#015 | In Digestion With ...
Revisiting the interviews from 2020
Hello. Thanks for being here.
This is In Digestion, a weekly survey of the best food media on the web, and why you should care about it. If you like this newsletter, please follow @in_digestion and @jameskhansen on Twitter, and forward it to a large number of people. It should feel like too many. It won’t be enough. Thank you.
Last week rounded up the round-ups, picking out sixteen great pieces from everything featured in the newsletter in its life so far. This week, here are the best excerpts from paid subscriber interviews with some of the most exciting people in the food media world.
Wherever this finds you, take care, and see you on 8 January for the first food media round-up of 2021.
That focus on “what’s so special” is interesting, because it seems like a lot of plaudits that you, and countless other writers get for work in the kind of publications that you’re discussing is: Oh, this is doing something different. This perspective is different. The word is always “different,” and it’s always followed with, there needs to be more of this kind of work; more of these perspectives. But then things don't seem to change. They stay different, they’re not the norm. So: If these ways of thinking are so overdue and should be the norm … How come they’re still different?
I've been searching for an answer to that for a long time. I think a lot of people in food writing treat that kind of work with kid gloves. As a token. Like: “Oh, that's so nice and it's so pretty, we should care about this person now.” And then: Okay. Back to regularly scheduled programming.
I do fear that the kind of work that I do and so many other writers do, want to do, will always be siloed off from the “norm.” I'm really not sure how that will change aside from staging a coup of the mastheads enforcing this tyranny and fertilising this monoculture of storytelling. My proposed solution to a lot of problems has always been change the masthead, change them demographically. Have more people of colour on staff. But now I'm saying: have more women; have more people of colour; but also, have more people who are not upper middle-class, because that is the huge problem that plagues American media. And, I'm speaking as someone who went to Stanford, I have a ton of material privilege. I really think that the perspectives and editorial priorities will shift if we do see people who do not come from extremely monied backgrounds at the top of these mastheads. That informs your narrative orientation; the story you put in the centre.
What also concerns me about that norm is that the resultant over-emphasis on fine dining seems to get “corrected” by this equally over-emphasised fetishisation of fast food and corporations. It wants to be a corrective and to be broadly inclusive, and it some nuanced cases it can be, but what it ends up doing is rhapsodising, blind to the inequities within fast food and so many other kinds of food corporations.
There was a slew of shows in the 2000s and 2010s whereby Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay et al were parachuted into these institutions to “fix” food. There’s a complicated legacy there, particularly with Oliver, but the thing that strikes me now is how the chefs, the “food people,” had no idea how to navigate the limitations caused by lack of funding or bureaucracy … which leads us back to that limited definition of specialisation.
Absolutely, that position as a chef can lend you an authority that can be plastered over any setting, any food setting. Sweep in, apply the skills. But that’s simply not the case. I think it more generally points to the fact that not everyone has to do everything. Power doesn’t have to just sweep in and “fix” everything, it can open the doors for someone who can actually navigate a particular space to work within it and improve it. That could stop people from landing in a setting that they have no experience in. I also found, researching the piece, that people inside and deeply attuned to the system have been trying to reform it for many many years, there’s always grass-roots efforts, they’re abundant, they’re doing the work. Lend power to them.
I think at the same time, though, there’s a need to recognise that a very common feeling is that people have less power than they do. Look at Giles Coren as a case study. Because he’s not from the landed gentry, he sees himself as an underdog in the restaurant critic world, which is quite clearly ridiculous, but everyone does that, all the time. I came from a reality TV show, which was a huge springboard, and there are people who have worked much harder than I did to get here, and I think about that all the time. For me, personally, if you see something in your industry that you know is wrong, then the work is saying something, doing something. That’s not to say I’ve always done the right thing, but I’ve got roots in this now, and I want to use them and their power to lift up other people, rather than feeling like I’m an underdog.
It’s not as if equity is a novel idea, so why do you think things are rarely historicised enough in U.K. food media?
I thought about this a lot the last few days: Why do things reset into the same patterns when the promise was change? I think it comes down to a question: “How would the world be if I were king?” Give friends jobs, do the things that we believe in, and we see this happen again and again — when a new guard comes in there’s a moment of disruption, and then … Why can’t we keep the power ourselves? That reset, it’s a bit illusory. It doesn’t change until the ownership and the structure that puts whatever that “reset” is in place changes. At legacy media companies, there could be the editorial new guard that has the possibility of change, but will the structure let them do the work? Thinking of the worst critics in food, the most sexist, awful people: what is the management structure that is putting them in place? There’s so much focus on the talent, the hiring of the talent, but it’s the structure above that that puts this thing in place. And those people will know that every time they are criticised, their value goes up to the structure that put them in place, and that’s why — as well as awfulness — they keep them in place. That’s the thing.
