Service of What’s Next in Whitewashing the Past?

February 25th, 2021

Categories: Food, Magazines, Recipes, Woke

Photo: pinterest.com

Words matter–they have literally supported me most of my career as a magazine editor, columnist, freelance writer and in decades of public relations projects from proposal through implementation.

A recent kerfuffle over a hamantaschen recipe in Bon Appetit shed light on the Archive Repair Project launched last summer at Epicurious, in response to the Black Lives Matter initiative. The latter is an online resource for home cooks. Publisher Condé Nast owns both. The project is about revising words and ingredients and impacts all titles in the publisher’s family that runs recipes which also includes Gourmet, Self and House & Garden.

 Takeout.com reporter Aimee Levitt recently explained that a food writer found fault with a six year old article in Bon Appetit that shared tips on how to make the triangular pastries [photo above] served during Purim, a Jewish holiday that begins tonight at sundown. I agree that the title is nasty: “How to make Hamantaschen actually good,” as it implies that the treat tastes bad.

Photo: eatwell101.com

The article under scrutiny was written by a gentile who didn’t explain, as Levitt did, that for dietary reasons religious Jews would not use butter in their cookies–an ingredient that makes bakery goods taste rich. The irritated food writer objected to the implication that “Jews don’t know how to bake” and about the article’s copy and recipes that they were written “Especially by someone who does not come from that tradition.”

According to Levitt, “The edited version of the story includes an apology for the original’s ‘insensitive language’ and ‘flippant tone and stereotypical characterizations of Jewish culture.’ It also excises all references to Bar Mitzvah partygoing and the description of Queen Esther, heroine of the Purim story, as ‘a nice Jewish lady.'”

The Twittosphere was split, according to Levitt, some OK with the magazine’s apology and others “argued that this points to a larger issue in food writing about who has the ‘authority’ to write a recipe, especially from a culture that they’re not very familiar with.”

New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens reported that the Bon Appetit editor wrote: “The original version of this article included language that was insensitive toward Jewish food traditions and does not align with our brand’s standards. As part of our Archive Repair Project, we have edited the headline, dek, and content to better convey the history of Purim and the goals of this particular recipe. We apologize for the previous version’s flippant tone and stereotypical characterizations of Jewish culture.”

Indian food Photo: masterclass.com

Stephens asked “If a major media company like Condé Nast can choose to erase and rewrite its food archives for the sake of current Woke sensibilities, why stop there?” [Woke means alert to injustice in society, especially racism.]

Back to the genesis of the Archive Repair Project. Leanne Italie’s December, 2020 Associated Press story, “Epicurious Attempts To Right Cultural Wrongs One Recipe At A Time,”  appeared on the Huffington Post. David Tamarkin, digital director for Epicurious told Italie: “Being such an old site, we’re full of a lot of ideas about American cooking that really go through a white lens. We know that American cooking is Mexican American cooking and Indian American cooking and Nigerian American cooking, that that’s the kind of cooking that’s really happening in this country every day.”

Tamarkin found “painful” the word “exotic” and it has been excised throughout the site as have “authentic” and “ethnic.” Italie reported: “Some repairs are more complicated than removing a single word, such as an entire story about the “ethnic” aisle at the grocery store.” She quoted Tamarkin: “We have purported to make a recipe `better’ by making it faster, or swapping in ingredients that were assumed to be more familiar to American palates, or easier to find.”

As I read about the Archive Repair Project I thought of a takeout place on Lexington Avenue in the 20s in Manhattan that made exquisite Mexican food. It was owned and the food cooked by a staff of Chinese chefs who had worked in Mexican restaurants. I bet none had spent ten minutes in Mexico and wonder how much Spanish they spoke. I thought of my WASP husband who made pasta that tasted better than what is served by many Italian restaurants. What about my mother, a great cook, who found shortcuts galore? Was her food any less tasty for the time-saving substitutes she used?

