The Big Idea with Vaughn Stafford Gray

Writer Vaughn Stafford Gray talks getting organized and asking for higher pay.

The Pitch: How Our Relationships Affect What We Eat

The Publication: The Atlantic

The Pay: $400

Writer Vaughn Stafford Gray has written about everything from cannabis tourism to turnips, mental health to macaroni and cheese

A trained chef, much of his work has focused on food. He has written for local and regional outlets in Jamaica and Canada, the two places he calls home. In a breakthrough essay for The Atlantic, he recounted the painful conflicts he had with an ex over food, and how relationships influence our eating habits

“My culture’s food was ridiculed and forbidden in our apartment, and dining out resulted in screaming matches in parking lots,” he wrote. “Yes, we were that couple.”  

Vaughn has been writing since 2005 but turned to full-time freelance writing in 2017 after stints as the engagement manager for the Toronto alt-weekly NOW and as a lifestyle contributor for the Jamaica Observer. He chatted with me from Kingston about how he landed the Atlantic essay, how it has changed what he writes, and how he’s getting close to his goal of pitching 30 ideas a month. 

Study Hall: What was your first inkling of this idea? 

Vaughn Stafford Gray: When I was a chef for the National Ballet of Canada, it was something I noticed: that couples would always check in with one person about what they were going to eat. This is going back decades. I thought it was nothing. Then I thought about, “How does my family eat compared to how I eat?” I split my time between Jamaica and abroad, and I realized I eat totally differently when I come home. So that was a rumination for a long time. 

I checked in with my friends who had gotten married: “How’s your eating going?” They’d say, “Oh, he’s no longer vegan so now we can eat together.” Or, “I buy separate dinners for both of us.” It gelled in March of 2020 right before borders closed. It got accepted almost immediately. 

My original title was “Love’s Flavor Lost, and it was only about romantic couples. It was about friends who, when they got married, changed the way they ate. I decided that, yeah, with food there is a throuple, with food as the third partner. It’s so important and something we never talk about. We talk about zodiac signs, but not whether you share your plate in a restaurant or if it’s your own. 

SH: Can you sketch out the original pitch for us? 

VSG: Well first, I talk to the editors like they’re a human being. I’m like, “Hey Sara, how are you? I noticed you have a new rescue from Mexico, how’s that going?” It’s not a cut-and-paste. 

I check in with who you are, introduce myself, and then jump into the pitch: “I’m pleased to pitch the Atlantic for the first time; I have a story I am convinced would resonate with your readers. ‘Love’s Flavor Lost’ will explore the eating habits of five couples, and how eating can create a fissure in a relationship. To back up my thesis,  I will include quotes from a sexologist, two academic journals, etc.” It is a fully thought-out pitch, but not written. 

Then I say, “Here’s a link to my website.” I used to include three writing samples and now I put one: “Here is a story similar to what I’ve pitched.” Or if it’s a subject area that’s new to me, like science, I’d say, “In case you’re wondering how I tackle topics that make you go ‘hm….’” and include an article that shows I can go off-piste and bring in something readable. 

SH: You pitched the story a couple of times, right? 

VSG: Fun fact: It was accepted by another magazine before The Atlantic and I was ghosted by that editor. Full ghosted. It would have been my first North American big-name thing in print — I would have finally broken that glass ceiling. 

They said they were tabling it in the edit meeting and they were looking to publish it the next month. I followed up seven times. After six months I was like, “OK, this is dead in the water.” 

As a Black writer sometimes you don’t have that gumption that white male writers have, where they’re like “Fuck it, I’m going to go to the next one.” You’re so concerned about burning a bridge. And you never want to be blacklisted — pardon the pun. You’re always accommodating, so you can never be called out as being difficult to work with. It can be exhausting always finding the wherewithal to be the bigger person. 

There was an editor from my daily newspaper in Jamaica. She always told me to dream bigger. I’d want to send something to the Fader or Essence. She’s like, “Aim bigger.”  

SH: Had you worked with The Atlantic before? 

