Alison Roman is the “prom queen of the pandemic. Or at least she was. The cookbook author and YouTube star, who became famous Based on her intoxicating yet approachable recipes, understated glamor and self-removing charm, she recently experienced what she “baby’s first internet reaction. “It came from a recent interview who gave Roman criticizing both minimalism icon Marie Kondo and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen for selling branded items, suggesting it sold out – while discussing her own ‘capsule collection’ cookware, no less. A low hum of outrage greeted Roman’s choice to rebuke two colored women and then exploded positively after Teigen released a long thread on Twitter to talk about how hurt she was, as someone who ‘really loved everything about Alison’.
The resistance Roman’s comments, like most responses, were a combination of legitimate grievance and the way Twitter breaks off and concentrates the response. Nevertheless, there was a hint of the inevitability of Roman’s sudden and boisterous anger that had become ubiquitous, thanks in part to her talent for converting seemingly ‘ethnic’ ingredients such as tahini, turmeric and yuzu kosho to a wider American audience. Roman’s critics claimed that she was not only a hypocrite, but also a racist, who had very successfully benefited from the ingredients of other cultures. If it felt like people were waiting to mess it up, it was probably because many of them had.
After all, Roman is arguably the most fashionable avatar of a wider shift. We live in the era of the global pantry, when a succession of food media-approved, often white figures, made a range of international ingredients approachable and even desirable for the North American mainstream – the same mainstream that, ten years ago, these foods are best described as obscure and at worst unpleasant. This phenomenon is why you now see dukkah on avocado toast, Kimchi in cereal bowls, and hot sauce served with fried Brussels sprouts. It’s a kind of multilingual internationalism that is presented under the umbrella of the New American, using the techniques and raw materials of non-Western cuisines used to awaken the staid, predictable flavors of the familiar Americana.
Not long ago you saw this reflected in the menus of hip restaurants across the country. AL’s Place in San Francisco served squash tahini with burrata, sumac-galangale dressing, pickles and dukkah; in LA there was preserved Meyer lemon and lacto-fermented hot sauce in Sqirl’s sorrel pesto rice bowl, and a “Turkish-style” breakfast of vegetables, a sumac and Aleppo pepper-sprinkled egg and three-day fermented labneh on Kismet. In Rozeville, Cafe Roze put a turmeric egg in its hard-boiled BLT and miso ranch in its barley salad. In New York, Dimes served a vegetarian burger with harissa tofu and a dish called huevos Kathmandu that combined green chutney and spiced chickpeas with fried eggs.
But now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us to stay at home and make the most of our kitchen skills, the global pantry is most visible on the pages and websites of established food media. Her Enjoy your mealIs gluten-free coconut turmeric pie and Kimchi cream cheese toast; Food and wineIs tofu masala and pink harissa chicken; the New York TimesIs broccoli chicken soup with hominy and poblano; and Everyday with Rachael RayIs minty matcha smoothie and Korean barbecue burgers. You can see it everywhere on social media and especially on Instagram where the most viral example is #thewew, Roman’s 2018 recipe for chickpea and coconut milk stew whose broth is golden brown made with turmeric. And you can see it on Enjoy your mealIt’s a hugely popular YouTube channel, which the test kitchen stars make the most of saffron brittle to “dahi toast” to slow roasted gochujang chicken to spicy chicken katsu sandwiches (although it notes that the first two of those recipes are made by people of color).
As the culinary has become a hallmark of contemporary culture and occupies much of the space once monopolized by music or fashion, food media and social media have merged to create a supercharged form of ambitious desire. Within this way of craving, the idea of using new, hitherto ‘exotic’ ingredients doesn’t seem to get ambitious until those ingredients appear on the pages of prominent flavor-boosting magazines (or, perhaps more relevant, on Instagram) – or endorsed by white seasonings. Remember that time in 2018 when the author told Stephanie Danler T Magazine about her “cleaning kitchari, ‘Explained how the Indian lentil and rice dish (actually called khichrhi) enabled her to’ reset [her] system “? Or the time when haldi doodh took over coffee shop menus, the food media, and Instagram after a new brand name like turmeric latte?
The question that such representations are present for the food world is difficult: who can use the global pantry or introduce ‘new’ international ingredients to a Western audience? And behind that is an even more uncomfortable question: can the ambition that has become central to the culinary arts ever be not be white?
Because the aesthetic of food media is indeed white. Strictly speaking, that white aesthetic isn’t the abundant natural light, ceramic plates, strategically dispersed handful of fresh herbs, pastel dining rooms, artisan knives, or even the butcher’s diagram tattoos that food media is so fond of fetishizing. It is more accurate to say that the way we define what is contemporary and fashionable in food is related to whiteness as a cultural norm – and the ability to incorporate other cultures without actually becoming them.
