Alison Roman—cookbook author, Instagram microlebrity, and creator of a viral chickpea stew—is a hugger. “I feel like we’ve met before!” she gushes, after embracing me and apologizing for a logistical snafu that left me waiting at Korean grocery store H Mart’s outpost in Manhattan’s East Village while Roman was on her way to the original location in Koreatown.
Nothing about this surprises me; following her on Instagram for the better part of a year led me to experience the sort of assumed intimacy one experiences when meeting people from the internet in real life. Roman’s fame is, for now, insular; her recipes are most frequently shared with the circles of people who stay glued to recipe Twitter and pay close attention to the New York Times food section’s newsletter, “What to Cook This Week,” which often features Roman’s recipes. Her Instagram presence is relatable enough—true to her word, and the title of her newly released cookbook, Nothing Fancy, neither her kitchen or her life are particularly luxurious. Her apartment, from what I’ve gathered on Instagram, has a decorative mantel, some good plants, and one to two cats living within its walls. It is the sort of place that inspires jealousy only to people used to the specific hell that is the New York city real estate market, where rickety one bedroom apartments with slanted floors go for the kind of money that could get you a very nice house literally anywhere else. It’s a clever trick meant to rectify the notion that cooking her kind of food—and living her kind of life—is out of reach.
Though I feel like I know Roman, intimately, from social media, I have never met her in person. “Do you work out of the Wing sometimes?” she asks me. “I know it’s bad,” she says, almost apologetically. I shake my head. We soldier on, grabbing a basket and wandering through the aisles, where Roman finds herself distracted, repeatedly, by something beautiful, delicious, or both.
“Giant uni,” she says, pausing by rows of fish, wrapped tight in plastic and nestled in styrofoam—bad for the environment, sure, but nice and neat and tidy. “The salmon, I mean, it’s farmed but it’s beautiful.” We turn our attention to a wall of gochujang, a barely-sweet, fermented soybean and chili paste, an ingredient that Roman uses in her recipes like one might tomato paste for a quick hit of umami, with greater depth. It’s this thinking that defines her palate, which feels very of the moment—big, rustic, flavors, lots of lemon, nothing delicate or too precious. She excels at making the very simple taste and look much more complicated than it actually is.
Roman is a woman known to me for her very good recipes and her indefatigable ability to engage with her fans. Buying into the hype about Roman went against my natural inclination towards contrarianism; if everyone likes a thing or a person, then I am liable to do the opposite out of spite. But my awareness of Roman grew organically, against my will: I rarely pay attention to the people who write the recipes I make, but I found myself cooking her food more and more, barging into text chains and DMs with links to this sheet pan chicken recipe, also endorsed by Chrissy Teigen.
But Roman’s real claim to fame is a dish that, for better or worse, has defined her career: #TheStew, a recipe that has caused its author some consternation. A hearty mix of chickpeas and chard, simmered in a coconut milk broth redolent with turmeric, garlic and ginger, the stew is actually something in between a soup and a stew: a “stoup” in the cutesy parlance of one of Roman’s spiritual predecessors, Rachael Ray, the woman who brought “EVOO” to the American vocabulary and introduced me personally to the concept of a “garbage bowl.” Its rise was meteoric.
The stew was remarkable because generally, recipes don’t go viral. But The Stew took on a life of its own. Roman reblogged admirers who made the dish to her own Instagram story, showering their efforts with praise. At various points over the winter, watching Roman’s Story or reading her Twitter feed produced an onslaught of #TheStew, with photo after photo showing yet another satisfied customer. One assumes that this dish made its way to various dinner parties and friend gatherings over and over that winter—a proud home cook plopping a blob of yogurt atop greens and chickpeas with pride.
Roman had briefly brushed viral fame earlier in her career with #TheCookies, published in her first cookbook, Dining In. Easy enough for the novice baker to execute, but with a complex flavor and rustic presentation, #TheCookies took off on Instagram, Roman’s preferred medium, and rocketed their way to The Today Show, where Roman made the cookies alongside Carson Daly. The Today Show appearance was the beginning of a different future. It is because of the simplicity of both these recipes and her appearance on the morning television show that Roman became a name—someone that your Aunt Elizabeth might mention in the group text in passing.
The stew’s popularity, though, also brought some trouble, in that it could be interpreted as a curry—a watered-down version of a Jamaican dish, or an Indian one, or a Japanese one. Though Roman is quick to assure me that she never positioned the stew that way, its eventual detractors took issue with the dint of cultural appropriation. Should the stew should be called a curry, and if it was, why would Roman be making it?
“I’m like y’all, this is not a curry...I’ve never made a curry, I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry,” Roman explains, with an air of exasperation.“I come from no culture. I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.” The head note of the recipe in the Times was eventually adjusted in light of the stew’s popularity and the outcry. “Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an insanely creamy, basically-good-for-you stew that evokes South Indian chana and some stews found in parts of the Caribbean,” it now reads. Clarity, at last.
If Roman wasn’t on her way to becoming famous, the stew and its accompanying backlash would’ve been meaningless—a day of brief hell, followed by blessed silence. But Roman is a woman who contemplates fame with the same seriousness as she does the vast display of Pocky at the H Mart, which she does with an expert scan before zeroing in on Choco Boy, a small cookie mushroom with a delicious chocolate cap.
“It’s not [a goal] to be famous,” she says, as we stare at the Pocky. “It’s just to have a bigger impact. To buy a house upstate one day and freeze my eggs. I just wanna be happy and be able to continue to do what I do, which I am right now.” When pressed on a working definition of fame, Roman pauses and really considers the question.
