Even though it’s one of our basic human needs, food isn’t simple or straightforward. What we eat ties into our upbringing, our culture, and our values. Food is a deep reflection of our identity. That’s what we’re talking about on today’s show: the personal politics of food. The food we consume intersects with big issues around race, gender, class, and history. We talk with three food writers about the unequal economics of the food industry and how we can all be better, respectful food lovers.
Soleil Ho joins us to talk about food and cultural appropriation—a topic she often discusses on the Racist Sandwich podcast and recently covered for travel platform On She Goes—and about not catering to white tastes as the chef of her new restaurant, Bonito Kitchen. We talk with food writer and A Hungry Society founder Korsha Wilson (who got her start in restaurants as an Olive Garden “breadstick girl”!) about her recent article, “Dear White Chefs: Stop Talking and Start Listening.” If you ever heard someone gush about how “Filipino food is so hot right now,” then you’ll appreciate Thrillist editor Khushbu Shah’s take on the problems with declaring an entire cultural cuisine to be an up-and-coming trend. Listen in!
INTERVIEW WITH SOLEIL HO:
INTERVIEW WITH KORSHA WILSON:
INTERVIEW WITH KHUSHBU SHAH:
• The photo of ramen featured on this episode is by City Foodsters (Creative Commons).
• The old-time food songs heard on this episode come from the Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Included on this episode are Luna Tune’s “The Chicken and Brger World Blues“ and Kenny Bill Stinson’s “Taters, Gravy, and Chicken Fried Steak“ along with a snippet of The Supremes’ “Buttered Popcorn.”
SARAH MIRK: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
SARAH: When I was a kid, visiting my grandparents meant bracing for a week of food that I declared, in a sweeping childhood statement, was “gross.” I was jealous of my friends who loved their grandmothers’ cooking. My grandmother was as fierce as she was frugal. Instead of butter on your bread, you got a thin slice of margarine. Her idea of dessert was a single fruit cup. I remember eating her chowder one day and being horrified when a complete fish head bubbled up from the bottom of the pot.
But at a certain age, my dad explained the situation to me. My grandma had grown up during the Depression. Learning how to cook at a time when food and money were very lean left a mark on her cooking. She learned how to make do without extravagances like real butter and to value leftovers, even the fish heads. After that, I looked at her cooking differently. It wasn’t bad. It was a reflection of who she was and where she came from.
That was the first time I realized that food isn’t simple or straightforward. What we eat ties into how we were raised, our culture, and our values. As humans, we all have in common that we have to eat. But everyone eats differently, because food is a deep reflection of our identity.
That’s what we’re talking about on today’s show: the personal politics of food. The food we consume intersects with big issues around race, gender, class, and history. Today, we’re gonna dissect food media. We’ll talk with three food writers about the unequal economics of the restaurant industry and how we can all be better, more respectful food lovers and food writers. We’ll talk cultural appropriation, celebrity chefs, and the racial dynamics of restaurant kitchens. Stay tuned.
[Buttered Popcorn by The Supremes]
♪ My baby likes buttered popcorn
He likes it greasy
I said what do you like?
He said, you know what I like
He took me to the show…. ♪
SARAH: It takes some special talents to run your own kitchen while also hosting a podcast and working as a food writer. But that’s what Soleil Ho has managed to do. She’s the co-host of the podcast Racist Sandwich and also recently moved from Portland, Oregon to become the chef of her own restaurant, Bonito Kitchen, in Puerto Vallarta Mexico.
SOLEIL HO: I’m Soleil Ho. I am a chef and a writer and a podcast host. I host the Racist Sandwich, which is a podcast on food and race, class and gender.
SARAH: So, for people that don’t know your work, can you tell us about your relationship to food? What do you remember eating a lot of growing up, and how did you decide to become a chef?
SOLEIL: Sure! So I’ve spent gosh, probably eight years as a food writer off and on. And I even had a food blog before it was a big thing back in like 2007, I wanna say. I’ve always been sort of obsessed with documenting food and just talking about it and processing it. I think it’s just because that’s just the way my family interacts with each other; we relate to each other based on what we ate and what we’re going to eat. So, it’s always been something I’ve been thinking about.
But I started working in restaurants when I was in college, I think, in gosh, [chuckles] 2007, 2006. I worked at a fancy-ish restaurant in Grinnell, Iowa, where I went to school, and it was lovely. I was a server, and it was my first introduction into the restaurant industry. And it was very cool.
