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'Problems Bigger Than Bon Appétit': How Food World Struggles With Structural Racism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

America's national reckoning with racial inequality has reached far beyond policing, into Hollywood, finance, sports and also food. Bon Appetit's editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport resigned earlier this month over a resurfaced brownface photo and claims of systemic racism at the magazine. Last week, Quaker announced it will retire the Aunt Jemima brand. This conversation is digging into who gets credit and whose voice is heard in conversations about food. I spoke with Alex Abad-Santos about this. He is a senior correspondent for the news site Vox.

Your headline is "The Food World Is Imploding Over Structural Racism. The Problems Are Much Bigger Than Bon Appetit." So we're obviously talking about broad issues, but I'd like to start with the personal. You write one line in the story about Filipino food, food that you grew up eating. What's your observation here?

ALEX ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah. It was kind of weird growing up and being like, I'm eating this food. And everyone tells me it stinks and it's gross, and it's like - but then I think around five or six years ago, they were like, Filipino food is the new trendy food. Everything's, like, amazing. And it's - you should try this.

SHAPIRO: Suddenly, the thing you were bullied for is cool.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah. Like, I forced my mom to pack me, like, a ham sandwich. And it was, like, the saddest ham sandwich that she's ever made. And she's like, are you sure you want this? I'm like, yeah, because I can't eat the food at school because I'm getting bullied for it.

SHAPIRO: So how does that personal experience from your youth fit more broadly into the marginalization that you're observing in the world of food writ large right now?

ABAD-SANTOS: So I think what happens and what's been going on and why Bon Appetit was such a big deal is because it touched upon these bigger issues that have been brewing for a long time. It's not just the brownface photo. It was more about this bigger story of who's presenting food to people. What the food industry has been and restaurant industry has been reckoning and wrangling themselves over for the last few years is the appropriation of food. It's got - I guess, like, a catchy term would be Columbus-ing (ph) food or like food colonialism, which is where...

SHAPIRO: Claiming you discovered it when others were there all along.

ABAD-SANTOS: Right.

SHAPIRO: So why does an Indian chef cooking the food of her own culture tend to get less mainstream attention and praise than a white chef who uses a lot of Indian ingredients in her recipes?

ABAD-SANTOS: That's kind of reflective of the media and what the hiring has been in the media. Like, food media is predominantly white. Critics are predominantly white. And so an audience, whether explicitly or implicitly, tends to be white too. And so when editors are thinking about the decisions of, like, who gets featured for what or what kind of way stuff is presented, editors might think that it's unapproachable. White readers might think, like, oh, well, that's a little bit too far for me. But then when it's, like, through this lens of, like, a cool white girl presents it to you or a cool cutting-edge chef presents it to you who...

SHAPIRO: Suddenly the foreign is accessible.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah. It becomes much more accessible, much, much more popular.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about people in the public eye - magazine editors, people who appear on TV or write newspaper columns. Do you see the same thing happening in less-public places like restaurant kitchens?

ABAD-SANTOS: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the biggest examples is Rick Bayless, who has an empire of food, of Mexican food. And he's been inspired - like, he's huge in Chicago. You can buy Frontera Grill salsas in the supermarket. But I think, like, reflexively, it's like, where is the Mexican chef who's cooking Mexican food? Where is his empire?

SHAPIRO: So if this reckoning leads to a productive result, what does that new world look like? I mean, like, what do you hope to see at the end of this journey?

ABAD-SANTOS: I mean, I think one of the things that you're going to see more of is possibly more representation.

SHAPIRO: When the Mexican chef gets his empire French restaurants, then we'll know.

ABAD-SANTOS: Yes. I mean, I will be the first one in line.

SHAPIRO: Alex Abad-Santos is a senior writer for Vox.

Thank you for talking with us.

ABAD-SANTOS: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.