A Closer Look at Inequality and Representation in Food

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A Closer Look at Inequality and Representation in Food

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a staggering effect on the restaurant industry. More than 26,000 restaurants have closed—and at least 16,000 of those restaurants are closed permanently. In the midst of this public health crisis, many restaurant workers are losing not only their jobs but also their health insurance. The economic uncertainty of the industry isn’t new—most restaurants operate with razor-thin margins under the best of circumstances. With this complete upending of business as usual, the cracks in the foundation have become visible to more people. In addition to the acute issue of mass closures, the pandemic has essentially compounded many long-standing problems, including everything from health care access and pay equity to harassment and toxic work environments. The work to raise awareness about these issues is being led by whistleblowers within the trade: food editors, chefs, recipe developers, culture writers, and restaurant critics. As people reevaluate how they think about food, nearly all of us must see that in our current system, we don’t value the labor of the people who grow, harvest, prepare, serve, or deliver it. And this must change.

Two months after a variety of shelter-in-place orders were put into effect around the country, George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. The public outcry and protests against policing that followed have been historic. And as businesses and institutions came out in support of Black Lives Matter, many questioned their sincerity or commitment to the movement. Industries across the board faced more and more scrutiny over the treatment, representation, and compensation of BIPOC employees and over internalized racism in the workplace. Food media outlets featured prominently among them.

Cultural appropriation in food is often at the center of these conversations. There is some confusion about exactly what that looks like in food and how it is different from simply appreciating another culture. Generally speaking, cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture co-opts elements of a marginalized culture. This can happen with anything: fashion, language, music, art. With respect to food, it might be a specific dish, an ingredient, a technique, or an entire cuisine. It becomes especially problematic when the dominant culture profits off of the appropriated elements or when someone in the dominant culture asserts themselves as an expert in another culture without having adequate experience or knowledge of that culture or without having given necessary cultural credit. The intent may not be malicious, and it is often born out of thoughtlessness or clumsiness. Either way, it supports a White gaze that centers the White experience and White readers: Intent does not negate impact.

As a brand that explores wellness through food, we cover elements of culinary traditions from all over the world. We haven’t always done it right, and we’re reckoning with the missteps and mistakes we’ve made over the years. Now we have an opportunity and, more importantly, an obligation, to do better. We are currently reviewing our recipe archive, which contains over 1,500 recipes that have been developed over the last twelve years. We’re rethinking our recipe-naming conventions and going back to old articles to give better context and add proper cultural credit in certain instances. Going forward, our thought process will look different, and we will work to expand and amplify coverage of BIPOC food creators in meaningful ways.

These issues—whether it’s toxic work environments in restaurants or cultural appropriation in food media—are not limited to industry insiders anymore. These are conversations that are important to anyone who likes eating out, reading food writing, or trying new recipes. It’s been pushed to the forefront and called out largely by women of color working in the restaurant industry and food media. If you’re interested in better understanding inequality and representation in food, read below for some highlights from the women (and a couple of men) whose work we keep coming back to.

On Toxic Restaurant Culture

  • Twilight of the Imperial Chef

    By Tejal Rao, James Beard Award–winning restaurant critic and New York Times columnist

    In this NYT article, Rao explores the mythologizing of chefs in the wake of countless restaurant employees calling out mistreatment at the hands of their bosses.

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On Cultural Appropriation

  • Why Can’t I Just Cook What I Want?

    By Jenny Dorsey, chef, writer, and founder of the food and social-impact nonprofit Studio Atao

    Dorsey puts together some of the most thoughtful and concise information on Instagram. Her piece on cultural appropriation is an incredibly useful resource for anyone who works in the editorial food world.

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  • Stewed Awakening

    By Navneet Alang, technology, food, and culture writer

    In this piece on Eater, Alang addresses the problems with the modern global pantry. Ingredients like harissa and kimchi—once thought of as exotic—are now fully folded into popular food culture, but it is overwhelmingly white chefs acting as authorities as they introduce new audiences to these flavors.

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On White Supremacy in Food Media

  • Class Time

    By Osayi Endolyn, James Beard Award–winning writer focusing on food, culture, place, and identity

    Endolyn has written many incredible pieces for The Washington Post, Eater, and Food & Wine, but this highlight reel from her Instagram is what we can’t stop thinking about. She gives a close reading of a New York Times article and illustrates how the writer uses a white gaze in reporting on “Thai” fruit.

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  • Food Media Must Work Harder to Fix Its Racism Problem

    By Cathy Erway, James Beard Award–winning cookbook author and food writer

    This Grub Street article tackles the “weeknight-ification” of recipes from non-White cultures. While simplification and streamlining are seemingly just for the sake of saving time, they inevitably erase cultural nuance and center the experience of White readers.

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