I guess over the years, I just moved more towards kitchens because I have a lot of anxiety issues [chuckling], and so talking to people’s really hard! So, in the kitchen, you don’t have to talk to anyone, really, except for the guy next to you.
SARAH: So, you just mentioned that food is the way that your family interacts with each other. That’s really interesting. You talk about what you have eaten and what you will eat. Can you explore that a little bit more? How is food an inroad to having conversations that are otherwise kinda tricky to have?
SOLEIL: Oh, well, I think there’s just, for us, it’s easier to talk about the body than it is to talk about the mind. I think the mind is such a private place for my family. We’re Vietnamese people, and emotions and processing emotions is really hard. I don’t know if it’s just us, or if it’s just–and I’ve heard this a lot from other Southeast Asian people–we get really emotional, but we can’t actually process it intellectually [laughs]. So instead of asking how’re feeling, we just ask like, “Did you eat yet?” And then we talk about, “Oh yeah, I made rice. I’m gonna start cooking in 20 minutes. So just chill.” And that’s basically our family conversations.
SARAH: So, tell me about the restaurant you run now. It’s in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, right?
SOLEIL: Yes, it is called Bonito Kitchen. It is a small plates Asian restaurant. I do a lot of– I guess the restaurant and the menu is a reaction to sort of coming up in the restaurant industry, working in kitchens where I’d always have to season for white people. And what that means is use less spice, use less fish sauce. Those are my major infractions over the years [laughs]. So yeah, at this restaurant, I don’t compromise. I make it as pungent and as spicy as I want. And sometimes that results in dishes getting sent back, but I mean, I don’t pull any punches. That’s just the way I do it; it’s my style.
SARAH: That’s really interesting. We talk a lot about pop culture coming through the white gaze, like movies, music, books written with white audiences in mind as the consumers. And what you’re saying is the same thing happens with food. You’re literally having to change what you cook for white tastes.
SOLEIL: Right. I mean, so much of how we grow up just as individuals and as humans, we have a palate, and the palate is nurtured. It’s something that is transmitted to you by your family or the people around you. And I grew up eating a lot of fish sauce and eating spicy food, and my tolerance is built up. And that’s the flavor that I go to when I wanna be comforted. You know, it’s pleasurable to me. So, I wanna transmit that feeling to the people who eat my food.
SARAH: What’s it been like living and cooking in Puerto Vallarta? I know you’ve wrote an article recently for the Women of Color travel website, On She Goes, about the Asian restaurants and snacks of Puerto Vallarta. So, do you see a lot of multiculturalism and Asian influence show up in Puerto Vallarta’s food or not?
SOLEIL: A little bit. There’s some things that’ve sort of transferred over. So, a lot of ceviche tostada places, they usually have an Asian-esque tostada, which usually involves tuna and sesame, maybe some wasabi mayonnaise on a tostada. They like that kinda stuff. ‘Cause there’s a lot of bleed over between the fresh fish, raw fish cuisine of Japan and then the raw fish cuisine of Puerto Vallarta, which is a port town. So, people eat a lot of raw fish. It’s kind of like what you see in Peru, with Peruvian Japanese cuisine as well.
I guess the difference is there are not a lot of Japanese people here. Their descendants aren’t really here. And that has a lot to do with the way Mexico reacted to World War II. They did a lot of really similar relocation efforts, forced relocation, as the United States did after Pearl Harbor. So, they moved a lot of the Japanese Mexicans into the inner portion of the country, away from the coasts. So, it’s almost like their cuisine is sort of a legacy; it’s a trace of their presence, but they’re not actually here.
SARAH: How do you feel like living in Mexico has changed your own relationship to food? Do you think your food tastes have changed as you’re eating a lot more carnitas and tostadas?
SOLEIL: [laughs] I’m definitely eating a lot more raw shrimp than I used to. Aguachile is probably my favorite raw fish dish, and you would never find it in the United States for the most part. It’s raw shrimp, like straight up raw shrimp, with a lot of either serrano or jalapeno pepper, lime–it’s really limey–pepper, salt, cucumber, sometimes cilantro. And then you just eat it on a tostada. It’s so good! And the texture of raw shrimp, when it’s drenched in lime juice, it’s creamy. It’s really awesome.
