“[W]orking in restaurants is working in a physical space that really is defined by the deep racial and economic structure of inequality in this country.”
Alicia talks to cheese writer and community organizer Tia Keenan about dairy production, anti-capitalist food systems, and her backyard chickens. “You can’t solve a systematic problem through individual will,” Keenan says. “If we could, you know, the world would look really different.”
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers and more, about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics and history affect a diet?”
In this episode I’m talking to food writer and community organizer, Tia Keenan, author of The Art of the Cheese Plate, Chevre, and the forthcoming Melt, Stretch & Sizzle: the Art of Cooking Cheese. Tia is an outspoken activist around social justice issues based in Queens, who spent many years working in restaurants before making a roundabout re-entry into publishing. We talked about dairy production in Europe versus the U.S., what an anti-capitalist food system might look like, and her backyard chickens.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Hello Tia, thank you so much for being here.
TIA KEENAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
TIA KEENAN: Sure. Well, I spent the first, almost six years of my life in California, in Salinas, and my parents were, my mom had a lot of issues with food, was always very thin. Forcefully, very thin. We’ll say that. You know, was totally caught up in like the 70s, California, like Hippie, you know, carob, sesame, seaweed, homemade yogurt, that whole scene. So the early part of my life was very much like a 70s crunchy health food kind of life. Then when I was six, we moved to my grandparents’ house on Long Island, on the south shore of Long Island, in a little town called West Hempstead, a sort of working class, Irish, Italian, working-class town. And then I lived with my grandparents, who were first generation, my grandfather’s first generation Italian. My grandmother was first generation Italian and Puerto Rican. My grandfather actually did most of the cooking, so there was a lot of southern Italian cooking, a lot of escarole and broccoli rabe and pasta. My mom worked all the time. She was a hairdresser who eventually put herself through law school at Hofstra. I was really, in those years from when I was six until my mom married my stepfather at 11, I was really raised by my grandparents.
So we didn’t, my grandfather went to food, town every Saturday morning, and we did the grocery shopping together. We did not eat fancy food, you know, it was like margarine and Home Pride wheat bread and, you know, some Italian food, we’d go to like the Italian delis and get fresh mozzarella, maybe sun-dried tomatoes. I’m thinking of the early 80s. Then because I grew up on Long Island, you know, pizza, bagels, diner, you know it, that’s sort of the regional delicacies there. So I definitely grew up eating hippie food and eating, sort of, working class, middle class immigrant Italian-American food.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s a very interesting combination.
TIA KEENAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, my mom was always trying to, she got caught up in a lot of fads because she had an uneasy relationship with food. And of course people who have uneasy relationships with food are very susceptible to all the latest things that are being told to them about food. So my mom like, went through a phase of yogurt cheesecakes and like all that kind of stuff, and oat bran, there was definitely a year of oat bran that was totally traumatic, where we would eat the equivalent of two cups of oat bran a day. I was little. I was like nine or 10. It was pretty messed up actually. But yeah, driving over here, I was thinking about the different influences in my life, and I think I’ve been really lucky because I’ve had a really wide array of life in my life. And my mom was a really interesting, intense person, and she brought that intensity to everything, and she was very engaged in the world. And so growing up there was just a lot of influences from a lot of different places.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Amazing. So how did cheese become the focus of your life and work?
TIA KEENAN: So, you know, I went to college, I graduated from SUNY, I came back home to New York, and I had applied for like fancy, I had applied for fancy internships when I was in college, and I wasn’t getting them because I went to SUNY. So I had applied to Harper’s. I’d applied to The Nation, and I’d applied to Ms. magazine, and the first one I got was Ms. magazine, and that was while I was still in school. It was my last semester I guess. And, anyway, so I did Ms. magazine. Then because I had already done my penance for being working class, my penance internship at Ms., which is not taken seriously, I got the internship at The Nation, which is like a, you know, gold star, star kind of internship. I was the only working class person. I was couch surfing the whole time. Mostly staying in Williamsburg. This was 98. And I just couldn’t make a living. Like, I started freelancing. I was copyediting. I can say that I was at one time receiving checks from Soros, because I did a lot of freelance for them, like copy editing. They did a state-by-state gun control report that I worked on, some other like criminal justice stuff, and I was broke, so I just felt I couldn’t make it in writing, or in publishing, doing anything.
