"Independent media is the only space where we can have new voices come up and say things that are challenging. … But at the same time, so many powerful hands need to change for a real cancellation—not of a human, not of human beings—but a cancellation of a system that is boring, and repeats the same things, and repeats the same mistakes, and doesn't allow for nuance and discussion of anything that challenges the status quo." —food writer Alicia Kennedy
Note: This episode was recorded remotely.
Food writer Alicia Kennedy joins us for a special bonus episode.
Following cookbook author Alison Roman's interview with The New Consumer, there's renewed discussion on a number of ongoing issues in the food industry—in particular, disparities in whose voices are heard, who gets access to audiences and platforms. Of course, these challenges and conversations are not new; but the high-profile controversy Alison Roman ignited when calling out fellow cookbook author Chrissy Teigen brought the issues to the forefront among a wider, more mainstream audience.
Instead of focusing too much on the specifics of what transpired following Roman's interview, Salt + Spine producer Madeleine Forbes dialed up San Juan-based food writer Alicia Kennedy (author of the weekly newsletter From The Desk of Alicia Kennedy host of the podcast Meatless, which is on hiatus) to discuss some of the problems plaguing food media.
If you missed the whole controversy, Stained Page News editor Paula Forbes (subscribe to her weekly newsletter here) has a summary:
NOTE: This transcript is only for the interview portion of this episode and has not been fully vetted for any transcription errors.
Hi. How's it going?
Great. Thank you so much for joining us on Salt & Spine today.
Thanks for having me.
Yeah, of course. So there's quite a few topics I want to dive in with you today. So let's just start with last week's controversy between cookbook author and chef Alison Roman and Chrissy Tiegen, what's now been coined as "Roman-gate."
I don't want to dive too much into the nuances of the drama and all of the backlash that happened, but more so kind of want to use it as a jumping-off point to the conversation at large that's happening in terms of the gender and racial disparities that have been happening in food for so long, and kind of why this larger conversation is just happening now.
So I just kind of wanted to hear your thoughts on when that happened - and then kind of why it seems to be white people are really just having this conversation when a large event or controversy like this happens in media.
I mean, this conversation is only happening when a large event happens because that's when people feel called out and confronted and implicated by their own maybe unconscious biases, and their own privilege and their own unchecked behavior. This is the time when people have to wonder whether they have gotten their position of power because of some meritocracy or because of larger systemic forces at work.
And so I think that that's why this conversation is happening more broadly right now. But I do think it's a mistake to say that this hasn't been a conversation in food media for quite some time. For at least the last few years, since at least maybe 2016, it's been a big topic of conversation.
But I think that the way the conversation has functioned has also been a reason for its failure to make real change—and its failure to break outside of food media. Because it's been focused on representation and this idea that if, somehow, we just put some non-white, some queer voices into the mix, then we fix all our problems, when everyone on the mastheads is still largely white, is still largely middle- to upper-class, is still largely college educated, you know. You're not changing any of the class makeup of mastheads. You're not changing the real racial or gender or sexuality composition of the mastheads. And so then you're just going to keep having these little moments—these flare-ups—when someone says something out of pocket and they apologize.
They put out a mea culpa and people maybe try a little harder to be more representative. But you know, this thing just brought to light larger problems and why the larger conversation hasn't had any real impact on the mainstream of food media and why it remains kind of a niche conversation.
And I mean, partly at the root of it is Alison Roman having been such a darling of food media and getting so much credit for her creativity and for her voice when so much of her work was derivative of Asian cuisine without giving it any sort of ... not giving it a shout out, not shouting outcultural context and that sort of thing.
And we're still seeing that. I think it was just a couple of days ago that baker Christina Tosi of Milk Bar posted a video on Instagram saying that her baking club was going to make "flakey bread" - and it is just paratha; it is the well-known Indian flatbread paratha.
So these issues are so widespread and so deeply entrenched that it will take a massive shift for anything to change.
Totally. Do you think there's some sort of fear? Of course, I think people should be crediting where they're sourcing from and actually giving name to the dishes that they're making and where they were ... the cultures that they were inspired from. But do you think that there's some fear in not sourcing and not crediting in terms of that it's almost taking away from their innovation or creativity when, once again, this was all birthed from a lot of cultures of color in the food place.
Why do you think there's just such a disconnect in terms of being like, "This is a curry" - and obviously curry is a very loaded word in itself, and I know that some people have reclaimed it and some people still people still feel finicky about it. But yeah, just wanted to get your thoughts there.
