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To Change Racial Disparity in Food, Let’s Start With Cookbooks

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Author Julia Turshen has a “recipe” to fix the system

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“Cookbooks hit you where you live,” the late author Laurie Colwin wrote. Cookbooks are where writers get to share not only our recipes, but the stories behind them and, with those stories, ourselves. Readers welcome cookbooks into their most private and intimate moments, reading them before bed and using them to create meals for loved ones. In this close access to our readers, in this cozy and secure space, cookbook authors can create connection.

Cookbooks might not seem like an obvious tool for fighting injustice. But if I learned anything from writing Feed the Resistance, it’s that a cookbook can be more than a collection of recipes: It can be a catalyst for change. It can be a way to share meaningful and challenging ideas in a familiar package. It can bring a group of home cooks together to feed people in their community. It can even be a tool to address the disparities that afflict the publishing industry.

As a kid, I taught myself to cook through cookbooks. As I got older and settled into being not just a cookbook author, but also a proud gay woman, I realized that the books from my childhood didn’t actually fully reflect me. That is why I now intentionally bring my full self to my work (including small details like titling my wife’s favorite cake recipe “Happy Wife, Happy Life Cake”). It’s one level of gratifying to know that you’ve helped someone comfortably make dinner. It’s a whole different level to hear from other women what it means to them to see the word “wife” written, repeatedly, with intention, by another woman.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets to be a cookbook author. While cookbook publishing is often seen as a safe haven for women, as we occupy so much space in it, cookbook authors, agents, editors, publicists, food and prop stylists, photographers, book designers, and publishers are exceedingly white. A 2015 “Diversity Baseline Study” surveyed dozens of publishers and found that almost 80 percent of those who work across publishing are white.

That plays out on book best-seller lists. On the Publisher’s Weekly list of 2017’s cookbooks, nearly every author in the top 10 is white. Oprah Winfrey, at No. 5, comes after Ree Drummond, aka the Pioneer Woman. Two cookbooks about the Instant Pot are in the top five; Thug Kitchen, which was written by a white couple who built an empire off of what many have identified as cultural blackface, landed at No. 3.

As author Michael Twitty suggests in his essay about Thug Kitchen, the struggle for writers of color to express their stories in cookbooks has a lot to do with packaging: not just the words in a book, but how it looks and feels and comes across. So much about creating a successful cookbook has to do with appealing recipes and stories that inspire, but the support of a publisher, professional photography, eye-catching design, and the help of a marketing and publicity team are essential.

In other words, it’s not just about who gets to share their stories — it’s also about who makes those decisions and who works with authors to turn their visions into reality.

The overwhelming whiteness in cookbooks, both historically and currently, means that authors of color are often denied a chance to tell their stories through every part of the creation process. This denial presents itself in a variety of ways, such as when Nik Sharma, the IACP award-winning blogger, photographer, and writer, was in the process of shopping his book to publishers with his agent. “We met with so many publishers who were interested,” he says. “But they were all too scared that the book would be ‘too Indian’ and, according to them, Indian books don’t sell.” (Meanwhile, there’s a seemingly endless amount of space in the market for books about a single type of pressure cooker.)

When books by authors of color do get accepted, they often discover the publisher has a monolithic approach to non-Western cuisines. Sharma’s book, Season (which will be published in October 2018), is not, and never claimed to be, a definitive text on Indian cooking. “There are a lot of people who do traditional Indian cooking, and do it so well... That’s not me,” Sharma says. After navigating many dismissive assumptions, he was able to find a publisher he aligned with; he feels indebted to his agent who he says he connected with because she’s also from an immigrant family. “She was instrumental in negotiating the book deal, and that is something a lot of POC authors need.”

Authors of color are often represented by white agents who are pitching to white editors and white publishers. Authors of color are often the only person of color in the rooms where decision making happens. In the process of meeting with agents and then multiple editors to sell his book, Sharma says he met with exactly zero people of color. Nicole Taylor, who wrote The Up South Cookbook, had the same experience, as did best-selling author and New York Times writer Samin Nosrat when she was selling Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Nosrat says that when she reflects on her experience as a cookbook author, she’s aware of her “unique capacity to be a chameleon,” meaning her ability to fit in in a mostly white industry even though her whole identity does not align. As a first-generation Iranian growing up in California, she ostensibly grew up in two worlds. “It was Iran at home and America outside,” she says. This duality helped forge what she calls a “special ability I’ve always had, for better or worse, to slip into any situation and fit in.”

