On Snobbishness

and how media mimics the market.

I’ll admit to you up front that this newsletter is a Frankenstein, a sewn-together monster in which I am working two discrete food world controversies from last week into ideas I’ve already had about snobbery and an ideological shift food media has made over the last decade to become more accessible. Because it’s funny: People seem to want food folks to shut up if they’re not soothing them with dressed-up mac and cheese or bucatini, but they also ignore big bodies of work in order to make big, ignorant proclamations saying food media is nothing but white people eating fancy food. What is it that people really want from food writing—the easy stuff, or the difficult stuff? Can both happen simultaneously? If so, how? That’s what I’m trying to work through, to figure out where I fit and why I do this.

The one controversy that most people are likely familiar with is cookbook author and prolific viral recipe writer Alison Roman doing an interview in which she says she certainly does not want to emulate the careers of Marie Kondo or Chrissy Teigen, whom she perceives as selling out, slapping their names on things, and creating content through a “farm.” Never mind that these are the ways of capitalism and that Roman herself is working with a brand to recreate vintage spoons, which sounds quite a bit like slapping your name on something in order to sell it: Why did she choose two Asian women as her examples, when I’m pretty sure I’ve seen David Burke–branded cookware on clearance at Marshall’s, browsed Jose Andrés chips at the fancy grocer, and clicked over to Albert and Ferran Adrià’s line of molecular gastronomy ingredients? Does Roman see these white male restaurant chefs as not selling out? What does selling out mean these days, when most of us are fighting for scraps?  (I like Erik Hinton’s insight: “it’s a bum choice, pedaled by those who’d rather revolution be a personal affectation than a totalizing, world-encompassing spirit.”)

I’m not interested in the idea that maybe Roman fucked up her own career by talking shit about Teigen, who had apparently signed on to produce her in-development TV show, but I am interested in why she individualizes her business decisions and why she latched onto Asian women who’ve had massive success in an industry that usually loves people who look more like Roman—a woman whose “stew” was a curry, whose tofu soup looks quite a bit like a hybrid of miso soup and pho. In her writing, she does not acknowledge these cultural connections. She claims to “have no culture.” Why?

It brings to mind the week’s other controversy, the New York Timescompletely baffling profile of Joanna Gaines, the best-selling author of a couple of cookbooks, host of some HGTV shows, and apparent queen of Waco, Texas. This profile glossed over her and her husband’s connections to an anti-LGBT church, had one especially odd photo caption noting “the kitchen and garden are the domain of the woman of the house,” and never mentioned this big exposé the Washington Post did in 2018 on how many of her recipes don’t actually work. The Times wanted to appear “with it” to whom, exactly? Homophobes who don’t care about the environment and don’t care whether recipes work so long as they’re not asking you to consider the ingredients?

The profile did enjoy pointing out that Gaines was the “first” Asian-American woman to have a huge lifestyle brand, which also ignores Teigen—among others—in favor of a person with questionable connections who by most appearances can’t cook. The writer wanted to use Gaines’s ethnicity to make her exceptional despite this well-documented connection to bigotry. Why?

All of this links, in my mind, to the popular idea that food writing is the domain of snobs and elitists, and the misguided attempts by editors to make it more accessible—while still keeping it white as hell, the hegemony tested in only the smallest, safest ways. A spice without context here, a bulgogi recipe with retrograde politics blended in there.

The Atlantic last week wrote that “Foodie Culture as We Know It Is Over” and cited Roman’s recipes among reasons why food media has finally stopped being only for the rich. Why are these food personalities—including the other focus of the Atlantic piece, the Bon App test kitchen—popular and inviting? It seems like the last time most people paid any attention to food writing it was when Mark Bittman, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and others had the mic, and now—because they failed to recognize or properly vocalize the systemic economic and racial issues facing most of the population—everyone thinks caring about food beyond how it tastes makes you snob. (Talking about the “broken food system” and “lifestyle disease” in the press is now the domain of academics and entrepreneurs, who similarly avoid discussing capitalism and its buddy white supremacy.) In fact, every year for the last decade there is at least one big piece on how the foodie (a word used as a stand-in for “snob”) is finally dead, never to ask again whether the chicken came from a factory farm or the tomato pickers were paid a living wage. Thank God! That is freedom. That is America.

I’ve been trying to figure out what makes someone a “snob” about food for a long time. I asked Stephen Satterfield of Whetstone in last Friday’s paid-subscriber interview about why concerns about sourcing conjure such defensiveness in people, and he said, “I think that it is alienating because it's frightening. The truth is very confrontational, and in the truth, people are implicated, and who wants to be implicated?” I brought it up on Facebook as a thorny food topic to chocolatier Lagusta Yearwood (her second shout-out here—listen to her podcast, “Thanks In Advance”!) and she said that it’s part of the training at her shop: “This is our work, explaining the difference between luxury and fairness all along the supply chain.”

