What Does Food Media Smell Like?: Diversity and the Beard Awards

The 2019 James Beard Media Awards, reviewed.

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Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Serious Eats staff.

The 2019 James Beard Foundation Media Awards ceremony and banquet took place on a rainy Friday night at Pier Sixty, an event venue at the Chelsea Piers complex on the west side of Manhattan. The glum and gray vistas of the Hudson River served as an appropriate foil for the hopeful and colorful atmosphere inside.

I don’t just mean the warm yellow overhead lighting, or the soft illumination of the tea-light candles on every table. Nor am I talking about the kliegs trained on the front of the room, or the blue light the projectors directed at two large screens flanking the main stage, upon which the JBF logo and the year's theme—"Good Food for Good"—periodically appeared. I don't even mean the jewelry and the cocktail attire worn by many of the attendees, the food-media and restaurant elite accompanied by family, friends, and a phalanx of PR professionals.

It was colorful in the way that we talk about nonwhite people in this country, by which I mean there were a fair number of "people of color" in attendance.

As Ruth Reichl, the legendary author and magazine editor, put it when she took the stage to present a series of awards for food journalism: "I have to say, it's kind of amazing to me, because in the first years of this award, there were maybe a hundred of us in this room, and we all looked pretty much the same. And it is remarkable and exciting to be in this room with all of these people."

Despite her unfortunate use of "us" and "these people," Reichl was right: It’s remarkable and exciting that the crowd of people at the ceremony for the most prestigious awards in the food-media industry came from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, and races. Even more remarkable and exciting was the fact that so many of the nominees and winners were not white.

Of course, the composition of the crowd was, in part, designed. The foundation has taken steps to emphasize "inclusion, equity, and equality" in its media awards, according to a statement published on its website. In 2018, the foundation made history by bestowing, for the first time ever, its Book of the Year award on an African American author. (That book, The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, also won the 2018 book award for Writing.) The other winners that year made up one of the most diverse classes of honorees in the award ceremony's history.

To reinforce that trend this year, the foundation announced changes to the policies and procedures governing the annual awards, for both restaurants and food media, that were "intended to increase gender, race, and ethnic representation in the governance and outcomes of the Awards, as well as to increase transparency of the judging process, and to make entry to the Awards more accessible than ever before." I'll quote in full the change that most affected the food-media awards; the bolded emphasis is from the original announcement:

The volunteers who oversee the various James Beard Award programs have agreed to increase, monitor, and maintain gender, ethnic, and racial diversity among the committees and judges. Each of the JBF awards committees has [been] directed by the Foundation to increase diversity in its ranks to at least represent the U.S. census. A similar directive has been given to the committees to increase the diversity of their judges.

Other changes, such as retiring the Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America award category, as well as waiving entry fees for first-time submitters and for the first two weeks after the nomination period opens, were meant to eliminate the clubbiness that had so long defined the proceedings and to help address the "inclusion" side of the mission.

James Beard Foundation motto

Judging from the award ceremony, both by who was in the room and who won awards, it seems the foundation was entirely successful. Here is a small selection that highlights the diversity of the awardees: JJ Johnson, Alexander Smalls, and Veronica Chambers won the "American" book award for Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, a celebration of the cooking of the African diaspora; Greg and Lucy Malouf won the Baking and Desserts book award for SUQAR: Desserts & Sweets From the Modern Middle East; Mari Uyehara won the award for Best Column with her column for Taste, What We Talk About When We Talk About American Food; Marcus Samuelsson won the Outstanding Personality award for his PBS/Eater series, No Passport Required; and Geraldine DeRuiter won the award for Best Personal Essay, Long Form, for a piece on her personal blog, Everywhereist.com, titled "I Made the Pizza Cinnamon Rolls From Mario Batali’s Sexual Misconduct Apology Letter."

This list has a little of everything, just as the foundation envisioned. It’s diverse in terms of the subjects covered and of the races and ethnicities of the awardees; it consists of both small and large media entities, from Everywhereist.com to PBS. And the larger list of nominees is pretty much the same: publications large and small, first-time applicants alongside industry stalwarts, less a melting pot than a finely calibrated soup, with every component carefully, even exquisitely prepared.

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But for all its emphasis on diversity, if there was a theme to this year's Beards, it was African American excellence.

This was evident not just in the fact that people like Alexander Smalls, JJ Johnson, Veronica Chambers, and Marcus Samuelsson were honored. It was also revealed in the choice of Tyra Banks as the emcee, and in the induction of Jessica B. Harris into the Cookbook Hall of Fame. (Harris was also a nominee, along with her coauthor, Albert G. Lukas, in the American book category, for their book, Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking.)

