In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: José R. Ralat.
Texas Monthly turned a lot of heads last month when it announced a new hire with possibly the best job title of all time: Taco editor. Desired by many — even ABC News deemed it a “dream job” — the gig now belongs to José R. Ralat, a Dallas-based writer and undisputed taco expert.
As founder of the Taco Trail, a blog devoted to taco reviews and intel on taco culture, and author of the forthcoming book American Tacos: A History and Guide, Ralat certainly has the resume to back up his expertise in Latinx foodways. But what people might not know is that Ralat started his career studying modern and postmodern American poetry. Here, he explains how he got from academia to taco journalism — and why he hopes his journey will give hope to other writers of color and writers with disabilities.
What does your job involve?
The job of taco editor involves writing about tacos and Mexican food in Texas through reviews, Q&As, histories, explainers, and trend pieces.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I studied poetry, specifically modern American and postmodern poetry, in college and thought I was absolutely going to scrape by as a poet. I was even asked to give guest lectures at my alma mater. I never imagined a lecture with a Russian sound poetry component could cause such a commotion in students.
But writing was always the goal. Part of my attraction to the written word is the possibility and play that exists in the subject. Almost anything is possible — just like tacos. Another part of my attraction was my belief that I wouldn’t have to talk to as many people as I might have to in other industries, alleviating stress about my stutter. Little did I know then how much time I would spend talking to people face to face and on the phone.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I entertained attending culinary school after college and went so far as touring what was then called the French Culinary Institute.
Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?
Absolutely. If I had been free of student loan debt — I’m still not free of it — I would have taken more risks in freelance writing.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first job was working the fry station at a Sonic Drive-In. I was 15, and it sucked. I also worked the counter at a fast-food Chinese restaurant. Since then, I’ve done everything from road paving to cleaning hotel rooms to working at bookstores to editing a neuropsychiatry journal.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out?
I have epilepsy that is a partial cause of my stutter. The combination of the two means that I’ve never been able to drive and have dealt head on with the frustration of getting people to listen to me, much less take me seriously, whether it be for a pitch or to convince a potential story subject that I was a legit, trustworthy writer fluent in Spanish. Just because of a stutter.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
My epilepsy and stutter have certainly been setbacks, but they are not obstacles. I’m too much of a fighter to let them get in my way.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
There were three turning points. The first was when Mark Donald, then the editor of the Dallas Observer, asked me to pitch a weekly online series about tacos. The next was when Texas Monthly restaurant critic Pat Sharpe took me on as her co-editor for the magazine’s 2015 taco issue. And the third was getting my book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, sold, researched, and in production. It’s due out next April!
What were the most important skills that got you there?
Tenacity and listening.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
I’ve been fortunate to have had several mentors, including Mark and Pat, mentioned above. But I think as important as having a mentor can be, it’s also important to have associates in the field or friends outside of the industry who have the uncanny ability of knowing when you need a pat on the back, a well-timed email pep talk, a beer, or a hug.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Listening to people share their stories. It can be downright inspirational to do nothing but listen. Falling down the rabbit hole of research is a whole lot of fun too.
What would surprise people or something you didn’t know going into your job? Why?
I wasn’t prepared for the amount of jealousy and snark coming from certain sectors of the industry, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for the amount of people who would reach out to me to say the act of a stutterer giving a radio interview was empowering.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?
Besides convincing an editor what their magazine lacked was a staffer dedicated to writing about the foundational cuisine of Texas and that they should hire me, a person of color, for that position, the coolest thing has been convincing someone they should pay me to write a book about tacos that hadn’t been written.
How are you making change in your industry?
I’m a Latino who gets to cover other Latinos and Latino foodways, especially the increasingly popular taco, in Texas. I know I’m not the first person whose job it is to write about such things, but I am the first person in Texas given the opportunity to do so with the title “taco editor.” That’s created a lot of jealousy, but I hope it’s created a lot of hope for other writers, especially writers of color and writers with disabilities.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
“An impediment is not an obstacle.” — my wife, Jessica Salcedo Ralat.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
When you’ve worked harder than you have ever worked in your life, be prepared to work even harder. But, damn it, when you need help, ask for help. There is no shame in asking for help.
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Photo of José R. Ralat by Robert Strickland.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: Camera by Dhika Hernandita; Covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; handwriting by Pongsakorn.