Alicia Kennedy Rules The ‘No Meat Required’ World: The Food Writer Talks To Green Queen About Her Debut Book
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Often described as a food writer, I tend to see Kennedy as a food thinker. Her unique writing style is full of questions and complicated discussions. She does not peddle in easy answers and tidy solutions. Her From The Desk of Alicia Kennedy Substack, which boasts close to 30,000 subscribers, is a favorite among many luminaries in the food world, and rightly so. It’s one of those newsletters I read as soon as it lands in my inbox. Every issue never fails to challenge and teach, both things I am desperate for as I wade through the depressing echo chambers of social feeds and clickbait journalism that defines our media diet in contemporary times. Kennedy is a mainstream reader’s academic. She humanises her discourse with personal experience and a large dose of empathy.
After devouring her new book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating (published on August 15), I sat down with the San Juan-based Kennedy on Zoom to talk about why she wrote it, how the pandemic and her move to Puerto Rico changed the book’s premise, how we can fix our broken food system, the role of food in US culture, and why lifestyle media writers are a key part of helping us change how we eat.
We begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Green Queen, as a platform, chronicles the world of food tech and future food solutions that Kennedy’s work is often critical of.
Kennedy’s view on food tech, or ‘tech meat’ as she terms it in the book, is more nuanced than folks might think, and during our discussion, she acknowledges that plant-based meats and alternatives can help people transition from meat-heavy diets (at one point in the book, she writes: “I don’t discount the significance of these as a stop-gap measure”) – though she is clear that they are not to her taste and she finds many of of the supply chains of these products problematic. She also sees it as her responsibility to push boundaries in the conversation about building a better food system and fight the inevitability of a tech-based approach.
“I think it’s important to rhetorically take a very strong stance, especially when market forces tend to be the driving engine of how things change, and to say: ‘How can we push back against this idea that this is inevitable, or that this approach is inevitable?’
“Can we use food technology in a way that is beneficial? Sure. But that also doesn’t kind of trample on the notion that we also need farmers. And we also need to support regional agriculture and make things sustainable in multiple ways.”
I confess to her that one thing I worry about in the space is a lack of people who truly love food and more specifically, cooking. And how can we really change food culture and eating culture without coming from a place of love for food?
She concurs: “I used to work in a magazine that did a conference called Food Loves Tech – they were really trying to get into that space. And my sense was, there’s just not a love for eating here. And that’s what really troubled me about it.”
How food figures in American culture
We talk more about the difference between a European worldview of food and a US one, as well as the American approach to ethical veganism, which Kennedy admits has always been a struggle for her. “Even when I was vegan, before I went vegetarian, it was just very difficult to square, this sort of: it’s only about the animals, the food doesn’t matter.”
Kennedy’s work is rich with the fight against exploitation of any kind, not just against animals. As an example of the selectiveness of such an ethical framework, she points to foods like cashews and palm oil – a staple for many vegan prepared foods – whose supply chains are mired in human rights issues and deforestation, respectively.
This is rooted in how most Americans deal with food. “[Most] people don’t,” says Kennedy. “It’s very niche, basically, to really concern yourself with food in the US. It’s like it’s an affectation. It’s not a given, it’s not cultural. It’s seen as very elite to care about your food and to make things from scratch. And to cut out meat, or to be conscious of meat is seen as an elitist thing. The idea isn’t everyone deserves good food that’s been raised properly with ecology in mind and where the worker was paid well. The idea is: McDonald’s is good, because it’s cheap.”
This elicits a disconnect whereby people don’t see good food as part of good politics or as necessary for a healthy society, she continues.
“It’s seen as just an elite idea, and it’s very difficult to get around that obviously, because better food is expensive. It’s such a challenge to have these conversations in a lot of spaces because a lot of people, especially in the US, do not regard food as a significant piece of life, livelihood and culture.”
‘No Meat Required’: a celebration of plant-based eating past and future
This was one of her motivations to write the book, for an audience “that doesn’t believe that vegans or vegetarians care about food”.
The book chronicles the many pioneers and movements of plant-based eating in the US, rich in joy, deliciousness and plenty from chefs to writers to activists. Kennedy rails against the idea that a diet without meat, dairy and eggs is one of deprivation. Part of the book’s purpose is to show her audience that there are ways to develop a future where “while not everyone is vegan, and maybe there is still small-scale animal agriculture, we’re not eating 274 pounds of meat per capita every year”.
The book’s premise shifted somewhat from the proposal she sent her publisher in June 2020, after she moved from New York to Puerto Rico and lived through the pandemic. She originally was looking to write a “straight-up vegan cultural history”, but as she started grappling with food access and food sovereignty after the move, and watched the labour issues in the meat processing industry unfold during the pandemic, she decided to go broader.
Rather than just cover the history, she wanted to question it. “Let’s look at this history of folks who have not eaten meat for various reasons. And what can we learn from how to approach the future from them? And how can we approach the future where it is good for everybody and we’re taking into account not just our personal wellbeing, but climate change, labour rights, and yes, animal welfare?”
She adds: “For me, the goal isn’t the end of animal agriculture completely. The goal is the end of industrial animal agriculture because I think that needs to be the focus. And then we can have those conversations later, where, you know, you’re arguing about whether you should eat meat or whatever.
