In 2018, she joined Times as a food columnist. (“Alison Roman! Alison Roman!” Read the headline of a piece announcing her appointment.) Times, she specialized in visually enticing recipes that brought a sense of youthful glamor to the regular domain of cooking in the evenings. If you wanted to bake some salmon, you went to Mark Bittman; if you went to Alison Roman, you would bake some salmon. She developed a solid following on social media. “Alison has a very strong visual sense and is a fast wit – a combination that made her a pioneer on Instagram,” Lam told me. Home cooks made her recipes and posted pictures; Roman painstakingly reposted their craft to her account, showing the love of her fans while making the agnostics wonder if they were missing anything.
Roman’s interview with Dan Frommer of New Consumer was intended as a business move. She and David Cho had thrown themselves into the idea of adding some merchandise to her site. “He was like, ‘Hey, I want to introduce you to my friend Dan.’ He’s making this newsletter that’s for people in the tech world and business, and not really your demographic, and I think that would be really good for you, “Roman told me.” Normally, I would have passed and just been like, ‘What the hell is the new consumer?’ ”
The interview began with the usual pandemic talk. As the conversation gained momentum, it centered on Roman’s desire to build a larger company without sacrificing her principles or the mess that had made her successful. “Is there anything you really want to do or really do not feel like doing?” asked Frommer. Roman had sold a TV show to Hulu even though she said production had stalled COVID. She partnered with a cookware company on a line in limited edition vintage-inspired spoons. She dreamed of buying a house upstate.
She also knew what she did not want her future to look like. “The idea that when Marie Kondo decided to take advantage of her fame and make things you can buy, it’s the complete opposite of anything she’s ever taught you,” Roman said. “I’m like, damn, girl, your fucking was just sold out right away! Someone says, ‘You should do things,’ and she says, ‘Okay, slap my name on it, I don’t care!’ ”
She continued, “Like what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like this: Bom, line at Target. Bum, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just people running a content farm for her. It scares me and it’s not something I’ll ever do. I do not strive for that. But who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money . ”
At first, Roman thought the interview had gone well. She received positive feedback for talking honestly about money. Still, there was rumbling doubt on Twitter: Wasn’t all the high-spirited talk of creative integrity a bit rich that came from someone with a vintage-spoon line in limited edition? Roman accused a critic of bullying a successful woman and then tweeted, “I just wish I had someone to hold my hand during baby’s first internet setback.”
Roman decided to leave social media for a while. She had just baked a chocolate cake for a friend’s bachelorette party when her manager called and said that Chrissy Teigen’s manager had told her that Teigen’s feelings were hurt by Roman’s comments. (Kondo has not said much about any of this, but recently told the Daily Beast that “it’s perfectly natural for everyone to have different opinions.”) “This is a giant skirt and hit me hard,” Teigen soon tweeted and added that she “really loved everything about Alison.” Roman canceled an apology tweet to Teigen and went to bed. “I put my phone away and then I woke up the next morning to a bajillion texts, more texts than I had ever seen in my life,” she remembered. “And I picked up my phone and just thought, ‘Holy Moses, oh, my God, now we’re talking about race.” “
On May 11, Roman issued a lengthy formal apology, saying she had been “stupid, careless and insensitive” and that “the fact that it did not occur to me that I had nominated two Asian women is one hundred percent a function of my privilege. ” (She had also made a comment – “For the low, low price of $ 19.99, please buy my cutting board” – which she said was based on an internal joke about an Eastern European cookbook.) Roman told me that it had it not dawned on her that Teigen would take offense. “It was like, ‘You’re a hot billionaire supermodel married to John Legend, and I’m here covered in cat hair and a total mess,’ she said.
That Times suspended Romans column, a move that Teigen protested against, and set in motion a new cycle of headlines. (In the spring, Teigen stepped down from Twitter over allegations of bullying and admitted that earlier in her career she had been “a troll, period.”) In one of the sharper analyzes of the affair, Navneet Alang wrote, at Eater ,, “The reaction to Roman’s comments was, like most counter-reactions, a combination of legitimate complaints and the way Twitter breaks and concentrates the reaction.” Alang concluded: “If it felt like people had been sitting and waiting for her to mess up, it was probably because many of them had.”
