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.
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.
(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.)
4 years ago, I gave a talk about the vegan exotic and whiteness that may shed some more light for those who are new to this subject:
Now that you have spent time reading this blog post and maybe watching the video, here are some questions I have for anyone who has or is writing a cookbook and/or marketing one. My assumed audience for these questions are primarily those who have spent a fare amount of time in the USA, maybe even raised here. I acknowledge that people who have not lived here long enough or didn’t spend their childhood in the USA may not understand the complex nature of race, ethnicity, and whiteness:
How do implicit biases, created by systems of oppression (racism, ableism, cis-sexism, classism), impact your cookbook writing and/or marketing?
Even better, are you aware that most of us are untouched by implicit biases created by systems of oppression (racism, ableism, cis-sexism, classism) and that they impact your cookbook writing and/or marketing?
How did your feel about this blog post and the letter I wrote? What were your initial responses and why?
If you are a non-White person, have you ever experienced being exotified within the ethical consumption arena in the USA?
If you are a white identified person, do you consider non-white cultures ‘exotic’ and ‘mysterious’ and why?
Regardless of racial identification, have you ever thought about your response when learning, for example, and African American chef or cookbook author does not write about African American food, but something else?
What has been your response when learning that a white chef or cookbook author has been labeled as an ‘expert’ for non-white ethnic cuisine in the USA?
When asked to think about race and/or whiteness, as applied to food, what are your initial reactions and why? Is it new or something that you have already been thinking about?
If you are a publishing company, perhaps you completely understand your market and maybe you know that the majority of your customers would respond more positively to phrases like “demystify” or “exotic” because you know the value and history those labels carry with that buying demographic.
If that is the case, what are your thoughts on this letter? Do you find yourself having to make ethical sacrifices to make enough profits to keep afloat?
Do you worry that integrating critical approaches to how systemic racism and other ‘isms’ impacts the culinary world (or whatever publishing world you are in that has nothing to do with critical approaches to systemic social injustices) may end up being “off-putting” to a majority that is thinking one-dimensionally about the topic being marketed?
I made these yesterday morning for my 4 year old’s birthday party. They were a fantastic hit, enjoyed by everyone. I surprised quite a few non-vegan folk who didn’t know that it was possible to make a superior tasting cupcake without eggs, animal based butter, and animal based milk. I enjoyed photographing my masterpiece.
I got the chocolate cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Save the World via Chow website. I did my own modifications for the recipe. Because the birthday party was for 2-6 years olds, I thought it would be a good idea to reduce the sugar that the recipe calls for by 50% and replace it with coconut sugar which has a low glycemic index and can prevent the crash and burn hyper kid syndrome that many birthday cupcakes are known to produce. I also ended up using 50% less sugar for the vegan butter cream frosting recipe as well (I used my own recipe for the buttercream frosting which I will share towards the end of this post).
What makes these cupcakes special is that they are not only vegan and organic; most of the ingredients I used came from brands that are much more ethical than many other brands selling vegan foods. This is because ‘cruelty-free’ vegan products often promote the idea that cruelty-free means no non-human animal may have been directly harmed or killed, but the way the ingredient were sourced could come from human exploitation and abuse which is common-place within a capitalist food system built on racialized and sexualized exploitation.My dissertation explored this phenomenon of “cruelty-free” vegan products that are marketed as compassionate and sustainable, despite the human suffering and pain that had gone into producing them…and the disturbing reaction of so many food companies and pro-vegan patrons who do not care about this. *I used coconut manna to make my buttercream frosting. I love coconut manna and everyone agreed that the frosting was fantastic because of the fullness of taste and texture that the coconut manna brought.
Buttercream Vanilla Frosting Ingredients
3/4 cup Nutiva Buttery Spread
1/4 cup Coconut Manna
1/2 cup Coconut Oil
3/4 cup of Confectioner’s sugar (I made my own using the Dry Vitamix blender container and putting in the Coconut Sugar)
Instructions: Whip all ingredients on high, using a mixer, until creamy and fluffy. Apply to cupcakes once they are cooled down.
Here are the brands I used for cocoa, sugar, coconut oil, shortening, vanilla, and coconut manna that were fairly traded, vegan, and hopefully caused the least amount of suffering (in comparison to other brands).
And here is the recipe book where the cupcake recipe is from by Moskowitz and Romero: Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Click on the image to get it now!
A lot of vegans I know use Earth Balance for their vegan butter. I stopped using Earth Balance awhile ago, after I wrote my dissertation and discovered that, at least for me, they are not as ‘ethical’ as they market themselves to be. The sourcing of their coconut and palm oil was not transparent. I did not know if the human laborers harvesting their ingredients were being treated fairly (actually, I don’t like the word ‘fairly’ so much. I like the words ‘mindfully’, ‘lovingly’ ,and ‘compassionately’ when describing the conditions in which human beings should be entitled to work/exist within.)
