When I talk about Birmingham, Alabama to people who are unfamiliar, one of the first things I tell them is that it is a hidden gem in the food media world. “Most people think of New York or California,” I say. “But Birmingham is home to some of the best food media — Cooking Light, Southern Living, Coastal Living, and the cookbook division of Time Inc. Books.”
Those things — which I still do believe — contrast sharply with my next statement: The decision to move Food & Wine to Birmingham is a bad one for American culture. Birmingham is the wrong city.
The outgoing editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, Nilou Motamed, is an Iranian-born woman raised in France who speaks four languages and lives in New York City, known for an incredible immigrant population. Now, Food & Wine will be helmed by a white man in the Deep South, the region most associated with our nation’s racism, bigotry, and xenophobia, in one of America’s most segregated cities.
We are at a point in our country where we are heaving ourselves through a socio-political and cultural shift. Change in our ethnic demographics is imminent — Americans who are people of color will soon outnumber white Americans. Babies of color are now the majority. This change is not coming to Americans easily. Will we accept, embrace, and love our diversity, and see it as a strength? Or will we let fear, ignorance, and bigotry rule us?
I’m optimistic that we will choose equality and justice. And I believe food can lead the way. Food is very often our first interaction with cultures different than our own, and it can help make the introduction to and interactions with people approachable. Racial reconciliation, as famous New Orleans chef Leah Chase once told me, will happen through food.
But to make this happen takes deliberate, mindful effort and thought — and I don’t see any thought toward America’s socio-political climate in the decision to move Food & Wine to Birmingham, Alabama. Immediately after the announcement, many saw the move as a statement that “the South now rules American dining.” But it was a business decision by Time, Inc. That’s all. To think that it’s a statement about Southern food culture is arrogant, and to say the South now rules American dining is incredibly dismissive of all the great cuisines in our country. I worry that it might become exclusive.
Food & Wine is perhaps the magazine in America that best connects food lovers and frequent restaurant goers to professional kitchens. It showcases established chefs and emerging culinary talent in its pages and events. To continue to do this well, Food & Wine needs an environment where diversity isn’t novel, but every day. And it needs leaders and talent who include diverse culinary innovators and innovations in the same way: every day.
Birmingham is not that environment. The culture and modus operandi that produces Southern Living, Time Inc.’s flagship title in Birmingham, won’t work for this magazine. Consider: 55 percent of America’s black population live in the South. The Asian-American population in the South grew by 69 percent, a faster pace any other region in the country, between 2000 and 2010. The South’s Hispanic population grew by 57 percent in the same period. Flip through issues of Southern Living, examine the staff and contributors, and it is hard to find this multi-ethnicity reflected to an equal degree. (The magazine has been improving in the past three years under the leadership of editor-in-chief Sid Evans.)
Birmingham’s food scene is nowhere near as mature or diverse as the scenes in cities like New York. Food & Wine will be produced in a place where it’s hard to find the specialty ingredients used in the chef-sourced recipes the magazine is known for. I’ve struggled to find Urfa peppers and bottarga (as an editor at Time Inc. in Birmingham, I once put in an overnight order with an Italian specialty foods store in New York in order to have bottarga in time for a photo shoot; we couldn’t find it at any stores or even restaurants in the city). Two specialty grocery stores in Birmingham shuttered in the eight years I lived in the city, unable to compete with the metro area’s single Whole Foods Market.
Birmingham’s food scene is growing — the city has a new food hall featuring an Ethiopian restaurant, ramen, and a Nepalese food counter. But these are unique. There’s yet to be a really good Jewish bakery producing bialys and babka.
