Anna Maria Jakubek reports on food. But she also has a love for the weird and the vile, which ends up taking over. Her work grosses us out, but, as she explains, that’s our short-coming, not hers.
Anna Maria Jakubek:
We all have things about us so ingrained that whether we like it or not, they won’t go away. In my case, it’s an interest in bizarre, disgusting, off-putting, taboo topics. And being a journalist is great for that. I’ve covered leeches, urine, rat infestations, vomit, and I’ve even snacked on bugs. My professional body of work – it’s one big eww. As my friend Kate puts it, I’m a tiny, soft-spoken gal who’s elbow-deep in the gross. Her theory is that I’m an alien. I look at everything through an unbiased lens, as if I’d just landed from outerspace. The result: What’s gross to you is tabula rasa to me.
Like most things, that there is rooted in my childhood, or one could say “uprooted.” I grew up hopping from country to country. I was the perpetual outsider. I was born in Poland, we moved to Boston when I was four, Japan at nine, Canada at 12, and there were many short trips in-between. In the two years we lived in Japan, we visited 15 of the neighboring countries. And no matter where we were, we did as the locals do. Here’s my mum, Beata:
“In Poland we ate with forks and knives and spoons, in Japan with chopsticks, in Malaysia with our hands, and we never said that this is right or this is wrong. It’s just different.”
She and my dad Zygmunt are Polish, really Polish, going back at least 800 years. They grew up under communism and always wanted to travel but didn’t have the money or the family ties to do so. So when the opportunity came up in their twenties, they grabbed it – for themselves AND for me, their only child. I grew up travelling, because they wanted me to see what else was out there; all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Wherever we were, my scientist parents sought out the unique. In Bangkok, we visited a snake farm and watched them milk cobras for venom. In Katmandu, we saw an open-air cremation. I watched a man’s elbow crack in two and fall through the flame. I can still smell the rotten-egg stench of his burnt fingernails and hair. In Malaysia, we visited a temple where dozens of snakes slept coiled on platters, right out there in the open. And in Tibet, we went to a mountain littered with dead bodies left for the vultures to eat. I can see what’s unusual about that kind of travel now, but at the time I took it as the norm.
Here’s my dad: “We didn’t consider it gross, we considered it interesting.”
The same goes for my work now: I look for the interesting. But, as my dad points out, because of my early travels, the bar is raised high on what will draw me in.
Zygmunt: “You try to find something which is potentially interesting and since you are exposed to so many different things, something potentially interesting would have to be something from outside the boundaries of normal for you.”
My parents taught me to keep my eyes open and to look hard without judging. I didn’t always want to. But now my eyes don’t shut, and that’s a personal choice.