In the last few weeks, several major food publications and leaders have finally stood up and recognized (what I like to call) their unbearable whiteness of being. After the Muslim Ban, Food52 started highlighting recipes from the targeted countries, before finally going all-in with this post and declaring that they were making efforts to hire a more diverse staff. Bon Appetit, arguably the most influential of all food publications, proudly dedicated its March issue to immigrant food and placed two markedly non-white ladies on the cover.
And here's where it gets tricky: 99% of me fully appreciates all these efforts, especially as both an immigrant to the United States and a POC. But there's this 1% in the back of my head that I can't quite ignore. The one that's whispering: this is cool and all, but why now?
Of course, the answer to that question is simple: because of President Trump, duh. The last election and our new president (yes, OURS — I hate the folks who say #notmypresident, take responsibility, this is all our faults regardless of what way you voted) exposed the country's divide and deep-seated prejudices. With Hillary's defeat, the Coastal Elite finally got #woke and realized that a lot of the diversity and multiculturalism that they were taking for granted didn't exist without effort. Instead, it was coming from an increasingly vocal minority who was shouting that yes, Black Lives Matter, and that, no, it was not okay that Scarlett Johansson was going to be playing a beloved Asian character named Major Kusanagi. And perhaps from that came the realization that the best way to really, truly give credence to these other voices was to give them representation on majority platforms like the Oscars (heck yes, Moonlight!) and The Bachelorette. In the food world, that translates to the staff pages of Food52 and the cover of Bon Appetit Magazine.
It's cool and all, but where was this #wokeness after Bon Appetit hired that white guy to teach us how to eat our pho? How, a few weeks after that incident, despite the outrage that it caused, they went on to insult another Asian food's culture by severely whitewashing it? And how come there was no apology for that incident at all?
What gives me pause is that I personally find it hard to understand how sincere these efforts actually are. Because let's be honest — it's trendy right now to be #woke. Which means that it's also lucrative. Hillary won the popular vote by nearly 3 million people, guaranteeing that at least half the country believes in the ideals that are supported by democrats. And the women's march! The numbers aren't official, but it's estimated that between 3.6 to 4.6 million people demonstrated for these principles.
That's a whole lot of folks to be pandering to, for sure.
I'm not saying that these magazines are making these efforts just for the sake of selling issues and subscriptions. And even if they are, does it even really matter? More representation, diversity, and inclusion benefits us all, even if the initial motivations to get us to that place are a little murky. So you know what? Perhaps the best thing to do is to just whole-heartedly embrace these efforts and measures. But maybe let's not all pat Bon Appetit and Food52 on the back for something that they should really have been aware of and started improving a long time ago. Real credit goes to the folks at Lucky Peach and Cherry Bombe, the ones who made an effort to research other cuisines and showcase underrepresented groups before it became trendy and mainstream to do so.
I know that this is a persnickety thing to rage on about, and probably not what you were looking for when you came to look at these beautiful brownies. But as the days go on and the Trump administration becomes the new normal, I'm trying to find ways to keep us thinking, talking, and questioning everything as much as we can. And that doesn't just mean The Other Side — I think it's equally important that we stop to ask ourselves what we're doing and why too.
Stay #woke, y'all.
PS - Here's a list of food media outlets, both big and small, who are doing a kickass job of talking about food and diversity, as well as helping to bring more voices to the table. Leave any recommendations that you have in the comments too! I'll update the list as I explore them:
In 2016, Afroculinaria won Saveur's Best Blog Award for Food and Culture Award and for good reason: blogger Michael Twitty writes about African American food culture, discussing its influences from Africa and its impact on the American South. His posts are incredibly well-researched and often explore topics not frequently covered by mainstream food media.
- Cherry Bombe
Historically, women have often been underrepresented and overshadowed in the macho and male-dominated food world (remember this Time magazine shitshow?). Cherry Bombe is both a magazine and a podcast that primarily focuses on women growers, makers, and artisans in the food world, creating an independent and thriving platform for an often forgotten voice.
- The Cleaver Quarterly
The Cleaver Quarterly is a print and online magazine that covers Chinese cuisine all over the world; its goal is "to juxtapose Chinese regional cuisines with [its] diasporic offshoots." Issues are filled with long-form stories and essays exploring more esoteric recipes and Chinese regional cuisine. Lilly Chow, its founder and current managing editor, started the magazine when she realized that there "were just so many stories [about Chinese food] that weren't being told in English".
- Lucky Peach
Of all the publications on this list, Lucky Peach is probably the one that needs no introduction; spearheaded by food powerhouses Peter Meehan and David Chang, the quarterly food magazine and website focuses on a different theme in each issue. From its inception, Lucky Peach has been inclusive, with a diverse staff and writers that dedicate issues to international dishes, low brow cuisine, and even gender.