Even more significant is the socio-political environment. Alabama, notorious for producing America’s harshest state anti-immigration law in 2011, for disenfranchising black voters, and for making anti-gay laws, is a state that has yet to grant equality to the diverse people who have been in the region for hundreds of years. The hospitality that Southerners pride themselves on does not extend to everyone because it is conditional upon race, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. In the days after the 2016 presidential election, Klan flyers were distributed in several Birmingham neighborhoods. This year a Birmingham suburb won the right for its schools to leave the county school system, effectively bringing back segregation. At least 25 percent of Alabama’s citizens are Southern Baptist, a denomination that hesitated to denounce white supremacy this June. The Jewish Community Center has received four bomb threats since January, and the local Islamic Center has received death threats. The City of Birmingham passes regulations that inhibit business innovation such as a restrictive food truck ordinance, created after owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants threw their muscle against burgeoning businesses. Ask most people who the best chefs in Birmingham are, and they will quickly rattle off the names of white men — not women, not chefs of color, not chefs from other nations, even though those chefs are present. The restaurant concepts, flavors, and dishes found in a city of immigrants like New York aren’t present in an environment that has produced one of the nation’s most unfriendly environments toward people who aren’t wealthy WASP men.
I’ve walked and worked in the halls of Time Inc. in Birmingham. I found lifetime friends there. I also found myself one of a few people of color, and at times was the only one on the staff of editors at my respective publication. I’ve heard white editors dismiss story ideas about people of color with the words “that isn’t our audience.” I’d argue that those decision-makers really don’t know all of their audience. They don’t even see them. Birmingham is so segregated that, despite the city itself having a population that is 74 percent black, affluent whites, affluent blacks, and affluent Latinos / Latinas live in the same metro area without ever meeting — even though the affluent are the audience that every magazine wants to boast about in its advertiser rate sheets.
Does all of this really matter when it comes to producing a magazine about food?
What will inspire the editors, writers, recipe developers, and food photography teams? Which people, which cultures, restaurants, and environment will stimulate their culinary and intellectual curiosity?
If those around you can’t acknowledge diverse people, and in fact deliberately separate themselves and put political and financial effort into maintaining that separation, how will the Birmingham team of Food & Wine approach diversity? What values about women, immigrants, and people of color will influence editorial decisions and portrayals? Will they feel pressure to produce stories that won’t raise eyebrows among Birmingham’s social circles, or will they hold themselves to a responsibility to reflect what America truly is now? How will Food & Wine portray the multi-ethnicity of the United States — will it be invisible, following the same approach as many in Birmingham treat their neighbors, or will it be consistently present?
Waving tokens isn’t enough to address this. It’s about doing the hard work that Americans should have been doing for the past five decades: Intentionally creating and learning to live together in an integrated, diverse society. The food world now is facing issues such as cultural appropriation, the complex issues around restaurant wages and benefits, and a loss of people working in fields and kitchens because of hostility toward immigrants. Women chefs and chefs of color hire the same PR agencies their white male counterparts do — and are left to wonder why they still are not as recognized for their accomplishments by media and by culinary awards. If the staff at a media organization can’t adequately diversify at every level, if they don’t regularly interact with different people, and if they are uncomfortable talking about issues regarding immigrants, race, gender, or sexual orientation among their own co-workers and neighbors, they will be challenged in creating stories that engage their audience in these conversations.
Even if Food & Wine’s editors choose not to directly address these issues in the magazine’s pages, they will indirectly, in the choice of restaurants, chefs, and recipes they feature; in their choices for the annual Best Chefs issues; in the professionals hired to write, style, photograph stories and recipes; and in the circles and networks of people they move in, connect with, and get tips from. Food & Wine sets a pace for America’s culinary world. I challenge my former colleagues at Time Inc. in Alabama not to let the status quo of that state’s dark socio-political culture hold them — and the rest of us — ignorant about who we really are as a nation. Show America’s diversity as its strength in more ways than one. Use food to help lead our culture to a better place.
Shaun Chavis’s work as a magazine and cookbook editor has won a James Beard Award and made the New York Times Non-Fiction Bestseller list. She has a culinary arts degree and an MLA in Gastronomy. Currently living in Atlanta, she helps clients create cookbooks.