This Wave of Reckoning in Food Media is Different, But There's More Work to Do

 (Andrey Cherkasov / iStock)

This is a new monthly column from food writer Ruth Gebreyesus that explores the intersections of food and equity in restaurants, food media and tech, all with a critical lens.

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he backlash against Bon Appétit magazine and the Southern Foodways Alliance for racially disparate hiring practices is a new chapter of a very old battle. It’s a continuation of a fight against systemic racism’s overt and devious brutalities that’s as old as the country itself. 

But this latest wave of reckoning brings a distinct and collective intolerance for the sort of hypocrisy that mutters solidarity for Black lives from one side of its mouth while clenching to the status-quo on the other. Corporate lip service that might have been passable for support in the past is now inciting flames. 

For employees of these media corporations and the fans who consume their content, this sensitivity to posturing has led to demands of accountability and restitution. These demands are backed by an understanding of how racial inequality is foundational to American institutions like the police, like Condé Nast, and other capitalist ventures. How the problem is not one of bad actors but of the power structures within these institutions that maintain white supremacy. 

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It’s too early to label this moment as exceptional, but I believe there are a few things worth noting. First is a hunger for systemic change that’s unsatiated by sacrificial firings and refuses resignations as too calculated and too paltry. Then there’s the source of this hunger itself and its comprehensive demands. Both echo the language of protest and change that I’ve seen used by prison abolitionists. And work like prison abolition — dismantling of a system so intimate to our identities — means their deracination will completely refigure our lives. It seems this backlash is about upheaval.

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n early June, Bon Appétit invited accountability to its doorsteps when then-editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport wrote a nebulous piece titled “Food Has Always Been Political.” Rapoport was out of his depth on the matter and his vapid pledge to meet the moment, one where Black people were being killed by police, wasn’t just a matter of diction — Bon Appétit only has one Black person on its editorial staff, editorial assistant Jesse Sparks. “[How] do we locate the intersection of food and politics in this current moment?” asked Rapoport in his letter. A simple question the magazine has made a maze out of by intentional refusal rather than oblivious neglect.

In response to Rapaport’s letter, Sacramento-based Puerto Rican food writer Illyanna Maisonet shared an anecdote of Bon Appétit’s rejection of her pitch about Afro-Boricua rice fritters because it wasn’t of the moment. A few days later, writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted “I do not know why Adam Rapoport simply doesn’t write about Puerto Rican food for @bonappetit himself!!!” along with a 2013 photo of him and his wife Simone Shubuck in brownface, ostensibly dressed as “Puerto Rican” for Halloween. 

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Rapoport resigned that same day but not before assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly responded by contextualizing his actions as a symptom of systemic racism at Condé Nast. El-Waylly, who’d quickly become a fan favorite on the Bon Appetit’s massively popular Test Kitchen YouTube channel, said she was “pushed” in front of cameras as a display of diversity while receiving no compensation for those appearances — unlike her white peers. In one instance I can’t forget, after a white chef recreates the late, great Leah Chase’s gumbo, El-Waylly was tasked with judging the dish. Though her technical expertise and her self-possessed demeanor are exceptional, I can’t help but wonder if she was chosen for that task for  being the brownest person in the room. Sparks, who’s only appeared on the channel’s shows in passing, was nowhere to be found. 

Bon Appétit has since promised changes to its mastheads that “have been far too white for far too long” but the Condé Nast leadership in charge of instituting this new future is itself too white. Recently, Condé Nast suspended video editor Matt Hunziker, for his repeated criticism of the company’s half-hearted attempts at change. Hunziker, who is white, has simultaneously been a vocal advocate for his colleagues of color who are decrying this move as an intimidation tactic.

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eanwhile at the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institution whose mission statement declares “we don't flinch from talking about race, class, religion, gender, and all the other biggies,” there are growing calls for the resignation of its founding director John T. Edge. In its 20-year history, the organization hasn’t winced at its own lack of Black staff, especially in positions of power. Most recently, the organization's only staff person of color—the history scholar and writer Cynthia Greenlee, a Black woman who served as deputy editor—handed in her resignation. It’s clear to me that if you’re euphemizing systemic inequalities as “biggies”,  you were never ready to face them, let alone keep a steady gaze.

Calls for Edge’s departure are at least a decade old, but they were reignited earlier this month when he joined chef and writer Tunde Wey in a conversation organized by the James Beard Awards about the role of food writing in social movements. The conversation culminated when Wey pressed Edge, as he did in a column over four years ago, to resign. “You have to strip yourself of the marginal benefits of this appropriation willingly, with grace, or unwillingly by force and with shame,” Wey wrote in 2016.

The time for Edge’s graceful retirement had long expired when founding SFA member Ronni Lundy collected signatures insisting Edge step down three weeks ago. Outside of SFA, some voices, mostly Black writers, reverberated the calls. But as of today, Edge still remains seated at the table, inviting others to join while he sits at the head.

In the context of this fight’s round and its recognition of the scope of the battle against systemic racism, Edge’s standoff is not surprising. Neither is the anger of Bon Appétit fans, who’d poured in over a billion views to the magazine’s YouTube channel and lit up the comment section with praise. These days, their comments are phrased as ultimatums and promises of unsubscription unless significant changes are made towards rectifying the inequity the magazine perpetuated. 

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What it would take to make this upheaval historically remarkable, beyond its cognizance of how systemic racism works, is endurance. The kind of endurance that prison abolitionists like Angela Davis maintain decades deep into their fight — a focused stamina that preserves your resolve when you see past the beast’s mouth only to find that you’ve been living in its belly.