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Profile: Kae Lani Palmisano
Kae Lani Palmisano finds her voice through food
By Elyse Notarianni

Food and travel writer Kae Lani Palmisano has followed her gut around the world – trekking across the Mediterranean spice route, foraging with the Māori in New Zealand and, much closer to home, gathering blueberries in the Pinelands.

Exploring the world through food is a dream come true for the South Jersey native. And to think, it was a pack of Oreos that led Palmisano, 31, to her big break.

“Food, no matter if it’s a dish passed down from your great-great grandma or it’s found in the grocery aisle, is about so much more than what’s on your plate,” says Palmisano, the Emmy-nominated host of Check Please! Philly, a WHYY-TV show about the local food scene.

It started in 2016, when every Friday night she and her husband hosted cookie-themed livestreams featuring a glass of milk and a “dunkability” test. While munching on the milk-drenched treats, they chatted about the history of the pre-packaged snacks at hand and got into the behind-the-scenes snack company drama. (It was way more gossip than you’d expect.)

The videos blew up. By the time they stopped, the videos wracked up more than 28 million views and their Facebook following climbed to 40,000 plus.

So when USA Today’s 10Best launched a digital-first food platform, Palmisano was on their radar. A freelance writer for them at the time, she was promoted to contributing food and travel editor. Those quirky videos also led her to host Check Please! Philly, a foodie show with a fresh take on local restaurants. Each week Palmisano and 3 guests (who are not in the food industry) visit each other’s favorite restaurants and meet on-camera to discuss. The show, which debuted earlier this year, recently picked up 3 Mid-Atlantic Emmy® nominations: best entertainment program, best lifestyle program and the third, to Palmisano’s surprise, for best program host.

“I was sitting on the couch watching MTV’s Catfish and eating chips, and I had completely forgotten that they were announcing the nominations,” says Palmisano.

She credits the show’s success to the fact that, in the end, food plays such a central role in everybody’s lives.

“We all have traditions – holiday meals or dishes that celebrate milestones,” says Palmisano. “It’s so ingrained in our identities, and that really resonates with me.”

Growing up, the Berlin native was more in tune with growing food than cooking it. She has fond memories of canning fruits and making salsa from tomatoes plucked from her family garden. It wasn’t until she spent a semester in Germany during her junior year at Rowan University that she realized some of the foods she grew up eating were not staples in everyone’s diet.

“It’s so funny to travel to other places,” she says. “You think that tomato pie is a very universal thing but then, suddenly, you realize it just doesn’t exist outside of the South Jersey area.”

Palmisano set off to find the stories she found interesting, but success didn’t come overnight. She spent a few years after college working from 9-5 in the less-than-glamorous world of facility maintenance and construction marketing. By night, however, she wrote about the places she’d been and the food she discovered there.

“I wrote every article I could get my hands on – many of which were unpaid and many of which never even showed my name,” she says.

When her father died by suicide when she was 24, and her grandmother died of cancer months later, everything changed.

“I lost 2 huge figures in my life and had 2 different types of grief,” she says. “My dad’s passing felt like a loss of potential. But my grandma was feisty, and she lived the way she wanted to live. I thought to myself, ‘Do I want people to mourn what I could have become or do I want to be remembered as someone who lived life on her own terms?’”

Palmisano switched gears, deciding to fully pursue her writing career. She dabbled in different sectors of travel writing – outdoors, luxury hotel reviews – but it somehow always came back to food, and not just about how it tastes.

“When you’re writing about food, it’s important to understand where it comes from and who was involved in making it possible,” she says, “from farmers and suppliers to home cooks and chefs.”

The history helps to explain what’s on your plate today, she says, noting that the farmers who settled in South Jersey generations ago are largely the reason New Jersey is still known as “The Garden State” in 2020. But it also matters who tells these stories.

“In the past, food media has set a precedent that diverse stories are too political because race is mentioned,”says Palmisano. “When we do see it, it’s often from white writers. We often lose the history of the food and its cultural nuances which make that dish so important to the people who have relied on it for generations. It doesn’t give minorities ownership over their own cultures’ cuisines.”

Palmisano says she’s seen this firsthand, once tweeting: “I’m a mixed-race woman with an exotic name, and there have been many times where I’ve learned that people have ignored my emails because they thought I was spam. It makes me wonder how many opportunities I missed out on, how many pitches to editors were never seen because my name was too spicy.”

Now she works to shine a light on food stories we may not have heard in the past. With her guests on Check, Please! Philly, she’s sought out vegan and gluten-free comfort food at Heartbeet Kitchen in Westmont, discussed the hyper-seasonal menu at Park Place in Merchantville (and we mean foraged-from-the-forest-floor type of seasonal), and caught a glimpse of the live chickens roaming the parking lot of The Jug Handle Inn in Cinnaminson.

She’s committed to telling stories – the whole stories – of the Philadelphia and South Jersey area through their food.

“The food we eat tells a story of who we are,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.”

November 2020
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