For Whom Should Ethiopian Cuisine Be ‘Demystified?’: Vegan ‘Ethnic’ Cookbook

Earlier this year, I received a newsletter about the announcement of a new cookbook, Teff Love. After reading the marketing language for this new book, I decided that I would send the publishing company some of my thoughts ( which come after the snapshot I took of the newsletter below). First of all, I absolutely am not bashing the work and love that was put into Berns’ book and successful blog. As someone who has written and published manuscripts, I know that it takes a lot of work, time, etc for achieving such an end product. Instead, my focus for this post is looking at the communication style employed when marketing a book about Ethiopian cuisine and the assumptions made about the audience; I am curious about the ease in which terms like ‘demystify’ are used for non-White cultural foods.


TeffLove Email Image

I emailed the letter below to the publisher on April 1, 2015, after emailing them in March. I never heard from them and assume that they are incredibly busy with work and life, so I’m not upset or anything.

And let me give you another reminder that I am approaching analysis of the announcement of the book as a critical food studies scholar influenced by critical race feminist methodologies. I am using the advertisement as an exercise to explore unconscious bias within the mainstream ‘post-racial’ ethical consumption movement. Ultimately, I hope that it will be a useful tool for anyone who thinks about marketing cookbooks written by white people with culinary interest in non-White Eurocentric food ways.

My letter explores how exotifying certain non-white people’s cultural foods may be received as cool to the mainstream [white] vegan audience but triggering and traumatizing to those in the USA who are non-white and may even be non-white immigrants who are constantly reminded how they are exotic and don’t belong in a USA obsessed with giving full human-ship and citizen ship to white people.

After the advertisement for Teff Love was released, there were quite a few conversations happening among vegans of color on Facebook. Many explained that they found the marketing language  of Teff Love to be problematic and frustrating; some folk talked about how a rather well know Afro-Caribbean vegan chef, known for only writing books and giving lessons about Caribbean cuisine, was unable to secure a cookbook deal for writing about French cuisine… because the publishers didn’t think an image of a Black woman could sell books about [white] French cuisine (yet, for some reason, white people are normally not told they can’t publish a cookbook about recipes that are non-white Eurocentric). This spurred a conversation about who is allowed to be an ‘expert’ on culinary practices and who isn’t…and what racial bias (implicit or overt) has to do with all of this.

I also want to make it clear that Berns has an excellent cooking blog and hold valuable culinary knowledge, so this is not bashing her work and love for vegan cooking. While I was trying to learn how to make injera, her video was quite helpful for me, so thanks Kittee. I also know that authors often do not have much control over the end product (i.e. their book, how it’s marketed, how it is edited, etc)

Below is the letter I sent to Book Publishing Co.

April 1, 2015

Congratulations on the new book release. 

I was wondering why the news release is worded the way it is. Is the audience assumed to be non-Ethiopian? Just wondering if the language used could be more mindful when talking about non-White cuisines. Words such as ‘demystified’ position Ethiopian cuisine as something that needs to be made ‘accessible’ for a supposedly and assumed non-Ethiopian (most likely white) audience of vegan cooking folk. When this new release came out, quite a few of us in the vegans of color community noted that though well-intended, the advertisement is worded in a problematic and culturally appropriating way. We were wondering why the cultural authority to ‘demystify’ a non-White cuisine ( that isn’t mystical to many of us who may have Ethiopian ancestry/are Ethiopian) is given to a seemingly white author; it’s not that white people cannot write books about Ethiopian or other non-white/non-European cuisine. Our concern is that too many times, white chefs and cookbook authors are uncritically allowed to write about any cuisine in the world while non-white cookbook authors and chefs are usually limited to only writing and publishing a book about cuisine from their racial/ethnic group (i.e. Black people write about ’soul food’ but it would be hard for them to find a publishing deal if they wrote about French or German cuisine). 

I speak from a scholarly and racial justice activist training, as someone with a doctorate in social science with focus on critical food studies and race, and as someone who has published academic work on the subject of food and exotic cooking. My research has been on the phenomenon of mainstream publishers making non-white/non-European cuisine/food products appear to be ‘exotic’ and ‘mystical’ that usually only a white chef has the ‘objective’ expertise to ’translate’ for a largely white audience who are assumed to not trust themselves when trying out ’new’ ‘exotic’ cuisines unless a white chef takes the lead. Lise Heldke, a white anti-racist critical food studies scholar writes about this in her acclaimed book Exotic Appetites. I also wrote about what it means to turn non-white vegans, their culture, their cuisine, into ‘exotic’ objects by mainstream foodie culture which is white, middle-class and ‘post-racial’. It has been used in many classes that look at studies of food as well as racial experience in the USA. Here is the citation:

Harper, A. (2011). “Knowing, Feeling, and Experiencing the ‘Exotic'”  in Alkon, Alison and Julian Agyeman. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. MIT Press. Cambridge: MA.

Just some food for thought for you to consider as you advertise for this new book. You may gain a wider audience/fans if your marketing staff can be more mindful of the nuances of ‘assumed whiteness’ and covert racism when using certain words and phrasing when promoting new books. It’s also often helpful to enlist the help of people trained in critical race, critical feminist, critical gender, etc studies to look over marketing campaigns to ensure that the language used causes the least amount of harm to marginalized populations. I do this almost all the time to make sure, for example, as a person with able-bodied and cis-gender privilege, that my writing does not uphold systems of ableism and transphobia. Of course no writing can ever be 100% free from discursive violence, but it’s helpful to alleviate it as much as possible.

Thanks for your time and consideration of my thoughts.

My best,

Breeze

(Looking back at the letter, I don’t think it was probably the best idea to use the term ‘discursive violence’ as I assume most people would find it off-putting.)