Cookbook writer and New York Times columnist Alison Roman recently became the subject of controversy after comments she made in an interview with The New Consumer, regarding food and lifestyle entrepreneurs Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, went viral.
“Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately! Someone’s like “you should make stuff,” and she’s like, “okay, slap my name on it, I don’t give a shit!””
“what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money.”
The interview was unnecessarily mean and casually racist, but much of it was also an exercise in boundary-making, it illustrates how we determine who should be taken seriously and who can be dismissed. But what does it mean to distinguish valid ways of selling work from selling out in a capitalist society? Capitalism forces most of us to exchange our work for money while reducing the value of that work to its profitability; but, if we want to be treated with respect, we have to simultaneously appear to be guided exclusively by values that are external to capitalism: artistry, intellectualism, integrity, meaning, authenticity. It is but one of capitalism’s countless contradictions; double binds we are all forced to navigate. It’s the career equivalent of a woman’s imperative to be effortlessly beautiful, to have just woken up like this. Sell yourself, but authentically and without obvious strategy or design.
The New Consumer interviewer suggests of Roman that “as a one-woman media brand, she has smartly attached herself, for years, to two of the leading titles in food media — the New York Times and Bon Appetit — to build audience and credibility.” Smartly? This ludicrous statement reminds me of someone I once knew who credited their study-abroad summer in Italy to their unique appreciation for travel. As if the reason the rest of us weren’t spending our summers making pasta on Mediterranean rooftops was that we hadn’t thought of it; we didn’t understand how experiencing the world could enrich our lives; we lacked their discerning standards of quality. If your career isn’t going the way you want it to, consider attaching yourself to the New York Times. Like smart people do.
Making distinctions between those who sell their work smartly and those who sell out erases the fact that we are all pigs rolling in the same capitalist shit. Even those who adopt an anti-capitalist stance; who actively fight to tear the system down, until it actually crumbles, everyone’s got to roll. Opting out of the capitalist imperative to sell one’s labour entirely is not a viable option - for anyone - when our subsistence is completely dependent upon and interconnected with the lives and labour of everyone else.
But, for people with the right amount and combination of advantages - wealth, cultural capital, connections, opportunities, white skin, good luck, family that is willing and able to help if necessary - compromising integrity for the sake of financial security or survival is unnecessary. It’s easier to strive for a career driven by integrity alone when you are at a safe distance from the harsh consequences of failing to meet capitalism’s demands: poverty, homelessness, hunger or simply facing the terrifying possibility of a future without the means to provide for yourself. When you try to distinguish yourself from those who sell out or those who don’t sell themselves smartly enough, you are mistaking the advantages you have had in life, accidents of birth, for something unique and special about you.
This is a way of looking down on others for having to labour without glamour, prestige or sophistication. That might mean producing a line of cookware for Target, but more often it means doing the necessary, but thankless, forms of drudgery that most people have to do, at least for a time, either to make their way in the world or just to survive. I’ve waited tables and poured pints and worked the cash at a convenience store; if I could have turned that work down, dismissing it as Roman does as “fine for other people, but it won’t work for me,” I would have. But that choice was not available to me. I assume people who have to stock supermarket shelves or work the line at a meat packing plant or spend all day every day picking tomatoes, bent under the hot sun, would also prefer to be doing something else. But such a choice is surely not available to them, either.
The interview reveals that Roman is working on a cookware product line, but unlike Teigen’s, mass produced and sold at Target, hers will be a limited-edition capsule collection modeled after vintage kitchen tools, produced in collaboration with a high-end cookware startup. This particular boundary drawn between selling out and selling yourself smartly is so fine it collapses in on itself. The casual racism of choosing two non-white women to use as foils in this way is hard to deny, especially when Gwyneth Paltrow was right there, mentioned but not similarly criticized in the beginning of the interview. Goop shills exorbitantly overpriced pseudo-scientific nonsense trinkets; a much more likely candidate for criticism on the grounds of unscrupulousness. But, part of the work done by boundary-making that separates those who should be taken seriously from those who can be dismissed is to police and limit the ways that non-white women can monetize themselves to help maintain the privilege white women experience, by default, when non-white women are excluded from prestigious professional spaces.
Roman’s cookbook Dining In has been a go-to when I want to make simple food with reliable recipes; I enjoy her work. But, I always felt her brand relied too much on cool-girl hot takes about how this-or-that innocuous thing that brings people joy, like sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie, isn’t really good after-all, and I bristled at her recent comments about there being too much recipe content on the internet - as if there was only room for hers. I brushed these reservations aside without much thought. Partly because I’m reluctant to criticize women who are brash or loud or aggressive or any other thing that takes up space in the world and makes noise. Women shouldn’t have to be likeable to be respected, though that doesn’t mean it’s cool to be a jerk.
