Q+A: Tammie Teclemariam, Food and Drinks Writer

Tammie Teclemariam, a de facto organizer for the food media community, talks to Brian Ng about the state of the industry, her writing, and “the fastest professional pivot I’ve ever done.”

by | July 31, 2020

Tammie Teclemariam is not just in the eye of the maelstrom, but is its summoner. A food and drinks writer, she didn’t expect her tweet of an Instagram photo depicting former Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in brownface to take off, and, coupled with the other reports of racism and general bad behavior, to also force his resignation. Others at Condé Nast have left — Matt Duckor, head of BA’s video programming, and Alex Delany, drinks editor, is currently suspended — as well as Peter Meehan, former food editor at the Los Angeles Times. A few tweets alone didn’t create this reckoning, but Teclemariam’s posts, which share anecdotes from those sent to her in confidence, have undoubtedly made space for people of color in media to come forward with their own experiences of workplace harassment and racism.

Teclemariam has been inundated with interviews — “for the cause,” as she’s tweeted. We arranged to talk via Skype on a Sunday afternoon. “I would like to drink a bottle of wine with you, but I’m having coffee instead,” she said to me, as she’s still recovering from a hangover. She sipped from her mug as I poured a glass of Beaujolais.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Study Hall: How are you doing?

Tammie Teclemariam: It’s interesting — since I’ve been doing a lot of interviews in the past few weeks — how draining they can be.

SH: How do you mean?

TT: Everyone’s like, “Tell me about the day you posted the picture,” and I’m just like, “Really?!” I posted it and then I moved on with my life, and I haven’t [had] the emotional energy to mull over what mindset I was in when I posted it. It’s extremely hard for me to pinpoint why I tweeted something when I tweet shit all the time. Imagine one of your random-ass tweets go viral and someone asks, “What were you doing that day?”

SH: Let’s stick with logistics, then. How did you get the tip?

TT: Two people sent me that photo, so I didn’t really think of it as a tip; it’s the kind of thing you might exchange when you’re talking about someone in your industry. I’d been talking about Adam Rapoport for at least a few days: The day before I posted the picture of him, I was looking for a screengrab of a tweet about golfing.

It wasn’t really an act of espionage. This is stuff that has been influencing people’s opinions about him for years, and it’s something either you understand to be offensive, or you don’t. The fact that [the photo] was [on Rapoport’s desk] shows they did not understand it to be offensive, acutely so. It’s unfortunate if the photo becomes the central issue; it’s only because he’s a bad person in so many other ways that this picture exists on a public Instagram.

I tweeted [the picture]. I thought that would be the indicting value. It did get a bit of attention, and I don’t know if it would’ve done anything on its own. Then two different people who work in food media reposted it.

Someone else had posted about why [Rapoport] had rejected her pitch on Puerto Rican food, and so, because I’d been tweeting about that, and because of the way he was being condescending to this freelance writer — he literally said “Pitching stories to a print magazine as a freelancer is really hard, and that’s why I’ve never been a freelancer,” or something like that, and I was like, “No, dude, that’s not why you have never been a freelancer! You’ve never been a freelancer because you’ve never had to try for your career!” — I think that’s when I really tried to double down on getting him fired. This guy is an absolute doofus and I also think that he stood for nothing. It seemed like the zeitgeist was with me, so I felt confident I could bully him out of his position.

SH: Has he reached out to you?

TT: I’ve never spoken to him.

SH: Are you happy that he’s out?

TT: After Adam Rapoport resigned, I felt pretty satisfied. Still, he’s the doofus they put in charge; there are people who are being poorly paid, marginalized, et cetera, so what are the other ways we can address the problem? For me, it’s really hard to stop and reflect on what is actually happening, because it’s about what we need to do next.

SH: Have any outlets contacted you about writing something?

TT: Sure, lots of people have asked me to write things. I just haven’t accepted because, honestly, I just don’t want to: I hate writing. The energy it takes for me to have all the emotion and spare the time and force myself to do it and also feel bad for procrastinating and then write it. All of that sounds so exhausting.

People have offered me the opportunity to [report], but I just don’t want to. I’m happy for places with lawyers and more focused writers than I to do that.

People are encouraging me with what to do with all this information and all the things that I’ve done: Do I want to organize it into a piece of journalism, beyond my Twitter account? Something I’ve been thinking about is that it would be interesting to do a podcast.

SH: Well, you are pretty busy already: You’re practically a labor organizer now.

TT: I guess. It’s the fastest professional pivot I’ve ever done; it’s something that just happened. I’m not being paid for union organizing, but it’s hard to understand how I’m doing it without being paid for it or how it is a part of my identity. Maybe it’s just a different kind of philanthropy.

I don’t think this is that hard for me. I mean, working full-time in retail in Manhattan was way harder than this: being on your feet all day, and doing customer service for rich people is fucking hard, [but now] I get to be in my room with my dog. I do feel uplifted by the urgency and that things are actually happening.

SH: If Condé offered you a job, would you take it?

TT: I don’t particularly want to work for Condé, especially now. I just think my time is so much more powerful when I don’t spend it under the supervision of other people, and if I have the opportunity to be a freelancer and get a decent amount of money doing something — consulting, or better-paying writing gigs, or something helping union organizing on the side. People got to know me when I was doing stuff for myself; I wouldn’t want to get a job that would compromise that.

SH: Bon Appétit is looking for a new editor-in-chief. Do you think anyone can save the brand?

