Ruth Tam, The Washington Post
The term "foodie" once felt like shorthand for "food snob." It drew to mind a slightly posh, millennial-ish food obsessive with time and money to spend on haute cuisine. A fish fork in one hand and an Instagram-swiping phone in the other.
But the way we talk about food has become more and more democratic. Authenticity is elusive and an increasingly arbitrary standard.
In "With the Fire on High," a new young adult novel by National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo, the idea of the typical foodie is challenged in the story of Philadelphia high school senior Emoni Santiago, who loves to cook.
Emoni struggles to balance her responsibilities to her 3-year-old daughter with her aspirations to become a chef. Unlike a more common teen mom narrative, food is not a source of stress but the vehicle for creativity and joy. In the kitchen, Emoni isn't a statistic; rather, she's the creator of her own hybrid Afro-Puerto Rican dishes. She's in charge of her own destiny.
Acevedo talks about the transformative power of food in "With the Fire on High" and in her own life.
Q: What's our idea of a foodie? Does Emoni fall under that category?
A: A foodie is someone who has a certain understanding of our palate and what we look for in order to be satisfied. Is it sour, salty, sweet? What level of heat does it have? Is there acid?
I don't think Emoni would consider herself a foodie. That sounds a little bit too highfalutin. Although, if we consider someone who is a foodie. ... Someone who's always taking into account what a meal needs in order to have people satisfied, to have people wanting more ... she is that kind of character, right?
Q: It wasn't long ago that being kitchen-bound had a certain connotation for young mothers. But cooking is freeing for Emoni. Why does she want to be a chef?
A: When we hear the word "cook," there's this very domestic aspect to it, especially for black women in America. And yet, when we think about how many folks are chefs of the highest calibre, the Michelin stars, the James Beards, it's often not women or women of colour.
It's easy to call [black women] cooks. But when they try to occupy a space that is mostly white and male ... now, all of a sudden, they're not allowed to be here?
"With the Fire on High" tries to reject the male gaze and the white gaze in a lot of ways.
For Emoni, it's: I have this magic that makes my food as good, if not better, than most of my peers'. How do I step into that and own using my family's traditions to feed my people?
Q: Emoni has a lot of Philly pride and cares about learning about food and working as a chef there. What did you want to convey about Philadelphia as a "food town"?
A: What I love about Philly is that it's so blue-collar - that it's still responding to people in the community and whether or not they have access to food. I hope it doesn't lose that touch. Even as Emoni is working in a restaurant that would be considered more high-class, she's always thinking, okay, how do I take this back to where I'm from?
So, I wanted to celebrate Philly and the food of Philly but also 'hoods - neighbourhood joints that feed us time and again, that show up with the hours we need. I can go on and on about all kinds of food places in Philly that are not just serving food but are spaces to gather for immigrants, folks that are undocumented, who are really doing activist work with food. I think Philly is at the forefront of some of that.
Q: Why did you decide to include Emoni's recipes in "With the Fire on High"? And how did you choose which ones to showcase?
A: There were actually a lot of recipes. When I realized the book was going to be told in three parts, it just made sense to reconfigure the recipes as a metaphor for each section. We have the tembleque, strawberry milk and bread. So finding the recipe that fit the section - whether we were talking about a bitter moment or a reconciliation - they were responding to what was happening in her life.
I always said, if I wasn't a writer, I'd be a chef. There were so many recipes I wanted to bring in that were very original to Elizabeth Acevedo, but they didn't necessarily match the chapters.
Q: Do you cook Emoni's recipes in real life?
A: I make Emoni's beer bread from Part Three all the time. If you have an extra bottle of beer, it's really quick way to make bread, and you can put in all kinds of herbs.
The tembleque one was a recipe my mom made when I was younger. She worked in Puerto Rico, so she has a small repertoire of Puerto Rican dishes.
The strawberry milk is pretty straightforward, though when you grow up with Nesquik, you don't know you can make this with real ingredients!
Q: The recipes throughout "With the Fire on High" do not include exact measurements - for ingredients or time. What does this tell us about Emoni and who her recipes are for?
A: I didn't grow up with a lot of measuring cups in my house. When my mother taught me how to make rice, she was like, this is where the water line is in the pot and this is where the rice line needs to be in comparison. When we would make sofrito, you just figured it out based off how it looks, based on consistency. There was never "use exactly four tomatoes and two olives." My mom didn't do that. And I just learned by sight.
So when I was thinking about this character who has a learning disability and struggles with instructions in the classroom. ... She doesn't think school is a great option for her but is really brilliant at knowing what a dish needs. She's just not writing it down. She's not processing it in terms of cups and teaspoons and this, that and a third.
To challenge a reader to really walk in her shoes and see the genius behind being able to replicate a thing based off of practice - it felt like honouring a character we don't always see: someone who's not a good student but practices the thing they love and is really good at it.
It also safeguarded me. If anyone makes the recipes and is like, "This is awful!" It's like, well, it was your measurements!
Q: In Emoni's recipes, time is measured with songs of Héctor Lavoe, Bad Bunny, Rihanna. ... What's playing when you cook or when you write?
A: Similar to Emoni's abuela, I listen to a lot of salsa. I love Marc Anthony. I love bachata, too, so I listen to a lot of Aventura, Romeo and Prince Royce and also old-school stuff. But I just want to dance, so I'm listening to music that makes me want to sing along and makes me want to dance with the broom. This is every movie, right? When they're singing into a big spoon?
There is a connection between our bodies feeling this exhilaration and what goes into what we ultimately serve.
Q: Whose kitchen do you most want to be in?
A: Maybe Chrissy Teigen. I just really like the way she talks about food. But also I think she has probably a really nice kitchen. That, or maybe Martha Stewart. What kind of appliances does she have?
Q: Who would you most want to cook for?
A: Well, I wouldn't cook for anyone who cooks! Can you imagine Martha Stewart? Every time she's on "Chopped," I get hives.
I make a really good Thai duck. I cook for my husband all the time, but I don't cook enough for my extended family in New York. They tend to just eat Dominican food or Italian, but like Olive Garden Italian. So I would want to cook for my extended family. I would want them to try something that they probably would never have. There's so much they would enjoy if they allowed themselves.
Or, like, Cardi. Mostly because I just wanna hang out with her.
Q: What would you make?
A: I know she loves cereal, so a really creative dessert. Not a cronut, but something along the lines of a hybrid.
Q: In your acknowledgments section at the end of your book, you reference an adage, "If I eat, you eat." What does that mean to you?
A: My husband is from Edgewater Park, New Jersey, and he grew up in a really tight friend group, and this was the quote that they would share with each other growing up. But it means: If I have, you have.
My mother grew up with 14 siblings. My grandfather was incredibly poor. He worked the land for other people and was basically a sharecropper. And my grandmother had to feed her entire brood with, like, two plantains and also the neighbourhood kids in a very rural area.
So that quote has always been: If I have food in my fridge, the people I love have food. I may not have millions. But if I can make a stew, we're gonna figure it out.
Feature Image: HarperTeen