American Food Media’s “Diversity” Problem


This post was originally meant to mostly be a review of takeout barbecue from Ted Cook’s 19th Hole, a Black-owned restaurant in South Minneapolis. But before getting to the food we got from them last week I’d wanted to say a few things about American food media and race, and about food media and its relationship with blackness in particular—and that was before the Bon Appetít mess spilled all over the place on Monday. That piece all too predictably became a longer thing than I’d anticipated and so I’m splitting it out into its own post here. I’ll have the Ted Cook’s 19th Hole review tomorrow.

(What follows is still not fully thought through—more work in progress than a finished statement; I may well go back and revise my thinking about some of this.)

Some of my thoughts about these matters began to crystallize—to my shame, very, very belatedly—in the wake of the murder of George Floyd just over two weeks ago. And also in the wake of the renewed Black Lives Matter protests that have filled the streets of the country since, and which have brought too many of us who are not Black to a too-delayed recognition of the complacency around these issues in all the places we work and play, even as we take for granted our own political awareness and our anti-racist commitment. In the last few days American food media has also been roiled by a new set of controversies about race—centered on revelations about the culture at Bon Appetít—and I’ve been pondering the connections between the two. These connections may seem obvious at one level (“it’s racism”) but that very obviousness may obfuscate more problems in turn. These problems are not external to me or to the relatively (if I’m being kind to myself) insignificant food writing on this blog. I am implicated in all of this too and much of this is as much self-critique as it is criticism of the larger world of American food media.

(By “food media” here I am referring to legacy/prestige food media—which is to say white food media—and as far as I am concerned it is safe and prudent to assume that what has been revealed by the Bon Appetít affair is not the exception but the rule. And because I am focussing here on race I don’t have much to say about the related problems in food media with gender and sexuality.)

There were two immediate responses in food media to the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. One was a series of public invitations from editors to Black writers as a group to pitch and submit stories (I uncharitably suggested on Twitter that this perhaps reveals how few Black writers white editors actually know who they could just reach out to and commission directly). The other was the collection and publication of lists of Black-owned restaurants in cities around the country. This latter I actually perused carefully. I noted that these lists were often seemingly compiled and published by outlets who had not previously taken much interest in Black-owned restaurants. Will they now take a greater interest once this current moment has passed? We’ll see, I suppose. (And what will or should this interest look like? More on this below.)

Nonetheless, I needed the list in my own area—the greater Twin Cities metro—because I acknowledged with chagrin that despite having lived here for going on 13 years now, and despite having reviewed restaurants in the area on an almost weekly basis for most of the last seven, I couldn’t come up with a very long list of my own if I were to subtract Somali or Ethiopian restaurants; and the list of that subset that I have reviewed myself is even smaller (the review of Ted Cook’s 19th Hole will be only the third). If I wanted to be slippery I could pin the first lacuna on the local food media’s coverage of the local dining scene but that would be at least partly a dodge. I don’t say this in an attempt to find absolution through self-flagellation. I say it to acknowledge that I write—in whatever amateurish and, frankly, not very visible manner—about the food scene in an area long riven by structural racism against African Americans but I’ve never paid very much attention to the connection between that history of structural racism and what I myself have written about.

Now, I could note that the majority of my restaurant reviews have been of immigrant-owned restaurants; that the Twin Cities food scene as catalogued on my blog is predominantly a minority-owned scene and that largely at the lower end of the market. This is actually true but it is not, however, adequate. For one thing, even adding in the Somali and Ethiopian restaurants—which, of course, are also Black-owned restaurants—would bring me to only 7/220 reviews that are centered on Black-owned restaurants. For another, my commitment to championing minority-owned restaurants has really been a commitment to championing immigrant-owned restaurants (and cuisines). Even my reviews of Somali and Ethiopian restaurants have been focused through an immigrant restaurant lens and not a Black lens or a Black immigrant lens. The space of “diversity” in my coverage has been filled almost entirely by immigrant restaurants.

This, I think, is a problem for white food media as well—not just when it comes to restaurant reviews and lists but with its larger notion of “diversity” in American food. For white food media as well, writing about immigrant (and international) food, I want to say, has over the years by and large taken the place of coverage of Black and indigenous food and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic food other than Mexican. Writing about immigrant/international food becomes another way of not writing about Black or indigenous food. Please note that I am not suggesting that there should be less coverage of immigrant/international food; only that what coverage there is of it allows the “diversity” box to be checked and obscures what is absent or at least far less present than it should be.

This situation is compounded—and also explained—first by the nature of most of the coverage of immigrant/international food. As I noted in my screed on Saveur’s jalebi disaster last year, this coverage is almost entirely touristic in nature. This coverage of immigrant/international foodways/restaurants—the ones that stand in for “ethnic food” in the white American foodie imagination—as conceived and assigned by (mostly) white editors unsurprisingly centers the white gaze, allowing it to travel voyeuristically through an exoticized landscape. This travel which most privileges certain Asian locations—Japan, China, Thailand, India, Vietnam—allows the bearer of that gaze to congratulate themselves on their cosmopolitanism while masking its consumerism. And it also allows the bearer of that gaze to repress the itineraries that would discomfit it and reveal its bad faith. (Except maybe in special issues or when another Black person is beaten and/or killed—as, for example, in the disgraced Adam Rapoport’s content-free statement on food and politics, published just a few days before his fall.)