While African American excellence feels like a worthy theme in any context in this country, at the premiere event for food media it seemed to strike a discordant note amid all the applause, given my understanding of how underrepresented African Americans have been and still are in food media. Reichl's extemporaneous choice of words as she congratulated the assembled representatives of the entire industry wasn't the only feature of the evening that slightly undermined the idea of celebrating diversity. Two moments seemed to throw the proceedings into relief for me, and left me with the impression that the ceremony played a dual role, both providing an occasion to spotlight the honorees' achievements and performing an indictment of the industry writ large.

Tyra Banks at James Beard Media Awards

When Banks first got on stage, she seemed intent on disproving the stereotype about professional models shunning food. But as she described some of her early eating habits as a working model in New York, she ad-libbed a joke that fell a little flat. "There may have been a frozen dinner, once or twice," she said. "Amy's [Kitchen] has really good seasoning, I don't know what she's doing, I don't know who her grandmama is, I don't know if her grandmama is Thai or black or something, ‘cause there's a lot of seasoning in those frozen dinners and I love them."

There were some scattered laughs, although their cadence suggested that many of those laughing were like the bemused PR guy at my table, who seemed to bark at the absurdity of a perceived non sequitur. But for anyone familiar with the stereotype on which the joke rests—that white people eat bland food—it was clearly a bold trespass to say it to an audience largely made up of white culinary-arts professionals, on an evening meant to emphasize diversity and equality.

The joke and its reception reminded me of a kind of meme that circulates on social media every once in a while, in which a photo of a group consisting entirely or almost entirely of white people—such as the 2016 class of interns for the Republican congressional caucus—is captioned with some variant of "What does this smell like?" The answer is, of course, "white people," which is often confusing to white people but clear as consommé to anyone else. Like the unawareness among white Americans that many of their nonwhite compatriots stereotype their food preferences as bland, it's a crystalline instance of how the privilege of the majority extends to blissful ignorance of how they are seen as different by minorities.

The other moment came when Jessica B. Harris took to the stage to accept her induction into the Cookbook Hall of Fame. "I never thought I would be on this podium," Harris said. "I was in food before food was cool. I was definitely in food before food was diverse." The assembled attendees received this odd truth in what seemed to me a stunned silence, until Harris continued, "Okay, the church can say 'Amen.'" And many did.

Harris went on to offer her thanks to her agents and editors, her family, and her god, but she ultimately paid tribute to her enslaved ancestors. "They ate the slop that they were given; foraged and fished and hunted to add to that diet; and gradually turned the proverbial, and often literal, sow's ear into something lush, tasty, and profound," Harris said. "They transformed their food into something so dense with history and rife with memory that here, only now, centuries later, we're beginning to understand the depth of transformation they wrought on the food of a nation. If we widen the lens and step back, the food of a hemisphere."

Author Jessica B. Harris at James Beard Media Awards
Jessica B. Harris at the Beard Awards.

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Whatever you think of awards and their ceremonies, whether you think they’re popularity contests or true measures of excellence, they do at least offer some sign of what an influential segment of society values. The James Beard Foundation has done its best to signal that diversity and inclusion should be a priority for food media as a whole, and has, for two years in a row, underscored the achievements and contributions of African Americans to both American cuisine and the current national conversation about food.

But there is only so much an award ceremony can do. While I was profoundly moved by several speeches, and I appreciated the fact that the diversity of the attendees in the room was designed to reflect the numbers in the census, I couldn’t help but notice that the serving staff for the event was largely made up of people of color, a juxtaposition that pointed to entrenched problems that cry out for better solutions than a few fine speeches and glitzy events.

Which is why I find the artful elision Harris deployed to gently chastise the room so remarkable. Food in America has always been the product of diversity; it's just that food media has been slow to catch up to that fact. But there’s a funny thing about the ideals of diversity and inclusion and their practical application, and this is true in media in general but particularly in food media, as a glance at the mastheads of some of the most influential food-media outlets would show: In the workplace, the idea of employing people of color and fostering an environment of inclusion rarely extends to African Americans.

Or, to put it in another, more colorful way: If you collected every member of the editorial staff of every food publication in America—including this one, where I am the only nonwhite member—and you added to them all the people who make the decisions about what food-media organizations cover—the stories they commission, the writers they employ—and you put all those people in a room and took a photo, I’m pretty sure most African Americans in the country could answer the question of what that picture smells like, despite the fact that vanishingly few African American writers, editors, and producers have ever been granted the privilege of being in a similar room.

Most of the people in this hypothetical photograph wouldn’t understand the question, even if they were asked; in any case, asking it would occur to only a few people, most of whom would probably look a little like me. But no matter who asks it, the answer is invariably the same.

It smells like bullshit.