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Jan. 4, 2022, 10:15 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Whetstone, the largest Black-owned food magazine in the U.S., aims to change things in food reporting

“[T]he way that food media was being presented to us, in prior years, was through a lens that was incredibly myopic, unimaginative, and formulaic.”

Whetstone Magazine is the largest Black-owned food magazine in the country. Launched in 2017, the magazine initially struggled to get off the ground — now it encompasses a newly launched audio studio.

Stephen Satterfield, the magazine’s founder, is realistic about the struggles it took to get the magazine to get where it is, but also the excitement he felt when he put out the first issue. At that point, he knew he needed to put out another.

Satterfield is also the host of High on the Hog, a four-episode series on Netflix about the origins of African American cooking and how it’s defined the tone for American cooking as a whole. The show is based on a 2011 book by Jessica B. Harris of the same name.

The Objective editor Gabe Schneider talked to Satterfield about U.S. food media, what values and frameworks define Satterfield and Whetstone’s writing, and what it meant to be the only Black-owned food media company in print. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gabe Schneider: How would you describe the unifying theme that permeates your work and Whetstone Magazine?

Stephen Satterfield: I think that my work ultimately is about providence or origin. By that I mean I have always felt that food has been underestimated as a means of organizing people, radicalizing people, and conveying information around identity and migration. Stories that tell us more about who we are than pretty much anything else can.

And the way that food media was being presented to us, in prior years, was through a lens that was incredibly myopic, unimaginative, and formulaic. And the formula basically went like: Recipes, restaurants, and restaurants limited to those European-trained, white-owned, almost entirely male chefs. A very redundant kind of cuisine and ideology and aesthetic. Really a lot of the same exclusive power dynamics that permeate in a lot of places. And so, as someone who grew up being deeply interested in food, getting into food as a young person, becoming a sommelier, starting wine as a teenager, going to culinary school … I just got sick of how underutilized food was being presented to us as a medium for dialogue or investigation.

Schneider: I had much of the same experience watching food media growing up. I wonder, are there folks in food media that you can point to that have sort of informed the lens that you have, or do you pull more from outside of food media?

Satterfield: There are many examples. I’m always reluctant to try to start listing people cause I always forget. And then I honestly just hate feeling bad about myself when I forget people.

What I can definitely say is Dr. Jessica B. Harris, who obviously I appeared with on-screen and is the source material for High on the Hog, the docuseries, was always a north star for me in terms of rigor. Had cookbooks, but cookbooks, not just with recipes that work, but deep analysis. Work that really showed an exhaustive, comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and intermittently with: “Here’s recipes.” I think that rigor, not just in food media, but across media, is needed.

Honestly, I just try to mind my own business. The first time I was really thinking about all of this was probably like 2015. We really started in 2017. And so it took us a couple of years to get going. And that has required me to pay a lot more attention to what’s happening in our camp than looking outward. I hope I’m not somehow exposing myself in saying that, but it does take a huge amount of concentration, communication, and planning to make content at the scale and quality that we all are. So I’m really just trying to focus on building what we’re building and not really think about it in terms of how it fits in.

Schneider: Would you say that’s the biggest difference after a few years? Being inundated with internal processes rather than spending time figuring things out?

Satterfield: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I think my life — many people’s lives, I’m sure — are much more complicated. 2017 somehow just seems quaint, even though the house was on fire back then, too. I wasn’t positive what the reception of the magazine would be.

We had a couple of less-than-stellar crowdfunding campaigns trying to get Whetstone off the ground. It wasn’t like lines were wrapped around the door anticipating the arrival of Whetstone, but we did find an audience gradually and I was instantly motivated to try and grow it.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a second one, I just wanted to do a first issue, but then when the first was out, I almost immediately wanted to do another one and then I wanted to build a business around it. And so I think, as time has gone on, that commitment for me has deepened and a lot of the stuff that we hope for has been realized, but what’s required to keep the lights on … that’s kind of where my head is.

Schneider: The Objective is a lot younger than Whetstone, but that’s exactly where my head is. I also think a lot about audiences and I wonder how you think about who you are writing for. Who are you recording for? Are there different intersections of folks? How do you think about that?

Satterfield: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot more about who is the narrator. And I think that the narrator really says so much about who the material’s for and, obviously to a large degree, how stories are edited and produced and packaged and presented. Really, working in so many different countries, the intimacy comes from the person and that’s what it comes down to. And so, there are other ways that we can build, I don’t want to say engagement, but … investment in the story, by making it beautiful, by giving it a package, by having a thoughtful editorial process and team, that’s critical. But also, who’s telling the story is what is going to say so much about who it is actually for.

