Simran Sethi is no stranger to success. As a journalist and educator, focused on food, sustainability, and social change, Simran has been lauded as “Environmental Messenger” by Vanity Fair, as one of the Top 8 Women Saving the Planet by Marie Claire, and as an “Environmental Woman of Impact” by Daily Variety, among other accolades. However, this success is not defined by flashy titles or dollar signs. Rather, Simran is making strides because of the social and environmental impact that she is imparting in our planet. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat one-on-one with Simran on her secret ingredients to produce meaning through her work with food.
From an early age, Simran experienced the non-singular nature of food. Born in Germany, raised in the Southern United States, and a descendant of Indian parents, Simran says that she was raised eating dal and rice alongside barbeque and biscuits. She witnessed firsthand the rich history of immigrant traditions that intersect to create multi-cultural narratives coexisting within geographic regions.
Her multi-cultured perspective of food was molded by an interdisciplinary education. Simran graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College. Later, during her career in journalism, she returned to school to earn an M.B.A. focused in sustainability from the Presidio Graduate School. As with food, Simran’s diverse academic interests all circle back to circle back to the idea of social justice. She explains, “I’m always interested in justice, better understanding why it exists, and what I can do to foster it.” Her interdisciplinary education has enabled her proficiency in the practical languages of business, social and environmental sciences, and history, among other perspectives of study.
Simran’s knowledge into food’s ability to transcend cultures and contexts deepened through her work in broadcast journalism. In her work with NPR, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, among other news sources, She has explored everything from cheese to chocolate to bacon to seeds in locations that have ranged from New York to California to Italy and beyond. Despite the wide array of tastes and places covered, her work seamlessly connects through her use of food as a delicious lens to inform her audience on issues of sustainability and social justice. She states, “The fundamental story is we all eat, or hope to eat, and that is a powerful, powerful thing. So I think it’s a great entry point for people to have deeper, more meaningful conversations that take us beyond making a better cake or a fluffier omelet.”
While working as a broadcast journalist for NBC News, Simran was approached by an editor at HarperOne (the environmental imprint of HarperCollins) to write a book. Simran explains the challenge of the abrupt change from shorter pieces of journalism to a full-length volume, stating “I had to learn to be a writer by writing a book, which was a lot of pressure.” This book would eventually become her award-winning Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, in which she explored the importance of foods with cultural value to provide a wakeup call in saving biodiversity. However, it took Simran a healthy dose of determination to transform her blank pages to a concrete story before it earned gold for the 2015 Nautilus Book Award and was named one of the Best Food Books of 2016 by Smithsonian.
She admits that she made her fair share of rookie mistakes in her early days of adopting the new career title. For example, she recalls emailing her editor to exclaim her excitement for having a title and a vision for her cover. Simran explains, “That’s sort of like saying, I have a vision for the frosting on the cake, and it’s like well maybe you should buy the ingredients first.”
Simran recollects her early insecurity in another instance, as she describes emailing book-writing friends to ask them tips on optimal writing conditions well before she was ready to sit down with her hands to the keyboard. She laughs at the triviality of her early concerns, stating, “The truth is, once I got into it, I wrote some of the book in the back of a car in Ethiopia, I wrote many things on planes, I wrote in my friend’s kitchen in Lawrence, Kansas, I wrote in what used to be my bedroom in my mom’s house that she turned into an office. I wrote everywhere. You just show up to the page, or to the computer as it were.”
Although her discipline to write was successful, Simran admits that she broke all the rules that may be recommended to authors. She calls her book-writing process “wild”, foregoing outlines and citation managers for multiple, lengthy word documents and hundreds of open tabs on her computer.
Notwithstanding the arduous process of writing, Simran’s determination to produce something of meaning allowed her to jump the many hurdles that she encountered. She explains, “I spent 5 years on 6 continents writing my book. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I cared about food.”
Simran has also boldly broken the norms of publishing to tell stories worth hearing in her most recent work with The Slow Melt. This podcast is rich with Simran’s signature voice of interdisciplinary expertise as she uses chocolate as a lens to explore economics, history, science, social justice, and the art of flavor. Simran pitched diverse stories on chocolate to multiple times to a variety of editors, only to realize that the topic that she wanted to explore was before its time. She explains, “People really wanted to focus on recipes and makers, but the story is much bigger.”
Rather than tossing her dreams down the drain, Simran decided to create her vision herself. She states with determination, “I thought, well, if I’m not going to get through the line of editors, then I’m just going to do it myself. I had a microphone from earlier days that I had been using for Air America Radio. I plugged it in, I got under a blanket, I found people who could help me, and I started the podcast.” Her bold move paid off yet again, as her podcast was awarded winner of the Editors’ Choice for Best Food Podcast by SAVEUR.
The pathway to Simran’s successful impact as a food journalist and educator has been paved by her unique, non-singular perspective of food, her determination to share her valuable thoughts, and her boldness to go against the grain of publishing in order to produce tangible meaning in food, sustainability, and social change.
You can read more from Lacey at LaceyGibson.com.