Alison Roman is the “prom queen of the pandemic.” Or, at least, she was. The cookbook author and YouTube star, who rose to fame on the strength of her heady-yet-approachable recipes, low-key glamour, and self-effacing charm, recently experienced what she referred to as “baby’s first internet backlash.” It stemmed from a recent interview that Roman gave in which she criticized both minimalism icon Marie Kondo and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen for peddling branded merchandise, implying that they were sellouts — while discussing her own “capsule collection” of cooking tools, no less. A low hum of outrage greeted Roman’s choice to rebuke two women of color, then positively exploded after Teigen created a long thread on Twitter to talk about how hurt she was, as someone who “genuinely loved everything about Alison.”
The backlash to Roman’s comments, like most backlashes, was a combination of legitimate grievance and the way that Twitter refracts and concentrates reaction. All the same, there was a whiff of inevitability to the suddenness and vociferousness of the anger directed at Roman, who had become ubiquitous thanks in part to her knack for proselytizing ostensibly “ethnic” ingredients like tahini, turmeric, and yuzu kosho to a broader American audience. Roman’s critics charged that she was not only a hypocrite but a racist, one who had moreover very successfully capitalized on the ingredients of other cultures. If it felt as though people had been sitting around waiting for her to mess up, it was probably because many of them had.
Roman, after all, is arguably the most fashionable avatar of a broader shift. We are living in the age of the global pantry, when a succession of food media-approved, often white figures have made an array of international ingredients approachable and even desirable to the North American mainstream — the same mainstream that, a decade ago, would have labeled these foods as obscure at best and off-putting at worst. This phenomenon is why you now see dukkah on avocado toast, kimchi in grain bowls, and sambal served with fried Brussels sprouts. It’s a kind of polyglot internationalism presented under the New American umbrella, with the techniques and raw materials of non-Western cuisines used to wake up the staid, predictable flavors of familiar Americana.
Not long ago, you could see this playing out on the menus of hip restaurants across the country. At AL’s Place in San Francisco, squash tahini was served with burrata, sumac-galangal 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-ish” breakfast of vegetables, a sumac- and Aleppo pepper-dusted egg, and three-day-fermented labneh at Kismet. Over in Nashville, Cafe Roze put a turmeric egg in its hard-boiled BLT and miso ranch in its barley salad. Up in New York, Dimes served a veggie burger with harissa tofu and a dish called huevos Kathmandu that paired green chutney and spiced chickpeas with fried eggs.
But now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us to stay home and make the most of our kitchen skills, the global pantry is most visible on the pages and websites of establishment food media. It’s Bon Appétit’s gluten-free coconut-turmeric pie and kimchi-cream cheese toast; Food & Wine’s tofu masala and rosy harissa chicken; the New York Times’s brothy chicken soup with hominy and poblano; and Every Day With Rachael Ray’s minty matcha smoothie and Korean barbecue burgers. You can see it all over social media and particularly Instagram, where its most viral example is #thestew, Roman’s 2018 recipe for a chickpea-coconut milk stew whose broth is made golden with turmeric. And you can see it on Bon Appétit’s extremely popular YouTube channel, where its test kitchen stars make everything from saffron brittle to “dahi toast” to slow-roast gochujang chicken to spicy chicken katsu sandwiches (though it bears noting that the first two of those recipes were created by people of color).
As the culinary has become a marker of contemporary culture, occupying much of the space once monopolized by music or fashion, food media and social media have fused to create a supercharged form of aspirational desire. Within this mode of desire, however, the idea of using new, hitherto “exotic” ingredients only seems to become aspirational when those ingredients appear on the pages of prominent tastemaking magazines (or, perhaps more relevantly, on Instagram) — or are espoused by white tastemakers. Remember that time in 2018 when the author Stephanie Danler told T Magazine about her “kitchari cleanse,” explaining how the Indian dish of lentils and rice (actually called khichrhi) allowed her to “reset [her] system”? Or the time that haldi doodh took over coffee shop menus, the food media, and Instagram after being rebranded as the turmeric latte?
The question that such representations present for the food world is a difficult one: Who gets to use the global pantry or introduce “new” international ingredients to a Western audience? And behind that is an even more uncomfortable query: Can the aspiration that has become central to the culinary arts ever not be white?
Because the aesthetics of food media are indeed white. That white aesthetic is not, strictly speaking, the abundant natural light, ceramic plates, strategically scattered handfuls of fresh herbs, pastel dining rooms, artisan knives, or even the butcher diagram tattoos that the food media so loves to fetishize. It is more accurate to say that the way we define what is contemporary and fashionable in food is tied to whiteness as a cultural norm — and to its ability to incorporate other cultures without actually becoming them.
