On Ingredients

and how recipe developers are dealing with complex sourcing questions.

There was so much I took for granted while living in New York, and chief among them is that I was able to have any ingredient my heart desired. Mushroom options overflowed at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket; my local bodega stocked my preferred vegan butter (the influence of gentrification). Kalustyan’s or Queens were a subway ride away for specialty sacks of agar powder or kala namak or obscure chilies. I could have anything I wanted. I could have a sack of local flour. Saying the words “local flour” now puts stars in my eyes. Natural wine was so ubiquitous that stories were written about how ubiquitous it was, and what did that mean? 

In Puerto Rico, where 90 percent of the food is imported because of the colonialist, archaic Jones Act as well as the U.S. empire’s destruction of the agriculture industry in the mid-20th century, no ingredient can be taken for granted. We are lucky to go to a farmers’ market every Saturday, to have the resources to bounce around to every grocery store to make sure we have a pantry stocked to our liking. This isn’t to paint some sort of dire picture; it’s to state fact. Colonialism has made fresh, local food inaccessible to most of the population. This is food apartheid. Capitalism and racism have that same effect in areas of the U.S. itself.

Last weekend, I read Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s gorgeous A Mano/By Hand, translated by Carina del Valle Schorske, and she wrote of going to Mexico regularly to “rest from the daily struggle of life in Puerto Rico.” It doesn’t have to be a struggle. It shouldn’t be. It was made this way. 

I’ve been thinking about ingredients because to write about food is to write about ingredients. To write recipes is to implicitly or explicitly suggest ingredients to one’s audience. And, yes, I saw a hip food person on Instagram recently say the only sugar to use in one of their recipes was Domino brand. The way my heart sinks when I see something like this, especially after passing by one of Puerto Rico’s biggest abandoned sugar mills just two days prior. (Consider this line from Sidney Mintz’s Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History, first published in 1960: “This area of Puerto Rico had caught the full economic impact of the United States Occupation as early as 1900. It was very poor and economically under the thumb of a single multimillion-dollar United States corporation.”)

The possible world we lost, the possible world we killed, so that corporations could profit. The exploitative world we made instead. (Consider Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety.”) But as pastry chef and host of the podcast Lavender Language Adrian Ramirez tells me, “Being tied to a particular brand of sugar for their ethicality is brilliant if you have the resources to do so. But if the best you can afford is the local supermarket’s own brand of sugar, why should that person not be able to bake? That’s so tedious and elitist.” 

To me, of course, it doesn’t stop there—the solution is tight regulation of these industries and their labor conditions, as well as universal basic income, and probably just… we don’t have sugar as easily available as we have become accustomed to. We live differently.

It was almost a year ago now that I wrote for The New Republic about the cognitive dissonance of a food media that ignores the realities of climate change, labor, and economics to encourage mindless hedonism. Have things changed, by the force of a pandemic, revelations of racism at magazines, and poor conditions at restaurants? Eh, sort of. I would still argue there is that mindlessness, that comes from an often white, often bourgeois, often global north, often neo-colonial perspective on food that obscures the people laboring, the soil that needs nitrogen, the potable water that isn’t a given in much of the world. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, they seem to say, while all this is going on.

But it isn’t that easy to tell people what they should be eating, what they should be putting in their pantry, for the reason Ramirez laid out. The economics don’t bear out that everyone can use the local flour, the fair trade sugar and chocolate, the non-industrial meat. We are set up to fail.

Andrew Janjigian of Wordloaf, a bread newsletter, says, “There are two major problems with acting upon a desire to see people use more ‘sustainable’ flours: availability and consistency.” Though he’s usually writing a recipe that is just flour and water, such simplicity still requires him to consider these questions. “As much as I’d like to teach people to be able to work with fancy local flours,” he says, “I’d also like to give them the skills and tools to make bread out of whatever flours they can find or afford.”

In a perfect world? “The sorts of flours I’d like to see everyone use would be a) organic (for all the obvious reasons), and b) local/regional, to eliminate the environmental impact of transportation and to foster more resiliency in our food economies. But wheat can’t be grown everywhere, and even where it does grow happily, it requires care and skill (and good growing seasons) to produce wheat that can be made into flour that will make good bread. (And it requires a miller who knows how to mill and refine it appropriately as well.)”

Dorothy Porker, a food stylist, photographer, writer, and recipe developer based in the Netherlands with a book coming out, just made a big decision: As of last December, she will only publish vegetarian and vegan recipes on her blog. 

“I was about halfway through writing the recipes for my book when the Covid-19 crisis began and one of the things that was especially harrowing to see (from a food perspective) was the worsening of the abuses of immigrant workers in meat production. I was already aware that the situation in the U.S. for these workers was horrific, with meat plants abusing undocumented workers and then getting them deported by ICE if they try to organise or complain, but I hadn't been aware that it's almost as bad here, with workers being forced to work through Covid-19 etc., and that we actually do import a lot of cheap U.S. meat and chicken.”

Prior to this, her message had been to tell readers to “do what they can” around choosing the best quality, best sourced ingredients. That no longer seemed like enough for her.

