The Movable Feast

Food media, archival repair, and what we expect from recipes

October 7, 2021

Last summer, as the country reeled from the murder of George Floyd and the police killing of Breonna Taylor, American food media went through its own race-related upheaval. Fueled by the broader national reckoning as well as internal controversies, many publications launched conversations about appropriation, white privilege, and the relationships between professional success, cultural heritage, and ethnicity. In June, Adam Rapoport, Bon Appétit’s editor in chief, resigned after a photo of him in brownface resurfaced online. In subsequent reports, current and former Bon Appétit workers described a systemically racist workplace where, among other things, people of color who contributed to the magazine’s zeitgeisty YouTube channel—and who often knew more than the hosts—reportedly weren’t paid

Those revelations prompted public contrition and promises to do better. Bon Appétit posted a lengthy apology for the “longstanding racism” at Condé Nast’s brands. “The recipes, stories, and people we’ve highlighted have too often come from a white-centric viewpoint,” read the apology, attributed to the publication’s staff. “At times we have treated non-white stories as ‘not newsworthy’ or ‘trendy.’ Other times we have appropriated, co-opted, and Columbused them.” Vox Media’s Eater posted a statement by its editor, who wrote that the publication “spent years centering a white upper middle class point of view” and “tokenized chefs and cuisines,” among other practices, and pledged accountability. 

For some media outlets, accountability meant a confrontation with their own archives. Following Rapoport’s resignation, Epicurious, which is also owned by Condé Nast, announced the “Archive Repair Project.” David Tamarkin, then the site’s digital director, said Epicurious would revise select archival recipes in order to provide greater cultural context and eliminate racist language. It had already identified a number of recipes “in need of repair,” Tamarkin wrote, and started the work.

“Over the years, Epicurious has published recipes that have been put through a white American lens,” Tamarkin wrote. He continued:

We have published recipes with headnotes that fail to properly credit the inspirations for the dish, or degrade the cuisine the dish belongs to. We have purported to make a recipe “better” by making it faster, or swapping in ingredients that were assumed to be more familiar to American palates, or easier to find. We have inferred (and in some cases outright labeled) ingredients and techniques to be “surprising” or “weird.” And we have published terminology that was widely accepted in food writing at the time, and that we now recognize has always been racist.

Other publications announced similar efforts. Bon Appétit’s apology included a pledge to “audit previously published articles and recipes to ensure proper crediting and contextualization.” The New York Times, which estimated that roughly 20 percent of its twenty thousand archival recipes were “adapted from another source,” retroactively credited thousands of recipe creators who did not receive a byline at the time of publication—an effort staffers connected to new considerations of recipe ownership as well as legacy journalistic practice.

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Critics, meanwhile, seized on the idea of archival repair, suggesting that it threatened the sanctity of the historical record. “If a major media company like Condé Nast can choose to erase and rewrite its food archives for the sake of current Woke sensibilities,” Bret Stephens, a conservative New York Times columnist, wrote, “why stop there?” 

Such critiques paint the back catalogue of Epicurious, which spans twenty-five years, as an “archive” in an older, pre-digital sense; its holdings, by definition, should be preserved as published, historical biases and all. But if permanence is the defining characteristic of an archive, then the very nature of the Web—expansive but also impermanent, subject to content drift and link rot and the sudden, widespread deletion of whole online communities—undercuts it. 

It also introduces new wrinkles. Earlier this year, Tom Redman, a Toronto-based software developer, introduced Recipeasly, a project he created with friends to, as he put it, “fix online recipes.” Recipeasly promised to repackage online recipes “without the ads or life stories”; a user could enter a link to a published recipe, and the site would strip out its author’s personal narrative and any other information one might deem extraneous, reducing it to a list of ingredients and a set of instructions. (Redman took the site down within hours, after critics accused him of wanting to steal food writers’ ideas, deprive them of their livelihoods, and erase their cultures.) 

In recent years, a number of news outlets have introduced processes to retroactively edit digital stories concerning arrests or minor crimes, or to remove them from their online archives. In May, Ben Smith, of the Times, wrote about a “decolonization project” at Atlas Obscura, a travel-oriented website that keeps a database of more than twenty thousand “unique places and foods.” Smith’s piece—which ran, in print, under the headline “Rewriting Stories of the Past”—explained that an editorial team had updated some archival listings to provide greater historical and cultural context, noting that “few in the travel media have taken on re-editing of their product like Atlas Obscura.”

Archival repair may be most consequential—and urgent—for food media because of its singular utility. “The experience of using a cookbook is far more widespread than that of using any other archive,” Kennan Ferguson, a political theorist and author of Cookbook Politics, writes. “Their publication, sale, and distribution transform their archival power into mobility and transportability. These archives travel.” That seems especially true today: the Web grants easy access to the back catalogues of a range of publications, and a decades-old roast chicken recipe might go viral on social media because the information it carries—about ingredients, measurements, temperature, time—is still useful. 