I mean, I was fact-checking. I was copy editing, you know the draw, I was writing $50 little entries and it just wasn’t working. So, I got a restaurant job, and my best friend of 30 years at the time was working at Miramax, which was in the office where Tribeca Grill was. And she said, I think I can get you an interview with Tribeca Grill to be a waiter. So I went to the interview, got the job, started waiting tables, and that was a special restaurant to be in at the time. It was hot. Everyone was going, it was sort of the beginning, you know, we’re talking 2000. So it was when the professionalization of restaurants was happening, Food Network was starting to happen, food media was starting to happen. And I realized, like, I could kind of make a career out of this. I was also very, to me, New York has always been about the energy of the creative people. It’s kind of why it sucks now actually. But, so I thought that that was publishing and I got there and I was like, these people suck. Like, I’m not interested in these people at all and frankly, they’re not interested in me. And at that time a lot of creative, interesting people were working in restaurants. The community was, was, was great. I think I was always someone more drawn to the context.
Like I could make, I could be creative and make things in any context. I just needed the right context. And restaurants were that context. So I thought at first maybe wine, I was sort of interested in that. But then when I first touched cheese and was responsible for cheese, I realized, “Oh, like this, this is something I really love.” This is something that is allowing me to be creative and expressive, but also make a living. I had to make a living, and I just felt like at the time that there was an intersection in cheese, of all these things that I was interested in, like the relationship between rural economies and urban economies, the work of women, the work of laborers, things that are handcrafted, just all of these things that I was interested in, came together at that time in cheese. And there wasn’t, my talent, if I have one, was that I became really interested in something before anyone else was interested in it. So then when the larger culture came around and were like, “Oh, like who’s doing this?” There I was, doing it. And so, you know, that was luck. I think creative people are always interested in things before everyone else.
And so then I started from restaurant to restaurant. It will be like, “Oh, she knows about cheese.” And then eventually I ran the cheese program at the modern, the Museum of Modern Art, and opened up that restaurant, and then ran the cheese program there for several years, and then I left to open a restaurant on 52nd street, and, which was the city’s first kind of cheese-focused restaurant. And did that. Then at that point, you know, I knew that cheese was just, that was when I kind of transitioned to the work that I do, as work with cheese.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. Yeah. Are you focused now on working in books?
TIA KEENAN: Yeah. So my husband’s in the restaurant business too, and we had a baby, and up until we had a baby, we were both working 12 hours a day, and you know, he’s a first generation from former Yugoslav, from Macedonia, and we were working like immigrants, and working class people, do. We were just working all the time and hustling, and we were doing well. And after I had the baby, I realized, “Oh, like, we can’t both go back to working 12 hour days,” it’s like, “Someone has to raise our kid.” And I got super lucky because Rizzoli wanted to do a book about cheese, and they had contacted an agent who already represented a woman named Anne Saxelby, of Saxelby Cheese, and Anne said, “Oh, that’s not my book, that’s Tia’s book, you should call her. This is her book.” So they called me, and I went, and I met with Rizzoli, so my son was maybe like eight months old, and we talked about the book, and they had like this very specific vision. They wanted the book to be about cheese plates, and I said, “I’m sorry, but this is such a specific vision that you guys have, like where did this come from?” And he said, “Have you ever been to that restaurant on 52nd street?” And I said, “That was my restaurant, so just give me the contract and let’s make the book.”