“‘Doing what you can' for a lot of people will end up meaning they have to keep buying cheap meat and keep these systems in place. I'd rather show people how you can 'do what you can' in terms of energy and affordability without using meat.” This reminds me of Toronto Star food writer Karon Liu telling me last year that he simply stopped writing recipes that call for shrimp, because he knows how destructive most production is and how expensive and rare well-sourced product can be for most readers.

G. Daniela Galarza, a staff writer at The Washington Post who is writing a forthcoming recipe newsletter for the paper (and my IRL friend), has also gone through issues with shrimp in particular.

“This past December when I was assigned a recipe for shrimp flambé, I contacted some sustainability seafood organizations and noted in the headnote that domestic shrimp are preferred and offered links to resources for concerned consumers," she says. “I still don't feel quite right about it, to be honest.”

Because the Post also runs stories on food as a business, she believes that readers can make informed choices. But she did run into a particular issue when adapting a Basque cheesecake from a Spanish chef last year, who called specifically for Philadelphia cream cheese, and it turned out to be the only one that worked. In the future, she knows to test different brands when a specific one is called for to make sure it stands up to everyone’s availability and preferences.

“I think this is an especially tricky thing for people who develop pastry recipes,” she says, and she has experience in this from working as a pastry chef before entering editorial. “Different types of flour have different protein levels, different brands of canned coconut milk contain different percentages of fat, apples do not grow to exactly the same size. Part of the reason I wanted to start writing about cooking was to get a feel for how to teach people to trust their senses while cooking, so they can learn what to do when cooking and baking with the products they want to buy, use and consume.”

June Xie, senior food producer at Delish who makes very popular cooking videos, finds the question of what she’s influencing people to cook very complicated. “It triggers a guilt complex in me to know that I'm using meat that wasn't raised responsibly or ethically, for example,” she says. “When cooking at home, I do my best to avoid meat consumption, and when I do, I tend to eat ‘scrappy’ pieces, like bones and organ meat. For work, whenever possible, since my groceries are placed on the company card, I try to buy ‘organic’ whenever possible, but that is still problematic. A constant struggle to do the right thing, and unfortunately ethical choices are often bypassed for convenience's sake.”

The economic issue is a barrier to talking about these issues with her audience. “I want to do more of bringing awareness to problematic sourcing/production practices, because it seems like the right thing to do—but am often discouraged because I don't know what the solutions would be, especially if the individual/audience I'm targeting don't have the means to pay more for more ethically-produced ingredients—and doing so might alienate them.” 

Cook and baker Sara May, who writes a newsletter about the restaurant industry that comes with recipes, studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute and was surprised to find that though they focused on vegetables, the significance of sourcing certain ingredients wasn’t discussed. It was by working in restaurants that she discovered the difference that quality, “ethically” sourced ingredients can make.

“I have been lucky to work with a bunch of restaurants who were very careful about their sourcing, so I think my perspective can be a bit clouded by that,” she says. I'm so used to having the highest quality ingredients just around at work that when I have to buy them with my own money there is definitely a sticker shock there.” Chocolate and sugar are the two ingredients she doesn’t compromise on. When writing recipes, though, she tries to be conscious and make note of suggesting more expensive ingredients. “Often the accessible isn't ethical and vice versa,” she says.

Rachel Gurjar, a food writer and recipe developer, says she avoids putting certain ingredients in recipes if she can’t vouch for the whole chain. “I love berries and use them a lot but I would never suggest a brand that is known to use child labor and exploit immigrants,” she says. “I am very particular about spices and tea brands as well and don't suggest or use brands that are not transparent about their sourcing practices. Just yesterday this company reached out wanting to send me their superfoods and teas that included matcha, turmeric, etc. I asked them to share more about the founder and sourcing details and they responded with something vague. This is a huge red flag and I would never use or recommend them!”

There are no easy answers without an international workers’ revolution (for real), but I am happy to know and to read thoughtful recipe developers and food writers who are taking the entirety of ingredients’ lives into account when sharing work with their audience. We have to get complicated around consumption, because it’s complicated, and the denial of that only serves our corporate, industrial agriculture overlords who have built a world that serves their purposes, which is only profit. How could you live differently? How could you imagine differently in the kitchen to not serve their purposes? It doesn’t have to be everything. Each crystal of sugar counts. 

To continue the conversation on ingredients, Friday’s interview will feature Jing Gao of Fly by Jing, a line of Sichuan sauces and spices. We discuss her food education in Chengdu, the place of Chinese cuisine in the West, and the experience of her business booming during the pandemic.

An interview with Milan-based Dlish. Talked to Su-Jit Lin about mise en place for HuffPost.

A Mano/By Hand, as noted above, which is a short essay; Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell.

Mapo tofu for the first time. Boiled potatoes mashed up and tossed with Dijon vinaigrette. A lot of oatmeal. Ordering takeout or eating outside at a bar around the corner, because I’m working very hard once again and by evening, it feels as if my brain is on fire. Up there are gingerbread shortbreads I made during Christmas. I miss Christmas. It was a reprieve from the numbness.