During Food Media’s Time Of Reckoning, Let’s Not Forget The Recipes

“Stick to the recipes” is the common refrain found in the comments section when a food website deigns to publish something deemed even vaguely “political.” The implication, of course, is that food writing, especially recipes, must always and only be apolitical—packaged neatly with pretty pictures and a food-brings-us-all-together motif.

This was largely my experience as a digital editor and de facto social media manager for Saveur. On occasions that we veered into the intersection of food and hunger, food and agricultural policy, or food and sustainability or climate change, we’d be overwhelmed with readers telling us they didn’t want a side of politics with their food. And this attitude didn’t just come from our audience: As one of just three BIPOC on staff, I’d often cringe at other stories that didn’t have proper representation. Complaints to higher-ups about such missteps of cultural appropriation and erasure never amounted to action, so long as the stories looked and felt on-brand.

But as Black Lives Matter began rocking the country’s collective consciousness years ago and very urgently this summer—for Black people and by extension all BIPOC—food media found itself in the midst of its own reckoning day. It highlighted a need for true systemic change. Because it’s not just that food magazines should feature more BIPOC chefs, or that young writers of color need to be paid as much as their white peers. Food media must also acknowledge the way in which non-white cultures are seen and characterized in writing—and that certainly includes recipes. Recipes can indeed bring us all together while paying homage to their origins. And they can be packaged for new audiences—with pretty pictures, even—without losing their historic or cultural meanings.

It’s worth noting that recipe development is a technical process—but not purely so. For context, many food publications have a test kitchen with its own dedicated editors and staff. Sometimes these teams interpret and tweak recipes from chefs or home cooks to appear in a magazine; and sometimes, like at Delish, original recipes are developed in-house, often based on trending searches and keywords on Google.

But in the process of taking a recipe and making it “accessible,” things can go wrong—and they have. I think, immediately, of one infamous Bon Appétit pho video that neatly encapsulates every way how-to and recipe content can fail: Ignoring dozens of talented Vietnamese chefs to give expertise to a white chef smacked of Columbusing, while the absolutism of saying “this is the right way to eat pho” erased the rich individual and regional diversity of Vietnamese culinary experience. On a more subtle level, test kitchens have also been accused of altering recipes too much, stripping a dish of its essence for the sake of ease or in some cases to make it “healthy.”

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There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet answer for how test kitchens can avoid cultural appropriation or misrepresentation in recipes. And it’s not even clear that avoiding missteps altogether is totally possible (or the point)—after all, recipes are deeply personal and individual to so many people.

But editors, kitchen editors included, must put in the work to understand the dynamics of power and politics that are at play in the history of a food—who owns what and who deserves credit. And only with more self-education will recipes themselves finally be as diverse as the people who make them.

Four years after that Bon Appétit pho video, the magazine once again found themselves in hot water, not only for underpaying (or not paying) their WOC staff, but also partly thanks to a series of tweets from Puerto Rican food columnist Illyanna Maisonet, in which she shared a screenshotted exchange with then Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport. In these messages, Rapoport told Maisonet her pitch about Afro-Boricuan rice fritters sounded like “a story that could have been told 5 years ago.” The fact that Rapoport soon resigned after old photos surfaced of him brownfacing as a Puerto Rican man points, perhaps, to the ways one person’s cultural insensitivity can trickle down to broader editorial decisions.

Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University, says those who create recipe captions and headnotes can bring awareness to their writing by outright acknowledging the perceived lack of demand. “How many recipes do we see for dishes from sub-Saharan Africa?” Ray asks. “Part of it is that there is less demand and less familiarity in the United States and Europe. Sure, you can say that you don’t want to push recipes that no one wants. But if it is digital, for example, the cost of adding recipes is not that much. Use it to tell a story. Think of a wine store: They offer all the standards but will also spotlight daily staff picks for quirky new wines.”