Clichés about Italian food seem baked into U.K. food writing because of this constant cultural comparison between the relationship with food, with land, with climate, with agriculture, with farming, with production, all of which is frequently heavily romanticised to the point of obscuring reality. What do Romans think about that?
There’s a nice Luigi Barzini quote, that they feel looked on with “indulgenza e sentimentalismo” — but pride, disbelief, a sort of companionship… Italians are proud of it being their food culture to talk about, but the same set of motifs will exist in Italian food writing. “Everybody” grew up with wine and bread and olive oil, “everybody” had passata to take home in the summer, “everybody” had midnight spaghetti. They’re so drilled down, so forcefully. They are true … in some regard … but they become a lie when they don’t allow anything else in. Everything is much uglier and complicated than that, and coming out of them is difficult, people are challenged when they try to go beyond — there’s a sense of danger. The rotten tomatoes and labour in Sicily, the Bangladeshi chefs in Roman restaurants that people profess to love but are also inexplicably threatened by. There’s the safety of the cliché that keeps people from addressing reality.
Somebody was asking me why I thought that Sohla would take $50,000. And my response is, that they don’t get it. If you want to work in food media, in food, and you don’t want a restaurant — and Sohla had a restaurant, she has explored the possibility— working in her position, with 15 years of experience, for $50,000, it’s still one of the best possible outcomes. Even if you have that experience. Even if you are made to be a token helping hand in a video. That’s still one of the best possible outcomes. And she had fans! That’s the most disgusting part. They see that she had fans and they don’t even bother to work and to develop that talent. They’re mishandling her and they’re mishandling her followers, who got so much bigger than they possibly… They don’t understand that when you’re entertaining teenagers, you have to entertain genuinely woke politics. These kids have really, really high standards for what society should be like. And they’re already existing on this level, in the way that they speak, live, talk to others. It’s inspiring, and the fact that Bon Appétit could not comport the expectations of their audience with their actual actions is what came to a head. You cannot get your audience to develop a relationship with a great person like Sohla and then just have the… Have the ugliness be revealed. Have it be built on a lie.
The last thing I wanted to ask about was your approach to genealogy in food writing, drawing on your newsletter about the subject. The ways in which food writers can encourage the idea that an individual piece is both part of, and indebted to, a multiplicity of other people’s thinking.
I think this brings us full circle, regarding being right and having a final argument. I reject the need to have the last word on something; I think it’s more meaningful to be part of a conversation that acknowledges that, at the stage of writing any piece, there is still much to learn and that’s not a bad thing! You can continue to add to a family tree, or you can hack its roots off. Does a writer want to see patterns or ignore them? It’s why I do what I do, really: food writing has that multiplicity of roots and branches, and sometimes they just get pruned off because people are too busy chasing the new and not acknowledging what’s gone before.
Not acknowledging people perpetuates power systems that disadvantage the people not being acknowledged, and this failure to credit and cite is very much part of that. Looking at Toni Tipton-Martin’s book, The Jemima Code, for example, which explains how black cooks were forced to be invisible because their knowledge was not treated as knowledge, but as “magic,” floating from brain to brain, which denies a culture’s real and intellectual roots and deliberately marginalises it. There’s Lena Richard, a New Orleans cook who published a book in 1940, and then set up a cooking school to be able to teach black women recordable information about culinary traditions. She wanted to transmit knowledge in a way that it was seen, for it to be testimony.
What that feeds into for me is the showing your working — knowing about the people who came before you, and how you got to where you got.
Something Tammie Teclemariam said in our interview is that the conditions of the pandemic have accelerated the food media “reckoning,” because the power relations are less powerful in absence than presence — the toll of personal confrontation is lesser, and everything being digital allows for more dexterity. Do you think that’s impacted the growth in particularity we’re talking about?
Yes, and it’s also tied to protest, and how being at home means being unable to avoid seeing images, videos. I don’t like the term “reckoning,” — but these food media teams are at home, on Slack, chatting, and people are more easily able to get feelings out.
What is lacking in the term “reckoning” — I agree it’s not sufficient for understanding this.
It centres white voices. It implies that these conversations weren’t happening already, when they were happening already between Black folks and other writers of colour. “Reckoning” makes it feel like the people responsible for the problems are discovering something not theirs, when in reality it is entirely theirs, and in reality they are just finally listening and still far from meaningful change.
