In These Trying Times, we reach for the things that get us through our monotonous days. Zoom calls with family. A perfectly risen sourdough loaf. And of course, Twitter gossip about popular-but-niche food personalities. You may have seen a dust-up over the weekend involving food world ingenue Alison Roman and model, cookbook author, and “Queen of Twitter” Chrissy Teigen, resulting in Teigen locking her Twitter account, and Roman making a public apology. Allow us to distract you from the state of the world by explaining this unholy mess.
Who are the key players?
You are likely more familiar with Teigen, an Asian-American model who is married to musician John Legend. She hosts multiple TV shows, has run various food blogs for nearly a decade, published two best-selling cookbooks, and in general is a hoot on Twitter. She has built her brand on the juxtaposition of her beauty and her TMI social media persona, inspiring lists like “20 Life-Changing Things Chrissy Teigen Tweeted in 2019” that round up her various dunks on people, including her husband, and ever-relatable sentiments like “I am so stupid and so tired please stop expecting things from me.” She also yells at Donald Trump a lot.
Alison Roman is the “it” girl of the food world. She has worked as a pastry chef at Momofuku Milk Bar and Quince, and is currently a columnist at the New York Times. She has also published two cookbooks, and her recipes have a tendency to become so popular they earn mononyms like “The Cookies” and “The Stew.” Her most recent viral creation is a very good pasta with shallots and anchovies. Roman has come to represent a modern version of the “domestic goddess” archetype, demonstrating how you too can cook more with less. Her whole vibe is that of your coolest friend who effortlessly throws the best dinner parties. She has also received criticism for the way her recipes, particularly her turmeric-and-coconut chickpea stew, whitewash non-European traditions. But as fans of hers will attest, her recipes are often worth the hype.
So what happened?
In a softball interview in the New Consumer published May 7, Roman managed to piss off a lot of people. She used the interview to announce a collaboration with Material, a limited-edition capsule collection of “a few tools that I designed that are based on tools that I use that aren’t in production anywhere.” But almost immediately, she pivoted to criticizing people who leverage their popularity to produce consumer goods... just as she has.
Roman brought up Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which espouses her KonMari method of doing away with items in your home that don’t “spark joy.” Kondo’s method has been widely misunderstood by many, especially in the West, as getting rid of all your belongings, but really is more about encouraging you to only keep things you actually want. Kondo recently came out with a line of products, which Roman criticizes, saying she “decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you.”
Speaking on Kondo’s product line, Roman joked, “For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!,” something many readers interpreted as mocking Kondo’s Japanese accent. However, Roman says that she was making an inside joke about an Eastern European cookbook she owns, and Dan Frommer, who conducted the interview, says she was not doing any kind of mock Asian accent during the conversation.
Seemingly unprompted, Roman also brought up Teigen as an example of someone who’s used a bit of success to create a personal brand empire. “What Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me,” she said. “She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her.”
“That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do,” Roman, who is now writing her third book, remarked.
That seems sort of hypocritical, right?
Indeed, one of the initial criticisms was that a “capsule collection” of recreated-vintage spoons is not much different from a line of cookware at Target, and that Roman has done plenty to capitalize on her brand, including being in the middle of producing a new TV show (more on that in a second). Also, some say her claims of not making much money are a bit disingenuous, aimed to drum up sympathy for someone who is likely making at least some money off royalties and said TV show. Roman responded to this early criticism with a tweet on May 8 bemoaning “when women bully other women,” to which journalist Lauren Oyler (who had initially subtweeted Roman’s money claims) responded that criticism and bullying are not the same.
Oh please. I’m not “bullying” you, I’m saying we both know how it works and your comments misrepresent it. Sorry I generalized by saying “speaking gigs” so that my comments applied to other people as well, I should have made the subtweet more explicit by saying “content creation” https://t.co/XtRsKy1uGM— Lauren Oyler (@laurenoyler) May 8, 2020
Roman’s “bullying” claims seemed to have backed her into a corner, seeing as a large chunk of her now-viral New Consumer interview was spent criticizing Kondo and Teigen. She could have just said “branding isn’t for me” — which would have been a lie, sure, but at least would have managed not to narrow in on two women of color. The “lifestyle” space is notoriously white, and for Roman to single out Teigen and Kondo comes off as pointed, given that there are so many white people (like Gwyneth Paltrow) doing the same thing. Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo are both wildly successful and certainly not beyond criticism. But given that Roman has already been criticized for using Asian flavors in her recipes without acknowledging where those flavors came from, her use of Teigen, who is of Thai descent, and Kondo, who is Japanese, as examples of what she doesn’t want to be strengthens accusations that she needs to better acknowledge her white privilege.
Alison Roman singles out Marie Kondo / Chrissy Teigen as sellouts, yet takes no issue w/ white women capitalizing on lifestyle content, asking "Does the world need another Goop?" when reflecting on her own brand. Says a lot about who she thinks is allowed to build global empires https://t.co/HJYIvtQZBP— Michelle da Silva (@michdas) May 8, 2020
okay so alison roman having such an issue with marie kondo and chrissy teigen making money off of their passions and interest but has no problem with whatever the fuck gwyneth paltrow is doing says a lot— horrible goose (@meatl0aff) May 9, 2020
Okay, but Twitter dust-ups happen all the time. Does it get messier?