It could be said that it is one of the roles of food media—those who’ve declared themselves thought leaders and experts of this field—to create demand and interest in less-represented dishes and cuisines. And when magazines and websites have a true interest in amplifying a new cuisine, the same audience development mechanisms used to identify and capitalize on trends could be leveraged to create new ones.

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“There’s friction between going for the most obvious, or ‘potentially marketable’ dish in each cuisine, or picking a lesser-known, but less Googled dish,” Kim Pham, co-founder of the new Southeast Asian meal starter Omsom agrees. Pham worked with leading chefs and restaurateurs, such as Jeepney’s Nicole Ponseca, to develop recipes for shelf-stable sauce packets for Vietnamese, Thai, and Filipino dishes, and she initially struggled to decide whether or not to focus solely on the most recognizable items from each cuisine.

“We ultimately decided that our core audience cares deeply about the latter, and that broader audiences would either be excited by their peers’ enthusiasm for these underrated dishes or compelled by the strong storytelling. I like to think that demand is built through a combination of larger societal movements urging for representation and equity, the changing DNA of this country—and hopefully food media—and POC communities stepping into our power and voices.”

But not even a strong story can guarantee a foot in the door.

When Jackie Summers launched his Caribbean-inspired Sorel Artisanal Liqueur in 2011, he was the only Black man making the liquor in America. Today, not much has changed, and Summers is still fighting for POC and immigrant voices to be heard in the food and beverage space.

“All I did was put my heritage in a bottle,” Summers asserts. “There are people all over the world who are looking to do the same, whether you are from Thailand or Brazil. There are opportunities to make genuine contributions to this culinary firmament because these are flavors white people aren’t familiar with. But I don’t want to see cultures appropriated—I want to see people who have been keeping these generational recipes to access and monetize them the way other things have been monetized.”

POC industry leaders must often work twice as hard to prove not only that they are worthy of coverage, but that their culture is marketable to consumers. The bar is, in essence, much higher. But jumping on a trendy cuisine or culture—without taking a moment to understand its nuances—has proven tough for some.

Take, for example, the moment Filipino cuisine became popular: another infamous media recipe gaffe involved the dilution of the Philippines’ halo halo dessert, swapping the necessary toppings of flan, jackfruit, and macapuno for popcorn and gummy bears—much to the chagrin of the publication’s many Filipino fans. The mistake here wasn’t celebrating and partaking in the excitement around Filipino cuisine—which I’d venture to say was well-intentioned. It was changing the dish without context. For readers who may have been hearing about halo halo for the first time, a storied brand adding gummy bears in their default recipe might suggest that this is a traditional practice.

“Too often, publications give readers cultural recipes that imply they haven’t done enough research themselves,” explains Brooklyn-based food photographer and recipe developer Jillian Atkinson. “They then compound that by making it ‘accessible to white audiences’ and thus oversimplifying time-honored recipes. Something that is seemingly as innocuous as listing an easy-to-find but incorrect replacement for a specific ingredient can offend and feel tone deaf because it’s pushed in front of the masses as factual. As a developer, you have to tell your readers why you made that choice and fill them in on the origins.”

Indeed, there’s no denying that some ingredients are simply tougher to find than others, and making recipes accessible is part of the job for recipe developers. Renowned Vietnamese cookbook author Andrea Nguyen has been one such voice championing the use of substitute ingredients—for instance, Trader Joe’s gluten-free crackers in lieu of traditional rice crackers—as a way of encouraging folks to be open-minded about new cuisines. She once told me she hoped to “liberate the home cook,” nodding to the real, resourceful work-arounds her mother developed when the family first moved to the States and even fish sauce was not commonly available.

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Such swaps, when made from a personal context, are vital as they offer insight into the ways immigrants have had to get resourceful navigating America’s grocery aisles. But there is also a case for substitutions and tweaks in recipes made simply so that more readers will be able to make them—by white recipe developers as well. When introducing dishes that are lesser-known, recipe developers should feel empowered to act as journalists, educating themselves on the swap they intend to make and doing so with clarity and integrity. With that kind of context, readers will also be able to make more informed decisions about how to make their own swaps and riffs in the home kitchen.

