#17 | 2020 in Digestion
Rounding up the round-ups
Hello. Thanks for being here.
This is the seventeenth edition of 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.
First, some housekeeping. After starting this newsletter at a tear in March, a combination of adrenalin, intensity, and Bon Appétit’s perpetual ability to implode kept me running through to September. Then, as things changed in London — restaurants turning from frenetic scrambling to a sort of becalmed resignation — adrenalin reserves depleted, and Bon Appétit continued to implode. The year caught up with me, and exhaustion set in. In Digestion, had, well, indigestion. But:
In Digestion will return to its regular programming of Friday food media round-ups and Saturday paid subscriber interviews from 8 January 2021. In the interim, all of the archive will be free to read; interviews will revert to being paid subscribers only when subscriptions resume, from 5 January. A special thank you to my subscribers, and a special thank you to all my free readers too.
Second, some good old end of year content. This will be in two parts. The first, this one, will select one piece from the sixteen previous food writing round-ups in chronological order. The second, on Saturday 19 December, will be a compendium of the most interesting quotes from each interview.
And third, some good old self-promotion. Jonathan Nunn of Vittles interviewed me about editing, this newsletter, and the intersection of food medias for his paid subscribers; it was very fun.
Thank you for reading, as ever. Take care.
Yi Jun Loh collapses the froth of dalgona coffee on his podcast, Take A Bao. It begins with Loh giving up on hand-whisking the mixture of instant coffee, sugar, and water four hundred (400) times, a small gesture of honest rebellion against something that Tiktok splices into effortlessness. Then, the vaccine against so many viral foods: the taste.
“Spoiler alert: it’s not great.”
A drink like dalgona coffee, expedient in its ingredients but faintly absurd in what they produce, is the perfect foil for Loh’s grounded curiosity and gentle expertise —You can almost see the wry smile when he calls Tiktok “the frontier of food trends.” He’s as happy interviewing a Malaysian coffee professional as his mum, talks to a friend in India to reveal dalgona’s less than singular origins, and connects all of these resonances and contributions on an even, generous keel. This is a theme running through the podcast: Loh anchors the show in the assumption of no assumptions. There’s no hierarchy to his many reference points and perspectives, no muted concessions to the assumed omniscience that Western ideas about food so often hold. It’s kind, clever, and, at half-an-hour, clearly aware of its form’s tendency to outstay its welcome.
Roxana Hadadi lays the foundations of the tedium of Alison Roman for Pajiba. The first line is a corrective to the violently decontextualised mode of cooking: “Look back in history long enough and a certain portrait starts to appear of how our interconnected world was formed.” Look back and it appears — this hardly seems like too much to ask of those whose recipes are put on pedestals. Hadadi doesn’t just interrogate the steady flow of misgivings that broke their banks in a torrent last week, but interrogates what forms those banks, what justified their containment. The erosion that shaped their contours, of “the cultures she’s mimicking on her path to overwhelming success.” The use of “colonialism as cuisine.”
It builds to the conclusion that the essential ease of acknowledging where things come from, how they got there, and who gets to own them need its own acknowledgement. Ignoring and erasing cultural context is ignorance and erasure that too often gets recast as “authority,” Hadadi citing Lorraine Chuen on the matter, asserting its necessity. And then, the nub: “‘Do I really need to know about North African culture before using harissa?’ Yeah, dude, maybe you should! Your lack of an attention span should not excuse cultural erasure!”
Nicola Miller unpicks the vulnerability of offering “up our private appetites for public consumption” for Tales From Topographic Kitchens. The driving force is the power of female agency: the ways in which “august bodies,” from regulators to market forces to Instagram, dishonestly refract that power and how it might be reclaimed. Miller’s unencumbered and luminous prose hangs itself from the signposts of her own ideas, rather than packing itself in to a structure that would otherwise contain them; would otherwise dishonestly refract their power. In the sharing of recipes, often romanticised as a force of tradition, “feeling able to ask is a form of power and feeling able to refuse is an act of agency”; in the power dynamic between cook and owner on historic U.K. estates, uneven by design, “the secrets of the kitchen are also a form of fiscal currency." A nascent Instagram trend for flowery focaccia can “serve as a kind of folk art albeit one divorced from the atavistic drivers of such behaviour, or even a form of play which we all know is not something that women are encouraged to value.” The piece concludes with a thoughtful, thorough list of reading across the subject.