It would be one thing if Roman had nothing but Twitter goodwill to lose by criticizing Teigen’s consumerist impulses. But in a now-protected tweet, Teigen wrote of Roman’s remarks: “[T]his is a huge bummer and hit me hard. I have made her recipes for years now, bought the cookbooks, supported her on social and praised her in interviews. I even signed on to executive produce the very show she talks about doing in this article.” She later wrote, “Anyhow. now that that’s out there, I guess we should probably unfollow each other @alisoneroman.”
Did Roman at least apologize?
She did. On Twitter, Roman said she had emailed Teigen privately, but also wanted to publicly apologize. “I’m genuinely sorry I caused you pain with what I said,” she wrote. “I shouldn’t have used you/your business (or Marie’s!) as an example to show what I wanted for my own career.” She also reiterated “being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing.”
Being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing and don’t think it’s yours, either (I obviously failed to effectively communicate that). I hope we can meet one day, I think we’d probably get along.— alison roman (@alisoneroman) May 9, 2020
Teigen locked her Twitter account, and announced to her millions of followers that she is taking a break due to the drama and the abuse she received in the wake of her and Roman’s interactions. “I really hate what this drama has caused this week,” Teigen wrote, according to the Daily Beast. “Calling my kids Petri dish babies [Teigen’s children were both conceived through IVF] or making up flight manifests with my name on them to ‘Epstein island,’ to justify someone else’s disdain with me seems gross to me so I’m gonna take a little break.”
By 7:30 p.m. EST on May 11, Roman Tweeted a more extensive apology:
I’ve thought a lot this weekend about my interview and the things I said. I know this is a lengthy note (succinctness has never been my strong suit). I appreciate you taking the time to read. pic.twitter.com/3iGAyN3c9d— alison roman (@alisoneroman) May 11, 2020
“The fact that it didn’t occur to me that I had singled out two Asian women is one hundred percent a function of my privilege (being blind to racial insensitivities is a discriminatory luxury),” Roman writes. “I know that our culture frequently goes after women, especially women of color, and I’m ashamed to have contributed to that.”
So where does this leave us? Am I not allowed to make that pasta anymore?
Roman may have summoned the monkey’s paw when she tweeted, on April 7, “Dear lord please let me get through this pandemic without a backlash, my shallot pasta popularity is all I have in these dark times.” A lot of people are pissed at Roman right now, which is bolstered by a low-level resentment that’s been bubbling for some time. Some of it is the usual backlash that comes whenever anyone becomes popular. She has a cool job that she is very good at, she’s experiencing an influx of opportunity, and you probably have one friend who won’t shut up about her. Of course, some contrarians are going to roll their eyes.
But some of it is because of her refusal to acknowledge the way she borrows flavors without credit. In an interview in Jezebel last year, Roman said that, being white, she has “no culture.” White people often like to position themselves as some sort of default, and though she may not feel any particular connection to the “vaguely European” countries her forbearers came from, whiteness is indeed a culture — the dominant one. And yet a certain set of people associate turmeric and coconut milk mainly with her. Roman can hardly be solely blamed for white supremacy in the food industry, and it’s of course not as though white people aren’t allowed to cook curries. But it’s the whole picture — of a white woman making a name for herself off South Asian ingredients with which she joyfully admits she has no particular expertise, while simultaneously criticizing women of color who are making a living doing almost exactly what she’s doing — that’s so frustrating to many.
The backlash also reveals the limits of what Kristin Wong calls Roman’s “too cool to care” persona. In the New Consumer, Roman brags that she runs her own social media and communications, however sloppily. “The Internet loves authenticity and admitting you’re a creative mess who doesn’t understand business reads as authentic,” Wong writes. “By shunning how it all works, you’re raging against the capitalist machine, which only makes you more appealing to it.”
But at a certain point, Roman reached the level of fame in which her persona is at direct odds with how her life now looks. She may have begun as a 20-something clueless girl who was just really good at cooking, but now she has books, TV deals, and a line (sorry, capsule collection) of products. Any attempt at “relatability” rings false, because little about her life is relatable to most people. Her positioning of not being into the whole marketing thing reads more as a result of her privilege, not a cute quirk. “For people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, the ‘money is bad/I don’t care about success/business is stupid’ narrative just doesn’t hit the same,” writes Wong. “When you grow up with generational poverty, as so many immigrant families and marginalized groups do, you don’t have the luxury of not giving a shit about money.”
Roman’s fans will largely remain Roman fans and her detractors will likely remain detractors. Other than horrid Twitter trolls, Teigen has received an outpouring of support from cooking industry all-stars like José Andrés. I made The Cookies last week and they were pretty good.
UPDATE: May 11, 2020, 7:46 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect a new Twitter statement from Roman.
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 those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.
Disclosure: John Legend is a board member of Vox Media, Eater’s parent company.