Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Kelly Alexander

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Kelly Alexander grew up in a boisterous Southern-Jewish food-focused family in Atlanta, Georgia. She is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling cookbook Smokin' with Myron Mixon and author of the critically acclaimed Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate. Alexander is also the collaborator with Top Chef winner Richard Blais on the cookbook Try This At Home; editor of The Great American Cookbook, a reissue of Clementine Paddleford's How America Eats; author of Peaches: A Savor the South Cookbook; and co-author of Everyday Barbecue with Myron Mixon.

Her magazine work, which covers everything from obsessive collectors of Fiestaware to the cross-cultural significance of brisket, earned her a James Beard Foundation Award for best magazine writing. Alexander was a senior editor at Saveur and an editor at both Food & Wine and Boston magazines. Her writing also has appeared in The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, The New Republic, New York, Southern Living, Slate, Real Simple, Travel + Leisure, and Newsweekamong other periodicals.

Alexander teaches food writing and narrative nonfiction writing at the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University and can be heard chronicling food customs on The State of Things, which airs on North Carolina Public Radio and NPR stations across the country. A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband, two sons, a miniature dachshund, and a calico cat.

What is your earliest food memory?

I was about five or six and in my maternal grandmother's kitchen. All Jewish grandmothers lay claim to the best mandel brot; the long bar cookies sometimes called "Jewish biscotti," but my Mema's version really was the best; she was known for it in her circle of Atlanta-based Jews. I can remember being very small as she made the mandel brot and then let me sprinkle the cinnamon-sugar mixture on top of the long loaves. I wanted to do a good job and took a long, long time. And she was very patient. And I can remember wondering how those lumps of dough somehow turned into the cookies I loved so much. 

When and why did you first start writing about food?

Because I spent so much of my youth with a grandmother in her kitchen, I knew a lot about cooking at a young age. There wasn't a lot of concern about me burning myself or cutting myself — my grandmother let me peel potatoes, scramble eggs. I was heavily supervised, but I also knew how to; say, bake a cake before I was ten. I loved writing as a child, too, but I didn't consider combining writing with food until I was in college. At Northwestern University, I had the great good luck to work on an entirely student-produced magazine where reporters were encouraged to write about things we knew. The only thing I knew anything about was food. It wasn't like I sat down and said, "I think I'll be a food writer." It was just that every time I sat down to put thoughts on paper, I wrote a lot, if not entirely, about food. Then in my junior year of college I was invited to apply to an internship program sponsored by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Applicants had to write an essay about something they were good at. I wrote mine about making an omelette; I make a mean omelet. And of the hundreds of participants, mine was the only essay about food, and that was the reason an editor named Pamela Mitchell, who worked at Food & Wine magazine at the time, choose me to be her intern. And that's when I got my official start as a so-called "food writer."

What food writers inspired you and why?

I have never read a ton of what you'd call "food writing" — writing that is exclusively about food. I read avidly; though, and really widely. Currently I'm into Scott Stossel's My Age of Anxiety, which combines science and psychology with memoir. I've read all of Fitzgerald, most of Nabokov, and a lot of the modern writer Lionel Shriver; I'm all over the place when it comes to influences. It's important to stay curious as a reader, and to let writing that's not expressly about food inform your style and tone. I feel quite strongly about that — otherwise we food writers would all sound the same, wouldn't we? 

As far as actual "food writers" who inspire me, number one is the late International Herald Tribune reporter Clementine Paddleford, who covered the American food scene from approximately 1930 to the late 1960s. She was the first person to tell the stories behind the recipes, and she had a breathless, breezy, assured tone; the exact opposite of the memoir-ish food writing that is so in vogue today, and I find her columns fresh and exciting every time I open a collection. I was very, very late to the M.F.K Fisher party, but once I discovered Serve It Forth, I joined. Some of her work is too cold and detached and uncelebratory for me, but "I Was Really Very Hungry," is, to me, the perfect essay title, and I wish I'd written it (and the essay itself ain't bad, either). "Borderland" is my favorite of hers; to take that subject — being stuck in Strasbourg in the middle of winter with nothing much to do but look out your hotel room window, peel tangerines, and then dry them out on the radiator, and turn it into something transcendent? That's like turning a lump of dough into mandel brot. That's magic! And it's also exalting a very humble pursuit, which I find appealing.

