Culture

Confronting racism and the white gaze in Oregon’s food culture

By Crystal Ligori (OPB) and Jenn Chavez (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Aug. 1, 2020 1 p.m. Updated: Aug. 1, 2020 7:54 p.m.

Food journalist Samantha Bakall on shifting the narrative in food media.

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Freelance journalist Samantha Bakall's work often focuses on diversity-based food issues. She’s the co-author of the SIX FEED newsletter with Jonathan Kauffman, which highlights Portland food producers as they navigate the pandemic.

Freelance journalist Samantha Bakall's work often focuses on diversity-based food issues. She’s the co-author of the SIX FEED newsletter with Jonathan Kauffman, which highlights Portland food producers as they navigate the pandemic.

Jenn Chávez / Courtesy of Samantha Bakall

For more than two months, protests against systemic racism and police brutality have swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The nation as a whole is facing a reckoning with racism, and it’s been highlighted everywhere from newsrooms to tech giants, and even in pop culture.

That reckoning has also had ramifications in the food world, from the resignation of Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport after a photo of him in brown-face surfaced, to decisions to discontinue racist branding of food products.

But the problems with the food industry go deeper than recent incidents. White chefs have long gained prestige through culturally appropriated cuisines. Even how the food media covers everything from restaurants to recipes is often skewed through a white lens.

Samantha Bakall is a freelance journalist whose work often focuses on diversity-based food issues. She’s the co-author of the SIX FEED newsletter with Jonathan Kauffman, which highlights Portland food producers, particularly those representing immigrant and marginalized communities, as they navigate the pandemic. She joined OPB “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori recently to talk about racism in Oregon’s food scene and steps needed to start changing the narrative.

Media’s role in pushing a racist narrative

“In food media, and in larger national media across the board, there is a significant lack of diversity in newsrooms. So the news that’s being told is often reflective of what that newsroom looks like.

“When you have newsrooms that are predominantly white, or your editors are white, or the writers are white, or everybody is white — it is up to those people who tell the stories [and] to decide what is newsworthy.

“When you write about food, it’s a sort of double-edged sword. You are creating what people care about … but if you’re only covering one side of it, then you’re creating only a one-sided sort of issue that people should value.”

White food producers getting bulk of coverage during pandemic

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One of food journalist Samantha Bakall's favorite Vietnamese restaurants in Portland is Mehka Noodle. Pictured here is the mi quang — a turmeric-infused seafood and pork soup from Central Vietnam —  lettuce wraps, and bun cha Hanoi.

One of food journalist Samantha Bakall's favorite Vietnamese restaurants in Portland is Mehka Noodle. Pictured here is the mi quang — a turmeric-infused seafood and pork soup from Central Vietnam — lettuce wraps, and bun cha Hanoi.

Samantha Bakall / Courtesy of Samantha Bakall

“No one would question that Pok Pok does have, and has had, a large influence on the Portland dining scene. It definitely brought a lot of recognition to Portland that it didn’t previously have, except I found that a lot of the coverage around Pok Pok [during the pandemic] was this iterative reporting about the restaurant.

“It just kind of felt like, ‘OK, [chef/owner] Andy [Ricker]’s going to do this. And now he’s doing take-out. Oh, and now he’s gonna close.’ And it just feels like, ‘OK, we get it.’ That’s what gets so frustrating.

“Reporting about communities that aren’t white requires work. And if you haven’t done the sourcing, the reporting, if you don’t have relationships with restaurant owners or producers who are outside of that purview already, it’s gonna be double, triple, maybe quadruple the work.

“It’s a compounding issue, because maybe people [would] care ... but they don’t know about this taco producer on the west side of town or they don’t know about this Chinese restaurant on the east side of town.”

On creating the SIX FEED newsletter

“[Jonathan Kauffman] and I both wanted to be a productive resource in society. As freelance journalists, it’s tough right now for us to find work because so many places aren’t hiring or people only want to care about specific aspects of the pandemic. But simultaneously, there was this void of coverage that was happening.

“We were frustrated with how Portland media in general was talking about food and the pandemic. I mean, a lot of our frustrations were around this iterative reporting about the same five players, and we wanted to write stories that weren’t being told … specifically around food, but also specifically highlighting BIPOC and marginalized communities.

“Something that was also really important to us was highlighting BIPOC and marginalized communities’ joy and the things that they’re adding to society. Because the other side of it is that when those communities do find themselves [represented] in large media, it’s often like ‘misery porn,’ to put it bluntly.”

On where we go from here

Birrieria La Plaza in East Portland specializes in the Jaliscan stewed beef or mutton birria de res. Best paired with a cup of rich consomme. A lunch shared by SIX FEED co-authors Samantha Bakall and Jonathan Kauffman.

Birrieria La Plaza in East Portland specializes in the Jaliscan stewed beef or mutton birria de res. Best paired with a cup of rich consomme. A lunch shared by SIX FEED co-authors Samantha Bakall and Jonathan Kauffman.

Samantha Bakall / Courtesy of Samantha Bakall

“I think hiring people of color is so crucial. When I was at The Oregonian, I was the only staffed food writer of color in the entire state. Now there’s no one. There’s obviously freelancers, but there’s no one [BIPOC] who holds a staff position anywhere. And so that means any position, anywhere is held by a white person and that just clouds the coverage of the story.

“We’ve seen flares of this happening, and then it dies down, but I think it’s impossible at this point to go back to where we were before, because we’re having conversations now that we’ve never had before.

“The fact that so many people are interested in truly identifying how to be inclusive, how have equity, how to be an anti-racist … I think it’s improbable, that say a white person would think, ‘I want to be anti-racist now,’ and then in a year or two years be like, ‘Actually I don’t care.’ At least I hope so.

“As journalists of color we’re just hoping that some of the demands that we’re making now stick for the long term.”

Editor’s note: Portland will soon have a staff food critic of color once more. Portland Monthly magazine recently announced it has hired Katherine Chew Hamilton as its food editor. She plans to move to the city this month.

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