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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

‘Please to buy my apology’

Alison Roman’s social media controversy reveals an attempt at personal branding gone badly wrong, and shows just how sensitive we are to ‘authenticity’ in food

If you follow as many foodie accounts on social media as I do, then seek help you’ll no doubt have heard the furore generated by U.S. food writer Alison Roman’s latest interview. Describing her reluctance to further her career by developing a product range, Roman derided owners of lifestyle brands Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo for doing so, claiming that their expansion ‘horrifies [her] and it’s not something that [she] ever want[s] to do’. She suggests that Kondo, the tidying guru who developed her own range of products, ‘f***ing just sold out immediately’, imitating a cheap ad: ‘“For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!”’. That ‘to’, which Roman later asked to be removed from the piece, is where things really get sticky: although she claimed otherwise (apparently it was an inside reference to an Eastern European cookbook), it sounds very much like she was mocking Japanese use of English. She goes on to criticize another Asian-American businesswoman (Teigen’s mother is of Thai descent), as she claims that ‘what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her’.

I do wonder what makes Teigen’s success ‘so crazy’ to Roman, whose own Instagram followers run into the hundreds of thousands, who also built her career on a ‘successful cookbook’, and who mentions, in the same interview, the development of her own range of products. Is it because she doesn’t expect to see an ethnic minority woman gaining such prominence as a food writer, especially when she isn’t cooking ‘world’ food, but the same range of variously-influenced foods as Roman? I would be reluctant to explain the whole scandal in this way, and it should be said that Roman has made a full apology acknowledging that her interview was ‘insensitive’ and recognizing all of the issues that it has raised. But there is no escaping its implications. Roman’s comments are crude, to say the least, and have brought to light some of the issues lurking in the food community: its snobbishness, the white privilege supporting many of its most prominent members (although this isn’t just the food community) and the issue of cultural appropriation.

This brings us back to the last time Roman ‘broke the internet’, only back then it was because of a recipe, not an offensive interview. ‘#TheStew’ was one of a series of Roman’s recipes to go viral (‘#TheCookies’ probably being the most famous). Roman may criticize Kondo and Teigen for using their image to expand their business, but what are these hashtags if not strategic marketing? By prefacing her recipes with the definite article in this way, Roman tells us that her recipe is the ultimate version: this isn’t a stew recipe, it’s the stew recipe. It lets every reader know that there’s a phenomenon they need to catch up on. The gossip. The Stew. Think of it as the culinary equivalent of ‘the It bag’, only more rustic. Because that’s also important: these recipes are supposed to seem no-nonsense and down-to-earth. As the puff on her NY Times-bestselling book Nothing Fancy promises us, ‘it’s unstuffy food paired with unstuffy vibes’. Roman knows her market. This back-to-basics approach is everywhere in the food world at the moment – even Yotam Ottolenghi, a man whose recipe for roast potatoes involves caramelising Agen prunes, has a book titled Simple – and it’s the ethos behind Roman’s stew.

It seems like the most controversy the recipe generated at the time was over whether it should be classed as a stew or a soup. (If you were looking for evidence of how reluctant to discuss serious issues food writing can be, then yes, I did find an entire article debating this). But Roman’s recent haughtiness towards Asian women in the food industry seems to have encouraged a racially-aware re-consideration of her work, and many have seen ‘#TheStew’ as an example of the kind of cultural appropriation on which white celebrity chefs thrive – what journalist Roxana Hadidi, in one of the most vehement criticisms of it, describes as ‘colonialism as cuisine’. Based on coconut milk, chickpeas and turmeric, it is loosely similar to dishes found in several different cuisines, including chana masala and Caribbean chickpea stew. Admittedly, Roman briefly and vaguely acknowledges these influences in her New York Times column, but nowhere else where the recipe is mentioned, leading to accusations of her trying to pass off ‘a watered-down curry’ as her own creation, gaining popularity from it while covering up its cultural heritage.

This controversy isn’t as clear-cut, I don’t think, as Roman’s more recent remarks. The blurring-together of cultures is a prevalent, and sometimes very productive force in cooking: it’s why one of Europe’s oldest culinary traditions is gingerbread made with West Indian spices, and why chicken korma is a uniquely British speciality which you can order in a chippy with a buttered bap and a cup of cha. (And is that a Mandarin loan-word I see?) We shouldn’t forget that foods like this came to us as a result of slavery and colonialism, and we shouldn’t complacently assume that slavery and imperialism are historical artefacts which have nothing to do with the food we eat now. But equally, I don’t think that eating a chicken korma makes someone a neo-colonial overlord – I don’t think anybody thinks that. I am all too aware that, as a white British woman, I am in no position to give a final verdict on cultural appropriation or the authenticity of food, unless, perhaps, I’m defending the Yorkshire parkin (another product of the spice trade) – which I will always do. We should of course engage with the history of food, and the political factors which inevitably influence it, but that doesn’t mean keeping it in rigidly fixed categories, and it is inevitable that cultural contact will shape the way people cook. It should go without saying that Western cultures needn’t always be involved in this – Indo-Chinese cuisine, for example, has been popular in Kolkata for centuries. Innovation like this is happening constantly, shaped by immigration now where it was by colonisation before, and in the best situations the culinary exchange is mutual – the brilliant Meera Sodha, for example, adopts ingredients from Lincolnshire, where she grew up, to make dishes using the flavours and techniques of her parents’ Gujurati homeland. This kind of cooking is exciting and, most importantly, delicious.

The way Roman presents ‘The Stew’, though, leaves a bad taste: firstly, giving what is essentially a fusion dish a homely, all-American-sounding name in an attempt to promote it amongst a white audience (whether or not Roman thought it through like this) is rather uncomfortable, and reveals the suspicion the public are presumed to hold towards ‘ethnic’-seeming food. Then, the conversation surrounding the recipe (which Roman is admittedly not solely responsible for) presents her as something of a trailblazer, discovering how well these ingredients go together – turmeric is praised for giving such an Instagrammable golden colour, chickpeas for providing cheap substance to the meal, as they have been to people around the globe for centuries – to make a simple supper which is now the definitive ‘Stew’. This raises the question of whether an Indian chef who developed a recipe for ‘The Chana Masala’ would gain the same internet fame. I think not; people in Western countries don’t see chana masala as a staple, a classic, in the way they do with stew. I’m not saying they should; what I am saying is that it can be problematic to view Western dishes as culturally neutral somehow, the way Roman does by giving us ‘#TheStew’, in an act of chickpea absolutism. It’s the same thinking behind the comment that she made, when asked about the influences on ‘#TheStew’, that she ‘has no culture’. Like all of us, Roman does have a culture, and she should acknowledge that it is one of many, rather than the definitive one. 

It all comes down to authenticity. Roman’s brash, expletive-laden remarks in her interview are part of her attempt to cultivate a straight-talking persona, a self as ‘unfussy’ as her recipes; but, of course, it’s as much of a brand as those developed by Kondo and Teigen. She recognizes that authenticity is what people seek in food: we want to see ‘the real version’ of a chef’s personality; we want a fast, easily-identified stew; or we want every rendition of a dish to remain true to its original culture. But there will never be a chef who isn’t developing their image through what they cook; there will never be an ultimate stew-to-end-all-stews; and there will never be a recipe that isn’t influenced by different cultures and cuisines. Food is messier than all that. And I’m fine with, I even like, these complications and spillages, provided we don’t ignore them. We can have our stews turmeric-stained, as long as we leave out the hypocrisy.

Image via Wiki images

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