Updated on May 12 at 8:45 a.m. ET.
Cathy Erway, a James Beard Award-winning food writer, was “a little late” to the Alison Roman drama that erupted on social media late last week.
On Saturday, Erway saw headlines that Roman — the cookbook author and New York Times food columnist of Instagram fame — criticized Chrissy Teigen, a bestselling cookbook author, and Marie Kondo, who popularized her organizing strategy in books and a television show, for monetizing their lifestyle brands. (In the same May 7 interview, Roman, who has enjoyed a boost in popularity amid stay-at-home orders, told the New Consumer about her forthcoming television show and cookware collaboration.)
That led to both Roman and Teigen weighing in on Twitter, and culminated in a lengthy public apology from Roman and an announcement from Teigen she’d be taking a break from social media. Kondo has not publicly addressed Roman’s comments.
Specifically, Roman knocked Teigen for launching a product line after publishing her cookbooks and called her Instagram page “a content farm.” She similarly accused Kondo of “capitalizing on her fame,” saying she’d “just sold out immediately.” On its face, it was the kind of social media beef that lights up Twitter for a day or two, then dies with the next big celebrity drama.
But many followers have continued pointing out the nuances of this one: that a successful white woman was disparaging two successful Asian women, who are already a rarity in the food and lifestyle worlds. “It’s lousy that women of color were the target of her disdain when this is a space dominated by white women,” the writer Roxane Gay tweeted.
And for some women in the food world, including Erway, the controversy shed light on problems that had been simmering long before.
Erway, who is half-Taiwanese, has been in the food media business since the “early days,” as she calls them: She began blogging about food in 2006, and was soon writing articles for various outlets. Her first book, a memoir about going two years without dining out in New York City, was published in 2010; she worked for years to get her second, “The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island,” published in 2015.
She’d always had “an unspoken gut feeling” about Roman’s recipes that rubbed her the wrong way, she says. And Erway realized the Twitter drama was actually opening up a larger conversation about who’s allowed to be an authority on ethnic foods, as well as “who is allowed to rise to a certain level of success.”
Erway wasn’t alone in her “gut feeling.” After all, Roman had become the author of recipes that held such authority they’d started being referred to on social media as simply “The Cookies” or “The Stew.” In the latter case, many people took issue with the fact that “The Stew,” a coconut milk and chickpea dish, borrows spices and flavor combinations from different cultures and cuisines. Critics felt Roman hadn’t always given credit where it was due. (As Jezebel reported, the New York Times later adjusted its description of Roman’s dish to include that it “evokes stews found in South India and parts of the Caribbean.”)
Roxana Hadadi, an Iranian American pop culture writer based outside of Baltimore, says that she’d been seeing similar comments play out in her social media circles for a while. “There’d been a lot of low-key disgruntlement about the fact that we’re seeing the word ‘stew’ instead of ‘curry,’” she says. “Or that we’re seeing her use ingredients like harissa or kimchi or all of these other things that are very specifically tied to certain areas of the world — harissa to North Africa, kimchi is Korean. To not give any sort of acknowledgement of that was beginning to grate on certain people.”
Jenny Dorsey, an Asian American professional chef, food writer and social entrepreneur, says the issue comes down to trying to make food more “approachable” to whatever the hegemonic group is — in this case, white Americans. Reframing a “curry” as a “stew” might be just one example. “But food doesn’t owe you being approachable,” she says. “It’s complicated and it has a lot of history and we owe it to food to look that up, to put in that work.”
Roman has not responded to a request for comment.
Cultural appropriation has long been a contentious topic for those in the food world, according Kyla Wazana Tompkins, a professor of gender and food studies at Pomona College. Tompkins says that the “commodification of ethnicity” has become woven into the story of American food culture. As she puts it:
Erway remembers trying to get her second book, “The Food of Taiwan,” published. She says she “just kept getting turned away. It was demoralizing to hear, over and over again: ‘Asian cookbooks don’t sell.’”
Eventually, she says, an editor decided they could sell it as an evergreen title. But she’s always operated under the idea that a cookbook has to have a certain hook, a certain selling point. And that it has to appeal to a certain demographic. “My editor always says, ‘Try to make something that ladies will buy in Barnes and Noble in the Midwest,’” Erway explains. “It’s really about how much a cookbook publisher decides to throw their weight behind a certain title.”
It’s also an issue of whose voices are amplified. Here, too, America is contending with a long history of inequity, according to Tompkins. “Some of the earliest sense of what American cooking was was represented by cookbooks written by white women,” she says. “But so much of it was invented by African American women in the North and in the South.”
That trend has continued today: One analysis showed that the vast majority of New York Times recipes for Chinese, Indian and other ethnic cuisines were written by white writers.
Indeed, the conversation around who is allowed to be a lifestyle influencer has taken off in recent months. As Erway points out, Roman’s criticism of Kondo follows what she calls the “outsized” backlash directed toward the Japanese lifestyle influencer. Erway thinks there’s something “inherently racist” in some of that backlash, as other writers have pointed out. Again, she says, it’s a question of who’s allowed to rise to a certain level of success.
Justina Blakeney falls squarely in the category of “lifestyle influencer,” with her own interior design brand, a bestselling book and nearly 400,000 Instagram followers. Blakeney, who is half black, says that she’s often found herself as the tokenized woman of color in certain corners of the “influencer” space. Although she feels her racial differences acutely, she’s not sure her white counterparts think about diversity in the same way.
“I think a lot of people who are perpetuating the homogeneity of the industry don’t know that they’re doing it,” she says. “They’re not doing it with malice. They’re just straight up not clued in. It’s a little bit of a silent enemy.”
Blakeney sees her role as lifting other women of color up alongside her: “For me, it’s so important to continuously be handing that ladder down to other women to be climbing up,” she says.
But some are less optimistic about these industries changing. Dorsey, the professional chef, says it’s “uplifting” to see people of color, including Teigen, in high-profile positions. But at the same time, elevating a few women to those positions won’t change the system, she says. And still, it’s left to them to try to change things from the inside. “It’s exhausting,” Dorsey says. “It’s not fair to put that on just a few people’s shoulders.”
Some are hoping that this will be a learning moment for everyone involved. “To me, food is one of those things that’s meant to build empathy and understanding,” says Hadadi, the pop culture writer. “So I just really hope people think a little bit more about other people’s experiences and what they bring to those conversations.”