Apr 4

Episode #37: Allison Robicelli

Food humorist, cookbook author and food pornographer.

Nicholas Gill
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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
Episode details

Allison Robicelli is a Baltimore based food writer and cookbook author who writes the Substack newsletter The Edible Erotic Adventures of Esmeralda Poppingcorn. What she is writing is a bit hard to define. It’s food porn. But, it’s literally food erotica, not just images of food. It’s serialized story based around the main character, Esmeralda Poppingcorn, as she sheds the repressive feelings she obtained through childhood trauma that she has carried with her into her adult life.

It would be easy to dismiss this work, which is obviously humorous, as some gimmick. However, what Allison is doing with this erotic food parody as something rather fascinating. She is building an entire universe built around prosciutto roses being smacked across breasts and buttercream being rubbed on vaginas. It’s hilarious and you will laugh, but it’s not just some lame attempt. Allison is really, really good at this. She is one of my favorite food writers for a reason. She was a well known baker with her husband Matt and they owned Robicelli’s bakery in Brooklyn and she has been writing about food, usually in humorous ways, for years. She has her own unique style and she actually connects with her readers. In the conversation we discuss things like Bigfoot erotica, working on the WWE Cookbook, refusing to shit talk, how there might actually be something with NFTs, and, of course, saving food media.

- Nicholas Gill

On the origins of Lake Nipples:

Nick: “Let's talk about like nipples. I love it. Like, I've been reading it religiously. It's one of my favorite Substacks.”

Allison: “Thank you. Every time I hear Lake Nipples I frickin’ crack up. Because I didn't write that before the story. I think it was maybe after the third or fourth chapter. And I wasn't intending to name the town. At first, I wanted it to be kind of like this generic, every American hometown. I originally had a whole story, like proper editorial calendar written for the rest of the year, like a grown up, but then the world started getting scarier outside. And I was like, I don't want this to exist in reality anymore. You know? I don't want this to exist in like, DC or the world around us. And I watched a lot of Days of Our Lives and Passions when I was a kid, and Twin Peaks. And I was just like, I need this to be dumber, like after a couple of weeks. People have been asking me to do a Substack for years and I didn't. It's not that I didn't want to, I was just like, What can I do a Substack on? Like, what am I adding to the space because there's so many ones out there? And especially if you're gonna ask people for money to support your work like you want to give them something. And I was at The Takeout for two and a half years, which was amazing. I mean, I got the write food humor every day, which was like, nuts. But I was getting bored. And I was getting stagnant. And I like pushing myself as a writer and I like pushing and thinking like OK, so what kind of fucked up shit can we do with food media? And I got to do that The Takeout. I loved it. But I'm like, I need it further. And I need to make a mess of things.

I was talking to Emily Nunn, she writes The Department of Salad, which is a great Substack. And she'd been on me, saying like, you got to do it, you got to do it. And we were on the phone. And I was like, I had this idea for food porn years ago. And I wanted to do like a serialized thing. And she's like, ‘That's a great idea.’ And I was like, I thought it was. I mean, you've read it this thing, it is unpublishable. Nobody should…I can't even describe it.”

Nick: “I was trying to figure out what the genre is? I mean, it's like an erotic novel crossed with mukbang crossed with like, an 80s horror film. It’s undefinable.”

Allison: “That's kind of why I’m having so much fun as a writer. So for the first four weeks of that Substack I was like, it's going to be a serialized food thing, and it's going to be a story. And then we're gonna have recipes on the fourth week and this and that. And as I kind of got comfortable with it, and like I said before, wanting to divorce this from reality, I realized, I have a Substack. I'm not responsible to a company anymore, or SEO because my audience wants to pay for it. And I'm like, I could do whatever the fuck I want. Like, not even enough for me to push this boundary of doing like literally food porn. I'm like, I want to fuck up everything. It went from being this nice structured editorial calendar, like in a Google doc to like…it looks like one of those boards that cops make when they're looking for a serial killer. Like that's what this thing looks like. And it does make sense. But there's a future and I can't tell now. Like I know how JK Rowling felt holding Harry Potter. I know where this is going. Just trust me.”

Nick: “Let's talk about the story. Basically, it starts with an eight year old getting assaulted by deli ham.”

Allison: “Alright, another thing I love about thisSsubstack is that I force people to say these sentences. This is a thing that happens. Yes. Yes. This is a serious sentence in a serious conversation. So yes. With an eight year old girl getting assaulted by a ham sandwich. Oh, God, I apologize.”

