As we continue to live in lockdown and seek out ways to entertain ourselves during these unprecedented times, many people have turned to the comfort of the kitchen for distraction. It’s practically a quarantine cliché to have started your own sourdough starter or whip up a batch of banana bread. The desire to make millionaire’s shortbread has apparently become so feverish in my neighborhood that one cannot buy a tin of condensed milk for love nor money. I’ve seen a handful of the same recipes pop up time and time again on my social media feeds, these new trends of pandemic feasting, as if we have all chosen this form of socially distant cooking to form new communities around. The most familiar name to pop up during these searches is Alison Roman.
Roman, a former recipe tester for the wildly popular Bon Appétit, has become the big name in culinary influencing over the past year or so, but especially during these times of lockdown. Her regular column in The New York Times has seen her popularity explode, a trend helped along by savvy social media work and the enthusiasm of her fans. Some of her recipes are so intensely popular that they’re now known in the singular form: The Cookies; The Stew; The Pasta. When food goes viral, it’s typically because it’s a culinary disaster or something so lavishly dramatic that the rest of the world has to see it. Roman has become an Instagram darling through the simplicity of her work: Tasty, no-frills recipes that won’t break your budget and are, as the title of one of her best-selling recipes books indicates, nothing fancy. You may not be able to recreate the seven-tiered wedding cake you saw on The Great British Bake Off but you could definitely try Roman’s caramelized shallot pasta.
It’s not hard to see what makes Roman so appealing, although a lot of that charm quickly dissipated last week when she gave an interview to New Consumer and thoroughly stepped in it. While discussing her upcoming limited-edition capsule collection with Material, Roman attacked both professional organizer Marie Kondo and cookbook writer, model, and T.V. presenter Chrissy Teigen. After lambasting Kondo for selling merchandise on her site and remarking, ‘damn, b*tch, you f**king just sold out immediately’, Roman said that Teigen’s choice to start a product line with Target and the supposed ‘content farm’ of her Instagram page ‘horrifies me.’ Roman also faced heavy criticism for mimicking Kondo’s speech and saying, ‘please to buy my cutting board.’
Initially, Roman responded by doubling down and claiming she was happy to ride out her first experience of being ‘canceled.’ She even shared the offending line about Kondo on her Instagram Stories with a shrug emoji. She only gained a modicum of humility when Teigen took to Twitter to share her feelings on being publicly slammed by someone whose work she admired and supported and confessed that she had signed on to executive-produce Roman’s upcoming show. Roman offered a groveling non-apology that tried to pre-emptively shut down further pushback by telling Teigen ‘being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing and don’t think it’s yours, either.’ That was quickly shown for the hypocrisy that it was when one Twitter user noted that Roman had publicly slammed Tiegen weeks before in a Murmurr broadcast. If this was a battle for internet points, Teigen, as she typically does, came out on top.
Being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing and don’t think it’s yours, either (I obviously failed to effectively communicate that). I hope we can meet one day, I think we’d probably get along.— alison roman (@alisoneroman) May 9, 2020
This, my friends, is what we call a fatality. pic.twitter.com/5Y6nS8ECTh— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) May 9, 2020
Roman eventually offered a more genuine-sounding apology via Twitter. While some people are still cynical about her intentions and the sheer length of time it took her to be this humble, Teigen accepted it and Roman said she welcomed feedback.
I’ve thought a lot this weekend about my interview and the things I said. I know this is a lengthy note (succinctness has never been my strong suit). I appreciate you taking the time to read. pic.twitter.com/3iGAyN3c9d— alison roman (@alisoneroman) May 11, 2020
Both Teigen and Roman are food influencers cut from the same cloth of relatability. Teigen’s charm is so effervescent that she manages to make her immensely privileged lifestyle seem warm and inviting to outsiders who enjoy those peeks into her gorgeous kitchen as she prepares meals and her kids run circles around John Legend in the background. Her love of food is giddily intense and she enjoys it as if every meal is the last one she’ll ever have and she wants the world to celebrate with her. Roman is obviously far more low-key but that strand of inviting flair is ever-present. She prizes accessibility in her recipes: No $30 ingredients you’ll only use one; no hours sweating over the oven with tools that look more like torture devices than kitchen aids; no obsessive need for everything to look pretty. Everything looks achievable and tasty, a quality her work shares with Teigen’s. At a time when we’re all stuck indoors and often working with the scant ingredients we have, both Roman and Teigen’s recipes seem like much-needed salves for the soul and stomach. Even when we’re not mid-pandemic, there’s something extremely appealing about a cozy night in with a meal you cooked yourself, no fuss, no muss.
Both women are also savvy internet users. Teigen has crafted an entirely new phase of her post-modeling career from her ever-online Twitter shenanigans. She dunks on Trump, she offers fans ingredient exchanges for recipes she’s trying out, she’s just as interested in that petty celebrity gossip as you are. At her best, Teigen is the zero-filter Ina Garten (or the Ina who spent more hours of her day dedicated to drinking with Seth Meyers.) It’s not just about the food; it’s the whole package. By contrast, Roman has perfected a sort of cool-girl cook persona on Instagram, inviting fans to watch along as she shares new recipes in her Instagram Stories and highlights people trying it out for themselves on her page. As noted by Vox, this strategy proved remarkably effective because ‘watching the nonstop parade of user-generated cookie photos in Roman’s Instagram stories made it look like everyone was making these cookies, which in turn inspired more new home cooks to try the recipe themselves.’ Faking social media buzz is harder than it looks. You need that organic push to get things going, but it helps if, like Roman, you know how to steer that ship into more fruitful territory. Add to that the finality and stamp of authority that comes with labeling your recipes as THE cookies or THE dip and suddenly you’re not only the coolest girl at the stove, but you’re the leader of all the other cool girls.