SARAH: You’ve written for Bitch before about cultural appropriation and food. You read your essay Craving the Other on the trendiness of pho on Popaganda three years ago. For your deep-cut listeners, you might remember that. But you just wrote a new piece on the topic for On She Goes. It’s a guide to avoiding cultural appropriation when interacting with cultures other than your own. So, I’m curious, Soleil, has your thinking on this topic changed in the years since you’ve been writing about it? What feels new between the time you wrote Craving the Other to now?
SOLEIL: So, for this new piece on On She Goes, I was really wrestling with how to tackle cultural appropriation in a fresh way. Because, to be honest, I’m sick of being asked about it. And I think partially it’s my fault for writing Craving the Other and doing the work that I do for Racist Sandwich.
We get a lot of questions about cultural appropriation, especially from white folks, in interviews that we’ve done about, “Can I make curry?” or “Can I eat burritos without being history’s greatest monster?” Which is like, I get it. I get the impulse. Obviously, you wanna keep enjoying the things you enjoy, and if part of your identity is really steeped in being a foodie and knowing food and enjoying the pleasures of food, I get why critiquing food or just critiquing the way we approach food from cultures that are not our own can feel like a stab in the heart. I get it, ‘cause you wanna be a good person, but you also wanna enjoy what you’re accustomed to enjoying.
So, the piece that I came up with was more just, it was very positive, which is very different from what I usually do. I’m actually a very cynical, dark person usually when it comes to politics. But I wanted to create a piece where people could read it and just have it be like a how-to guide on like, best cases scenario: How do I approach the customs of other cultures in a respectful, compassionate way? So that was sort of my answer to all of those questions.
And I guess from the beginning, I think I originally wrote Craving the Other in 2013, right? It was a while ago. It feels like a lifetime ago. But I guess what’s changed since then is that I’ve gotten a better sense of the macro scale of things. Why does it matter on a large scale? And sort of marrying it to more Marxist, materialistic critique and centering it more in the money aspect and the labor aspect and resources, rather than an individualistic like, “You’re choosing this, and this is what’s wrong.”
SARAH: Let’s talk about that. That’s interesting. How does cultural appropriation work with our economy in the food industry to perpetuate greater wealth inequality?
SOLEIL: Oh, yeah. So, there’s this concept called the racial wealth gap. What that means is white families tend to make about 15 times more than Black and Latino families in America. What that means is for every dollar that a Black person would make here, a white person would make $15 on average. That is the result of just centuries–obviously, right?–slavery, limiting the wealth accretion of Black and Latino folks, taking people’s resources, burning down their towns, keeping Black veterans out of the GI bill, for instance.
So, all of those factors built up to this huge wealth gap. So that’s sort of the base. And cultural appropriation comes in where you have white folks taking the cultural markers of non-white folks, making a profit off of them. That’s the important part. Just monetizing, commodifying. The problem is when you do that within a society that has such a severe racial wealth gap, that’s when it gets really fucked up [laughs]. Because you’re profiting off of people who cannot even profit off of their own customs and off of their own products of their culture. So, it just exacerbates that gap so much because they can’t even use what they have to accumulate wealth and make a life for themselves. Does that make sense?
SARAH: Yeah, and that response to a criticism that I see pop up all the time in the comments on writing about food, where people say like, “What’s the big deal? This isn’t about race. This isn’t about politics. This is not some kind of statement. It’s just a soup or a new bánh mì restaurant.”
SOLEIL: And you know what? I think that pushback would be valid if we lived in a society where everyone could open a business or profit off of the product of their labor equally. But we don’t.
SARAH: Yeah, that’s not our reality. So, one line that stood out for me from the piece you wrote about food and cultural appropriation for the travel website On She Goes was about how traveling and eating new foods can be an essential way to broaden your understanding of the world and to interact with a wider and more diverse community. It’s not bad to get out of your comfort zone and try new things and go to new places, and that’s a really important message. You wrote–I’ll just read this ‘cause you wrote them–“It can be difficult to adjust to another culture’s standards of etiquette because it often requires owning your ignorance and asking for help. But by showing respect and courtesy to other people’s cultures, you open up countless fulfilling interactions with the people around you.”
So, can you spell out how this advice applies in the context of food? In what ways can and should people recognize their own ignorance and be respectful around food?