Second, this situation finds an unsurprising analog in staffing. The racial inequities at Bon Appetít that have been exposed in the last few days are invidious and need to be redressed but the most striking number in the stories that talked about pay is the number of Black employees: 1. In staffing as well, it would appear, POC stands in for BIPOC. And this I would venture is true not just of Bon Appetít but of the industry at large. (It’s also true of my own profession—academia, where pieties aside, Historically White Colleges and Universities are far more comfortable with South/Asian American faculty members than Black, Hispanic or indigenous faculty members.)

One of the problems with white supremacy is that it makes it hard to talk about these kinds of things without seeming like you are pitting racial minorities against each other. And so I will state again that—as with coverage of immigrant/international food—I am not suggesting from my comfortable tenured perch that South/Asian Americans and other non-Black and non-indigenous writers and editors need to give up their seats to Black and indigenous people or that coverage of immigrant/international food is not important in its own right. It’s not the already small slice of the pie that is set aside for “diversity” that needs to shrink, it’s that massive white portion. (How much? I’d say why not try pushing it all the way and see what happens.)

But I will also say that fixing this problem is not merely a matter of hiring more Black and indigenous people and/or paying all BIPOC staff more—though by all means the BI part of BIPOC should be filled out, and they should all be paid more and treated with the dignity they deserve, especially Sohla El-Waylly, who has apparently been carrying all the white stars of Bon Appetít’s Test Kitchen on her back while being a paid a fraction of what they earn. No, simply paying BIPOC staffers more or promoting/hiring BIPOC candidates into senior positions is not going to fix very much. Rebooting the same system with more Black or brown faces is not going to finally do very much. For true, meaningful change to happen that whole system centered on the white gaze and built on a capitalist structure that exploits workers and abstracts food away from its material sites of production, away from its messy histories, and substitutes for them an erotics of consumption—that whole system needs to be dismantled, needs to be torn down completely and rebuilt. It’s not just Bon Appetít that’s rotten, it’s all of Condé Nast, it’s all of the larger food industry—how could they not be when they are part of a larger rotten world of social inequality?

What might a reconstructed food media do instead or differently? For starters, internally it could center Black and indigenous and other minority traditions instead of eliding or erasing them or effectively playing them off against each other in terms of coverage; it could make something other than the creation of celebrity—whether chefs or media personalities—its major goal; it could try to conceive of the world as existing not for white Americans’ consumption; it could conceive of its function as producing—as Alicia Kennedy has pointed out—not lifestyle reporting but genuine cultural criticism, with an equal focus on food policy, on production, on health, on history, on culture beyond personal/family narratives and local colour.

Externally, it could possibly begin—to return to where these speculative thoughts began—by re-conceiving how it understands the restaurant as a category, locating it as a node in a larger social network and not simply as a delivery mechanism for sensual pleasure. Thinking of restaurants and the food culture they represent only or largely in the seemingly neutral terms of “quality”—whether of ingredients, technique or innovation, all those things that lead to James Beard awards—merely (re)produces samey food monocultures (all those substitutable tasting menus); merely (re)produces alibis for inequity (“there just aren’t high-end Black-owned restaurants for us to review”, “there just aren’t enough Black or brown chefs in the pipeline”). Think of them instead as fulfilling roles in the communities they are located in, as gathering places, as employers, as connected to producers, as unequal players in a system of food apartheid; and, yes, also as purveyors of gustatory pleasure, centered in their own traditions and tastes and not only in the expectations of white or white-adjacent bourgeois food tourists.

Can or will any of this actually happen? Well, one way of answering that question is to say that we need to be realistic and utopian at the same time (as Jonathan Nunn has perceptively noted in a recent issue of Vittles). If nothing else, we need to expand the horizon of possibility.

4 thoughts on “American Food Media’s “Diversity” Problem

  1. Here are two pieces that were published before I posted this essay and which I wish I’d seen before I wrote mine. They would have sharpened my thinking:

    1. Eating at Black-Owned Restaurants Isn’t Going to Save Us, by Ruth Gebreyesus on KQED.

    2. Lists of Black-Owned Restaurants Are a Start, but They’re Obviously Not Enough, by Jaya Saxena on Eater.

    And here are two pieces that take up the Bon Appetít disaster that were published a few hours after mine that make related but not identical points:

    1. Bon Appetit’s race problem is the food media’s race problem, by Soleil Ho for San Francisco Chronicle.

    2. Gone Rotten: “Bon Appétit” Is Emblematic of the Problem with Food Media, by Izzie Ramirez for BitchMedia.

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  2. Implicit in Gebreyesus’s piece—and echoed in Saxena’s—is that the very creation and circulation of lists of Black-owned restaurants in the wake of events like the murder of George Floyd function in negative as a tacit admission that mainstream/white food media normally ignores or erases the existence of these restaurants. Because if they covered them in normal times, as they should do, then where would be the need to suddenly provide lists to their readers?

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  3. I want to thank you for your well thought out commentary on this. You’re thinking of it from a very well-intentioned place with many nuances. I don’t know that many Minnesotans have exposure to people of diverse backgrounds. As a person who is part of a model-minority (Chinese-Indonesian who has been mistaken for Hawaiian, Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Malay, “middle eastern” and. . . Eastern European.) I think it is really important for immigrants to be aware of the “feud” that they’ve been dropped into. It’s too easy to excuse ourselves from the conversation because for some reason White Supremacy has dictated that immigrants are preferable to “US-BIPOC”. In addition, in my experience as an immigrant, we We need to be involved and active and normalize concepts like white supremacy in our respective communities. My little one just woke up so I’ll have to conclude this comment. So much to actually say on this!

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