For the Culture magazine celebrates Black women in food

Aaron Hutcherson

THE WASHINGTON POST – When Klancy Miller launched her fundraising campaign for For the Culture in December 2019, the food media world took notice. With the mission of “A magazine celebrating Black women and femmes in food”, it is believed to be the first of its kind dedicated to the task. Now, more than a year later, the inaugural issue has been printed and shipped to supporters – and is available for purchase online.

“I’m feeling very excited. And, frankly, relieved,” Miller said. “And a little bit protective.”

Both as a writer and consumer of food media, Miller, the magazine’s editor in chief, noticed a lack of coverage of people of colour in the mainstream for much of her career. And roughly four years ago, “Cherry Bombe asked me to guest edit an all-Black issue, which I found really intriguing”, Miller said. She then entered the nascent stages of putting it together by approaching contributors to gauge interest. “I felt really stimulated,” she said, but for various reasons, the project didn’t come to fruition. A conversation with a friend planted the seed of her doing it independently, which she nursed for a few years until her desire to tell more Black women’s stories, a change in work circumstances and reality nudged the idea forward.

While Miller continued to contribute to a variety of publications over the years, she felt constrained by pressure to focus on stories that would have widespread significance. “But I’m also interested in people and people’s stories that don’t necessarily have to be of the moment or, quote-unquote, newsworthy,” she said.

Miller drew inspiration from the passing of one of her favourite writers, Toni Morrison, who said, “‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ For me, For the Culture is very much a magazine I would like to read,” Miller said. Contemporaneously, a book proposal rejection freed up her schedule to take on such a monumental project, and the June 2019 death of beloved New Orleans chef and cookbook author Leah Chase “made this project feel more urgent”.

For the Culture’s mission is ‘celebrating Black women and femmes in food’. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Chef and For the Culture magazine editor in chief Klancy Miller displays the cover of her first issue in her Brooklyn home. The magazine is believed to be the first dedicated to celebrating Black women in food

“I decided that I better do this, because if I don’t do it, somebody else is going to,” Miller said. She went on to speak with Lukas Volger of Jarry, Stephen Satterfield of Whetstone and Madison Trapkin of GRLSQUASH to glean advice on launching an independent food magazine. With nearly 700 backers through Indiegogo, more than 200 Patreon patrons, Internet bake sales led by volunteer organisers Jenelle Kellam and Keia Mastrianni, and a handful of donations through Venmo, Miller raised enough funds to get the first issue off the ground with the aim of publishing it in the summer or fall of 2020. But then the pandemic hit.

Facing the duality of the coronavirus and national racial unrest proved to be a stumbling block. “Trying to just, frankly, be present, work with and deal with anxiety and be productive was not always easy for me during this process,” Miller said. And it wasn’t just her. “Everybody was going through something.” Nevertheless, she and her team persisted because the significance of the project required it.

‘For the culture’ is a common phrase in African American Vernacular English, used to describe the reasoning behind an action that is meant to benefit (often Black) culture at large. “After Indigenous people on this land, Black people helped build the very foundation of this country, including our culture, including our culinary culture and Black women are very much a part of that,” Miller said.

“There is an African proverb, ‘Until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,’” said Toni Tipton-Martin, the editor in chief of America’s Test Kitchen’s Cook’s Country and the first African American editor of a major American newspaper food section. “Similarly, Black women have been instrumental in creating American food, but our contributions have been minimised, misrepresented, or worse, we have been left out of the narrative. By expanding the story of Black cuisine and who gets to tell it, For the Culture has the potential to change that, securing our place in the written record.”

So, while the magazine does focus on Black women, by doing so it inherently tells an important part of everyone’s story.

“Initially, the theme for the first issue was going to be ‘It’s Personal’, because not being seen feels personal. To be seen is personal. One’s relationship to food, drinks and hospitality and food media is personal,” Miller writes in her letter from the editor. The pandemic broadened her focus. The result is 96 pages of essays and interviews (plus a few recipes) covering an array of topics broken into three sections related to before, during and after the pandemic (whenever that may be).

“I hope people take away the richness of experiences of Black women and femmes in food, and I hope they take away some really interesting stories,” Miller said. These include Zella Palmer on the achievements of Black restaurateurs in New Orleans past and present, Monica O’Connell on the Black repast and grieving and Kyisha Davenport on why we should build Black cooperatives in food. “I think it is deeply inspiring and thought provoking, especially in this moment, when we’re seeing the unsustainable side of the restaurant industry,” Miller said of the latter. “I love the fact that she fully examines an alternative way of doing things.”

While Miller is taking some time to celebrate this accomplishment, she already has an eye toward the future. She hopes to build in more time for the editing process and to hire staff for the next issue. “I need more help to make this a smoother process and to make the product stronger,” she said. But for that to happen, of course, she has to figure out funding, which is “on my mind every day”.

“I am really interested in the stories that we tell and how we tell them – and by ‘we’ I actually mean humanity – and how those narratives and visuals change depending upon who’s shaping them,” Miller said. On its own, For the Culture is worthy of admiration, but looking at the magazine within the broader context of food media’s shifting landscape, an even better picture starts to take shape.

With the recent appointments of Tipton-Martin at Cook’s Country and Dawn Davis at Bon Appétit to lead large legacy organisations – along with the hiring of Nikita Richardson and Yewande Komolafe at the New York Times, and even my joining The Washington Post, to a certain extent – Black people are better positioned to direct the food narrative in this country. “I think it’s really amazing. I think Black people should take up as much space as possible. Period. Full stop,” Miller said.

Osayi Endolyn, a James Beard Award-winning writer, takes the point further. “The qualifications of what it takes to lead a major food publication in the United States means that you need to have insights and access to many cultures that are not your own,” she said. “And Black women, by and large, have always had that fluidity because of the cultural code switching that goes hand-in-hand with just living in this country.”

But Black people shouldn’t have to code switch. “The potential of a Black-led publication about Black people is one that recognises our full humanity and our full capabilities,” Endolyn said. “It’s a really exciting time, because with For the Culture, we’re getting a small peek into what it could look like to have that happen.”