You’re Boring

I’ve always really enjoyed The Piglet, the tournament of cookbooks that Food52 hosts each year. In it, cookbooks are pitted against each other using a bracket system until a winner is crowned (it’s like sports!). Though the quality of the reviews varies , I appreciate that there is a venue for criticism of popular cookbooks, something that I think is sorely lacking. This year, Adam Roberts wrote a review of Mimi Thorisson’s cookbook that has created some controversy, and Food52 proved to everyone that they can’t actually handle criticism.

Roberts’ review, which was presented in the form of a comic strip, took issue with the numerous photos of Thorisson in her book. He interpreted their meaning to be “my life is better than yours”—isn’t that the subtext of most food/lifestyle blogs? He used it as an opportunity to poke fun at her and her life. Fair enough, I guess. Though I agree with Thorisson that it seemed kind of cheap and easy. Thorisson wrote a mostly good-humored and earnest, though oddly lengthy and not particularly well-argued, response to his criticisms on her blog. In it, she wondered (Perhaps half-heartedly? I can’t tell. ) if Roberts’ critique of her was rooted in any type of sexism or gender expectations. I thought it was an interesting enough response to the review, and certainly justified. I had also found myself wondering what role gender played in the whole thing, as these sorts of critiques are almost always directed at women. It seemed like a totally normal and healthy exchange of ideas.

Then things got weird. Roberts wrote a sort of pointless and needlessly defensive response to Thorisson and then Kenzi Wilbur at Food52 followed up with a bizarrely passive-aggressive and overly simple essay on cookbook design. I really disliked this essay by Wilbur. She was completely dismissive (“cry sexism”) and condescending (“from her château in Médoc”) to Thorisson and had nothing useful to say other than “book design matters!”, which wasn’t really anyone’s argument. She also dismisses Thorisson’s concerns about gender and sexism in a way that made me uncomfortable. Even if she and Roberts were comfortable with their own conduct, the concerns should not be dismissed so flippantly. Gender is always an issue, whether we want it to be or not. Wilbur’s essay seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to support Roberts, clearly a friend of the Food52 crew, and defend The Piglet, which up until that essay didn’t require defending. Roberts’ review and Thorisson’s response had both felt appropriate and like they should exist within a critical discourse. The follow-up writing has all felt bizarrely defensive and hypocritical. Encouraging Thorisson to be comfortable with criticism while proving that you are very uncomfortable with criticism doesn’t make any sense. Basically, everyone doth protest too much.

It points to a bigger problem in food media: it is fucking boring. Of course #notallfoodmedia, but I’m willing to say most. Your magazine is boring, your blog is boring, your podcast is boring. You’re boring. It’s okay, I am too. But we never hear it. We lack criticism. And that lack of criticism leads to a sameness that is suffocatingly boring.

Food media mostly exists as a circle of white, liberal arts grads with enough financial security to have interned for free during college, live in Brooklyn, and eat out every night. Everyone is friends, it’s how you get jobs. (Full disclosure: I benefit from these circles of privilege, and am a part of some of them. It isn’t fair. The best, most talented, hardest-working person does not always get the job, though the person who gets the job may also be talented and hard-working. I know to some extent, the whole world operates this way. Still.) These sort of closed ecosystems lead to a lot of problems. They lead to staffs full of people who are more similar than different. Everyone has worked together, or might someday work together, so nobody can criticize anyone else. Everyone is too busy congratulating each other or promoting each other’s work (often while talking about how shitty the work is behind their back). Every time a cookbook is mentioned, it is with praise, or at worst, with neutrality. Don’t get me wrong, professional camaraderie and friendships are great. But they shouldn’t exclude formal criticism.

The results of this culture are far more serious than just the armies of whiteness staring back at us from mastheads. It is creating an insular, homogenous, and out-of-touch world that does not reflect our actual world and excludes many people.