And that’s what happened. And I had been working a little bit before that, you know, with an infant. I had done a consulting chef project which was something I did pre-baby too, and it was just, it was really hard. I was like pumping, and you know, trying to time my work day so that I could put in my 12 hours in the kitchen but also get to see my infant, and it’s 105 degrees in the kitchen, and I’m trying to drink enough water that, so I can still lactate. It was a mess. I still have that client, it’s my last chef client that I still see, but the book was really just a stroke of luck, but also a culmination of, you know, a lot of the work that I put in leading up to that. I basically wrote that book at night. I would parent, and then my son was really young, so he’d go to bed at like 6:30 or 7:00, and then I would write, write a book.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, absolutely. I was vegan for a long time, about five years. And then I started to dabble in vegetarianism, which is where I am now. And as a vegan we always think that dairy is as violent as the meat slaughter. I went to Tuscany last summer with my family and we went to a goat farm, and it was a very small family-owned goat farm, and this woman had such an intimate relationship with the goats and really seemed to care so much about their wellbeing, and seemed to have this like almost mothering kind of relationship to them. And it really changed how I thought about the entirety of dairy. And I was thinking about that recently when I saw your Instagram stories when you were in Europe, and you were at some farms that seemed similarly small and similarly focused and similarly, you know, conscious of both the animal lives and the environment and how all of this works together. And I wanted to ask how do you perceive the dairy industry in terms of animal labor, I suppose, and is it different in Europe from how it is here? Like, what are the differences between like a corporate dairy and a small dairy and, you know, what are some of the misconceptions that people who don’t eat dairy might have?
TIA KEENAN: Sure. First of all, there’s a huge difference. I mean I wouldn’t, we lump it all together because that’s what human beings do, but there really, to me, isn’t any similarity. Other, not even the end product is similar, actually, between sort of, the corporate dairying that happens, that’s predominant in this country, and then the small-scale dairying that happens in this country and in Europe. You know, I just came back, I was in Tuscany, and I was in the Jura in France. I did two back-to-back trips this month. And, it’s, first of all, there’s a tradition in Europe, hundreds of hundreds of years of community-based ecology. It’s not just dairying, it’s the management of land, it’s the management of animals, it’s the management of the food supply. It’s the management of the social fabric of the community. It’s health management. So there’s a tradition there, that is largely economically, and certainly culturally, supported there. French farmers, for instance, in the Jura where I was, have had worker-owned cooperatives and collectives for over 100 years. They’ve managed to modernize their industry while practicing their traditional food ways.
I was visiting farmers in the Jura who had 56 cows and who said, “I’m trying to make my herd smaller so I can work less.” Shout out to all the French who are like, “my goal is to work less.” In this country, we’ve seen the eradication of that scale of farming. We’re, in New York state, we have an incredible pasture-based food shed. The land of New York state is a grazing land. And farmers can’t own 50 cows that they lovingly tend to every single one any more. They can’t make a living in this country doing that. And basically, it’s not that those farmers have gone onto their own, you know, 2,000, 2,000 cow mega, I don’t even know to call them, mega facilities. I don’t think we should call them farms. They’ve just stopped being farmers. In New York state, we’ve also got a major farmer suicide epidemic. So the difference in that, in true farming, is that you’re tending the land as much as you’re tending to animals. The animals are a part of the stewardship of the land.
They’re part of the life cycle and, you know, I was talking to one of the farmers when I was in France and I was saying, you know, “Cheese is really energy that’s just, of, a convoluted energy that we’ve captured from the sun,” right? Because we have the sun and then the sun grows the grass, and then the cows eat the grass, and then the cows make the milk, and then the humans make, turn the milk into cheese, and then we eat the cheese and then we till the land that the sun may, so, you know, it’s just an inefficient, but ultimately like, I mean, that’s what art is in a way, totally inefficient, but ultimately transformative way of capturing energy. Right? So the difference between here and Europe is that there is a cultural respect and appreciation for that relationship, and for the people who do that work and for the animals who did that work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
TIA KEENAN: We commodify everything. We’ve also totally destroyed, or not totally destroyed, but done our best to completely destroy the indigenous food ways of this country. So we don’t actually, in France, they know, for their specific little region, they know what animals do well there. They’ve been breeding those animals for hundreds of years to thrive in their particular grasslands with their particular water resources, with the terrain, with the minerals in the soil, with all of that.