I feel like that feeds back into food writing often treating itself as divorced from society; the Popeyes chicken sandwich fêted while ICE is making raids at meat plants in America. Cognitive dissonance on full display. Speaking to that, when I cited an example of this in a U.K. newspaper last week, you said: “Food writers don’t read the news!” What does that mean to you?
[Laughs] I do think food writers read the news! But I don’t think food writers let the news impact the way they write about food enough. That is a problem, and again with the principle of the mask — writers should be thinking of these things when writing about the thing that ultimately keeps people alive, or kills people, on this planet. It’s hard because for me, for you, for other people who have set up their own forums: people can see what we’re reading and thinking about. Other writers who are maybe more beholden to staff positions, editorialising, etc.; it’s harder to see how their work is influenced. And while I do hope self-publishing and worker-owned media becomes more of a thing, for a million different reasons, I also really hope it becomes a thing because it allows people to see the fullness of other people’s reading, and other people’s influences, and other people’s thinking. I think that is sorely missing in most food writing: food writers haven’t been talking to each other extensively on the level of reading, thought, not in public and on a deep level anyway. Things like Black Book and other panels happening that are very transatlantic, that’s exciting too: Because everything has to be virtual people are realising that geographical restraints were actually fairly artificial. And I don’t think that will end with the “end” of travel restrictions and the return of real life panels.
Following on from that — because one of the ripple effects, and intentions, of the Armenian Genocide was not just to kill people but to kill and vanquish culture, do you feel a particular pressure towards writing as an act of documentation and testimony?
Yes, I do. It is such a part of the modern Armenian story, and the consequences of it, as you said, are a ripple effect that still continues today. I find sometimes that it’s almost… A race against time, to document these stories, because there are generations with which these stories are dying; culinary knowledge that is disappearing and has disappeared quite a lot, over the last hundred years. So, yes, that is a motivating factor, to continue to find these stories and to dig them up and to write them down and to speak about them, because I think that is itself a form of resistance to history; a form of resilience. Food and the genocide are so entirely interconnected. There are so many stories, and they weigh heavy on a person’s identity: heavy with both this traumatic event that changed the course of Armenian history, and the way in which people transmit their identity through that traumatic event and through food. Writing about is just a form of resisting that history’s disappearance.
Looking now at the Best New Restaurants 2020, what was the process like of finishing all the reporting on that, and then having its foundations swept away?
That was hell. Finding a framework that made sense, and felt like it honoured the work of these restaurants, their staff, but also acknowledged everything that was going on, was extremely hard. The framework ended up looking at how they coped, and, as much as there are so many things that need to be urgently fixed about the restaurant industry, I have to say, in the process of reporting this there was such a resilience that I think can get buried in discussions about what needs to be fixed. There are people out there doing work to try and make things equitable and fair, really digging their heels in to ensure that their communities remain fed and their staff are financially taken care of. And the government needs to step up and help out; people shouldn’t have to decide between risking their life and paying rent, but that’s the choice that’s on the table for so many people. That resilience has been heartening, to me.
This year in particular has made me question list-making even further, and it’s a subject I’ve been sceptical and ambivalent about for a long time, even though a large part of my job is literally to make two lists. I question its merits really often, especially with BNR, and I am now actively reevaluating that process, and reevaluating if it even needs to exist. I’m not so sure that it does and I’m not so sure how equitable that type of list really is — at least with Best New Chefs, there’s a timeframe of five years that allows for personal and professional evolution, whereas BNR has such a tight timeframe that it invariably skews towards favouring the types of restaurants that get funding; have money; can hire enough staff to make service smooth immediately; can get equipment that is shiny and new and won’t break down; can afford décor, PR, social media consultants. Whatever it is… I did a lot this year to get to restaurants that aren’t inside those categories, and I think those models can be broken down… But I wonder if the word “best” is even enough. Is even good. Is even the best!
Specialty coffee ultimately has upheld a lot of bullshit, a lot of exclusion, and while that’s being unpeeled a bit now in terms of conversations around accessibility, there's a bigger conversation about… What do you really mean when you say accessible and accessible to whom? And that’s why right now I think the energy and interest and genuine change is happening in Black-owned coffee companies. The idea that specialty coffee’s endpoint, in cafes, is for snooty rich white people totally stands in the face of coffee, which is ultimately pretty egalitarian on the consumption level, in that caffeine interacts with the nervous system, the same way. It doesn't matter how much money you make a year or where you grew up. So specialty coffee, to a point, including that name even, is just all these cultural trappings and bullshit that we put upon it, and I think the strongest, concerted push to change that is coming from Black entrepreneurs. I think it's the biggest story of specialty coffee in America over the last five years. And if we can do anything at Sprudge to like put as much spotlight on it as possible and champion it and blow it up and do all that kind of stuff, that will have been a good use of our existence.