And that’s where all the former prophets of a new food revolution failed, wasn’t it? They didn’t convey that you should care about paying a bit more for coffee or chocolate because it ensures that the earth, the laborers, the beans themselves were treated fairly and well, but that it was a moral duty to pay for a superior product—that it was about taste, not justice. Calls for locavorism and seasonal eating, in the white mainstream, never came with the full acknowledgement of the systemic barriers that most people would face in accessing and affording them.

That’s why now we have folks like art critic Jerry Saltz extolling the Everyman virtues of gas station coffee, $5 coffee being shorthand for gentrification from artist Kim Gordon, and even my beloved Patti Smith writing in The Year of the Monkey about coffee that “doesn’t come from anywhere, it’s just coffee.” Patti! The coffee always comes from somewhere. The mainstream, monied food movement and food journalism have failed by not acknowledging the necessity of economic justice, racial justice, and immigration justice, et al, to food justice. It continues not to acknowledge all these necessary intersections, but now this lack of acknowledgement also ignores sourcing and is referred to as accessibility, as ease, as anti-elite. 

It’s as though a whole younger generation of popular food personalities has learned from the backlash to Bittman, Pollan, and Waters—who certainly deserved it—that you can’t make too much of a fuss about where the food comes from, or you alienate people. And so instead of trying to find a way to talk about pleasure and principle in the same breath—about the individual and the systemic, the personal and the political—they let one of these fall to the wayside. I think about this as I read from Zoe Tennant in Granta (thanks to James Hansen’s new newsletter In Digestion): “Terroir, in Indigenous cuisine, is political, and has been ever since the Old World crashed into the New.” The earth, the food, its flavors have such rich meaning—and such intense and painful connections to colonialism, imperialism, slavery, migration, and ongoing cultural erasure, all tied up with joy. Why do we look to people who don’t actively recognize that instead of those who do? Why do these ideas challenge audiences instead of interest and invigorate them? When and how can we recognize the complexity of food, fully?

Controversies like the ones surrounding Roman and Gaines—the latter has already proven that it doesn’t cost her money or publicity; the former will continue to be coddled by the food media market—make me see how hype and cancellation mirror the boom and bust cycles of the stock market, and ultimately, what doesn’t rock the boat will always bounce back; until thinking changes (which will only happen when our economic system undergoes a revolution), the individual will always be preferred to the systemic. Casual racism never rocks the boat, nor does latent homophobia, nor does lack of concern for where the food comes from and who picked it and who profited. These things are as American as a $1 cup of coffee.

In Friday’s paid-subscriber interview, I’ll be speaking to Wine Enthusiast editor Layla Schlack about snobbishness, food media (always), and how the wine world specifically tackles these issues. If you have any questions for her, drop me a line.

A piece from another era at Plate on how chefs in San Juan, Guadalajara, and Mexico City were serving mamey. At Tenderly, pistachio cake! Also, Feminist Food Club published a transcript of our video chat, in which I sound much smarter than when I speak. I also did a quick, morning zoo–type hit on the Roman-Teigen Twitter back-and-forth for Hot Takes on a Plate with Rob Petrone—put me on Z100, baby. Oh, and I did an appearance to discuss the same on… Good Morning America! How terrified are we of the response to THAT?! But I’ll put the link in next week’s newsletter, after they send it to me, and share it on social.

Subscribe to In Digestion and to Vittles, an excellent newsletter featuring the best food writing coming out right now, like this piece on plantains with recipes from Yvonne Maxwell. Buy Whetstone. Listen to and read Korsha Wilson’s A Hungry Society. Support independent media that is challenging a status quo that cannot see past its own nose.

I, personally, finished my reread of The Year of the Monkey; caught up on my rising and moon signs in Madame Clairvoyant’s Guide to the Stars and better understand the role of air in my personality; and plowed through Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, which I’d picked up weeks ago and put down, but today the universe was like, “This,” and the universe was, per usual, correct.

I made an orange-olive oil cake based off this recipe (my vegan recipe is here) and did it on Instagram Live on Wednesday, on a whim, but I’m going to talk about egg replacement this Wednesday at 11 a.m. and make some cookies! Because my chocolate delivery should have come. I can’t wait to taste and talk about this chocolate—it’s grown and made here on the island. Have we cooked anything else of note this week? A lot of jackfruit, as Israel—my boyfriend, whose name I don’t often use and so he has been referred to as Mr. Alicia, which I like—ordered many cans of the stuff, and I’ve been stewing it up with a modified-to-be-more-barbecue version of my homemade ketchup. Did you know most barbecue sauce recipes use ketchup as an ingredient? This was news to me!

Because I got a bit upset about coffee and chocolate—I’m always upset about coffee and chocolate—I’d love to recommend Raaka Chocolate, which has very transparent sourcing practices and a lot of information on their website, as well as Cyrus Coffee from Long Island, which educates its clientele on origin and terroir (without snobbishness, I think—I wouldn’t know), and it just warms my heart that that’s happening right by the Bay Shore train station. They’re shipping bags of coffee right now to keep their baristas paid.