“I never thought I would be at the center of this,” Roman told me immediately after. “I thought I could hide behind chicken thighs all my life and be like, ‘Oh, what, I’m right here cooking’ and now I’m in a very important conversation that I feel very badly dressed on to handle. But I have to deal with it. ” She continued, “Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘Oh, my God, is this tough, and will I ever recover?’ Have I thrown my whole life away? ‘ And then there’s also, like, ‘It’s a pretty big cop, and if you fucking want to step into it, go into it.’ ”
I decided to write about Roman in March 2020, a few months before the new consumer debacle. I did not own any of her books and I do not watch many cooking videos, but I had made and enjoyed a number of her recipes. (Swiss Chard and Mushroom Galette should be up there with the caramelized shallot paste.) Usually it takes some time to locate the pressure points in a story and find sources willing to talk about them, but in this case, almost as soon as I started to report, lit up my phone and email. I heard from a number of women working in the food world; some were white, others were black and brown. Several spoke at the post; others preferred not to, knowing that their comments would inevitably be interpreted as a personal complaint when, in fact, they were less interested in highlighting the Roman than in coming up with a broader critique of the food world. Two themes emerged: the feeling that Roman was both a product and a perpetrator of structural racism in food media, and a desire that her sense of social responsibility be commensurate with the size of her platform. Osayi Endolyn, who writes about food and identity, told me, “You can not really explain the phenomenon of Alison Roman as a galleon figure without understanding how whiteness works in America and how whiteness works in food and food media.”
Contrary to the nerdy approach preferred by writers like J. Kenji López-Alt, Roman often presents herself as less informed than she is, or perhaps should be. “I’m not a vegetable scientist (lol), so I’m not saying this is a FACT,” she writes, “but it * feels * like green beans have a particularly hard, very impenetrable exterior, but when they are hot, they really seem to accept taste much better than when it’s cold. ” Despite all her openness, she is reluctant with certain questions. She will recommend a brand of pepper grinder (Unicorn), or tell you what lipstick she is currently wearing (Lasting Passion, a “really amazing orange-red” from MAC), but she does not have much to say about the sustainability of the tuna. “I speak to what I know,” Roman told me, adding that accessibility and affordability are also important aspects of the conversation. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not a food reporter, I do not spend my time on that research. How far does my responsibility go?”
As author Andrea Nguyen has observed, the brave, prescriptive “bridge-tone” that has served many a male food world personality as well, is becoming increasingly gender neutral. Roman has been one of its leading female providers, and has rarely given in – and occasionally chosen – a fight. “Rice has always seemed like a filler to me,” she wrote in 2016’s “Dining In,” dismissing the world’s second-most-important grain crop as if she were stroking to the left.
In late 2018, Roman debuted with what became known as #TheStew (né Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric). To do this, soften the garlic, ginger and onion in olive oil. You add chickpeas, fry them with red pepper flakes and turmeric, and let them simmer in coconut milk. After serving in green, serve the dish with mint leaves, a dollop of yogurt and toasted flatbread. The recipe was healthy. It was hot. It was for some readers obviously an Indian chana masala or kole or alternatively a Jamaican chickpea curry. “This is neither a soup nor a stew, it is called chana masala and the Indians have been eating it for centuries. Seriously, 🙄, “wrote an Instagram user named Priya Ahuja Donatelli in the comments to a post in which Roman had announced a giveaway with a stock-focused spice company, urging readers to respond with their” favorite ideas to wind up patriarchy OR cooking. ” with turmeric. “
Roman spoke the language of social justice, but she did not credit the cultures from which she drew certain techniques and ingredients. She was shine-theory in her head, but Sun Tzu in her heart. “I do not read other cookbooks, I do not follow anyone on Instagram,” she told me one day. “Those clouds shit for me.” She also did not acknowledge that her branding involved personal ownership of deep-rooted dishes. (“I was not very thoughtful about it,” she said recently.)
“There’s a sense in editorial, publishing, and television spaces that if you’re from a non-white background, what you’re talking about must be generated from your identity in some way,” Endolyn told me. “But if you’re a white person, you can go anywhere you want. You can talk about Asian cuisines, you can talk about African or African American cuisines, you can talk about South American cuisines. There is no one who says you can not cook with turmeric – cook with turmeric, turn orange if you want! The point is to recognize that people from non-white, non-Eurocentric cultures tend to be affected by their identity (which is not necessarily a goal of excellence) and not offered the same leeway to experiment, play and ‘discover’ things. “
When Jezebel asked Roman about the question of cultural appropriation, she dug into her heels. “Everything, it’s not a curry,” she said. “I never made a curry.” She added: “I come from no culture. I have no culture. I’m like vaguely European.” Through several years of being told online that she was fat, that her pants were ugly, that her voice was annoying, Roman had learned to tune out negative feedback and put herself in opposition to the one she perceived as a hater. She sometimes supported progressive causes, but she was also hesitant to deviate from her area of expertise when she once told Cherry Bombe, “Compared to many women in our field and industry, I’m certainly on the quieter side of politics, but that’s mostly because of my level of education.”