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How Alison Roman became the reluctant, pasta-loving “prom queen of the pandemic”

How I learned to stop worrying and love Alison Roman’s style of cooking.

Alison Roman
Alison Roman
Nikole Herriott & Michael Graydon
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

People talk about pastry chef turned Bon Appétit editor turned New York Times food columnist Alison Roman’s recipes like they talk about pop stars. Despite the countless forms of pasta, stews, and cookies, Roman’s fans don’t need to look for anything beyond their general name. Roman’s recipes are the singular, ultimate form. The Stew. The Cookies. The Pasta.

If you’ve logged on to Instagram over the past two years, perhaps you’ve seen posts or stories from one of your friends’ attempts to make one of Roman’s iconic meals — a sunshine-yellow, turmeric-spiced stew; a brick-red jam of a pasta sauce; a stout, thick cookie sporting chunks of chocolate and the faintest flakes of sea salt.

She’s not just a familiar name to readers of The New York Times Cooking section; she’s also a social media mainstay, with her recipes seemingly everywhere, shared and photographed by almost everyone you know.

But during this pandemic and the shelter-in-place directives in effect nationwide, Roman and her recipes have further exploded in popularity.

“On the one hand, I’m so happy to be ‘prom queen of the pandemic,’” Roman told me over the phone, wryly accepting the relationship between her surge in ubiquity and people being locked inside all day. “But on the other hand, are people going to forever associate me with the darkest time in their lives?”

Roman couldn’t have predicted this situation, nor that it would inspire many of us to cook from home with her help in particular. But her influence has been building since she published her first cookbook, Dining In, in 2017 and her 2019 follow-up, Nothing Fancy, and her wide presence across the internet exemplifies what makes her and her recipes so beloved, regardless of circumstance.

Roman doesn’t cook to entertain or impress others, or as a rare special occasion. Her recipes are made to be simple, to be delicious, and even to be eaten alone. And to someone stuck at home who doesn’t want all the fuss that can come with cooking, Roman is offering one less thing to worry about: what to eat.

Roman approaches cooking as a way to feed yourself deliciously

Until my dying day, I pledge my sword and shield to the one and only Ina “Barefoot Contessa” Garten. Garten is a Food Network icon, admired and envied by fans for her wealthy, elegant lifestyle and the delicious, butter-drenched food she makes.

Garten lives in the ritzy beach town of East Hampton, New York, cooks in a beautiful kitchen, is always hosting dinner parties, and prefers to use the finest ingredients. The running joke among fans of Garten’s TV shows is that she’ll instruct them to use something highly specific, like 30-year-old, Grey Goose-based, homemade vanilla extract, but then say “store-bought is fine” — that is, fine for the normies who could never dream of achieving Garten’s level of fabulousness.

To Alison Roman, however, store-bought is more than enough.

“The recipes in this book follow my general approach, in that I would never ask you to toast nine different hard-to-locate spices on a Monday after work, and I’d never suggest you make something that takes two-and-a-half hours if there were a simpler and equally delicious way to do it in one,” Roman writes in the introduction of her 2017 cookbook Dining In. “I’ve been calling these recipes ‘highly cookable,’ meaning they’re easy to shop for, simple to execute, and a joy to eat.”

Roman is the realist inverse of Garten. She’s a 34-year-old millennial living in Brooklyn whose home kitchen looks like it could maybe fit five people, standing shoulder to shoulder. But while Garten-like dinner parties for fabulous friends might not be Roman’s reality, making food in a tiny space without a farmhouse sink or near-endless counter space is more relatable.

Roman wants to teach people how to cook — simply, realistically, and confidently.

In past interviews, she’s mentioned that the best parts of her experience working at famed eateries like New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, Brooklyn’s Pies ‘n’ Thighs, and San Francisco’s Quince weren't giving diners the most memorable meals they’ve ever had (although that happened a lot, according to the restaurants’ reviews). Rather, Roman loved mentoring the kitchens’ rookies.

That comes through in her recipes and her cookbooks as well as the image she’s cultivated during this pandemic. She’s made herself accessible to burgeoning fans during quarantine on social media platforms like Twitter, where Roman has conducted Ask Me Anything sessions for people to raise any cooking questions they have. Those questions range from what to do with ground beef to the best way to cook rice to how to deal with leftovers.

“I think it’s a little lame, but, I think [teaching and cooking] really is, like, my love language — like, acts of servitude,” she told me. “I really like doing nice things for people, and there’s so much I can’t do right now. So I think that just being able to help people [cook], as a thing I can do, it makes me feel useful. It makes me feel like I still have something to provide.”

