the past of vegan and vegetarian food, and how to make it appealing that we can use going into the future? One of the things that's so interesting is that we really do know that the meat substitutes don't work in achieving behavior change, especially for omnivores. It's not as appealing as what someone, like Deborah Madison, who is now more famous as a cookbook author, but when she was the chef at Greens in San Fransisco, she really changed the narrative around vegetarian food and made it really delicious, and made it vegetable-focused, and that caused a huge shift.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Whenever the plant-based food gets away from focusing on the vegetables,
when it gets away from being really recognizable to folks, that's when it loses a lot of steam. And so, I just wanted this book to give that context and to provide that kind of cultural and culinary background that I think folks often dismiss. People dismiss vegetarian or vegan ideology as simply ideology, and people who don't actually care about eating good food, I wanted to write a book that showed that people have actually been trying for a long time to make good [LAUGHS] food with no animals, and we've really been succeeding, I think.
KAYTE YOUNG: In the book, you talk about how vegetarianism and veganism have become more mainstream, and it's lost some of the connection to its radical, political roots. Can we talk a little bit about some of those histories that you chronicle in the book? You just touched on that a little bit, just this kind of
counter-culture hippies and ecofeminists and [LAUGHS] punks.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes! I think I could have called the book, Hippies, Feminists, Punks because that's really the trajectory [LAUGHS] that it takes. So, counterculture cuisine started in the late '60s, part of the counter-culture response to the Vietnam War and other things happening in society. There were some offshoots there where people lived in communes and communes had their own cookbooks and one of those, which is a place that still exists, is the farm in Summertown, Tennessee. They have always been a vegan commune, very focused on soy foods. They put out the Farm Vegetarian Cookbook in the early '70s and you can still see some of that legacy a little bit, it's very rudimentary stuff, like using nutritional yeast for way too much, using tofu for way too many things, like just not a lot of thought, not a lot of technique going into it, but there was a lot of good ideas there.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Ecofeminism is first coined, I believe, in 1974, and this is the idea that the way we treat the planet has connections to how patriarchy regards women, and that has an extension into how we treat animals is an extension of how we treat women in terms of, obviously the use and the misuse of animals in animal agriculture. So, a lot of ecofeminists became vegetarian. Not all of them, obviously, there's always factionalism in these philosophies.
ALICIA KENNEDY: But, one very, very famous place that uses at its root the ecofeminist philosophy is called Bloodroot and it's in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I think it's the only still-operating feminist restaurant in the United States, and it's still run by the same two women who opened it in the '70s, Selma and Miriam. It's still a really significant touchstone for people who are starting to understand food and its connections to feminism, to the environment, to all these places and all these ideas. That is still a significant kind of ideology within plant-based eating. I think ecofeminism is having another kind of comeback and the text that originally coined the term was just translated from French, actually, for the first time, so I think we're seeing a big swing back toward that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Then you also have folks who were involved in the punk scene, who have a more anarchist approach to political ideology. These are the people who put out the very, very important cookbook zine Soy, Not "Oi!" In 1989 and other zines like: Please Don't Feed the Bears; Raggedy Anarchy's Guide to the Universe. There's just a lot of that zine culture and anarchist connection and punk ethos that has this approach to veganism as well, and it's rooted in this rejection of dominance ideologies, of hierarchy, of status quo and corporate control and that sort of thing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: The punk chapter is really the one that people are talking to me about the most so far, and I think it's because it's so clear once you see it and name it, but I think for a lot of people, it never kind of coalesced, you know. It's like, you knew people who were into punk and hardcore or something, and you knew they were straight edge and they were vegan, but it never kind of all came together as like, "Oh, there's these idealogical reasons for that."
ALICIA KENNEDY: What's interesting about that movement, is it's where we see a lot of the most successful people in vegan and vegetarian food in this century, like Brooks Headley, who was a drummer in a lot of bands, became a pastry chef at Del Posto, got a lot of awards, and now runs Superiority Burger in the East Village, which is like a vegetarian restaurant with lines out the door.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You have Lagusta Yearwood who also worked at Bloodroot but runs this ethical chocolate shop in upstate New York and has roots in that sort of lineage. There's Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who's written all these famous vegan cookbooks, including Veganomicon, which I think is still the "Joy of Cooking" for vegans. And so, lot of that ethos has really formed the basis of how vegan cuisine has been shaped in this century, which is super interesting.
