Breaking The Bubble Of Food Writing: Cultivating Diverse Stories : NPR

Another way to look at food writing:

The first, and probably most pervasive, challenge is that writers of color are often limited to writing about their traditional foods, while white writers are given much more latitude to explore a wide variety of cuisines beyond their immediate expertise. This not only applies to writing assignments from an employer or freelance work, but to getting a food media job. An established food writer of color, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her ability to get assignments from editors, shared with me a failed attempt to get a senior-level editing job at a major food magazine. Despite an excellent resume featuring this person’s work experience as a trained chef, author and ghost-writer of several successful and award-winning cookbooks and freelance pieces on several types of cuisines, this person was turned down for the position. Why? Because the magazine’s gatekeeper making the hiring decision said that the applicant’s expertise in ethnic cuisine wasn’t transferable to a mainstream publication.

My personal “favorite” is the pervading and persistent belief that the only appropriate time for disseminating African-American food stories is on the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday or during “Black History Month,” which happens in February. I thought the word was out by now that black people, just like everyone else, cook and eat all year long. Perhaps not. Yet, other ethnic groups aren’t so arbitrarily constrained. Imagine mostly reading about Chinese food around the lunar New Year celebration, about French food on Bastille Day, about Italian food on Columbus Day and about Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo. I have pitched stories that offered a roundup of black-owned restaurants in a particular city in order to highlight the diverse culinary expressions of African-heritage cuisines in that city’s dining scene. In order to get a “hook” for their readers, editors have suggested running the piece in February. There’s an entire world of food out there waiting to be explored, but we tend to hear about the same cuisines over and over again. This happens despite growing evidence that Americans are more curious about different cuisines than ever before. For the moment, diverse food writers take comfort that stories are getting published at all.

Another mystifying occurrence is the ongoing invisibility of African-Americans in food stories that have an obvious African-American connection. How many more “Best Southern Chef,” “Best Southern Restaurant” or “Best Barbecue” articles (particularly ones with lists) and television shows must we read and watch that overwhelmingly feature white people? With 46 million black people living in the United States, isn’t it possible that there’s one African-American who can cook and has a good story to tell?

The final head-scratcher comes when media outlets finally choose to feature an African-American food story, and a white writer gets the assignment. Am I arguing that only people of a certain race should write food stories about their culture? No. I’m arguing for more balance in who gets the writing assignment. Depending upon the angle sought, an African-American writer may be able to tell a story with more dimension than someone unfamiliar with the culture. At the very least, that writer will avoid the kinds of mistakes that get people in a lot of trouble on social media.

I could go on, but one must ask, “Why does this stuff keep happening?” Having worked with a lot of these gatekeepers, I don’t think that the main problem is overt racism. We’re seeing the end product of an industry full of people living in a bubble. The gatekeepers tend to be cut from the same cheesecloth in terms of race, class and culture, and their professional and social circles are filled with similar people. This mix leads to a very narrow view of what’s possible and interesting in the food universe, and an echo chamber in terms of what’s trendy. Thus, the gatekeepers believe that their customers want stories from a certain range of subjects, and we readers and viewers get those stories ad nauseum. The gatekeepers may believe that they are casting a broad net, but it’s actually fairly limited when diverse perspectives are taken into account.

via Breaking The Bubble Of Food Writing: Cultivating Diverse Stories : The Salt : NPR

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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