a new hope

back of the envelope thoughts about the future of food writing

Hello, Lego Star Wars still holds up, even on iOS

For some reason, when I think about the future of food writing, the first thing that comes to my mind is Time’s Gods of Foods issue. It feels like so many lifetimes ago that the issue came out — three men in chef whites on the cover, proclaimed not just as wise men, but as gods — but it was not even a decade ago. It was 2013! The sexism and classism and ahistoricism felt so outdated then, but now, at this specific moment, the whole thing feels lifetimes ago. The gods have not fallen so much as they have, finally, been exposed as false all along.


I.

The number of GoFundMe’s and restaurant food pantries to support unemployed restaurant workers is staggering. As we all know — because we’ve written about it — the restaurant industry has long depended on low-wage labor, and I can’t help but connect those low wages with these fundraisers. I can’t help but think about how so many of these workers are essential, and how so much of the industry as a whole has lobbied, hard, over the last few years to keep low wages low. Now, the lobbying continues: In the near-immediate aftermath of the stay-at-home orders issued in March, the topic of the tipped minimum wage — that is, to reintroduce it in California — bubbled up again. The California Restaurant Association already submitted its request to pause next year’s scheduled minimum wage increase.

Wages very likely will be a dominant topic for some time during and after All This is over. Given that, I hope our related stories include the voices of workers. When employers are interviewed, I hope we hold them accountable: When they say they support their workers, it should not be enough anymore — because it cannot be enough anymore — to allow that to be the end of that topic. Support how? I hope conversations with employers also include discussions about other issues affecting worker safety and the cost of business, like affordable health care for all and long-term rent control.

When changes in policy or law are proposed, I hope we analyze who those changes would disproportionately benefit, and who those changes would disproportionately harm. If subjects say they want things return back to “normal,” I hope the meaning of “normal” is interrogated. I hope we gain a solid grasp on the laws governing tipping and wages — or, at the very least, that the information is not sourced solely from chefs and restaurateurs. I hope we draw attention to those who have the imagination to build equity and sustainability into their spaces.

When a chef or restaurateur or anyone in any managerial position refers to their workers as “family,” I hope we’ve done our reading about the dangers of shrouding a place of employment in the vocabulary of home. And follow-up accordingly.


II.

It’s been very 🤔 to see who was first sought out for quotes and thoughts in the early days of the pandemic. That said, the range of stories since then has given me hope that in the future, we’ll be mindful about who we choose to cover, to source, to quote. I hope we’ll continue to put in the work to find the best source for a story, not just the most accessible one.

Relatedly, I hope we won’t be too quick to assume chefs and restaurant owners are experts on topics like the law, history, ethnography, migration routes, immigration, gentrification, geography, and so on.

I hope our ears perk up when someone, anyone, says they are the first or the only person to do something. I hope we do not allow subjects to plant flags on land they have no right to claim.


III.

Empire-building restaurant folks who have been very publicly frustrated over the PPP loan scam/process has made me think about the paperwork that accompanies poverty. There is a radical distance between the “small business” of a restaurant empire and the “small business” of a street vendor; who can navigate the maze of red tape to get to the nugget at the center is very much a function of who has the time, the resources, the staff, the money to get the money.

The inequities of the restaurant industry have long been present. The pandemic has made those inequities more obvious to those who haven’t seen them, or haven’t had to experience them. I hope these nuances are not lost when we survey the aftermath of this disaster. I hope we recognize that while everyone in the food industry was in this together, they were not — and continue to not be — all in this together on equal terms.


IV.

I can’t imagine future food media as a whole being as careless, aggressive or callous as it sometimes has been in publishing the sort of rumors that don’t offer the public much but do pose real risks of harming livelihoods.


V.

Many terrific writers are doing a great job analyzing the “system” part of “food system.” I hope we continue that work to deepen the public’s understanding of how so many issues (agricultural, immigration, environmental, gender, health, among others) are connected within that system.

I would love to see us engaging more coherently with class, though. I hope we refrain from assuming middle-to-upper class audiences, or assuming that audiences aspire to attain upper class signifiers. I hope we will have the language and analytical skills to grapple with issues like gentrification, particularly as wealth becomes more and more concentrated during and after this pandemic.

I’m happy that (re)using food “scraps” has become a Thing, as is the celebration of canned and tinned foods in the pantry. I’m a little wary of it, too. Past food media too often lavished attention on white actors working in fancy or gentrified spaces who do things like use food “scraps,” use canned sardines, make toast, ferment, pickle, age, homebrew, forage, BBQ, the list goes on. I hope future food publications reckon with the way past class, gender, class and geographical biases affected who they credited, awarded and granted specificity, and who they did not see, or who they could only see in the broadest of strokes.

I hope that in the future, we recognize white men do not have a monopoly on innovation.


VI.

My last hope is a two-parter, and they’re kind of related.

The first: The crisis is hitting different communities in different ways, and publications are relying on freelancers to fill in their gaps in coverage. I hope those freelancers are hired as full-time staff writers and editors, and I hope they are well supported in those positions. I hope the mastheads of future food publications will bear out their past heartfelt promises to Listen, their verbal commitments to Be More Inclusive, their solemn resolutions to Understand Privilege. I hope future food publications understand that systemic issues require systemic changes.

On the second: I harbor the above hope, but maybe that ship has sailed? Maybe the listening tour is on an infinite loop and the performers aren’t actually present on this Zoom call. So, I’d like to hang my hat on this final hope: That the media landscape of the future include a significant number of well-funded publications led by smart people of color with varied backgrounds who welcome and appreciate the multiplicity of audience. In this future, inclusion isn’t a goal to strive towards but, rather, something that just is — it is true, and it is effortless. It’s but a hope; it’s a wish; it’s a dream.

See you on the other side.

tien.

Other thoughtful writings on food media, all of which helped me think through how to think: