What do you do when you’re brown and a white woman you like gets cancelled?
We can probably all agree that so far this year has been relatively bad. One thing that has made it somewhat bearable for me, many of my friends and evidently a lot of other people has been the writing of Alison Roman. For those thinking “who?”, Roman is an American cookbook author and food columnist for Bon Appetit and the New York Times. She’s famous for her popular and definitively named recipes like #TheStew, #TheCookie and #TheDip. Various articles have been written in response to the rising popularity of Roman and her recipes during Covid-19. So when I opened up Twitter to discover Roman had become public-enemy-number-one overnight, I was unprepared.
What do you do when you’re brown and a white woman you’re a fan of gets cancelled for being racist?
The answer seems obvious. Being a woman of colour meant that I too should join the movement to cancel Alison Roman. But I don’t want to. And it feels somewhat like I’ve crossed the picket-line.
The furore arose from comments made by Roman in an interview with The New Consumer about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen. When asked about the fine line between consumption and pollution, Roman criticised Kondo for selling out.
“Like the idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalise on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately! Someone’s like ‘you should make stuff’, and she’s like, ‘okay, slap my name on it, I don’t give a shit!'”
She went on to critique the rapid expansion of Teigen’s brand.
“Like, 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. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money.”
What has irked people about these comments is that they single out and scold two Asian women succeeding in a domain that was once solely reserved for white women like Roman. Think along the lines of Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. Within the interview Roman even talks about her own upcoming “capsule collection” of cookware products.
There’s no doubt that these comments are mean-spirited. And the singling out of two Asian women as examples was, at the very least, poorly thought out and wildly ignorant of the value of representation. That Roman herself is in fact releasing her own line of products as well, even if she was differentiating her products to those of Kondo and Teigen, does seem hypocritical and incredibly elitist.
As criticism began rolling in, including from Teigen herself, Roman’s responses came off snarky and insincere. The whole thing had snowballed into something incredibly ugly. There was, of course, a lot of enthusiasm shown by the crowd to drag Roman, based almost entirely on comments made in one interview.
While being rich doesn’t doesn’t exclude someone from being a victim of racism, it is worth noting that both Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo are incredibly wealthy and wield a significant amount of cultural power. Roman’s criticism of them, while hypocritical, was a justifiable critique of the corporatisation of the food industry.
Roman is by no degree perfect, but from what I’ve seen on social media, she just doesn’t seem that bad. In fact it seems like she actually at least tries to get this stuff right. As someone who cares about the politics of food, that’s a large part of why I like her. What’s striking about the online backlash towards Roman is that most people eagerly declaring her “cancelled” point out they had never even heard of her before the drama.
When Covid-19-induced racism began to impact New York’s Chinatown earlier this year, Roman frequently took to social media to encourage people to support restaurants and grocers in the district. She’s spoken up about the impact of Covid-19 on restaurant workers in the US and tweeted in response to the lack of diversity in the White House’s group of Covid-19 food industry response representatives.
This controversy has led to many calling attention to Alison Roman’s appropriation of ‘ethnic’ food. This is an incredibly important conversation to bring up, not only when it comes to Roman, but with almost every other well-known white celebrity cook. Food doesn’t exist in a bubble separate from the power-relations of racism, and it takes a certain amount of privilege and ignorance to liberally borrow from other cultures’ culinary traditions without thinking there might be an issue with this.
Alison Roman’s famous stew recipe is problematic; it’s essentially a watered down chana masala or Carribean chickpea curry. She needs to do more to acknowledge these cultural sources and ingredients. And perhaps we need to reflect on why a watered down ethnic recipe by a white woman is so much more accessible and popular than a traditional dish. But issues around food and cultural appropriation aren’t cut and dried and we do ourselves no favours by trying to erase these complexities on either side of the debate. Nor do we solve it by blaming these issues on an individual. I’ve seen criticism of Roman for counting kimchi as a favourite snack, and for her use of ingredients like preserved lemons, olives, labneh, tahini, and spices like cumin and turmeric. This is how a lot of people cook and eat. This is how I cook and eat. I’m drinking a Thai milk tea as I write this, and I’ll be scattering Iranian dried pomegranate seeds on my salad tonight.
In an article on Roman’s appropriation of food, writer Roxana Hadadi wrote of Roman’s stew recipe, “People lost their fucking minds over this shit! Unless you were a brown person. And then you looked at the word ‘stew’ and scoffed.”
As a brown person who has eaten the stew, enjoyed it and cooked it again, and again, along with many other Alison Roman recipes, I found this comment striking. It pointed to another element that bothers me about many of these responses: the flattening of brownness, and of brown relationships to food. Throughout the criticism of Roman is a running assumption that those who appreciate her style of cooking must all be white and have bland taste. That all brown women must see Alison Roman as an enemy now. That her red nail-polish and Breton tops – markers of whiteness – add to this “caucasity”.
I’m brown, and I don’t have bland taste. I almost always wear red nail polish and I’ve definitely worn a striped top before. I know other women who are brown who also appreciate her food too. There are different shades of brown. Roman is not who I go to for an authentic dish. The appeal of her recipes is that they’re quick, flexible and they’re often enjoyable to make. Her cynicism about best-before dates and enthusiasm for avoiding food waste also appeals to me in terms of how my Māori whānau and I think about food.
Māori relationships to food differ from a lot of other brown people’s. Eating our specific traditional food like hangi, toroi, or titi isn’t done in an everyday manner, and it’s not easy for us to find our food in restaurant settings, even in the country where we’re indigenous. We’ve appropriated a lot of colonial and migrant foods into our own repertoire, in our homes, on the marae and when eating out. Māori have a completely different experience of the commodification and appropriation of our food compared to those cultures whose dishes Roman uses as inspiration, so I realise I can’t dismiss people’s anger toward her, nor am I trying to.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept of calling someone out for their mistakes. Roman clearly made a number of blunders. But I have an issue with our readiness to do so, without discussion, without reflecting on complexity and nuance. And maybe that’s because it goes against our Māori principles of hui and kanohi kitea. That a number of people seem to find joy in calling someone irredeemably racist is sad. Cancelling one person who I’d argue isn’t that dangerous is definitely not going to solve the deeply rooted issues that plague the food industry.
I’ve thought a lot this weekend about my interview and the things I said. I know this is a lengthy note (succinctness has never been my strong suit). I appreciate you taking the time to read. pic.twitter.com/3iGAyN3c9d
— alison roman (@alisoneroman) May 11, 2020
Alison Roman screwed up and she needs to do better. Yesterday, she apologised via Twitter. Sharing her email address, promising to read each message she receives. The apology was sincere and well thought out. Teigen herself responded with understanding. Allowing people to speak back and converse like this is what we should be aiming for. None of this is simple, and that’s the point. In fact, I should probably reflect on what it means that I’ve spent a day writing in defence of a problematic white woman who I don’t know.
Perhaps I’m the sell-out.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.