For those who think a person must come from a tradition to be allowed to improve one of its recipes I say balderdash.

What if People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals–PETA–asks publishers of recipes for meat substitutes throughout and the American Heart Association rallies for alternatives to butter and cream? Are we not going overboard worrying about words like “ethnic,” “authentic” and “exotic” written without malice through the years and that frankly don’t bother me now?

 

Mexican food Photo: irvingtexas.com

 

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10 Responses to “Service of What’s Next in Whitewashing the Past?”

  1. MarthaTakayama Said:

    The whole “Archive Repair Project” sounds rather silly and like a lot of make work to keep food writers busy. It also sounds terribly precious and self-important. The title of the article about hamantaschen sounds tacky, poorly chosen, an example of at best very immature writing. Really anyone ought to be able to write whatever they want about most recipes unless they are violating sacred tracts like Cordon Bleu. Do we now need to vet the ethnic origins or ancestry and then the political and academic credentials of the myriad people publishing formally or informally recipes from all different backgrounds. Furthermore any recipes which are hyphenated such as Mexican-American, Italian-American etc. are bound to reflect the customs or idiosyncrasies of the sources who may well be home cooks or bakers. Many recipes are hand me downs or almost folklore. Also within every one of these groups there will be regional differences. There is no excuse for making fun of a culture in writing about its recipes. That is gauche, vulgar, and unacceptable. However, in 2021, in a world saturated simultaneously with technical overload and surplus information, ravaged by a pandemic, and torn apart by horrifying political extremes, are we the public supposed to get exorcised or even remotely concerned about frivolous almost meaningless nuances about recipes?

  2. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie wrote on Facebook: it is all overblown! give me a break people!

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    The above posts say it much better than I, plus the fact I avoid food literature and like Hamantaschen, regardless of what any self important critic has to say. One accurate comment: it’s very fattening!

    PS Who listens to these characters anyway?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    I remember recipes that called for Creme Fraiche when there wasn’t a dollop to be found in NYC. There are herbs and spices that may be unavailable in Salt Lake City or Des Moines. Suggesting substitutes makes good sense to me.

    Time is something that most adult family members have little of. Suggesting shortcuts that work would be useful for those readers.

    I think the author of the hamentaschen article was trying to be funny. It was the tone of that article that irritated me–I can make fun of my traditions but who wants someone from another to take a poke? Not me. But the food writer, a Jewish woman whose feathers were ruffled as well they might have been at the digs, didn’t leave it at that.

    At one point it was fashionable to buy a wok and make Chinese food at home. I’m sure many of these cooks developed wonderful variations depending on what foods they were able to find. Many great chefs have fun with food. They like exploring their craft, much like jazz musicians do.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Debbie,

    Amen.

  6. Ramona Flood Said:

    Ramona wrote on Facebook: Julia Child wasn’t French. Not even a tad. This is balderdash, indeed!

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Ramona,

    Right!

    Lidia Bastianich was born in Pula, Croatia and made her mark on Italian food via TV, cookbooks, restaurants and the renowned Italian marketplace in Manhattan, Eataly.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I love cookies and will track down some hamentaschen–if the stores haven’t run out. I should have thought of it earlier today.

    In the first half of my life I loved reading recipes. I kept a folder of the ones that struck my fancy from the NY Times Sunday magazine. Pages of my “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”–one of Julia’s books–is covered in stains.

    I was spoiled when my husband took over making dinner. I no longer go to great lengths for myself. For one, the logistics of doing much in my diminutive kitchen dampens my enthusiasm.

  9. Francine Ryan Said:

    Francine on Facebook: A tempest in a teapot. They should be spending time figuring out how to feed all the food insecure children in this country

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Francine,

    So true and what a great idea! They might create giant lists, by city and town, of food banks to which readers might contribute money and write stories about the recipes that Chef José Ramón Andrés Puerta makes that others might emulate for starters.

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