- NPR's The Salt on Food and Race
The Salt is NPR's food-focused microblog and explores a wide range of food-related topics from all around the world; just looking at the front page today, I see an article about the tea industry in Sri Lanka, a study on the environmental footprint of baking bread, and a recipe for meat pie inspired by an off-Broadway musical by a former White House pastry chef. What's worth exploring are the different content tags within the blog — in particular, the tag "food and race" brings up wonderful articles on how race, history, and other cultures influence American food today.
- Racist Sandwich
The Racist Sandwich is a biweekly podcast about food, race, gender, and class based in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (which unfortunately has the sorry reputation of being The Whitest Big City in America). Although they have guests from all around the country (making an effort to choose those from underrepresented minorities), the episodes that are near and dear to my heart are the ones where they talk about the food scene in Portland and describe what it's like to be a POC in an incredibly white BUT liberal city. Also, the episodes that celebrate Filipino food, of course.
- The Sporkful
There are a lot of food-focused podcasts out there, but The Sporkful distinguishes itself with its series "Other People's Food". The series focuses primarily on cultural appropriation, during which podcast host Dan Pashman explores the issues that arise when people eat, cook, and ultimately change the food from a culture they weren't born into. Past guests on the series have included chef Rick Bayless (who got some fire for refusing to acknowledge his white privilege during the show) and Puerto Rican-American actress Rosie Perez (who talked about the inherent stereotyping in cuisine preferences).
Some baker's notes:
- These brownies were adapted from an old Ottolenghi recipe that I bookmarked years and years ago. The brownies are intensely chocolatey and are on the bittersweet side, made even more so with the addition of unsweetened tahini and halva floss. For those unfamiliar, halva floss, also known as pismanye or "Turkish cotton candy", is made by flossing thin strands of halva with wheat and sugar until it takes on the texture of cotton candy. Halva floss is available online, or in Middle Eastern specialty stores (I got mine at the Damascus Bread & Pastry Shop near Sahadi's in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). In a pinch, you can also just use regular halva.
- I was expecting the tahini topping to have the texture of cream cheese in a cream cheese brownie; however, the tahini was a little too liquidy when spread onto the brownie top, and probably could have used an egg yolk and a pinch of sugar to thicken it up. I also found that the tahini ended up cooking faster than the rest of the brownie batter because of its thin and liquidy consistency. To help prevent it from bubbling and burning, I suggest covering the brownie pan with aluminum foil halfway through the baking time.
Tahini and Halva Floss Brownies
(adapted from Ottolenghi)
For the Tahini and Halva Floss Brownies:
(makes one 9 x 13-inch tray)
- 1 cup (2 sticks // 8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 8 ounces dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao), roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 cups (10.5 ounces) granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 "scant" cup (4.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup (1 ounce) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup (4 ounces) walnuts, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) tahini paste
- 2.5 ounces halva, broken into 1 to 2-inch chunks
- 1/3 "heaping" cup (2 ounces) halva floss
For the Tahini and Halva Floss Brownies:
- Combine 1 cup unsalted butter chunks and 8 ounces roughly chopped dark chocolate in a medium, heatproof bowl. Set the bowl containing the ingredients over a small saucepot filled with a little bit of water (ensuring that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water) to make a double boiler. Place over medium heat and stir the ingredients occasionally until both the butter and chocolate have melted completely. Remove bowl from heat and set aside on a wire rack to cool to room temperature.
- When the butter and chocolate have cooled, center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Prepare a 9 x 13-inch pan by lining the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar and 4 large eggs. Beat on medium-high speed until pale and creamy, at least 5 minutes. Reduce the mixer to its lowest setting and slowly pour in the butter and chocolate mixture (from the 1st step). Once all the mixture has been added, stop the mixer and sprinkle 1 scant cup all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt over the mixture. Use a rubber spatula to fold the dry ingredients into the chocolate mixture by hand, being careful not to overmix — fold just until the dry ingredients have been incorporated into the mixture. At this point, it's okay to still have 1 or 2 small flour streaks left. Sprinkle 1 cup walnuts over the mixture and fold just until they are incorporated throughout the mixture.
- Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly across the pan and smoothen the top. Use a spoon to scoop 1/2 cup tahini paste on top of the batter in about 12 places, before using the back of the spoon to swirl it a just a little into the mix. Don't swirl it in too much tough! You want it to be a little uneven for texture. Dot the chunks of the halva on the brownie surface, pushing each chunk a little into the batter so that is about 50% submerged but still visible. Sprinkle 1/3 cup halva floss across the top to finish.
- Transfer to the preheated oven and bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is crisp but the middle still has a slight wobble and is gooey inside. The brownies will seem a bit undercooked, but they will firm up as they cool down. Serve warm and gooey, or at room temperature. Enjoy!