SOLEIL: There’s a lot of sort of [laughs], there’s a lot of stuff here. So, I’m just gonna use examples from the restaurant where I work. I do a lot of food that is new for this area, and we definitely get a very stark divide between the sorts of customers who come in. There’s customers who have never interacted with any of this type of food before, and they ask questions. They’re really excited, they’re confused, but they wanna try everything. Those are my favorite. I love them. And I’m always willing to answer any stupid question. I don’t care. Because I know that they’re eager to learn, and this restaurant is a learning experience for them. And you see them fumbling with chopsticks, for instance, and I love them. They’re great.
And then we have customers who come in, and something that I serve is not quite familiar to them, and they make a face. Or they’re just like, “What is this? What this hell is this?” Or they’ll compare it to something that they had somewhere else, far, far away, and they’ll say, “This isn’t right. This is completely messed up and gross.” That’s the difference to me. There’s humility, and humility can be playful, in a sense. You can joke about it and just be like, “You know, I’ve never seen– Why you eat with sticks? I don’t know. I’m gonna try it. It’s gonna be fun” [laughs]. And the lack of it is just you’re not gonna have a good time. The restaurant isn’t gonna meet your needs, and you know that.
And it’s just like if you don’t come to something new with a willingness to accept it or at least tackle it on its own terms, then it’s just I don’t know why you even go out! I don’t think you’re learning anything. I don’t think you’re actually connecting with anyone in that way.
SARAH: I’m curious about what kinds of questions do you get that you’re happy to answer, and what’s an example of a question that really rubs you the wrong way?
SOLEIL: Well, let’s see. I’m trying to think of a good one that I’ve gotten lately. Oh, yeah! So, I got a question about pho, for instance, ‘cause we serve pho at our restaurant. They were asking like, “Why do we have all of these garnishes on the side?” So, pho comes with bean sprouts, basil, lime, jalapeno. And it was really interesting, actually. I guess the thing I’m most sick of answering is actually just, I don’t know, I think a lot of people just ask me, “What are you?” And I get it. It’s different because in Vallarta, there’s not as many Asians. So, it’s kind of weird to be here [laughs]. But people still ask, “What are you? Where are you from?” And I’ll just say, “New York City.” And they’re like, “Oh…well.” You know, you still get that level of microaggressive interrogation. So, I tired of that.
SARAH: Yeah, that does sound really tiring.
So just one last question for you, and then I’ll let you get back to all the work you have to do to today for the restaurant: Are you feeling stressed out about cooking, by the way, this week, or is it OK?
SOLEIL: Well, next week I decided to make every day, make a ramen special for every day. So, I have to get that stuff done.
SARAH: [chuckling] You’re like, “I just wanna make more work for myself.”
SOLEIL: Why? Why do I do this to myself? Yeah. I love myself. That’s why I’m in the restaurant industry, because I have a very high sense of self-worth.
SARAH: OK, so just one last question. Then you can start making ramen. So, when you’re cooking or writing about a cuisine that you are not very familiar with, what do you try to keep in mind to make sure that you’re trying a cuisine with respect? How do you try to be respectful in your own approach?
SOLEIL: Well, for instance, I’m making ramen next week at work. And I prepared by calling up friends who work at ramen shops. I have this former chef who’s this Japanese woman, and I ask her questions all the time. And I ask like, “Is this crazy? Is this ridiculous?” And she’ll be like, “Yes. Don’t do that” [laughs]. And I listen to her, you know, because I wanna make sure I’m not making something really stupid. ‘Cause I’m sure she’s tried it before, and I respect that. I respect her experience. And there’s all sorts of, I read books, and I check on blogs of people who have made that before, who are from that culture, just to see what they’ve tried and what they’re doing. I just interact with them in a direct, as direct as possible sort of way so that I can get a lot of input.
And it’s different from the idea of the chef of the solitary genius artist, right? ‘Cause I think a lot of people kind of put out this image where their recipes and their dishes just come from God, just come from the sky, and they don’t ask anyone for help. But I ask for help. I actively solicit opinions and suggestions, and that’s just the way I do it because I think that’s more fun. And I think it feels more real because it means that I have a community that is looking out for me and trying to help me make the best food I can.
SARAH: Soleil Ho, everyone. Definitely check out the podcast she co-hosts, Racist Sandwich. I love it.
Korsha Wilson knows the restaurant industry inside and out. She’s been working in restaurants since before it was legal for her to work in restaurants.
KORSHA WILSON: Yeah, [laughs] so my first job in the restaurant industry was being a breadstick girl at Olive Garden in Waldorf, Maryland. I was 16, and the rules were for Darden Restaurant group, which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden and all of that, you had to be 18 years old to work in the kitchen. But I begged and begged my manager because I really wanted to work in a kitchen.