At the market, I saw that the company Nutiva is offering a vegan butter spread that is organic, more sustainably sourced, and “Fair For Life” certified. I have been enjoying Nutiva’s products for years, as they offer healthy, organic, vegan and sustainably sourced items for quite a while. Their hemp products have been consumed by my family, for years. I have blogged about how I grew all my babies on Nutiva brands of hempseed oil, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. I found this new buttery product by Nutiva to be quite good and not nearly as salty as Earth Balance ( I personally do not like salty butter spreads). I’m also grateful to see that the packaging is non-BPA (however, people are so focused on BPA-free I am wondering about other potentially harmful chemicals in packaging that not only effect the consumer, but also those who must make it in factories and the environment it usually ends up polluting). I’m just hoping that eventually these containers can be compostable. One of my biggest gripes about vegan products that tout themselves to be ‘so ethical’, is that the packaging is obnoxiously wasteful. I know a lot of resources are used to even make compostable packaging, however, I’d argue that this is far less cruel to the environment than the current packaging options used by many companies making food products, vegan or not.
(But, this post isn’t really directly about Nutiva’s buttery spreads, is it Breeze?)
It is safe to say that many of us privileged vegan consumers need to understand that MOSTLY everything we eat( unless otherwise noted via fair labor/trade practices) is mostly likely sourced via CRUEL methods. Yes, a non-human animal may not have been directly harmed in many our favorite snacks, drinks, meals, etc., but what about the human animals? There has been a lot of focus on fair trade and organic cocoa and coffee for years, but one must understand that this is just the tip of the iceberg. We live in a globalized capitalist world economy. By default, capitalism = exploitation of non-human animals, human animals, and what human beings (at least here in the global North) call natural resources (i.e. water, land, minerals, etc). I get a lot of people arguing with me about my definition of capitalism = exploitation as being just plain pessimistic. For the record, I draw my understanding and definitions from Henri Lefebvre, Neil Smith and Angela Davis to name a few; critical thinkers who have written and researched extensively about how capitalism is the anti-thesis of cruelty-free. Capitalism CANNOT exist without exploitation and abuse. Hence, if you are buying vegan certified products, because they are within the globalized system of capitalist economies/commodity chains, there is a very small chance that they are actually ‘cruelty-free’ beyond ‘no non-human animal was directly killed for this product to be in existence.’ I talk about this in my blog post from a few months ago, in which I critique a pro-vegan meme that suggests strawberry harvesting and ‘cruelty-free’ in comparison to watching videos of slaughterhouse animals.
Anyway, I just wanted to leave you with a few of the things that were going through my head while testing this new Nutiva product out. I really have no answers about how to create cruelty-free products that really encompass my definition of ‘fair’. I perhaps am pessimistic, but it would seem that is is capitalism that is the problem. Even with ‘green capitalism’, it is unclear to me that that is ‘fair’, as there are many communities that are forced to sell their resources even under ‘fair’ and ‘green’ practices when they’d rather just not be part of any economy based on capitalist logic; however, because it may mean poverty or not, many of these communities must become part of ‘green capitalism’ in order to survive versus just doing their own thing outside of capitalist logic.
I would love to hear what people think about this. I know comments may already be heavily biased towards the consumer-privileged end, as it’s rare that I have any posting as the person who harvests vegan resources (because I’d imagine that would be a completely differently embodied knowledge about the commodity chain that is not romanticized through the eyes of neoliberal capitalism).
Anyway, I just wanted to give a shout out to Nutiva brands anyway. They may not be perfect, but I think so far, they are a better example of ethically sourced and produce vegan products. But, unless you are the person working on that plantation in which these ingredients are sourced, you will never know how cruelty-free and ‘fair’ it is. And I think that is what a lot of people on the ‘privileged’ end of vegan consumerism need to ALWAYS REMEMBER. Just because a company’s label claims it is ‘fair’ or ‘cruelty-free’, doesn’t mean you should accept it without thinking more deeply about it. I know I probably won’t be buying this product again, but wanted to check it out and let people know about it. I use local sourced olive oil for our family’s ‘buttery’ needs. What is the likelihood that people working on these plantations have access to using social media to constantly tweet and Facebook about the conditions in which they work and live? Thus far, all the ‘information’ I receive about new ‘ethical’ products come from the consumer/company end and not the end of the actual people harvesting and living there. I do not want to imply that Nutiva is dishonest– I just wanted to put it out there that you just don’t know if you aren’t there where the resources come from.
