Sarah Grey on Food as Community Building

Jun 15, 2016

Editor and food writer Sarah Grey talks about using food to create community, editing for social justice, socialist feminist approaches to child care, the tastiness and challenges of food writing, and her weekly radical dinner party Friday Night Meatballs.

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Guest: Sarah Grey

Sarah Grey is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in Best Food Writing 2015Serious Eats, SpoonfulLucky Peach, Roads & Kingdoms, and Edible Philly, among others.

She is also a professional editor who writes and trains editors for Copyediting, the American Copy Editors Society, the Editors’ Association of Canada, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and more.

She writes a language column, “Word Watch,” at The Establishment and a book-review column, “The Armchair Cook,” at Spoonful.

She also hosts a weekly dinner known as Friday Night Meatballs that has garnered international media coverage. Her writing can be found at Sarah Grey Writes.

Sarah is also an editor here at Ideas on Fire, who helps interdisciplinary progressive authors create awesome work.

People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy  (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy  (00:24):

Welcome to episode 11 of the Imagine Otherwise Podcast. Today our guest is Sarah Grey. Sarah is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in Best Food Writing 2015, Serious Eats, Spoonful, Lucky Peach, Roads and Kingdoms, and Edible Philly.

Cathy  (00:40):

She’s also a professional editor at Grey Editing and writes and trains editors for copy editing, the American Copy Editor Society, the Editors Association of Canada, and the Editorial Freelancers’ Association.

Cathy  (00:53):

Sarah writes a language column called, Word Watch, at the Establishment, as well as a book review column called, Armchair Cook, at Spoonful. She’s the creator of Friday Night Meatballs, which has garnered international media coverage. Her writing can be found at

Cathy  (01:11):

Today Sarah’s here to talk with us about food, about editing for social justice, about writing for a popular audience, and imagining otherwise. So, thanks so much for being with us, Sarah.

Sarah (01:23):

Thanks for having me.

Cathy  (01:24):

So, you are an author, you’re a book editor, you’re the founder of Grey Editing, and you’re the creator of Friday Night Meatballs. I’d love to hear about all of those varied projects, and how they relate to each other. So do you want to maybe just start with writing? What kind of writing do you do, and what topics do you cover?

Sarah (01:43):

I’ve got a broad range actually. I started out food blogging quite a while back, in the mid 2000s, and stopped when I had my daughter, and would just toss off a political article every now and then when I felt like I really had to say something. Then I wrote an essay about Friday Night Meatballs, which we’ll talk about. That actually opened a lot of doors for me, so now I’m doing a lot of food writing in addition to political stuff. I also write a lot about language and copy editing. It’s all sort of intertwined.

Cathy  (02:19):

You mentioned Friday Night Meatballs, and I know our listeners are probably dying to know what on earth that is, and how, once they know, how they can get on board. So what is Friday Night Meatballs?

Sarah (02:30):

Friday Night Meatballs is a way to build community and have a lot of fun in the process. It is a weekly dinner, and my husband and I started doing this because we were feeling isolated. I was freelancing, working from home. Our daughter was three at the time, and going out meant getting a babysitter, or spending a lot of money, and it just got to the point where we felt like we never saw our friends.

Sarah (02:57):

We said, “Well what if we just make a big pot of pasta, and tell people we’re doing it, and they can come to us.” And what it’s evolved into is sort of a weekly event. The kids take over the living room, the adults are in the dining room. We make spaghetti and meatballs, people bring drinks, and desserts, and salads, and whatever else they want to have. We generally limit it to 10 people, because our house is pretty small, but I wrote an article about it for Serious Eats, and it went viral. I heard from people all over the world. We ended up starting a website, The essay got picked up for Best Food Writing 2015, which was really exciting. It’s just reached so many people. We’ve been in Real Simple, and Canadian Living, and South African Magazine, and it’s just really taken off so much more than I ever thought it would. There’s something about it that just speaks to people.

Cathy  (03:56):

One of the things you do with it is encourage people to make it their own. Right?

Sarah (04:02):


Cathy  (04:02):

It’s not about the particular kind of food, or the Friday night in particular, it’s more about communal eating, communal sharing, and really food as a site around which to gather to talk, to talk politics in particular, which I know your Friday Night Meatballs, as someone who has been a guest at many of them. That’s usually what the conversation revolves around. So it’s this fascinating combination of, yes, hanging out with friends, yes, building community, but also discussing intense political and ethical quandaries and events of the day.

