D.C. will lose a vital contributor to the local food media landscape when author and influencer Anela Malik moves to Northwest Arkansas on Friday after living in the District off and on for about six years. The founder of the food and lifestyle blog “Feed The Malik” championed Black-owned businesses in the food space and shared meaningful stories and recipes. City Paper asked Malik for parting words. As usual, she delivered insightful commentary on how she sees the state of local dining, food media, influencing, and her next chapter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: When and why did you start your blog, Feed The Malik?
Anela Malik: I was living abroad in Amman, Jordan, and I wanted to push myself to explore my local community so I started blogging [in 2018] as a hobby to encourage myself to practice Arabic and explore places that I might not be exposed to otherwise. It’s very easy as an American to just focus on the places that are already American friendly, where everyone speaks English. When we moved back to D.C., I was like I’ll keep it going.
WCP: What was your favorite or most impactful post you wrote while living in D.C.?
AM: My favorite was the Black-owned guide because I felt like it was an opportunity to go deeper than most guides and introduce why I thought it was important and talk about what’s included and what’s not included—all of the framing that I don’t get to control because I’m a consumer of media most of the time.
WCP: How would you describe the state of dining in D.C.? What’s going right and what needs to change?
AM: I see, still, a lot of complaints about short menus, pricing, and wait times. Or just small service blips. There are supply chain issues everywhere. Every news report is like, “We’re running low on glass bottles!” We also know that staffing is a serious concern and continues to be a challenge. We’re really getting it wrong if we focus on the minor issues instead of realizing that in the middle of a global pandemic it’s quite a privilege to have someone else service us.
WCP: You did an unparalleled job of highlighting D.C.’s Black-owned businesses and you’re behind a Black-owned business yourself. What needs to happen to position more of these folks to move from employee to owner?
AM: I’ve found that I’ve had to dig really deep and wide in my social network to find people I trust to give me advice. I suspect it’s the same for many BIPOC folks, many women starting their own enterprises. There seems to be way too much paperwork, and D.C. taxes are so complicated. Why does logging into mytax.dc.gov always take me four tries and multiple screams of frustration? There seems to be a lot of institutional knowledge that I was lacking when starting that process. I suspect that’s the case for many folks. If you don’t know someone who has done this before who can guide you … every location and every sector is different so what you find online may or may not be relevant to you.
WCP: You’ve spoken up about some of the negative, even racist, feedback you’ve gotten on social media. How did that impact your mental health and what advice do you have for others facing clueless trolls?
AM: We’re already seeing a shift where, not just myself, but so many of the creators I know are moving to platforms that they can control. That might be a subscription, it might be a Substack, it might be a Patreon, or publishing on their own websites. Social media offers reach, but little protection if you happen to be stumbled upon by somebody with nasty intentions. A lot of people are moving toward viewing social media as an important tool for whatever else they’re working on, but not their end all be all.
WCP: What does D.C. food media need to do to better serve District residents?
AM: There needs to be more diversity in food media and not just racial diversity and gender diversity, but socioeconomic diversity and people from a variety of media backgrounds. Bloggers fill a niche that traditional media often doesn’t serve and that’s not to say that traditional media is horrible, but it’s just that there’s a diversity of interests. Residents here, some don’t read regular newspapers and aren’t interested in the types of reviews, ratings, and discourse that they find in traditional food sections. Expand the definition of what we think food media is and understand that you could dramatically broaden your audience if you diversify the perspectives that you’re showing.
WCP: You’ve written about influencers and you are one. What do you make of the food influencer community in D.C. and where is it heading?
AM: I love D.C. I think influencers have a place in the food space here and are necessary. But as an influencer, I don’t think D.C. is the type of city that I could make a business and do the work I’d like to do. I wonder how many other people, who could be great contributors to the local space, feel the same way because it’s so expensive here. If you think about what influencers do, content costs a lot of money. You have a few options. You can build a platform and then make contacts with PR representatives and restaurants and get most of your food for free. No shame to anyone who does that, but that does limit what you’re exposed to because you’re primarily being exposed to people who already have PR representation. Or you can try to find other ways to fund your content creation, which is the path I’m more interested in. It’s incredibly expensive to do that and live in D.C. and continue to showcase and make contacts with people who don’t have a budget for influencers or marketing. They’re not going to invite you in. I worry that because of how expensive D.C. is, influencers in the future will be predominately White and wealthy. You’ll get from them what they mine from their PR contacts, which cater to a certain socioeconomic status.
WCP: When you come back to visit, what do you hope has changed?
AM: I hope I see in the influencer space that there are a variety of local voices that are being invited to PR events and not just the same four or five people of which there’s like one Brown person or maybe two. If I were in PR, I wouldn’t be doing my clients any favors by having this very small cadre of people I call on over and over.
WCP: Let’s talk about your next chapter. Why Northwest Arkansas?
AM: We visited and loved it. People were really friendly. There is incredible access to nature and cycling. And as a fast growing region, that means the food space there is really dynamic and also fast growing. I won’t say that it’s cheap because affordability is relative, but compared to D.C. the cost of living there is much lower. It’s not why we’re moving there, but it’s definitely a factor. We can imagine ourselves having a life there. Northwest Arkansas and places like it will probably see an influx of people who have realized how expensive city life is, especially when you’re working from home and you want an office to do work that’s meaningful but is too expensive to do in D.C. And we won a grant.
WCP: Tell me about “Magic at the Margins.”
AM: Though there’s great money in sponsored content and that type of influencer work—and I’m really good at it—I don’t really like it very much. I want the freedom to work on projects that are important and meaningful. “Magic at the Margins” is my space to do that. It’s a food-focused Patreon community where we go deeper on issues that are vital in the food space like equity and sustainability. I’ve tried to make it affordable for people, but because it’s a paid platform I use those resources to do what I’d never be able to do if I was just posting on Instagram or TikTok.
WCP: What can you say about the book you’re writing?
AM: I’m writing a book about the deep and enduring contributions of Black people to American cuisine for National Geographic. Hopefully it will be published in a couple years. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s solidified for me that those types of stories are the ones I want to tell.