“[O]ne thing for me that’s really awesome about food, is that it really does bring all walks of life together. It’s like music, it’s a universal thing.”
Alicia talks to photographer Theo Samuels, who is a vegan, and writer Shanika Hillocks, who isn’t. They discuss the balance they’ve struck, including staying open to new foods while traveling and navigating a shared kitchen.
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 and writers 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 writer Shanika Hillocks and photographer Theo Samuels. Shanika recently wrote a beautiful piece for Lenny Letter called “Well Fed,” about falling in love with Theo over food, despite his veganism. We talked about how to find balance in a relationship divided over meat consumption, staying open while traveling, and how they navigate the kitchen.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: So thank you so much, Shanika and Theo, for being here.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Absolutely, thank you for having us.
THEO SAMUELS: Thanks for the invite.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you each tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Sure, I can start. So I was born in Long Island but moved to Florida when I was very young, and raised by my grandparents. So I think that kind of skewed our food at the kitchen table. They were diabetic and just adjusting things to their health, and as such, you know, the food that we ate was reflective of that. So I grew up eating rice everyday. My grandparents are Caribbean, my grandma’s from Guyana, my grandpa’s from St. Vincent. So rice was definitely a staple in our family. Curry, Milo, which is like, instead of Nesquik, it’s a Caribbean equivalent, and instead of milk, I didn’t grow up eating any dairy, I was kind of weird about texture at that age, no yogurt, no cheese, but we’d have, like, evaporated milk in our Milo every morning. And then not a lot of meat, either.
I mean, I think for holidays we would have like a goat or a veal for Easter or a pepper pot for Christmas, but for the most part, never grew up even going to restaurants, McDonald’s, anything like that. Every meal was home cooked and yeah, there was that Caribbean influence in the day-to-day.
THEO SAMUELS: Well, yes, mine is similar in the sense that I’m Jamaican, so born Jamaican and obviously, in the Caribbean there’s a wider range, where there’d be seafood and more so really dealing with the chicken, pork, not so much beef, I think beef was, like the expensive meat there. So, I spent a up until about 10 in Jamaica and then we travelled all up and then ended up in Vermont, so ended up eating more of a New England slash Caribbean because, you know, my dad had remarried so my stepmother at the time was a, a white Vermonter, so it’s kind of like that infused into the Caribbean style of cooking, which was kind of strange because it meant going like something like a cabbage and, and boiled, you know, potatoes with spices, you know, with like jerk spice and you know, like all these other little elements to it.
So it’s quite interesting, but what we had, we had a restaurant, we’ve always had restaurants, so pretty much the gamut of food has been in my life in terms of, you know, we had one in Jamaica so it was more so a Jamaican-style food, but I’m at a kind of a middle to high-class restaurant in Vermont and that was a little bit more of an American standard. So food-wise, pretty much everything. Milk. Yeah, the whole gamut. So milk, meat, cheese, lamb, everything.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Right. I think another component to the food that was at our table as well is my grandparents have always had a backyard and grew up picking peppers, picking fruits from a tree, like having citrus in the morning. We would juice, grapefruit juice. So that’s another element that I think, to Theo’s point, about spices. Like my grandma would grow thyme, or you know, hot peppers to make pepper sauce. So that was another element that was really pertinent throughout my years growing up.
THEO SAMUELS: So it’s interesting with that, for me, it’s almost like I have to think about that because it was such a standard for me to, it was normal. We had spices, thyme and everything. We didn’t buy those things, you know, it’s kind of like, yes, it was available and it was always, you know, picked. So it wasn’t until much later, even really coming into early high school that I was kind of like, “Oh wow,” you know, “We’re really, we’re buying everything,” you know, but in Jamaica that’s a standard, you know, having a Scotch Bonnet pepper outside your front door, thyme, herbs, all those herbs, you rarely bought them. I mean, when you did it was basically for the big Sunday meals or the Saturday meals.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Nice. So when did you decide to become vegan?
THEO SAMUELS: Around, I think I’m hitting around four years now.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh wow.
THEO SAMUELS: Yes, that’s, that’s the timeline now. And why?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
THEO SAMUELS: It’s really interesting because it’s not, sure enough it’s a progression because really, pork was the first thing I stopped eating, beef was next and as I, as I kind of limited all the things that I felt that weren’t really beneficial, I kind of noticed like, say when I stopped eating beef and I would, you know, after a couple of months of not eating it, I’d eat something and it just sank in my belly, and I could literally feel it go through my system. But after, after a while, you know, basically getting rid of the things that I felt like didn’t really make me feel any better, I got to pretty much a pescatarian lifestyle and if, I could definitely tell you the story because it’s actually a really, it’s slightly emotional, right?
