A New Horizon in Food Journalism

Weekly Newsletter
Issue #320

A New Horizon in Food Journalism

Aliza Abarbanel is a pioneering voice within culture journalism. As co-host of the podcast This is TASTE and co-editor of the print publication Cake Zine, she finds herself poised to conquer both the mainstream and underground of the food media market. From this vantage point, she aims to push the boundaries of the medium, making room for both serious discussions and decadent frivolity.


“Do you want to go to this cake magazine party before the club?” My friend asked me, while we were having a light weekday pregame at mine.


“A cake magazine party?’” I repeated skeptically. “Like a party for a magazine about cake? Will there be free drinks?”


“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure there will be free cake.”


Tempted with the possibility of free sweet treats I agreed to go, despite picturing the event as a mix between a bake sale and a Bar Mitzvah. What greeted us instead was a packed-to-the-brim bustling Brooklyn soiree, complete with a stunning crowd, loud dance music, killer outfits, and a tattoo artist. I didn’t even mind that the cake had run out well before we arrived.


At the center of this affair was Cake Zine, a biannual publication that includes fiction, essays, poetry, and recipes which all fit into an abstract dessert-adjacent theme. Far from smarmy or feel good, the contributions are intellectual, emotional, edgy, funny, and sometimes, a bit scandalous.


Standing on the dance floor and feeling like I was at an Opening Ceremony NYFW party, I had to know: “How did this happen?”


As it turned out, the answer to this question was the brilliant mind of Aliza Abarbanel, culture journalist, podcaster, writer, and editor. I sat down with this titan of cuisine to discuss her innovative work, after binging several episodes of the podcast she co-hosts, This is TASTE.


Aliza’s energy is charming and effervescent. She can easily transition from a hard hitting conversation about the climate impacts of big agriculture to giggling about a naughtily decorated cupcake.


Beginning her writing career at her high school newspaper, Aliza immediately took to journalism, for both its substance and its perks. “I started writing editorial at a young age because I realized it was a great excuse to talk to people, ask questions, and also finesse free concert tickets,” she explained, laughing.


“How’d you decide to make food the main focus of your work?” I asked.


“[In high school] I was doing culture writing in general,” she said. “I have always loved eating and cooking, but it wasn’t my focus. When I was graduating journalism school, I had begun doing freelance writing, and ended up applying for and getting a job as an editorial assistant at Bon Appetit. It was the most entry level editorial job you can get and it was specifically for this lifestyle vertical they had called Healthyish. It was a backdoor into food media, because I was mostly writing about ceramics or restaurants or the natural wine trend. It wasn’t straight up food writing, it was more intersectional. Over time I realized that I was more interested in the intersections of culture and lifestyle, and that food is such a rich lens for that. It can touch on labor and sustainability and art and fashion and it’s something everyone likes and has an opinion on. I’ve found it to be really rich territory.”


Over time I realized that I was more interested in the intersections of culture and lifestyle, and that food is such a rich lens for that.


“Having just listened to your podcast, I’m kind of surprised you fell into it so organically,” I said, admittedly a bit intimidated by the level of confidence and expertise she brings to her interviews. “Your knowledge base on food topics is so impressive, I assumed you came to journalism from the culinary world.”


“That’s very kind of you,” she said. “Working for Bon Appetit for three years, I definitely learned a lot about food. It’s such a collaborative environment. You’re in the test kitchen interviewing the recipe editors who have deep kitchen and restaurant experience. You’re interviewing chefs over the phone. Reading cookbooks. Reading food books. If you pay attention you can learn a lot. With my interviewees I’m still asking a lot of questions and learning along with the listener.”


“Also, I’m sure you learn a lot while preparing for the interviews, as well,” I said. “What is your preparation process?”


“I absolutely do learn a lot,” she said. “When I’m doing the podcast, I write my questions ahead of time and send them to my sources because I’m not doing ‘gotcha journalism–’ I want people to know the topics we’ll be going over. When we are recording, though, I’m not running through them in order, I’m trying to have a conversation that would be interesting to a listener. I try to hit on things that are underrepresented in the food media conversation. I spend a lot of time interacting with my guests’ content and whatever bio exists online. If they’re a cookbook author, I’ll read their cookbooks and will try to cook from their recipes. I take notes on my favorite moments along the way. I try to write questions that will introduce who they are to a listener who might not be familiar with them, but are rooted in rich conversation topics. I focus on two or three big points I want to hit and see if the conversation makes its way there, and then if it doesn’t I can throw in a, “You know I’m really curious about ‘x’ or ‘y.’”


“Obviously, you are still writing,” I said. “But why did you decide to transition so much of your labor into the world of podcasts?”


“Honestly, I haven’t done as much writing this year,” she offered with the slightest hint of shame. “Between editing the magazine and co-hosting the podcast I haven’t had that much time. The podcast was very lucky. I was presented the opportunity after being a contributing editor at Taste for over a year. They had a previous co-host who had left to go work at another publication, and my editor Matt was looking for a second voice. He asked me if I wanted to try and do an episode. I’d never done a podcast before, but I’d interviewed people for my work for many years and I also like to think I’m a friendly person. I love to schmooze at parties. The podcast allowed me to combine my reporting background with my innate chattiness. It wasn’t a goal, but I tried it and realized it was a great way to have interesting conversations with people I admire.”


“And what makes a conversation interesting?” I asked.