And we have never, we came in, the people who know what this land needs, where people who, who had, you know, genocide committed against them. Our dairy culture didn’t come from a history of a relationship to the land. We imposed the industry onto that land. That being said, there are farmers here who are trying to do land-based animal husbandry and who are working with smaller herds, and treating, and looking at the entire system and taking a holistic approach. But those people are, you know, on the battle lines in a lot of ways, they’re, they’re, they have no support, no economic support, no cultural, really, cultural support, no social support. They’re largely doing it out of a passion to connect with what humans’ relationships to animals and to the land should be, you know, by proper rights.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, of course. Yeah. It reminds me, like, there are so many laws that have been passed in recent times in New York State to kind of bring back brewing and distilling and all that sort of thing, but has there been any similar effort to ensure the preservation or the revitalization of dairy culture?
TIA KEENAN: I mean, people are doing, people in the artisan cheese industry, they’re, they are doing it, they’re trying. But honestly, without structural support, without structural will, it’s not possible. Every, every person fights their own battle. You can’t solve a systematic problem through individual will. If we could, you know, the world would look really different. And the difference in Europe is that there’s structural, a structure in place that, that has been honed for a long time now. You know, in France for instance, I want to buy a 12-month-aged piece of comté in the Jura, I’m paying €11 a pound for that. In the United States, if a cheesemaker wants to do a grass-based, you know, ecologically-sound cheese, at the end of that, by the time that she gets to that consumer, that’s a $30 a pound product. And that’s not because the farmers are making a lot of money. That’s because they’re trying to create a product in a structure and a system, which is built for them not to be able to do that work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, yeah.
TIA KEENAN: It’s a sad scene, and I don’t know, you know, we need a complete redistribution of resources in our country, in all areas, in order for us to find our humanity, and our humanity is tied to our relationship to animals.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. Yeah. Obviously, vegans and dairy folks don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but I would say that people who advocate for this sustainably-minded small farming, and vegans, should find common ground.
TIA KEENAN: Yeah, I mean, I would love that. I want to say that my, my organizing partner’s vegan. I have a lot of vegans in my life who I love and who love me back. I actually wrote a piece, I wrote about vegan nut cheese for Bon Appetit. It’s, oddly enough, one of my most-cited articles, and I had agreed to write that I’m because I’m interested in any food ways that are made with integrity. I’m interested in what human beings can make with their hands from the Earth, from our relationship with animals, that’s delicious. I’m interested in that. So when they asked me to do the piece, I said, “This is going to be a little controversial because like, this is kind of a two sides of the aisle type of thing, but I’m interested in these nut cheeses, like I’m not interested in like,” can I say a brand?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, absolutely.
TIA KEENAN: “I’m not interested Daiya, like soya cheese.” It’s an industrial product. It’s not interesting to me and I would never, I’m just not interested in it. It’s not, to me, like worth writing about. But I am interested in what people are doing with fermentation and fermenting nuts. Like why not? I did have a little bit of back and forth with the editor because I didn’t want to call it cheese. I feel like nut cheese is a perfectly succinct and common sense way to describe it.
You know, cheese, a lot of small, I mean I don’t really care what like giant cheese corporations have to say, but small-scale cheese makers, you know, they feel like, “We’re making cheese, why should someone else get to call their product cheese?” And I wanted to at least acknowledge that and try to find language that respects all the different producers who I, am, are in my orbit at any given time. Yeah, I mean, food, food ways, the land, vegans, and small-scale farmers, I think, share a concern and a care and a passion for how humans inhabit the space that we’re in. So they should get together. I mean, I think, in general, our narratives certainly in the media are so dominated by urban people and they just, there is no respect for the land, but also for rural people in general in this country.