Leslie Lamar Parker has one last Sunday dinner for The Counter. Leslie Lamar Parker died of coronavirus on 11 May 2020. In the context of this devastating news, his memory of Sunday dinner, which itself starts with the death of great-grandmother, becomes a poignant fragment of self-obituary. Funny and sharp — “when I proposed a supper without technology, they unionized and planned a walkout” — Parker captures how Sunday dinners have changed and stayed the same through prime ribs and green beans, bitter wine and apple cider, and through a pandemic: “I won’t recall how unforgiving the virus was to people like me. I won’t talk about how scared I was for my wife, who has severe asthma. If I’m lucky, I won’t have to say goodbye to somebody close to me. Instead, I’ll remember the conversations we had during our Sunday dinner.” Its final words take on an eternity:
Now that I think about it, maybe I am still sitting at that kid’s table in Little Mama’s three-bedroom townhouse on 84 1/2 Avenue, North. Maybe I’m still eating that same Sunday dinner, after all.
Amethyst Ganaway historicises the Black relationship between food and protest for Food and Wine. In an essay that lets history resound damningly, Ganaway details how ensuring nourishment is a means of resistance, both within and without the structures of oppression: “outwitting the subjugating white owners and overseers by claiming that if they were the property of these people, and they grew the food for them, it was just as much theirs.” Whether the work and the food that “fed and sustained protesters throughout the civil rights movement,” or the act of “reclaiming Southern and African-inspired dishes and ingredients,” the emphasis is on doing the work, the work of nourishing, leading, and building community.
“While food companies, upscale restaurant groups, and brands post their stances on protesting and social injustices on the internet, Black communities keep up the work of feeding their communities and supporting protests.”
Bettina Makalintal surveys the fragmented ruins of the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen for Vice. There’s an unavoidable Spiderman pointing at Spiderman undercurrent to media reporting on resistance to and exposing of structural racism in the wake of police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, but Makalintal situates her analysis in that very disconnect between the Test Kitchen’s utopia and reality. It was no place, after all, relying on a stan culture to erase the fact “that the Test Kitchen is just that: a workplace, like that of any other large—and therefore likely imperfect, if not problematic—institution.” Makalintal unpicks how the “Test Kitchen's gargantuan online presence overrode its offline truth, as it projected and leaned into what people wanted to see” — and in so doing made both explicit and implicit exactly what kind of people it wanted to see it.
Jia Li produces and directs a documentary all about learning to pull noodles in Lanzhou, China, for Topic. “Some noodle chefs can pull 9 bowls of lamian in one minute. That’s faster than anything KFC can serve up.” It’s a throwback — first released 2018 — and a run-time just a slurp over 15 minutes ties together the mythos of tradition and the reality of the labour that shapes it. Li unflinchingly focusses on how the privilege to attend such a school pushes against the necessity of making a living, and the ritual of pulling dough gives shape to its talking-head format. Individuals and their skills make up great culinary traditions, and Li’s film acknowledges the multiplicity of their stories.
Yewande Komolafe unbottles the real history of red palm oil for Heated. It reciprocates its role as the “glue” that bonds many Nigerian dishes in oozing gracefully through Komolafe’s writing: “mildly floral at first taste, it blossoms slowly as it coats your tongue, revealing an almost smokelike presence.” In dismantling the blanket Western preconception of palm oil as an environmental scourge to be eliminated as carelessly as the forests that burn to produce it where it is not indigenous, Komolafe lays out how “Palm oil criticism is well-intentioned, but it is founded upon ignorance — ignorance of how colonial systems have evolved into our current global trade.” Concerns may be valid, but only when they are able to define their terms, with a reframing that banishes white saviour optics: “The focus of the palm oil debate so far has been to make regions on the other side of the globe the first to be implicated for the crimes of an industry that includes all of us.”
Jenny Dorsey takes down some culinary straw men on the subject of cultural appropriation at her website, Jenny Dorsey.co. Subtitled “and other common sentiments in the food industry, examined,” it responds to Dorsey’s experiences of fellow chefs describing food as “restrictive” and “PC,” thoroughly dismantling the false premises behind questions like “so, I can only cook the food from the culture I’m from?” and “Food shouldn’t be so political. Food is supposed to bring us together.” Spanning power dynamics, the recognition of how cooking affects a dish’s future as much as it must be in dialogue with its past, and recognising the false casting of knowledge gaps as “unimportant” subjects, it is both a thorough primer to anyone coming to this for the first time, and a centre of accountability for the food world at large.
Albert Samaha, Katie J.M. Baker, Ryan Mac, and Rosie Gray track the human cost of a 4 July meal for Buzzfeed. At its heart, the narrative is simple: “Take a typical summer feast: tangy ribs, a side of creamy pasta salad, and a slice of freshly baked apple pie. If you shop at a Walmart Supercenter, in, say, Massachusetts, the apples you’d buy would have been picked by workers in Washington state’s Yakima Valley, who live in a crowded labor camp with few protections in place. The fruit would then be sorted into boxes in an Allan Bros. packhouse, which for weeks failed to follow federal COVID-19 safety guidelines — even after employees started falling ill.” Interweaving stories of individual workers who have died with the scale at which food plants are failing to safeguard their employees, it’s another informed look at whether eating for pleasure is viable when it comes at the cost of someone’s life.