SARAH: Since her breadstick days, Korsha has gone to culinary school and then worked as a breakfast cook, a hostess, a server, and a restaurant manager. These days, Korsha–who’s African American–now works mostly as a food writer. She runs the website A Hungry Society, which examines diverse aspects of food media and the restaurant world.
KORSHA: It was always my goal to be a food writer. I read a Saveur when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I remember telling my mom like, “This is what I wanna do.” And she was like, “OK. I don’t know any food writers or what that means, but we’ll figure it out.” So, I decided I wanted to go to the culinary school and then journalism school so I would know what I was talking about [chuckles].
SARAH: You write a lot about the racial dynamics of the food industry. So, I’m curious about what racial patterns did you see in your own experience working restaurants? In the jobs that you had, were white people more likely to hold certain jobs than people of color? Break that down for people who’ve never worked in a restaurant before.
KORSHA: Oh, definitely. Especially in a city like Boston, the racial lines were very, very clear. So, one of the things that helped me realize how clear those racial dynamics were was when I was applying for a front of the house job, a lot of restaurants wouldn’t hire me. I had just recently shaved my head ‘cause I was going natural, and a lot of restaurants wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t fit the mold of young, blond woman working at the host stand. Even though I had a culinary degree [laughs], I was super over-qualified, a lot of managers were just like, “Eh, you don’t have the right look.”
SARAH: Is that how managers would say it: “You don’t have the right look,” or would they be more explicit about it in some way?
KORSHA: It would be more coded language: “You’re not what we’re looking for.” But a fine dining restaurant in Boston manager was like, “You absolutely know what you’re talking about.” They serve super high-end French food. And so, they wanted me at the host stand, but a lot of restaurants did not.
SARAH: So, did you notice any other racial dynamics in your experience there, like patterns that people who haven’t worked in restaurants might not know were happening behind the scenes?
KORSHA: Yeah. So, people of color are kind of kept behind the scenes. I’ve said in one of my pieces, the restaurant industry, minorities are the backbone of that industry. But you rarely see people of color in the top-tier positions. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems that nobody wants to talk about. Like when it comes to sommeliers and service captains and chefs and owners and even bartenders, who’s the head of the bar, it’s often times white people. But people of color are in support roles. I think it’s a clear dynamic that you see even more in fine dining. It’s not people of color in the top-tier positions.
SARAH: Mmhmm. What about gender dynamics on the job? How did working in kitchens make you think about gender or reflect on gender in our society?
KORSHA: Gender [chuckling] was, it was always kind of–even at culinary school–it was very apparent that gender played a big role in who got to do what. One of the most egregious cases that I can remember from culinary school was someone saying–in a class–a male chef saying, “Girls only go to culinary school so that they can cook for their husbands.”
SARAH: Ouch. Ouch!
KORSHA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I was pissed. But a bunch of other dudes just laughed it off, and that was that. But even in culinary school, there were maybe, on the savory side of things–‘cause you could do a pastry degree or a culinary arts degree–on the savory side of things, there were maybe four or five of us as opposed to 20 dudes. It was clear then that women weren’t expected to work in this field.
SARAH: How do you think that experience shaped your career path? Did feeling like an outsider or feeling like people were trying to actively exclude you from these positions make you more determined to try and go after them? Or did it just make you feel like, “I’m not welcome here. What’s the point? I don’t wanna do this if people aren’t gonna accept me?”
KORSHA: Hmm. I think when I worked in front of the house, it was way easier for me to promote–not promote–my differences, but just be more aware of them and almost use them to my advantage. Like there were a few cases of very, very overtly racist things happening at the host stand, but because of my knowledge and my background, I was able to put someone in their place, essentially. Whereas in the kitchen, it’s like, no, you are an intern. You’re a line cook. You don’t talk back. You don’t do any of that. But in the front of the house, I found that there was a way for me to be confident and showcase my knowledge and ability and tell people respectfully, “You’re not gonna treat me like that. You’re not gonna treat me like I don’t know what’s going on.”
SARAH: Can you give me an example of one of those times? I imagine like really, I don’t know, snobby, rich, white customers talking bad about your wine knowledge or something.
