I’ve fed myself with stolen things. My introduction to the kitchen was very late in life because I grew up with Mila, Desa, and the rest of the household help cooking for me. My mom still jokes that I spent a lot of my childhood in the kitchen “supervising,”: mixing the batter and claiming final credit when delicious things emerged from the oven. I am capable (read: I have not suffered from starvation or food poisoning), but I am also messy and lazy when measuring ingredients.
When I lived on my own for the first time, I only had a meager repertoire of things I could prepare. The first meal I ever cooked for myself was salmon pasta, and the pasta was half-cooked. Now, I can cook at an acceptable level of nourishment and pleasure. I wouldn’t voluntarily cook anything for anyone; I’m a nervous wreck when someone tries something that I have made. I like the kitchen, but I’m unsure how it feels about me.
My fall down the Alison Roman rabbithole began with #TheStew. I mean, it truly began with social distancing and time at home to use. At the onset of quarantine, I dusted off my subscription to New York Times Cooking, which invariably led me to Ms. Roman. A viral (infamously so, I would soon learn) sensation, it was one of the first recipes that I’ve ever documented myself cooking. That was a big deal for me. I didn’t want to be embarrassed but also didn’t want to think too highly of myself by assuming people would watch actively, when really it would have just been another swipe on their Insta-story binge. The stew was done. I took a bite, and fell in love. It was so simple, so wonderful and felt totally new. I had made stews before but none that made me feel that way. I set out to make as many of her recipes as I could.
#TheStew was so simple, wonderful, and totally new. (Photo courtesy of Gisella Velasco)
With each passing success, every revelatory moment of ‘OMG! I’m getting good at this!’ I felt so motivated. My grocery list grew and so did my admiration. Her cauliflower pasta provided a welcome change to my usual dinner combinations. The tomato-poached fish in chile oil was some of the most tender fish I had ever made. I loved her recipes because they felt simple and made me feel powerful. Once I cooked something, I felt I could cook it again without having to hold the recipe in my hands with all the might in the world. I related to her small kitchen, her refusal to use more than one pot, and her assertion that ginger can remain unpeeled when cooked. I could build flavour that I only heard of with the ingredients in my pantry. I proudly showed my family what I had made. I wondered: Wouldn’t Mila be proud of me? In short, I felt empowered.
The lemony turmeric tea cake (my daughter) smelled and tasted amazing. (Photos courtesy of Gisella Velasco)
The clincher was the lemony turmeric tea cake. I thought baking my own bread was still far off, but who better than my new found mentor (whether she knew or not. I did have a highlight of her recipes on my Instagram, but have taken it down since) to usher me into this next step? In the 45 minutes that my cake (my daughter) was baking in the oven, I sat in front of the oven for 30. I was a woman possessed. It also smelled and tasted amazing (and not just according to me). I was so happy because this meant that I was not a dummy in the kitchen. I could do it!
The other day, I opened my Twitter and the first thing I saw was Chrissy Teigen’s response to Alison Roman’s comments in an article in the New Consumer(TL;DR: AR says CT runs a “content farm” for Cravings as well as the accompanying product line. She also manages to drag Marie Kondo in by saying she “sold out” for making bank on her success. Reeks of “I am more authentic than these WOC because I do things out of my small kitchen in Brooklyn.”).
Editor’s note: Chrissy Teigen has since deleted the tweet.
I am no real fan of Chrissy Teigen, and I’m sure that this would be a little less painful if I were. A few years ago, I purchased Cravings because I really was a fan. Her love of food was infectious and I thought she could introduce me to cooking still impossible things. Most of the recipes I tried from her book ended up being failures on my end. On one attempt to make sweet potato gnocchi (I know, I know! Too complex), I failed miserably, crying at the thought of having spent an entire afternoon cooking with no food to show for it. This is not necessarily a reflection of her style of food writing, just that I didn’t catch on. Maybe I didn’t believe I could. I felt sad reading her response to Alison Roman’s comments, and even sadder when I realized that those comments were maybe a reflection of what Alison Roman might also think of me: a WOC trying to find her footing in the kitchen.