We are lucky to live in a time now when herbs, spices, and even produce are more accessible than ever, though. So completely leaving out ingredients solely because we are afraid some will find them too “strange” or “exotic” isn’t the answer. Let people have the option to search for them. After all, by ignoring certain foodways, aren’t food magazines doing a disservice to readers who look up to their authority?

“There’s always a chance that ingredients will not be available regionally, or that a tool is specific to a place—and that’s okay,” says Yvette Leeper-Bueno of the beloved Harlem Mediterranean restaurant Vinateria. “Not every single experience across our nation will be the same in making this recipe. However, it’s important to document and share these recipes and techniques as they are and as they have been done. Of course, if readers need to swap some ingredients for what they have, then they should. That’s a part of cooking. But to be given a watered-down recipe is to devalue the people who take pride in this recipe.”

The health-ification of traditional recipes has also evoked grumbling from various communities of color, particularly when it is insinuated that the original cuisine is inherently “unhealthy.” The most recent notable example of this, perhaps, was the short-lived existence of Lucky Lee’s, a white-owned Chinese restaurant offering “clean” versions of favorite Chinese dishes. Needless to say, Asian-American social media users did not take kindly to the suggestion that their cuisine was somehow dirty and in need of a white savior.

This sort of nutritional tweaking is rampant in recipe development, too. There have been many a collective eye roll for suggestions like making “pho” with broccoli and quinoa. You see, vegetarian pho is already a thing that exists. To be clear, many of our own immigrant parents tweak recipes to make them less fattening or to reduce sugar. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lighten up an existing recipe, but not when it’s unrecognizable from its source material then given a trendy “ethnic” name.

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Demands for cultural sensitivity are not the same as claims of ownership or calls for authenticity. In fact, the notion of “authenticity” is often most harmful to POC’s, as we’re often called upon to represent an entire national cuisine. The reality, explains Ray, is that “national cuisines are a myth.” Take American food, for example: You would never tell a group of folks from Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas that there is only one way to do barbecue. So why would you do the same for Indian curries, Mexican tacos, or Vietnamese noodle soup?

“‘Authenticity’ is, by and large, defined by western-centric expectations of how these dishes should taste, look, and cost,” Pham explains. “POC chefs are hardly given the same space and freedom to innovate. Thus, representation can stagnate when we’re only given a handful of ways to exist.” She adds, “Specificity is also your friend: Any recipe can crack under the burden of being ‘representative’ of an entire country or people. Giving space for there to be multiple versions of a dish, ingredient, and cooking style empowers customers and readers to start their own journeys of learning more.”

Ray agrees, noting that there’s a hierarchy implicitly built into the assumption that “ethnic food” must be authentic and only authentic. This, he says, can be extremely limiting to the range and style of recipes featured from some cuisines. “In certain cuisines, like Nordic cuisine, the chef is allowed to be an artist, and invent things as a signature of his artistry. With ‘poor people’s food,’ it can only ever be authentic. This is an irrational expression of power that we cannot really rationally argue with.”

These movements don’t happen overnight. It will be some time before a white-dominated food media can catch up to the movements taking place through POC networks and on social media. But this period of social upheaval is already leading any publications, like this one, to reconsider their approach.

“We’ve always produced things in-house, but there are endless opportunities to partner with chefs, regional bloggers, and recipe developers who want to tell our story,” says Delish’s food director Lauren Miyashiro. “While we’re really proud of our recipes, we’ve done some reflecting and feel that there’s room for more storytelling in each of these recipes.”

That is what will help position recipes as vital opportunities to provide context and educate readers, and we can start to undo race- and class-based misconceptions about entire cultures. And maybe next time someone tells us to “stick to the recipes,” we can smile and chuckle to ourselves knowing our recipes truly reflect the narratives of the people and events who created them, as uncomfortable and political as those histories may be.

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