Alison Roman was supposed to be all of us.
Alison Roman made her own myth, so it’s no surprise that it took Alison Roman to puncture it: in an interview in which she both lambastes Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen for having product lines and puts in a plug for her own line of vintage spoons. This wasn’t only a woman tearing down other women; it was a white woman tearing down an Asian and an Asian American woman when she had plenty of paler or maler sellouts to choose from. Roman apologized in 280-character installments, and after a few days she apologized again in longer, more compelling form.
The drama didn’t end with the interview, because we were all starving for more. Self-isolated sleuths searching for bigotry beyond a few throwaway sentences discovered what those undistracted by the joys of shallot pasta already knew. Roman’s recipes exist within a tradition just as troubling as her recent comments: what’s often called culinary appropriation, or as critic Roxana Hadadi put it months ago, “colonialism as cuisine.”
The problem isn’t exactly that white recipe developers are making money off of brown food, though they are. The problem is that they’re making money off of brown food by, essentially, gentrifying it. There’s a worthy conversation to have (and it’s being had) about what license chefs have to tweak other cultures’ cuisines to please the delicate Caucasian palate. But the beef here is more specific: It’s about the license chefs have to erase those cultures from the cuisine altogether.
Take that chickpea and coconut milk stew, singing with ginger and turmeric. This is a curry. Alison Roman says: “I’m like y’all, this is not a curry.” She told Jezebel, “I’ve never made a curry, I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry. I come from no culture. I have no culture.”
These claims to culturelessness have become Roman’s undoing. They are also, however, her secret sauce.
If you “have no culture,” you’re free. You can pick and choose bits and bobs from all the ones out there, and you can even call whatever you do with them your own — as if they were birthed Instagram-ready from your head. This is a phenomenon bigger than any single vintage-spoon-slinging personality. Yet still, there’s something about this particular cuisinière that renders the tactic so potent. After all, the key to Roman’s success is the positive flipside of the culturelessness coin: universality.
Backpedal for a second, because that’s not entirely fair. The key is also her recipes’ seductively low effort-to-reward ratio, plus an aesthetic that achieves just the right casual-careful blend for image-conscious millennials. But these tricks of the trade are all essential ingredients for Internet virality. These are supposed to be impressive-ish meals that anyone can make, and to sell that vision their author tries to turn herself into everyone.
Look at the cookbooks. “Dining In,” because we’re all normal folks out here who can’t throw away our cash on $32 pork chops. “Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over” because chefs: They’re just like you! This enables the coconut chickpea stew to become not only a stew but the stew, the salted chocolate chunk shortbread cookies not cookies but the cookies. Even a vinegar chicken with crushed olive dressing wasn’t a chicken; it was the chicken. You’d think there are too many chickens out there for a consummate chicken ever possibly to exist, but check the comments — you’re wrong.
Yet for these recipes to belong to all of us, they can’t belong to someone else or somewhere else. All the fishes from every culture everywhere ever have culminated in this, the apotheosis of fish! Bow down before it, and then gently lay the pieces in the brothy tomatoes and cook until opaque.
We can blame Alison Roman, but only a little, because this is what we’ve been asking for — especially in an era when almost everything gets personalized, usually whether we like it or not: cooking that feels like it’s our own. The catch is, it’s a lot easier to position yourself as a cornerstone of the zeitgeist when people who look like you (who look like me) have always been at the center of things anyway. You end up missing a reality: It’s impossible to be the everywoman without leaving any woman behind.
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