What to Read: Mia Billetdeaux is serving borscht for breakfast
This week, as part of our celebration of all things food on Substack, we interviewed Mia Billetdeaux. Mia writes Borscht for Breakfast, a publication that taps music, history, and culture for recipe inspiration.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Borscht for Breakfast is a biweekly newsletter that explores the nooks and crannies of culture through the lens of food.
I had three memorable borscht moments while teaching English for two years in Ukraine. Soon after my arrival, my host woke me with a call to breakfast from the kitchen of our khrushchevka, a five-story prefabricated housing project built during Krushchev’s Thaw and later mythologized as the private space needed to seed dissent in the Soviet Union. It was 6:30 a.m. and I was greeted by a bowl of red borscht and a toothy grin of pride.
Several months and bowls later, I asked students to brainstorm breakfast foods, and every list included borscht. Then, in my final spring semester, I strolled into the breakroom one Monday morning to announce that I had prepared green borscht. When a coworker inquired how I got sorrel (the defining ingredient of the green variety) a month early, the room of compassionate laughs and smug faces concluded that I had been sold wild garlic leaves in disguise.
For Ukrainians, borscht isn’t beet soup. It’s a unifying cultural marker that creeps into every aspect of life. A dish that outsiders can enjoy and attempt but never fully grasp. A food concept so strong that it becomes its own in-joke. That kind of borscht energy is what I want to capture with my newsletter.
You’ve described yourself as a “home cook with more travel points than publishing bylines.” How has travel inspired your food writing?
Travel has provided me context, both for my destination and myself. It’s not the only way to acquire it, but it makes it harder to miss. That has helped me start with a good question, which is your only hope if you want decent writing.
For example, you can enjoy a meal at the fantastic Georgian Bread in Philadelphia. You can read about the dishes served in advance, as I often do. But it’s a lot easier to understand why a dessert like churchkhela, made from walnuts and a wine production byproduct, makes sense if you can see the omnipresence of wine culture on the ground in Georgia. That same lived experience also gives you a chance to reflect on what foods are dominant where you live, and why. The beauty with food and travel is that you can drive three hours and find a new experience.
Your storytelling is just as interesting as your recipes, which isn’t always the case. Where do you get your inspiration, and what comes first—the story or the recipe?
Naturally, I read a lot of cookbooks, and when I started the newsletter I assumed it would be recipe-driven. Over time, though, I have found that more often stories lead me to the food. So then it becomes a matter of making mental space for the connection.
Watch a film that transports you to an evocative time or place. What food fits that setting? Read a book that renders an emotion raw. Which food pulls that same string? Find a good belly laugh on the internet. Can that same structure be built around a recipe? Once you have that, the race is on to jot it down and see if it still has legs when you come back to it later.
Read Mia’s post about the musician Japanese Breakfast, losing a loved one, and roasted buckwheat.
Your photos are beautiful. What’s your process for food photography?
When I started the newsletter, I was conflicted about how and whether I should create photos for the recipes. As someone who cooks from a lot of cookbooks that are over 20 years old, I know that people can cook and be inspired to cook without highly stylized photos. Yet food blogs and Instagram have trained us to believe that making tasty food requires a TV studio kitchen and six perfectly wedged lemons when you make a salad for two. So, much like the casual atmosphere emerging in certain corners of #foodtok, my photos are a reaction to that: hard bright light, removed from the subtext of an idealized kitchen, with very few props.
I shoot in the parking lot of a supper-club-era steakhouse near my home. My process is guided by the color wheel, rolls of paper from a teachers’ supply store, and a handheld DSLR. I try to work midday before the restaurant opens and aim to limit the entire cycle from plating and shooting to editing and upload in under an hour. This process has allowed me to dedicate more time to what I came for and what I hope readers are here for: the food and the writing.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
As you may have noticed in the “in between meals” section of my newsletter, I’m deeply invested in smells—partly as a cook, but also stemming from a deep love of perfume. A lot of white space remains in perfume writing, but everything that Incense and Orris has published has been a delight. When I saw longform newsletters about celebrity perfume and vetiver base notes, I thought, “Sign me up!”