There are three women in my life with whom I am in love. The first is my friend Rebecca. We had a feminist theory class together, we interned together at some political consulting firm, we are “close friends” on Instagram (a true mark of feminine friendship). She might be reading this, since she follows me on Twitter. If so, hi Rebecca! The second is a girl named Terrez. We worked together at a cafe in Adams Morgan before I moved onto the internship mentioned above. She is as sweet as she is spicy, and she cooks dinners from scratch nearly every night based on her social media posts. She is the kind of person whose resting face is smiling, but makes lattes with the posture of a cool girl you would hate to disturb.
The third is Alison Roman. I’m not the only one in love with Alison Roman. My friends share her recipes on Facebook and Twitter, we share her recipe videos in the group chat, and we talk about The Stew whenever we dream of the dinner parties we’ll host once we’re a little more settled. She is confident, quirky, and self-assured. She is the girl with friends who like her cooking, and her party playlist, and her energy. The lesbians have claimed her for their culture.
I recognize my relationship with Alison Roman is one-sided; it’s a torrid and temporary and passionate affair, and the closest I can get to being her friend is watching her host Thanksgiving dinner on the NYT Cooking channel and drinking along on a February Thursday night.
What I describe in the abstract is a specific brand of cool girl. One who buys shallots by the dozen, treats herself to a glass of wine, lets her midriff show–all without triggering some dormant eating disorder-based emotional breakdown every time she sees herself in the mirror.
Their confidence isn’t cool, but burnt sienna, as they sizzle, fizzle, and frazzle their shallots (it takes time!) into strips of joy and flavor. Their dutch oven is not used preciously, and they may even have a second so they can always have one in the oven and one on the stovetop, never running out of smells and filling the kitchen with soft, fatty hisses that give the food its own rhythm.
What draws me to this kind of woman is the same things I hate about myself. Their bright lipsticks that draw attention to their smiles, their bodies they don’t seem to be hyper-aware of and feel every inch of skin crawling around them, and their willingness to admit food can–should–taste good.
The girls I thought were cool when I was in high school were thin, white, quiet, and with little more to them except their large houses we passed by on the bus ride home. Now, these girls seem like manifestations of my insecurities formed in whole or party by the thin white girls in Disney Channel Original Movies and the pre-teen-sitcom-to-failing-pop-career industry. The girls that made me spend my teens finding ways to starve myself 1. Are not the pinnacle of beauty 2. Were paid to look like that (and paid to look like that) 3. Are not relevant anymore (sorry to Miranda Cosgrove’s DOA pop music career).
The dawn of internet food stars has personality shine further than food. Hot cooks on screen aren’t new, Giada de Laurentiis and Nigella Lawson have been doing this as long as I have been passively watching cooking shows while eating dinner, but those who aren’t sexy aren’t overshadowed by their recipes. I don’t want to dismiss the power of charisma that someone like Guy Fieri or Anthony Bourdain had (okay, Tony was hot), but TV chefs had a pretense to keep up. Their programs were primarily recipe instruction, and the most plot you got was finding out what friend of Ina Garten’s was going to join her and Jeffrey in the garden for late lunch. In 2020, we now just watch these YouTube chefs for their quirks. The food is incidental.
These people, though I do not know them and never will, are my friends. Like familial bonds are best strengthened over comfort food, parasocial bonds are formed by enticing content like how to make crazy miso pickles (something you would never actually do, but maybe if you watch someone else do it, you’ll see how easy it is, and then talk about doing it but never remember to buy the ingredients to do so) and being hooked by the personalities behind the kitchen island.
I think where my obsession with Alison Roman began was her Passover dinner video, where she prepares eight dishes, alone, made up, and dressed in a comfy-cute pair of high waisted jeans that made me think “oh! Maybe if I wear jeans and a tee shirt and a liiittle bit of lipstick I can look cute too.” Jury’s still out on that. I often dream of hosting a dinner party, and the closet I’ve come so far is a Passover seder where I managed to cook a few less-than-great meals and wrote a haggadah full of words I couldn’t say. I owe the success of that dinner to the great Jewish tradition of drinking on an empty stomach, as well as my friends bringing other dishes and speaking better Hebrew than I.