Yeah, because the food media industry is so ego-driven and, and it, because it rewards people who take credit. It rewards people who are loud and it rewards, you know, something that can be defined as "The Stew" or "The Cookies" or "The Pasta," that sort of thing.
And it's like, well, all these things have so many rich histories and go back to so many different cultures, but they get, you know, this grand name because of the ego and the personality behind it. And because there's so much money behind that ego and personality from institutions, it just keeps snowballing.
And, you know, that's a product of the same system that Alison Roman was attempting to call out when she was saying, "Oh, Chrissy Tiegen, Marie Kondo, they've sold out. They've put their names on things. They've slapped together lines of cookware, lines of housewares." And well, you know, by letting your recipes, without the proper cultural context, be referred to by these simple names, you are also, you know, making them a product and making them something you're selling along with your personality. And it rips them out of … it just becomes another capitalist product instead of part of a larger conversation in food.
I keep saying, when I'm having this conversation: Food is a conversation. Whether it's recipes, whether it's ingredients, whether it's sourcing, there's no way to get out of how you're in conversation with the larger cultures. You're in conversation with the systems of oppression. You're in conversation with capitalism—which is a system of oppression.
But you're also in conversation with all these things—with everyone else who cooks, you know, whether they're a chef in a fine dining restaurant or someone in a taqueria down the street. We're all in conversation through food, and we're all in conversation with systems through food. And so to kind of not acknowledge that for the sake of one's ego is, I mean, I think that's selling out in a way.
And it's just so important to make these broader acknowledgements. And when you don't make those acknowledgements, you're cutting off a conversation that's supposed to be had and you're making it all about you and your recipes.
Definitely. And I think the term or phrase "selling out" is so loaded, and so controversial and confusing, and everyone has their own definition for it.
And obviously I've been reflecting on this a lot—not only this incident, but just all of the disparities that have been happening in food for a very long time within race and gender and sexuality and what not.
And I still don't even think I have an answer; it's like, "What is selling out?" Is it selling out your sense of self and authenticity—like, "No, I would never have a line at Target." Or just selling out to capitalism? Do they go hand in hand? And I kind of liked that you pose that question in the article—or what you wrote in your newsletter—of "What is selling out?"
Have you kind of come to a sense of … I mean, I know you just kind of touched on it. If you're not having those conversations and, yes, maybe you can have this vintage spoon line, but if you're not engaging with those communities and bringing to the table issues that need to be highlighted in food, then essentially that is selling out.
That is, yes.
But yeah, I think it's been … I don't know if "great" is the right word, but I think it's definitely accessed a broader audience who are thinking about these questions that maybe they haven't thought about before—Especially white people, who haven't talked about these things. And especially black and brown people who have been thinking about this for a very long time.
But I've also been thinking about what happens next a lot. And the whole notion of cancel culture—I have a really hard time with it. I don't think it allows room for people to grow and actually learn from their mistakes and move forward and create change.
So, yeah, I want to know what you think—and once again, you don't have to have all the answers—but what you'd like to see happen moving forward, from both white people in food, and your thoughts on cancel culture and what that looks like in the light of this incident, and also in the larger conversation.
Right. I mean, when people say "cancel culture," I think it's funny because I just don't know who is really been canceled. Other than like Harvey Weinstein, who got canceled because he went to jail for his crimes. You know, Woody Allen, he had a book out. I haven't seen anyone really get destroyed by cancel culture—unless, Mario Batali, sure. He's persona non grata. But again, these are for absolutely criminal, horrifying offenses.
For cultural offenses, there's always a way to bounce back, especially when you're so entrenched in the power structures that govern your industry, like Alison Roman is. She's a Bon Appetit contributor; She's a New York Times contributor. These are the two most powerful food institutions in the United States. She'll be just fine.
And there are still … there are so many people who are, you know, a lot of people are having a moment of really thinking about this maybe for the first time. I did get someone commenting on my Heated piece, which is republishing my newsletter, saying, "I'm reading this and I'm thinking they're making a big deal out of nothing. But also I'm very uncomfortable and I need to keep reading."
And so I'm like, OK, well, if someone is saying that then that's probably not the only person who's saying that—and that's good. But there are still, for every commentor or reader like that, there's another reader who's like, "She just disrespected a swimsuit model. What do you care about?"