(IF YOU SEE ANY TYPOS IN THIS POST, FEEL FREE TO POINT THEM OUT. MY COMPUTER SCREEN IS BROKEN. I NEED TO SEE THROUGH PINK AND PURPLES LINES IN ORDER TO TYPE. )
I like to forage while I walk from home to get the kids from nursery school. I push them back up the hill in our double stroller and it takes 80-90 minutes. On the way, we eat herbs and fruit that grow every where. Plums, Meyer lemons, figs, blackberries, rosemary, and lemon verbena to name a few.
Yesterday I passed by a beautiful bush with clear purple berries. See photo above. Do you know what it is?
Is foraging a privilege or not? I feel like it is for me, for the most part. I live in North Berkeley. Most people who have a house here can afford a little land and have it landscaped professionally. For the renters of apartments and homes, the landlords do the same to the land. They have edible plants planted, but it seems more aesthetic than to eat for these residents. Why do I think this? The fruit usually ends up falling to the ground and rotting. So, this waste bothers me, so I try collect as much as I can, while walking down the sidewalk. If it’s on an apartment building complex, I do the same. I make sure that I’m picking from plants in which it is obvious no one cares to use or harvest it. If residents don’t want passerbys forage, they post signs stating that and I respect those wishes. At the same time, I try to be careful of how I forage and where. I know many may not want to hear this, but as a visibly Black person, I try to make sure when it is appropriate to forage. My area doesn’t have many Black folk and I worry that I may be read as ‘stealing’ or ‘trespassing’ when I forage, vs. when, say, white looking people do. I am acutely aware that whenever someone is arrested in the area for home break ins, I see the cops arresting a Black person 90% of the time. Again, I wonder what this does to the perception of the non Black residents who live there. Just some food for thought…
I also think about whether or not there is a connection to rises or declines in urban foraging to gentrification happening in the SF Bay area. Anyone have a take on that?
Also, do you forage? If so, why or why not? Like how I write? Wanna support more? Check out my 3rd book project about Black male vegan heroes:
This morning we went to Almare Gelato in downtown Berkeley, CA on Shattuck Ave. They have freshly made gelato and sorbetto every day using natural ingredients. Today Luna (above in the photo, 2.5 years old), Kira (5 months), and Sun (5 years) had Pineapple Mint sorbetto and it was fantastic. They also had kiwi as well as strawberry sorbetto, but our favorite was the pineapple mint combination. There were even fresh mint leaves in the sorbetto, not the fake crap.
Almare Gelato’s sorbetto flavors are very rich and creamy. I have never experienced such creamy soft sorbetto in the USA. We had this type of sorbetto when we were in Italy (of course), so I’m pleasantly surprised that we have
(Sun and Luna)
access to similar experiences here in the East Bay area of California.
Do you live in the SF Bay/East Bay area? If so, what are your favorite vegan frozen dessert places?
Luna and Sun devour kale in every form. Today they devoured a bag of Alive and Radiant Foods Quite Cheezy kale flavored snacks. Raw, organic, and yummy snacks at the playground. They were on sale for $3.50 as opposed to $6. I usually like making my own kale chips because of such high cost, but today I treated them. I recommend trying this on finicky little eaters.
Breeze Harper is a Bitch Magazine interviewee, that is! Hey the title made you click
If you like Bitch Magazine, I just wanted to let you know that I am in the latest Food issue for this month. I have a VERY long interview in the magazine. I talk about Sistah Vegan Project, decolonial food politics, critical whiteness issues, animal compassion and more.
It was a lovely interview with Vera Chang. Her set of questions were one of the best, well-thought out, and critical inquiries into the Sistah Vegan Project that I have ever experienced during an interview. You can go here to check out the latest issue. People can download the digital copy or the paper copy. Also, Bitch Magazine is sold in a lot of stores throughout the USA.
My favorite place to eat pizza is in Fairfax, CA at Good Earth Natural Foods Grocery. With the exception of the Daiya cheese, all their pizza ingredients are organic. I can even get a custom made vegan and gluten-free pizza! The other week, we ordered a mushroom and roasted garlic pizza with Daiya cheese. Yummy! But, I think my 2 year old daughter’s expression really shows how enjoyable it was.
If you’re in the Fairfax, CA area, I highly recommend you check them out, as well as the Fairfax Scoop, my favorite ice cream shoppe offering vegan ice cream and sorbet.
What could make my 2 and this 4 year olds so happy!?
Ice cream. Vegan ice cream from Curbside Creamery in Oakland, California. They had a little stand up in Temescal this summer. I became excited to see that they offered non-soy based vegan ice cream. It is based on nuts and it was fantastic! They open up this fall in Oakland. Check it out here: Curbside Creamery