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‘It Was a Losing Fight to Write Anything That Wasn’t “Ethnic”’

White food writers are often allowed to be generalists, while BIPOC creators are limited to their personal histories, their cultures, and the foods their grandmothers made

Small figures wearing chefs’ coats stand in the shadows of packaged foods: ramen, beans, couscous, rice, and taco seasoning.

In this age of the cook-turned-influencer, Bon Appétit’s video content found astonishing success by capitalizing on the colorful world of the quirky characters featured in its test kitchen. In many cases, the employees’ personalities were turned into their personal brands. This strategy, actively pursued by now-former editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, piggybacked off an evolving relationship between audiences and celebrity chefs like Alison Roman, whose “authentic” lazy-girl cooking hacks jolted her into almost instant fame. Branding oneself as the creator of a viral dish (“the stew,” “the pasta”) or crafting an identity around a quirk or personality trait, all but eliminates the need for bona fide experts, allowing the internet-friendly celebrity chef to take their place.

But as the casual viewer noticed — and as stories about Bon Appétit’s corporate culture have revealed in recent weeks — it is almost always only white food writers, chefs, and recipe developers who get to adopt personas that go beyond their ethnicity. For every Brad Leone, who gets to be goofy and charming, for every Claire Saffitz, who becomes a sensation for being hyper-competitive and neurotically orderly, you have a Priya Krishna or a Rick Martinez, whose ethnicity, and the “expertise” in a certain cuisine that comes with it, is often framed as their most useful contribution to the team.

Martinez, former senior food editor and current BA contributor, was branded the “resident taco maestro” in the pages of the magazine, yet, as he recounted to Business Insider, then-deputy editor Andrew Knowlton asked if he was “a one-trick pony” for focusing on Mexican cuisine. Argentinian test kitchen manager Gaby Melian’s only solo video on YouTube is of her making her family’s empanada recipe. Fan favorite Sohla El-Waylly, who managed to veer out into more generalist territory with beloved recipes for dumplings, cinnamon buns, and even a carbonara dessert, started her career at BA talking about her riff on a family biryani recipe on the Bon Appétit Foodcast podcast and made an “updated” version of a Bengali snack, piyaju, for her first solo video. Even after expanding out of her “niche” and producing some of the channel’s most creative recipes, El-Waylly’s expertise was considered external to her identity, and — as she revealed in an Instagram story on June 8 — she was compensated as such. Other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) at BA, including contributing editor Priya Krishna and research director Joseph Hernandez, also spoke out against BA’s pay disparities and its pervasive racist culture that, as Business Insider wrote, “does not provide nonwhite employees the same opportunities on the brand’s video side that white employees enjoy.”

The feeling of being slotted into a niche is all too familiar for Martinez. “There’s this idea in food media that it’s somehow easier to cook the food of your culture because you grew up with it or that it’s a part of you,” Martinez tells me. “It completely discounts the skills that it takes to build a recipe for an American audience. To recreate or even create an homage to the original dish requires a lot of creativity, skill, and work.”

The recent changes at BA — Rapoport’s resignation, white BA staffers’ refusal to put out content until their BIPOC colleagues are paid fairly — are a start. Yet the simultaneous compartmentalizing and marginalization of BIPOC in food media goes far beyond one organization or one editor-in-chief. Allowing BIPOC to have more agency within the food media system will require reimagining the relationship white America has both to “other cuisines” and to the people who grew up on them.

There’s this perception in food media, which publications like Bon Appétit subscribe to and perpetuate, that all that nonwhite writers really want is to have their cultures represented “authentically.” But the premise of authenticity is rooted in a white gaze that selectively acquires aspects of nonwhite cultures to package as just exotic enough to remain accessible. In late June, the New York Times published a story about “Thai fruit” that frames common fruit in Thailand as foreign and difficult to understand. The week before, tofu was labeled “white, chewy, and bland” in a since-deleted tweet by Bloomberg Asia. And who can forget the infamous Bon Appétit pho fiasco, which called the Vietnamese dish “the new ramen” and enlisted a white chef to give a “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho”? Stories like these serve as reminders that foods outside of whiteness are at odds with an imagined “American” readership, for whom these foods remain distant and other.

“Our white colleagues think that we are speaking out about representation or appropriation because we want to be seen as experts on the subject,” says travel and food writer Dan Q. Dao. “[But] what we are [really] fighting is a long battle for inclusivity and equity in our workplaces.”

Those workplaces, it should be noted, are overwhelmingly white. In June, Leah Bhabha noted in a Grubstreet piece, citing a 2019 Diversity Baseline study, that 76 percent of all publishing industry professionals are white. “In my own experience, as a biracial Indian writer, I’ve never had more than one coworker of color on my team,” she wrote, “and frequently it’s just been me.” The social media age — and the branding pressures inherent within — exacerbates that experience. Social media allows for real-time feedback that makes creators accountable to an audience that often acts as ad hoc sensitivity readers for people writing about their own cultural backgrounds. Writer and chef Samin Nosrat recently tweeted her frustrations with that pressure: “Instead of criticizing the systems that refuse to allow for greater diversity and inclusion, desis, Iranians, whoever, just pile on individual cooks for our perceived failure to represent their ideal versions of their entire cuisines. (Or even more frustratingly, for failing to cook something *exactly* like maman did it back home. I am not your maman!)”