Only whiteness can slow down and absorb the world of culinary influences, yet remain nameless. It’s a complicated little dance of strength and desire: the mainstream is white, so what is presented in the mainstream is defined as white, and – ta-da – what you see in viral YouTube videos amplified on some way a white norm, although the historical roots of a dish or ingredient may be the Levant or East Asia. You could say whiteness works by setting itself as the default. You could also say that this sucks.
You can have no influence without authority. That’s why well-known (mostly white) chefs and cookbook authors have traditionally been so effective at popularizing global ingredients among the North American mainstream. For example, think of Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef whose Mexican restaurants introduced many Midwesterners to contemporary regional Mexican cuisine, or Andy Ricker, the Portland, Oregon, chef whose Pok Pok restaurants have the gospel of Northern Thai cuisine spread through the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Then there’s Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef and cookbook author whose London-based restaurants and cookbooks were so effective in communicating the delights of Middle Eastern ingredients like Aleppo pepper and tahini that his influence earned his own nickname, the Ottolenghi effect.
Each of these chefs became successful at a time before social media and the idea of viral stardom had become as comprehensive as it is today. And, apart from some extremely stubborn Comments Bayless made about race and appropriation, their prominence depended much less on their personality than on the seductive qualities of their food – and how easily their work was swallowed up by the establishment and, by extension, the white mainstream.
In the current food media landscape, there are few more powerful authorities in the Anglo-North American food world than Enjoy your meal. BAThe YouTube channel has become so viral it has sprung up memes, not to mention a fan account just for stars Claire Saffitz’s hair (and, hey: understandable). It has nearly 6 million subscribers and the videos have been viewed over a billion times collectively.
Enjoy your mealIs the camera crew predominantly white, and the channel’s aesthetic and culinary mode resembles many contemporary food media: attractive, usually millennial people wearing custom aprons make vibrant, casual elegant, well-lit food that balances approachability with engineering and / or fancy ingredients.
It was an aesthetic developed on the glossy pages of the Condé Nast magazine. When editor Adam Rapoport came by BA from GQ in 2010 he was given the task of reinventing the publication a year later Gourmet folded. It was neatly symbolic: when a bastion of high-quality food disappeared, another announced the wave of the future. Rapoport has imported a certain style BA from his previous performance: cool but no-nonsense, effortless but superficial. It’s a mix that has occasionally gotten the magazine into trouble – see, for example, the (since deleted) 2016 from its website ‘Pho is the new RamenVideo, in which a white cook told viewers exactly how to eat the Vietnamese dish. Today it allows BA to teach its readers how to make reverse threaded steak or cut $ 1,500 legs of hambut also make mac and cheese or the perfect vodka soda. The food that puts it in the spotlight illustrates the way in which authority confers legitimacy. As BA used sumac on eggs, or dashi powder in porridge, it means it’s time to use those things too.
But if desire, expertise, and charm work magic in food media, then perhaps it’s no coincidence that pantry globalization has found its viral apotheosis in Alison Roman. A former pastry chef who lives in the Enjoy your meal test the kitchen before you get one New York Times columnist and author of two best-selling cookbooks, Roman’s story is one of years of hard work, making viral recipes and social media knowledge – at least until her recent self-control.
It remains to be seen whether Roman’s comments about Kondo and Teigen merge into a broader or more permanent rejection (yesterday, the New York Times confirmed to the Daily Beast that her column is on temporary leave, although it refused to give a reason why). Either way, the lessons of Roman’s success are lasting. First, it is impossible to talk about Roman’s influence without talking about social media and its masterful use of it.
With 566,000 Instagram followers and countless fans creating her approachable, well-tested recipes and then shooting them – which she then posts in her own Instagram stories – Roman is partially successful because she understands that social media has turned cooking into a social experience, one on its own which mainly resonates with millennials. It shows how ambitious desire – and the brands that use it, personal or business – can make things popular within that space. Oh, this is one of Alison’s recipes? I want to make it too.
Like the staff of BA, Roman’s appeal lies not only in what she does, but also in who she is and what she represents to her audience. She is self-deprecatingly funny, unashamedly stubborn, and with her signature orange-red nail polish and bold lipstick, she projects effortlessly cool. As Michele Moses puts it in the New Yorker, “Roman, with her crackling goosebumps and red lips and nails, is lusty and a bit mean.” Even Roman’s kitchen, which appears prominently enough in her videos to justify his own handling is undeniably attractive, and the organized clutter of Le Creuset pots and hanging plants might as well have their own Pinterest page.
Roman’s loosely white style is mainstream, contemporary food culture right now: looking through Roman’s cookbooks, Dine in and Nothing special, I noted how every second page of beautifully shot recipes seemed to contain a “mainstream” American ingredient that was newly made with yuzu kosho or turmeric or chili oil. But even when I found myself pondering the recipes, something didn’t feel right. It was the same thing that made the notoriety of #thestew, Roman’s now viral recipe for chickpeas in coconut milk and turmeric, a little weird, but also vaguely familiar to me: I know these ingredients; what to be white people so excited about it?
