“…there are so many other cultures under the umbrella of Judaism and that alone motivates me to learn more.”
You haven’t always been a food writer. Can you tell us what you did before and why you made the change?
Sure thing. So, I used to be a dance anthropologist, which is something that just tends to make people go a bit blank-faced and blink a few times when I say it. Basically, I used to study how culture was performed through dance (now I look at it through food, which is also a performance). My mother was a dancer.
I worked in a brilliant arts community that did a lot of outreach and served a population of adults with developmental disabilities, so it was incredibly fulfilling for several years. Eventually, I wanted to take the research deeper and felt I needed to go back to school in order to do so. I began looking for graduate programmes in ‘dance anthropology’ and at the time the only English (language)-based one that was just a Master’s programme was here in the UK, so I moved. The programme, which was only in its 1st or 2nd year was just me and seven other students from I think five different countries; surprisingly also another woman from Ohio (what?!). It was incredibly interesting but after I finished I was in need of a break from academia.
I worked at an arts club and did a bit of outreach with art and the schools but both organisations were pretty terrible towards employees. I was both miserable AND not using my degree so on a whim I applied for an admin-meets-events job at a cookery school in London, was hired and LOVED it. I was editing recipes, sourcing completely new-to-me ingredients, and meeting so many different kinds of chefs and cooks from so many different backgrounds. I had found a new way to apply all of my anthropological tools and curiosities and I was happy. I was constantly learning and engaging in new interesting projects and basically never looked back.
You describe your heritage as Jewish-meets-Texas – how has this influenced you as a writer?
Both of my parents are Jewish, both of their parents were Jewish. Cleveland, where I grew up, has a decent sized and very active Jewish community; I grew up thinking this was just how the world was. The state high school I went to, comprised roughly 50% of kids of colour, the majority of whom were Black, still closed every year for the Jewish high holidays in the autumn. I mean it was grandfathered in from the ’60s when the Jewish population was higher but it was still part of the norm. There were at least four or five different synagogues you could choose from based on what form of Judaism you practised, several kosher restaurants and Jewish delis…
My father was from a small island called Galveston, off the coast of Texas just south of Houston. Growing up we used to go there quite a lot in the summers – either to Houston or to Galveston to visit family. What was great about flitting between the two areas was the food: so much barbecue, so much fresh seafood, hushpuppies, grits, chicken fried steaks… It was heaven!
I can remember this picture that hung on my grandma’s (my Dad’s mom) wall of her apartment right when you walked in the door that said ‘Shallom, Y’all’. It made me cringe but I also kind of loved it. Though this was not so obvious to me at the time, the understanding that a person’s identity was not just one thing but a blend of things is something that I think about all of the time, both in my work and in my everyday life: how we go about navigating our own ‘ands’ and recognising each other’s too is so critically important.
Being Jewish influences my work more frequently than the Texan roots as my childhood was seen through that lens. But there are so many other cultures under the umbrella of Judaism, and that alone motivates me to learn more. (As is evident by my piece in Pit Issue 08).
Tell us about your recent work – what have been some of your favourite pieces to work on and why?
Just before the outbreak of Covid here in the UK, I wrote an article for an indie magazine focused on climate change called It’s Freezing in LA. It’s about the seed saving library trend that was taking off. Lots of public libraries were repurposing old card catalogues for seed collection, and simultaneously building communities of growers that were then held responsible for keeping the seed strain and the local knowledge alive for the next season. Though the research process I also discovered organisations like Global Generation here in London whose work within local communities and youth empowerment is just incredible. I also reconnected to some of my New Mexican contacts from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre and the work that they do with their Resilience Gardens.
I had no idea when I was researching at the beginning of the year that home gardening, the ideas of resilience, community reliance or even this sense of food sovereignty would apply so directly. I can see its power so clearly now.
Do you barbecue much at home? If so, we’d love to hear a little bit about that!
Truthfully, I haven’t much this year because we didn’t know how to safely get a new propane tank for our grill and I wasn’t in the right headspace to start down the road of alternative methods. I know there’s a lot out there, especially given my experiences with Texan barbecue, but I just couldn’t make it happen this year. Perhaps one day when we have a little bit more outdoor space or the kids are older and less impatient when it comes to mealtime.
But last year was our year of the grilled garden vegetable – I grew courgettes for the first time along with tomatoes and a few varieties of New Mexican chillies, most of which went immediately from the veg patch to the grill. It’s a tiny garden so you can quite literally walk just a few steps in a straight line from the plant to the grill. Lazy, and not really ‘barbecue’ exactly, but effective and super delicious.
Is there a barbecue experience you’ve had that stands out in your mind as particularly special? This could be anywhere in the world and involve smoking, street food, anything at all…
I have two – I hope that’s ok!
The first one is from Luther’s Bar-B-Q in Texas. This place was my aunt and uncles favourite so whenever we were in Texas we’d have to go there. I mean, it was bare-bones picnic tables outside, smokers in the back and giant metal trays piled high with smoked brisket, spicy sausage, ribs and chicken, boiled sweet corn, a paper napkin holder and handfuls of wet wipes. I can remember going there as a kid and it’s like 40C outside and we are all sweating and crowded onto this picnic table; my uncles and dad are drinking beers from a bottle and we’re dripping into our food and no one cared. For a long time every winter my aunt and uncles would send us trays of Luther’s barbecue, which the restaurant would rapid-ship across the country (cool truck I’m guessing?) along with this wonderfully peppery sauce, which we would freeze and then ration until summer.
The other was eating roast goose in Hong Kong (does this count?). I was there for work (thankfully with colleagues who are also friends) but just spent the entire time wide-eyed with a giant shit-eating grin on my face. I mean part of it was jetlag but the rest of it was from being swept up from the buzz of it all – I was there researching street food and street food culture in Hong Kong. You know in a film when a character falls in love and everything else around them just becomes background noise etc? That is how I felt when putting a piece of this roast goose into my mouth. I could not believe it was real and at the same time, I couldn’t focus on anything else. Normally I get really swept up by my environment to the point where I actually find it hard to concentrate on what I’m eating (or even eat at all) if there’s too much going on. This was the opposite experience. It was just me and that goose.
Finally, do feel free to plug anything interesting you have going on right now! Future projects too.
I’ve finished a piece for Whetstone Magazine on New Mexican culture, which is also near and dear to my heart. I worked with an incredible photographer and friend named Joel Wigelsworth and was really lucky to spend a few weeks connecting to a variety of new people and perspectives through Zoom. I was supposed to have gone for a visit there this past May, so while I am seriously longing for a time when its safe to travel again, it’s been such a wonderful opportunity to be able to safely spend the afternoon talking to (former) strangers from my own home. A lot of the conversations have felt less like an interview and more like hangouts and I’m learning so much. It’s all about making the best of the situation.
The Whetstone piece will be coming out likely in Jan, but I also wrote another one for them about kugel which you can read here, though I will warn you it’s a heavier piece that involves loss and grief as well as comfort food and Jewish cuisine/ritual.
I’ve also got a piece out on being professionally rejected actually – one for other freelancers or writers I suppose as it’s less about food and more about figuring out how to separate being rejected from feeling like a failure. I set a goal this past year to be rejected 100 times professionally and crossed that finish line a few weeks ago. We celebrated with champagne and I saved the cork as a career milestone.