Racist donuts and culturally-appropriated soup
The implosion of the food world, the politicization of everything - and why cooking lentils now requires courage
There is nothing more dispiriting than the implosion of the food world. It was once a joyous, chaotic realm peopled by tattooed kitchen staff and rebellious farmers and prim home cooks and fastidious vegetable gardeners and eccentric magazine writers, restaurant-goers, photographers and connoisseurs of food porn — all united in celebration of all that is good in the universe. And by that I mean: Cheese, chocolate, chilis, noodles, bitter greens, pork, and mangos.
But in recent years the food world has been consumed by infighting, over things like racist donuts — with an uproar in small-town Canada over the name of a local fried treat — and culturally-appropriated soup (an episode that saw a Toronto Star editor spark the social media mobbing of a pop-up broth bar owner).
I started thinking about all of this last week, after subscribing to fallen foodie Alison Roman’s Substack. Her newsletter on patio eating transported me back to the summer that I learned to really cook.
I was then a staff writer at a women’s magazine and contributing to its food section. Getting my cooking skills up to snuff felt intimidating, until a well-known chef I interviewed set me straight: “Just do what you’re f*cking told!” All you have to do is follow the recipe, he insisted, it’s not rocket science.
I proceeded to embark on one of the happiest summers of my life, touring outdoor markets, devouring cookbooks, passing hour upon hour in my tiny galley kitchen stirring tomato sauces and rolling out pizza doughs, arranging artful little salads and baking peach cobblers for a rotating cast of hungry guests. Realizing, over and over again, the power of a good recipe.
This is one of the reasons what happened to Alison Roman is such a drag — her recipes are unrivalled. I discovered them when her blockbuster Nothing Fancy came out in late 2019, and promptly booked her on the morning radio show I was working on. Truth be told, she wasn’t particularly pleasant to deal with, but she gave our host a great interview and I went on to cook her controversial, culturally-appropriated stew over and over again. And to gift her fabulous cookbook to several friends, one of whom cooked her way through it during the early months of the pandemic.
Then, in the summer of 2020, another controversy hit. Roman criticized Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo for commercialism; a social media backlash ensued, accusing her of racism. Roman was suspended from her gig as a columnist for The New York Times, and eventually parted ways with the paper, presumably after being pushed out.
I remember being pretty bummed about it at the time. And I was bummed again when I read John McWhorter’s Woke Racism, which articulates his own disappointment with her cancellation.
McWhorter had previously decided that he wasn’t going to write about race anymore. So, what changed — why did he pen Woke Racism? “It was poor Alison Roman in The Times,” he told Lean Out guest Meghan Daum on her podcast. “I love her recipes.”
He’d been going through a divorce and had been cooking for his two daughters, and had gotten hooked on Roman’s column.
“She did nothing wrong, and yet a certain squadron of people got her basically fired,” McWhorter said. “I thought, ‘That’s it. If Alison Roman can’t give me her recipes anymore because she insulted Chrissy Teigen, and that means that she’s a racist, something is deeply wrong.’ ”
Unfortunately, this is not the conclusion that the New Yorker profile, “Alison Roman Just Can’t Help Herself,” came to.
In the piece, Lauren Collins spends a mind-boggling amount of time and energy interrogating Alison Roman’s meteoric rise to fame, her fall from grace, and, ultimately, the role that whiteness played in both.
Roman grew up in California, bounced around community colleges, and finally found her place in the world in restaurant kitchens. “I loved the energy of the kitchen, and how fast people were moving, and how gruff and short with each other they were,” she told Collins.
Eventually, she moved to New York, worked in high-profile eateries, and then lucked into a job at Bon Appétit under Adam Rapoport. (Who was himself cancelled during a separate scandal over a Halloween costume.)
Over the years, Collins reports, she became known for her outspokenness: “‘In a world where everyone feels the need to be excessively polite, she’s excessively herself,’ David Cho, a business adviser who consults on her projects, told me.”
Then came The Times, and the pandemic — which thrust the home cooking guru further into the spotlight — and the social media firestorm that cost Roman her job.
To my mind, there are few things more tiresome than dragging online politics into real-world home cooking.
But if there is anything more tiresome, it is a highbrow magazine writer attempting to impose elite social mores on someone who’s spent her entire adult life in kitchens, who absolutely abhors the Martha Stewart vibe — “reminiscing about eating tomatoes at a ‘fantasy upstate house,’ she’s sure to note that it ‘definitely did not belong to any of us’” — and who has built an entire brand around rejecting all things upper crust.
Here’s a gem that illustrates the yawning chasm between the cook that Roman is and the avatar of progressive politics that Lauren Collins would like her to be:
For all her outspokenness, she is reticent on certain issues. She’ll recommend a brand of pepper mill (Unicorn), or tell you what lipstick she’s currently wearing (Lasting Passion, a “really awesome orangey-red” from mac), but she has little to say about the sustainability of tuna. “I speak to what I know,” Roman told me, adding that accessibility and affordability are also important aspects of the conversation. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not a food reporter, I’m not spending my time doing that research. How far does my responsibility extend?”
I mean, doesn’t everyone who makes a mean shallot pasta have a responsibility to expound on the sustainability of tuna?
Now, Collins does quote Roman telling Cherry Bombe magazine, “I am definitely on the quieter side of politics, but that’s mostly because of my educational level.” But Collins seems unwilling to register such humility and cut Roman a break:
As the writer Andrea Nguyen has observed, the brash, prescriptive “bro tone” that has served many a male food-world personality so well is increasingly becoming gender-neutral. Roman has been one of its premier female purveyors, rarely shying away from—and occasionally picking—a fight. “Rice has always seemed like filler to me,” she wrote in 2016’s “Dining In,” dismissing the world’s second most important cereal crop as though she were swiping left.
A fracas about rice apparently ensued, begging the question: Who could possibly care?
Is there anyone out there who genuinely believes they’ve been harmed by the fact that Alison Roman doesn’t like rice?
Here’s another pretty revealing paragraph:
Roman had been explicitly avoiding food that might revive the cultural-appropriation debate, sticking to Americana-style classics like shrimp cocktail and cinnamon rolls. The week before we met, though, she had published a newsletter titled “Gentle Lentils,” about a dish she had cooked for friends after medical procedures. “It should come as no surprise that nothing about me, including the food I cook, could be described as gentle,” she wrote. “But for those I love: I can be gentle! For those I love: I can cook gently!” She’d taken pains to provide cultural context, referring to the dish as daal. Some readers applauded her efforts. Others posted negative comments. “In my heart of hearts, I was, like, ‘You fucking idiot. Don’t cook with lentils,’ ” she told me.
Here’s a question that we all might want to ask ourselves: Does the fact that Roman has been bullied into a terror of lentils help anyone in any tangible way? Is there anything positive about the idea that cooking lentils now requires courage?
Food used to be an escape from dogma and division. It used to be a way of building bridges across cultures. It used to be about joy, and pleasure. About bonding, opening one’s eyes to others’ lives, and experiences, and tastes. About affirming a shared humanity. It used to be a way of glimpsing a different, more delicious world.
What’s unfolding now is, instead, a clash between two cultures: The working-class culture of kitchens, and the elite culture of identitarian moralism.
The food world may be packed with famous chefs and cookbook authors — but make no mistake, these people have spent an inordinate amount of time toiling away in restaurant kitchens. And restaurant kitchens are the domain of the working class.
As such, their cultural norms have little in common with those of, say, a Princeton-educated, Paris-based writer for the world’s most illustrious magazine.
Working-class spaces are more direct, more brash, more funny — and far less obsessed with manners. Which, significantly, now take the form of identity politics. Here’s Michael Lind, writing on “The New National American Elite” for Tablet:
More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races ... In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter.
I say all this with some confidence because I myself spent years working in kitchens. I started in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant when I was 14, making nachos and blending margaritas, and worked there for much of high school, and then there and at other cafes and catering outfits, on and off during university and the first five years of my journalism career, until finally clocking my last catering shift passing canapés at a cocktail party at the age of 31.
I have been a journalist for a long time now, but I spent my formative years with cooks, and as a result, suffer from the same bluntness as Alison Roman — and, I suspect, the same basic aversion to orthodoxy.
In other words: I, too, have little to say about the sustainability of tuna.
Lean Out podcast guest Amna Khalid recently released a fascinating podcast “Whose Tacos?” on the battles over cultural appropriation in food. Amna does a wonderful job, as always, of complicating the narrative. I also learned from this episode that Amna has a great lentil daal recipe — and I’m hoping she’ll share.
Lean Out with Tara Henley is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.