I want to clarify a confusion that is often a part of these discussions. I don’t call for diversification to satisfy some sort of politically correct standard. Diversity (in all its forms) should be embraced because diversity is what makes the world interesting. Didn’t we all learn that while watching Sesame Street? It sounds impossibly trite but it is one of the only true things. The world of food is so much more interesting than any mainstream media (and most independent media) would have us believe. The view is so narrow. I’m happy to hear what a bunch of 20-something white women are cooking, but where is everyone else?

It all comes down to money, or at least that is what is often used to end these arguments. Tough decisions must be made. I get it, you want to stay in business. But so does everyone in every industry. It’s everyone’s concern. How you respond to it is the question and the opportunity. You have data proving that audiences want to read about white celebrities and kale, great. But instead of giving them what they want, why aren’t you also trying to make them want something else? When did it become cool to do whatever was popular?  Why aren’t you selling diversity? Why aren’t you leading instead of following? Why can’t you find a non-white photographer for that story? Why can’t you write about a chef in Little Rock? Why is nobody writing about grandmas? We’re not friends with any, is not an acceptable answer.

Because, I’ll be honest, this isn’t working out. And nobody wants to tell you. Changes are needed if you want to outlive the currently over-inflated food moment. Sure, you’re gaining some readers who just want to prove they know food is (#)trending. But you’re alienating all of the people who actually care about food and have subscribed to your magazines for decades.

Part of making changes is being comfortable with criticism and understanding that criticism is an important part of the creative process. My education all took place in art and design programs. The fundamental teaching tool of art school is the critique in which you present your work and everyone tells you why it sucks. You listen. Sometimes you agree and sometimes you disagree but either way it makes you a better artist. It makes you question what you are presenting. Confidence is the enemy of creativity. When I have the idea to do anything the first line in my interior monologue is always: That’s a stupid idea. From there I try to convince myself otherwise. If I can convince myself that the idea is okay, then usually it is. I rarely convince myself, I have mostly dumb ideas. But I have embodied the critique process, I think it works.

Part of constructive criticism is not making it personal, which I am guessing is part of what made Thorisson uncomfortable with Roberts’ review. It was no longer about the work, and became about her and her life. Roberts could have done a better job of explaining why her book was alienating some readers and Thorisson could have done a better job of explaining why this criticism felt gendered to her. But regardless of all of that, Food52 had no business getting involved in this argument. Instead of encouraging the discourse they tried to shut it down. They clearly took sides, our friend not that woman. They revealed that they weren’t as interested in honest discourse as they had lead us to believe. It undermines the spirit of the Piglet and it reflects this general problem.

My criticism is selfish. I want to have better stuff to read and look at and cook. Food is awesome. I want to feel awesome about it. I want to see photographs that have a point-of-view not already represented in mainstream media. I want to read stories about people who eat differently from me. I have plenty of friends with blogs and some friends and people I admire are working at the magazines and websites that I am complaining about. I’m rooting for them. I want to love their work. I want them to want to do better and include more people and ideas. I want to expand the audience and allow more people to pull up a seat at this table.

We can do better. It starts with questioning ourselves. Why are all food blogs still following basically the same format (including mine!)? Why do some print magazines read like desperate fashion blogs? Why have you never had a non-white guest on your podcast? But in order to answer the questions honestly, we need to be willing to be uncomfortable. We need to remember that when everyone is telling us we’re doing great, we’re probably doing something wrong. Challenging ourselves, and others, doesn’t always feel good. But imagine where it could get us.

We’re probably not as boring as we seem.

147 comments to “You’re Boring”

  1. garneteyes says:

    March 11th, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    +++1!! So sick of hearing white liberal people write shit about kale and fetishize expensive shit while there is so little written about all the amazing other types of food around the globe. very well written and thought out response to the whole controversy.

  2. This was a fun, invigorating read! Can’t wait to see more diversity in this space.
    We’ve been trying to do that in our own little way here in India. We write about great food from all the different states of India. There is so much delicious diversity within the country but there isn’t a whole lot of focus on it right now. The 20 and 30 somethings here end up cooking their own regional cuisine or move on to international food when they want diversity. We’re trying to get recipes from all over the country and make Indian regional food have it’s moment. Make a Bihari Chicken Curry as exciting to cook and eat as bacon jam.

