All The Things Alison Roman Did Not Learn While ‘Cancelled’

In a new 'New Yorker' profile, the celebrity food writer proves she still doesn't understand what she did wrong last May—and she doesn't really care to

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Stacy Lee Kong

Dec 17 2021

12 mins read

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Image: AlisonRoman.com

I promise I’m not going to devote every issue of this newsletter to analyzing New Yorker profiles—but I am definitely doing that again this week because, well, Alison Roman.

In case you aren’t also obsessed with influencer culture/media infighting/mess, I broke down the circumstances around Roman’s so-called cancellation in May 2020, but briefly (well, as briefly as possible): she’s a cook, writer, recipe developer and internet personality who’s known for her viral recipes (#TheCookies, #TheStew, #ThePasta, etc.) and her “studied imperfectionism,” as New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins put it in this week’s profile. Her star rose at Adam Rapoport's Bon Appétit, where she went from freelance recipe tester to senior food editor in four years. She left that role for one at BuzzFeed Food, then joined the New York Times in 2018 as a food columnist, all the while growing her personal brand. Last spring, on the advice of her business advisor David Cho, Roman sat for an interview with a newsletter about “how and why people spend their time and money” called New Consumer. The conversation mostly centred on Roman’s goals for growing her business without selling out, including her new collaboration with a cookware company to design a limited-edition line of vintage-inspired spoons. During the interview, she gave two examples of the people whose footsteps she did not want to follow in: Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen.

“The idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately! Someone’s like ‘you should make stuff,’ and she’s like, ‘okay, slap my name on it, I don’t give a shit!’” she said at the time. (Roman is not the only person to accuse Kondo of hypocrisy, and it was racist when others said it, too.)

She went on: “What Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money.”

Predictably, the internet was inflamed over Roman tearing down two racialized women, not to mention her hypocrisy. (Remember: she was doing this interview to promote a product line of her own.) The interview dropped on a Thursday and went increasingly viral over the weekend and where Roman's reaction was initially flippant, she was soon deep in damage control mode, posting a series of apologies, each one more PR-managed than the last. Soon, the New York Times had suspended her column. Within weeks, she’d gone on leave from the paper and by the end of the summer, she had left entirely. She’d been, in today’s parlance, ‘cancelled.’ (But not really; all this really did was push Roman to become her own content creation company, something she was likely going to do anyway. She launched a newsletter in June 2020 and a YouTube series, “Home Movies,” in January 2021.)

And now she’s back, the subject of an 8,000-word profile in which she mostly demonstrates that she doesn’t really understand what was so wrong with “What Happened,” as she refers to the events of May 2020.

Roman still can’t seem to grasp that she was criticized not just for racism, but for embodying the deep inequality of North American food media

The profile argues that Roman did seem to care about learning from her mistakes in the immediate wake of her controversy. Not long after the New Consumer interview went viral, she told Collins that she never thought she’d be at the centre of “this” (a media firestorm, I guess?). “I thought I could hide behind chicken thighs my whole life and be, like, ‘Oh, whatever, I’m just over here making food,’ and now I’m in a very important conversation that I feel very ill-equipped to handle. But I’m going to handle it,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up and I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God, is this navigable, and will I ever recover? Did I throw my entire life away?’ And then there’s also, like, ‘That’s a pretty big cop-out, and, if you’re gonna fucking step into it, step into it.’”

Okay, it’s pretty telling that until literally last year, a food celebrity seemed to think there was nothing inherently political about what and how we feed ourselves, and in fact, felt entitled to create a delicious recipe for chicken, pair it with a strong take on naps or fertility or whether tomatoes belong on sandwiches and just… never engage in a single thought about whose techniques or spice combinations she was using, where the chicken came from, who might have been paid poverty wages to butcher it, and so on. Even after launching her newsletter, she seemed to believe that the key to her success was maintaining a sense of intimacy with her audience while tempering her brash, even pugnacious approach. “I’m not trying to pivot to being, like, ‘All right, buckle up, this is my new food blog, and I’m going to teach you about racism.’ It’s about continuing to be myself, a more sensitive version of myself,” she said.

But this was Roman at her most remorseful and motivated to do better. By this fall, she’d course-corrected, returning to her favourite focus: herself. At the beginning of the piece, Collins quotes a conversation they had this October. “You either like my style or you don’t, you’re into the vibe or not,” Roman says. A few paragraphs down, she continues: “The only way I will be successful is if I’m myself, because (a) I can have a really shitty attitude if somebody asks me to do something I don’t want to do and I can’t be myself, and (b) there’s so much noise out there, so many people that develop recipes, so many places that you can find one.”

Something to ponder: how often do we see shitty people claim they just ‘have no filter’ or ‘are unapologetically being themselves’ when actually, they lack compassion for, or even awareness of, other people’s realities.

There are some unfortunate comparisons to be made between Roman and Chrissy Teigen

The article spends a lot of time putting this scandal in context, acknowledging that many of the people Collins spoke to, either on the record or on background, were not as interested in criticizing Roman as they were in “making a wider critique of the food world. Two themes emerged: the sense that Roman was both a product and a perpetuator of structural racism in food media, and a wish that her sense of social responsibility was commensurate with the size of her platform.”

