Where Food Writing Leads

Illustration: Chris Kindred

In the winter of 1994, Dorothy Kalins decided that she was so bored with food magazines that she would start her own. “They were just totally deracinated,” Kalins recalls of the “Big Three”—Condé Nast’s sibling publications, Bon Appétit and Gourmet, and Food & Wine. “They were removed from the roots of the food.” Kalins, a former editor-in-chief of Metropolitan Home, found the magazines’ collective sensibility service-oriented to a fault, pushing “dopey” stories with spreads about “six ways to make pork chops and low-fat cassoulet.” Recipes were the grist; occasional sojourns to faraway lands were mostly in Europe, if writers dared to leave the country at all.

Kalins had a vision of a better way. “We would go to the ends of the Earth and shoot the food coming out of the kitchen of the people who cooked it,” she says. Her new magazine, Saveur, launched that May. The masthead was small and uniformly white, but Kalins was determined to cover food cultures that a white American readership may have previously seen as esoteric. Leaf through the first issues and you’ll find stories about a family of tea farmers in China’s Fujian province, spices of the city of Madras in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a diaristic account of a trip to the Moroccan city of Tangier. Saveur’s first cover story was devoted to Oaxacan cooking. In it, the writer, Peggy Knickerbocker, goes out of her way to dispel antiquated American notions of Mexican food: “Mole is not, contrary to popular opinion, ‘chicken in chocolate sauce.’”

Over seven years at Saveur, Kalins, who left the magazine in 2001 to become the executive editor of Newsweek, noticed the Big Three begin to absorb her magazine’s editorial DNA. Kalins and her team had positioned food at the center of culture; under Saveur’s influence, food writing expanded its purview. But the same period also ushered the demise of the glossy food magazine. Gourmet published its last print issue in 2009; Food & Wine may be better known today for its yearly festival in Aspen than its magazine. Bon Appétit remains in existence, though Condé Nast cut it back to 10 issues per year.

It became apparent that Trump’s victory had made food publications wake up. Food writers of color told me that they were startled by the degree to which editors asked them to write about their identities.

In place of the Big Three, however, there has been a digital democratization of food writing—Eater, part of Vox Media; Munchies, of Vice; Food52, a site for home cooks that also has an e-commerce arm; and Civil Eats, a daily news website. In 2011, Lucky Peach, David Chang’s print magazine, flipped the idea of the glossy food magazine on its head, devoting entire issues to ramen and breakfast. Food writing has gradually become something more journalists want to do, a new way to tell stories about culture.

I began to see a space for myself in this industry when I read Eater’s “Life in Chains” series; each essay is achingly personal and tethered to a writer’s experiences in an American chain restaurant. John DeVore, in “Finding Home at Taco Bell,” writes lucidly about his affinity for what some could dismiss as a “garish facsimile of an entire nation’s culture”—an attraction informed by his tangled relationship to his mother and his Mexican heritage. When I read Lucky Peach, I was captivated by John Birdsall’s essay about modern American food’s gay male innovators, and Kevin Pang’s essay on the need for more humane prison food. The magazine folded in 2017, but its impact has remained powerful.

When, in 2016, an editor at Food52 contacted me about a staff writer position, I saw an opportunity to tell stories like these—reported essays that brush up against the politics of identity and inequality. Although I maintained some skepticism—I still perceived the food world to be the domain of the white and moneyed, of which I am neither—I knew that, in its finest form, food writing could function as both vivid storytelling and bracing cultural critique. I decided to take the job.

On November 3, 2016, I published a feature on Food52 about Madhur Jaffrey, America’s foremost authority on Indian cooking. We made a point of running the story days before the election, so that it wouldn’t get lost. Looking back, I wonder what traction the story would have gotten had we published it later. After the electoral votes were counted, the story of Jaffrey, a woman of color and an immigrant, had newfound political relevance almost overnight.

Over the next year, through my conversations with food writers and editors of color, it became apparent that Trump’s victory had made food publications wake up. Food writers of color told me that they were startled by the degree to which editors asked them to write about their identities. “The election was a weird turning point for a lot of publications,” Amanda Kludt, the editor-in-chief of Eater, says, as we discuss the hiring of writers of color. “I think it’s been a gradual understanding that it’s not just the right thing to do, but if you’re looking at your own self-interest, you want to reach as many people as possible and reach as many parts of the country as possible.”

But sometimes this came to feel like a burden, as journalists were asked to serve as interlocutors for an otherwise uninformed audience. “There were a lot of struggles to understand myself for most of my life,” Nneka M. Okona, an Atlanta-based food and travel writer who is Nigerian American, says. “Food was my pathway to beginning to find my way, beginning to accept myself. But only writing pieces that delved into the pain of that began to feel really exploitative after a while.” Other journalists express frustration with editors’ misplaced expectations. “They want it from their perspective,” Korsha Wilson, who writes about food media, race, and class, says. “They want me to be the face of it, but when it comes time for me to tell it from my point of view, they’re like, no, no, we wanted you tell it how we would tell it, but black.”