“I think it depends on the source,” she said. “I like to talk to people about what they find fascinating and what they’re passionate about. That energy and emotion always translates. I think talking about the larger industry, or the intersections I’ve touched on, is always of interest to me. Also having very niche conversations that could extrapolate to larger themes. I interviewed my buddy, William Mullan, who is a heritage apple expert and that was just such a fun conversation. I didn’t know that much about apples, but it turns out there’s this rich world– especially on the East Coast, where we live– and getting to talk to him about this community that’s centered around heritage apples. It sounds so niche, but it extrapolates out into these much larger conversations about family, sustainability, and the future of agriculture.”


“Something that is attractive to me about podcasting is that the medium does not require people to read,” I said laughing. “It can be difficult to get people to read, and podcasts are so easy to consume. Was this part of the reason you made the leap?”


“It’s kind of funny, because before I started I didn’t really listen to podcasts,” she admitted. “I do more now, but I’m a music person. When I started telling people I was doing a podcast, everyone thought it was hilarious, as it was famously not a medium I was engaging with all that often. I do like that people listen and it is a different way to reach people, but I also run a print magazine. I think print media and reading still has an audience and I feel passionate about it. I like people and I like having conversations about all sorts of things, but certainly about food, and the podcast gives me another way to do that. Sometimes I’ll interview someone for the podcast then have them write something for Cake Zine or I’ll interview someone for a print story then bring them on the podcast.”


I like people and I like having conversations about all sorts of things, but certainly about food, and the podcast gives me another way to do that.


“Are most of the subjects people you have selected?” I asked.


“They are chosen in a combination of ways,” she said. “TASTE is owned by Penguin Random House, which publishes a lot of really great cookbooks through imprints like Clarkson Potter, so every fall and spring (which are the big cookbook release times) there’s an effort to interview all of our authors. It’s great access to those people. Obviously too there are PR people in my inboxes pitching people as well. Sometimes I pitch people, sometimes I know them, and sometimes they are people I don’t know at all who I just think are fascinating.”


“I really need to ask about Cake Zine,” I said. “How did that whole thing come about?”

“It started with my friend Tanya Bush, who is a pastry chef and writer here in New York, and our creative director Noah Emrich who is now based in Paris but was in New York,” she explained. “We organized a bake sale together to raise money for two mutual aids in New York that fight food insecurity, EVLovesNYC and Breaking Bread NYC. We enjoyed working together, and Tanya mentioned she had an idea for a zine all about cake. I was going freelance at the time so I knew I was going to be doing a lot of solitary work and wanted a collaborative project and also just thought it would be a low key chill thing. We ended up working really hard on it with a lot of people and through the sheer force of that, along with some strategic planning and that in early 2021 cake culture was really having a moment online, we do two magazines a year, we’ve done events in London, New York, Paris, and LA, and it’s become this huge thing. I thought we were going to just be printing off zines at Kinkos. That’s how it goes.”

“That’s amazing!” I said. “How do submissions work?”

“We put out a pitch call where we announce a theme,” she said. “Our most recent one was Tough Cookie, so that’s all stories and recipes that deal with toughness or struggle or triumph but also cookies. They can be pretty niche themes, but we get so many stories out of that, which I think is kind of the magic. If people would like to pitch, they should sign up for our newsletter and keep their eyes peeled for our next pitch call. That’s the best way to keep in touch in general. We receive a lot of submissions for not that many spots, because we are a print only magazine and have a very limited page count. We bring an abbreviated list to an editorial board, and kind of battle royale it out to make the final layout.”

“And why did you guys decide to keep the publication print-only?” I asked.

“We spend a lot of time making a print product that we want people to sit down with and engage with offline in-person,” she explained. “Also, if we had all the articles online I think people would be less interested in actually buying the magazine. We have PDF versions of our first issue online, which was Sexy Cake, because that one fully sold out in print. We’ll probably put Wicked Cake online, as that is fully sold out, as well. We keep it mostly in print to show respect for the work we put into it, as well as, we think it’s the best way to engage with it.”

“How do the recipes work with the theme?”

“We have six recipes in this most recent issue,” she said. “They are all cookie recipes that are “tough” in some way. Some of them are difficult in technique, some of them are literally tough in texture, one contributor, Ali Domrongchai who is a cam girl who makes cookies and eats them on camera, has a recipe and the connection is more that she’s a tough cookie in her work context. There are different interpretations, and I think the recipes are a really fun component. It makes it a really unique food publication, that we are publishing both fiction and recipes together alongside each other.”

“This is so exciting to me,” I said. “Food journalism is such an accessible and popular medium, and to sneak in these big difficult conversations and also make room for art. It really feels like you guys are doing something revolutionary!”

“Well thank you!” She said, laughing. “But, we are certainly in great company with other independent food publications. I really admire Vittles that’s based in the UK; they’re a food newsletter that does great boundary pushing work. There are a lot of food writers we really admire. But, the mainstream food institutions have a specific oeuvre that they’re doing. There has been a lack of joy and funness and dumbness, and that’s what we do. The themes seem silly and flippant, but within that there are stories about profound subjects: character studies, sexism, labor, and nature. It sounds light, but it’s actually substantial, while still maintaining an element of playfulness and silliness.”


There has been a lack of joy and funness and dumbness, and that’s what we do. The themes seem silly and flippant, but within that there are stories about profound subjects: character studies, sexism, labor, and nature. It sounds light, but it’s actually substantial, while still maintaining an element of playfulness and silliness.


I think that’s the power behind both Aliza’s work and contemporary food journalism in general. People love food– they love reading about it, they love learning about it, and they love looking at it– and by properly utilizing it as a subject a writer or journalist can trick the average Joe walking down the street into consuming complex and difficult subject matter. Here we see a popular medium acting as the peanut butter in which to hide the challenging pills of labor, climate change, gender, globalism, and even poetry.

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