A song to read by: “Chosen” by Blood Orange
What I’m reading: “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
So much has happened in the last few days. The New York Times staffers responsible for publishing the Tom Cotton op-ed resigned. The executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after publishing a “Buildings Matter, Too” article. And the editor-in-chief of Refinery 29 resigned after staff accused her of fostering a toxic workplace culture that favored white employees.
But these resignations, heady as they might be, pale in comparison to the biggest media coup de grâce in recent days: the ousting of Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport. Thanks to a relatively free week and my usual addiction to Twitter, I was able to watch the events unfold in real time Monday, from the first shot across the bow all the way to the Instagram adieu. And let me tell you, the drama was even richer and more unctuous than Andy Baraghani’s cauliflower bolognese.
Here is how it happened. On June 6, Puerto Rican food writer Illyanna Maisonet posted this exchange between her and Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport. (For what it’s worth — and I am 100% open to hearing feedback from readers on this — I don’t quite see that Rapoport does anything wrong here. He seems to respond professionally, and at long length for an EIC to a freelancer, to her questions.)
Then, on June 8, food writer Tammie Teclemariam posted this tweet, which shows a photo of Rapoport and his wife dressed as a caricature of a Puerto Rican couple.
At this point, Rapoport was in hot water. But, we saw Jimmy Fallon wiggle his way out of blackface just a few weeks ago, so Rapo might have theoretically been able to hold on to his job, if it weren’t for what happened next.
An incendiary Twitter thread from former Bon Appétit photographer Alex Lau. Associate editor Christina Chaey emerging from a four-year Twitter hiatus solely to dunk on her EIC. And then the nail in the coffin: Sohla El-Waylly’s string of Instagram stories expressing her frustration about her time at Bon Appétit.
As the day passed, pressure mounted for the rest of the Bon Appétit staff to take a stand. Prominent editors Molly Baz, Brad Leone and Alex Delaney, among others, took to their Instagram stories to denounce the actions of their editor-in-chief, pledging not to appear in any more videos until the company began compensating its contributors equitably.
According to Jezebel, whose full accounting of the saga I recommend you read, the Bon Appétit brass convened an ad hoc meeting day-of to discuss the fallout. During the exercise in crisis management, Rapoport apologized over the phone then left the remote meeting to let the staff discuss the issue. Later that day, he resigned.
So what is there to learn from this? Three things.
First, as we saw with the Alison Roman drama last month, food media is rife with racial tension. Food, more so than is the case with ideas, facts or perspectives, comes from a specific place. Like a literal, actual place: a country, a region, a time period, etc. Take that fact, and combine it with the predominant whiteness of the media world, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The end result is decade after decade of trendy white people “introducing” audiences to “new” foods. Whether it’s Alison Roman carving her teeth on curries or Chris Morocco churning out sambal riffs, white people have climbed to food media ascendency by borrowing (or appropriating, depending on whom you ask) recipes from people of color.
In my head, I’ve hypothesized and tested all the ways Bon Appétit could have fixed this problem. The issue is, as The San Francisco Chronicle’s Soliel Ho points out, that the Conde Nast brand had a Catch-22 on its hands. The food publication has a severe lack of BIPOC employees; so, in an effort to respond to the growing criticisms over its lack of diversity, it increasingly began putting its chefs of color in front of the camera to cook recipes that were their cultural provenance. In other words, Priya cooks Indian food, Hawa cooks Somali food and Rick cooks Latinx food (yes, I know even that is a troubling generalization).
However, the white editors of Bon Appétit experienced no such race-based pigeonholing. Nobody looked at Brad Leone and stuck him forever on the Italian food beat. No, the white editors got free rein to cook whatever they wanted, plucking and picking from cuisines as they saw fit. The cooks of color, however, had to stay in their lanes.
The question is: How do you solve this? When Priya only cooks Indian food, she’s being tokenized; but when Chris Morocco cooks Indian food, he’s appropriating. So who cooks the Indian food?
