On Canons

and the work of rewriting them.

A canon doesn’t emerge organically; it is constructed. I internalized this in a college class called Feminist American Poetry. “Look at the syllabi for your other courses,” the professor instructed our small ring of women. “Are they all men?” I looked, and indeed, there were men with a token woman. I took a whole class on Charles Dickens; my 18th-century English poetry class, taught by a Jesuit priest, was all men, all “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

This poetry class was my big consciousness-raising moment. When I opened up Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa, I found a new sense of myself, another step in an evolution of understanding that began when I saw the “One-Armed Scissor” video: the sense that I wasn’t alone in what was inside of me and what I presented to the world.

Writing about food brings up similar issues, which is why my first piece was about a vegan chocolatier, Lagusta Yearwood, who makes—among many other confections—something called Furious Vulvas. My idea was never to write, “Look at this woman! Cooking!” My idea was to insert the people doing work I cared about into the conversation, to make sure no one could ask where they were. I was going to write about them, the women chefs, the queer chefs, the vegans and the vegetarians. I was going to make sure they were seen, noted, counted.

There were no cisgender men in the kitchen at the dinner I co-produced at the James Beard House, which led to so much more mainstream coverage of the chefs who were included, and I saw my point proven: You have to force the people who exist outside the mainstream—whether concerning gender, nation, race, cuisine, etc.—into view, or else most people, even other writers, won’t see them, because they won’t be looking. The last thing I’ve ever wanted to be is lazy when my work has the power to transform, even slightly, people’s material conditions. (And if it seems like I’m self-mythologizing, I’m sorry: There were also a lot of my own fuckups when I was attempting to ingratiate myself into a fucked-up industry; my promise now is that I won’t hype bad people doing mediocre shit—this newsletter allows me to say that.)

The book that I’m writing is about re-constructing the history of vegan and vegetarian cuisines in the West, because most writing about these cuisines starts from what I have deemed a false premise: Vegan food is bland; these foods are a joke; these foods don’t satisfy. There are issues with the co-opting of Eastern traditions, techniques, and foods, and that will be covered, but I want to write a celebration as well as a critique of food that is feminized, ridiculed, and yet precisely how we need to eat if we want to continue to live on this planet. I want to make sure no one can write about these foods in an off-handed way again without it being obvious they’re ignoring a significant rewriting of their cultural and gastronomic significance. I want writing the words “veggie burgers went down like a dull sermon” to be as silly as writing about meat and masculinity without citing Carol J. Adams’ masterwork The Sexual Politics of Meat.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading the great Resy profile of Dirt Candy chef-owner Amanda Cohen by Mackenzie Chung Fegan, titled “Amanda Cohen Has Pioneered So Much. Why Aren’t We Listening to Her?” We talked in the first Friday conversation of this year about similar issues of the erasure of her work on making vegetarian cuisine cool, of all the brilliant ways she’s used vegetables only to see far more press coverage when a watermelon is turned into a ham by a male chef, far more coverage for Impossible and Beyond burgers than for hers at Lekka, which takes inspiration from a Ming Dynasty recipe. Indeed, we’ve been talking about it all for years, such as in this 2018 piece in the Village Voice about what it means when a very celebrated female chef attempts to go into business with a known rapist:

“Women mostly get covered when they get sexually assaulted or when they court controversy, as in this case,” says Cohen. “That’s not the most secure foundation for a multimillion-dollar investment in a restaurant, and if I was an investor I’d give my money to a male chef before I gave it to a female chef. Investing in the patriarchy is usually a safer bet.”

This is why Charlotte Druckman’s 2012 book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen is still relevant. We could add much more nuance to a new addition (Druckman herself says she would take a far more intersectional approach around race if she were rewriting the book, and indeed she created a far more representative text in the anthology Women on Food, as we discussed in her Friday conversation), but the points still stand: Women, trans, and non-binary chefs are not covered, cited, or partnered with in the same breathless manner as cis men are (imagine how quickly I deleted press releases about a male restaurateur partnering with a yogurt brand last year after laying off all his employees). None of this would matter if we weren’t still obsessed with what chefs do, if their actions, decisions, and inclinations weren’t indeed the engine of food media. That day isn’t coming anytime soon, though things are shifting.