Only whiteness can deracinate and subsume the world of culinary influences into itself and yet remain unnamed. It’s a complicated little dance of power and desire: The mainstream is white, so what is presented in the mainstream becomes defined as white, and — ta-da — what you see in viral YouTube videos somehow ends up reinforcing a white norm, even though the historical roots of a dish or an ingredient might be the Levant or East Asia. You might say whiteness works by positing itself as a default. You might also say that this sucks.
You cannot have influence without authority. It’s why well-known (white) chefs and cookbook authors have historically been so effective in popularizing global ingredients among the North American mainstream. Think, for example, 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 spread the gospel of Northern Thai cooking through the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Or of Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef and cookbook author whose restaurants and cookbooks were so effective in communicating the joys of Middle Eastern ingredients like Aleppo pepper and tahini that his influence earned its own moniker, the Ottolenghi Effect.
Each of these chefs became successful at a time before social media and the notion of viral stardom had become as all-encompassing as they are today. And, aside from some extremely boneheaded comments Bayless made regarding race and appropriation, their notoriety hinged far less on their personalities than the seductive properties of their food — and how readily their work was gobbled up by the establishment and, by extension, the white mainstream.
In today’s food media landscape, there are few more powerful authorities in the Anglo-North American food world than Bon Appétit. BA’s YouTube channel has become so viral that it has spawned memes, to say nothing of a fan account just for star Claire Saffitz’s hair (and, hey: understandable). It has almost 6 million subscribers, and its videos have collectively surpassed a billion views.
Bon Appétit’s on-camera staff is predominantly white, and the aesthetic and culinary mode of the channel feels similar to a lot of contemporary food media: attractive, mostly millennial people wearing bespoke aprons make vibrant, casually elegant, well-lit food that balances approachability with technique and/or fancy ingredients.
It was an aesthetic developed on the glossy pages of the Condé Nast magazine. When editor Adam Rapoport came over to BA from GQ in 2010, he was tasked with reinventing the publication one year after Gourmet folded. It was neatly symbolic: As one bastion of high-end food disappeared, another announced itself as the wave of the future. Rapoport imported a particular style to BA from his previous gig: cool but unfussy, effortless but only superficially so. It’s a mix that has occasionally gotten the magazine into trouble — see, for example, its website’s (since deleted) 2016 “Pho Is the New Ramen” video, in which a white chef told viewers exactly how they should eat the Vietnamese dish. Today, it allows BA to teach its readers how to reverse-sear steak or carve $1,500 legs of ham, but also make mac and cheese or the perfect vodka soda. The foods it chooses to cast in the spotlight illustrate the way in which authority grants legitimacy. If BA is using sumac on eggs, or dashi powder in porridge, it means it’s time for you to use those things as well.
But if desire, expertise, and charm work magic in food media, then perhaps it’s no coincidence that the globalization of the pantry has found its viral apotheosis in Alison Roman. An erstwhile pastry chef who worked in the Bon Appétit test kitchen before going on to become a New York Times columnist and the author of two best-selling cookbooks, Roman’s story is one of years of hard work, viral-recipe creation, and social media savvy — at least until her recent self-own.
It remains to be seen if Roman’s comments about Kondo and Teigen coalesce into a broader or more permanent rejection (yesterday, the New York Times confirmed to the Daily Beast that her column is on temporary leave, though it declined to provide a reason why). Regardless, the lessons of Roman’s success are lasting. For one, it is impossible to talk about Roman’s influence without talking about social media, and her masterful use of it.
With 566,000 Instagram followers and legions of fans who make and then photograph her approachable, well-tested recipes — which she then reposts in her own Instagram stories — Roman is successful in part because of her understanding that social media has transformed cooking into a social experience, one that particularly resonates with millennials. It points to how aspirational desire — and the brands that tap into it, whether personal or corporate — can popularize things 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 doesn’t lie just in what she does, but who she is and what she represents to her audience. She is self-deprecatingly funny, unapologetically opinionated, and, with her signature orangey-red nail polish and bold lipstick, she projects effortless cool. As Michele Moses put it in the New Yorker, “Roman, with her crackling chicken skin and red lips and nails, is libidinous and a little bit mean.” Even Roman’s kitchen, which features prominently enough in her videos to warrant its own treatment, is undeniably appealing, and its organized clutter of Le Creuset pots and hanging plants may as well have its own Pinterest page.
Roman’s loosely white style is mainstream, contemporary food culture right now: Looking through Roman’s cookbooks, Dining In and Nothing Fancy, I noticed how every second page of beautifully shot recipes seemed to feature some “mainstream” American ingredient made new with yuzu kosho or turmeric or chile oil. But even as I found myself poring over the recipes, something felt off. It was the same thing that made the fame of #thestew, Roman’s now-viral recipe for chickpeas in coconut milk and turmeric, feel a bit weird, but also vaguely familiar to me: I know these ingredients; what are white people so excited about?