“I mean, do I believe there’s such a thing as humane slaughter? Of course not. But at the same time, I recognise that there are people who really do believe that that exists, and that’s okay. And so many people have health problems that require that they can’t be on a diet without meat. And so I’m not trying to say everyone has to do this, I’m saying industrial animal agriculture and the way that this happens in the US is a major problem.
Should everyone be vegan?
In an ideal world, should everyone be vegan, I ask her? “I think, at the end of the day, it’s a personal decision. I don’t think there’s a ‘should’. ‘Should’ is a patriarchal word,” she notes, explaining that she does not see it as her place to tell others what to do.
That said, the philosophical and political thesis of veganism still resonates. As she says in an interview with the online magazine Dirt earlier this year: “I stand by veganism as a response to corporate food and industrial agriculture. But a lot of being vegan comes with the sense that you’re supposed to be evangelising for it, and I just can’t evangelise anymore.”
Kennedy has written previously about being targeted by extreme vegans for her more nuanced views. Today, she describes herself as a vegetarian. She will eat oysters and local farmer eggs, as well as the occasional artisanal cheese.
People often want absolutes from her. Kennedy is comfortable living in the grey, and rejects the notion that she has to have all the answers. She has grown to eschew limiting identifiers and labels. She worries that being too binary about diet preferences and obsessing about labels is what keeps people from feeling like they can make small, good changes in their lives, because it seems like it’s going to require an identity shift.
“The reason people get defensive when the question of not eating meat comes up is because you have to make a massive change to your life, you have to change your identity, you have to become this thing. You have to have a marker on the way you eat, and be either a vegetarian, a vegan, plant-based, a flexitarian. People are very hesitant to put identity markers on themselves in that way.”
How do we eat when the world is burning?
When it comes to how we should eat, Kennedy is far more interested in questions that are holistic in scope. According to her, the question should be: what is right for you, your, your ecosystem, your culture, your way of style of living? What’s the best you can do? What does the best for you in that situation?
She acknowledges that this is, of course, complicated: “So I’m here in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I’m on an island, an archipelago in the Caribbean, a colony of the United States. The best thing I can do here, and especially as a vegetarian, is: I buy from local farms, I buy from local bakers, I really minimise the amount of imported goods that we consume. And I cook like freaking every single day! I’m supporting local agriculture. I’m minimising the miles that things are travelling to get here, and I’m supporting local food artisans, or local chefs when I’m not cooking. And I don’t eat meat, because I don’t want to. That’s just the best I can do.”
I ask her if she thinks we all have a responsibility to engage with how our food is produced, and actively make the most sustainable and ethical choice in our context, as she says. What about those who are too tired? Or struggling with survival? Or those simply looking for nourishment and nothing more? And what of those who are simply not interested?
“This isn’t an individual problem. And I think that taking that burden off of people is important because yes, it has these individual dimensions, it has personal dimensions. But at the end of the day, these are political and economic problems. We should be able to go to the store and say: ‘I’m buying a can of coconut milk, and no one was exploited.’ And we can’t do that.”
The role of food and lifestyle media in cultural shifts
We talk more about how we can bring about such a cultural shift in how we eat and what’s on our plate when “the system is set up for people to continue to feed into this bad system that exploits everybody”, as she puts it – and the conversation turns to the role of the media. Kennedy zeroes in on lifestyle writers in particular, whom she believes have a duty to get the mainstream ready for such a shift.
“I think the role of lifestyle media right now at this very big crisis point is to get people ready for big shifts, and you don’t have to do that in a way that’s scary. You don’t have to be like: ‘Hey, if you don’t stop eating all this meat, the world’s gonna end.’ But how do you get people ready by just making it look delicious? And look good?”
She notes that not enough is happening in the food media space on this front, compared to fashion media, for example, where she sees very positive action with influencers and writers helping consumers get out of the fast-fashion cycle and consider alternatives, which food folks can learn from.
Where does foodtech fit it?
We end up back on the subject of food tech, which regularly makes media headlines. Kennedy says it’s the narrative itself that she finds problematic, this idea that a plant-based burger or lab-grown meat can solve all the issues in our food system.
I tell her the US mainstream media in particular seems to have blinkers on when it comes to plant-based meat and alternative protein reporting. Most of it concerns itself with just a handful of companies, including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
With over 1,000 companies in the space globally, should all plant-based companies be brushed together with one narrative? I bring up companies using jackfruit, mushrooms and fava beans. Isn’t it a good thing for people to eat a wider range of plants?
She agrees: “There needs to be more diversity in how bigger media is addressing plant-based foods.”
But for Kennedy, who enjoys cooking and, in many ways, sees the act of cooking as a way to fight the exploitative industrial food system we must endure, these products feature much in her kitchen. “They absolutely do have a role and if they make cooking things like jackfruit and mushrooms more accessible, that’s great,” she notes, but she is hesitant to endorse market change on its own as the only way to shift how we eat.
This idea that a market change will make political change is what bothers her – we have to look at both simultaneously. “Are we going to use these products to change culture? While we seek the necessary political changes to end industrial animal agriculture? And make a better world?”
At the end of the day, she says, everyone – vegans, vegetarians, conscious omnivores, food-tech folk – can agree on one question: how do we get rid of factory farming?
No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating by Alicia Kennedy, is published by Beacon Press, $26.95.