“I don’t even know what famous means anymore. Because there are so many people that are famous and I’ve never heard of them. Like famous where? I don’t know anyone. I get all my celebrity culture from Who Weekly, and then, beyond that, I don’t know who anyone is.” We continue to stare at the Pocky, paralyzed by choice. No one at H Mart has identified Roman as a known quantity. But the fact that we are talking at all signals a nascent fame, the beginnings of something larger on the horizon, whether she wants it or not.
The accusations, in Instagram DMs mostly, that #TheStew was a half-baked whitewashing of ingredients and flavors enjoyed and pioneered by brown people, is an issue that Roman says she does not take lightly. The stew’s ingredients are found in many different cuisines, from Afro-Caribbean to South Asian. As its popularity climbed, naysayers came out of the woodwork to protest. Slate published a take calling into question the stew’s worth.
It is clear that the Slate piece is a sensitive subject. “The only time I ever got upset about the stew is when some dumbass fuckin’ food writer for some dumb fuckin’ website [wrote] ‘The stew? Is it even good?’” she tells me after we’ve exited the grocery store, eating onigiri near a garbage can on the street. “He was so rude about it, he was like, if the stew is so good, why are people modifying it? I wasn’t trying to make anything to blow your tits off. I was trying to make a delicious dinner.”
To take on the task of eliminating potentially appropriative recipes from the pillars of food media would be Sisyphean: food is the one form of expression that is constantly and necessarily iterative. Recipe writers borrow from cultures that are not their own all the time and the notion of authenticity and ownership are nebulous. Coconut milk, ginger, and garlic are not ingredients “owned” by any one culture or community. If we are to go down this path in full, every recipe with a spice other than salt and pepper could be claimed by any number of different cultures, and the food world would implode.
Roman’s accessibility, in part, makes her an easy target for criticism. Like any public figure, she puts herself out there enough to make it seem like she really is your best friend—someone with whom you might have a heart to heart about whatever’s on your mind. But really, the secret to Roman’s micro-fame is not just her personality or her endearing habit of issuing cheeky correctives to those who would modify her recipes in her Instagram stories. It is the food—it’s always about the food.
Roman’s recipes are delicious, simple, and toe the edge of fancy not in ingredient but in preparation. Her food photographs well, but more importantly, it’s actually very good. The flavors, the styling, and the breezy, cheery way Roman writes her recipes evokes a 2010s Laurie Colwin—switch out Colwin’s hot plate in her tiny studio apartment for a regular but enviable Brooklyn kitchen with good light and a beat-up gas stove, and the analogy works. The food is photogenic, the styling casually imperfect and messy. Like Colwin, Roman writes recipes that are meant to be approachable, but most importantly, dead easy to make, and seemingly engineered for social media.
The main difference between the two authors is not the message, but the medium. Colwin’s books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are slim homages to the fine art of cooking for one, with recipes interspersed between ruminations on meals both disastrous and successful. There is a jolly air of acceptance around these failures: it’s okay to make mistakes because everybody does. Roman’s authenticity feels more studied—a direct result of Instagram’s way of making even the very mundane seem curated. Colwin embraces her inadequacies as a home cook with the understanding that she will necessarily improve via practice. In Roman’s version of authenticity, decidedly curated for the social age, we are not privy to the process because Instagram is a platform for positive results: an exemplary sunset, a stranger’s awe-inspiring bassett hound, or an imperfectly perfect plate of tomato toast with buttered shrimp. The missteps along the way don’t deserve the documentation. The end result is what matters.
While the rest of the internet would point towards #TheStew as the dish that defines Roman’s palate, I would make an argument for her sheet pan chicken with chickpeas, tumeric, and cumin published last year in the Times and made repeatedly over the course of one winter by me. It is a quintessential Roman recipe—elevated enough to feel just shy of fancy, with ingredients that are easy to find in any grocery store. The flavors that dominate this dish are some of Roman’s signatures: the sharp tang of a barely-pickled red onion, turmeric’s dust and color, the salty tartness of lightly seasoned yogurt. It’s a dish that looks impressive, like cooking any protein on the bone does, and is a very tasty meal that works well in any season. I grumbled briefly when I bought the fennel seeds and added a bit more pizzazz to the yogurt sauce, but I have also made the dish at least four times.
The ease is the allure, but it’s also the lifestyle Roman is selling. She styles all of her food herself, because she is a self-admitted perfectionist. Roman handled the food styling for Nothing Fancy, which is decidedly not a book about entertaining, as she lays out in the introduction. “I have always been allergic to the word ‘entertaining,’ which to me implies there’s a show, something performative at best and inauthentic at worst,” she writes. “For anyone looking for tips on how to fold linen napkins or create floral arrangements, I am not your girl.”
The food is perfectly imperfect, photographed in crisp, blown-out close up shots, interspersed throughout the book with pictures of Roman and her friends living, laughing, and loving. The flatware is mismatched, the plates have chips. In one photo, two jars of salmon roe sit on crushed ice in a battered metal mixing bowl with festooned with red hearts. In situ, the result is enough to inspire jealousy, though that is not her intention. “This is not about living an aspirational life; it’s about living an attainable one,” she writes.
While I understand the sentiment, I respectfully disagree: the lifestyle as portrayed in Nothing Fancy is aspirational to a certain subset of Brooklyn women—clog-wearers and devotees of New York Magazine’s The Strategist, perhaps. In August, Roman tried the Popeye’s chicken sandwich while sitting on the front stoop of a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn; her Instagram story is a wild and rollicking journey through her days and occasionally enviable weekends eating cake and gorgeous seafood at a ramshackle house upstate, drinking wine late at night. Returning to these simpler pleasures in times of great duress is the oldest trick in the book. It is not quite idiosyncratic, but it is nice.