Is #thestew really just a curry? (Roman has insisted it’s not, but others beg to differ.) And are all curries just stews? It’s precisely the ambiguity of what separates one from the other that makes neat assertions of cultural appropriation unhelpful, but also lets the issue linger. Less important than ascribing a strict lineage, or, worse, the retrogressive idea of cultural ownership, is the question of whether, say, a person of color could have also made a stew featuring chickpeas and turmeric go viral. Aren’t both the perceived novelty and the recipe’s virality tied to the whiteness of its creator?
For her part, Roman feels the success of that recipe was less about her than what preceded it. Talking over the phone while on the road for her book tour several months ago, she suggested her viral success wasn’t unique. “I think if it were Padma Lakshmi or Nigella Lawson or any other person who already has a platform, it could absolutely go viral,” Roman told me. “I think the only reason the stew went viral is because the cookies did.”
Perhaps that’s true, but it does seem worth asking: If a South Asian or Middle Eastern person put forth that mix of ingredients, could it have merely been #thestew, with no other descriptors attached, or would whiteness have forced it to have a name? While it wasn’t Roman who gave #thestew its label, having a thing that draws on a variety of influences, but takes on such a generic, rootless — and yet definitive — name is precisely how whiteness works: positing itself as the norm from which all other things are deviations.
“The sad thing about my cultural background is that I don’t really have one,” Roman told me with a chuckle. It’s a line she had used before, one that evokes the same self-deprecation she employs in her videos. Peering in from the outside, one of the things that seems, well, sort of fun about being white is that way in which things can just be: “Ethnic” fashion is quirky or inventive, spirituality can be a generic mix, and cuisine can simply be food. There’s a sense, too, that the collective output of Bon Appétit takes a similarly obfuscated view: It’s just food, man. I mean, imagine the freedom.
When we spoke, Roman seemed aware of this reality, if only partly. “I absolutely feel whiteness is a factor [in my success] because white privilege is everywhere. That’s not lost on me,” she said. “But I don’t think that has to exist separately from the hard work I’ve put in to create a career for myself and a palate and flavor profile.”
It’s a comment that reads differently now, and the lengthy apology Roman issued for her comments about Teigen and Kondo suggests that she is more aware of the complex relationship between her privilege and her prominence. Still, I don’t think there is much to the idea that Roman’s success is somehow unearned, or even that we aren’t better off for it. Nor do I think that Bon Appétit comes close to the more egregious examples of appropriation and erasure; to the contrary, it increasingly seems to be doing more to educate its audience. Bon Appétit is also hardly the only powerful food media authority to grapple (or not) with whom it chooses to cast as its ambassadors of the global pantry: Scrolling through the New York Times’s cooking section’s 15 of Our Best Vietnamese Recipes and its Mexican at Home recipes, for example, it is impossible not to notice that every single byline is that of an (ostensibly) white writer. And just last week, Momofuku Milk Bar owner Christina Tosi posted a recipe on Instagram for “flaky bread” that, as some commenters quickly pointed out, looked an awful lot like paratha, an Indian flatbread.
But to recognize white privilege is one thing; to actively combat it or resist taking advantage of it is something else altogether. That balance between competing and contradictory ideas is a useful way to think about food media in 2020. It doesn’t help to say that certain people own ingredients, or have dominion over certain types or presentations or techniques. But the way that excitement over particular trends and recipes circulates publicly, whether on Instagram or in Bon Appétit, can reinforce whiteness as a norm, just as divorcing history from food erases the contributions and lives of people of color from Western narratives. When whiteness is allowed to function as if it weren’t that, it hurts us all.
During our interview, Roman pointed out that many home kitchens, particularly in places like the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, now feature such previously so-called exotic ingredients as anchovies, soy sauce, and Aleppo pepper. “The modern way we cook now integrates so many different ingredients that come from so many different places, and I think that’s fucking awesome,” she said.
That seems quite correct, and the last thing anyone should argue is that people shouldn’t use an ingredient in their own home for some abstract fear of “theft.” Instead, the question here is much less about what we do in private than what public representation does and means: if or why it matters when a white person popularizes ghee, or Nashville hot chicken becomes a big thing but the work of African-American cooks and chefs is still 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’s not to say things aren’t changing. It felt symbolic that last year’s BA Thanksgiving extravaganza featured Rick Martinez’s self-described “Mexican-ish” take on stuffing. Fan favorite Andy Baraghani now draws on his Iranian heritage in some dishes, particularly after coming to terms with how he suppressed both his ethnic identity and sexuality. And BA’s more recent hires include Sohla El-Waylly and Priya Krishna, the latter of whom used her profile at BA to augment the launch of her book Indian-ish, a collection of, um, Indian-ish recipes that to my mind is pleasingly inauthentic. In fighting to get their recipes featured, all of these cooks from nonwhite backgrounds are doing the hard work of representation.