And we could talk about, you know, the roots of slavery and who has worked the land and who knows the most about the land and the eradication of the people who, who cared for this land for thousands of years. You know, it’s certainly all rooted in that. For sure.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. No, totally. So you mentioned to me that you had a period of vegetarianism in your life. So how did that begin and end?
TIA KEENAN: So it began because I went to this like, I went to summer camp, I always went to summer camp. My grandparents would send me to summer camp because my mom was working full time and my grandparents were working full time. And I went to summer camp and I got E.coli.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh my god.
TIA KEENAN: I was so sick and the whole camp was like, a bunch of people are sick and some kids got hospitalized, and I was so ill and I just was like, it was from chicken and I just thought I’m never, no, I’m sorry. What’s the other one? Salmonella. I have had E.coli, actually, from another time, but it was Salmonella. So I got Salmonella. Everyone was sick, I was super sick, and I was just like, I’m done. I’m not doing it. It’s gross. And I didn’t eat meat for like seven years. I wasn’t a vegetarian the way, I was a teenage vegetarian, so it was like pizza and French fries. I was laughing, listening to one of your podcasts and learning about salad and French fries. It was very, those were the salad and French fries days. And then I was really, I was working full time in college. My college years where I worked and then I went to college, and I really wanted to drop out of school.
I was just not feeling it, and I knew I shouldn’t drop out. I was like, “I’ve come this far. I’ve worked so hard, I just need to get my diploma,” but I had just kind of lost the will. And when you’re working full time and going to school, it’s really easy to be like “fuck school” because you’re working all the time. I didn’t really have the experience in college of being like, living in the dorms and doing all that. I mean, I was very much an adult who was going to school, and so I decided I’m gonna study abroad as a way to keep myself in school. So I found out, I went to the study abroad office and they said, “You know, you can go to Spain, or you can go to France, you can go to Italy, or you can go to Zimbabwe through Syracuse University, and you still pay the same SUNY tuition even though it’s through Syracuse because it’s like a partnership program.”
So I thought, “Great, I’m going to go get like a Syracuse University education in Zimbabwe and pay state university prices.” At that time, state university was still affordable. And so I went to Zimbabwe and very quickly I just knew that it wasn’t right to be in a place where people are showing you hospitality where there’s poverty. Not that there wasn’t poverty here, but there was so much, you know, a level of poverty that I had never seen before. I just felt I couldn’t say, “No, I don’t eat that.” I mean it was really that simple. I just was like, “This is, I can’t.” I was with 20 other Americans and some of them are awful, you know, they’d be like, “Ugh, like strawberry yogurt again,” you know? I’m like, “Are you kidding me? Just eat, just eat what’s in front of you.”
So that’s what I did. I eat what was in front of me, and then, you know, I always ate meat. But now for me, like, meat is really a weekend thing. I would say during the week I barely eat meat. Certainly, I go easily three, four, sometimes five, six days just, you know, off of eggs and vegetables, and I eat a lot of tofu. So I do love meat and I try to buy all my meat from the Lewis Waite Farm Network which is connected to my CSA. So everything’s local and I know the name of the farm that it came from and, you know, I’m not eating like prestige cuts and like doing like real meat whole animal cuts. And I try to do it that way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Nice. So you mentioned the eggs, you have backyard chickens.
TIA KEENAN: I do have backyard chickens, and I’m so worried about them today because it’s really, really hot out, and people always ask me about what happens to my chickens in winter, which I think is a perfect example of how disconnected people are from animals, from what animals really need, because, hello, chickens are wearing fucking down coats, they are totally fine in the winter, like your comforters are all filled with bird feathers. They’re good in the winter. Summer is when they really suffer. So just keeping them cool is like part of my agenda every day in the summer. So I usually hose down their area in the morning, and when I leave here, I’ll probably go hose them down, which they hate, but it does cool them down.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So when did you get the chickens and what inspired that?