Look at David Chang, who was the subject of a heart-wrenching personal essay in Eater by Hannah Selinger, published in late December 2020. She recounted her months as the corporate beverage manager for his restaurants, where she was insulted and demeaned and saw other co-workers suffer Chang’s rage, which he’s made into a point of “honesty” but not necessarily accountability. Despite the recent publication of this piece, last week, many in food media received a press release with the subject line, “Anyday: new female-founded microwave cookware w. Momofuku's David Chang.” Excuse me? But it’s not a joke.

It takes a lot of a work for a woman to be as compelling as a man like Chang. At Cohen’s Dirt Candy, there has been no tipping since 2015. Despite this, we saw, in 2015, Eater saying “nothing will ever be the same” because Danny Meyer did the same thing. In 2016, the New York Times declared, “Year of Upheaval for Restaurants That Ended Tipping” without mentioning Cohen or her restaurant. In July 2020, Grub Street proclaimed, “The No-Tipping Era Is Officially Done.” All because Danny Meyer, along with other male restaurateurs, brought tipping back—despite this revolution they were all attempting.

The other restaurant cited at Grub as continuing not to have tips is Claire Sprouse’s Hunky Dory. I used to work at Lois, a wine bar in the East Village, where there was no tipping plus revenue-sharing when profits crossed a certain threshold, which were transparent because whoever bartended sent out an email each night to everyone else with the take, noted along with whatever in the kitchen had been 86’d and needed restocking. The owners were also women. There’s a gender coincidence happening here, and it seems to be the reason success in hospitality-included models is predicated on whether Danny Meyer is in or out. There’s no reason to obsess over any boss, as I wrote when the Jessica Koslow–Sqirl situation was coming to light, but come on at that framing when I think the story is actually “why can these restaurants sustain this practice but the others cannot?” Why is what the men do considered the end all, be all?

This ties into the double-bind Cohen faces, which Chung Fegan points out in her profile, which is that she is a woman cooking vegetables, and the food press—despite the whole climate change thing—doesn’t respect vegetables. Like with so much coverage of women chefs, pointing out that they are women and they are cooking, wow, when vegetables are covered it’s with white gloves and shock that they could ever be made into something delicious. We see this in the breathless, endless coverage of the Beyond and Impossible burgers, which fall somewhere between chicken and beans when it comes to real sustainability but taste like beef, so they’re important (couldn’t be that they’re profitable as a product and beans are something anyone could grow). The food canon is based on male greatness and meat superiority. I can’t believe I’m stating it that plainly, over and over again, in the year 2021.

It’s odd to me that at a time when we are supposedly rewriting said food canon with fresh eyes, new understandings of the suffering back and front of house workers endure, and the ways in which hospitality’s mores have been shaped by slavery and servitude, that we’re really… not, at all. There isn’t enough self-interrogation. We’re going to keep seeing the same people referenced, over and over, because not even an essay as powerful as Selinger’s seems to make a difference when it comes to food media’s darlings.

I would hope we’re past the point at which a woman cooking vegetables, like Cohen, isn’t left out of stories on a cuisine (vegetable-forward fine dining) she’s helped shape, or her veggie burger isn’t compared only to a man’s no matter how cool the dude is, or treated as a parenthetical aside in a post about men not being able to succeed where she has but where their actions are regarded as definitive. I would hope we’re past the point where not three months after an essay comes out about a boss’s toxicity that he’s being inserted into stories and press releases again as though nothing happened, as though there was real accountability. But the world is a pretty predictable and boring place, and the anthology of twentieth-century American women poets that blew my mind 15 years ago can still take my breath away as I recognize myself in the words anew. I’m not optimistic, but I know there are many of us out here working to rewrite the food canon. That’s all we can do.

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Jenn de la Vega, a.k.a. Randwiches, in which we discuss how she’s pivoted from working in tech to food, the changes in her business model since the start of the pandemic, and her extensive cookbook work.

Annual subscriptions are $30 and get you access to all past interviews.

My talk, “On Food Writing,” with Pineapple Collaborative was so much fun—and apparently their biggest online event yet, as over 200 people hung out for nearly two hours of chatting.

In a dream come true, I talked to Brooke Gladstone of WNYC’s “On the Media” about whether plant-based meat lives up to its cultish hype. I used to listen to this while driving to college, while driving after college, and while delivering my vegan cupcakes well after college. Hometown public radio, baby.

Still Transit by Rachel Cusk, but the anthology I mentioned up there is No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets.

Those perfect vegan chocolate chip cookies, shown above, were sullied by absolutely disgusting oat-milk chocolate chips.