Food media’s present-day utility depends primarily on its past recipes; as Tamarkin wrote in his note to Epicurious readers, “Unlike many other editorial sites, the bulk of our traffic goes to our archive.” Whether you believe those archives demand repair depends, in part, on what you expect from a recipe—and how food media should handle them.

 

A recipe is, itself, a movable archive—a repository of history, culture, and personality.

 

FOOD IS PERHAPS the most immediate way in which we experience other cultures, whether we purchase a meal from a restaurant or—with the help of a recipe—attempt to make it ourselves. Eating food whose cultural origins differ from one’s own is a part of modern life; perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that food can also be a locus of prejudice—a place for the biases of history to manifest themselves. 

Food media, by extension, has always been culturally loaded. Outlets such as Epicurious or Bon Appétit serve the interests of a broad audience by drawing on a collection of recipes whose cultural roots are anchored in different identities, places, and times—even if those roots haven’t always been made visible. 

“Historically, that’s been a problem, with some Southern cookbooks referring demeaningly to ‘Aunt Judy’ having made a particular dish popular,” says Dr. Rafia Zafar, author of Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning. Zafar—who writes about food, identity, and authorship and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis—says that historical erasures and omissions disrupt the lineage of a dish, while invoking the trope of an “aunt” or “grandma” may see a recipe enter a popular archival record, like a magazine, without its creator being named or the origins of its ingredients being explained. 

The recipe is the fundamental vessel for cultural exchange. It is, itself, a movable archive—a repository of history, culture, and personality. And yet recipes have a sort of ambivalent cultural status because they are also, in part, just data—a collection of ingredients and instructions. The utility of a recipe has always required the latter; it does not necessarily require its reader to consider the former. 

But if food, of all things, isn’t connected to cultural identity, then perhaps nothing is. A recipe’s instructions come from its cultural holdings; it’s how many people relate to cuisine. “Many people mistakenly think of food as epiphenomenal to race and cultural identity,” says Ferguson, the Cookbook Politics author. “I actually think that recipes, cookbooks—they’re all constitutive of what it means to be something.” 

Part of the responsibility of presenting food within a context and history is precisely to hold on to those things rather than abandon them. “I think that recipes are like keepers of culture,” says Samira Mohyeddin, a restaurateur and journalist who hosts Unforked, a podcast about food’s intersections with culture and politics. The people who collect, publish, and maintain those recipes wield a great deal of power.

With her siblings, Mohyeddin runs Banu, a restaurant in the west end of Toronto focused on Iranian food. Her family left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution; they hoped to return, but never did. “When you look at communities that have suffered things like genocide, or any type of collective trauma, food can really become a vehicle of preservation of culture,” Mohyeddin says. She recently asked her mother to write down her own recipes in order to preserve them: “If she goes, I don’t know how to cook these things.”

 

The same characteristics that make digital archives susceptible to loss also make them vessels for recovery, restoration, and preservation.

 

EMILY WEINSTEIN, deputy food editor at the Times, refers to NYT Cooking, the Times’ portal to thousands of recipes, as a “living library.” The phrase suggests something less like an archive proper, and closer to a repository of cultural knowledge that changes in response to the times. Some of those changes may reflect political concerns like diversity. (“Our archives didn’t reflect the diversity of our contributors at all,” Weinstein says.) Others reflect changes in the nature of food, agriculture, and technique—as she puts it, “a chicken breast in 1981 isn’t the same as a chicken breast in 2021.” 

The malleability of digital archives—and the possibility that the historical record can morph, or even disappear, without any notice—is troubling for journalists, along with historians and anyone else who is concerned with truth. But even traditional archives aren’t passive receptacles; they are collections shaped by culture and power. Nor are archivists merely record-keepers; their work also involves uncovering what was hidden, obscured, or suppressed.

“Ordinary people often get left out of histories,” says Dr. Ian Mosby, a food historian and assistant professor of history at Ryerson University who studies community cookbooks. Mosby has written about the cultural devaluation of cookbooks, including their selective omission from more traditional archives. Community cookbooks—bound collections of recipes that circulated among people who shared a place—often reveal cultural context that has been obscured elsewhere, and that might reshape how we understand a dish and its history. 

The same characteristics that make digital archives susceptible to loss also make them vessels for recovery, restoration, and preservation. Whether food media outlets use the flexibility of digital media that way—for recovery and repair, not extraction or erasure—may tell us something about how they understand their journalistic obligations to accuracy and telling complicated truths. 

“Food is more responsive to political demands than a lot of other things in our culture,” Ferguson says. “It’s easier to say, ‘Look at this history of a recipe—let’s change it’ than it is to restructure the whiteness of the business class in America.” 

Archival repair shows how food media understands its obligation to its audience—a group that includes the chefs, cooks, workers, and cultures it draws its recipes from, as well as anyone else who comes to learn about food—and vice versa. Why read food media, after all, if not to learn about food? Shouldn’t that be the point?

Navneet Alang is a writer and lecturer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Eater, BuzzFeed, The New Republic, and more.