Sarah (04:42):

Absolutely, and I think that says more about my group of friends than anything else, but it’s become really fascinating just to see on what level people connect, and it does tend to be people from a lot of different circles. We have people from our work lives, and college friends, and people visiting from out of town, and family members. Often when I meet new people and I think they’re cool, I’ll say, “Why don’t you come over to my house, we’re having this dinner?” So it just keeps expanding, and that’s really exciting. It’s one of my favorite things about it, just to find out where people are going to gel. It’s definitely become a matter of building community.

Sarah (05:30):

I think we’ve changed the way we work and the way we connect with each other so much. People work long hours. We don’t traditionally, we don’t have somebody at home doing all of the housework and cooking in the way that was traditional for years and years. So a lot of the old ways of getting together don’t work that well. I can’t really spend eight hours cooking. The house isn’t going to be spotless. Things like that are just out of reach. So, we said, “Okay, what’s a way we could make this reachable, and make getting together and having that kind of community fit with the way people live now?” That’s really been the challenge, and it’s worked really well for us and it’s changed our lives for the better.

Cathy  (06:23):

Do you see that building on communal food traditions coming out of activist communities? Because I’m just thinking of potlucks in lesbian communities, potlucks in feminist communities. These have some, these are, God, however many potlucks we’ve been to in our lives, right?

Sarah (06:40):

Oh my God, yeah.

Cathy  (06:42):

And food traditions and communal food preparation have long histories in a lot of communities of color, in a lot of low income communities. There seems to be this pattern about using food as a way to come together, to commiserate with each other, to support each other, obviously to eat well and to have fun. Do you see Friday Night Meatballs coming out of that tradition, or maybe pushing them in other directions?

Sarah (07:13):

It absolutely is part of that tradition. I feel like, I grew up in Pittsburgh and there are a lot of immigrant versions of that tradition that came out of the waves of immigration in the early 20th century, and have stuck around culturally. So you have the fish fry, or the Greek food festival, and the Syrian food festival, and so on, where people are just saying, “Come and hang out with us, and enjoy this food that we’re making.” And the other thing about that tradition that you mentioned, I think, is that this kind of communal cooking, it comes in opposition to institutional cooking, which is crappy, generally. Right? So you have, school lunch program, which is, I’m glad that exists, it’s a great program, but the food tends to be pretty low in quality. And one of the things the Black Panthers did, when they had the breakfast program, was to actually make sure that the food they were providing was really nourishing and good. So I think actually having good food, that people enjoy, is a huge part of, of respect for one another, and respect for yourself, and just making life better.

Cathy  (08:34):

That’s awesome. So you’ve obviously written about Friday Night Meatballs, and you mentioned a little bit about the other kind of writing that you do, but you’re also an editor, so you both produce writing, but then you also edit other people’s writing, and that’s something that you and I share and actually how we originally met. We’re both authors and we’re both editors, so I’d love to hear more about your editing work with Grey Editing, and how you see your writing influencing your editing, and vice versa.

Sarah (09:09):

I’ve always been both a writer and an editor, pretty much as soon as I started to learn how to read and write. My mom was the school secretary, and she taught me how to type pretty much as soon as I could read and write, and then taught me how to proofread what I had typed. So I always came to it with that mindset, I edited the third grade newsletter and that kind of thing. It always came naturally and it took me a really long time to figure out that editing was what I wanted to do. I would bounce around to all these office jobs, trying to figure out where I was supposed to be in life, and then I noticed that everybody would give me their editing and proofreading work. And I finally took a job at a translation agency, where I was working with freelancers, and I realized that that was the kind of life I wanted. They had this self-determination. They had the ability to say no to things that they didn’t want to do, which was really exciting.

Sarah (10:13):

And I started to think about freelancing as a way to use that talent, and really take what I do best and leverage it, and to do something that would make my life better. And it has, I’ve been freelancing on my own for about five years now, and I love what I do. I work mostly on books in the humanities, a lot of political stuff, some radical publishers like Haymarket Books, and Just World Books and Verso, but also a lot of academic work. And I learned so much. I’ve worked with really, really brilliant people. And I find often that when I’m writing, those are the people I’m citing, because I’ve got such an understanding of their work.

Sarah (10:59):

I sometimes joke that, I dropped out of graduate school after one semester because it was the wrong place for me. But I feel like editing these people has become alternate graduate school for me. And that’s very much been a huge part of my education, and that informs everything that I write. It also forces me, I think, to think about things like syntax, and how many words I’m using. Am I being too verbose? It’s really gotten me to think about style in a way that I didn’t before.

Cathy  (11:35):

What you’re saying about finding yourself, citing your clients when you’re writing. I do the exact same thing. Partly because it’s-

Sarah (11:41):

They’re really good.

Cathy  (11:46):

Exactly, right. And that’s why we enjoy working on their work and helping them produce the best books and articles that they can. So it makes sense.