But Roman herself is mostly concerned with the mechanics of cancellation and how she might eventually become un-cancelled, rather than the circumstances that inspired so much criticism. At one point, she tells Collins that she’s never “seen a successful story of a woman getting dragged to hell in the way that I was and then coming back publicly and being able to talk,” which, sure? But she doesn’t seem to have much to say about why she was ‘dragged to hell,’ and whether she’s trying to change. In fact, throughout the article, there’s almost no acknowledgement of the people she may have hurt with her careless censure of two racialized women, much less her general approach to food and cooking. She positions the professional losses she faced last year—like the Hulu TV show she’d signed on to do, which Teigen was supposed to executive produce—as things that had happened to her, not the consequences of her actions.

There's also the time that she tells Collins she’d recently published a newsletter about lentils, which she took pains to identify as dal, and still received negative comments about cultural appropriation. In her retelling, she repeats some social justice talking points—food can be a sensitive topic, people feel underrepresented if a food star doesn’t take their cultural dishes seriously—but she also admits to wishing people would “lighten up.” “Can I make a pot of lentils?” she says. “Call it whatever the fuck you want, I don’t care.”

This attitude isn’t unique to this profile; in November, she appeared on the Los Angeles Times’ daily news podcast, where she said she still didn’t know how to talk about “What Happened”—18 months after it happened, which certainly makes me wonder what the hell she’s been doing this whole time, and why she didn’t anticipate being asked about this so she could prepare a little better.

And that actually reminds me of Teigen, whose social media presence this year has been similarly self-involved following her own ‘cancellation.’ In a Daily Beast profile this May, Courtney Stodden talked about their teenage years, when Teigen had relentlessly bullied them on Twitter, sparking a major backlash against the former model, who apologized via Twitter then went quiet on all platforms. But a month later, she was back on social with a longer apology, though one that mostly focused on her feelings, how difficult she found confrontation and what she had learned from the experience. By July, she was posting musings on Instagram about being part of “cancel club,” and how hard it was to navigate social media knowing that many people were paying attention to everything she did and said with the express goal of catching her fucking up again. That’s not to say that Roman and Teigen's feelings aren't valid—but neither seem to have the capacity to change the way they talk about their mistakes, even if it’s in their best interests to do so.

Also, not to be a broken record, but it is nonsensical to even pretend that Roman was ‘cancelled’

On that L.A. Times podcast episode, Roman argued that people who believe she wasn’t cancelled because she’s still able to work are being unfair. “I disagree that just because I’m able to produce my own content... paying out-of-pocket for that because I believe in what I do for my work, is an indication that somehow I wasn’t, or that I’m not [cancelled] because there’s still fallout every single day,” she said. But actually, that’s exactly what it means.

Roman’s newsletter subscribers number more than 10,000, and while she originally offered it for free, she pivoted to a paid model last summer. She now makes more money than she did at either the Times or Bon Appétit (which, btw, is what allows her to invest in her business and, as a result, reap all of the profit). She’s working on her third cookbook. She bought a mixed-use property in the Catskills, which she wants to turn into a little market and maybe host intimate dinners for paying customers. Perhaps most obviously, she is once again doing the media rounds, where no one’s really pushing her to answer any hard questions.

At the end of my Roman explainer last year, I said, “I do think it would have been nice to see [her] deliver on the promises she made in her second apology. What does it actually look like for a person who has said something racist—and benefited from a racist system—to unlearn those attitudes, uplift POC and balance her own ambition with equity and justice? We don’t have a ton of models of that kind of outcome, so I truly don’t know.” 

And surprisingly absolutely no one, I still don’t. But I do know that this isn’t it.

OOO Alert

I’m going to take the rest of the year off to celebrate the holidays and panic about Omicron 🙃. But don’t worry, I’ll still be sharing pop culture observations (and yes, funny TikToks) over on Instagram. I hope you and your loved ones have a safe, happy and most of all healthy holiday season. I’ll see you in 2022!

(A Super-Sized) And Did You Hear About…

My Club Friday Q&A with culture writer Sydney Urbanek on the past year in pop culture. (These Q&As are for paid members of Club Friday, but Sydney said so many brilliant things that I want you all to read it, so… I’m offering one month of free membership using this discount link!)

Writer Alexandra Fiorentino-Swinton’s excellent retrospective on Amanda Bynes’ comedic career.

Some SATC-related reads: Bella Mackie on what And Just Like That gets wrong about the Carrie/Samantha falling out; Steven Kurutz on why Peloton’s problems go beyond that SATC cameo; and yesterday’s breaking news that Chris Noth has been accused of sexual assault by two women.

This smart New York Times piece on the declining value of the celebrity beauty brand.

Disney’s press strategy for West Side Story, which ensured star Ansel Elgort could promote the movie without ever commenting on a young woman’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her when she was 17.

Bonus! Three highly entertaining Twitter feeds from the past week:

-      An alternate read on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air

-      The best Am I The Asshole post I have ever read

-      All of this schadenfreude (Though I can’t share this link without pointing out that the news hook is not actually accurate.)

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Alison Roman
Chrissy Teigen
Marie Kondo