Food media is a fickle world, and like most industries, it has evolved—for better and for worse—with the times.
Previous decades have been defined by the culinary juggernauts who shaped what we ate and how we cooked: Emeril Lagasse, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Nigella Lawson, and essentially anyone else who ever had a series on the Food Network. There was also, of course, the blogging era, when it seemed like anyone who could chop, slice, or sauté could be a food content creator with the help of some basic HTML and an iPhone.
Alicia Kennedy—the Long Island–raised, Puerto Rico–based writer and author—is in neither of these categories, and yet she’s managed to build a devout following of food industry peers and aficionados based on her popular newsletter From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, which looks at how food shapes our lives more than we might think. (It’s also where Kennedy shares personal recipes for paid subscribers, like vegetarian empanadas or the perfect dirty martini.) She doubles down on this approach in her debut book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, out today from Beacon Press. Across 232 pages, she argues that vegetarianism and veganism need to become integral to how we farm, cook, and eat in this era of climate change, rather than simply personal preferences.
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“I had been doing research for this book essentially for 10 years. I don’t think that I had always been focused on the end result being a book, but I had been immersed in vegan food, traveling for vegan or vegetarian food, researching the history of this style of cooking, writing about it, and even having a vegan bakery,” Kennedy tells Harper’s Bazaar. “It seemed like a no-brainer, because my intellectual obsession for a decade was: What does it mean to give up meat in the U.S., and what does that food look like? It wouldn’t have made sense for me to come out with a cookbook first, because I’m not traditionally a recipe developer—but people have really been unable to let go of the fact that it’s not a cookbook,” she adds, laughing.
Kennedy dedicated the book to her brother and grandmother, the latter of whom, she says, taught her “how to eat” rather than how to cook.
“I learned to love food [from her]. That’s such a radical inheritance in terms of women’s relationship to appetite and to food. When I was small, no one ever said, you know, ‘Don’t eat that’ or ‘You’re eating too much’ or ‘Control your appetite.’ That was never part of my upbringing,” she says. “That’s important to name, in terms of my relationship to food and cooking, but also like why it was so significant for me to give up meat and to change how I ate—because I did grow up being so omnivorous and so obsessed with food. The memoir-ish parts of the book are really about how to take the significance of food as a centerpiece of my life, and how I mapped that gift that my grandmother gave me onto a plant-based diet.”
No Meat Required isn’t here to preach, though. Instead, Kennedy simply wants to break down the cultural tropes that have shaped the narrative surrounding plant-based eating over the decades. In essence: Veganism is far more than the very white, ultra-hippie way of life the mainstream media has portrayed it to be.
“I started writing about food in 2015, and I was so naive, thinking people just simply weren’t covering vegan food. I thought, Oh, they’re just not doing it because they don’t know! When really it was Oh, they’re not seeing it because they literally do not want to see it,” she says. “All this cool stuff being done in vegan food was overlooked because it had this this cultural baggage. It was something different from ‘real food.’”
Much of Kennedy’s work, in the book and her newsletter, centers on the idea of imperfection and how it’s everywhere—especially in the American food system. And her overall creative approach—not just to her writing, but also her cooking—aims to make preparing food at home seem manageable for those who aren’t culinarily inclined.
“I think people feel so afraid to cook and are so afraid to try new things, whether they’re cooking or whether they’re going out to a restaurant, because they’re afraid of not being the perfect person. I don’t know where people got the idea that, like, every meal you eat has to be like mind-blowingly delicious,” Kennedy says, laughing. “That is not how food is. We can have deliciousness every single day as a normal part of our life, but the meals that make you go whoa—that should stay special.”
“It’s okay to be very pantry-based. You can shop at Costco and go to the farmers’ market, which is what I do,” she says. “I made dumplings recently, and I’m terrible at holding the pleats on them. I could have said, I’m not gonna share that I made dumplings today. But they’re still dumplings, they’re still delicious, and you can still eat them, and that’s okay. In social media there’s been a big move toward accepting imperfections, but I think there’s still a huge expectation that when you show your house or your kitchen, everything needs to be beautiful and perfect. As long as I have my following that I have, that is absolutely not a necessity.”
Kennedy is more critical of the imperfections of the writing industry at large. She has been public about her unhappiness in traditional media (she spent time at New York magazine as a copy editor) and was brutally honest with her subscribers about the mental and emotional energy it took to bring No Meat Required to life. Every author knows you can love writing, but writing doesn’t always love you back. But for Kennedy, continuing to pursue her literary voice is the only option.
“I just don’t know how not to do it,” she says. “It’s important for me [to stick it out] on a level of being someone who doesn’t have familial or generational wealth, and who comes from Long Island and who didn’t go to an Ivy League college. If we don’t have the perspective of people from outside what mainstream media and publishing is, then we don’t get good stories and we don’t show other people who are coming up that they can do it too.”
She adds: “I am a writer. Even if no one was paying attention, I would be writing. It’s important for me to be able to tell that story and to be open about when it’s hard, but also be open about when it’s great and when things are going well. It’s just really about making sure people know that they can do it too.”
Bianca Betancourt is the culture editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com, where she covers all things film, TV, music, and more. When she’s not writing, she loves impulsively baking a batch of cookies, re-listening to the same early-2000s pop playlist, and stalking Mariah Carey’s Twitter feed.