Sarah (11:56):

Absolutely. I just wrote about military recruitment, and one of my clients, Rory Fanning, who’s a former Army Ranger, who became a conscientious objector and has written a book called, Worth Fighting For, about his journey, which is fantastic. So when I was writing that, I could call Rory and ask for his thoughts on the topic. I think I ended up including a quote from his book, and he was able to connect me with other antiwar veterans that he knew. So it’s really both the education and the network, I think, that I’ve grown just through working with all of these brilliant folks. I count myself so lucky to have that.

Cathy  (12:42):

So how do you see your work, as an author, as an editor, as a kind of as a cultural producer? How do you see your work combining academia, art and activism, in whatever modifications of those terms that might be more applicable?

Sarah (12:59):

Oh, that’s a great question. For me, I think activism tends to be the motivating force. I tend to be super political in everything I do, just because I can’t help it. But what’s really changed for me, I think, is bringing art to that. I try not to just write screeds, what I’m doing now is really understanding on a deeper level, through the academic work that I edit and read, what is underlying anything I’m writing about. So even if I’m writing about jello salad, which I did last year, that became a question of women’s labor, and industrial food production, and how we view the work that brings us our food. And even though that, it wasn’t a polemic, it wasn’t an explicitly political article, I think politically it’s incredibly important to understand those factors because ultimately that underlies pretty much everything you do.

Cathy  (14:12):

What you’re saying about how we view the work that brings us our food reminded me a lot of one of the previous episodes of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. It was an interview with Nikiko Masumoto, who’s an organic farmer, an artist, a playwright, and an author, and she was talking a lot about the politics of that, right? Where does our food come from? How is it brought into being physically, right? Materially, how is it grown? What are the conditions under which it’s able to grow? Who is allowed to grow it? How that taps into long histories, for instance, the history she’s talking about California in particular, and the history of Japanese American farmers has a very, very long history in California’s Central Valley, but of course they also weren’t allowed, Japanese Americans weren’t allowed to own land, and therefore grow food, for a very long time. And so how those histories, of violence, of oppression are baked into the soil, right and shaped, on a material level, the food that that comes across our lives and into our bodies, but then also the social relationships that sustain it.

Sarah (15:20):

Absolutely. I just finished an article about the food of Pittsburgh, that’s going to be out on Serious Eats soon, and one of the things that really struck me in my research was how much the steel industry had to do with the evolution of food culture there. There’s this old legend that people used to cook steaks on the side of the blast furnace in the steel mill. And I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be a pocketful. There’s no way.” And it turns out it’s actually true. I spoke with some steel historians and preservationists, and people actually did do that, on plate steel, not on the blast furnace, but they also brought in leftovers and cooked them on the pipes that would bring hot air into the blast furnaces.

Sarah (16:11):

And one of the things that changed Pittsburgh cuisine was that you had people coming from dozens and dozens of countries. You had African-Americans migrating north from the south, to work in the steel mills. You had this incredible cultural mixing that was happening in the mills, and people would eat each other’s food. They would be trying these new things for the first time and incorporating these tastes into their diets. And that was actually how a more coherent and gelled culture came together, was through people working side by side. And maybe they don’t speak the same language, but they can at least share their lunch. And there’s an incredible solidarity about that, that really moves me.

Cathy  (16:59):

So that brings us actually just something that I was hoping that we’d get a chance to talk about, which is collaboration, or coming together in community. And I know that you have a long history of doing collaborative projects, of organizing collectively, participating in collective action. So I’ll just ask you, who are your favorite people, or organizations, or communities, or issues around which to collaborate, and why?

Sarah (17:27):

Oh, that’s great. There are so many. I really enjoy working with journalists. I find that they tend not to agonize too much over their words. They’re very interested in storytelling, above all things. They’re interested in getting the word out, as powerfully as possible. And I’ve had some amazing collaborations with journalists, and they’re all used to being edited and actually enjoy a vigorous edit, which is a lot of fun.

Sarah (18:05):

I have a lot of clients who I’ve worked with over the years now, as I’m approaching the fifth year, I’ve got one who I’m currently working on a fourth book with. He’s actually done, we’ve done two non-fiction, and this is the second fiction book we’re working on together. So you build relationships after a while, and you come to know the person’s writing habits and their little tics and just everything about the way they write, you know what to look out for. And so they know you’ve got their back, and that can be incredibly productive.