So I think Alison Roman will be fine. I think that she'll have a recipe that'll go over a little bit better than Batali cinnamon rolls. And that'll be it. I don't think the makeup on these mastheads is going to change, especially right now as the industry is going through so many layoffs.
I do think, as I said also in my newsletter, independent media is the only space where we can have new voices come up and say things that are challenging. And so it's great to see places like Whetstone Magazine, Vittles, which is a newsletter out of London, podcasts like Korsha Wilson's A Hungry Society, and maybe the only really challenging restaurant critic in the entire world, Soleil Ho, at the San Francisco Chronicle.
So the voices are coming up, whether they're in independent media or whether they've gained access to an institution. But at the same time, so many powerful hands need to change for a real cancellation—not of a human, not of human beings, but a cancellation of a system that is boring and repeats the same things and repeats the same mistakes and doesn't allow for nuance and discussion of anything that challenges the status quo.
Totally agree. And just to kind of go to a different point, but similar and, highlighting something from your article, you said, "What is it that people really want from food writing? The easy stuff or the difficult stuff? Can both happen simultaneously? If so, how? That's what I'm trying to work through to figure out where I fit and why I do this."
Which I think is totally true. We have really, I don't know, I guess fluffy or just surface-level writing sometimes and then super political. I've definitely seen people—from the people that you mentioned—crossover that.
I can't separate food from politics. I think they're totally enmeshed. There's reason for that—from how the food is grown, to the labor that goes into it, to who's making it and consuming it. I just want to hear more about if you've kind of gotten to a point of: Do we separate that or do we not separate that?
I mean, I think we don't. I think we can't. I think the examples that I bring up constantly—which people probably want me to shut up about—but it's like the Popeye's chicken sandwich moment that the culture had last year, and how uncritically it was covered in the food press. Because people wanted to eat fast food and it's again because of these issues, where people have believed that food writing and food media is a haven for this kind of white-gloved fine dining and/or out-of-reach, out-of-touch, farm-to-table things. So people, like that's the popular perception of food media. And we saw that in the response to the [Alison] Roman thing, with people being like, "Why is food writing … not doing anything about all these other issues.? Well, it is, but if you're not paying attention, then no.
But anyway, so, but the Popeye's chicken sandwich thing was such a good example because it is a fast food chain, which has extremely not good labor practices, pays low wages, sources the cheapest possible food, and this craze happened at the same time that there were ICE raids at poultry plants in Mississippi. And I'm not sure Popeye's was sourcing chicken from those poultry plants, but they were sourcing chicken from very similar poultry plants, undoubtedly.
This is where the cheap meat comes from, and now that's such a visible system, which is great. I wonder how that'll actually change the factory farm system. But there was just this total disconnect where food writers were like, "The Popeye's chicken sandwich is good!" and never critiquing that maybe Popeye's does not treat its workers well—which we also saw because, while it was such a craze and it kept selling out, people were going [and] they're treating people poorly, the employees were exhausted. There were so many viral images of Popeye's workers like on a bench outside, just totally exhausted from work that doesn't pay enough for that kind of exhaustion.
And then you have these other reporters who are doing harder news and talking about the ICE raids at poultry plants—and like never did the two ideas meet, that maybe the cheap meat that we keep elevating to this stature of "Oh, it's delicious. It doesn't matter." It's like thinking about where your meat comes from makes you a snob.
How can you promote a cheap chicken sandwich while in the same metaphorical pages of your magazine, someone is talking about lives that have been ruined. It's just such a cognitive dissonance. And so this is … I wrote a piece about this dissonance for The New Republic in February, and it's just gotten more stark ever since that piece was published.
And I keep reading more in the business section of The New York Times—to call out a specific publication—about the meat packing issues and the food system issues that we're seeing. It's all being put in the business section, not in the food section. And to quote Ruth Reichl [🎧Ruth Reichl on Salt + Spine], who I've quoted before on this and who was the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine: "You need to put the food system issues in front of the people who are cooking and shopping. Even if they do end up buying the cheap meat, because that's what they can afford, and that's what they feed their family, at least there's some awareness in their mind of treating it accordingly and responding accordingly to what's happening."
It's just this total disconnect where people who care about food are thought to not care about bigger issues and it's false and it's really troubling and in the end, it is a disruptive thing to divide these so starkly.
Totally. And it's also interesting to just think … it's so easy to blame the consumer. But if we're not creating accessibility to that consumer, what's actually going on? Obviously there are larger institutions at play who have a strategy and are presenting that information, like you said, in the business section versus the food section.
