The Food Readers Organization
Featured Author Project
Current Featured Author
Tia Keenan is a New York City-based writer, cook, cheese specialist, food stylist, and community organizer. She writes the “Cheese Wisely” column for the Wall Street Journal, and is the author of The Art of the Cheese Plate: Pairings, Recipes, Style, Attitude (Rizzoli, 2016), Chèvre (Short Stack Editions, 2018) and Melt, Stretch, & Sizzle: The Art of Cooking Cheese (Rizzoli, 2018). Her pioneering restaurant-based cheese programs reinvented the cheese course and distinguished her as a creative force in the food industry. She oversaw the cheese program for The Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art, and pioneered the “cheese bar” concept by opening New York City's first cheese bar in 2007. Her work combining an international selection of cheeses and unique house-made condiments shifted the paradigm of what a cheese plate could be, inspiring countless chefs, restaurateurs, and cheese professionals to re-think and expand their own programs. Over her career, Keenan has worked on a broad range of food-based projects, from concept development for Walt Disney to restaurant and retail programs for Murray’s Cheese. Keenan’s work has been featured in various media outlets, including Food & Wine, The New Yorker, Parade Magazine, and The Food Network. Keenan currently co-leads NAWS (Neighbors Against White Supremacy), which works to engage white and non-black People of Color to challenge anti-black racism in themselves, and their communities, and to create intentional communities engaged in the multi-racial struggle for liberation. She serves on the boards of several organizations, including Ruminate, a non-profit that supports food systems with a conscience and fosters smarter connections between good people and good food, all through the lens of the cheese plate. She lives in Queens, New York City with her husband – award winning sommelier Hristo Zisovski – their son, dog, and small flock of backyard chickens.
Let's Talk About Food Q&A
What is your earliest food memory?
My earliest memory is breastfeeding, and I’ll tell you how I realized that: when I first started using my palate intentionally and rigorously in [cheese and wine] tastings, I realized that when I was identifying flavors I had “breastfeeding” as a mental note. I had a flavor associated with my mother’s breast that I would recognize in certain foods, deep in my flavor memory. To be clear, I don’t explicitly remember breastfeeding, but I had a certain flavor experience that my memory connected to breastfeeding. It’s a sweet and sour flavor that’s fleshy and sweaty and so overwhelmingly positive for me.
What does food mean to you?
Food is one of the ways I show love and care for people. Food is also a medium by which I’m able to connect to ideas and concepts about our society and culture. And on a very personal level, food is comfort. It’s something - for better or worse – I’ve always found comforting. I eat when I’m lonely, or sad; I eat when I’m happy, and to celebrate. It’s also one of my creative mediums, and so it sustains me spiritually and bodily.
What is your favorite dish?
That’s such a hard question! Eggs are my favorite food, and that’s one of the reasons why I have four backyard chickens in my small NYC yard. It’s quite possible that a very fresh egg, fried in my great-grandmothers cast iron pan, is my favorite food.
What compelled you to get started in the food system industry?
As a working class person, restaurants were an accessible industry for me to enter and grow in. At first I was just trying to pay my bills and survive. As time went on, I realized food was the intersection of politics, memory, art, and love. Not much else matters to me, so here I am.
What is your greatest/most memorable accomplishment? Did you have any hurdles? If so, how did you overcome them?
Healing, and continuing to heal from early childhood abuse and trauma is my biggest accomplishment. Having a family, being a community organizer, writing books, all of those accomplishments are possible only because of the work I’ve done inside myself to heal from some very deep wounds. That may be a surprising answer, but it’s the truth. Like every person coming from trauma, just finding space for myself and my needs was a big hurdle.
If food was out of the picture, what profession would you like to attempt?
I’d like to work in some kind of care and healing profession, maybe as a midwife or a therapist of some sort.
What advice would you have for the younger generation interested in getting in the food scene?
Go where the creative working class and poor people are. If the work itself doesn’t inspire you, make sure the people you work with do. I ended up in food because that’s where the other creative working class and poor people were. I’ve never regretted that North Star.
Any parting words? How can we get in touch with you?
People who have experienced hunger should be leading conversations about food systems.