It’s also partly because I know that when someone calls me or something I like out, it’s possible that I’m the one who is wrong and they’re the one who is right; I have no pretensions to coolness or infallibility. But I’m not above pretension. I sort of get what Roman might have been trying to say about aspiring to rise above that which you perceive to be mediocre. But maybe those feelings are best kept to yourself; especially if the only way you can think of expressing them is by specifically naming other women to tear down, publicly, especially when you are white and those other women are not, and everyone is operating in a space that centers white voices and perspectives.
And perhaps my willingness to overlook what some saw clearly as problematic is also because, like Roman, I am a white woman. I understand that it takes time and effort to educate yourself about the privilege of whiteness; listening and de-centering yourself and your feelings can be challenging when you are criticized. Going beyond an “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt” non-apology to understand and acknowledge the harm done by your words or actions can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Remaining ignorant and getting defensive is easier. But white women, including myself, need to do better. Feeling uncomfortable is okay and it gets easier the more you do it, it’s nothing compared to actually experiencing racism.
There are only a small number of positions of power and visibility in any field and they are not filled meritocratically. Ideally, the people who end up in these positions - say, for instance, biweekly contributors to The New York Times - would be representative of everyone, but, until they are, white women who find themselves with these positions should, at the very least, be willing to do the work required to fill them responsibly.
Curried Carrot Soup with Cilantro Pesto
This recipe takes a classic roasted carrot pureed soup, and layers in flavor with homemade curry paste and cilantro peanut pesto. If you’re in a hurry, substitute store bought Thai red curry paste, or spend more time now, freeze the extra curry paste, and save time on future soups and curries. For the pesto, you can swap out the cilantro with another fresh herb, like parsley or basil, and swap out the peanuts with whatever nuts or seeds you have - like sunflower seeds. Leaving out the pesto is another short-cut you could take. Use store-bought basil pesto instead, or top the soup with chopped peanuts and cilantro. If you want to make your soup vegetarian, swap out the shrimp paste for miso paste or tamari.
- 1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled
- 1 tablespoons Neutral Oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves Garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons curry paste
- 3 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock)
- 1 398 ml can coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Juice of 1/2 lime, to finish
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 5-8 dried chili peppers (use your discretion here, the heat level of dried chilies varies significantly)
- 1/2 teaspoons coriander
- 1/2 teaspoons cumin
- 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 12 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large shallots, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- 2 1/2 tablespoons peanuts
- 1/2 cup pecorino romano or parmesan
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 cups cilantro
- 1/2 cup oil
- Salt, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
- Roast the Carrots: Arrange the carrots on two parchment lined baking sheets. Drizzle 2 tb of oil over top, season generously with salt and pepper and roll the carrots around to coat with oil. Roast in the preheated oven for 45 minutes - 1 hour or until they are charred in places and easily pierced. Set aside. As carrots roast, make the curry paste and pesto, if using.
- To make the curry paste: Soak the dried chilies for 10-15 minutes. Drain. Add the peppercorns and soaked chilies to a spice grinder. Grind to a coarse powder. Transfer to a small bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Mix together until a paste is formed. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week or, to freeze, spoon remaining paste into an ice cube tray and place into the freezer for about an hour. Once set, remove cubes of paste from the tray and place in a small ziplock bag. The paste will keep in the freezer for up to three months. To use, defrost in the microwave or use directly from frozen.
- To make the pesto: Add the peanuts, pecorino and peanuts to a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Add the cilantro and pulse again to combine. Add the oil, pulse to combine. Taste the pesto and add salt, if necessary. Depending on the cheese you use, you may not need any.
- Heat a large pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the oil. When the oil shimmers, add the onions and saute until translucent, about 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Add the curry paste and stir to coat. Chop the roasted carrots and add them to the pot along with the water, coconut Milk. Simmer 15-20 minutes.
- With an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth (you can also do this in batches with a regular blender). Add the butter and stir to combine. Add more Water, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring to combine, until you reach the consistency you like. Add the lime juice. Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Ladle soup into bowls and top with a few spoonfuls of the cilantro pesto, and, if you have them, a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle chili flakes. Note: When stored in the fridge the soup will thicken. Add a bit of water to each bowl before reheating to thin.