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My Circuitous Path to Food Writing as a Non-Food Person

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I don’t have terribly fond memories of my second grade teacher, whom I’ll grant anonymity and simply call Mrs. Meyers. One memory of her abject awfulness sticks out. In advance of Thanksgiving, she led us in an exercise: We, a class of twelve people, had to pretend to run a restaurant. She gave us each a separate task—one of us would bus the tables, another would sauté fake onions. My task? “Dish out the food.”

Sweet! The one task I plainly didn’t understand. Indeed, I didn’t know what “dish,” as a verb, meant. I’d literally never heard the word used in a sentence that way. When my turn came around, I became clammy. I just stood there, silent, mouth agape. Perhaps I mustered a guttural “guh?” I can’t even remember; I’ve had selective, voluntary amnesia around this trauma.

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My teacher, of course, was pissed. She was a baker in her spare time, so maybe my failure registered as a personal affront to her culinary gifts. How did I not know what that word meant? Didn’t I grow up in this country, she asked me? She cancelled the activity in a fury, claiming I’d ruined it.

Here's my dumb head!
Here's my dumb head!

I swear I wasn’t a stupid child. I attributed the oversight to the fact that I’d been raised in a suburban New Jersey household where I spoke two first languages simultaneously, Bengali and English. This bilingualism led to clear lapses in my vocabulary, “to dish” among its chief casualties. I left school that day feeling like shit, wrestling with a frustration I couldn’t quite articulate.

I wish I could say my ignorance about the vocabulary people use to talk about food subsided, but then I remember the fact that I didn’t know what orange zest was until a few months ago. (I know, I know. Who the hell is this kid?) Only now, at the rapidly fossilizing age of twenty four, have I begun to reckon with how little I know about food. And this basic self-doubt is a fact I’ll have to work through as Staff Writer over here at Food52.

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When I first saw this job posting, I balked. I never imagined a career in food writing for myself. I didn’t think I possessed the stringent, food-savvy critical apparatus to even enter food media. From my vantage point, the food world seemed saturated with discerning critics like the judges on Top Chef, or chefs like Anthony Bourdain, who approached every dish with a dose of earned skepticism. Beyond restaurant critics, the perceived figureheads of food media I’d come to know were mostly white women—kind, charming, universally agreeable, from Rachael Ray to Giada de Laurentiis. More often than not, they were unlike me.

Got an aneurysm thinking about making this!
Got an aneurysm thinking about making this!

I thought back to my own childhood: My family rarely ate out. If we did, it wasn’t at fine dining establishments. Rather, we'd venture places completely non-threatening: Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe, Chili’s, Roy Rogers.

I certainly didn’t have a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about what I ate, either. For one, I had alarmingly few words in my food writing arsenal. What words would I use? Rich? Decadent? Tasty? Please kill me. These words should be categorically excised from anyone's vocabulary, especially that of a food writer. (The rest of Food52's Editorial team agrees, thankfully, and has enforced this ban.) Yet they were all I really had.

If I were to be granted access to a seat at this table at all, I feared I’d feel like the odd one out, trying my best to keep up and convince everyone else I belong in food writing. This all has a name—imposter syndrome. In my case, it’s founded in my own belief that “food media” is has little place for a person like me: a brown man.

Food media, like a lot of media, skews white. This shouldn’t be breaking news, but if it is, I’d encourage you to read the words of people who’ve inhabited this universe much longer than I have.

I'm now beginning to see my sparse knowledge about food as an asset rather than a liability. The very utopian, rose-tinted promise of writing on the internet is that the open web has democratized access, diversifying the scope of readership along social, racial, and economic strata. As access increases, so does the need to create writing that speaks to this plurality. Whose stories get told for whom, and who’s telling them? And is it in a language everyone understands?

As I talked more with the Food52 Editorial team, I realized we saw eye-to-eye on this front. I began to realize my very perspective—as someone who's scared shitless by fine dining and has a remarkably unrefined palate—has value in an industry that doesn't always speak to plebes like me. There are still moments when I feel the need to posture myself as a "food writer" in the traditional sense of the phrase, yet I find myself veering far from the central question that eased me into this gig. Would I, a normal person without a food background, want to read this?

When I couch it in those terms, my fear of my stepping into this foreign role lightens. Food permeates every aspect of our lives, and that's a fact I'd like to reflect in my coverage here. You'll see me covering topics you may not have seen a ton of on Food52 thus far. I'll be writing about food in pop culture and art—film, television, music. I'll be writing about how it brushes against topics of identity.

Want me to make this for you? Too bad! Can't do it! Sorry!
Want me to make this for you? Too bad! Can't do it! Sorry!

In my head, I’ve since made peace with Mrs. Meyers. And yet her accusations of my un-Americanness, founded in my illiteracy all things culinary, still clings to me. She struck at my fear that everyone around me is speaking a language I just don’t understand and never quite will. But here I am. I’ve knowingly entered this universe as someone who’s decidedly not a “food person.” I just eat food, and I'm hoping that’s enough.

Tags: mayukh sen, food media