Sarah (18:45):

And I also really enjoy working on books that collect a lot of different perspectives. I had the opportunity to contribute to a book called 101 Changemakers, and this was Haymarket Books. My friends, Dao Tran and Michele Bollinger were the editors on it, and it’s a middle grade history book that profiles people in US history who changed society, the rebels and radicals, I think the subtitle is, and there were probably 40 of us who contributed pieces. I wrote about Ida B Wells, and I think Lucy Stone, and we brought that all together, and I also did some proofreading on the project, and it just turned into an incredible collaboration. Just an astonishingly good resource that’s accessible to kids and to adults, I think. It’s a really energizing thing to be part of something like that, and see it come to fruition.

Cathy  (19:51):

Definitely. And it’s such a great example of crossing genres, right? A middle school textbook is not something that I would think of off the top of my head, right, as-

Sarah (20:03):

Neither would I. Absolutely.

Cathy  (20:04):

As something that your work would be in. But this makes total sense. And part of that seems, it’s Haymarket, obviously, directing it and the individual editors having this really great vision for how voices and stories about change-makers, about radical people in history, as well as currently living, middle-schoolers need to learn about them, too. Right? And middle schoolers can understand that, and that can give them really great resources and inspiration. But again, it’s not something that you would necessarily expect, right?

Sarah (20:40):

right, exactly. And it’s done with a bit of an activist bent, so I think we’re seeing, protests like against testing, and Black Lives Matter protests, where middle school kids are actually walking out of the classrooms, and those are the kids who should be reading this book, and really getting inspiration from all of these people, from colonial times right up until now.

Cathy  (21:07):

Definitely. So, this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people on this podcast. And I know I’ve talked with you about this podcast quite a bit and I’ve told you about this question and all the fun answers that people give, and that just, frankly, blow me away. So no pressure or anything. But as you know, the podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and the impetus behind it is the world that people are working towards when they create the things that they create. So, when they publish their books or when they edit their manuscripts, or they teach their classes, or they make their films, or they do their paintings, or whatever it might be. So I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards when you write, when you edit your books, when you gather folks together through Friday Night Meatballs, what kind of world do you want?

Sarah (21:59):

Oh, that’s a great question. I consider myself a socialist and, and that’s really the kind of world I want to live in. I have a six year old daughter, and I want her to live in a world where she’s fully valued and she gets to exercise her talent. I don’t want her to sit in a cubicle for 20 years, wishing that she’d been able to do more. I don’t want her to graduate with debt that’s equivalent to a mortgage. And honestly, those are kind of privileged concerns that I have. I’m white. I have to worry less about whether or not she’s going to be shot by a cop, or thrown into prison. But those are realities for this generation and it’s so unsustainable. And I don’t want to answer your question about, “how do I imagine it?” with a negative, like, what do I not want to see?

Sarah (23:00):

But what I want to see is every kid getting a good education and a chance to use their talents and do what speaks to them and follow their bliss. And I want to see less work and more leisure. I want us to have more time to relax, and eat together, and read and learn about the world. To me, that’s the most important part of life, and we increasingly just have to fit it into these bitty little boxes of time where we’re exhausted and we’ve got a million other things to do. And I think having to do that through labor and economics is key.

Sarah (23:51):

Like, right now I am two weeks behind on the laundry because I’ve had a really busy couple of weeks at work. And what if we had communal laundries, where we didn’t have to worry about that? What if there was some place we could just go, and dinner would be served every night. Without it costing a fortune? Outsourcing a lot of the labor that we’ve traditionally pushed onto women in the home, and that’s necessarily more communal. It brings people together. And I feel like coming together with your friends and family around the table is a pretty good way to live, as opposed to just racing through the drive-through and bolting something down on your way to your second job. So yeah, I’d like to live in a world where we all have time to relax around the table.

Cathy  (24:53):

And it’s interesting, too, because that kind of communal labor is, the emphasis there is on communal, right? So it’s not just outsourcing to other people, who have to do it for us, right?

Sarah (25:06):

Right, it’s not just a matter of, “I’m going to pay you to do this, and then you’re going to be away from your family, and you’re going to be stressing out about your third job.” Right. It’s actually, “Let’s do this together.” And also, I love food, and I love cooking, and I actually don’t do much cooking. The way we’ve divided the labor in our house, my partner does most of the cooking, and I just don’t have the time and energy. And I think we’ve sapped so much of our time and energy for other people’s profit that we don’t, we deny most people the right to take part in that sort of thing. And I think we need to get to a point where we can actually say, “Oh, that looks delicious and interesting. I’m going to devote a Saturday to making it,” and not have that be a trade off for the thousand and one other things you’ve got to do to survive.

Cathy  (26:04):

Nice. Well thank you so much, Sarah, for being on the podcast.

Sarah (26:10):

Thank you so much for having me. This is a lot of fun.

Cathy  (26:14):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at, to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects, discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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