My new life as a food writer was inspired by a near-death experience
To the average food writer, food might not be a matter of life or death, but for me, it is…
If I told people I was a writer, they would pull together a romantic image of a femme James Baldwin or starving artist just trying to make it in a big city.
However, when I tell people I am a food writer, I am usually met with glazed eyes and silent stares. I have been called a Yelp reviewer, a restaurant critic, and yes, even a chef. While I am absolutely none of those things, I completely understand the sentiment.
If we are being honest, what does it even mean to be a ‘food writer?’ Food is something that is woven into every part of our lives which means that being a food writer could really mean anything.
I am not confined by the narrow bounds of an online forum, but I certainly do not have the credibility of a cutting-edge journalist.
It is a really weird time to be a food writer. The state of our global agriculture system is on a fast track to a point of no return, yet there is still an intimate connection between food and culture that must be preserved. Our relationships with food are evolving in these times of uncertainty, and that means the term ‘food writer’ is changing alongside them.
So, what is a 21-year-old student from Texas doing calling herself a food writer? Well, in short, I am making space for myself, the people, and the food stories that matter to me.
I do not have a journalism degree, formal editorial training, or a massive Instagram following. However, I do have a story. My story is what drives my passion to redefine what it means to work in food media.
When Food Writing Gets Personal
Food is something that has breathed life into my soul but has also brought me and my loved ones to the brink of death. My relationship with food is something that I have had, and continue, to look at deeply.
There are people from all backgrounds who have grown up in environments where the absence of food defined their childhood. Farmers, indigenous communities, and low-income people of color have stories that have been excluded from mainstream food media for way too long.
Yes, I am young. I fully recognize I have experience ahead of me that will change my perspective, but I also have a lot of experience behind me that is worthy of being shared. This is what drives me to be in constant pursuit of the untold stories of food and bring them to the forefront of food media.
I have had a hard time with labels for years. I was afraid to come to terms with the many parts of my identity that have been rooted in trauma or I was never encouraged to embrace. In my journey as a food writer, I have never been more empowered to be a young, neurodivergent, woman of color recovering from a 13 year battle with an eating disorder.
I want to normalize writing as both a therapeutic and professional practice. There is no reason that we cannot start looking at the intersections of food, systematic oppression, and intergenerational trauma just because it is not what appeals to The New York Times food column.
The Brink of Death and the Pursuit of Life
My writing is inextricably connected to my life experience. Growing up, my family relied on food stamps and faced the challenges of food apartheid in most of the cities we moved between. I have struggled with eating disorders since I was 8 years old.
Just last year, I was finally hospitalized for three months as all the trauma reached a breaking point and, I watched my dad have a stroke from many years of unaddressed trauma which had firm roots in his relationship with food.
I only give this context so people understand why looking at the less popular sides of food is so important. Food is something that breathes life into so many people and cultures, but can also be the source of shared traumatic experiences.
I will never discount the beautiful food memories that happened alongside my childhood challenges where the best food was cheap, and often found at family gatherings and parties with family friends.
This journey started in my pursuit to ensure that no one coming from a similar environment felt alone. An eating disorder is something that consumes you. It isolates you from your family, friends, and communities in ways that, at first, feel irreparable. What makes matters worse is that society refuses to talk about them and the deep connections that redefine what food means to 7.8% of the world population.
When people starting noticing my changing relationship with food, I felt so insecure. I would spend hours with my nose in the memoirs of esteemed chefs, cookbooks, and signed up for at least,50 food and drink newsletters that still haunt my inbox to this day.
Silently, I was hiding behind the reality that every day I couldn’t even focus on school or at work. Eating disorders make you have an unimaginable fixation on food that takes up pretty much every part of your life – especially your health. I spent these days looking to other food writers for stories I could relate to – especially ones that would pull me one step closer to recovery.
So when people ask me, “what got you into food and food writing,” I am challenged to look at my roots beyond the eating disorder. It is this extremely intense yet powerful process of reclamation that pulls you away from the ED one day, or one story, at a time. I know I have a long (9 year) road ahead of me, but at least I know that the road will bring me closer to my upbringing, family, and community.
Finding My Voice
I have always struggled to share my voice. From creative projects to school papers, I have always looked beyond the low-hanging fruit. I developed a unique curiosity because I know there is always more to someone’s story than they feel able or confident enough to tell.
In times where I just needed a place to let it all out, writing was a default where I felt able to truly express myself. What started as daily, therapeutic journaling turned into an outlet where I hope to give stories like mine a platform and make people feel a little less alone along the way.
Writing has been the thing that’s honestly saved my life. During my hospitalization, I fell back on writing as I journaled my way through every anxiety and dark moment. I looked to my relationship with food – one of which almost killed me – to breathe new meaning into life.
I grew up with insight into a diverse range of communities rooted in privilege and struggle. Food apartheid and its consequences almost took my father away from me. Diet culture was an easy escape for my mother and me as we struggled to recover from abuse and financial insecurity.
However, I also hold intimate memories of food and community that allow me to find beauty in the darkness. From park cookouts to the smell of my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes that comforted me while my mother worked nights to support my brother and me, food is what defines my understanding of community and love.
I believe my role as a food writer is essential to recognizing the multi-faceted realities of food. It is a responsibility I take very seriously as I try to navigate this transitioning world.
I cannot go to a restaurant without thinking of the line cooks that are working through the night and early morning to support families at home. It is impossible to talk about the farm-to-table movement without looking at the Black, Brown, and immigrant communities who have struggled for generations at the hand of an unjust system.
I may be young and I may have little social currency, but I have a food education that cannot be replicated by any elite institution. To me, this is more than enough justification for people with the same insight to be respected as established food writers.
The beauty of food writing is that it forces you to constantly learn, adapt, and question the world around you. Thanks to the nature of food media, I will always be learning and ‘finding my voice.’
Priming the Next Generation of Food Writers
Food media needs a makeover. Thankfully, there are many budding food writers that are challenging the status quo and pressuring mainstream media to let their voices be heard.
Every day, I see a new article that reminds me of the good work that is being done to breathe life into the unrecognized food narratives that define so many of our lives.
The days of defining the food industry by rating systems and Michelin stars are coming to a close. It is time for the next generation of food activists to come in and share the stories of culture, community, and sacrifice that are told at the kitchen table every night.
For any young creative reading this, I want you to know that just because space isn’t made for you doesn’t mean that you can’t define that space for yourself. We are all navigating uncharted territory which provides an equal dose of anxiety and opportunity.
Regardless of what your parents or society tells you, success is no longer being defined by formal education or securing a six-figure salary. Success is what you define it to be. For me, I know that I will be successful when I have the opportunity to use my food writing as a radical expression of community care and advocacy.
Yes, my relationship with food almost killed me, but it is this very reality that has given me a refined lens to the ways food breathes life into our world. Call it informal education or however you want to spin it, I am a young food writer and I am here to change the status quo.
Ari is always looking to start a conversation with her audience. Like what she had to say? Say hello to her on social media @arialised or by email at email@example.com