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Who Gets to Decide Who Is an Authority on Food?

Over the last couple of years, with the releases of films such as Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman—movies led by women and people of color—there has been an outcry in the entertainment industry to diversify not just the crew and leadership behind the camera, but the critics’ pool as well. There are a number of arguments for this, including that the people reviewing these movies should also be reflective of the audiences for whom they were intended.

Such a call for diversifying the critics’ circle is happening in the food industry as well. Historically, just like in entertainment, it’s impossible to deny that the majority of food critics have come from similar backgrounds—notably white, male, and upper middle class. That monoculture has had both indented and unintended consequences, but they usually result in the tokenism and exoticism of certain dishes, ingredients, and the communities these cuisines represent.

This topic—evaluating who is qualified to cook, write, and review food—was an overarching topic at last weekend’s Cherry Bombe Jubilee, a day-long summit hosted by the bi-annual magazine and weekly podcast of the same name. In its sixth year, Cherry Bombe Jubilee is the largest female-food conference nationwide.

On the cusp of publishing her first cookbook with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt later this month, New York Times and Bon Appetit contributor Priya Krishna outlined the circuitous route in finding her writing voice and specialty.

“In our field, the question of who gets to be an authority comes up a lot,” Krishna said. “I feel like it when I read about a tea company founded by a woman who claims to have invented chai.”

Krishna explained that when she was first starting out in food writing, she’d often pitch stories about “restaurant dishes, interesting people, and Indian food—because that’s what I knew.” Nevertheless, Krishna said she “didn’t want to just write about dosas.”

“I had much bigger ambitions. I felt tokenized,” Krishna said. “At times, I felt I wasn’t good enough to write about other things. But I was a freelancer and needed to pay rent, and this paid the bills.”

Padma Lakshmi, who wrote the forward for Krishna’s book and also appeared on the Cherry Bombe Jubilee stage later in the day, reiterated similar feelings she expressed in her 2016 memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate.

“Often in my own career, I’ve felt like the odd duck because I didn’t see people around me who looked like me,” Lakshmi said, describing later how after moving to the United States at the age of four, she observed that most Indian cultures were (mistakenly) lumped together by U.S. critics into a singular “pan-Indian” diet, regardless of the sheer diversity across the subcontinent.

Krishna admitted she was originally uneasy about the title of her book, and that she was unwilling to have the word “Indian” in the title. She was concerned it would “end up in ethnic bookstores” and wouldn’t be placed next to a cookbook from the likes of Nigella Lawson. But her publishers at disagreed, and they settled upon a final title: Indian-ish. But, as Krishna notes this book has “both paneer and pizza,” the true heart of the book might reside in the subtitle: Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family.

Krishna also observed how her culture has become popular—if not misappropriated—in the food world over the last few years, describing how hipster coffee shops are now churning out turmeric lattes as just one prime example of drinks and dishes that have been served in India for centuries, but frankly only received attention in the United States “when white people started talking about it.”

“Publications, mostly still run by white people, often feel like they can’t publish content without being attacked for appropriation,” Krishna posited. It’s not hard to see why there has been an endless amount of cover stories about roast chicken. Krishna suggested a fix, to wild applause from the Cherry Bombe audience: Hire people from all backgrounds.

“Mastheads can’t all be people from the same background, the same part of the country,” Krishna said. The more perspectives in the kitchen and in publications, the less tokenized the food will be, she argued, and thus the more inclusive restaurants and publications will feel to their respective audiences. And that doesn’t just go for the critics themselves, but also the way they perceive the people they are covering and, often, honoring: “There should never, ever, ever—be an award called best female chef.”

Krishna also argued that, “as people of color, we’re not off the hooked.” She explained that she was pigeon-holed in her specialty because she “knew Indian food,” but that her other pitches didn’t go deep enough. So she started putting more reporting into her pitches, resulting in a myriad of different reporting assignments, including writing about the opioid crisis in Kentucky.

“I criticize white dudes about miswriting about Indian food all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re all not prone to mistakes. We all have to do the homework,” Krishna continued.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of others who need to do the homework. In shopping her book, Krishna said she received comments from prospective publishers and editors such as “Where is the curry?”, that there were “too many ingredients,” and even publishers remarking that they were already producing “a lot of immigrant stories” while asking for something else. Even after a panel discussion just a few weeks ago, an audience member told Krishna to “stay in her own lane.”

“This shit still happens,” Krishna said flatly.

Regardless, Krishna says she still has hope that as more women and people of color take on more roles of authority and management in the food industry, that they will also lift up others in less privileged positions.

“I hope, as women we’ll go out of our ways to make respective work environments more inclusive at all levels,” Krishna said. “Some days, I feel like these goals are really far away. But today isn’t one of those days.”