  3. I read several food blogs, but come away feeling sad. I’m old, poor, and on foodstamps. I cannot afford most of the ingredients in the featured recipes, or much in the way of new equipment. I have a shelf of cookbooks, from richer days, and my usual repertoire is as much Asian (South, East, and Central) as Western. It’s a restricted repertoire, because I have to use the cheapest (but still healthy) ingredients and I cook in big batches, to save time and money. The only cookbook that speaks directly to my current experience is Good and Cheap, by Leanne Brown.

  4. Hi Zora- Thanks for writing. It is unfortunate that so much of western culture reflects abundance and privilege when it is, in reality, so rare. The ridiculousness of me being able to spend extra time and income on my blog is not lost on me. Leanne Brown is great, and I’ve been impressed with both the work she is doing and her delicious recipes. And I am happy for the success of that cookbook. Hopefully there will be more.

  5. This is the best thing I’ve read on the internet in a very long time. Thank you for writing this and for having the courage to publish it.

  6. Tim!

    Thank you for this charged, thoughtful post. I agree wholeheartedly and am, myself, hungry for edgy, surprising, overlooked and independent perspectives in food media. Hopefully, your post – and the enthusiastic choir response that followed – will translate to some degree of change in the conversation. Nothing worse than the scenario of: someone points out the problem, everyone cheers…and things continue as they were. Be brave, people!

    While reading your post, I was reminded of this quote by the venerable Ruth Reich, from a NYT interview last year:

    NYT: You edited Gourmet for a decade, until it closed, while Condé Nast’s other food magazine, Bon Appétit, continued to publish. Have you checked it out?
    RR: I don’t know if they do Bon Appétit by focus group or not, but that’s what it feels like. You don’t want to give people what they want. Give them something that they didn’t know that they wanted.

    Finally, I don’t want to further analyze the Piglet conflict, but I do want to say loud and clear that I feel sexism (and other isms!) are a serious, pervasive problem in the cookbook world. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Helen Rosner’s eater.com piece, which I thought was so accurate and so eloquent.

    ps. I agree with Amelia – you should be a Piglet judge! Amelia should too.
    pps. Someone should give give Roberts and Thorisson a book deal: Fancy Macho Desserts From A Kitchen in France.

  7. Wowee! I read this twice to digest the awesomeness that it is. Your observations are searing, spot-on, and gentle at the same time. Thank you. You remain one of the few bloggers I follow who continues to *write*, and not just curate. See also: Manhattan Nest, Door Sixteen, Sweet Fine Day for examples of striking a great balance of words, wisdom, delicious food/design, and being a human being. Thank you.

  8. Tim, thank you for writing this. As a non-white twenty something, I adore ‘the other’ and I definitely celebrate diversity in food writing. Truth is there is lot of passionate ‘other’ food writing out there hiding in small press and little league blogs. As audiences we need to seek it out and support it so it can be shared. The food world is insular and repetitive because we haven’t demanded to see different. ENOUGH KALE IS ENOUGH.

    I’d like to add that I found this piece through Robyn Eckhardt (who I see has commented above) and Pamela Timms, two white older-than-20-something women who do a fabulous job exploring and revealing the ‘other’ in their food writing. As Robyn mentions it’s not the whiteness of the person behind the words or photos, it’s the diversity of the subject matter.

    And to anybody who thinks Mimi Thorisson’s life looks over styled or manufactured, you need to spend some time in Europe. This is what any lifestyle of cooking with unprocessed foods in a quaint village and spending time with your family looks like, and really anybody can do it.

    Lastly, I love Zora’s comment and your response to her. I live in India with my grandmother, and she is the ultimate cook (we eat well but she’s able to whip up a dream meal even with cheap, pantry foods). I too would love to see more egalitarian cooking. Privilege can often be the death of creativity.