So one day I went out, and I, I loved octopus. That was kind of like the, the last, hold on, picked up the fresh octopus, took it back home, you know, put it in the fridge, just waiting the day to cook it for dinner, got to the fridge, opened it and took it out and was just about to cut it and just emotionally I couldn’t do it. Just could not do it. So finally I was like, “Alright, you know what? Maybe I’m not ready for it,” put it back in the fridge, came back later, spiced it up a bit and said, “You know, alright, maybe I’m ready for this,” and I, I took it out and it looked at it and I was like, “Alright, well I don’t know why I’m not feeling for this because it just feels really weird right now.” So put it back the next day, right around lunchtime, I was like, “All right, it’s been in the fridge a day, now I really need to cook it because otherwise it’s going to go bad,” in my head it was like, “Yeah, I paid good money for this, I can’t let it go bad.”
So sure enough I took it out and as I’m about to just cut it and put the pot on, I just couldn’t. It was just like this weird emotional thing that came over me, and I kid you not, I kind of saw the animal as just alive, you know, it’s like looking at it in its environment and I just emotionally couldn’t do it. From then on I, I couldn’t put anything like that in my mouth.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And did you decide to start cutting things out from, from a health perspective or were you inspired at first from an animal rights perspective?
THEO SAMUELS: So I, I would like to say, my animal rights is based on an individual thing and I’m not the vegan that kind of goes, “You know what, everybody needs to do this.” I see the benefits and I’m definitely in agreement with all of the benefits, but at the same time we all go through a different progression in our life. So why should I tell you, you could be at any stage in your life, you know, sometimes you may choose or may not. So why should I force you into something I believe or think I’m right in? So I don’t really go that route. But I definitely, I think there’s huge amount of benefits to it for me emotionally, physically.
You know, it’s kind of weird just thinking about it now. It was really just me choosing to be better about one, yeah, health, but also just when we make that conscious decision to, to actually make a choice for ourselves, that’s really what kind of kept the ball rolling for me, wasn’t necessarily going, “Oh, well yeah, this is super beneficial health-wise and for the planet,” it was just like making that singular choice. I think that at first it was hard, but then, you know, make it over and over, it becomes easy.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. Shanika, have you ever been vegetarian or vegan?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: I would identify as vegetarian growing up, but if Theo’s like commitment to veganism is progression then I have a regression, I guess you can say. So as I grew up, started going to friends’ houses, making decisions, I would remember like my grandma saying like, you know, “There’s pork,” or whatever, like you just, you know, politely decline. Then I started working in restaurants, but like definitely like small town sports bar, so like chicken and beer and all of that. So like I just started eating a ton of that stuff. But then I think the biggest transition for me was when I studied abroad in Spain and there was just ham galore, cheese as well, and just really exploring that part of my palate. It’s just something I hadn’t had in my life before, and then kind of going like ham, literally, like crazy.
Tasting and experiencing those textures and flavors and then coming back and after realizing, you know, I needed to make a little bit more money but loved the flexibility of serving, I transitioned into a finer dining restaurant, for Florida standards, but there, we were taught about seasonality and the menu changed frequently. The restaurant’s Seasons 52, some people may know it, but, that was the first time where, you know, you know, you have cobia and here’s how you can blend it with a curry or you know, squash blossoms are in season, or fiddlehead ferns, and how those taste and how you can enjoy at peak freshness. So I think when I was experienced that, that was kind of an influence for my food decision. Like seasonality makes sense, I would like to eat things in season, but I identify more so as a flexitarian more than anything. You know, I definitely do feel better when I am more veggie-forward or vegan when we cook at home. That tends to be the cuisine, but because I am in the food and drink space, I write about food and drink, like, you know, some of those previews warrant, wonderful côte de boeufs or huge ducks or you know, etc., and so forth. So I flex.