Liana Aghajanian reports on a battle over apricots for her project, Dining in Diaspora. The “apricot wars” are a proxy for ongoing conflict along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, with Azerbaijanis buying “pallets of perfectly luscious apricots - Armenia’s largest export and treasured national symbol” in order to destroy them. Aghajanian documents an effort to turn “Operation Apricot” from a disaster, in which even more pallets would spoil after being denied at markets in Moscow, into a celebration of the fruit. As “relations between the two minority communities in Russia are generally stable,” the blockade came as a surprise, with locals buying kilo after kilo in an effort to preserve them, both literally, and as a statement of nationhood.
Lexis-Olivier Ray and Samanta Helou Hernandez tell the inside story of Sqirl for theLAnd Magazine. Through the testimony of 21 current and former employees, the duo demonstrate how the working conditions, the recipe crediting, the ties to gentrification, and sure, the mouldy jam are not parallel lines but manifestations of a culture inculcated by Jessica Koslow, “a consistent trickle of small offenses that created a culture in sharp contrast with Sqirl’s reputation and image as a progressive place to work.” It’s also a powerful synecdoche for broader discussions about the food media and the restaurant industry’s mutual abetting, the sparkly occlusions of hype, and the fact that at restaurants, meaningful business reforms require owners to first, reform themselves.
Rebecca May Johnson, Edwina Attlee, Jen Calleja, Huw Lemmey, Nina Mingya Powles and Rebecca Tamásmake Claudia Roden’s reiz kugel for MAP. This is the second in a two-part project on the tenancy of recipes, commissioned by Helen Charman. “A recipe text demands translation into praxis and hangs limp in theory,” so its inhabitance on cooking is necessarily a kind of tenancy: “Tenancy for all is legally permitted, with no landlord. ~Imagine!” Imagine, indeed. Each writer’s tenancy of Claudia Roden’s rice pudding has its small, particular decorations — Attlee outlines her exchange of thought with its text; Calleja likens the tuning of sweetness in a dish to that in a translation, neither too saccharine; Mingya Powles admires how good recipes “prepare you for the worst.” Each ends in a bowl of rice pudding, theirs and not.
Yasmin Zaher surveys the benevolent and hostile forces that have shaped Palestinian cuisine for Haaretz: “The concept of a national cuisine is a by-product of the nation-state, or in the case of Palestine, its lack thereof.” Zaher uses the movements of ingredients by people and of people by people who deny their existence to show that “global trends in food industrialization and normalization” are additive to occupation of land in their impact on the ingredients that endure and those that do not. Hyper-regional dishes, criminalised herbs, poetry that compares aubergine to “a taste like saliva a generous lover freely offers,” and a field of vision that takes in 25,000 years, this is a piece of “baladi”: a word that can contain both a single ingredient and an entire nationhood.
Nikita Richardson talks to Tammie Teclemariam about her impact on the present and future of food media for Grub Street. Richardson, more than any other coverage, gets at how Teclemariam’s posting of a photo of ex-editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in brownface was not the story: the story was that “For many staffers at the exceedingly popular food publication, who for years had dealt with what they considered to be rampant mistreatment of minorities and severe pay inequities, the photograph was simply too much.” Teclemariam’s work, in a larger context, is about redistributing and challenging those imbalances of power: “If freelancers are going to have to suffer all of the consequences of not having health insurance or a steady source of income, then at least there had better be some benefits. And the benefits had better be that we can police the workplaces that we interact with. It does not have to be a whisper network.” Pair with In Digestion’sinterview with Tammie Teclemariam, which like Richardson’s piece, sees her place her work in the context of social justice, and how there’s simply nothing to gain or lose when publications actively make themselves unsafe places to work.
Vidya Balachander puts hing in its fullest context for Whetstone. The beauty of this piece is in its structure, which spends a great deal of meticulously researched, affectionate time stitching together a picture of the spice’s “place in the vividly diverse panoply of regional Indian cooking,” with the purpose of pulling it apart at the seams: “The downside of not representing this diversity truthfully is that it allows for the unchecked spread of problematic ideas that uphold a skewed power differential.” Pair with My Annoying Opinions’ ongoing survey of South Asian food writing and writing about South Asian foodways, whose latest edition also includes this piece.
That’s all for this edition of the end-of-year content. Oh, and please forward this to those three friends and one nemesis. Or just, like, everyone.