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.