Is #thestew really just a curry? (Roman has insisted that it is not, but others beg to differAnd are all curries just stews? It is precisely the ambiguity of what separates one from the other that makes neat statements about cultural appropriation useless, but also leaves the matter open. Less important than assigning a strict lineage, or worse, the retroactive idea of cultural property, is whether, for example, a person of color could have made a chickpea and turmeric stew viral. Are both the perceived novelty and the virality of the recipe not tied to the whiteness of the maker?
Roman, for her part, believed that the success of that recipe was less about her than what preceded it. While on her book tour a few months ago, she suggested that her viral success was not unique. “I think if it was Padma Lakshmi or Nigella Lawson or anyone else who already has a platform it could definitely go viral,” Roman told me. “I think the only reason the stew went viral is because the cookies did. “
Maybe that’s true, but it seems worth asking: if a South Asian or Middle Eastern person brought up that blend of ingredients, it would have just been #stove, with no other descriptions, or whiteness would have it forced to have a name? While it wasn’t Roman who gave #thestew its label, with something based on different influences, but taking on such a generic, rootless – yet definitive – name, is exactly how whiteness works: positioning itself as the norm of what all other things are anomalies.
“The sad thing about my cultural background is that I don’t really have one,” Roman told me, grinning. It is a line she had used it before, one that evokes the same self-deprecation she uses in her videos. Looking in from the outside, one of the things that, well, seems a little fun to be white is the way things can just turn into: “Ethnic” fashion is quirky or inventive, spirituality can be a generic mix and kitchen can be just food. There is also a sense that the collective output of Enjoy your meal incorporates a similarly veiled opinion: it’s just food, man. I mean, imagine the freedom.
When we spoke, Roman seemed aware of this reality, if only partially. “I definitely feel that whiteness is a factor [in my success] because white privilege is everywhere. I did not miss that, ”she said. “But I don’t think that should be separate from the hard work I’ve done to create a career for myself and a taste and flavor profile.”
It is a comment that reads differently now, and the long apology For her comments about Teigen and Kondo, Roman indicated that she is more aware of the complex relationship between her privilege and her fame. Still, I don’t think there’s much going on that Roman’s success is somehow undeserved, or even that we’re no better for it. I don’t think so either Enjoy your meal comes closer to the more egregious examples of appropriation and disposal; on the contrary, it seems to be doing more and more to educate its audience. Enjoy your meal Nor is hardly the only powerful food media authority struggling (or not) with whom she chooses to cast as her ambassadors for the global pantry: scrolling through the New York TimesCooking areas 15 of our best Vietnamese recipes And his Mexican home recipes, for example, it is impossible not to notice that every single line is that of an (apparently) white writer. And last week Momofuku Milk Bar owner Christina Tosi posted a recipe on Instagram for “scaly breadWhich, as some commentators quickly noted, was very similar to paratha, an Indian flatbread.
But recognizing white privilege is one thing; to combat it actively or not to take advantage of it is quite another. This balance between competing and conflicting ideas is a useful way to think about food media in 2020. It does not help to say that certain people have ingredients or rule over certain types or presentations or techniques. But the way excitement about certain trends and recipes is circulating publicly, whether on Instagram or indoors Enjoy your meal, can enhance whiteness as a norm, just as separating history from food erases the contributions and lives of colored people from Western stories. If whiteness is allowed to function as if it were not, it hurts all of us.
During our interview, Roman pointed out that many home kitchens, especially in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, now contain previously-known exotic ingredients, such as anchovies, soy sauce, and Aleppo pepper. “The modern way of cooking now integrates so many different ingredients that come from so many different places, and I think that is damn great,” she said.
That seems perfectly true, and the last thing anyone should argue is that people shouldn’t use an ingredient in their own homes for fear of “abstract theft.” Instead, the question here is much less about what we do privately than what public representation does and means: whether or why it matters when a white person makes ghee popular, or Nashville hot chicken is going to be a big thing, but the work of African-American chefs and chefs is still being ignored. In the circuits of culture, there are routes to legitimacy and fame, and the problem we have in the food world is that the most reliable path seems to center whiteness again and again.
That does not mean things don’t change. It felt symbolic to last year’s BA Thanksgiving extravaganza featured Rick Martinez’s self-proclaimed “Mexican-ish” take on stuffing. Fan favorite Andy Baraghani now dips into some dishes of his Iranian origin, especially after coming to terms with how he suppressed both his ethnic identity and sexuality. And BAIs more recent recruitments include Sohla El-Waylly and Priya Krishna, the latter of whom used her profile with BA to increase the launch of her book Indian-like, a collection of, uhm, Indian-style recipes that in my opinion is pleasantly unauthentic. In the battle to show off their recipes, all these chefs with a non-white background do the hard work of representation.
