Why Zines Are Food Media’s Experimental Cutting Edge

I sometimes attribute my growing zine obsession to being — on paper — a book historian. I like the heft of folded paper, sometimes hugged by a cardstock cover, sometimes by a staple pinning sheets together; sometimes, it’s just printer paper folded to create a booklet, inked by hand. As much as zines are beautiful as objects, their production runs, varying between a dozen to several hundred, select their audience. In some ways, it would be easy to link zines to artist’s books, which are similarly rare, experimental, and play with printing techniques. But mostly, a zine is categorized as a zine because its maker sat long and hard, then got up and talked to people about it, read a few zines, and decided their project was a zine. Sometimes, it’s not even a conscious thought.

Another way to understand zines is by subject: I love food zines in particular because they’re not always obligated to cover the same topics or fit into the same genres as mainstream food media. Some are more magazine-like, which publish regularly and are bound at the spine. Some recipe-focused zines call out to community cookbooks, spiral-bound and simply designed. Some break convention altogether: Meegan Lim’s Harvest Garden, a food zine shaped like a Chinese takeout menu, opens to a comic about racism and food. While independent food media is in a nebulous place — with the recent closure of the Counter and the growth of magazines like Whetstone, Standart, and For the Culture — I find myself picking up zines. They’re a break from the messiness of mainstream food media, where chefs and writers are still told, in so many words, that there can only be one Korean recipe, one Palestinian chef. But they’re also, in some way, a break from the drama of food media, that still lets me consume what I love most about it — stories that focus on labor, climate, and race.

Zine cover next to an open cardboard box and packing materials; the cover features an illustration of a pie crust with peas and a spoon and fork.

The cover of Hungry’s third issue.

But mostly, when I sit down with a zine — for example, the Lecker podcast’s Kitchens series — I am in a space where someone, with very little editorial filter, is being themselves and telling me their foodways. I’m at someone’s table in a way I can’t be when scrolling through the food news of the day. The zinester’s unique choices, like the material they include or what paper they pick, is all their own: I can almost see their fingerprint on the book itself, just like an artist’s book. Food zines disrupt food media by simply existing as a satellite or a moon, vaguely in the other’s orbit but not quite part of the same ecosystem. By being DIY and based on networks of closely knit collaborators who create community, zines are food media’s experimental cutting edge.

The cover of Hungry’s issue 00, titled “Home Cooking,” is an illustrated pink and blue overhead view of a table, with different dishes. Hands reach across it, some placing food on the table, some serving themselves, one taking a photo with a phone. It’s completely different in feel to Chicken + Bread, a zine I’m not entirely sure how I came across (although it must’ve been through Instagram’s algorithm), which has a heavy matte cover. As I skim through the issue looking for the masthead, strong experimental photography splashes out — including a photo essay dedicated to fried chicken photographed in fields by photographer and writer Yvonne Maxwell.

The content is strikingly similar in both: essays, poetry — including a poem about okra in the shape of a finger of okra in Chicken + Bread — and recipes. They’re both publications themed by issue, dedicated exclusively to people of color and featuring the work of people of color, although Hungry is from Edmonton, Canada, edited by Kathryn Gwun-Yeen 君妍 Lennon and Kyla Pascal, and Chicken + Bread is from the U.K., edited and produced by writer Hope Cunningham. They both fit into a coat’s oversized pocket, just the size of a paperback novella.

The act of building something from the ground up has the potential for radicalism in a way that joining an organization or publication doesn’t: Zinesters can choose materials and collaborators that fit with how they see the world. In Chicken + Bread, there’s a focus on combining the personal and the aesthetic: Your family’s recipes deserve to be displayed beautifully. Hungry centers Indigenous people in a way I haven’t seen in mainstream American food media, and is printed at Yolkless Press in Calgary because it’s a newer institution run by nonwhite individuals.

Because zines are written in communities, when they’re written in a community of color, they tend to stay in communities of color. Pascal and Gwun-Yeen 君妍 Lennon founded Hungry as a result of organizing food justice spaces, fueled by their frustration with food media in Canada and beyond. “It’s fatigue with a lot of the big blogs, and celebrity chefs with their YouTube followings and even our local food magazines,” Gwun-Yeen 君妍 Lennon says. “We were and still are really annoyed with their best restaurant lists.”

Open magazine with front and back covers visible; the front cover shows a man chopping, the back a sign posted on a fence.