Nick: “So that's the prelude, I guess. So, it’s setting the rest of the story. She's 33. Her name's Esmeralda Poppingcorn. She lives in the town of Lake Nipples. Which is a mountain town, right? Like a resort…”

Allison: “It's a lake. It's a big ass lake slash town. Like there are mountains on the side. And there's mystery, and there's intrigue. And like every soap opera trope you can mention there's going to be boats. I've got a whole boat plot coming up. There's organized crime. There's a mysterious NFT factory that is participating in some government experiments. There is a hospital that began as a sanitarium for the criminally insane. There is a lesbian lumber town about an hour away. Again, like this is in my head and you know, soap operas. So soap operas were always based on a couple of big families. So in Lives there's like the Bradys and the Hortons, and this and that. So, we have the Poppingcorns. Esmeralda is just 33. And she had all this sexual repression and food problems from being assaulted.”

Nick: “But the story is she's 33 and she starts to let go of all that.”

Allison: “Yes, right. Yes, she had a sexual awakening through food. And her childhood tormentor, Randall Burningham, she has reconnected with him at the age of 33. Now he is the heir to a gourmet supermarket empire much like a Balducci’s or a like a Cinderella sort of Titan, but he's also in the import export business, which we haven't gotten into yet. And then Esmeralda’s family…they're an old timey family, but something mysterious happened in their past. Her grandmother was mysteriously found covered in honey and eaten by bears. And her mother…I'm doing like a little Lethal Weapon sort of thing with the mom. I mean, there's so much I want to say but I don't want to spoil anything and also nobody who's listening right now understand any of the words that are coming out of my mouth.”

On pushing creative boundaries on Substack and making a living as a food writer:

Nick: “You're pushing yourself to a limit that wasn't available before. You know, like beyond that border. Because now you don't have to answer to somebody else, but I wonder if there's something of this. Of Esmeralda losing these repressions and you finally breaking free of these barriers. Is there this parallel going on there?”

Allison: “I could see that. I've actually gone through so much emotionally since I started this too. Because of this. I like creative freedom, but also like Substack. It's a business. I'm a small business owner again, and I've done that before. And that's a ton of work. So, you're trying to figure out how to draw the lines between writing and audience engagement and money and building it. I mean, you do this. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of work. And then after you do all this stressful stuff, you're like, Okay, now I've got to be sexy somehow. And, like I'm a 41-year old married mother of two teenagers. And it's not always sexy here. There's a lot of screaming. So much screaming. It's fights and stuff. And I'm like, this is just…it's hard, but I'm getting better at it. And I love it. I feel like this is the best writing I've ever done. And it's the most fulfilling writing I've ever done.”

Nick: “I like it too. I'm worried how many people can actually sustain themselves on Substack. How many people are going to start paying subscriptions and to support so many writers, but I don't know, so far, I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying having that kind of freedom and like a direct kind of link to readers. if I could just find a few 1000 people to support me. It seems doable to me.”

Allison: “I've been exploring a lot of different ways to send out writing and stuff because we know what's happening and what's happened to digital media. And it's not great, and it doesn't bode well for the future. Like when your focus is a balance sheet, not the quality of the content…which I understand your business. That's literally your job just to make money and to be accountable to your investors. But it's not great for creativity and that's what I am. I'm not a great copywriter or something. I have to be all in. So, with society collapsing right now and having kids, which actually, surprisingly, makes me optimistic because this whole system, everything is broken. Oh, this is a mess. It's gonna fall down because it's a mess. We're not trying to pull together vulture capital media and just keep it alive for one day. We're not hoping, oh, we need to keep media alive where writers don’t get paid anything and execs make something.

So, what will we be doing when everything falls down? What's gonna come out of that? What's the great, new, better world that we're going to build on that. And I'm trying to focus on that for my sanity. But also, just as a writer, what I'm doing with Substack is again…I didn't want to do something everybody else was doing because also I want to give readers value. Like, if you're going to give me a $7 month or $50 a year, you deserve something like really different or really fun and experiential, and not just like, here's another like 800 words a week. like I want to create and have surprises. Like I had a crossword there yesterday.”

On submitting poetry about frozen pizzas to the James Beard Awards:

Nick: “We we talked a little bit about your pizza poems. The story that was written all in verse. And it was just reviews of frozen pizza. That was it. But there was also a prequel to it, where you explained why you were going to write it, because you wanted to teach your son poetry.”

Allison: “It was just one of those chaotic things. And that was all one piece. But my editor broke it up and Marni Shure, the fact that she let me get away with as much as she did, she pretty much was like, very hands off with me. And she's like, ‘just try it. Just have fun with it.’ And she was incredible to work with. And I'm really proud of the work that I did while I was there. That we all did. Well, I haven't checked it in a couple of weeks because it's weird looking at a place after you leave.