TIA KEENAN: So I always wanted, we bought a house in a very non-cool place in central Queens. It had a little backyard, and I really wanted chickens, but I wanted to wait until my son was old enough to participate in their care in some kind of responsible way. So I got them in May of 2017 and like immediately turned into a chicken lady. And so we have four birds and I love it. I mean, it really was really important to me for my son to have a relationship to, a very real relationship to working animals and to seasons, and to just caring for something, and being responsible. And I don’t mean responsible like “you do your chores or you’re in trouble,” but just extending your care and concern and love to something that’s not human, but also that’s not a pet because you’re dependent. I wanted him to understand that we are dependent on other living things, and that that’s a sacred part of being human.
So we have our girls, and we love them, and they’re, you know, like a little neighborhood attraction. He brought, went into school for show and tell. It’s part of our ritual. I also really believe in rituals, especially for children. I mean, all human beings need rituals. We need ways to mark our day and mark our weeks, and mark our months, and mark our years, and the chickens really give us that. He comes home from school every day. He goes right into the chicken run, he spends time with the chickens, you know, we collect the eggs in the morning and make sure they have fresh water. Like it’s just part of the rhythm of our day, and I really wanted that for him. I think it’s something that city people, we don’t have that daily rhythm with nature. And it’s really important in children especially. I mean, we all need it, but the need is most obvious when they’re, when they’re small.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Has anything surprised you about his relationship to the chickens?
TIA KEENAN: I mean, I knew he would love them. He’s really, his relationship to them changes as he changes. So like right now he’s really interested in baby chicks, and we, so far, have not gotten chickens from baby chicks. We get them when they’re ready to be outside, because I felt it was a little too young to really handle baby chicks and it’s a lot of, you have to keep them inside and it’s a whole thing. So his relationship is changing in that he’s really, really interested in that, and I think in probably two years we’ll be ready to do a round of baby chicks so that he can be part of that process from birth. In the beginning, he almost was competitive with them. He wanted to catch them, he wanted to like, become kindred with them, and he’s done that. He’s full on all up in them, and they’re all up in him, and he has a very physically intimate relationship with them. And I think now the next phase is probably that we’re gonna raise some from, from hatchlings.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Nice. So how has your involvement in food influenced your political organizing or the other way around?
TIA KEENAN: It’s funny because driving here, I kind of has a sense of what you were going to ask me and was kind trying to think through, gather my thoughts. You know, I grew up in a very, my mother was very political. She worked on a lot of stuff that impacted our lives. So, you know, being poor, certainly when, when it was just her and I, being a working class person, you know, I remember my mom talking to me when I was really young about like, oh, very much identified as a feminist but like telling me, you know, “Those women from the National Organization for Women, they think I’m stupid,” you know, in her own way talking to me about white feminism and elitism, and elitism and the white feminism of her generation, of the second wave. So I was always very political then, you know, my father was an attorney, legal aid attorney. You know, I grew up in a house where music and art was a thing, you know. Where my stepfather was a red diaper baby, so, you know, my grandfather, my like adopted grandfather, you know, was essentially like a Jewish communist whose family had been killed in the Holocaust. So always very political. The thing is, you know, as a working class person or a striver, you know, sort of going back and forth between being working class and sort of trying to be middle class. My grandparents kind of achieved that. You know, the thing about us is that we always have to work.
So like in college I organized when I was at SUNY, George Pataki, I want to say, may he never rest in peace, but unfortunately he’s not dead yet, basically attacked SUNY, which was at one time one of the greatest public university systems in the country. So I organized in resistance to that. And so that was kind of like my main focus as an activist and organizer in college. And then I kind of had my, I got married very young, I married, I went to Cuba to do an assignment for Corporate Board Member magazine. I wonder if it’s still around. I found love with my translator, who was 15 years older than me, and I married him, and he came to the United States. So I had, I kind of married into this like revolutionary, I’d married a revolutionary person, someone who couldn’t survive in Cuba but still believed in the Cuban revolution.