Since then, I’ve watched her limited catalog on the NYT Cooking YouTube channel, the closest thing to an NYT Cooking subscription I can afford. I find myself obsessing with the outfits she wears (I bought a pair of high waisted jeans after seeing her wear them, and thought maybe I could be a bit more daring with my necklines), the way she doesn’t take her rings off when she cooks, and how she doesn’t keep her cluttered kitchen a secret.
I’m not alone on the Alison Roman train. Her bright, barely there makeup style has attracted the attention of the Glossier crowd*, young or young at heart, as well as willing to spend a bit of cash to look like they wear no makeup at all. According to some, she is the new sports. She’s honest about her dating life, or lack thereof, even when her recipes are busy getting other people laid. She is the everygirl with an NYC cooking gig we all pinned on our vision boards.
Weeks later, my unrequited romance isn’t quite through. I’ve veganized at least two Alison Roman recipes so even I can enjoy some good food. While they are simply approximations, they are some of the best things I’ve cooked on a Friday night. And like Alison Roman would do, I ate them with a glass of wine on the side, because if she can do it and still glow, then I can do it too. Nevermind that she makes enough money for the wine to cost more than $4 a bottle.
It’s easy to understand why cooking personalities are primed for success: they’re life coaches in the purest form. Cutting boards and cast iron pans are full of food porn shots, finding the specific point in your lizard brain where food takes top priority, over even sex, and lets you ogle guilt free. They teach you to create the very things that give you sustenance, energy, and with food being the fastest way to a lover’s heart, they can even help you with your game. They give you the tools to let your puny human body keep living. You can’t help but be captivated by the delicious food, but if you can, video producers have learned the secret is getting the fun people in front of the camera.
Like other internet chefs, Alison Roman comes from a long tradition of charismatic people teaching you to fend for yourself and host others for a fine evening, but among the scores of these new micro-celebrity chefs, she stands out. It’s hard to explain a je ne sais quoi, but I would try to say it’s because she isn’t the most relatable person in the room. She’s got her shit together, even if she cracks wise once in a while about not having said shit together. She’s collects mismatched wine bottles because she thinks they’re pretty, but she also cooks a creamy farro with a pound of fancy mushrooms (an abundant mix of maitake, chanterelles, and oyster mushrooms) and leeks, ingredients that I don’t recall seeing outside my local yuppie farmers market in a gentrified neighborhood. She cooks wearing at least two rings and a gold bangle. She always keeps a jar of preserved lemons in the fridge.
For some, Alison Roman is relatable. For everyone else, she’s aspirational. And I think that’s her secret, that in the alternate reality where I have a swanky ad job, live on my own in NYC, have a different beau sleep over every night, wear exclusively Madewell, well, that’s the kind of girl who deserves to count herself among the echelons of Alison Roman. Instead, she is the kind of girl I want to be, one with two dutch ovens in bright enamel, simply because.
But, like all good things, our love affair with Alison Roman must come to an end. The bubble is about to burst. She’s reached the relatability apex, the part where a person famous for something else gets a memoir simply because they can bring in cash from the affluent set of women for whom aspiration is achievable. In a recent interview, she disparaged (“damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately!”) Marie Kondo for selling products while failing to mention her own mascot deal for a kitchen utensil brand. She’s a blue check lifestylist, and you’re wrong for not liking her, her fans and her friends might say. Where zoomers have YouTubers, millennials have New York media personalities.
I think now of the dutch oven my dad found for me at a flea market in rural Pennsylvania. Having just one is fine. And maybe I’ll skip the wine with dinner, who needs it anyway.
*of which I am a part of. I don’t wear anything but Glossier because I never really learned how to wear makeup. I’d rather rub my fingers all over my face than attempt a smokey eye. Once a midnight girl at a bar told me Glossier is for hot people, and since then I’ve been using it as a crutch for my self esteem. If I wear the hot girl makeup… am I hot?