THEO SAMUELS: To add to what she said, part of my progression was almost again in contrast. So when I went to Europe, I recognized that the ingredients were so much better and the products were so much better taste-wise, just ingredients-wise, and I was so disappointed in our American standard, that I came back and started to cut out more things out of, out of my diet, based on what I knew the European standard was. And the flavor is so, it’s like you leave America and you have, a tomato for example, and it’s, to compare when you come back it tastes like juicy cardboard in essence, you know, the American tomato versus the Italian or French tomatoes where it’s just like the fragrance, it’ll hit you, right, as you get into the market, and you know, that’s not even an organic tomato. So what am I really putting in my body here? So I really had to kind of make a conscious choice of, “All right, let’s look into this, let’s try and make a better decision,” and so Europe was a, it was a step for me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what inspired you to write about your relationship in terms of food for Lenny Letter?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Sure, so originally when I had gotten into contact with the editor, thanks to you, shout out, it was a thought prior, because Theo’s birthday was coming up, and so I thought that I would write our story for him as a gift, and then I myself too kind of wanted to establish more my personal creative writing voice. I am an English major so I had experienced, you know, prompts on creative writing and memoir but haven’t really dived into it that much in this professional realm. And so I got the idea, really sat on it for just a day because I was like, “You know what, there is a sort of privacy that I do want to maintain regardless of, you know, how public writing is and can be,” but I, you know, sat with it, had a conversation with a couple of good friends and kind of went with the pitch and it was accepted right away.
So it took me a few days though, but I even remember kind of being very discreet with him and telling him how I wanted, that I was going to do this one. You know, it was important for me not to really disclose names and just have a narrative that I think is more relatable, but still I think writing the personalized, especially when it comes to someone you care about or you’re in love with, it’s interesting. But food has been such a common trope in our relationship from the beginning and so it started to flow very seamlessly as, as the piece progressed.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How did you feel about reading it?
THEO SAMUELS: It was a little odd. It was kind of like, it’s like a flashback dream state, because it doesn’t, you don’t really think about it in that voice. So for me it was really, it was actually quite touching. But I was just like, “Wow,” you know, “Here’s, here’s a voice that I don’t hear telling the story of us.” And it was like really seamlessly done and really beautifully done. I was, I was really touched, but at the same time I was like, “I’m private, I’m super private.” So she did a great job of this. So initially as I started reading, as in my head, I was going to be like, “Ooh, yeah, am I ready for this?” You know? But it worked, it worked perfectly, and I actually really enjoyed it. I think she’s super fucking talented. So that’s her brilliance. So she did a great job.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Why do you think it’s relatable? Do you have, do you know a lot of people who kind of straddled this dietary world?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: I think more so for me, it wasn’t even the food per se, and I think yes to your point, we’re seeing more and more. We live in New York City. There are options very clearly stated, and people are very boisterous about, “Hey, you know, I’m an omnivore vegan,” or “I eat meat on the weekends, but not during the week,” but it was more so just the narrative about, I think, modern love, and it’s one of the first pieces where I’ve had a lot of inbound emails and just saying, you know, “I personally was not well fed.” I took those words to mean not only physical satiation, but emotional and mental, spiritual as well. So I think that was the, the common trope that you might be able to find as someone who’s reading the piece.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and do you experience challenges at all going out to eat because it makes it in the piece. It feels so natural, and, and, and…
THEO SAMUELS: I don’t think we’ve actually experienced a heavy challenge. I think what’s interesting in New York prior to us, there is this level of, almost divide in dating in New York, where you’re like, “What, you’re vegan, I don’t know if I can do that,” you know, and all of a sudden it’s kind of like, “What you’re from Queens? No, I don’t know if I can do that.” So here’s this crazy divide already. But when we got together, you know, once again, it’s not for me to say, “You have to be, you know, this in order for this to work,” you know, we went out and I showed her all the spots where some great, terrible foods were. You know?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Yeah.
THEO SAMUELS: Yeah, and some Chinatown specials and you know, we loved it. It was more about an experience, about kind of showcasing something that we, you may not know and we can just share together and then finding another little gem, but yeah, we haven’t, if occasionally we do run into what I call the potato dish, you know, the constant, “What do we have to eat on this menu? Oh look, it’s potato,” you know, whether it be fried or mashed or whatever. It’s really potatoes and yeah, I’m not going to sit there and go for a salad and I love that recommendation and say, “Hey, excuse me, I’m vegan. Can the chef put together a dish where it’s just mainly vegetables or whatever,” you know, make something, make something presentable. That’s really what we ask for in particular places that are, you know, she may want to try something and it’s not necessarily vegan-friendly 100 percent, but I look on the menu, I’m like, “Wow, they have this and this,” and they have zucchini and they have squash here. But then you ask the waitstaff and they’re like, “Yes, we can’t do that.”
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Right, like taking all the sides that you would from all these mains and combined them it seems like a crazy ask.