But as media writer Allegra Hobbs pointed out in October 2019, “in the age of Twitter and Instagram, an online presence, which is necessarily public and necessarily consumable, seems all but mandatory for a writer who reaches (or hopes to reach) a certain level of renown.” In curating this online presence, writers and other creators are often pushed to flatten themselves into an easily legible extension of their identity.

Like many, food writer and chef Lesley Téllez has struggled with the expectations that come with being Mexican in food media. “There’s more pressure on BIPOC to find a niche that makes us stand out,” she says. “Over and over, the faces who look like us are people who specialize in food from their particular countries or backgrounds. It sends an overt message that stepping out as a generalist is hard, and that you will not be hired as such. I have definitely felt pressure to keep non-Mexican-cooking stuff off of my social media, and my old blog.”

For all the claims organizations in food media have made of diversifying their rosters and cleaning up the more egregious offenses in their treatment of nonwhite writers, there is still an association between nonwhite writers and their ethnicity, which is treated as tantamount to other aspects of their identities. BIPOC in food media are routinely not considered for assignments about things that don’t directly relate to their ethnicity or race. “I became a food writer 20 years ago when it was not really a profession,” says Ramin Ganeshram. “Yet, despite my qualifications as a reporter, editor, and chef, it was a losing fight to write anything that wasn’t ‘ethnic.’... I was discouraged and prevented from writing about generalized food technique or profiles, despite French culinary training.”

These assignments are often handed off to white writers, who are seen as “generalists” with the ability to stick their hands into any cuisine and turn it into something palatable (or, more importantly, into pageviews). Ganeshram says, “I was directly told regarding a job I didn’t receive at a New England-based national cooking magazine that they thought of me as more of an ‘ethnic’ writer.”

Instead, BIPOC get stuck with work directly related to their ethnicities. “I’m often asked to add a cultural slant even when one does not exist,” says food writer Su-Jit Lin, “or frame things from a point of greater expertise than I actually have. It’s assumed I’m fully indoctrinated into the culture and more Chinese than American (not true — my lane is actually Southern, Italian, and kind of Irish food).” Even when chefs push back against this compartmentalization, they are turned into caricatured ambassadors for their backgrounds. Chef (and Eater contributor) Jenny Dorsey wrote on Twitter that even though she demonstrated a dish on video that had nothing to do with her heritage, the result was ultimately titled “Jenny Dorsey talks about how her Chinese-American heritage influences her cooking.”

Often, the addition of a “cultural slant” to stories leads to one of the more egregious ways that nonwhite food is pigeonholed and othered — through what writer Isabel Quintero calls a lust for “Abuelita longing.” The term speaks to the way immigrant and diasporic writers (both within and outside food media) are frequently expected to add a dash of trauma or ancestral belonging to anything they write. As a Trinidadian-Iranian chef, Ganeshram finds this association particularly limiting. “When I’ve tried to write stories about my Iranian heritage, not being a recent Iranian immigrant or the child of a post-revolution immigrant has been an issue,” she says. “The editors I dealt with only wanted a refugee/escaping the Islamic Republic story. They decided what constituted an ‘authentic’ Iranian story, and that story was based in strife and hardship only.” These markers of authenticity can only come from the wholesome domesticity presumed of the ethnic other.

The extreme whiteness of the food industry, and of food media, places undue pressure on nonwhite writers and chefs. As food writer and founder of Whetstone Magazine, Stephen Satterfield wrote for Chefsfeed in 2017: “In mostly-white communities, you become an ambassador for your race. The stakes are high, and you try hard not to screw it up for the ones behind you…. Black chefs know this well: we must validate our presence, where others exist unquestioned. And what does it mean to be a black food writer? It means that you’ll never just be a food writer, you’ll be a black food writer.”

In other words, being designated as “ethnic” chefs put far too many BIPOC working in food media in a bind. Either they work against being pigeonholed by pitching stories that mark them as generalists, but lose out on assignments as a consequence, or they double down and tell stories of their culture and cuisine, but risk being limited both career- and compensation-wise.

Martinez was aware of this predicament while signing on to write a regional Mexican cookbook. “Writing a love letter to Mexico is so important in these times, but I had to seriously consider whether it would be a career-limiting move,” he says. He chose to write the book, but others, like Caroline Shin, food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny video and workshop series, have had to push against the expectation that anything they publish will be about their ethnic cuisine. “Last year, literary agents told me that I couldn’t sell diversity,” she says. “[I]f I wanted a cookbook, I should focus on my Korean culture.” While Shin chose to start her own program as what she calls an “‘I’ll show you’ to white-dominated institutions,” it raises the question of whether BIPOC in food media can taste mainstream success without operating as spokespeople for their ethnic cuisines.

But if you continue to pigeonhole and tokenize your BIPOC employees, seeing them primarily as products of trauma or perpetuating their marginalization by refusing them fair pay and workplace equity, then your calls to diversify the workplace mean very little, if anything at all.

Mallika Khanna is a graduate student in media who writes about film and digital culture, diaspora and immigrant experiences and the environment through a feminist, anti-capitalist lens. Nicole Medina is a Philly based illustrator who loves capturing adventure through her art using bold colors and patterns.