  9. Hi Sheena (and Robyn)- Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I do think that the person behind the camera (or keyboard) also matters—matters a great deal, in fact. But I appreciate your perspectives and hope that lots of people can be represented on both sides of the camera/keyboard.

    JAM- I didn’t see that Ruth Reichl interview, but will look it up….she sounds smart. ; )

  10. @Zora. I’m sorry to hear that. Jack Monroe’s blog documents cooking for herself and young child on a limited budget:
    http://agirlcalledjack.com
    This one also has some tasty, thrifty ideas:
    http://www.theskintfoodie.com/recipes.html
    It would be good to see more blogs that document frugal (but delicious) family cooking, and how the use of seasonal, local produce support that, how one meal can morph into another, how to make the most of cheaper cuts, offal, leftovers. Context is so relevant to this. Even a vegetarian curry could be costly if you don’t have a variety of spices already in the pantry, whereas in rural France, foie gras, a treat for high days and holidays, is still enjoyed by all with no class connotations. I wish you well.

  11. I really appreciate your argument here regarding what happened to Mimi Thorisson. It’s disappointing how Food52 reacted. And you also bring up diversity which I am constantly searching for myself, and also trying to portray. Sometimes I feel exhausted looking at all these photos of everyone creating the same thing over and over again. I wonder, when will I have a voice that people will want to hear.

    I really like your blog. I make the carrot dip with dukkah quite often, thanks for that!

  12. I was stuck while reading your post by many things, but the section about how the foodie circles are populated by the privileged and connected, that everyone knows each other, and that’s just how the biz is (clearly this is my paraphrase). I recently read an article about the lack of diversity on nonprofit boards of directors (“Ninety percent of board chairs, 80 percent of boards, and 89 percent of CEOs are of a single race—White.” –Tivoni Devor, Nonprofit Quarterly, 3-4-15, http://tinyurl.com/mx6ou6u ) and that the problem is networks. Just like foodie circles are by their very nature, insular, if board recruitment relies on the networks of current board members (largely white people with white networks) then diversity will NEVER increase. It’s going to take much more intentional action and white people getting outside their comfort zones to improve those stark statistics above, and perhaps the same applies to the food blog issue at hand. This may be totally obvious but it was so interesting to have read that article so recently and then read your post and see the similarities from very different sectors. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful and not-boring writing. Love your blog!

  13. Tim, I must admit – I stopped readying your blog about two years ago because, well, I found it boring.

    Mainly because the type of food shown, pictures and text are so very similar to my own life.

    You hit in on the head – what I look for now in online material is generally stuff that’s vastly different from my own (happy but familiar) life. Which includes Mimi Thorrisson’s blog, which I find fantastical and enchanting in the way I find Martha Stewart fantastical and enchanting.

    But I found this post via the link on Design Sponge, and this is by far the best commentary I have read about the whole thing, and is so refreshingly honest. Please write more like this. You have interesting stuff to say!

  14. Thank you, obrigada! :)

  15. You are truly awesome for writing this. I hope food52 is reading.

  16. Hi Tim,

    I just discovered your blog through this whole hullabaloo and I love it. I actually want to read it. I agree with your points and am still pondering how this whole idea of boring and sameness feeds into the mass culture at large. Under Ruth Recihl’s stewardship, Gourmet magazine was not boring. She regularly delved into food politics and even ran David Foster Wallace’s lengthy treatise on the lobster. Yet the publication was axed for its “low” subscription rates (1 million), while Conde Nast kept Bon Appetit. It seems like most people just want their recipes. If you want to stay in business, you have give people what they value. Maybe our values as a culture is part of a larger issue here.

