As a young girl in Detroit, Jamila Robinson grew up studying the violin and hoping to become a journalist — ideally combining the two as a classical-music critic.
Classical-music critics’ jobs are few and far between, and Robinson joined her hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, as a copy editor and page designer. This led to pop-music writing and, later, editing the food section. “I thought that there was so much beauty and energy in the food section,” Robinson said. “It became the thing I love the most, besides music. Over the course of my career, it has become my passion because of how much I care about local news and journalism. I’ve always found food to be a pathway to getting incredible stories out of people.”
The Inquirer Jan. 8 announced the hiring of Robinson as its food editor, effective Feb. 3. She will relocate to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., where she was editorial director for Atlantic 57, the creative and consulting division of The Atlantic. Previously, she managed content development for USA Today Network’s Wine & Food Experience, a 12-city tour of food festivals curated from the stories and reviews from local journalists. She also was a senior editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she oversaw food coverage.
At The Inquirer, Robinson will take on a broad job description.
In addition to assigning and editing articles, she expects to write (she has a lovely story in January’s Food & Wine magazine that answers the question, “What does comfort food taste like?”) as well as lead new endeavors that connect to readers, particularly events. The Inquirer will host its first-ever food festival this fall.
Jenn Ladd, a native of Elkins Park who has overseen Inquirer food coverage since last summer, will become food writer. She previously was managing editor at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, a national food publication that produces a bimonthly magazine, cookbooks, a TV series, and a public radio program.
Robinson — say her first name “Jah-MEE-lah” and know that she carries an EpiPen because of a peanut allergy — has led workshops for food writers on digital strategy and sponsored content at the Society for Features Journalists, James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Summit, and the National Food Writers’ Symposium. She has presented on enterprise storytelling, dining guides, mobile products, and community involvement to National Association of Black Journalists and Online News Association conferences. She also is the incoming chair of the Beard’s journalism committee, which organizes the prestigious media awards.
She enjoys entertaining (“even as an introvert”), and her love of baking lemon tarts and pies knows no bounds. “Pie is my love language.” She makes her own ice cream. She moonlights as a figure-skating instructor.
How did you get into cooking?
My mom’s not a great cook and so I had to learn very quickly. To take the words from Ruth Reichl, I kind of learned out of self-defense. I learned to cook from my grandmother, who spent a lot of time in a very scientific way, teaching me how to cook
Tell us about your musical past.
I started playing the violin when I was 6. I considered minoring in music in college but because I spent as much time in the orchestra as I spent at the newspaper, that wasn’t happening … I had a quartet. [laughs] I used to play in a lot of museums and cultural institutions. I had a couple of gigs as a strolling violinist in Greek restaurants. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with music, but I did want to be a journalist and tell stories. ... I was always very interested in classical music and the power of opera. There’s an opera for any emotional thing that you’re going through in life.
I was part of the Free Press’ first internship programs, and I was paired with Gary Graff, who was the pop music writer at the time. He gave me music reviews to do and I wrote one of the first reviews of Boyz II Men — there’s a Philly connection right there! Motownphilly! [I wrote] “Those kids are going to be stars.”
You skate and coach, too?
I put down the violin and picked up ice skates because I was a huge fan. I’m from Michigan and you know if you don’t skate after school, you have no friends. And I wanted to skate backwards. If I could just do backward crossovers, I could look like I’m doing something. That’s all I wanted to do. [At age 25] I decided I would give myself a birthday gift and learn to skate backwards. Once you can do that, you can turn. Once you can turn, you can jump. Once you can jump, you can do doubles. It became this way of having a pathway to fitness without running.
I put on skates when I was 25 and I was landing axels when I was 30. It became for me what my grandmother always talked about, “You’re never too old to become what you could have been.” If you want to do something, just go and do it. It’s a metaphor. If you fall down, you just get up.
My guilty pleasure is a Detroit Coney hot dog. Oh, and Popeye’s fried chicken. Snack is potato chips. Dessert is lemon tart. I love lamb or duck. I like my pasta simple. Drink is a French 75.
As the chair of the Beard media committee, what do you hope to accomplish?
Last year, I helped to start a fellowship program [with the Beard and Gannett Foundations] because we are still in a situation where most food writers are mostly white, mostly male in an industry that is 62% women. We talk about a pipeline of food writers of color. I thought it was really important for us, instead of saying, “We need to bring more people to the table,” to actually build a new table. We want to secure funding for us to start a fellowship program so that it not only gives emerging writers an opportunity to be published but it also helps them connect to the network that is the food community.
What do you know about the Philadelphia food scene?
I think that Philadelphia not only rivals cities like D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco, I think it has a network of diversity. Not only are there the institutional restaurants, there’s this emergence of different kinds of cooking. I also love places like Judy Ni’s baology because of the storytelling that comes from there. But I’m also thinking about how Philadelphia extends to Lancaster. It’s such an exciting city in terms of starting a restaurant without the pressure like D.C. and New York. I’m excited about being a part of this community.
What can Inquirer readers expect?
Readers can expect to see a real connection and an invitation to be part of the conversation. People have a lot to say. They can expect to see the joy of home cooking and entertaining. Food is the art form that we all participate in. I love seeing how other people participate in that. We want to build a community.