It’s Roman’s famous caramelized shallot pasta, a.k.a. the Pasta, that crystallizes her accessible approach to home cooking into one astonishingly delicious, efficient, and fast dish.

The Pasta isn’t famed for the noodles themselves. The appeal lies in a glossy scarlet sauce conjured from a mountain of shallots, garlic, tomato paste, anchovy bodies, and pasta water. Roman has said that the sauce’s appearance reminds her of Spaghettios, but that the depth of flavor is as good as, if not better than, your typical marinara sauce.

As an Ina Garten aficionado who’s been taught that good home-cooked meals take at least an hour and a chunk of a paycheck, I was initially skeptical about this internet-famous recipe. This was the case despite many of my friends successfully making the Pasta in the past several weeks, all of whom documented their respective journeys on Instagram and praised the recipe afterward.

My susceptibility to peer pressure finally did me in. I decided to try making the Pasta — to eat it and understand it.

There are 10 official ingredients in the dish and household staples — olive oil, pasta (any kind works), garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and tomato paste — make up the majority of them. Roman says the recipe takes an approximate 40 minutes, equivalent to one episode of any Real Housewives franchise. A huge chunk of that time is spent chopping up six shallots and stirring said shallots alongside garlic so they don’t burn. Eventually, as I melted the tomato paste and anchovies into the shallots, I scanned the steps one more time and saw that Roman says to halve the paste to save for later.

I cocked an eyebrow. I felt bamboozled.

Apparently, this shallot-garlic-anchovy jam was going to feed me for multiple meals, including the one I was having that night. It would apparently be something I wanted to, as Roman writes, smear onto “another batch of pasta or ... onto roasted vegetables, spooned over fried eggs or spread underneath crispy chicken thighs.”

Trudging on with guarded optimism, I added the pasta and a cup of reserved pasta water to the jam. Like Roman said it would, the mixture transformed into an unctuous, earthy, blanket of a sauce that elevated my humble ziti into primi piatti.

Sorcery, I thought, as I fantasized what this sauce would be like on eggs, with sausage, on hearty fish, on toast.

It’s not an Alison Roman recipe until someone Instagrams it

On January 29, 2020, Roman posted a picture of the famed Pasta on Instagram. To date, that post has more than 31,000 likes; Roman herself has over 513,000 followers. Fans of the Pasta have used the hashtag #ThePasta, which pulls up more than 900 tagged posts, to show off their own attempts to recreate the dish.

While it seems like so many people are talking about Roman’s recipes right now, this isn’t Roman’s first mainstream breakthrough.

Back in 2017, Roman achieved social media fame thanks to a cookie — the Cookie. It’s a highly photogenic shortbread and chocolate chunk cookie with sea salt flakes that thrived on social media and food-centric places online.

Everyone is entitled to their own cookie preferences. The United States is a free country. But I don’t know anyone who could look at the picture above and not want one of those cookies in their mouth immediately. If I were a better baker or had any interest in learning the magic of baking, I would want to try making them for myself.

People who were more daring than me wanted to see for themselves whether the Cookies tasted as good as they looked. So they tried making them over and over, and photographed them over and over and over. Each time people weighed in on whether the famed cookies lived up to the massive hype — #TheCookie hashtag has more than 9,000 posts, the majority of which are Roman recreations; #TheCookies has over 6,000 posts, with Roman’s being the singular cookie.

“There was some contention around the cookies,” Roman told Vox in a 2019 interview. “People were like, is this better [than regular chocolate chip cookies]? Is it worth it? People were kind of mad about the cookies! So I think a lot of people made it because it was a social conversation: People wanted to weigh in on whether or not they thought it was better, and try it for themselves, go up against other cookies — it was a whole thing.”

The same is now true of the Pasta, three years later. The more people posted about their attempts, the more it seemed like making it was a dare that couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to see if the recipe lived up to the hype and taste just how good it was, since everyone on my timeline had been talking about the Pasta like it was a rite of passage.

When I made it, I realized that shallots (one of Roman’s staples) are aesthetically superior to onions, because they’re cute and purple. I initially wasn’t going to photograph them (I don’t really like posting pics of food online), but they were melting so beautifully that I felt the urge to show people that I, too, was embarking on the Roman pasta journey. And that the journey was beautiful.