KORSHA: Yeah, so [chuckles] one of the worst ones–and I laugh at it now, but in the moment, I was horrified–I was standing at the host stand on a Saturday night. And this guy comes up, and he’s like, “Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar,” just listing African countries. I was like, “Excuse me?” And he eventually stops, and he’s like, “Oh, I just, you don’t look American. I thought you were from somewhere in Africa.” Pause [laughs].
SARAH: What the hell?
KORSHA: Exactly. I was just like, do you have a reservation? Are you eating dinner here, or did you just come in to guess what country I’m from? But I said to him very calmly, “I grew up in Maryland. Do you have a reservation?” And that was it. He quickly realized, oh, I should not have done that [chuckles]. Like that was a terrible thing to do to someone. And it’s just little, small things like that, that speak to a bigger thing in fine dining of oh, well, you’re out of place here; let me try and place you in my head where are you from, what’s your story. Instead of you’re a person.
SARAH: You recently wrote for Eater an article called Dear White Chefs, Stop Talking, Start Listening. And then the subhead is, “When people of color say we’re kept in the margins, don’t write us off.” Can you talk about the trends you’ve seen in food media around race and gender that you’re trying to address in this article? Why should big-name white chefs stop doing as much talking, start doing as much listening?
KORSHA: Yeah. So that article stemmed from another article in the New York Times about Chef Thomas Keller and where he’s at in his career right now, after that brutal Per Se review and how he’s planning for the future. And in it, there’s this clip of Chef Preeti Mistry in California, and she’s talking about how she used to idolize him, and when she met him, she was star-struck. But now, she’s realizing that there’s a lot of issues in fine dining, and often times the fine dining world takes from people of color but doesn’t give back. And Chef Keller’s response is completely dismissive, just like, “Oh, I used to think like that, but then I grew up.” Which is so ridiculous. And I was so enraged by that, but I let it go.
Then I saw an Instagram post by this other chef in California, another powerful white male chef being like, “Food media has this vendetta against Chef Keller, trying to take him down. The restaurant industry is diverse. Chef Mistry needs to be quiet,” blah blah blah blah. And it sent me into a rage. How dare you, on one hand, say people of color are a massive part of this industry and respected but then tell a woman of color to be quiet? So that’s where the article came from. And I honestly think that the fact that food media’s talking about these issues of race and people of color in restaurants and diverse foods is a great, great thing. For a long time, people of color weren’t as respected, weren’t as able to participate in these conversations, and now they are. And that’s a beautiful thing. But there’s still this pushback from white male chefs of, why are you trying to disrupt this thing that we already have? And we’re saying, “What you have, what’s been happening has been incredibly exclusive, and we want our seat at the table as well.”
SARAH: What do you feel like you’re trying to do with your food writing? How is the writing that you’re doing different than a lot of mainstream food writing? Do you try to talk more about race or talk more about these kinds of issues that other people are brushing under the rug? Or do you see it as like, your food writing should be the most mainstream food writing, like more people should be talking about these kinds of things?
KORSHA: Ooh. So that is something that I just struggle with constantly as a food writer. I think when I first started writing, I tried to do the bro-y, white male perspective. Like, bacon and beer! This is spicy; you should eat it! I tried to do that as well, just because that’s what I saw. And I tried to replicate that, and that just wasn’t true to who I am. I get excited when I walk into a small restaurant, and I see a family or a server or a chef that is maybe under the radar and is so, so, so passionate about what they do.
For me, as I’ve worked in the food media world and notice how things are done and who gets press and who doesn’t, and who has massive PR budgets and who doesn’t, I’ve become more and more obsessed with talking about things that aren’t being talked about, or the smaller restaurants, the mostly immigrant-run restaurants and what they mean and what they add to the restaurant landscape. But I do think that food writers of color also need the opportunity to talk about things that aren’t related to their race because we don’t ask white food writers to only write about their backgrounds. It has to be an equal playing field for everyone.
I tell people this: You can’t write about food and not write about the people who have made it or the history behind the dish. You can’t strip people from food. it’s impossible. And I think that’s where people run into trouble, is when they try to write about tacos or pho and just strip it of the people in the history that made it what it is.
SARAH: One thing you can count on foodies for is loving fads. People become obsessed with the next big thing. Pigs feet? Picklebacks? Lavender ice cream? Cronuts? Personally, it seems like as soon as I find out about a trend, it’s already over. But our next guest points out some of the problems with the trendiness of food, especially when it’s an entire culture’s cuisine that suddenly gets declared up-and-coming by a big-name chef.
