I love anchovies.
My preference isn’t as unpopular as it used to be in this country now that Sicilian, South Asian and Provençal cuisine has become popular, but it’s still considered unusual to adore salty, fatty canned fish. . I can live with that. I’m glad my palate leans towards savory, funky flavors that are amplified by acid and heat.
That’s also why I loved Alison Roman.
From his early days at Condé Nast’s Bon Appetit magazine to his cookbooks and New York Times Cooking column, Roman was the closest thing to a taste bud lookalike I could imagine. Flipping through an advance copy of his 2017 book, “Dining In,” I heard myself comment sotto voce, “I’d eat that” to five, 10, 15 of his recipes: buttered radish with za’atar, crispy kimchi and Cheddar omelette, chicken on a baking sheet with paprika and lemon. His second book, “Nothing Fancy” made the same visceral appeal to my stomach and led to a 2019 full of mustard green beans with toasted walnuts, salmon with charred soy and scallions, and wedges of crunchy cabbage dressed with (what else?) anchovies Butter.
These days, my feelings about Alison Roman are more complicated.
First there was #TheStew, more formally known as “Spicy Coconut Turmeric Chickpea Stew,” a New York Times dish that shot to viral popularity in 2019. For those who didn’t recognize its format and flavors, #TheStew was an inventive, well-stocked, easy-to-prepare main course.
“Unless you were a brown person. And then you looked at the word “stew” and laughed. Roman made herself a curry and refused to acknowledge that she made a curry, and that’s colonialism as cooking. This is exactly what people are complaining about…” wrote Roxana Hadadi in a brilliant Pajiba.com column. “It’s a way of absorbing other people’s identities and presenting them as one’s own expertise, and only one’s expertise.”
While NYT Cooking updated its recipe notes to reflect the dish’s South Indian and Caribbean influences, Roman didn’t handle the criticism well. Outraged, she told Jezebel.com, “I’m like all of you, it’s not curry… I’ve never made curry. I don’t come from a culture that knows curry. I don’t come from any culture. I have no culture. I am vaguely European.
Then there was her nasty, one-sided fight with fellow food personality Chrissy Teigen, who herself was later accused of bullying on social media, and cleanliness guru Marie Kondo, during which she lambasted both women for capitalizing on their fame and even deploying some very odd syntax (“…please buy my cutting board”) that may have been a thinly disguised attempt to imitate the English with Japanese Kondo influences. By the time Roman rolled out a crypto-Indian dal recipe she only called “sweet lentils” in 2020, I had had enough. I was ready to put his two books back on the shelves and say, “Goodbye and thank you for all the fish.”
But the list of disturbing authors on my cookbook shelf extends beyond Alison Roman. For the past two years I have been trying to decide what to do about them. Should I pick books like “Mastering Pizza” by Marc Vetri, a Philadelphia chef and restaurateur who rose to prominence in 2020 with a disgracefully transphobic tweet, followed by a lukewarm apology? Or, in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine, banish my copy of Kovalev’s “Russian Cuisine” to a basement? (Given that I rarely need one of his twelve recipes for kvass, a sour “beer” made from fermented bread, I think this deserves an easy “yes”.
Do I do the same with Lucky Peach’s compendium, “100 Easy Asian Recipes,” edited by alleged serial workplace bully and former LA Times editor Peter Meehan, a book got so excited when it was released in 2015 that I took the day off just to be home when UPS delivered it?
And how about my copy of the brilliant and visually striking 2021 “Filipinx” cookbook, given to me a few months ago. The book’s lead author is Angela Dimayuga, the former executive chef of New York’s Mission Chinese Food, a restaurant where, under the direction of Dimayuga and chef/owner Danny Bowien, BIPOC employees described a nightmarish environment of verbal and sexual abuse. and physical harassment. A black employee was reportedly called a “boy” and branded with a red-hot metal spoon by the head chef.
Shelving seems like a simple call, except the book’s co-author is Ligaya Mishan, whose delicate and poetic work at The New York Times is some of the best food writing I’ve ever read. Its lush description absolutely makes this book.
Indeed, what about co-authors or ghostwriters who take no charge for the misdeeds of the main author? Isn’t the work at least partly theirs too? It would be impossible to disentangle which elements belong to whom: summaries of recipes, techniques, tests, descriptions. Do we throw the babka out with the bathwater?
I’d like to pretend that I don’t think of the context when I open these books. But for me bigotry and abuse are unappetizing details that spoil my enjoyment. However, not everyone feels the same. When I spoke with my mom this week, she described her dinner: an Italian chicken dish popularized by disgraced celebrity chef Mario Batali. “I think he’s a bad person, but once I make a dish, it’s mine,” she told me. “I don’t even think of him.”
When I asked if she would share the recipe and where it came from with anyone, she stopped and said she would, but she would redirect the request into a conversation starter. “I would tell them it’s a great recipe from a very troubled person, and I would tell them why,” she said.
I have often wondered what I would do in the same situation, not wanting to promote a book written by someone whose behavior I cannot tolerate. My mom’s tactic is smart, especially if you’re able to compartmentalize what you cook from the recipe creator. It’s also true that cookbook authors only make money from readers when we buy their books or visit their websites, not when we cook their recipes.
But I think there’s another way to solve the good dish/bad person puzzle, an approach that refuses to center the author’s heinous actions. When a friend asks for a recipe that comes from a questionable source, I plan to invite him back and offer to show him how I made the dish. We’ll cook together, maybe drink some wine, and if we end up talking about the author of the recipe, that’s fine. Knowing myself, I would have adapted a few details, adjusted the cooking times according to my overly avid gas cooker, and modified a few measures or ingredients according to my umami-loving palate. And as you may have guessed, there may be anchovies.
Four brands of canned seafood to buy in the supermarket