It was my first time. I was saving it, but after the first editor ghosted, I was like, what kind of bigness can I aim for? I went and looked at the masthead and thought, this is a family piece. Let me hit up Julie [Beck], the family editor. 

SH: Why do you think this idea succeeded? 

VSG: My pitch letters are almost scientific. I went to a pitch writing workshop hosted by Bashy Magazine founder and EIC Sharine Taylor in 2018, after landing a decent amount of bylines. I’ll do that every now and then, because I find that you can always learn. It has really allowed me to land so many pitches. 

Before I would follow this weird… I call it the New Yorker pitch style. I would write the first paragraph in the pitch, here’s a taste of what it would look like, and I would get little to no response to those pitches. 

To write a pitch takes a couple of hours. I’m doing a lot of research. I go through and see how they tackled this topic before, when was the last time they did it, and what are the opportunities for expansion. With the Smithsonian piece I wrote on the history of Jamaican jerk, their last article on Jamaican food was like, eight years before. I go to the style guides too. I look at things like, do they use italics for the name of the publication, or do they put it in quotations? 

SH: That sounds time consuming. 

VSG: I try to have a formula that makes me more efficient. I sent my to-do list to a friend who is a project manager, and she put it in a spreadsheet. So now for every idea, I have the title, the department, the angle, and why it meets a publication’s needs. By the time I send my emails, I’ve done a lot of work already. 

I try to send 30 pitches every month for the following month. I have not hit that yet, though — the most I’ve ever done is 17. I start off with my regulars, and then I go into the newer publications. 

Maybe I send 15 and then wait for the responses, and see if I need to retool. Then I start writing and turning over pieces. I’ll be like, I have four bylines this month, that’s great. But — well, I’m still broke. 

SH: Where do you get all of those ideas? 

VSG: My mind is a wild place; imagine 456 browser tabs are open simultaneously. I find meaning in the mundane and love to tell stories of things that tend to be ignored or overlooked. Alternatively, I get ideas from Twitter threads, the comments section on Instagram, and overhearing convos. 

SH: Did this essay change as it went from idea to publication? 

VSG: When Julie, the editor at The Atlantic, responded to the pitch, she was like, “Let’s retool this and look outside of romantic relationships. Can we cut the wedding bit? Are you ok with doing that?” It helped that I only had bullet points and ideas in the original pitch. I think it took three rounds of edits, and the article got cut by 800 words. There’s a whole other piece there. 

SH: This essay seems like a bit of a turning point for you. Am I right?

VSG: It took me a while to believe in myself. I didn’t even call myself a writer until my Smithsonian story came out; that was the end of 2020. Then The Atlantic. My rates doubled — and nobody questioned it! I thought, “I could have been charging this much all the time?” I stopped doing $100 articles unless it was a topic I was so passionate about. And started going for something that was worth my time. 

SH: What’s your dream gig?

VSG: In addition to becoming the Black David Sedaris and writing a TV show as raw and honest as I May Destroy You, my dream gig would be to land features in The New Yorker and British Vogue. 

SH: How do you handle the rejection that inevitably comes with freelancing? 

VSG: I used to internalize it and think, should [I] be less Jamaican? Should I be less Black? What should I do to make myself more palatable? I caught myself two years after I started freelancing and I’m like, let’s not apologize. Let’s say thank you and move on. 

I’ve pulled stories from publications where I’ve been met with…let’s call it racial misunderstanding. I think as writers, yes, we definitely need the money, but there has to be a point where this is now in the service of honest journalism and ourselves. One editor told me, “Don’t write anything that you would look back on in 10 years and be ashamed of.” 

When it comes to Caribbean culture, people tend to pigeonhole it into what they expect it to be. I used to get into highbrow arguments — like there is one publication that has turned down every pitch I’ve sent to them. I’m no longer going to try to defend my culture. The stories I’ve been ghosted on, I ended up selling to other publications, with more prestige and more money. When you get turned down, don’t worry — that’s not your people.