Bon Appetit Magazine started as a free giveaway item at liquor stores around Chicago in 1956.
It was targeted at white, middle-class housewives who wanted to experiment with upscale ingredients in the kitchen. Like all magazines of the period, it had a narrow, homogeneous audience in mind and was staffed accordingly.
For many, many decades, this worked out nicely for them.
Sure, Bon Appetit’s readership slowly became more diverse than their staff, but it wasn’t like anyone could easily call them out for making a mistake.
But then, the world moved online. For many media outlets, regardless of age, this was and continues to be a rocky transition.
For a brief moment, it appeared that Bon Appetit (BA) would be the exception to the rule, that the fantasy workplace full of afternoon cocktails and lighthearted shenanigans they portrayed on their wildly popular YouTube channel could be a reality.
This summer, however, that image was shattered into Cheeto dust.
Rehashing the whole timeline here would be an article in itself, but between Adam Rappoport’s brownface incident, the mass exodus of BIPOC staff, and the triumphant rise of Sohla El-Waylly from the proverbial ashes of their YouTube channel, by June BA had firmly cemented itself as a company that did not live up to the values it purported to espouse.
I’ve watched its last several months with interest.
For context, I’m a little bit obsessed with YouTube. I covered food media on YouTube for Forbes, I went to the first VidCon, I have recently started a channel of my own, and I’ve always found the wild creativity displayed on the platform totally arresting.
While there’s a strong argument that YouTube authenticity is already long dead, I think the appearance of authenticity is still important to fans. And once the façade is broken, many a fed up Gen-Z kid is happy to immediately abandon a fandom that has betrayed them.
This, combined with the fact that food media was already under a cultural microscope before everything blew up at BA, means that if the brand ever regains its momentum, it’s going to do so by rebuilding trust with its audience.
Unfortunately, they seem to be handling that effort about as well as expected.
Fixing what’s broken at BA is going to take far more than the efforts of one person, but the person in charge of leading that change needed to be someone with not just publishing expertise, but a deep background in food issues.
They were never going to hire anyone but a Black woman to be the new editor-in-chief, but hiring Dawn Davis—whose publishing career has been legitimately inspiring—seems to be a serious tactical error. I’m echoing many others in saying this, but throwing a bunch of new, Black faces on a YouTube channel that had been based around an image of multiracial camaraderie doesn’t magically bring back the fans—or change a toxic workplace culture that undervalues the voices of marginalized people. Suddenly performing wokeness does not equal change.
I worry that last week’s soup joumou debacle (not to mention that nonsense with their not-so-socially-distant dinner party video) is only a harbinger of cringeworthy moments to come.
Last week, Bon Appetit published a recipe that claimed to be soup joumou, the traditional meal eaten for Haitian independence day. Instead, what they published was a heavily adapted version featuring American ingredients like maple syrup and developed by Marcus Samuelsson for his new pan-African cookbook The Rise. It barely resembles the original dish, and the recipe has received a resounding 1.1 rating on their website.
Food is highly personal and as such, it is imbued with symbolism, regardless of its context. Just because you are not personally familiar with someone’s food culture does not for a second make it less important to them, and this is only further emphasized when the food in question is in any way ritualized.
As such, one editorial mistake led this major brand to offend the entire nation of Haiti at a moment when they really can’t afford more bad press. Are they likely to improve any time soon? I suppose it remains to be seen.
The internet has created a global media landscape, and thus consumers are watching from everywhere, not just the ivory towers that BA’s original readership hailed from. If Condé Nast wants to save the flailing brand, it has to do so by changing its culture. And maybe, ya know, bringing in a couple of food scholars. Just in case.
If they don’t catch up to the rest of the world, it is going to leave them behind.
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