In the end, the answer is an obvious fix but not an easy one, at least for Bon Appétit. “If there [are] enough black and brown people in the room, then everyone can do everything,” El-Waylly told Jezebel.
Nobody should be constrained to only cooking recipes that align with their race; talented cooks should draw from cuisines across the world, learning the lessons of those traditions and honoring their histories and people. But before that can happen, the racial makeup of that kitchen needs to reflect the diversity of the world and its cuisines.
Second, media is becoming more transparent. A huge part of Bon Appétit’s appeal were its test kitchen videos, which painted the publication as a quirky, dysfunctional family, full of clashing opinions and good-natured rivalry. However, in a fitting act of cosmic irony, the exact same videos that deified Bon Appétit were also partially responsible for its downfall.
The test kitchen videos caught the Bon Appétit staff in all their plandid reality, and in doing so they chronicled the brand’s glaring lack of diversity. Video after video featured white person after white person. The stars on whom Bon Appétit built its digital empire — Molly Baz, Claire Saffitz, Carla Lalli Music, Brad Leone, Chris Morocco, Alex Delany — were all glaringly Caucasian.
As time passed, more editors of color began taking on larger roles, especially Andy Baraghani and Priya Krishna, but most of the BIPOC people featured in the videos were pulled in during the last minute of a shoot, generally under the guise of “tasting” whatever had just been made. What at first felt genuine soon devolved into a cringefest predicated on using BIPOC as diversity props.
All media is becoming more transparent, as journalists list their Twitter bios with each article and get tagged on the company Instagram. It’s easier than ever to see who’s writing for your favorite publication, and this has been a significant factor in the increasing calls for diversity in journalism. To paraphrase the Black Lives Matter slogan, “This lack of diversity has always existed; now it’s just being caught on tape.”
And Bon Appétit, of all the publications in all the gin joints in the world, failed to see this. Here they were, trumpeting their lack of diversity to millions of people with every video they released, only to find themselves suddenly shocked as accusations of racism were leveled at their leadership. It would be easier to empathize with Bon Appétit if it hadn’t been such an obvious problem to address.
Finally, as two friends pointed out, how ironic is it that these food media meltdowns are occurring just as the world needs its foodie escapism more than ever? As is often the case with irony, it’s not ironic at all; in fact, it makes perfect sense. The editors at Bon Appétit and The New York Times know that people turn to their food verticals as a way of distracting themselves. People go to Bon Appétit because they have been doom-scrolling all day and need to ogle a knish to get their mind off of things.
As a result, the powers-that-be in food media have a huge incentive to keep their material apolitical. In 2020, of course, nothing is wholly apolitical, so concessions have been made to honor the real-world drama that undergirds the food world, but by-and-large these are window dressing.
Bon Appétit’s need to not only produce drama-free content, but to present itself as a haven for the drama-averse, has likely led leadership to stifle discontent. There is room for intra-newsroom acrimony at The New York Times, where vexing moral issues are de rigueur, but Bon Appétit wants no internal bickering, no unsightly contract issues, no accusations of race-based pay disparities. These are the kind of things that Bon Appétit’s readers visit their site to avoid, so the brand itself must snuff them out.
And now we are seeing the results of that. As we are being reminded on a daily basis right now, racism is systemic; it is present in every institution in America. We might have hoped that Bon Appétit was the exception, but what we’re learning is that there are no exceptions.
Some good readin’
— People seeking real-time information about the protests have turned to Twitter, leading my favorite social media to experience a record number of downloads.
— This insanely cool feature from The New York Times on skateboarding through an empty city.
— This amazing (and long, per usual) New Yorker article about the hotly debated last words of Abraham Lincoln.
— This newsletter from my friend Kelsey McKinney about reading black authors because you like reading.
— In keeping with the tradition of sharing articles with you that my dad shares with me, here’s a comparison between the protests of today and the riots that led to the Russian Revolution.
Image from Out of Context Bon Appétit Test Kitchen