The Pleasures of the Table with Tarajia Morrell
Growing up in a family where “the pleasures of the table were paramount,” writer Tarajia Morrell developed a discerning palate early on—but never thought she’d focus on food as a career. After several years as an actor, server, and restaurant publicist, a stint at the French Culinary Institute inspired her to create The Lovage, a food and travel blog, in 2010. Now, in addition to consulting at Troutbeck, a historic estate hotel in Amenia, New York, Tarajia writes about food, wine, and travel for publications such as WSJ. Magazine, T Magazine, Food & Wine, Departures, and Conde Nast Traveler. In 2018, she collaborated with the late Fatima Ali, who had been diagnosed with cancer at age 27, to write SAVOR, a chef’s memoir published in October of this year that explores the intersection between food, identity, illness, and mortality. Tarajia is also a mother—and is currently raising her one-year-old daughter, Viva, in the same Manhattan apartment she grew up in. We sat down with Tarajia to talk about storytelling, food, New York, motherhood, and her unconventional path towards finding her calling.
How did your love affair with food begin?
For me, food has always been another word for love. My mother taught herself to cook after meeting my dad, a wine savant and merchant, and she cooked nearly every meal of my childhood for me from scratch. Real meals; not tailored to a child’s theoretical plain tastes. Wholesome, certainly, but not without seasoning. I’m trying to emulate my mother’s ways with my own baby, who I am proud to say is obsessed with olives and capers, likes boquerones, and adores curried cauliflower soup!
Before finding your calling, you initially resisted focusing on food—can you talk a little about why that was, and how the other vocations you’ve had (like acting, for example) have led up to or informed what you do now?
Though I’ve always loved wine, I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a wine professional and I didn’t want to go into the family business, but it hadn’t occurred to me to consider food as a profession. In my mind, food was just about pleasure and togetherness, not work. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have wasted my 20s as a struggling actor, though the truth is also that those years—struggling, waiting around, full of frustration and a feeling of futility—were also years of hospitality, as I waitressed to make a living. I had horrible and hilarious experiences as a server in Los Angeles. Ultimately, those years have made me a much more sensitive diner and reporter. Eye contact and an authentic smile have more power than you can imagine, not to mention genuine curiosity about the food’s origins and care for the experience of diners.
You’ve said that going to culinary school showed you that you didn’t want to be a chef—why was that? What did it show you instead?
As an actor, I felt I was only getting to use such a finite portion of myself for the parts I was getting. I worried that it would be similar if I became a chef — that the backbreaking long hours and climbing the ranks would break me, whereas I have always written for myself and feel grounded and inspired by journaling, storytelling, and observing myself and others. Writing about food allows me to explore characters—including my own—through what’s on the plate; the feeling of a restaurant, the passion of a farmer, etc. I realized immediately that I wanted to tell stories through the lens of food, and happily, that is still what I am doing.
Tell us more about your blog, The Lovage. How did it begin?
In culinary school, I found myself flooded by memories. Having my hands busy with kitchen prep reminded me of years spent watching my own mother cook from my perch atop the refrigerator (the only place I could observe but be out of the way in our small kitchen). What started as my blog, The Lovage, has since become my website, where I have my writing for other platforms—but a few heartfelt old posts are still lurking there. It’s called the Lovage because it’s a wonderful, underutilized herb, but also the word itself is a combination of “love” and “age.” I’ve loved getting older. I am relieved to be free of the entanglements of youth and appreciative of some lessons gleaned later, through experience.
“Writing about food allows me to explore characters—including my own—through what’s on the plate; the feeling of a restaurant, the passion of a farmer, etc.”
Tell us about the experience of working on SAVOR with the late Fatima Ali. What's the biggest thing you took away from her and the process?
By far the biggest takeaway from working on this utterly unusual project is that life is fleeting and unpredictable, so we’d all better get busy living it; biting off more than we can chew, diving in head first, and not playing it safe. Fatima was so brave in the face of her diagnosis, but all she wanted was more life, more living, even if it was messy and imperfect. That lesson has stayed with me, and continues to inform my everyday.
What are some of the joys and challenges of living and raising a child in New York?
I am a true native New Yorker. I even live in the apartment where I was born and raised, and now my baby sleeps in my tiny childhood room, and the strange cycle continues. New York is intoxicating and maddening. People-watching on the street; getting dressed up for restaurants; long walks with lovers through ten neighborhoods in one afternoon; sexy dinners at the bar of favorite restaurants — I love my city for these things. But it’s also frightfully expensive, and the negative energy of others on the street or train can be painful and foreboding. The challenge of having Viva here is that I don’t have a lot of mother friends close by, so it’s a trek to have playdates with my friends that are also mamas. Still, to be able to take Viva to the Met and Central Park, to the farmers markets, to cook dinner with friends who’ve flocked from all over the city—it’s a gift.
How has your style evolved since becoming a mother?
I’ve predominantly worn vintage for most of my adult life, cycling through the decades. In my 20s I was anchored in the trapeze dresses and high boots of the ‘60s, channeling Edie Sedgwick and Peggy Moffatt. In my 30s, I got really into the ‘50s; now I am hovering between the ‘40s and the ‘70s.
I find vintage much harder to wear now that I am a mother. It’s fragile, and babies don’t care about that. I also need to be able to wash things easily, as two little hands are all over me all the time and I am being climbed on. This summer, I brought three DÔEN dresses with me for three weeks traveling with Viva. I wore them again and again, and could wash them and dry them in the sun. It saved me. I still felt like myself—from another era—but less threadbare romantic; more superhuman single mama.
“I’ve loved getting older. I am relieved to be free of the entanglements of youth and appreciative of some lessons gleaned later, through experience.”