Yet Krishna herself believes there is still a long way to go. “I have been told so many times that my Indian food isn’t click-y, that it won’t get page views,” she says in an email, “and then I see white cooks and chefs making dishes that are rooted in Indian techniques and flavors, calling it something different, and getting a lot of attention.”
Her experience speaks to the assumption that food media’s readership is always white, as if the audience is unfamiliar with or intimidated by what, to many of them — to us — are in fact quite ordinary things. “I love that people’s pantries are getting more global,” says Krishna, “but I do hope that when people cook with them, they take the time to educate themselves about the origin of these ingredients, rather than treating them as ingredients in a vacuum, divorced of their context.”
The idea that we need to pay attention to where things come from is certainly true, but it’s a mantra that can take you only so far: If cultural forces like BA or Roman are necessary to popularize new-to-white-people ingredients, then only part of that dynamic changes. In the attention economy, those who garner attention will always have more sway, and even in 2020, the collective unconscious wants what it wants.
What is it that actually captures attention, then? At least one thing is the subconscious desire to emulate BA’s authority or Roman’s cool. In aspiration, desire matters. But that leaves me with another question, one that stalks my thoughts a lot of the time: What might nonwhite aspiration look like?
Thankfully, we already have one answer: Samin Nosrat. Her warmth and seemingly limitless charm, coupled with her encyclopedic knowledge of food, has endeared her to many, and her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a No. 1 New York Times best-seller that became a Netflix series. Nosrat jumps between cultural influences frequently, particularly her own Persian heritage, and her generous, open approach to both food and people has done much to expand the conversation. As Jenny G. Zhang noted on Eater, the image of Nosrat eating with gusto throughout the Netflix series changed the rules for who gets to eat on TV.
Yet Nosrat’s success isn’t only about who she is inherently, but her ability to bridge worlds, to speak about and make comprehensible to the mainstream the assumed difference of minorities and the places and cultures they come from. To paraphrase postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, it’s indicative of the way in which minorities must contort themselves to ever have any power: They have to manifest it in ways recognizable to those who hold it.
The only way that changes is representation. “As long as staffs of food websites and publications are mostly white, and as long as the leadership of food websites and publications is mostly white,” Krishna says, “everything other than 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 those in the mainstream to cherry-pick the aspects of whatever culture they happen to like that week. Actual change, then, comes up against a difficult paradox: We need to pay attention to where things come from, to focus on their difference, but in order to overcome both fetishization and exploitation, the foreign needs to become domestic.
Rather than simply having people who look like us on our screens or pages, our definition of what is shared needs to change. The polyglot culinary vocabulary that Roman and Krishna evoke must represent a genuine expansion of how we understand food and flavor and, sometimes, culture, too. More simply, real change only happens when the thing that white supremacists fear becomes true: that the mainstream increasingly becomes rather than simply appropriates the “ethnic.” But to speak of a mainstream North American culture that isn’t neatly “white” in both its logic and its aesthetics is to envision something that doesn’t yet exist, and that we don’t know how to articulate.
In the meantime, I find myself searching for food media that reflects me. Yes, as a North American urbanite with a global pantry and a New York Times subscription, Roman’s work certainly fits the bill sometimes. But that quest has also belatedly led me to Ranveer Brar. An established chef with experience in both the U.S. and India, he runs a YouTube channel focusing broadly on Indian cuisine, but mostly food from Brar’s own Punjabi heritage, which I share. A tall, handsome man with a wry presence in front of the camera, Brar likely has his share of fans who are drawn to him by desire, subconscious or otherwise.
But his content is also closed off to people who don’t speak Hindi, and reaffirms my lingering suspicion that some cultural difference is insurmountable: that ideals of kitchens and food and life in Brooklyn and Toronto and New Delhi are different, regardless of how the 21st century has both shrunk and intertwined the world. And it seems these divides will remain until cooks and chefs of color finally push their way into the mainstream. It’s almost as if we’re waiting for something to catch up — that the cuisines and ingredients we’ve become so familiar with now have to sort of seep into our bones, become a part of us, have stories and myth accrete in layers over time.
Aspiration is about wanting, and what I want from food media isn’t a bone thrown in my direction, but simply more: more representation, more diversity, more sense that the mainstream isn’t just accommodating me, but instead making room for me. What I want as we head 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 with a BFA in Cartooning & Illustration in 2016.
Disclosure: Chrissy Teigen is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of these shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.