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Today for @nytcooking its salmon with a whole lemon dressing and absolutely NO STORY. I genuinely have not one clever thing to say about it and I spent 500 words telling you why. Link in profile 💁♀️🐟 📸 @graydonherriott props @kalen_k_ [EDIT: this whole lemon dressing is assertive, it’s bold, it’s bitter- it’s needs a fatty fish like salmon. I would use mackerel filets or even seared sardines w it, but cod, halibut are, IMO too lean for this dish. Would they technically work? Sure. Would I do it? No)
That coolness, of course, comes with its pitfalls. Some people will get sick of your bougie dreams. Others will wonder what all the fuss is about with the recipes. People will notice how nonsensical your attitude towards world food and culture is and will call out your Columbusing of cuisine. As our own Roxana noted in her wonderful piece, you can only get away with defining a curry as The Stew for so long before people ask questions about your attitude towards that which is defined as ‘ethnic.’ Moreover, your own behavior and attitude towards your growing brand, whether you want to acknowledge its existence or not, will have to evolve. To put it bluntly, you can’t be the queen of The New York Times’s food section and be out there ragging on your competition because you’re not one of those culinary girls. You’re too cool for that, right?
Roman’s abrasive cool-girl personality hasn’t gone as viral as her recipes but it’s still a crucial part of why she has garnered the devotion she has in such a short amount of time. It’s that double-edged sword of relatability hard at work, and that can only get you so far when you start taking pot-shots at your industry contemporaries. Roman tried to justify her comments by claiming that her critique was rooted in questions of capitalism and that she didn’t mention any men in her initial response because there aren’t any doing work similar to Kondo and Teigen. Putting aside the existence of figures like Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Jamie Oliver, Roman’s defenses fell flat once more.
She may not have John Legend money but she’s still employed by the great grey lady of newspapers, has two best-selling books to her name, and has worked in collaboration with various brands. Why is she allowed to make money on her brand while two successful women of color, one of whom has carved out a place for herself in the aggressively white male world of cooking, are sellouts for doing the same thing? Criticizing Marie Kondo on this feels particularly pig-headed because it relies on a staggering misreading of her work. She’s not a minimalist, guys, and offering advice on how to clear out one’s home in a calming and simple manner is not the same thing as forcing you all to burn your books. Gwyneth Paltrow’s snake-oil lab Goop is far more guilty of the things Roman accused Teigen and Kondo of but faces way less of her wrath in that interview. I wonder why. Keep in mind, too, that Roman has her own collection of cookware coming out soon. Do as she says, not as she does.
Then again, what she says is pretty nasty. Coming after two beloved women of color who have devoted fans because of their warmth and authenticity is bad enough. Forming a reputation as that one woman in the food world who seems to hate all the other women is a whole other mess. Photographer Matt Armendariz took to Twitter to detail how Roman had once accidentally sent him an Instagram message about chef Gaby Dalkin saying ‘this woman is so annoying,’ apparently not realizing that he was friends with her. It makes her attempt to deflect Teigen’s hurt with the ‘women tearing down other women’ line all the more egregious.
The concept of ‘selling out’ is a tricky one to navigate at the best of times, and Roman using her defense of ‘but capitalism’ raises a lot of questions as to how she herself defines the term. Why is Teigen selling out for having a Target range while her exclusive capsule collection for a high-end brand is acceptable? How are her own additions to a crowded market nobler than Kondo, whose website sells many items specific to Japanese heritage that originate from local and independent creators? If Roman is allegedly so committed to the food and nothing else, and happy to use that stance as an authoritative way to knock down her competition, then surely her own business decisions will come into question, from her upcoming T.V. series to her brand deals with J. Crew, Madewell, Weight Watchers, and Bumble? Roman’s own branding strategy is no different than that of your bog-standard Instagram influencer — do partnerships and sponsored content for big companies that fit with your pre-existing image and maintain the specific allure that made you so popular in the first place. Now, that brand will be heavily defined by hypocrisy and racism.
Of course, Roman will most likely emerge from this mess in one piece (this is why you have publicists, celebrities.) She’s too valuable an asset for the New York Times to cut her loose and I’m sure she’ll have plenty of fans in her corner who insist that she was taken out of context or treated so meanly by Teigen. Still, she may wish to further examine the double-standards of the culinary world that she is strengthening through her words and brand. The ‘too cool for this’ shtick can only carry you so far, especially when you use it to deflect from real concerns and call-outs of your own often-questionable behavior. Roman’s latest apology seems far more controlled, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she did run it by a publicist. That doesn’t mean her words are any less genuine but it’s a reminder of how valuable it is to equip yourself with the tools of celebrity if you find yourself dealing with the upper echelons of fame. It’s a path that Roman must navigate with greater care now, but will people be so willing to follow her down it now?
How much patience do we have for the same assembly line of white cooks who appropriate world cuisine, rob it of its crucial context, then redefine it as something they are the authority of? The stew may be tasty, but in a world where we have vibrant, charming, and talented cooks like Samin Nosrat, Ruby Tandoh, Rukmini Iyer and Nadiya Hussain making delicious recipes for everyone while examining the various intersections of privilege in food circles, it’s not tough to see a future where Roman’s attempts at exceptionalism run dry.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.