    I’ve been blogging for six years and I have been thinking about how I contribute to the boredom a lot lately. I’m a trained writer and photographer and think I do good work, but my traffic is not any different than it was three years ago. Or four. Or even five. I’ve spent hours upon hours reading about SEO, the pros and cons of advertising and sponsored posts, wringing my hands trying to figure out what people want only to throw them up and decide that I’m not going to figure it out. And you shouldn’t have to. All you can really do is show up and be yourself, which may mean getting personal about your life or just focusing on the food itself. It’s really about cultivating your own voice, which may be boring for a whole lot of people but will resonate with some. At this point, that handful of people is all I really care about. That and approaching my blog as a mindful practice rather than a means to an end. It’s so easy to focus on the how that we often forget the why.

    Thank you for such an engaging post. This is the first time a food blog has made me think in a long time.

  17. Hi Darina,

    Thanks for reading and responding. I nodded my head a lot while reading. Yeah, I mostly have questions and few answers. I think the blogger problems are slightly different than the magazine/website/cookbook problems, but they are all connected. I do agree that the only thing that matters much for blogs is POV, it is kind of the only thing they have going for them. And yes, not everyone will like every blog…you’re going to gravitate toward the people you find interesting for whatever reasons. I think the bigger websites and magazines have different (and greater) responsibility to readers and to pursuing some sort of objective quality.

    But hey, thanks for sharing your thoughts (your blog looks great, I am looking forward to checking it out).

  18. I know I’m so late to the party.. I’ve been out in Tofino on spring break, but just wanted to let you know I’ve had my laptop open to this page and read it almost three times, plus all the comments.. it’s something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately too. All the sameness. And funnily enough, I’ve had the idea (and the domain) for an all-grandma food blog/webcast for years, and it’s one of the many projects I just never got around to doing. And now I wonder if like one commenter said, everyone’s tired of hearing about your grandma. I spend too much time trying to decide which ideas to spend my time and energy on, and then wind up not doing any of it.

  19. Julie- This is the least fun party ever. ; ) Jealous of your trip to Tofino, and thanks for contributing to the discussion. I would probably write another impassioned essay about how we should ignore criticism and do all sorts of bad ideas. But we need to avoid paralysis (easier said than done).

    Alice- I’d love to visit Ljubljana! It’s been on my list for years, hopefully someday. I think we all just need to talk about stuff too.

  20. Love this, especially the bit about criticism. If there’s anything anyone needs to learn or know is that criticism of your work isn’t criticism of who you are. Criticism (constructive that is) helps us get better.

    I’m pretty new in all of this, don’t roll in any circles, come from a country most don’t know so I can’t even share much experiences, but I love discussions that come from this type of posts and think we all need to just talk about stuff.

  21. This post has stuck with me and I’ve been giving it lost of thought, which I wrote about here: http://gathering-flavors.com/2015/03/24/cozy-strawberry-jam-cake/ . I’ve paused to consider why I blog. Thanks for the inspiration. D

  22. Well, somehow you just nailed all of the random (maybe not as irrational as I think) feelings I have around food blogging. On most days, I’m not being as real as my soul begs me to be. Those who know me would say I’m opinionated (and most love me for that…I think). I have a story to tell (former fat girl turned a bit of a health nut, but not in a super-annoying kid of way. I think). But I’m so sick of myself. I’m not doing a very good job at saying ‘fuck you’ to the (sometimes) overwhelming pull that tells me I have to tone down the colors on my blog. I have to refine the appearance to be more, well, boring (not that it isn’t boring in it’s own unrefined way). I have to take a photography class to create photo essays that make my readers wish they had my life. Frankly, I find it all so…suffocating. Thanks for putting words to the real dilemma that is food media. The monster kind of created itself….it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of it.

  23. Fascinating exchange. I live and write from France, and love reading what everyone across the Atlantic is saying and feeling about food media. Congratulations on opening up the conversation.

  24. I heartily agree with you – the roberts review was a little mean ( beautiful people often get that), the thorrison post defensive (who isnt after being attacked) but the kenzi wilber response was a disgrace. Book design?! Totally not the point. An absolute embarrassment to her, to food52.

  25. I was led here from another website that referenced your bold stand. I wish more of the world had your courage. Variety is indeed the spice of life. Having travelled and lived in at least three continents I can attest to the excitement of venturing outside your comfort zone and dipping your toes into other cultures. Great post!