KHUSHBU SHAH: Hi, I’m Khushbu Shah. I am a senior food and drink features editor at Thrillist or some variation of that title. It’s all very TBD. And I cover everything food and drink.
SARAH: Khushbu, can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to food? What foods do you remember eating a lot growing up? Who cooked meals in your family when you were a kid?
KHUSHBU: Yeah, I grew up extremely blessed. My mom is an amazing cook and is a superstar when it comes to making Indian food. Again, my parents are immigrants from India. And I never realized just how lucky I was to grow up eating fresh, hot rotis, made from scratch. My mom would make ghee from scratch. She made the best dals, the best vegetables. She’s amazing at making Indian sweets. And she would cook us, someone who has a fulltime job as a dentist and runs her own practice, would still find time to cook these amazing meals for my family every night.
But I sort of started getting into cooking because my mom wouldn’t really make stuff that wasn’t Indian food. So, if I didn’t want it, I had to figure out how to make it for myself.
SARAH: So, what foods did you cook for yourself a lot growing up? Are we talking like macaroni and cheese and cut-up hot dogs or something a little fancier?
KHUSHBU: We do a lot of fancy riffs on pastas or an elegant grilled cheese. Or I would love Japanese and Chinese ingredients. My parents, they don’t eat Japanese and Chinese food, and that really sucks in a way because we just never go out to eat it, or we never bring it home as takeout, or we’ll just never make it. So, I would buy so much soy sauce and black Chinese vinegar and mess around with these kinds of things. My mom’s still mad at just how many sauces I’ve left in her pantry [laughs], and I’ve moved out of my house over a decade ago [laughs].
SARAH: And your soy sauce is still there!
KHUSHBU: Yeah, because I would just buy all these little things. I loved the Asian supermarket in town. And the moment I got my license is the moment I was just like, “Mom, do you need me to go grocery shopping for you?” And then I would also come back with a whole, for myself [laughs], which still pisses her off to no end.
SARAH: So, when did you wanna start writing about food? What feels to you about the way that we talk about food?
KHUSHBU: Yeah, so I really thought I was gonna be a doctor. I was 100% convinced in college that I was gonna be a doctor. I was pre-med, did the whole nine yards. But there was always a part of me that didn’t 110% want to go to medical school. And I went to school in New York City, and combining that with just all the Food Network I’d watch and all the Bon Appetit and Saveur I was reading, I was like, man, I could do this too! I was an English major.
And just sort of early on, I always realized that food is so deeply entrenched with identity. My family’s actually Jain, which is this small religion in India that’s what I call next-level vegetarianism. I always explained it through the plate, through what Jains eat. I fell in love with this idea of being able to tell stories about people through a lens that everyone understands and, for the most part, loves. Everyone has some relationship to food at the end of the day.
SARAH: Well, also speaking of food through a lens everyone can understand, you recently wrote an article for Thrillist about the problems with calling an ethnic cuisine a trend. It’s focused on the up and coming trendiness of Filipino food. Part of that whole article is about the idea that a food becomes hip when it becomes approved or beloved by white people.
SARAH: But when it’s just eaten by people of color or the people who are part of the culture that it’s from, it’s not considered trendy. So, when did you start noticing that Filipino food was becoming hip, and why did that raise a red flag for you?
KHUSHBU: Yeah. I saw that article in 2012 where Andrew Zimmern gave an interview, and of course, that was the nugget that was brought out from it. And that became the headlines of everything that Andrew Zimmern says that Filipino food is gonna be the next big thing. And I was like, OK, interesting. And then I kept seeing that headline every single year up until this year also, how can we keep saying that this is the next big trend year after year after year for basically five years, when the Filipino community has been in the United States since the 1800s at least? And people have been eating Filipino food for literally centuries! It’s an entire cuisine. It wasn’t just created. It’s been around forever, but you’re just noticing now. And that’s what got me a little bit riled up about that.
SARAH: So, a big thing here is that as different cuisines gain more popularity through mainstreaming and through heralding from white tastemakers like the chefs you just mentioned, what problems emerge for those “ethnic cuisines?” What patterns have you seen transpire when a cuisine becomes hip?