KAYTE YOUNG: Reading that made me dig up this little zine that I have. [LAUGHS] It's about how to make soy milk and yes, it's exactly the kind of thing that you were talking about. This one comes from Farm Punks International in Whitwell, Tennessee. [LAUGHS]
ALICIA KENNEDY: Love that.
KAYTE YOUNG: [LAUGHS] Yes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Tennessee is a very fascinating place. [LAUGHS]
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, it's all about ten steps to making soy milk, you know? [LAUGHS] My next question about that is, if plant-based eating has lost its political food justice connection, why is that important to you?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, I think it's so important because if we forget that it was important at one point to make your own tempeh, or make your own soy milk, and kind of let corporations own a very green-washed version of vegan food, vegetarian food, it's just concentrating all this power and all this wealth in people who don't really care about food, [LAUGHS] and don't really care about the land and biodiversity, and are really focused on making money.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It's been difficult for me to watch folks who don't eat meat and have been very, very committed to making sure folks know why it's so important to eat less meat, to consume less dairy, especially when you're living in an affluent place like the United States, and have been very, very accepting of things like genetically modified soy as the basis for an Impossible Burger, so long as it gets a vegan burger into Burger King, or despite whatever conditions fast food workers are facing, despite whatever conditions farm workers are facing for other products on that same burger. And if we like lab meat a lot and want to make cell cultured meat, at what scale are we going to make it that it's not going to be wildly energy intensive and reliant on fossil fuels and not taking up a lot of space, that could be going to better use?
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so, it's all the same problems of land use, concentrated power, concentrated wealth that we have seen cause so much destruction on the meat and dairy side. So many of these companies who have got into the space of alternative proteins, are also the same companies who are meat packers, meat processors. They've just put their hand and their money into these products and have been like, "Why not ride that wave as well?" I think it's important to remember why eating vegetarian and eating vegan became a thing in the United States and all these reasons that people gave these things up; it's about rejecting these things. It's about rejecting using land poorly. It's rejecting not taking workers rights seriously in the food system. It's about rejecting corporate power in food.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, I think that if people are reminded of that, I hope that we can remember why it's okay to eat beans and tofu and [LAUGHS] vegetables, instead of calling it a win to put Beyond Sausage on a Dominoes pizza. I think that, while those things perhaps have their place and their role for someone and for some demographics, and changing behaviors in that way, perhaps, on a small scale, I think that on a larger scale, we still have to be thinking about how to invite people to reduce consumption of meat, reduce consumption of dairy and eat in a way that also serves our need to restore biodiversity and smaller regional food economies in ways that promote a food justice perspective. If that makes sense.
KAYTE YOUNG: So you are seeing some of the same issues and problems with meat production being replicated in these fake meat and lab grown meat systems?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes, because it's around land use, it's around energy usage, it's around labor rights, it's around concentrated corporate power. And it's difficult because people will argue, "Well, there will be fewer animals slaughtered," but we just have no evidence of that. We have no evidence that that's what's going to happen. What we have evidence for is, that Beyond Meat laid off a ton of employees and had stopped selling as much at the end of last year. Same thing for Impossible, the sales are way down. Are people really going to want to switch to cellular based meats and that sort of thing?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do we know what the nutritional repercussions are long term of these sorts of things? There are so many questions unanswered. What we do know is that eating beans puts nitrogen back in the soil and anyone can grow beans, so long as they have some dirt. We don't want people to have IP and ownership over our proteins necessarily, and so it's just very interesting. We've seen the way this has kind of shifted, how people talk about lots of things.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I've noticed my tofu from the store, now calls itself "a natural plant-based protein" because they're trying to compete, I suppose, with Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat in the supermarket, so they're trying to replicate the language, when tofu has been around for a 1,000 years. So, it's an interesting moment.