Roman also features people’s triumphant attempts to make her recipes on her own accounts. Her active social media presence, along with the viral-friendly aesthetic nature of her cookies and pasta and other dishes, encourages people to post their results and keep posting them. And in turn, more and more people see the food she’s making — especially on platforms like the New York Times Cooking’s Instagram with its 2.1 million followers — and want to try it for themselves.

The photogenic aspect of Roman’s recipes is crucial, in that no one wants to share they made an inelegant cookie, messy stew, or unsightly pasta sauce. If something’s delicious, people will make it. If something’s delicious and looks good on Instagram, many more people will make it.

I asked Roman how the aesthetics of food factor into recipe-making. Figuring that she was a pastry chef and knowing how important looks are to pastries, I expected a different answer than the one she gave.

“I never, ever [create a recipe] with the interest of it looking good,” she tells me and goes on to giggle while explaining the origin story of the cauliflower pasta recipe that she says she almost cut from her book, because it looked way less attractive than her usual blog-worthy fare.

“I almost didn’t publish that, because I was like, ‘This is hideous,’” she says. “It’s like a bowl of creamy beige bullshit. Like, what the fuck is this? And it still is one of [my] most popular recipes of the past year.”

Roman says there’s a slight caveat when it comes to beauty and food: Food naturally looks good, no matter what.

“I think that food is inherently beautiful,” she says, describing a perfectly browned, skin-on chicken thigh as an example. “I think that ingredients are gorgeous. And I think cooking, when done properly, is going to give you a beautiful result.”

Thinking about Roman’s words, I flashed back to my own experience with the Pasta. As an infrequent cook in my kitchen, I am sure some of my friends figured that if someone as allergic to cooking as I am can make delicious shallot-and-anchovy pasta look beautiful, then they could easily do it themselves. And it definitely looked beautiful, even with my ziti.

Roman’s cooking dovetails with the circumstances of the pandemic

What makes Roman’s cooking so appealing to everyone in this moment — not just her devout fan base — is that her recipes are simple. Grocery trips in the age of coronavirus are daunting, because any trip outside of your home increases your risk of being exposed. In order to minimize that risk, you should be as efficient as possible when you go to the store. And there’s a premium on ingredients that have multiple purposes, especially since a grocery’s inventory at this time can be so unpredictable.

Roman recipes are built around a few core ingredients that you may already find in your pantry. Since the quarantine began, I've realized that I am the proud owner of two bottles of crushed red pepper flakes and three bottles of dried oregano. Most of her other staples, save for maybe kimchi, are usually in stock at any grocery.

Roman also lives in Brooklyn, and has said she calibrated her techniques for people who don’t have elaborate kitchens or pantries, and people with tiny sinks — like a lot of people in New York City or any other major metropolitan area. Most of the cooking happens in one or two pots, and there’s hardly ever extra cleanup beyond washing the cutting board and a few dishes.

There are so many young people sheltering place who live in major cities that have been shut down. And many of those people, including me, are used to frequently having lunch or dinner out or grabbing takeout. We’re the ones who will always prefer recipes that are streamlined and don’t require tons of fridge space or tools (sorry, Ina) to ones that depend on the chaos of appliances, mixers, pots, and pans.

In a world where there’s so much uncertainty, quarantine or no, the fewer decisions one has to make, the better. With Roman’s approach to food, she’s taken out all the guesswork and maximizes the ingredients she asks for.

That efficiency shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of effort.

“I don’t want to ever be perceived as being a lazy cooker, cutting corners,” Roman said, citing her 15 years of experience. “I think the reason I am able to do all that is because I already know the outcome of doing it the hard way. I’ve done it the hard way. I’ve done it with more ingredients, I’ve done it with more time, I’ve done it with more staff. It’s not better than this way, is my rationale.”

Roman’s popularity will probably only increase during this pandemic as people look for good recipes with minimal ingredients and spend time on their screens and social media more than ever.

And with her star rising once again, Roman’s renewed clout has been ripe for parody, or at least Twitter jokes. A byproduct of having so much hype is backlash — something that Roman seems to both welcome and view with chagrin.

“I’m not trying to win a competition,” she tells me. “But, like, if something were bad, why would everyone be talking about it?”

She pauses and lets her question linger in the air.

“Maybe you don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not good. You know, food is so subjective, and people want to tear it down if it’s become too popular. But if it wasn’t good, it would never have become popular.”

Thanks to the internet and social media, anything “cool,” including the Pasta, is just minutes away from being loved by fans and scrutinized by haters. And there are worse things than a little resentment — like a bad pasta sauce.