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food On Media and the Idea of Advocacy

The thing about food is that everyone eats, whether it’s written about or not; knowing how to cook can be political because in times of economic uncertainty, it can sustain you not just with nourishment, but with the money needed to survive.

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When I talked to who is now the interim editor-in-chief at Bon Appétit for a piece at The New Republic, she said, of my question about whether they believe they have a role to play in covering policy changes that could make the food system more sustainable, “We’re not lobbyists.” My eyes went wide when I heard her say it over the phone. There’s no shame here, I thought. No sense of duty bestowed by this massive audience.

The thing about food is that everyone eats, whether it’s written about or not. As journalist and filmmaker Victoria Bouloubasis pointed out in our conversation last week, knowing how to cook can be political because in times of economic uncertainty, it can sustain you not just with nourishment, but with the money needed to survive. That extends to those of us, like me, who know that they could get a clandestine cake and cookie business together if they needed to for a little extra cash, or—like the woman Victoria knows—do a mole pop-up on a Saturday, announced via text. $12 a plate. 

The flexibility of food service work gives it its pirate-like reputation, which results in both freedom and exploitation, low wages and the ecstasy of earned exhaustion. Survival, with or without the glossy treatment—that’s what food is, that’s what cooking is. Do we want survival to look pretty on the plate, to go down easy? Of course. That’s another facet of surviving.

What I’ve found interesting, among a torrent of interesting things, in the week of excavation of the racist, toxic workplace at Bon Appétit, is how it shows that food media work can exploit all those notions and combine them with the worst of passive-aggressive, hierarchical corporate culture obsessed with perception and metrics and a specifically gentrified-Brooklyn concept of cool. They can confuse people into believing a workplace is a happy, egalitarian family—despite all filmed evidence to the contrary—by taking advantage of the rabble-rousing, devil-may-care idea of a food-based business, because food is supposed to be fun (who told people this? Probably Bon Appétit). I just want to know how the food service industry can employ so many people in the United States and that magazine can be as popular as it is. How do we live in a world where these are both true? Did people want to believe the test kitchen was a utopia because that’s the image they want to lay over the staff at a restaurant where they tip poorly or treat their server condescendingly?

A combination of structural forces made it so those who were suffering abuse at BA—namely Black women on staff and off, and also every person of color who came into contact with the magazine—couldn’t simply leave when a paycheck and benefits were on the table, when “human resources” was set up to protect the higher-ups and gaslight everyone else. Without a safety net, without universal health care, without controlled rents (all truly the bottom of the barrel, in terms of a gentle democratic socialism), inequity will continue. Systems that must generate profit will also generate inequality, no matter who is at the helm. Worker-owned media models are probably the only real future the industry has, and thank GOD. Representation has been sought, but that means nothing without broad changes that happen, in the immediate future (unless there’s a true people’s takeover of the country), on a policy level.

As Soleil Ho wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, the problem of BA’s lack of diversity is a bigger issue in media:

While it may seem that this is a problem of Bon Appetit’s own making, the takeaway here is that the way its sausage gets made looks a lot like how it gets made in the rest of the food media (and the media itself). Its gatekeepers, the editors, are largely white and well-to-do and/or governed by a structure of white and well-to-do vice presidents, publishers and owners. It’s why so much of what gets produced is framed in a way that centers on white and well-to-do people: what they eat, what they want to eat and what they see as inedible.

Izzie Ramirez, in Bitch, noted the need for systemic shifts:

Though there’s a broader spotlight on Bon Appétit’s failures right now, they’re working from an old playbook. It’s a story as old as time—and now that publications are scrambling to take a stand to shield themselves from criticism and protect their bottom line, Black and brown employees aren’t going to stand for this continued posturing without actual systemic change. We don’t need to because we hold all the cards now. I foolishly once believed that I needed my culture to be trendy in order for others to share my joy, but trendiness just means bastardization. Don’t tell me that a story about pastelón or fufu is not accessible, but that pierogies are. If you want our bodies at the table, then you have to accept our ideas—and pay us for them too. 

These pieces came out and, almost immediately, Bloomberg published a very bad piece on tofu. “It’s white, chewy, and bland,” the social copy read for, perplexingly, Bloomberg Asia. The piece, written in 2020 about whether tofu might be something meat-eaters are ready for, called tofu “niche” and noted its “funny name.” The Toronto Star’s Karon Liu responded:

“Stop calling tofu as the next best thing to meat! It stands on its own! Not everyone eats tofu because they can't eat meat! This is what non-white food writers are frustrated with: who gets to call the shots in framing food narratives.”

How do we take the power from these narratives, from these writers and these big media companies that feel no responsibility, fully? Is it to create such a strong alternative that people begin to recognize the failures of a test kitchen and the framing of non-European foods as “weird” before someone tells them why? When will a Black writer or editor be provided the support to change a magazine from the inside out, not just piecemeal through freelance pieces here and there that pay a few hundred dollars a pop? This current reckoning required the strength of the Black Lives Matter movement and a broad-based awakening of the population in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders at the hands of police, as Osayi Endolyn pointed out. But what will truly change? That, of course, remains to be seen.

As a food writer on the outside of the corporate clique, I’ve felt for some time that my work has been in opposition to this one magazine. BA and Adam Rapoport (enabled by even broader toxic forces at Condé Nast) and their vision of the world stymied and poisoned the whole of food media: sucking up air, giving a massive platform to no interesting ideas, and using considerable financial resources to make gourmet versions of Hot Pockets. I don’t know anyone personally who’s written for that magazine and has come away feeling like their soul is intact, like their editor didn’t remove any bit of sincerity or care in the lines. I wrote two things for their website in 2016 and thought it would be a big step for me, career-wise. It wasn’t, and I looked them up the other day and couldn’t recognize the voice. Ever since, I’ve always told everyone how I was instructed to mock the idea of terroir in a chocolate bar even though cacao does come from the earth and its taste reflects the soil in which its tree was planted, cared for. In a way, I’ve been making up for that piece ever since, hammering home at any opportunity just how much origin matters. 

But again, the thing about food is that everyone eats, whether it’s written about or not, whether they know the origin or not, whether the magazine from which the recipe came was staffed with abusive racists or not, whether the figurehead chef is a massive asshole or not, whether the bartender or server or line cooks are making a living wage or not. The food writer’s role is to sway the reader in the direction of caring about these things, in myriad ways, through multiple avenues. “We’re not lobbyists,” no, but perhaps in the post-BA world, food writers might at least be free to conceive of themselves as advocates for something, anything better than what we’ve been doing.