THEO SAMUELS: Yeah, it blows my mind, because they’re like, “I’m sorry we can’t do that.” One of the biggest ones I got, I was at a fairly established restaurant, and the wait staff looked at me, she’s like, “Yeah, our chef is way too busy to do that.” I was like, “So he doesn’t have any help back there apparently, and if that’s the case, he’s not creative to go outside his boundaries to just put some things on the plate and make it look good.” It was just like, you don’t even have to make it look good, just put it on the plate. I hate getting that, you order the sides, and they bring like six little plates out and you’re like, “Really? I asked you just to put them on the plate,” but either way, we don’t really find it as difficult. I cook and I know enough to kind of say, “All right, ask this question,” and if that’s the case then more than likely we can get something to eat from there.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Yeah. And I think when we are like scoping out restaurants, I’m very intentional and upfront about saying, “Hey, like, I’m my partner, my plus one is going to be vegan, so please, you know, accommodate,” and we were also just off the heels of a trip and we kind of did a balance of both of our respective diets, you know, we were traveling through France, and I’m just like, “France, like cheese,” that’s immediately what I’m thinking of. But, no, I was just very communicative, kind of upfront in my research, we closed our trip in Paris and Paris is more of a metropolis, but it was awesome just to even find like a cute little vegan spot around the way and had that moment to enjoy and balance all of the indulgences that we were consuming.
THEO SAMUELS: I think to her credit, she really loves that planning-adventure-finding stage. So, you know, it really benefits me because most of the time, you know, she knows what she enjoys, but at the same time that “seek and find” is part of her nature. So it’s really interesting. You know, we’re in Paris and lo and behold, she’s like, “Yeah, we found that one little vegan spot,” and it’s, you know, half an hour walk away. “Well, let’s go.” So to her credit, yeah, she really does do a lot more of the research. I just go and enjoy it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I know you’re very private, but there is the interesting text that you sent the first time you met, was, “Do you like duck?” Why was that the question you asked?
THEO SAMUELS: It’s a meat that not a lot of people experience, and you can have bad duck and really good duck and I’ve been fortunate enough, and I thought it was just like that, that little thing that you can kind of test a level of where someone is in terms of foodie or not, or you know, palates. So a lot of people you’ll hear and they’re like, “Meh, I like duck,” you know, it’s just like, “All right,” well, “What about it,” you know? So it was kind of a conversation starter and kind of a test of where you are in terms of, you know, choice of food or understanding of food. And so we went for it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I thought it was so beautiful the way you, in the piece, you were afraid of what it would be like to date a vegan when he came out to you, and then…
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Right. Like, mid-pork dumpling bite.
ALICIA KENNEDY: But then when he describes this duck, that he ate at the Four Seasons, it becomes, you can tell how much he loves food.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Right.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so did you have an idea of vegans as people who didn’t necessarily love food, or?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Not necessarily not loving food, but just like, I just thought about my day-to-day. I was very like ego-forward in that moment. I was just like, “Well, you know, I love doing this and he’s already shown me, you know, a couple stops along the way and I’m kind of confused at this reveal of who you are,” but no, I just think definitely first and foremost it was very, “I-forward,” I was just like, “How are we going to do adventures?” Like I’m already enjoying this so much I would like to repeat it, but what is it going to be like, because I hadn’t had that experience. When I would go out to eat, I wouldn’t necessarily say, you know, “Hey, today I’m feeling like I would like to have vegetable options.” I would pretty much be open to the chef’s recommendation or what was presented to me. So, yeah, just kind of thinking about that prior and then with his confession.
THEO SAMUELS: It was a confession.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Yeah. Learning how to adjust.
THEO SAMUELS: It was a Friday.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: It was Saturday, but that’s fine.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So how, you guys both cook a lot? You both are at home? How does that work?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Theo, I would say, cooks more than I do. I do enjoy cooking, kind of as a form of self-care and I enjoy the start-to-finish process, but he is definitely the more dominant cook in the relationship.
THEO SAMUELS: Yeah, we have different styles but yeah, I definitely, I’m more carefree, really just whimsical, just give me a thought and I’ll make something around that thought, so.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right. But you’re more of a planner?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Absolutely. I’m like, “Let’s look at the recipe, let’s like, look at the grocery list that accompanies it.” I have some of my go-tos. I’m like, “All right, I’ve mastered this.” Like I know I can do it.
THEO SAMUELS: Her biscuits are phenomenal.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Yeah, but I’m like, “They have real butter in them.”
THEO SAMUELS: She just told me that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you do get kind of flexitarian-ish on your veganism?