Nosrat exercised this code-switching while pitching, creating, and promoting her book. “I’ve done this since my first day in the food world, which I entered at a really high level at [Alice Waters’ seminal Berkeley, California, restaurant] Chez Panisse.” And the price of this constant dance? “It often comes at the cost of repressing or suppressing my own identity,” Nosrat told me.

Another challenge authors of color face is that publishers assume their audiences are limited to people who look like them. In an interview on the Eater Upsell, Carla Hall, chef and co-host of ABC’s widely distributed and Emmy Award-winning The Chew, explained: “I talked to my publisher and she was like, ‘Well, it can’t just be for black people.’ And I’m like, Wait a minute, if I’m sharing my experience, it doesn’t mean it’s just for black people.”

For authors of color who do convince people to believe in their work and to sell it to an audience they don’t fully understand or appreciate, apprehension is a regular response. “A common part of the black experience is once you’ve reached any level of authority, it is often met with skepticism or surprise,” writes Stephen Satterfield in “I’m a Black Food Writer. Here’s Why We Need More Like Me.”

In her article “The Double Bind of Being a Woman of Color in the Food World,” writer Korsha Wilson noted that “women of color are often unseen and unheard in this industry... We have to propel ourselves forward, often with fewer resources and less investment than others might get.”

The resources and investment Wilson brings up are crucial. Making a successful cookbook requires a lot of capital. Creating beautiful images, reliable and well-tested recipes, and buzz for a book is hard work that requires time and money.

As so many authors have found when pitching their idea to publishers, a lack of willingness to “take a risk” on a book often results in a lack of financial investment, which arguably results in a lack of sales, creating a self-fulfilling circle that is the opposite of forward movement. The less money you receive to make your book, the less of an opportunity you have to imbue it with the professionalism a great cookbook requires — or, needless to say, one that stands out from the hundreds that are published each month. This isn’t only disappointing for each author who can’t afford to make their book as strong as it deserves to be, it also furthers the narrative that publishers use to turn down book proposals like Sharma’s because “Indian books don’t sell well.”

Marketing also plays a role. An author who received a low advance is not going to get the same energy and attention from a publicity team as an author who commanded a larger advance. Authors can bring on an outside publicist, but most boutique publicity firms charge at least $2,000 a month — and up to $5,000 or $6,000 per month — and require a several-month commitment up front. That’s prohibitively expensive for most writers.

With less marketing and publicity support, fewer people know about your book because less press mentions your book. (Let’s also remember that food media is just as nondiverse as cookbook publishing.) All of this culminates in agents and publishers feeling hesitant to take risks on authors they don’t see as “mainstream” because they don’t have a precedent for success.

Racial inequity in cookbooks has a large impact on the broader food community. With fewer authors of color than white authors, especially fewer prominent ones, it also means fewer notable awards and less meaningful recognition. (Keep in mind that many of the prestigious awards given to cookbook authors require the author or publisher to pay to be considered — another barrier to entry.) Fewer successful authors of color translates to fewer invitations to panels, conferences, and book festivals. It means fewer opportunities for authors to appear on television and on the radio. It means the food world continues to not accurately reflect the actual world.

And now for the good news: This accurate reflection is within our reach. The success of Nosrat’s book has changed her relationship to herself — “I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to work so hard to present myself to the world,” she says — and critically, it has empowered thousands of home cooks. What’s so important about Nosrat becoming more aligned with herself in her work is that she’s simultaneously paving the way for other authors of color. She set a precedent for new writers.

Whether you’re a cookbook author or an editor — or just someone who buys a coworker or relative a cookbook as a gift now and then — there’s something we can all do to shift cookbook publishing in a more equitable direction.

What kind of cookbook author would I be if I didn’t give you the recipe to make the thing we crave? Here are 19 things we can all do to address the racial disparities that afflict the cookbook industry and move us toward a more equitable place. There are suggested scripts throughout. (Note that the below is not limited to cookbook authors and cookbooks and is applicable for just about every industry. Just trade the word “author” for whatever you do and “book” for whatever it is you make or buy.)

1. Buy cookbooks written by contemporary authors of color (and preorder ones that are coming soon). Send a clear message to authors and their publishers that there’s a big and wide-ranging audience for their books: Go ahead and buy two copies and give one to a friend or your local library.

2. Take 15 minutes to leave positive reviews on Amazon for five authors of color. Writing a good review for a book you like is one of the kindest and most supportive things you can do for an author.

