Brow Beat

The Alison Roman Controversy Finally Seems to Be Over. Did Anyone Win?

In a split image, a headshot of Alison Roman on the left. On the right, a headshot of Chrissy Teigen.
Alison Roman and Chrissy Teigen
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Clint Spaulding/Getty Images for Bloomberg and Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

Alison Roman, the “prom queen of the pandemic,” has been dethroned—at least for now. Over the past few years, the viral recipes created by the pastry chef and cookbook author have been revered by a certain class of extremely online foodies. There were The Cookies in 2017. Then The Stew took over in 2019. And this year’s definitive-article dish was The Pasta, an anchovy and caramelized shallot recipe that exploded in popularity just as we were all forced to became better acquainted with our kitchens. Roman’s recipes, designed to be both simple and accessible, primed her to be one of the few winners of the pandemic.

Then came the New Consumer interview. Earlier this month, Roman explained her vision for turning her recent success into a brand, contrasting her desire for authenticity with the likes of Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, both of whom she accused of selling out. “[T]he idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you,” Roman said. She then took aim at Teigen, declaring that the celebrity’s Target line and Instagram account “horrifies” her.

Critics quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of Roman accusing Teigen and Kondo of selling out when Roman herself has not only partnered with brands in the past but is launching what she describes as “a capsule collection” of vintage spoons. That Roman chose two women of color out of all the possible influencers in the sphere didn’t escape notice either, especially when paired with Roman’s mocking statement, “For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!” which some read as a racist imitation of Kondo’s accent. (Roman has since attributed it to an inside joke that didn’t land, and the New Consumer’s Dan Frommer says in a postscript to the interview that she wasn’t using an Asian accent.)

At first, Roman laughed off the backlash. Then she tried to clarify her comments, tweeting that she would never “come for anyone who’s successful, especially not women.” Then she apologized to Teigen, though she couldn’t resist including a backhanded swipe that “being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing and don’t think it’s yours.” Finally, she apologized again, at length, and when Teigen accepted her apology, the saga seemed to be over—until, that is, the Daily Beast confirmed that Roman’s bi-weekly column in the New York Times had been placed on an indefinite “temporary leave.”

In some ways, the backlash to Roman had been steadily building before the New Consumer interview because of a broader, troubling trend in food media. Roman, like the other ludicrously popular stars of the Bon Appétit test kitchen where she rose to fame, owes some of her success to introducing primarily white audiences to ingredients previously deemed too exotic or too ethnic to be integrated into traditional American cuisine. The conversation is less about cultural appropriation, which simplifies the dynamic to a simple give/take dichotomy, and more about who gets to be the public face of the concept of what Eater writer Navneet Alang calls the “global pantry.”

This context makes Roman’s singling out two women of color in the interview even more troubling. But by putting her on leave, the New York Times has ensured that no one really wins here. Not Teigen, who accepted Roman’s apology and has repeatedly expressed her displeasure that her column is now on leave. And certainly not the New York Times, whose decision was met with its own kind of backlash.

Also among the non-winners are the women of color who have had to explain how Roman’s comments weren’t just quirky, thoughtless remarks undeserving of consequences. Actually, if I had to name a winner in all this, it might be Kondo, who has remained mum on the whole ordeal despite arguably receiving the harsher criticism of the two women. Ever since Kondo started selling products on her website, she has consistently been accused of selling out: A 2019 Atlantic piece by Amanda Mull finger-wags that the “tidying guru helped America clean out its closets [and] now she wants to fill them back up.” But this depiction of Kondo as a hypocrite is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of her philosophy. The KonMari method, which is entirely voluntary, is about getting rid of things that don’t spark joy, not minimalism for minimalism’s sake. In asking us to reframe our relationships with the things that we own, Kondo never said that pretty, decorative items don’t have a place in our lives or that we would never need to buy anything new ever again. She may love mess, but unlike the rest of us, she at least has the good sense to know when to sit one out.

Update, May 26: In an Instagram post on Tuesday, Roman commented on the controversy for the first time since reports that her New York Times column has gone on hiatus, confirming that her work will be confined to her newsletter “for the foreseeable future.” It’s not clear if she will eventually return to the Times or whether this is a permanent break.

“This was a huge shake-up for me both personally and professionally, and I’m still processing so much, but know that I’m working on it and thinking about it 24/7,” she wrote. “The issues brought to light by this whole thing won’t be fixed overnight, and the healing process for many will be long, but I’m committed to doing the work to make it better.”