To see more work by writers of color gain traction is exhilirating, but it can also seem a touch reactive—something that could be slotted in as a temporary solution to a broader national crisis. These companies might be well-intentioned in their efforts, but on the masthead level, there isn’t always an infrastructure to support diverse storytelling in a consistent way. Today, when catastrophe strikes, it usually arrives in the form of misguided coverage that brings to the fore the homogeneity of staffs. “It can be very difficult when you’re working with an editor who doesn’t understand cultural nuances,” Nicole Taylor, who has written for The New York Times and Esquire, says. “I realize that I sometimes have to fight for certain phrases or things. A lot of times, the editor just doesn’t know that.”

A notable editorial lapse came in August 2017, in the Times coverage of Taiwanese bubble tea. The piece, which ran in the Business section, originally had the headline, “The Blobs in Your Tea? They’re Supposed to Be There,” presupposing an audience utterly dumbstruck by the concept of tapioca balls floating in tea despite decades of market saturation in America. “Remember the first time you went to a Starbucks, and had no idea what to do?” Joanne Kaufman asked in the first version of the article. “These days, bubble tea, an Asian import, seems to be going through the same consumer learning curve, as entrepreneurs bring their exotic menus to malls and big American cities.” Blowback on social media to the article was swift; readers pilloried the Times for framing bubble tea as peculiar and unfamiliar to the American palate when, for many readers, it was anything but. The response resulted in a mea culpa from the paper a day later; describing tapioca balls as “blobs,” editors confessed, framed the drink as “strange and alien.”

A misstep can also take the form of a tone-deaf tweet: in August 2018 Food & Wine called concha, a Mexican sweetbread whose grooves resemble those of a seashell, a “brioche-like roll.” The phrase relies on a Eurocentric point of cultural comparison, using the name of a French pastry to describe a Mexican confection that the tweet doesn’t even name. (The next day, the site’s senior audience engagement editor, Meg Clark, said on Twitter that she was “deeply sorry and will do better in the future.”)

As we look forward to where food writing can go, I am skeptical about whether publications can expand their editorial purviews rapidly enough to reach the same audiences they may have once alienated.

“We’re very much still in this responsive, reactionary moment,” Stephen Satterfield, the founder and editor of Whetstone magazine, a print quarterly, says. “There is a newness to this so-called diversity for these publications.” Satterfield, who is black, launched Whetstone in 2017 with an IndieGoGo campaign. Frustrated with traditional, predominantly white, publications, he wanted to create space for writers to examine “the origins of the things we eat and drink, seeking to better understand people through their food and traditions.”

Beyond the moral imperative, commissioning writers of color is a shrewd business decision, Satterfield says; if food publications can’t diversify the tenor of their coverage, they risk not engaging a potentially vibrant segment of readers. That compromises their bottom lines. Watching food media over the past couple years, he says, does not make him optimistic. “I need to be convinced that this isn’t just reflective of a business opportunity through the lens of contemporary conversation—this moment that can be capitalized on.”

When I joined Food52, I was the lone person of color on a masthead of seven white women. I wondered how I would fit in. It is a question I continue to grapple with, among others: Who gets centered in the narratives that food media peddles? How much does that have to do with what mastheads look like, and who the people on those mastheads imagine their audiences to be?

In February 2017, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, the cofounders of Food52, issued a statement about the ways in which the company intended to redress a lack of racial equality in its workplace. The letter stated that the company was, at the time, 92 percent white. In January 2018, they published a follow-up letter updating readers on the progress of their efforts, stating that their staff had been reduced to being 76 percent white. Less clear was the effect that change had on what stories the site published. “I feel a great responsibility, especially as a queer person of color, to commission and publish writers who represent a wide variety of races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds every week,” Eric Kim, now a senior editor at Food52, says. He adds that he has received “a hundred percent support from everyone” for this mission, and that half of his hiring committee was comprised of people of color.

I left Food52 in October 2017 another writing job, and have since gone freelance. This past April, I won a James Beard award for a profile I had written for Food52 on Princess Pamela, a black Southern woman who owned two soul food restaurants in New York City then vanished. Another winner was Osayi Endolyn, for her column in the Southern Foodways Alliance’s quarterly print magazine Gravy, where she served as deputy editor. (She has left that job.) Endolyn, who is black, stresses that both she and I were on the mastheads of the publications for which we won awards—a position that gave us a degree of power to fight for our stories. She doubts that her writing—charged, honest, often describing being gawked at by white waitstaffs—would have been published otherwise. “What it means to be nominated for an award like that is that you first had the opportunity to write those pieces,” she says. “The awards are only so much an indicator of change as the pool of pieces there are to choose from.”

As we look forward to where food writing can go, I am skeptical about whether publications can expand their editorial purviews rapidly enough to reach the same audiences they may have once alienated. I fear that the level of recognition bestowed by the James Beard Awards will fade. I can only hope that food media does not fall back on the tendencies that once jolted a generation of editors like Dorothy Kalins to act. We can’t forget how much what we eat tells us about the world.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Food Porn

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award–winning food and culture writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bon Appétit, and elsewhere.