THEO SAMUELS: So I would like to claim that 98 percent because, or sometimes even like on vacations, kind of like a 95 percent. So for me it’s still about the experience and it’s still about being able to speak about something and have that understanding, flavor, palate, whatever it may be. We were in Narbonne, and, or Narbonne, I don’t know how to say…
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: South of France, it was the south of France.
THEO SAMUELS: We went to this fantastic restaurant. We had a tour of the salt marsh and it was just absolutely beautiful. Sat down to eat and all of a sudden they’re like, “Oh, you have to try this fish, you have to try this, this…”
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Snail, oyster, mollusc, you know.
THEO SAMUELS: The snail, we didn’t try the snails.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Soup to nuts, whatever it was in the ocean.
THEO SAMUELS: Which one, one did they grow there?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: The oysters that you tried.
THEO SAMUELS: Oh yeah, and you know, it’s oysters that were grown there. They don’t have them pretty much anywhere else.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: The salinity in them is phenomenal.
THEO SAMUELS: It’s phenomenal. You know, I can’t leave this environment and go, “You know, yeah, they had it, but we didn’t try it.” So I definitely had about three. Had one and I was forced into two more, but it was definitely delicious. So things like that. Yeah, I’ll flex and, you know, have an experience.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. So do both of you, how do you feel about the idea of cooking as political? Is that something that crosses your mind?
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Well, it’s interesting because every time we have more, I think, intimate dining experiences, if a friend or someone invites us, like we accept invitations based on, I think, that kind of curation of people. Like recently, at the last dinner that we had a really good friend of mine, she’s African and her partner is a Jewish man but has spent some time in Africa and had just a collective of people from all different walks of life. The food was African, and it was just phenomenal to sit, eat, talk and, and understand and have those types of conversations. I think the one thing for me that’s really awesome about food, is that it really does bring all walks of life together. It’s like music, it’s a universal thing and it’s so much to learn from, but also a way in which to kind of bring people back to, to some sort of connection.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely.
THEO SAMUELS: What do you mean in terms of politics? Because I feel like I misunderstood the question there.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, it can be whether your food choices reflect how you would like the world to be, or if your food choices create community. It can be kind of anything you want it to mean.
THEO SAMUELS: So I definitely look at it as aiming to do like, as Shanika described, that slight UN feel at the table, because that’s how my friends feel. I don’t really have that one lineage of friend, it’s kind of like they’re from everywhere. So yeah, I think I purposely kind of make those choices, especially when it comes to dinners we go to over to a friend’s house and or what we’re bringing, or the conversations we have.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: I also think too, because, you know, I think we started the conversation saying, you know, my grandparents’ food choices at our table were reflective of their health and their decline of health or, or what have you, and for me, anytime I am educating family at home, you know, when I visit home and I get spinach instead of iceberg or olive oil instead of canola oil, like, that for me, especially in the African-American black community, like utilizing food as medicine, absolutely is something that I am resonating with more and more as I come into, you know, looking at food as an alternative to over-the-counter or something of that nature. So from a political standpoint, that is something I aim and hope to see more of, more education in that space and more people of color making those choices in order to kind of eliminate disease that often runs in our families.
THEO SAMUELS: You know, I had this moment where something very similar happened, this gentleman, we were discussing food and for me it’s obviously something I’ve studied and practiced and he was talking about salt and I said, “Not all salt is, is the same,” you know, and started to describe the salts and he looks at me, he’s a black gentleman, older, probably around in his late 50s, 60s. And he’s like, “What do you mean? Salt is salt.” I was like, “No, no, no, salt is not salt.” So my aim was at that point to, to educate them about what you’re putting in your body if you’re using a table salt, you know, versus a Himalayan salt or sea salt. And he just couldn’t have it, you know. At that point I realized there is, there’s so much more to just the small understanding. It doesn’t have to be oh, you know, “You eat, you eat too many burgers,” you know, it really could be, “Alright, you know what, fine, you can consume your burgers, but be aware of how and what that is,” you know, “What’s going on, what’s in your bread, your burger or the vegetables that you’re eating with that.” But,so that conversation with him about salt really changed my mind on how to communicate to people about food itself. That was actually, that was an eye-opener because salt is not salt. Salt is salt, salt is not salt. Not all salt is equal now.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Great. Thank you so much for being here.
SHANIKA HILLOCKS: Absolutely, thank you for taking the time.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you for listening to Meatless season one. I’ll be back in September with new episodes. If you’d like to support the show’s production, please visit our Patreon at patreon.com/meatless.