Engaging in a question pivot to something we've talked about a lot: why do you think sustainability in restaurants so often excludes or isn't even in discussed in terms of people.
White men can look in the mirror and just see themselves and not the systems around them, and they can present however they want to in the world and not think about the systems around them that will yeah. Because they are so dominant in the conversation of sustainability, they don't need to see the systems around them. The human part, to them, is them, and so that humanity doesn't get to be complicated because they don't have to complicate it in their everyday lives, when walking into a space. I think it's as simple as that. And the effect that things like waste get centred as something because you can immediately solve this problem because it's in front of you. How do I not waste all this broccoli? And that immediate problem can be solved right with imagination. And that imagination is on the individual. And that individual gets to be imaginative and creative and reproduce something that is imaginative and creative that doesn't interrogate the systems. Ultimately, to discuss sustainability at a really deep and big level, you do have to have a certain amount of privilege because you have to sit there and think about it and talk about it, you don't necessarily have to be participating in every day, whereas people who are doing sustainable work every day often aren't talking about it all the time because it takes so much work and they're too busy doing it! Currently the privilege of going out and spreading the news is restricted to the white guy who can travel and say that he's done something imaginative with broccoli, you know, and so that iteration of sustainability gets spread as gospel.
As someone living in New York City, but born in the Philippines, and having lived in Philadelphia and Boston, how have your changing geographical vantage points affected your perspective in your writing about Filipino food and culture, and how does the lens of nostalgia come into play?
I think just being an Asian-American person in the United States… A lot of our food culture is predicated on nostalgia, and I think there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it can sometimes be quite powerful in holding people back. It fits into this idea of fixing foods in a particular version, in the case of nostalgia often, the version someone grew up with, and this can limit the evolution of food; nostalgia’s useful to an extent but overall it’s something I’m trying to move away from, because it prevents moving Filipino food into new areas — Filipino-American, for example.
As far as location goes, that’s a really interesting thing, because I grew up in Philadelphia with very few Filipino people around me and then I moved to Boston for college, and so there weren’t many Filipino people there either, that I was aware of. Living in New York, Filipino cuisine is very very visible here, by comparison, which is incredibly exciting. But I’m always aware of remembering that things happening in NYC aren’t necessarily happening everywhere. Here there’s an increasingly divergent sense of what Filipino food is and can be — there’s a place doing just vegan Filipino food; places that define themselves as New York-Filipino food — and in Boston there’s still only two or three places. It’s not possible to paint in broad strokes.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of reporting on something which is obviously happening in the present, but is also baked in to hundreds, if not thousands of years of Indigenous history?
Maybe as a place to start … There’s so many layers to this question. A few years ago I produced a short radio story about a Mi’kmaw woman who was fishing lobster, without a license, outside of the government-regulated fishing season. And she was fishing to assert her inherent rights as a Mi’kmaw person. And this was a short radio piece; there wasn’t enough space to cover this story as it needed to be, and it was something I kept thinking about.
The woman who I interviewed, Marilynn-Leigh Francis, is a key character in the New Lobster Wars piece, and this was one of these stories that I had been working on in my spare time for over a year. It wasn’t uncommon to be doing interviews at 7:30 a.m.; reading through confidential government documents that I had obtained in the evenings. At every turn it was clear that more context was needed, that to talk about one thing always meant to talk about several other things. I’m not answering this question concisely… [laughs]
It doesn’t need to be concise (!)
One thing that comes to mind then is that, at the heart of this story: it’s lobster and it’s the Mi’kmaq nation asserting their inherent right to fish, hunt, and harvest outside of Canadian government regulations, and these are rights that are enshrined in treaties and have been upheld by the Supreme Court in Canada. Sometimes — and it depends where in Canada we’re talking about — treaties can be referred to as existing only in the past. But when I went out fishing with Marilynn-Leigh Francis, on the water with her two summers ago, she has written the name of her treaty on the buoys that are attached to those lobster traps. When she puts those lobster traps in the water, that buoy, that says Treaty 1752, is bobbing in the water, in the present, that has been here for so many millennia. Those treaties were negotiated in the 18th century, but they’re right here in the present. They’re written in Jiffy marker on a buoy. What I’ve endeavoured to do with this story is to try to show the lived reality — from multiple perspectives — of what it means to not honour treaties; how colonisation is ongoing in Canada and what this means to impact lives in an embodied way. So we can speak about colonisation and treaties in an abstract sense, but I think it matters to show how colonisation continues to impact lives in this very, tangible way.
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