Yet Krishna himself believes that there is still a long way to go. “I’ve been told so many times that my Indian food isn’t click-y, it doesn’t get page views,” she says in an email, “and then I see white chefs and chefs making dishes rooted in Indian techniques and flavors, call it something else and get a lot of attention. ”
Her experience speaks of the assumption that the food media readership is always white, as if the audience is unfamiliar with or intimidated by what, in many of them – for us – are, in fact, very ordinary things. “I love that people’s pantries are getting more global,” says Krishna, “but I really hope that when people cook with them, they take the time to inform themselves about the origin of these ingredients, rather than treating them as ingredients in a vacuum, separated from their context. “
The idea that we should pay attention to where things come from is certainly true, but it is a mantra that can only take you this far: if cultural forces such as BA or Roman are needed to popularize ingredients for newcomers than just part of those dynamic changes. In the attention economy, those who draw attention will always have more influence and even in 2020 the collective subconscious wants what it wants.
What then really attracts attention? At least one thing is the subconscious desire to emulate BAAuthority or Roman cool. In aspiration, desire is important. But that leaves me with another question, one that often stalks my mind: what could a non-white aspiration look like?
Fortunately, we already have one answer: Samin Nosrat. Her warmth and seemingly boundless charm, coupled with her encyclopedic knowledge of food, has endeared her to many, and her book Salt, fat, acid, heat is a number 1 New York Times bestseller that became a Netflix series. Nosrat often jumps between cultural influences, especially her own Persian heritage, and her generous, open-minded approach to both food and people has contributed a great deal to expanding the conversation. As Jenny G. Zhang noted on Eater, the image of Nosrat eating with gusto during the Netflix series changed the rules for who can eat on TV.
But Nosrat’s success is not only about who she is by nature, but also her ability to bridge worlds, talk about and make it understandable to the mainstream the supposed difference of minorities and the places and cultures where she to come from. To paraphrase postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, it is an indication of how minorities must endeavor to ever have any power: they must manifest it in recognizable ways for those who hold it.
The only way in which changes take place is representation. “As long as the staff of food websites and publications is usually white, and as long as the leadership of food websites and publications is usually white,” says Krishna, “anything but white food will always be seen as the other, as a museum artifact versus someone’s lived experience. ‘
Even then, representation has its limits. It’s easy for people in the mainstream to choose the aspects of the culture that they happen to enjoy that week. Real change then runs into a difficult paradox: we have to pay attention to where things come from, to focus on their difference, but to overcome both fetishism and exploitation, the foreigners have to become domestic.
Rather than just seeing people who look like us on our screens or pages, our definition of what is shared should change. The multilingual culinary vocabulary evoked by Roman and Krishna must be a real extension of how we understand food and taste and sometimes culture. Simply put, real change only happens when the thing that white supremacists fear becomes true: that the mainstream becomes more and more is becoming instead of simply appropriating the ‘ethnic’. But to speak of a mainstream North American culture that isn’t neatly ‘white’ in both logic and aesthetics is to imagine something that doesn’t exist yet, and we don’t know how to put it into words.
In the meantime I notice that I am looking for food media that reflect me. Yes, as a North American city dweller with a global pantry and a New York Times subscription, Roman’s work certainly fits the bill sometimes. But that search also led me too late Ranveer Brar. He is an established chef with experience in both the United States and India and runs a YouTube channel that focuses broadly on Indian cuisine, but especially food from Brar’s own Punjabi heritage, which I share. A tall, handsome man with a wry presence in front of the camera, Brar probably has a large number of fans who are attracted to him, unconsciously or otherwise.
But its content is also closed to people who don’t speak Hindi, confirming my persistent suspicion that a cultural difference is insurmountable: that ideals of cuisines and food and living in Brooklyn and Toronto and New Delhi are different no matter how the 21st century has the world both shrunk and intertwined. And it seems that these dividing lines will continue until chefs and cooks of color finally make their way into the mainstream. It’s almost like we’re waiting something to catch up – that the cuisines and ingredients we have become so familiar with must now permeate our bones, become a part of us, layer over stories and myths over time.
Aspiration is about wanting, and what I want from food media is not a bone tossed in my direction, but simply Lake: more representation, more diversity, more feeling that the mainstream not only accommodates me, but makes way for me. What I want when we move into the 2020s is – God – isn’t it time yet? I just want more.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture critic.
Xia Gordon is an Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator living in Brooklyn, NY. She grew up in Orlando, FL and graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2016 with a BFA in Cartooning & Illustration.
Disclosure: Chrissy Teigen produces shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater employee is involved in the production of these shows, and this does not affect Eater’s coverage.