TT: They have to find somebody who can meet the mandate of what Bon Appétit has set on its YouTube channel and who has some degree of editorial chops; they’re trying to get a person of color; and above all that, that person has to be approved by Anna Wintour — that’s what’s going to fuck up the brand. She is obviously incapable of choosing anybody who’s going to rock up her shit. She’s hired Radhika [Jones, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair], but there are plenty of stories of Radhika being torn up in meetings, and I’ve heard this from a lot of people. A really good person for the job might have to come from outside of food: Maybe [former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief] Elaine Welteroth — someone who can handle that sort of media and exposure, and have a vision for how to cast people and work with people. But a lot of people have also said she would never go back — [Condé Nast] couldn’t even treat Elaine Welteroth well! How could Bon Appétit shepherd in a great editor to fix the mess that is there?

And now Condé Nast Entertainment is now looking for people to star in their videos as they keep sending abysmal contracts to the people of color who are fighting for equality, and they’re not even willing to engage at all. They think people are interchangeable — people of color are interchangeable, and anybody will do anything for a check. I’m wondering if the White people who said they weren’t going to go on video until [the pay parity] was sorted out will hold their resolve on that point. If so, I think it’ll be a stalemate. It’s just really hard to imagine how they are going to pick up the pieces and rebuild the reputation of this place. Do they not think we talk to each other? This is about equality. This is serious. This is not just something you can hire another brown body for. We’ll see what will happen.

Good luck to that brand, because they’re handling themselves so poorly right now. I’m not invested in their resurrection at all. I don’t understand the point of a magazine like Bon Appétit if they’re going to treat their employees like shit — sorry — if they’re going to be racist and treat their employees like shit. It’s just obnoxious and we don’t need this, generating money for a company that is enforcing racism on an institutional and social level.

SH: What if they just ended Bon Appétit, and, say, resurrected Gourmet?

TT: Gourmet is a tired brand, too. I don’t think those magazines have anything to do with what my vision is for the future of food media. I’m not really sure. I hope in the future, people are able to own their work more, because a lot of food media, recently, has been produced on the backs of more talented people for the reputation of one showy personality, or one flagship name, and there are a lot of talented people out there who wouldn’t mind getting some recognition. The ability to tie your name to your work adds value to your name — that’s something that gets stolen from a lot of people. It would need to be a lot of new systems.

SH: You’ve been tweeting a lot about removing Anna Wintour from the company recently. Does the fact that she’s the overall artistic director have to do with this?

TT: Anything that has happened at Condé has happened under her purview. It’s hard to imagine anything could change.

SH: In addition to Anna, you’ve also been calling out all the heads of the video department.

TT: The whole issue with the culture of Bon Appétit is that there is no cultural oversight at Condé Nast. HR exists not only to serve the company, but specifically to protect the grotesque needs of the sleazy video execs. The web of cronyism and shitty behavior is astounding. The reason Brad [Leone, former test kitchen manager, and now star of his own show on Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel] gets all this success is because these rich guys are just looking out for White heterosexuals who make them feel comfortable about their place in life. It’s just so fucking dull, and for some reason, pointing out this hypocrisy is having a powerful effect on the company’s actions, because they had to get rid of Rapo and [Matt] Duckor, and I guess they got rid of [Alex] Delany — who knows? Who cares about Delany?

SH: You did a piece for Epicurious [one of Bon Appétit’s digital verticals]. Care to share anything about that experience?

TT: It was like, whatever. They did not pay well. It was a lot of work: unboxing the equipment, then testing it, then reboxing it to be picked up, and then writing the report, for, like, $350 [for about 1000–1500 words]. Product testing can be labor-intensive if you do it well.

SH: Moving onto the New York Times, what’s your gripe with Sam Sifton?

TT: I just don’t like him. I don’t think he deserves two titles at the New York Times when he just writes these yarn-y newsletters from his lake home because he fled New York City, because of the pandemic, in March. It just sucks! The New York Times can’t have anyone cool because they don’t want anyone to shake shit up.

The issues with the New York Times go beyond the food section. It all needs to be exposed and understood, and then changed.

SH: And the LA Times?

TT: I made it possible for people to speak up and finally address people’s issues with [Peter Meehan]. The fact that Peter Meehan actually assaulted one of the employees is pretty alarming, but also, [the LA Times staffer who tweeted about the assault] would have never spoken up if the opportunity had not been created. They’re probably still investigating it, as the LA Times has not said anything, but I’m not really involved in it.

SH: How do you go about deciding which tips to tweet?

TT: I think it’s just instinct. There’s a kind of calculation I do in my life: Is this going to insult anyone I don’t want it to insult? Does this seem illegal? I have a pretty good gauge on who I can trust. I err on the side of not tweeting. Honestly, if I feel like I need to ask if something should be tweeted, I don’t tweet it.

The things I’ve tweeted, generally, have all turned out to be true, except for Peter Meehan’s salary, which no one has corrected with the actual figure, so I would like to hear about that.

SH: Are you optimistic about the future of media?

TT: Not really. It’s not like media’s becoming a more sustainable career. It depends if people become more willing to spend more money on it. It’s terrible that so many people are just suffering in their workplaces, putting on a smile, for someone else’s financial gain. We’ve got to put the brakes on that.

SH: Do you see a way for racism to be addressed in these workplaces?

TT: In order for people of color to get positions, White people need to lose their jobs. It’s hard to imagine that happening.

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