And those are kind of my concentrated work years. Like those were the years that I found a way to make a living, and worked, because I had to support myself. And at that time I was supporting another adult too, I was supporting my husband. And I wouldn’t say until, you know, of course, I was swept up in Occupy and, you know, the incredible energy of that and lessons of that for better, for worse. I know people like to dog on Occupy, but I don’t like to dog on it, I think it was an incredible time. And it wasn’t until I got married to my second husband that I really had financial security for the first time in my life, not because he was wealthy, but because he did, he did well, and he pledged his life to me, you know, like I had another person. My mom was never financially stable and getting married to my, to Hristo, was the first time I ever really felt truly that I was not alone, to make sure that I didn’t starve.
And when that happened, I, I remember thinking, “I can organize again,” like this great privilege of financial security. There’s an obligation here and there’s, there’s also my own, you know, what is my work I feel called to. And I made a conscious decision once my son, once the first book came out and I had sort of shepherded my infant out of his first year, because that’s a whole other thing where you have this little, you just have to like figure out how to keep another person alive. And like, I kind of figured that out. And then I was gangbusters. Then I was like, “OK, I’m writing, I’ve got this book out, the book, doing well, I’m writing articles, I’m doing freelance work, I’m getting gigs, like my husband’s stable, my kid’s OK, now I have to, I can reprioritize,” like once taking care of myself financially, I could shift priorities because that wasn’t a dire need as it had been, you know, pretty much my entire life. So then I started, so food, your question was how did food, working in restaurants is working in a physical space that really is defined by the deep racial and economic structure of inequality in this country.
I always had a hard time. I couldn’t be a liberal because I grew up in a radical family. I was a sex worker, you know, I couldn’t, I never identified with liberal white ladies. In fact, if anything, I was scared of them because they’re the ones who, who out you. Who makes your life dangerous, who really fuck with you. I had to be in a race-explicit space, because I wasn’t willing to be a white woman, a middle class or middle class striving white woman in a non-race explicit space. So my work just gravitated toward knowing somehow that, that there was a place for me in race explicitness. Explicity? Explicitness.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think it’s explicitness.
TIA KEENAN: You know, I started noticing that there were these inklings of movements, Southerners On New Ground, Showing Up for Racial Justice, white organizers who were saying “our work is other white people.” And, for me, I felt my work was other white women and in part I felt that, I mean obviously I felt that because I’m a white woman and I’m staying in my lane, but also I felt that because I in many ways was terrified of white women. Having been, you know, sort of part of a group that’s really considered the scourge, and marginalized and targeted by white women. We’ve always, you know, sex workers have always been a way that white women, something that white womanhood had defined itself against.
I just started like going to meetings, doing readings. I met up with this woman who happened to live in my neighborhood who said, “Do you want to start organizing together?” Who came from totally different background, other white women, from like an academic, middle class, upper middle class background from the Midwest. Then it just kinda went from there. So food, back to food. I answered it. Actually, I answered that question. Like to me restaurants are, I think you and I tweeted about this, like, I’m OK with the abolition of restaurants, you know, restaurants are a perfect system that demonstrates everything that’s wrong with this country.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely.
TIA KEENAN: So all of those things came together and I just, you know, to me, food, food justice, food justice should be led by rural people, by, by immigrants, by farm workers. I felt like as an urban person living in the city, like, what is the work that I can do in, in my life, in my community?
And my answer to that was, so now my focus is wealth transfer to black and brown organizers in my immediate community of central Queens, and then, and then basically radicalizing white women mostly, because white men are just whatever. Radicalizing white women to, one, do less harm, two, transfer wealth, and three, undo, no, challenge white supremacy by first looking in the mirror, and then, and then pushing money out and putting your body in places where black and brown organizers are asking us to put them. You know, following leadership of organizers of color. But like in my community, I’m very much a community organizer. It’s a really different experience. Like I think a lot of people are like, “oh, follow black women,” as a theory. And I’m like, no, like you need to follow the black women like in your neighborhood.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely.
