NEW YORK -- With a new Black editor in chief and ambitious promises to do better, a little corner of the Conde Nast universe is taking on racial and cultural injustice one recipe at a time.
Since July, the small staff at Epicurious, a resource site for home cooks, has been scouring 55 years' worth of recipes from a variety of Conde Nast magazines in search of objectionable titles, ingredient lists and stories told through a white American lens.
“It came after Black Lives Matter, after a lot of consciousness-raising among the editors and staff," said David Tamarkin, the white digital director for Epicurious. "It came out of conversations that we had about how we can do better, where are we failing and where have our predecessors failed?”
Called the Archive Repair Project, the work is also an outgrowth of complaints and controversies at Conde Nast. But it's just one effort on a full plate of initiatives, said Sonia Chopra, who's been executive editor of Bon Appetit and Epicurious for about four months, working under the new editor in chief, Dawn Davis.
In all, the 25-year-old site (with a staff of 10) is a repository of a massive 35,000 recipes from Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Self, House & Garden and Epicurious itself. They stretch back to 1965.
“The language that we use to talk about food has evolved so much from, sure, the 1960s but also the 1990s, and I think it is our duty as journalists, as people who work in food media, to make sure that we are reflecting that appropriately," Chopra said.
Epicurious and Bon Appetit have been at the center of accusations that also plague others in the food world: undervaluing staffers of color, perpetuating structural racism, racial and gender discrimination, and more. Some of those issues led several Bon Appetit employees to leave earlier this year after Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport resigned over a 2004 Halloween “brownface” photo and amid allegations of racial discrimination.
While Conde Nast studies pay equity, and has issued apologies and pledges to do such things as expand unconscious-bias education and create inclusion and diversity plans, the Archive Repair Project rolls on.
The bulk of Epicurious site traffic goes to the archive, mostly recipes but also articles and other editorial work, Tamarkin and Chopra said.
“Being such an old site, we’re full of a lot of ideas about American cooking that really go through a white lens," Tamarkin said. “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.”
One of the first issues “repaired,” he said, was use of the word “exotic.”
“I can’t think of any situation where that word would be appropriate, and yet it’s all over the site,” Tamarkin said. “That’s painful for me and I’m sure others.”
Another word requiring removal was a lime reference that included a racial slur directed at Black Africans, particularly in South Africa.
Other terms, such as “authentic" and “ethnic,” are also among repairs.
The work, Chopra said, is “certainly something that I think not just Conde Nast brands but all over food media and media in general are really thinking about.”
Since July, when Tamarkin outlined the project on Epicurious, he and his staff have fixed about 200 recipes and other work. Some repairs are more complicated than removing a single word, such as an entire story about the “ethnic” aisle at the grocery store.
“We have published recipes with headnotes that fail to properly credit the inspirations for the dish, or degrade the cuisine the dish belongs to. 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. We have inferred (and in some cases outright labeled) ingredients and techniques to be ‘surprising’ or `weird.' And we have published terminology that was widely accepted in food writing at the time, and that we now recognize has always been racist,” Tamarkin wrote.
He noted: “Certainly there will be times when our edits do not go far enough; some of our repairs will need repairs.”
For Bon Appetit, that's exactly what happened when an outcry among readers led it to make multiple changes including the headnote and references to Haiti on a pumpkin soup recipe put forth by Chef Marcus Samuelsson, a guest editor. The magazine referred to it as soup joumou, a beloved Haitian staple that symbolizes the country's bloody liberation from its French colonizers.
It was not soup joumou, but was intended by Samuelsson as an homage. The magazine adapted an entry from one of his cookbooks, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.” Both Bon Appetit and Samuelsson, who is Black, apologized after calls of erasure and cultural appropriation.
Much of food media is facing race and ethnicity fallout that can be traced to white dominance in the highest echelons of the field. On the Epicurious repair project, for instance, just 31% of the people identifying and fixing the archive are staff of color.
Chopra said broader plans are in motion.
“We're committed to building teams that are inclusive and thoughtful, and that means always assessing and reassessing our policies and processes. As we transition into 2021 with new leadership, we are examining these across the board, from hiring best practices to making sure we are communicating and working collaboratively and holistically across teams and platforms,” Chopra added.
In the meantime, Tamarkin and his crew are slowly pressing on with their archive repairs at Epicurious, where “Asian” is no longer the name of a cold rice noodle salad, and a vadouvan spice blend has lost its mention as “exotic.”
“A lot of these problems happened because there was a lack of thoughtfulness," Tamarkin said, "so the solutions require that we be thoughtful now.”