I was doing this thing on healthy frozen pizzas. And I had been eating them for weeks. And I was like, I can't find an interesting way to tell the story because I think it's possible. Like the thing I love fucking with so much at The Takeout is not just…Like Link Nipples is surreal. And it's something new. But when I joined the site, I was like, I want to take things that are very normal and mundane and I want to make something crazy and unexpected about them. Because we were doing this thing, a slideshow for the pizza thing. And I know why we need slideshows. But if we as writers need slideshows, or sites need these slideshows, why are we complaining about them? And I wanted to do something cool with that. I don't believe complaining makes anything better. It's like, okay, so we have this, how do we work with this, this thing that we have? And like, every day, at The Takeout, we would do news wires, which you know, bring in the numbers and pay the bills. And I was like, let's take things that shouldn't be funny and make them funny. And make them exciting. And then people actually read them and they can learn something. Like, ‘Oh, I know the site is funny and holy shit. Now I know this thing about climate change, or robots and whatever.’

So this frozen pizza thing. I was like…There's nothing interesting when you Google stuff like this, or like best reviews. It's the same stuff. And I was like, let me see. It just it just hit me in the head. And I was like, ‘I'm doing this.’ I didn't even ask her.

She's like, ‘What are you doing?’

I'm like, ‘I'm doing this.’

She's like, ‘Okay.’

And I'd never written poetry before. So I had to Google, all these like different types of poetry. Like what does this mean? I'd never heard of these things before. And they were hard. And I figured out a way to make it work. And just because it was just that shit. I wanted somebody like rolling through Google News to think like, ‘Oh, I need healthy frozen pizza’ and then click it and be like, here's a slideshow about nine different Cauliflower Crust pizzas for the freezer section told in sonnets and elegies. Like what the fuck is this?”

Nick: “But you proved to your son that poetry could be found in anything.”

Allison: “And even though he didn't care, it was more about the readers. I want to create stuff that stops you in your day, because we scroll so much and we read so much and it just becomes white noise. Especially in food. I mean, people are doing really good work, Really good work. As a reader, sometimes it's just hard to read it because it's so much. Especially with me and my ADHD. It turns everything kind of into white noise or static and it's like I want to be able to read people's good work. So, you know, doing stuff like that, like really? That kind of like fucks you up that you're not expecting it. I love, I love doing that.”

Nick: “You have to find some way to get the readers to kind of stop and pay attention and for most people, it's just shit talking. Trying to shame someone or call them out. But humor can do that as well. And I think we forget that far too often. It should be far more humor than shit talk.”

Allison: “I don't shit talk at all. I mean, even in my personal life, that's something I'm really adamant about. I do not gossip. I will not hang out with people who gossip. If you're hanging out with somebody, and they are talking shit about other people, the second you leave, they're talking shit about you. How could you have any kind of trust or anything in that kind of relationship? It's gonna make you feel bad the second you leave. And also, saying things about other people is fucked up. It's not nice, you know that. If somebody is doing it to you, it makes you feel like garbage. The world is garbage. So why are you putting more garbage into it?

And most importantly, when you need something to talk about, you can talk about somebody else, or you can talk about something really fucking cool. Like, you know, space! Fucking rocket ships! Adults don't talk about it. And people used to talk about that. And it was cool. Let me talk shit about this person on Twitter. Why not about cool stuff. Learn new things. Share. It makes your life better. It makes you interesting. It makes the world more interesting. It makes you have fun. You don't feel like garbage. You don't feel like you're hurting anybody. You could be secure in your relationships. Because you know, the people you're hanging out with aren't using you as a punching bag or a laughingstock after you leave. It's really easy. But nobody does it. But it's easy to do it. And if you're talking shit as far as your writing and stuff goes, be better. I mean, I guess it's hard to be a good writer. Especially when you know that they get the clicks, That talking shit and stuff it gets the clicks, and that's fucking garbage. But that's the way it is. We'll never change that. We will never change that. But you can be the writer that you want to be. And people will find you if you're the writer that you want to be. I'm privileged because I have this Substack now and I built the following. But I don't have to, you know? I don't ever want to punch down. That's not okay. Why do we? I don't need to. I don't need to. There is enough shit out there. Why do you add to it?”

Nick: “I agree. And it's weird, because food writing has just become this like, you know, shit talking battle. We joked on we DM about you submitting the pizza poems to the MFK Fisher award, for the James Beard Awards. Did you submit?”

Allison: “I told The Takeout to. So I don't know if their check cleared. But I asked. And the piece that I wrote about Huel, which involves the crapping myself twice. There's, like, there's too much. But I was so proud of that. Like, that was another one where I took the time and I really dug into it. And you know, do you ever write something and then you like, just walk away? You're like, ‘Fuck, I'm good.’ You know?

Nick: “All the time.”

Allison: “So I submitted those. Do I like my odds? Absolutely not.”

Nick: “But that's what I want to talk about. It's like, why not? Like, why not something like this? These are stories that actually connect with people. Connect with readers. They make them laugh. They make them learn something. I think as food writers, a lot of times, a lot of food writers, they forget that they're actually writing about food and it actually connects with people day to day. And it's not just some esoteric thing that they're disconnected with.”

Allison: “It's easy to do that when it's your job. Like when you're doing this today, and writing is a commodity and you are trained to look at it as words with value and numbers and hits. So, this is just what happens. It happens in every industry. Every single person you know. Do surgeons ever walk into the OR and go “I'm creating miracles?”

It's like the first couple of times you understand that enormity of what you're doing and then you stop appreciating yourself. You're like anybody can do this shit. It's really hard to stay enthusiastic, which is I mean, again, part of why I left The Takeout because I'm like, I'm not here to just play it safe. I stayed there longer than I thought I would, I guess COVID had a lot to do with it. I like the structure. But yeah, like I was saying before, it's hard to try new things and be uncomfortable. So, I think when you're just talking shit, it's safe. It's a safe place. It's an easy place to get in. And it's OK to talk shit if the person deserves it. Like if they're a rapist, right? Of course, that's not talking shit. That's giving you what you deserve. But like it just trying to, you know, like, feed an outrage machine or whatever. Think about yourself. Is this who I want to be? If that's not what you want to be, don't be that person. Or if you're like, I don’t need to be in food writing, then don't be a food writer. Because this isn't a great job. Like, you're not gonna make a lot of money. Nobody's forcing you to be like, I want to make $32,000 a year. No, like, go get a better job.”

On the potential to recreate media through NFTs:

Allison: “I know that I was very anti NFT for a while. And then I started researching it so I can make fun of it. And I was like, Wait, this isn't as ridiculous as I thought.”

Nick: “The thing is, like, 99% of what's going on now is dumb. It's dumb shit. We've talked about it. It's just dumb shit. People ripping each other off.”

Allison: “This is the thing that scares me. It's so easy to dismiss it because it's all dumb, 1% bullshit. But while that’s happening, real people like Goldman Sachs and the people who've created these fucked up financial institutions that had ruled the world for years, they're in that space right now. Trying to figure out how to set it up. And well, we're all like, look at that stupid fucking NFT. So, I don't know how this thing is going to work out? I don't know. I don't know. But I'm part of it. Because I want to see what maybe we can create something that's gonna be really good for journalists. And if this isn't the best model, then maybe we can build off this idea.”

Nick: “I think it's good just to kind of just start thinking about something else. Because media, as we know, is essentially dead.”

Allison: “I mean, it's not going to go away. But yeah, it depends who's going to be making money off of it. And the thing about NFT's and crypto and stuff is that it is rife with potential for class warfare. And I think that's why people want it to look as ridiculous as it does. Because if people realize the power of these systems, we can do some crazy rebalancing shit. We could do really put power to the right people, build systems that are equitable, but I don't know what look like yet. I don't have answers.”

Nick: “I'm in the same boat. I'm with you. I'm hopeful, though. I feel like shit finally got so bad that it has to change.”

Allison: “It has to be us. I mean, I'm 41. I'm very aware of the people who come behind me and things that I do affect their future. So what can I do to these very fucked up things like. I'm smart. I have the experience. I'm smart, and I'm brave. I take risks and I'm fucking insane. And I have a brain that like, just won't quit. So I kind of have a responsibility to do these things. And so yeah, let's try an ebook or an NFT magazine or Substack. And this and that, and maybe I can start creating stuff that other people who are even smarter than me can rip off or off and build on. And then the writers behind us, they're gonna build something better than we do after society's done collapsing.”

Nick: “I wrote a fucking NFT novella. You know. Just, what the hell. Like why not?”

Allison: “Why not? Like, throw everything at the wall? We don't know what's gonna happen. When I moved to Baltimore, one of the reasons I picked this city above everything, and the reason I loved growing up in New York, because I was born in 1980, like right after the city had declared bankruptcy in the 70s. And when you're at the bottom, there's nothing left to lose. You can try anything. You have unrestricted freedom to be creative, because if it works, great. If it doesn't, what the fuck did you lose? Nothing. You have the power to be imaginative. So yes, again, society collapsing. It is terrifying. Things are gonna get really, really bad. They're gonna be really bad, and they're gonna be bad for a while. And as much as we freak out about that, it's not going to stop it. We have no fucking control over any of this shit. Damage is done. We're here for the ride. So, again, what are we building? Like? Are we gonna sit here and be scared while really evil people figure out how to give us this robot New World Order? Or they're treating the singularity to be just a fucking like a, you know, a demon? Or are we the ones who are like, okay, what do we have to lose? Honestly, what the fuck do we have to lose? Nothing to lose and everything to gain. Someone's got to do it. So let's do it. We can do it. Us.”

Quotes from this interview have been edited for clarity.

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