Chicken + Bread

Both Hungry and Chicken + Bread predominantly feature writers who have never written professionally before, or who have never been given an opportunity to do so. “When we started this, we wanted to create opportunities for other people for emerging designers or emerging writers,” says Gwun-Yeen 君妍 Lennon. That’s a radical act, and not one simply about racial diversity: It’s about labor and creating a safe and supportive space for writers to cut their teeth, one where care is emphasized. Pascal points to the conundrum of pitching publications, which can be hostile to writers without samples of published work. “It’s the chicken and the egg. You need to have a writing sample from a magazine or newspaper to prove you’ve been published, but then nobody’s published you because you haven’t been published,” he says. Cunningham considered looking for a job in food media, but was motivated by her lifelong passion for food to just create a space for herself.

But primarily, zines document perspectives, allowing them to evoke forms that reflect their own community’s needs. Jonathan Kaufmann has written about Beowolf Thorne’s AIDS humor zine Diseased Pariah News. Lim’s Harvest Garden speaks not only to a moment in zine and comic design history, but to identity politics in 2021, as does How to Talk to Welli About Goya by Stephanie Nina Pitsirilos, a paper-and-ink zine — small enough to fit into the palm of my hand — about telling your relatives to boycott Goya products. And zines often offer space to educate the reader and invite them to think carefully about what transplanting a food culture can mean.

Everyday Sadya a 24-page zine featuring Keralan recipes put together by Chicago restaurateurs and couple Vinod Kalathil and Margaret Pak is like that. Through several recipes and ingredient explainers, it is an attempt to describe a sadya, a feast most commonly associated with the Onam Sadya, an annual harvest festival in late August or early September.

Everyday Sadya is a family-and-friends affair: Kalathil and Pak missed educating their customers through the menu at their restaurant Thattu, which had stopped regular service in 2020 when the pandemic began, and were approached by their friend, food writer and occasional zinester Maggie Hennessy, who’d suggested they make a zine. The layout and design — glossy and full of bright illustrations — was done by Kalathil’s brother Vyas and his wife, fashion designer and textiles artist Vandana Valsalan. Personal details in the text explain what a sadya is and Pak’s experiences coming to Keralan cuisine. When they launched the Kickstarter to distribute the zine, they raised nearly $10,000.

Kalathil and Pak are clear that they’re documenting the variations of the recipes they know and are in turn passing them on to their community, who will in turn interpret the dishes in their own homes: The sambar powder they gave out with copies of Everyday Sadya was used to make everything from sambar to sambar-powdered fried rice. Zines provide that space to refute the idea of culinary authority, or the idea that an “official” recipe can even exist. Cookbooks, through their heavy covers and glossy pages, communicate a degree of authority underscored by acquisition editors. But I trust the recipes in a zine a bit more, not because it’s gone through the machine of a publishing house, but because the zine is so carefully assembled — not simply in its make, but in its intentional bestowing of authority.

An issue of “Everyday Sadya” next to a cutting board with spices, ginger, and herbs.

Everyday Sadya

Maybe what I like most about food zines is, much like home-cooked food, they can exist in another economy, one of gifting and sharing. I buy zines for myself, yes, but just as often I’m given them by friends and they get passed around; maybe one day they’ll come back to me, maybe it’s not written for me to ever see them again.

The culture around zines resists an archival existence. Holding a zine, reading someone’s personal essay about a food memory, I know that this moment is fleeting. Zines emerged, according to different sources, as a counterculture assemblage in the mid-20th century, specifically to function within defined communities: You could control who read and consumed what you made, to an extent. If something’s handmade, it’s going to be even more difficult to reproduce; if you’re stapling a few photocopied pages together, you know that what you’re making might soon fall apart. A zine might even be designed to fall apart, especially if something is produced with the specific aim of reaching a specific audience, if the content is politically and culturally marginalized. Zinesters might not want the record of their work existing in an official institution. There are zine archives and library collections, but there is also a strong sense among librarians and archivists that zinesters need to consent to a zine being collected. Food and zines about food are for sharing, but how a zine is distributed determines who shares with who. Even though I might never meet the people writing zines, we’re bound by the twists of fate that brought their work to me.

Zines are different than traditional food media, print and digital, which travel to me by means of the algorithm and printing house. But I don’t think it’s accurate or even generous to use “food media” as shorthand for only glossy magazines, heavy cookbooks, and online publications. Zines are definitely food media, even if they’re not mainstream media, and the versatility of their design broadens the scope of what should be considered food media. What’s more, the zine reminds us, with its connections to other media but most importantly to food itself, that no object really exists without others. Zines push back against the assumption that mainstream food media’s disruptions come from itself and have us look a little further, down the rabbit hole of materiality and beyond.

N.A. Mansour is a historian of books, art and religion who writes about food and culture.