Can you separate the recipe from the recipe creator?

If a cookbook writer has done some bad things, if they are racist or a bully, say, should you stop cooking their recipes? Photo by Andrew Ross

I love anchovies.

My preference isn’t as unpopular as it used to be in this country, now that Sicilian, Southeast Asian and Provencal cooking have become popular, but it’s still considered unusual to adore salty, oily preserved fish. I can live with that. I’m happy my palate skews toward savory and funky flavors, amplified by acid and heat.

That’s also why I used to love Alison Roman.

From her start at Condé Nast’s Bon Appetit magazine to her cookbooks and her New York Times Cooking column, Roman represented the closest thing to a doppelganger of the tastebuds that I could imagine. Paging through an advance copy of her 2017 book, “Dining In,” I heard myself commenting sotto voce, “I would eat that” to five, 10, 15 of its recipes: butter-tossed radishes with za’atar, crispy kimchi and cheddar omelette, paprika-rubbed sheet-pan chicken with lemon. Her second book by Ella, “Nothing Fancy” made the same visceral appeal to my stomach and led to a 2019 full of mustardy green beans with toasted walnuts, salmon with soy and charred scallions, and crunchy wedges of cabbage dressed with (what else? ) Anchovy butter.

These days, my feelings about Alison Roman are more complicated.

First there was #TheStew, more formally known as “Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric,” a New York Times dish that achieved viral popularity in 2019. To those who did not recognize its format and flavors, #TheStew was an inventive, flavor -packaged, low-effort main dish.

“Unless you were a brown person. And then you looked at the word ‘stew’ and scoffed. Roman made herself a curry and refused to acknowledge that she had made a curry, and this is colonialism as cuisine. This is exactly what people have been grumbling about…,” Roxana Hadadi wrote in a brilliant Pajiba.com column. “It’s a way to absorb other people’s identities and present them as her own expertise from her, and her expertise from her only.”

While NYT Cooking updated its recipe headnotes to reflect the dish’s South Indian and Caribbean influences, Roman did not handle the criticism well. Indignant, she told Jezebel.com, “I’m like y’all, this is not a curry…I’ve never made a curry. I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry. I eat from no culture. I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.”

Then there was her ugly, one-sided dust-up with fellow food personality Chrissy Teigen, who was herself later accused of social-media bullying, and tidiness guru Marie Kondo, during which she lambasted both women for capitalizing on their fame and even deployed some very odd syntax (“…please to buy my cutting board”) that may have been a thinly disguised attempt at mimicking Kondo’s Japanese-inflected English. By the time Roman rolled out a crypto-Indian dal recipe that she referred to only as “Gentle Lentils” in 2020, I’d had enough. I was ready to reshelve both of her books by Ella and say, “So long and thanks for all the fishes.”

But the list of troubling authors on my cookbook shelf extends beyond Alison Roman. For the past two years, I’ve been trying to decide what to do about them. Do I cull books like “Mastering Pizza” by Marc Vetri, a Philadelphia chef and restaurateur who earned himself a bit of notoriety in 2020 with a shamefully transphobic tweet, followed by a tepid apology? Or, in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine, banish my copy of Kovalev’s “Russian Cooking” to basement storage? (Considering that I rarely need one of its dozen recipes for kvass, a tart “beer” made from fermented bread, I think this earns an easy “yes.”

Do I do the same with the Lucky Peach compendium, “100 Easy Asian Recipes,” edited by alleged serial workplace bully and former food editor of the LA Times, Peter Meehan, a book I was so excited for when it was published in 2015 that I took a day off from work just so I’d be home when UPS delivered it?

And how about my copy of 2021’s glossy, visually arresting “Filipinx” cookbook, given to me a few months ago. The book’s primary author is Angela Dimayuga, the former executive chef of New York’s Mission Chinese Food, a restaurant where, under the leadership of Dimayuga and chef/owner Danny Bowien, BIPOC employees described a nightmarish back-of-house environment of verbal, sexual and physical harassment. One Black employee was reportedly called “boy” and was branded with a red-hot metal spoon by the chef-de-cuisine.

Shelving seems like a straightforward call, except that the book’s co-author is Ligaya Mishan, whose delicate, poetic work at The New York Times is among the best food writing I have ever read. Her lush description of her absolutely makes this book.

Indeed, how should we think about the co-authors or ghostwriters who shoulder none of the burden for the misdeeds of the lead author? Isn’t the work at least partly theirs, too? It would be impossible to tease out which elements belong to whom: recipe headnotes, techniques, testing, descriptions. Are we throwing the babka out with the bathwater?

I’d like to pretend I don’t think about context when I open these books. But to me, bigotry and abuse are unappetizing details that spoil my enjoyment. Not everyone feels the same, though. When I spoke with my mother this week, she described her de ella dinner de ella: 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 about him.”

When I asked if she’d share the recipe and its provenance with someone, she paused and replied that she would, but she’d redirect the request into a conversation starter. “I’d tell them that it’s a great recipe from a very troubled person, and I’d tell them why,” she said.

I’ve often wondered what I’d do in the same situation, not wanting to promote a book written by someone whose behavior I can’t condone. My mother’s tactic is smart, especially if you’re able to compartmentalize what you’re cooking from the recipe’s creator. It’s also true that cookbook authors only make money from readers when we purchase their books or visit their websites, not when we prepare 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 abhorrent actions. When a friend asks for a recipe that comes from a questionable source, I plan to invite them back and offer to show how I made the dish. We’ll cook together, maybe drink some wine, and if we wind up talking about the recipe’s originator, that’s fine. Knowing me, I will have adapted a few details, adjusted cooking times to suit my overeager gas range and rejiggered a few measurements or ingredients to suit my umami-loving palate. And as you might have guessed, there may be anchovies.


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