I recall another incident a few years ago when I met Junot Diaz and nearly cried while telling him how his writing made me feel seen and validated. I posted about it on various social media channels and found out the next day that he had sexually harassed other women. These are very different situations, but they have left me feeling the same way — like Boo Boo the fucking fool. Here I am saying publicly: these are the people I admire! I feel like I can do anything! They inspire me! And then they go on and reveal the clownery that lies beneath. As an avid stan, I found myself questioning why I even do so, or more painfully, why I have not learned from past scars of hero worship.
As I delved deeper into the Alison Roman debacle, I found myself totally put off by her non-apology and the nonchalant “I’m so quirky! You don’t get me!” attitude. I also learned that she was not as well-loved as I had thought. Many view her as yet another white face claiming the food and culture of various ethnicities to make herself an “authority on ethnic food.” Admittedly, this puzzled me. I did not see Alison Roman this way; I saw her simply as someone whose recipes were flavourful, delightful and easy to make. But did that mean I was just as bad? Was I white-washing the food and culture of various ethnicities by assuming this woman invented the flavours she presented? Or am I worse: do I only respond to narratives and recipes when they are given to me in a language that I can understand, one which is pirated, Americanized and white-washed?
I grew up consuming mostly American culture; the split was maybe around 70% American and Western culture and 30% Filipino. Paired with things like my ineptitude with Filipino and my grating American accent, I usually feel, at best, in-between-worlds and, at worst, a fraud. I strive for any freedom from colonial and imperial forces, to confront the civilizational trauma as the formerly-colonized. Junot Diaz called it diasporic pain; I hear him say it, and I still feel guilty. The fact is that I am still ill-equipped to recognize that the culture I consume is at the expense of many minorities and silenced voices. I feel like a thief, like the things that I had learned and loved were built on stolen ground. I’ve fed myself with stolen things. This comes after reckoning with the knowledge that most indigenous Filipino culture has been effectively stamped out by colonizers of all shapes and sizes, and of one color: white.
It has not helped much either that I keep consuming in the only way I seem to know how. I am not in-between; it is clear the split is uneven. In the time that I’ve been cooking for myself, I haven’t even bothered to learn how to make Filipino food. I live away from home and the homesickness is worsened by the gaps in my Filipino identity. What have I done to bridge them? For a class assignment on national food, I bought adobo from a Filipino restaurant because I thought I didn’t have the skills to cook it. Maybe I did, but I didn’t even try.
Like many things, a white face is often a good Trojan horse for introduction to new cultures. The pushback against spices like cumin and coriander is also then cited as color-blind, but frankly is also pretty racialized. It's super weird to me.— ahmed ali akbar (@radbrowndads) May 6, 2020
Disclaimer: I love cumin and coriander.
Alison Roman has apologized again since, though I’m not sure her apology is mine to accept. I hope she learns from this. It’s not the “cancellation” that hurts. What is most crippling is the disappointment in myself, and the understanding that decolonization will be a lifelong effort. Strangely, I see myself in her. Having spent a lifetime subsisting on a diet of (mostly) white culture, maybe this was some kind of shameful mirror of my own subconscious: the assumption that whiteness is the default, the violent amalgamation of so many erased voices. I take from others and nourish myself unjustly without real consequence. Did you know that before colonization, there were no tomatoes or potatoes in Europe? Entire histories erased for ingredients that form the backbone of many European cuisines, and you wouldn’t even know they weren’t there to begin with. Did you know that adobo, as a process of cooking and fermenting with vinegar, is indigenous to the Philippines? I find the thought of its survival despite colonization’s best efforts comforting. Maybe that could be me. Maybe I could try.
Header art by Kitty Jardenil
Gisella Velasco is an urban planner living in Sydney, obsessed with the inherent optimism of change and transformation. She believes that pop culture is a mirror of human nature: ridiculous and joyous at once. Her roots in stanship can be traced back to Fall Out Boy and Quizilla. Almost no traces of her own fanfiction can be found on the internet.
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