And it's like, OK, well, if I'm someone who loves food, I can't read every article in the newspaper, and I'm just going to the food section and not seeing the issues or things at play with the food industry that we really need to talk about. But how else would I see it?
So I think it's: How do we hold these institutions accountable for not putting that information in the food section versus the business section? I think that's interesting to think about. I'm like, what can I do? To feel like I have my voice heard—obviously I'm just one person, but like, it's so important.
I mean, gosh, it's funny: My mom called me yesterday and was like, "So what do you think about everything that happened with Alison Roman and Chrissy Tiegen?" Obviously, I gave her my 2 cents and what not, but she also was like, "You know, I didn't hear too much about it. I feel like a lot of it was on Twitter and I read what I could, but I didn't feel like I had access to articles on the larger conversation at play." So it just made me think, well, how could that have happened to someone like my mom?
But, anyhow, so just tying back to the article that you first published in your newsletter and then was published on Medium—about snobbism and elitism, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that kind of thing that if we're talking about these core issues or the disparities of race and gender and labor or whatnot in food, then we're snobbish. If we're talking about anything beyond, I don't know, a food experience that we're having dining at a restaurant.
I thought that was really interesting because I've obviously thought about that and definitely had people be defensive before when I brought those issues to the forefront in having a conversation, but kind of wanted to hear you expand on that.
Well, it's, it's been something that's been happening that I've been thinking about for a long time, and I was actually going to write my newsletter on Monday about that, whether Alison Roman stuck her foot in her mouth or not. It just gave me kind of a context that people could understand.
But yeah, there had been this whole big moment where people were excited about farmers markets, farm-to-table dining was a big idea. And then all of a sudden, you started reading people, taking that to task and, and mocking it, and it was no longer like, "cool." It was just people being snobs and obsessive about where their food comes from.
And that was weird to me because that's such a false dichotomy that one has to … if one's caring about where their food comes from, then one ultimately doesn't care about accessibility. And so that false dichotomy has been an obsession of mine for a while, because that dichotomy is why you'll see … like, I've read a restaurant critic be like, "The lamb was flown in from Australia, and it's so refreshing in our farm-to-table times." And this is a major food critic and I'm like, "Dude, we didn't come far enough for us to make jokes about farm-to-table and make jokes about the, carbon emissions impact of flying land from Australia to New York. We didn't make enough progress there for that to be like some sort of like… Oh, and also why does it relax you to know that your lamb is from Australia instead of from upstate New York?"
It was a very odd thing. And then we saw it also with the Popeye's chicken sandwich, where it's like, "I don't want to be a snob, so I'm going to go eat this Popeye's sandwich and I'm going to make a big deal about it, and I'm not going to ask any questions about where this chicken came from, or any of these ingredients, or whether the workers are paid fairly, and that sort of thing.
And it's like, why is it considered snobbery to be like, "Hey, I don't want to eat a chicken sandwich that is from a factory farm and was made by someone who has been exploited for their labor."
And so when that happened, I wrote this piece that I guess started this whole line of thought for me for Edible Brooklyn, where I'd been working at the time, where I interviewed someone who has a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Egg about why his fried chicken sandwich was $15 versus like the $3.99 one at Popeye's. Just like trying to understand and make very explicit the choices that that person has made to pay their workers fairly, to buy chicken that's as affordable as possible but also not from chickens that have lived on top of each other in cages with their beaks cut off and in their own shit for a few weeks until they die.
And also being slaughtered by an underpaid, usually immigrant laborer, who we're seeing now is so devalued by their employers. And so this idea that it's snobbery to care is so false and so pervasive.
And so I hope by making it explicit that these things are important … you know, people have really latched onto the line, "The coffee always comes from somewhere," from my piece. And it's because people forget that the coffee took so much work and so many people complain about, "Oh, the snobbery and the privilege of a $5 cup of coffee." It is a privilege to have a $5 cup of coffee, considering how much work goes into coffee.
And then, usually, if you're complaining, you're probably complaining in New York or Chicago or whatever—and coffee doesn't grow there. It had to come from somewhere. So it's hopefully making those explicit connections is my attempt to make sourcing not a snobbish interest but a necessary one, especially when we're living with the disastrous effects of climate change on our planet.
And so it's not snobbery to talk about these things that affect everyone.
I totally agree. Well, Alicia, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed having you on the show today.
Thank you so much for having me.