Schneider: Last year, you wrote a blog post called “No More Performing.” Something that you said  in that piece resonated with me, which is that you’re working on the only Black-owned food print publication in the U.S and how that’s absurd. And I wonder, could you expand on the ways that you’ve seen that sort of permeate across media?

Satterfield: Even outside of the media sector, looking at levels of ownership of Black entrepreneurs across technology, finance, retail, are probably similarly abysmal. We know what that’s about and food media is just my little corner of the world. I’m happy to actually say that a couple homies are now independently publishing. My sister Klancy Miller: For the Culture. And then there’s another magazine out of Baltimore, While Entertaining. And I’ve been in touch with them and am trying to share a lot of my knowledge along the way.

What is so true in this moment as these older media institutions clumsily try to find enlightenment around equity, not actually because they care (in my view), audiences are really becoming quite a bit more sophisticated and there is a really rapid bifurcating and splintering and segmentation of audiences and more autonomy among singular talent. And so the pressures, I think, are a little bit different for larger institutions as they try to find their footing in this really awkward terrain for them. Which is also, I think, connected more broadly to this moment that we’re in, where seemingly and hopefully, it looks like labor has the mic for a little bit. And yeah, here we are. Media’s trying to scramble and figure it out.

Schneider: I do wonder, what do you think of this concept of objectivity? A lot of our coverage is around objectivity, and I wonder what you think of it as it extends to food media.

Satterfield: Until very recently, I don’t even think people were taking it seriously enough to where objectivity could be seriously questioned. It was laughably institutional, hierarchical, “buddy-buddy,” and insider, very poorly kept secrets in the industry about how the food writers were connected to chefs. I personally worked at restaurants where the operators were friends with food writers that had been in the same position for three decades.

I think things have, in the last couple of years, begun to change again because of this breadth of voices that we see and read. We’ve tried to very intentionally come at this from, what we call (somewhat problematically) an anthropological point of view, into our analysis of food, because it gets us to a way of talking about human beings and talking about the relationship that we all have as humans. And there’s a lot in there that is messy. There’s some in there that’s emotional, there’s some that’s historical and factual. It’s the full range … that’s all the stuff that I am interested in capturing. But I tend to have a cynical view when I hear the word objectivity in the context of food media. Those two things, at least historically, just don’t even belong in the same sentence.

Schneider: I’m curious, can you think of a way that you’ve been challenged in your thinking and in your analysis more recently?

Satterfield: I always try to not articulate things [on] a hot microphone for the first time. So let me be extra careful. I think one of the things that I’m struggling with is the inevitability of this new digital and technological future and the ways in which that advancement is really going to be harmful: ecologically, environmentally. I mean, again, talking about this splintering, I feel like that’s really what just happened. You know, I feel like we all went through this really violent tunnel of loss and illness and chaos and have not even come out, but are emerging in our relationships and our friendships, our interpersonal connections, it just feels so sad. And I think, you know, the internet reflects and amplifies that.

When I think about blockchain technology, in particular, the implications for artists, for farmers, for Black wealth … I’m not so sure that I have well-formed ideas around this new future. So I think that’s just like something that I personally feel conflicted by right now.

Schneider: I feel similarly overwhelmed and conflicted. Do you want to say anything to our readers in particular?

Satterfield: Even though right now we have two other Black-owned publications, we are the only company of our kind in terms of output, scale, and scope. At this stage, for the first time and for the majority of the year, I started to look for outside capital. And that has been a very enlightening process. The bottom line is always the same, which is that it is very hard for people of color to find adequate capital to finance your dreams and your ambitions. And that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue them, but it does mean that you need to be sober in your assessment of how you’re gonna show up to the work, because the work that we’re making costs a lot of money to make.

It’s hard to find well-paying jobs in journalism, but it’s also an incredible time, especially for journalists of color, because we don’t just have the sauce, we are the sauce. It’s important to just understand your own unique individual value.

I think these next five to 10 years are going to be a wave, but I think when you’re thinking about publications or institutional media or the industry at large, it’s expensive and it’s hard to find jobs that pay. It’s hard to find jobs that are funded. And I think it’s good to be clear on that as young professionals.

Gabe Schneider is the Editor of The Objective. This Q&A originally ran at The Objective. Subscribe to its newsletters here.

POSTED     Jan. 4, 2022, 10:15 a.m.
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