TIA KEENAN: I feel like white organizers are really super problematic, white supremacy culture, the tenants of white supremacy culture, encourage us to create, create paradigms and expectations that are really harmful and violent. And by limiting my work and limiting the work of the people that I work with into a very small geography, it’s sort of like a geographic check on our work. Like you can’t get to, like I see these like Pantsuit Nation and, like, you’d think these bitches were sitting behind a control board, maneuvering national elections. You know, there’s such a grandiose, like, “If we like flip this and then do that and then do this, you know, then Hillary will be president.” It’s like so much hubris and, you know, I feel like community organizing, having talked to your neighbors, like, keeps you, keeps that conditioning of white women to be like the center of everything. The most powerful of everything. The maneuver of everything, and a manipulator of everything. The controller, the control, the control, the control, the control of everything. Like it keeps that in check, because we’re too violent to like go into other neighborhoods, like start in your own neighborhood. Start in your mirror, then walk out your front door, then like go to your neighbor and work from there, you know, and that’s the way that in my mind to, like, minimize the harm that’s inherent in whiteness.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So I did want to bring up that quote from when you were on A Hungry Society, Korsha Wilson’s podcast, that, “If we destroy capitalism, the restaurant might go with it.” What does an anti-capitalist food system look like to you?
TIA KEENAN: Jesus. You know, we’re gonna be, the question is always, the question, the question is the way that, is the beginning of the answer, right? I don’t know the answer. I know that, that we live in a hyper-capitalist society where people don’t know even the most basic information about how to grow or find food. That’s also why I have chickens. I didn’t want to raise, this is what we know about the future. We know that the future is going to be hot. We know that there’s going to be repression and violence, scarcity, scarcity of water, scarcity of land, scarcity of clean air. We know that we’re going to have all kinds of fucked-up illnesses because we’ve polluted our lands and our food supply. So what are the things that we need for the future? And this is in some ways the answer, if, you know, what would an anti-capitalist food system look like? We need collectivity. We need connection to other people, to the land, to other animals. We need cooperation. We need to know that food is a human right, that everyone gets to eat. And always, in all the solution to everything, is from the ground up. It’s gotta be from the ground up.
I read something recently, I forget who said it. I think it’s the woman, I forget her name, she’s running for city council in Boston, black woman, revolutionary woman. And she said, “The people farthest from the power are the ones who need to decide how power is redistributed.” And so it’s not ultimately, “What does the food system look like?” It looks like what farm workers say it looks like. It looks like what small-scale farmers say it looks like, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah.
TIA KEENAN: I mean, I’m sorry to give an answer like that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No.
TIA KEENAN: That’s not like, “Well, we need to A to B to C,” but, I mean, anything is possible. Like I’m an optimistic person. I have hope. I believe in people power. I believe in radical transformation in my own life and in my community. I think that poor people and working people, and people who have a relationship to the land, historically, and in the present, are the people who can answer that question.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So for you, when you’re in your kitchen, when you’re home or when you’re cooking for other people, do you feel that the act of cooking is in itself political at times?
TIA KEENAN: I mean, it can be, but I think the way that I think of it as political, as I think that the body is our first political site, and so how we treat our own bodies and how we treat the bodies of others, and food being one of the most important ways we do that, is political. I think love is political. So I think that, you know, cooking is a woman’s art, and that that has been a way that women define humanity, and that’s political.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely.
TIA KEENAN: We can talk in a much less philosophical way and say that the choices that we make about what we buy, how we buy it, what we grow or don’t grow, you know, that those have political implications. But again, I sort of want to loop back to the idea that, you know, we have a systematic problem and no women are going to cook our way, no amount of goodwill and feel-good recipes and farmers’ markets are gonna fix the systematic problems globally, of how we make and how we make food and how we feed all the people on the planet, or don’t feed all the people on the planet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you to you, Tia.
TIA KEENAN: Are we done?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think so.
TIA KEENAN: Oh, my gosh. That goes so fast.
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