Food Media Must Work Harder to Fix Its Racism Problem

The Bon Appétit test kitchen. Photo: Bon Appétit/Youtube

Ever since I first saw the recipe, I’ve been wondering what Weeknight Pad Thai is. Or Weeknight Mapo Tofu. For anyone familiar with these two iconic dishes of Thai and Sichuan cuisine, respectively, these titles are confounding. Both are tossed together quickly in a hot pan, and would be made worse by a longer cooking process. The weeknight modifier makes no sense.

But for the editors at Bon Appétit, who published these recipes, it may serve an important function in distinguishing itself from a sea of online recipes and asserting its value: Here, weeknight is softening language, a code for “friendly” or “accessible” — and a necessary signal to its perceived audience for any dish that the magazine’s staff deems foreign, nonintuitive, and intimidating. The illusion of laboriousness, however inaccurate, affords the publication the advantage of its own supposedly easier takes. Yet while an Italian Bolognese sauce is the kind of long-simmered dish that might actually benefit from a shortcut, of the nearly dozen variations on Bolognese on Bon Appétit’s website, not one has “weeknight” in its title.

It’s something I might have dealt with as de rigueur — the accepted, if infantilizing, norm for international foods in mainstream U.S. food media, previously. But thanks to many of my peers in the industry, mostly Black and other people of color, I am no longer afraid to tell it like it is. These types of insidious cues, used throughout mainstream food media, marginalize foods that don’t fit into a Western, white-centered worldview. Taken together, they create the impression that non-European recipes need to be sanitized or policed if they are to be included at all. It’s not just pad Thai or mapo tofu, and it’s not just Bon Appétit. It’s the way a story from the New York Times, ostensibly focused on the fruit of Thailand, is centered from a Western, white worldview and casually reinforces racist clichés and ideas of otherness, as dissected by the writer Osayi Endolyn. It’s the way selecting stories to publish inevitably means selecting which stories not to publish, so certain chefs’ stories never get told, cookbooks never get published, and ideas disappear without ever getting seen.

The cues are also a clue that, for all of the apologizing and soul-searching that’s happening in food media right now, the people in charge are going to have to dig much deeper to fix the medium’s intrinsic racism.

If it wasn’t already clear, the era of readers accepting white-centric views as some sort of norm are over. Even within the industry itself, the whisper network has resorted to screaming: Tammie Teclemariam, a talented freelance food and beverage writer was among the first to speak out, and she is far from alone; Puerto Rican food columnist Illyanna Maisonet shared her experience with Bon Appétit publicly, setting an example of transparency that many former and current staffers would quickly follow. Pay discrepancy between white staffers and those who are Black or of color moved from an internal gripe to a public outcry. Even subjects of the publication’s food content, like Samantha Fore, are coming clean about the mistreatment and marginalization they endured while being covered.

But aside from a few key “resignations,” open-letter apologies, and vague promises to rethink the ways stories are approached, what’s really going to change? (Already, Condé Nast appears to be botching the shake-up, reportedly suspending a well-liked video editor who publicly criticized the company’s culture.) Now that BIPOC (a catchall term for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, popularized by nonprofits seeking justice for all those groups) food-industry members have uncovered the problems, what does change look like, in a pro-transparency, post-Columbusing landscape?

Of course, more BIPOC need to be put in positions of real power, and BIPOC industry members already have some of the answers. See Studio ATAO’s extensive Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media for a comprehensive plan that replaces the weak routine of corporate diversity efforts with specific, actionable steps and warnings. The initiative was led by Jenny Dorsey, a Chinese-American chef whose recent Asian in America dinner series railed against the limitations and expectations placed on Asian-Americans in the food industry.

This week, Joey Hernandez, a Filipino-American food writer who joined Bon Appétit as its research director earlier this year, vowed to help dismantle a tendency “for decontextualizing recipes from non-white cultures, and for knighting ‘experts’ without considering if that person should, in fact, claim mastery of a cuisine that isn’t theirs.” This will entail auditing previously published recipes in addition to careful consideration of new content.

Beyond that, we need to reconsider the way that recipes are produced and packaged in the first place. The tendency for mainstream food media is to treat recipes as inflexible formulas that are tested to perfection rather than evolving and highly subjective expressions from individuals. This is emblematic of a Western, white worldview. How many of our immigrant parents use recipes? Not mine. This is common knowledge among certain nonwhite groups, and yet it is rarely if ever acknowledged in mainstream food media. The phenomenon was recently explored in Eater by Navneet Alang, who compared people who followed recipes to a T to orthodox practitioners who took scripture literally, and warned against its follies.

For example, this attitude can lead to bitter disputes over beloved foods — just what is going on with that Weeknight Mapo Tofu recipe, which includes basil and tomato paste, anyway? — and is divorced from the deliberate choices made by the author(s) every step of the way. So publishing recipes with vague or hidden attribution (such as by “the editors” or “test kitchen”) creates a sense of authority or collective agreement that simply isn’t real. Developing recipes is a lot more like reporting than current media brands may let on, and it is not up to a white test-kitchen cook to “perfect” ideas that already work.

And as media companies crawl out of the apology and posturing phase, they should acknowledge the voices of people of color who brought media companies to them in the first place. Several reports on the Bon Appétit fallout, including the magazine’s own formal apology, either failed to mention Teclemariam and Maisonet or downplayed their crucial roles, focusing instead on Bon Appétit staff members. This, too, is erasure.

For a master class in erasing, devaluing, and distracting from detractors, see Thug Kitchen, a best-selling cookbook franchise that had been criticized by several Black writers, including Michael Twitty and Bryant Terry, in 2014. Six years later, Thug Kitchen has finally announced that it will retire the use of thug in its name. Yet its creators did not name any of the writers who expounded on this years ago, and in an Instagram post (now deleted along with its account but captured in a screenshot) they instead portrayed themselves as victims of bad circumstances and presidential abuse of the word thug.

More than anything, real change is going to require honesty and transparency that has never been part of the media industry’s culture. But there is no going back. To help curtail tomorrow’s pay-inequity scandals, look no further than Nicole Taylor’s op-ed in the New York Times, a rallying call for Black writers to share their truth and not sign nondisclosure agreements. In the piece, she mentions other Black writers who are speaking out about systemic racism they have endured, including the cookbook author Kristina Gill, who co-authored a book but was dropped from much of its publicity plans; and Tiffany Wines, who has helped lead a revolt at Complex magazine. It’s clear that pay inequity and muzzling are forms of systemic racism that are deeply entrenched in media (see Rachel Khong’s essay on discovering it at Lucky Peach). Taylor’s and others’ brave examples are rooting it out.

Real changes do not stem from finally deciding to retire tired ideas that are no longer palatable to white audiences (like Thug Kitchen or Aunt Jemima pancake syrup), or suddenly celebrating the people who have criticized them for years. What we’ll need to see from the media is a commitment to the difficult work that cannot be packaged into a snappy press release. It’s foundational change behind the scenes to create the products that audiences deserve. A more equitable food media is long overdue, but it will likely only come about gradually. Meanwhile, emboldened industry players and the public will be watching, cheering on signs of progress, and calling out every misstep along the way.

Food Media Must Work Harder to Fix Its Racism Problem