  26. I read robert and mimi’s post and felt he was mean spirited. I read the comments on each post till I couldn’t stand it anymore. What robert failed to realize in his pea green envy was that chateau would be called a fixer upper in the US. I don’t envy the expense of remodeling that place. I enjoyed your point of view in this post it was a refreshing change and was sorely needed in these vapid pastel cupcake blogs posts and with their bloggers eyes cast bashfully downward jean clad with requisite thigh gap. I once enjoyed food blogs but few keep my interest nowadays. I know this is late in response but i just came across this post today and felt I had to respond.

  27. Being different doesn’t sell, on pinterest or anywhere else. The sellouts are the ones rolling in the cash. yay for diversity! Yay for saying “fuck” and talking about the gritty street life and presenting an imperfect life. but readers don’t want that…most people don’t even read the blog post, the actual words, anyway. Plus we’re so obsessed with “haters” that a single negative comment merits an entire melodramatic post followed by a deluge of ass kissing comments.

    You’re being too optimistic. There…criticism.

  28. Hello Tim, thank you for writing this article – it’s beautifully written, intelligent, perceptive and spot on in how the world (i.e. food blogging) works. I love you for stating this clearly and not be afraid of the consequences. It’s equally the quality of your recipes and your writing that draws me to your blog on a regular basis. Signed, long time fan.

  29. I just found this while searching for a recipe in your archives, and I wanted to say thanks for a such a thoughtful, important, well executed post. I imagine it felt like a bit of a risk to write it, and I’m grateful you did. I was on an open conference call last fall for Ferguson BLM where an organizer said something that stuck with me ever since: the only way we can make change is by accepting an increased level of personal risk, whether big (putting your body on the line) or small (speaking up in conversations with your friends and family). I wish I remembered his name to cite him because I really do think about it all the time.

    I think your thought about diversity is so important. Food is so personal and human, and ignoring the inner lives of people who aren’t well off and white is not ok. And food is also so political—who’s making it? what access to ingredients do they have? Have you had a chance to look at The Gaza Kitchen? I think it’s really successful in both of these respects.

    I’m so tired of reading food media that comments disdainfully about the rise of open-and-combine 20 minute meals without any regard to the social factors. Women are working. People have to work more and more hours to support themselves and their families as inflation outstrips minimum wage increases and social supports are gutted. This stuff is so important and so reflected in the food we eat, and the closest food media normally gets to addressing it is a comment about well off workaholics. Food media is too focused on food as lifestyle aspiration and not on food as culture.

    I do think the Roberts review is sexist. He’s reviewing two books that BOTH bring in the author’s personal lives. Thorrison’s presents her as living a rural dream, Headley’s presents him as a cool punk rocker. Thorrison’s recipes are surrounded by photos of her picturesque domestic life, Headley’s are surrounded by flyers for his old bands’ gigs. So there’s a problem with Roberts presenting Thorrison’s book as “not a thoughtful cookbook” because of the lifestyle imagery while all he says about Headley’s is “Though it’s a little heavy-handed with its punk-rock aesthetic, Headley is a real-life punk rock drummer, so it’s earned.”

    There’s plenty to criticize with Thorrison’s life-as-lifestyle porn—I think it’s actually pretty problematic. But the superficiality of Roberts’s “this man earned the right to present himself as cool and hardcore, that woman is narcissistic” critique does just seem sexist.

  30. This is the third time I’ve read through this, and it is just as spot on as the first time. You really articulated something that I have had in the back of my mind for so long, and feel is so true. I am definitely guilty of falling into the same-ness of the current food blogger scene, and am CERTAIN that I am boring more than I am not. Then I just try to remind myself why I started in the first place, put my head down, quite comparing or trying to be like anyone, and just do me.

    Thanks for writing so perfectly what so needed to be said!

  31. I needed to read this today for many reasons. Thanks for being brave and honest and saying what needed to be said – with humour.

What do you think?