KAYTE YOUNG: And I suppose your critique would extend to just agribusiness that is farming grains and beans, and vegetables and fruits too. There's still the labor issues, there's still the mono-cropping; there's the land use issues and water and all of those things. So, really it's about maintaining that understanding and awareness of what the issues are around food. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but I'm just trying to understand why does it matter if we keep that consciousness around not eating meat, because maybe it can extend to other things that we're eating, too, and trying to have that relationship.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I mean, for me, not eating meat is 100 percent related to trying to support farmers who aren't letting their workers pluck lettuce in 120 degree heat. The food system is just so rife with poor labor conditions, poor ecological practices and, for me, not eating meat has always been part of rejecting that as well. It's never been just, "I don't eat meat," la-dee-dah, "I wipe my hands of the problems with the lettuce and the grains, etcetera." I mean, right now, there is so much cashew cheese on the market, there has to be also vows on the makers of vegan cheeses websites because the conditions for cashew harvesting are so dire in a lot of places, using prison labor; there's toxins on the skins that burn the hands of people who are shelling the cashews. And so it's just about trying to have this more holistic understanding of how the food system has been shaped to be destructive at such a level that you can't even know that, I think, three percent of cashews are fair trade certified that one can get, and so you have to make a very, very conscious effort even with a nut.
ALICIA KENNEDY: For me, not eating meat is like a first step towards thinking about all of these issues that happen in the food system, and how can you change your behaviors to adjust to them, and being understanding when things come along that seem too good to be true. Like, "Oh, we're just going to replace all the hamburgers with a soy burger," asking questions about what does that really mean. What are the real implications of that? I think that because there aren't a lot of vegetarian or vegan food writers, a lot of the questions just weren't being asked of these companies when they were launching, because people were like, "Well, of course, I don't want to eat a quinoa burger, I want to eat a veggie burger that tastes like meat but isn't meat." And they didn't ask questions about what's the land use? What's the labor conditions? Who's profiting from this? Is this going to be like a copyrighted product?
ALICIA KENNEDY: The proprietary product actually, yes, in an Impossible Burger, heme, that makes it bleed, we don't really know how that's really produced. There's a lot of proprietary technology going on in food tech that's supposed to be for the future and is plant-based, but these are just opaque processes. It's more opaque than producing cheese from cow milk. We know what that process is, but when you're talking about your proprietary process for extracting whey and turning it into ice cream, but you don't want to tell anyone because you need to make money off of it, like these are foods we're eating! These aren't
iPhones, you know, it's not the same as all the technology we're accustomed to interacting with every day.
KAYTE YOUNG: My guest is Alicia Kennedy. Her new book is No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating. We'll return to our conversation after a short break.
KAYTE YOUNG: You're listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Let's return to our conversation with Alicia Kennedy, author of the book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-based Eating.
KAYTE YOUNG: You don't really shy away from pointing out that meat eating, in spite of this kind of mainstreaming of vegan and vegetarian diets, it's increasing, it's not decreasing. What do you make of that? And how do you hang on to hope about a larger portion of the global population moving towards more sustainable eating practices, even when you don't really see any evidence of that on a large scale?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I want to have hope. I want to see behavior change. I think it takes a lot of cultural momentum to change behavior around something so ingrained as meat eating. Something so ingrained, not just in US culture, but in human culture, as a symbol of affluence and wealth and status. So, yes, we have to change that relationship and I keep saying to people, "You can still eat meat". And even in my concluding chapter, I'm saying, "The conscious omnivore is the best friend in the fight against industrial animal agriculture," because the person who takes a lot of pleasure and takes a lot of value and consideration when they do consume animals, that's who you would want on your side, I would think, because what's really the big, big problem is the scale at which we are producing beef and dairy mostly, as well a chicken in the United States.
ALICIA KENNEDY: The behavior changes are very slow to come because it's just very slow to change behavior and it hasn't been made to seem, I don't want to say, urgent enough, because I do think it's been made clear that this quite an urgent situation, climate change, and the food system's role in it, but I do believe it hasn't been made enticing enough, from a food standpoint. It hasn't been made easy enough, in terms of restaurant options.