3. If an author of color is having an event near you when their book comes out, go! Bring a friend! Showing up is such a tangible way to show your support. Plus, you get to meet the author and hear about all of the things that inspire them (and there’s usually something good to eat).

4. Notice that your local bookstore doesn’t have many cookbooks by authors of color? Ask them to carry a more diverse selection. Suggest a book or two.

5. Is there an author of color whose book you love and she or he isn’t coming your way on book tour? Have some friends nearby who would also show up to see them? Help bring them to your community and spearhead an event. Speak to your local bookstore and ask if they might consider ordering extra copies and hosting a talk. Local libraries and restaurants are great locations, too. Some will even put some of their marketing budget toward an author’s travel and accommodations or sell tickets to cover the cost.

6. Attend or live near a college? Many have budgets to bring speakers to campus to talk to students and the broader community. Suggest a cookbook author of color.

7. Read and share articles written by and about people of color. Write to the editors or publishers of the article and let them know how much you enjoyed reading it — and say you hope to see more content like it.

8. Follow writers and authors of color on social media, like their photos, and leave comments. A large and engaged following is one of the most attractive things to a publisher.

9. Listen to, share, subscribe to, and leave nice reviews for podcasts hosted by and featuring writers of color. If you have something to promote, consider buying an ad on a podcast as a way to both get the word out about your thing and actively support theirs. I suggest Racist Sandwich, A Hungry Society, and Gravy to get you started.

10. If you are a cookbook author, make an effort to hire photographers, stylists, recipe testers, and publicists who are people of color. Check out Equity at The Table (EATT) for a directory.

11. If you are a cookbook author with an agent, ask how many writers of color they represent. Recommend some. If they don’t follow through, consider if you want to be represented by someone with limited views about representation.

12. If you are a cookbook author and are asked to participate in a panel or conference, ask who else will be part of it. If there is not a person of color, recommend someone. Refuse your participation if effort is not made towards decentering the event on white people. Remember that this is bigger than you. Also ask who will be attending the event and how and where they are promoting it. For example: It’s important to me to only be part of events that further inclusivity in our community — could you let me know who else you’re reaching out/who is already confirmed and how the event is being promoted? If you find out the event isn’t inclusive: I’m not comfortable being part of an event that doesn’t work to address the racial inequity in our industry. I know how much work goes into the jigsaw puzzle of planning something like this, but could you move some things around to fit in a few other participants like so-and-so?

13. Similarly, if you are a cookbook author and are asked to participate in a panel or conference and cannot attend, recommend a person of color in your place. For example: Since I can’t attend, I would suggest so-and-so or so-and-so in my place. Either of them would be a great fit, and it’s always meaningful to make events in our community more inclusive.

14. If you are organizing an event with big networking opportunities, consider who you invite and take a few moments at the event to personally introduce writers and authors of color to people who can help move their dreams along. Don’t underestimate the power of a personal introduction. This can also be done via email whenever! For example: Hey! I wanted to let you know about so-and-so who is a great person for you to know as you’re thinking about new stories, etc. Can I connect you two?

15. Think a writer or author of color might be a great fit for something (an assignment, a book project, etc.) but assume they’re too busy? Don’t assume. Ask them and they’ll let you know.

16. If you are invited to an industry event that you’re excited about, use your plus one, or ask to bring a plus one, and bring a writer or author of color. In fact, ask for two. From my fellow cookbook author Klancy Miller: “Everyone in mainstream media needs to become friends or friendly acquaintances with 10 people of color. It’s not diversity or inclusion when you see the same three or four people of color at every event. Make some new friends!”

17. Publishers: Please, please consider your budget when offering advances and do what you can to invest in authors of color in a way that allows them to create beautiful books that you will be excited to promote. Support them from start to finish during the process. Once the book comes out, the work doesn’t end. Investing in the success of their work isn’t just good business, it also moves us all forward.

18. Publishers and other food media gatekeepers: Hire more people of color! From in-house editors, designers, and assistants to agents, illustrators, photographers, and freelance writers. Not finding any? Look harder and use tools like Writers of Color, Women Who Draw, Diversify.Photo, Women Photograph, and Equity at the Table (EATT).

19. Offer paid internships, be intentional about who you hold the door open for, and take steps to make them feel welcome. Work with HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and other institutions and organizations to create internship programs.

Julia Turshen is the bestselling author of Small Victories and Feed the Resistance and the founder of (EATT), a digital directory working to make the food industry more inclusive and equitable. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her wife and pets. Ping Zhu is an illustrator and she eats food every day.
Editor: Daniela Galarza

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