‘We have been complicit’: How Bon Appetit went from a classic American brand to a woke flagship

Events of 2020 hastened magazine's reinvention as a platform using cooking as vehicle to "talk about each other's race, identity, culture in the most delicious way."

Published: May 15, 2021 7:08am

Updated: May 15, 2021 11:22pm

"We have been complicit with a culture we don't agree with and are committed to change. Our mastheads have been far too white for far too long."

That was the message from staff at Bon Appetit last year, who issued a lengthy "long-overdue apology" in early June amid the frenzied explosion of Black Lives Matter-led activism throughout the country. 

Launched in the mid-1950s, Bon Appetit remained a flagship of American food publishing into the 21st century. It bills itself as the "leading arbiter of taste" and has won numerous expert and readership awards, including placing multiple years in the National Magazine Awards' General Excellence rundown. The New York Times in 2010 called it "the biggest old-guard food magazine left standing."

But the storied cooking magazine was among the many brands that took a strong left-wing stance last year in response to the wave of bitter, often violent, sometimes deadly racial activism that swept the U.S. in 2020. Following a staff shakeup last summer amid allegations that leadership was racially discriminatory and insufficiently ethnically diverse, the magazine has taken on a distinctly woke vibe, its food content very often dovetailing with progressive political goals. 

Bon Appetit began last year's transformation innocuously, promising in January of 2020 that its test kitchen would "be more sustainable" throughout the year. By June, its staff had issued their "long-overdue apology," a missive that came in the immediate wake of the resignation of the magazine's editor Adam Rapoport amid a bizarre Instagram scandal. 

An old photo had surfaced of Rapoport and his wife Simone Shubuck in Halloween costumes resembling Puetro Rican street attire. Critics had claimed Rapoport had dressed himself up in "brownface," though the picture did not appear to show him in makeup and Rapoport himself expressly denied having painted his face in any way. 

The longtime editor nevertheless resigned. In their apology, the staff called the photo "horrific" and claimed that it spoke to "the much broader and longstanding impact of racism" at the magazine.

Major shakeups at the institution followed throughout the year. Multiple stars of the brand's popular Test Kitchen departed over claims that the magazine and its parent company, Conde Nast, were not doing enough to address alleged racism within the organization. Two black editorial staff members resigned in August. 

The magazine in late 2020 installed black writers Dawn Davis and Marcus Samuelsson as its new editor-in-chief and brand adviser, respectively. Davis expressed a desire to use the magazine to "change the way we even think about food" and signaled Bon Appetit's upcoming shift to "being more diverse in terms of stories, in terms of voices." 

Samuelsson, meanwhile, said he and other new hires had been working to "transform the platform and add value to it," claiming: "Cooking could be this incredible, delicious way where we can talk about each other's race, identity, culture in the most delicious way … [T]hat's one of the things that I look forward to at Bon Appétit: telling more untold stories, so we work to a more equal food community, equitable table."

Throughout last summer and into this year, the magazine has pushed the style of racial activism that dominated much of the U.S. political scene last year, urging readers to support black-owned restaurants, giving major ink space to claims of racism in the restaurant industry, examining how the original Black Panther Party's food program "laid the groundwork for modern activism," and profiling efforts to address the wine industry's "diversity, equity and inclusion" problems.

Its most recent volume dubbed itself "the green issue" and offered readers features on the culinary connections between "the climate crisis and food," Chinese food recipes that were billed as "very good [and] very vegan," and a 16-page guide to eliminating food waste. 

The magazine's subscriber numbers aren't publicly available, so it's unknown how the magazine's shift has been received by its readers. Its YouTube channel, however, appears to have taken a significant hit. 

Prior to last fall, its food instructional videos, many of them wacky and irreverent ("Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Pizza Rolls," "Pro Chefs Make 13 Kinds of Pantry Pasta"), regularly racked up millions upon millions of views. 

Following the channel's October reveal of the magazine's new leadership lineup, only a handful of videos have cracked even a million views. Many of the videos appear to reflect the channel's shift to less mainstream, more alternative sensibilities, presenting dishes such as vegan meatballs and braised goat as well as trips to food banks and composting outfits. 

The magazine has even been forced to edit its own recipes at times to reflect its changing aesthetic. In December it published a recipe by Samuelsson that purported to be soup joumou, a dish with historic significance to the Haitian revolution. The recipe was in fact a different kind of soup inspired by the Haitian dish. A major outcry led the magazine to rewrite the recipe entry on its website, apologizing to readers for "misrepresenting" the original.

The magazine is even engaging in what it calls an "archive repair project" meant to edit earlier recipes now deemed to have been presented insensitively. In one such revision, the magazine edited a recipe for a Jewish cookie. The original feature instructed readers on "how to make actually good hamantaschen," decrying most of those cookies as "dry and sandy." The revised version removed that language, offering an apology "for the previous version's flippant tone and stereotypical characterizations of Jewish culture."

Bon Appetit declined to comment for this report. In its "apology" from last summer, meanwhile, the staff of the magazine signaled that their struggle was only just beginning. 

"This is just the start," they said. "We want to be transparent, accountable, and active as we begin to dismantle racism at our brands."

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