What lessons did you learn from your sources of inspiration?

That good writing about food has to pique many senses: It shouldn't be just about taste and how to make it. Like all good writing, it should transform its reader in some way: It should be about the person who made it, the place it came from, what it smells like, and how it makes you feel to eat it. The most important thing about great food writing is that it's seldom about food; it's about race, class, religion, family, love — you name it. 

What advice would you give to a young would-be food writer just starting out?

I am confronted with this often and I wish I had a really good answer, a formula for someone to follow, like a recipe that ends with: "Poof! You're a food writer!" But no such luck. What I advise my students interested in a career in writing about food is to read as much as possible across as many genres as possible, and to write as much as possible — and yes, when you're starting out sometimes that means for free. But take the long view: What you need are samples of your writing so you can eventually get paid to do it. So by all means blog, tweet, work for your local independent weekly newspaper, your college newspaper: Be above no journalistic outlet that will publish you. If you want to write about food, you can't waste a lot of time talking about it; you have to instead spend a lot — a lot — of time trying to do it. 

What have you learned by teaching food writing?

I learn so much from my students that sometimes I fear they're getting the raw end of the deal. The Gen Y'ers I teach know much more about the mechanics of restaurants and of a chefs life than I did at their age; it's just staggering. It's also a kind of "education-by-way-of Top Chef," which I have mixed feelings about — what they know is not always right just because some sous-chef from Louisville said it on television. But the good thing is that they're curious as hell: What I learn from them is how to stay intellectually nimble. It's very tempting once you've reached a certain point in your career to feel as if you've mastered your craft. My students keep me on my toes, for sure — they challenge assumptions. ("Why is aspic delicious when it's gross?" a student asked me once. "Just because some French dude said so?") An attitude of openness is valuable. You eat enough foie gras, it's easy to become jaded. They're not jaded. 

Do food magazines still have relevance in the digital age?

I read them! I hope so. I also think that when we say "magazine" we may eventually mean "a magazine in a digital format." But if the question is really about a place for long-form journalism, for good narrative nonfiction writing about food, I say yes, magazines are still relevant. Everything we want to say about ourselves and our lives simply cannot be contained in 140 characters (or less). 

What do you find attractive about radio as a medium?

I spent a lot of time with old people as a very young person, and I loved listening to their stories. My mema [had] stories about going out to Coney Island with her friends, or [there were] my grandfather's stories about being stationed in Normandy during World War II and playing cards with Clarke Gable. I love a good yarn, I love the oral tradition, and I think that while magazines may not be in danger of disappearing, the art of listening may very well get lost in the shuffle of the information age. I learned how to be a good writer because I'm a good listener, and I learned to be a good listener because I spent an inordinate amount of my youth listening to old stories. The radio represents all of that to me: The chance to tell a story in your own voice, in your own words — and to be really listened to and heard. 

Do food writers have social responsibility and if so how should it be exercised?

I like this question precisely because I am not the most "socially responsible" food writer. I think of myself as a "gateway drug" food writer: My job is to make people hungry, to get them to stop the hustle-bustle, slow down, make a meal, and enjoy it with family and friends. That's what attracts me to writing about food. It's the human condition, to be accepted by your tribe, and of course we feel that acceptance when we break bread together. I think that it's really, really important to be an educated food consumer, to educate yourself about whether it's better to, say, buy wild or farmed salmon, or what to do if you have to choose between a local chicken and an organic one, or what the Farm Bill means to you. I don't think fast food is OK in lunchrooms, and I think too much hydrogenated oil will give you a heart attack. But I don't necessarily think it's my job as a food writer to dedicate myself to those subjects. I think food writers are responsible for telling stories about food across a broad spectrum; I don't necessarily think the drive to advocacy and activism are must-haves for the job. Some writers are more drawn to that side of this business than others. And I think that's absolutely fine. 

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?

My dream is to do what my great idol Clementine Paddleford did: Chronicle How America Eats through visiting home kitchens in all fifty states. There is nothing better to me than spying on what people eat for dinner, finding out the key to secret family recipes and sharing them with my readers, or than convincing people to put down that take-out pizza and cook something. I love regional American food; from barbecue to lutefisk, and if I could live out my days chronicling it, the people who devote themselves to keeping our regional food traditions alive, I'd be very, very excited indeed.