ALICIA KENNEDY: There is a new study out recently that said, "People will order vegan and vegetarian options more readily if they are not marked on a menu," so hopefully that's something we can learn from, is to just not tell people, and then they'll look at a wrap or a sandwich on a menu, and they'll be like, "Oh, that sounds good," and they won't even notice that it has no meat or dairy in it. But it's a very hard kind of struggle, and it's especially because this style of eating, or this decision that people make, is still seen as very strange and weird and antagonizing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I do have some hope that we're learning what will trigger behavior change around food, even though it's very slow going. I think that the more people who are talking about it, and there are great writers now at big outlets, I think of Ali Francis at Bon Appetit doing a lot of work on vegetarian kind of psychology and why people are less inclined to eat meat, or why they're more inclined to return to eating meat. And so, I think once people start to have these conversations more openly, because a lot of food media for a long time was very focused on, "Well, you know, there will be lab meat in the future, and so we don't have to really worry about this, and here's your steak on a grill, it's okay." But I think that we're kind of coming to the point where we're not saying that any more.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I've seen the Washington Post and Eater, and all these places talk now about how, "I'm sick of seeing Impossible Burgers on menus, bring back the real veggie burgers." And so, there are some adjustments. I think we've learned from this past moment of corporate disruption, let's say, of vegetarian and vegan food that it doesn't work in the end, and what people really want is good food, and if we can figure out how to make more good food that doesn't have meat in it, then that's the best opportunity we have.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It's just got to be that cultural conversation shifting, and it has to be more people talking about it. It's happening, but it's not happening fast enough, for sure.
KAYTE YOUNG: You also don't shy away from the whiteness that's been associated with the vegan and vegetarian eating. At least in the US as we were talking about earlier, that is a US phenomenon. Could we talk about some of the criticisms of veganism as elitist, or even racist, or kind of insensitive to cultural traditions that include meat?
ALICIA KENNEDY: It's hard, because I have a lot of respect, of course, for the animal rights movement. A lot of time they have missed the mark in terms of labor and in terms of respect for cultural traditions. I think that that is slowly shifting. I do think that the narrative around all vegetarians and vegans being white has been one that was kind of forged in order to make it seem unappealing, or uninviting.
ALICIA KENNEDY: In one of my first restaurant pieces for the Village Voice, I went up to Eastchester in the Bronx, to go to a vegan bodega, and they were making Ital food, which is the Rastafarian tradition, from Jamaica. In the freezer case they had soy based shrimps that were made by a Chinatown company, so it was always funny to me to hear people say, "Oh, you know, being vegan is a white thing," because I'm like, "But these are developed by a Chinese company in Chinatown and now they're sold in the Bronx at a Jamaican grocery store, so I don't really know where you're coming from with this.
ALICIA KENNEDY: But the movement itself, the people who are the faces and the most out there about it, have been white and have been a little bit less embracing of the significance of cultural traditions and that sort of thing. I think we're seeing a lot of change. The Food Empowerment Project is a really great organization that is vegan, but also really, really focused on farm worker rights, and it's also very, very focused on creating different cultural based vegan food recipes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Now we're also seeing big changes in terms of the cookbooks being published that are vegan too. And so I think it's going to get harder and harder for people to latch onto that stale narrative of elitism and whiteness around vegan and vegetarian food because, you know, the last two years of the James Beard Awards, the vegetable-focused cookbook award has gone to the Korean Vegan and then it went to the Vegan Chinese Kitchen, and just this year, we've had Plentiful by Denai Moore, which is Jamaican vegan food; Vegan Barbecue by Terry Sargent, who's like a great pit master in Georgia. Black Rican Vegan came out this year too.
ALICIA KENNEDY: The vegan cookbooks are starting to really reflect the world, and I think that this narrative is going to change. But it has been the dominant narrative because it's been useful for folks who want to keep vegan and vegetarian diets from seeming exclusive, but it's also been a product of who's allowed to speak the loudest and be the most visible, and that's something we're seeing change broadly, and that's also going to change the face of vegan food, for sure.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Now that vegan and vegetarian food has become almost ubiquitous, now that more people understand its diversity and potential as a way of being more environmentally friendly on a daily basis, the movement must grapple with its future, and who owns it, who will steer it? Historically, this has been the realm of counter-culture folks, hippies, anarchists, punks, chefs interested in alternatives to animal agriculture, but the world of tech and venture capital is now sinking its proprietary teeth in and there hasn't been much of a fight against this wave, which suggests the future of food isn't based on what grows and what flows, but on what can be cultivated in a laboratory and make a few people very rich, all under the guise of saving the planet.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's great. Thank you. I like that because it really has a lot of what you touch on in the book, it's sort of "in there."
