This started as a story for Catapult. I signed a contract to write about No Meat Required and the process of creating a first book. I’d done an hour-long interview with Alicia Kennedy. Then the magazine folded.
It freed me to write as I like — to be wildly biased.
I was standing in the poetry section of a bookstore on a grey March day in the same week I’d received an ARC of No Meat Required. As I’m scanning the spines of the hyper-slim books, a thought drops — Alicia Kennedy has the same publisher as Jane Hirshfield, James Baldwin, Mary Oliver, and Colm Tóibín. Beacon Press, of fucking course. Stitching the connections together made me smile.
“In college, I studied philosophy and read Marxist texts, including One-Dimensional Man,” Kennedy says, “I was really excited about having the same publisher as Herbert Marcuse.”
Did you know she’s a total geek?
“I was born in 1985. My mom made chicken cutlets and spaghetti. We didn’t even eat yogurt.” (Show me a better bio.)
That’s the Long Island girl talking — fresh, relatable, calling in her audience. Born a few generations behind Moosewood and Diet for a Small Planet, she locates herself in mostly modern history. How she became a vegan is convoluted and Moby makes a guest appearance. She started a vegan bakery, wrote reviews for the Village Voice, and was a senior copywriter for New York magazine.
“The book is cultural criticism, but it is like a love letter to this weird subculture that has given me so much,” she says.
Her diet is anything but static. She won’t say no to oysters on the half-shell. Is the martini a trademark? Some of it challenges the evangelists.
“When you have an alternative diet, people will think you’re coming at them with judgment. I started the process, hating the term plant-based eating, but I found it useful along the way. It’s a phrase that brings people in. We need to do whatever we can to make it more inviting.”
Go to the back of the book — to Notes and the Bibliography. Alicia Kennedy reads. I marvel almost weekly at how she keeps it all straight for the newsletter — From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. I’ve put books she’s mentioned on hold at the library. So have many of you.
“I sold the book in June 2020 and imagined writing it in the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library, working with the world at my fingertips. If I needed anything, I’d talk with a librarian.
But I wrote it during a pandemic in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There was no public library. I bought books, used Open Library a lot, and paid for an app to access academic papers,” she says, “I take handwritten notes while reading, which I often only return to when fact-checking. That process imprints the material on my brain in a different way.”
She credits Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food as a source of inspiration. Sarah Schulman is her favorite non-fiction writer.
“I found the process of writing a book hard,” says Kennedy in the first five minutes of talking. Hearing it is a relief. And I'm curious.
The plan was to write a chapter a month through to the deadline. But a year went by with no progress. Anxiety took root in the absence of work. The real fear and worry of living in a global pandemic didn’t help. And Kennedy was still busy, writing bi-weekly essays and building an audience. Advances for first books are not enough to stop working.
Discovering the internal barrier was the diamond that came out of the months of inaction. Kennedy believed the book had to be wildly new and original and knock everyone’s socks off. “My career was on an upward swing, and I had this idea that this was my only chance to prove myself,” she says. Letting go of unrealistic expectations was a turning point.
I tore through No Meat Required. I could not shake the feeling it will be big. It made me want what’s next.
“The book feels like a closing chapter in a certain way for me,” she says.
May she make good money and take all the time a second book demands. Her win is ours.
No Meat Required is cultural history written by a bright mind. It’s punk rock with a homeopathic-sized dose of nostalgia. It’s modern Americana.
Shoutout to your mom. You did good, girl. 🤟
I attended a micro-conference in Brooklyn in 2018 — the Food Writer’s Workshop. The cotton bag still hangs in my closet. I can’t bear to send it to Value Village because the experience was pivotal. It’s proof I was there.
Tickets, including lunch, were $13.50 U.S. It was affordable...inclusive...a space for me. The big food publishing events cost hundreds of dollars — a barrier for new voices. Alicia was an organizer, along with Layla Schlack and Emily Stephenson.
The panels and discussion were rich — I took one photo the whole day. I made invaluable connections — met Lukas Volger, Korsha Wilson, Mayukh Sen, and Marissa Rothkopf.
I spent four days in New York and stayed at the 92nd Street Y. My room was so cold I wore everything I brought in my carry-on to bed. All my extra pennies went into eating. Duh. I wasn’t thinking about that hardship sitting across from my friend Lauren at MeMe’s Diner. Priorities.
This expresses some of the joy of that trip.
The album Dynamo by Soda Stereo was what Alicia listened to a lot while writing No Meat Required. She shared a playlist from that period.
I chose the song because, damn, that guitar intro! Turn it up. Disturb your neighbours.
© Deborah Reid, 2021 - 2023. All Rights Reserved.