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Jamila Robinson on Food, Tech, Words, and Brazil

The current Food Editor of Philadelphia Inquirer tells us about her journey from music critic to tech, to food, and her love for all things Brazil.

Jamila Robinson

“There are some things that people have to know: hard news and the weather, but the rest, is all about the things you want to do and how you want to spend your time”, Robinson said.

Her deep love for journalism doesn’t mean she wants to write breaking news or investigation articles. Food and cooking, travel and culture, health and fitness— lifestyle in general—will always have the superior claims on people’s affections, no matter how good or bad the economy is, rain or shine.

“People who read food stories are more likely to subscribe. Newspaper food sections are a real driver to media outlets. For some organizations, food is a way to connect with the community and build an audience”, she tells me as I take the information heart straight.

As a young student, Robinson was inclined to write about classical music, which is at the core of the entertainment business. In college, she developed a fine appreciation for pop music while writing record reviews.

Growing up in Detroit, she spent a lot of time with her grandmother, a smart woman who taught her not only to love food but to think about the science behind food, like why whipping air into a meringue adds volume.

“My grandmother was very precise about things; if you’re going to macerate a fruit, how long do you macerate it for? How long should you steep vanilla beans? Some powerful benefits stemmed from time with grandma. “I’m always looking for precision in my baking and cooking”, Robinson says.

A move to St. Luis sparked a desire to meet new people. She installed in her home a cookery system that powered connections between food and friends, inviting people over for lunch and dinner. “My house was a gathering place, and this morphed into writing about parties, home decor, entertaining and cooking”. And just like that, in her hyperactive and overly positive mind, she became the home editor for the St.Louis Post-Dispatch.

Jamila Robinson
Jamila Robinson is ready to speak at a food conference.

Cooking is her chief weapon and all the things that come with it follow by osmose, like food writing, food styling, and food science; it’s all under the same umbrella. This obsessive love for entertaining led Robinson to become the editor for several media outlets, gaining traction and snowballing an ascending career.

An Aptitude for Technology

In the late 1990s, when technology was just starting to show up in our lives, Robinson was interested not only in food but also in the advancement of computers and devices shaping the way we work.

Eventually, she moved to Atlanta and got a job at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writing the Eating In and Eating Out section, targeted to busy parents. “The challenge was not only writing about food, lifestyle, and entertaining but doing so with a very short staff. We needed to be strategic about food coverage. Not only we had to write about chefs, but also about how chefs and restaurants shaped the region as a culture that matters”, Robinson explains.

The eight years spent at the AJC was a school in itself, leading to the next train stop: The Atlantic. At the time, Eater was just coming into Atlanta; Yelp was taking over restaurant reviews, and the whole digital game was being introduced and changing the landscape by the minute. With a certain aptitude for technology, Robinson implemented social media channels for these organizations.

Jamila Robinson

“Storytelling is the way I view my career. Food is a tool to tell stories, it’s an art form that we all participate in. Whether you cook or not, you have to eat; it’s an essential part of our daily lives”.

Philadelphia InquirerOnce again, with an instinct for editorial leadership and an innate capacity to connect the many aspects of life, Robinsons began to stitch together her grand plan for the next move: food editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was about to move to Philly just as Covid19 hit back in March, which changed the logistics of the job entirely. Robinson is still living in Washington, DC while making frequent trips to Philly.

“Philly is such an extraordinary city. Each neighborhood is shaped by its different restaurants, and this is something very particular to this city. The restaurants here, really cement the community. They matter. And ever since the pandemic hit, Philly has shown to be grittyy and resourceful. Folks changed their business models overnight to adapt to this pandemic”, Robinson shares with excitement. “I have a community that cares about what I do, and this is the most important part for me”.

When you talk about food, a subject we both love deeply, you end up talking about a lot of other serious issues. Food opens doors to many things and many conversations. It creates connections and relationships. No other moment in American history could have allowed such a scope for the importance of the words being typed in editorial rooms today (or living rooms, as editors work from home). A food editor in any market plays an essential role, highlighting the restaurants in that market, how people are eating, and the culture that is shaping people’s habits.

Brazil

Robinson’s love for all things Brazil came in unexpected ways. She never studied Portuguese, never planned to go to Brazil for 10 years straight, but this is what happened after a gratifying and casual invitation to join a group of friends traveling to Rio de Janeiro.

Jamila Robinson
Robinson and friends having fun in Brazil.

One trip turned out to be a long-standing destination and a relationship with a country that sparked many different aspects of Robinson’s personality, especially when it comes to self-confidence.

“The way that people carry themselves in Brazil, especially women, is amazing. They walk around as if no one is looking, even when they are on the shabby side, not only they still wear bikinis at the beach, their extra pounds do not interfere with their attitude. Women in Brazil behave this way”, Robinson tells me.

Jamila Robinson in Brazil
Jamila Robinson discovering self-confidence at the beaches of Rio.

My theory is that women who appear to be confident of their own powers are the surest way to inspire the same confidence in others and that’s what happened to Robinson in Brazil.

“I still think about the best cachaca and the best feijoada I had in Brazil. I can smell the bean stew, how the rice was so tender. It almost brings me to tears. I still have dreams about it”, Robinson recalls and both she and I fall into a certain nostalgia for Rio. “There is something about Brazil that not even in Africa I felt this way.”

I have a suspicion about Robinson’s love for Brazil. Feijoada casts a spell. It weakens and captivates the Brazilian spirit. A glass of caipirinha might get her ready to dance and whatever it is that people do in Brazil, it always ends in samba.

Jamila Robinson in Brazil
Hat on the head, and samba on the feet.

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