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. No, I realized just now, reading it, I was like, "Oh, that's the whole book." [LAUGHS]
KAYTE YOUNG: Could you share your thoughts about the future of food? You have already touched on this a little bit, you've been asked to comment on food tech and things like Impossible Burgers, and lab grown meat, even though this isn't the way that you eat. I wondered if you could just reflect a little bit about the future of food as you see it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When people ask me, "How do we feed 10,000,000,000 people?" I'm always trying to say, we have to think on a smaller scale, and we have to think regionally and what's going to best serve the regional ecosystem, the regional population, the regional labor force. It's different when you think of what is needed on a smaller scale, versus trying to speak for everybody. And I think that the problem in a lot of our food system conversations has been a desire to speak for everybody, and make it a solution that works for everybody everywhere on the whole planet, and that's never going to be the case because food means different things to different people.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It means different things in different climates. It means different things under different political and economic conditions. What a food system is going to look like that serves a place like Puerto Rico best, it's going to look different than a food system that serves the Northeast of the United States, or the Midwest of the United States the best. And so, the conversation has to get more granular and I think there's a big kind of resistance to that, there's a real attachment, especially in the United States to thinking that there's going to be a one-size-fits-all future of food, and that's simply impossible, because there's not a one-size-fits-all soil. There's not a one-size-fits-all terroir. It's just not going to happen.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You know, I wrote this book and it's sort of like my manifesto of the first ten years of my career in food, and for the future, I want to think more specifically and talk more specifically, and sort of refuse to have a one-size-fits-all conversation and pretend that things are going to look the same for everybody, because they're not.
ALICIA KENNEDY: While there are big decisions we can make on bigger scales, yes, like reducing meat by a ton, stopping industrial animal agriculture, these sorts of things, I think that other decisions need to be made on smaller regional levels, to best serve distinct populations.
KAYTE YOUNG: One of the things that I really appreciated about your approach in this book, and even in a book that is about not eating meat, I feel like there was some complicated thinking through, like the example of the lion fish, and how maybe eating lion fish in this particular context, in this particular place, in this time, is something that makes sense for the planet. And then, just your internal struggles about that. I though that was really interesting and I think we need more of that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I hope that it kind of inspires more of that, because for me, that was, "Am I choosing animal life, or am I choosing the planet?" Usually that seems such an easy decision, and in this case with an invasive species, it's not. Things are that complicated and they are that nuanced all the time and so, I think if we can adapt our food conversations to be on that level, I think that's where we can start to push the real behavioral change.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, and I think that in terms of having conversations with people who aren't vegetarian or vegan, having that more sort of nuanced approach of just really, like, it's not black or white, there are ways to approach eating that could include some meat consumption but can still have a conscious approach to the planet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. Yes, and I hope we have more of those conversations. [LAUGHS]
KAYTE YOUNG: To conclude our conversation with Alicia Kennedy, I asked her to read another passage from her book.
ALICIA KENNEDY: "I write about food because I love to look at it, smell it, cook it, share it. I especially love to do these things with fruits and vegetables and beans. I love to show people what can be done, what's possible without involving animals for their flesh or their milk, their eggs. Right now, I probably sound like one of the food writers I don't like, one of those food writers who turned a generation off ever thinking too deeply about what they ate, because then a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese for comfort after a long day would be a sacrilege.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Those food writers, the dreadful ones, seem to think that going to pluck an apple from their orchard, and cook eggs from their hens over a wood fire, is a normal way of eating, or is this just parody? I know I don't eat in a normal way, which is a product of a lot of luck and privilege, but that's why I want to advocate for a world where luck and privilege have no role in whether one's food is fresh, nutritious, culturally appropriate, and accessible.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That's the future of food I want."
KAYTE YOUNG: That was Alicia Kennedy, reading from her book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating. Find links on our website, eartheats.org.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's it for our show. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time. The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Special thanks this week to Bev Rivero at Beacon Press and to Alicia Kennedy. Earth Eats is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Aaron and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.