KHUSHBU: Yeah, the people who cook it, and the people who’ve spent time developing the cuisine and putting a lot of love and time into mastering the cuisine, they don’t get credit anymore. And the history and their history, the culture’s history is no longer respected. Things are sort of cherry-picked from those cuisines and then diluted. And then the people who profit off of those are often not the people from those “ethnic” communities, those immigrant communities. They’re the cherry pickers that manage to make all the money and get all the fame and get all the benefits that comes with something becoming a trend. They lose ownership. These immigrant communities, they lose ownership and control, in a way, over how their culture and cuisine is represented.
SARAH: Do you think you can give an example of where you’ve seen that in the past? What other cuisines have you seen that happen to, where you’ve been like, “Ooh, that’s white people cherry-picking part of this cuisine and then profiting off of it rather than it becoming popular, and then everyone benefitting?”
KHUSHBU: You can see this with Filipino food specifically, like the rise of ube ice cream. These singular ingredients in dishes that are sort of pulled from these cultures, and then they just appear on menus everywhere. Or you think about it with Korean food. All the sudden, all these shops are using gochujang in their meat dishes, and they get heralded for using this funky, spicy ingredient. Fish sauce, same thing with Vietnamese food. All these chefs are making fish sauce caramels now, and everyone’s like, “Whoa! So cool and interesting!” But fish sauce has been around forever, and it used to be considered something that was stinky.
Basically, these people, in a way, they get to make fun of you growing up for what you brought to school to eat for lunch, and now they’re taking those exact same things and making just hundreds and thousands of dollars off of it [laughs]. And that can be a little bit disheartening.
SARAH: Can you point to a couple examples of where you’ve seen that happen, where a food becomes trendy, and then the people who’ve been making that food historically are priced out of the places that are now making it a big deal?
KHUSHBU: Yeah, totally. And let me preface this by saying the chefs that have gotten a lot of fame for cooking these foods have also worked extremely hard. This is not to say that they shouldn’t get success from cooking these foods, but it just shouldn’t also block the way for chefs from those communities to also profit and to also gain recognition for what they’re doing.
So probably the two most prominent examples of stuff like this happening is Andy Ricker, who’s known for his Pok Pok restaurants, which started in Portland, Oregon and has expanded to New York City, Los Angeles. And he’s sort of, in many ways, considered the preeminent Thai expert in the United States. For most people, they can’t name someone else so tied to Thai cuisine in the United States. You know, he’s the person that’s always quoted in articles. He’s the Thai restaurant that people visited, especially when Pok Pok was just breaking onto the scene.
And the same goes for Rick Bayless in Chicago. Chicago’s such a major hub for Mexican culture and Mexican food, and yet can most people name another chef doing Mexican food that is Mexican in Chicago that isn’t Rick Bayless? And Rick Bayless is not Mexican. No, for the most part. The answer’s no. Even as a food writer, I have a hard time coming up with some of these examples.
SARAH: What’s your approach to these kind of problems? You’re a food writer. So, it’s your job to actually articulate a lot of these things that are very complicated. And then also, you’re a food consumer, and you like to try new foods. So, in your habits, both as a writer and as an eater, how do you try to approach a cuisine respectfully and share it respectfully, rather than perpetuating inequities?
KHUSHBU: Yeah. As a writer, as an editor, I’ve been putting a lot more effort into making sure that, into my sources, the people who are telling these stories. I really think about who’s gonna be my source in the story, and I really want people from those communities to be able to tell their stories in their own words. And that I should just be giving them an outlet to be able to do that. So, it’s taking a little more time to do that. It’s not being as lazy about it. It’s not using the same three or four people over and over again because it’s easy to use those people. It’s finding the people that maybe haven’t been interviewed for articles before but do actually have a lot to say about something, and making sure to give them the time and the space to speak about it.
[a cappella folk singing, The Chicken and Burger World Blues by Luna Tune]]
♪ Oh, miss!
Are you sure this cream is OK?
Could you take my order first?
I got no time to lose
It’s the chicken and burger world blues
I’d like a steak teriyaki medium well
Order of French fries
A glass of Muscatel…. ♪
SARAH: There’s no shortage of conversations about food in our pop culture. There’s myriad food bloggers, food shows on TV, people Instagramming their meals, and books about the tough-as-nails lives of chefs. But often, this media coverage treats food as if it’s politically neutral, as if it has nothing to do with race, gender, or class; it’s just soup or a sandwich!
But food not only ties into our identity, it carries huge weight in our economy. Who makes money in the restaurant industry is intensely woven into the unequal dynamics of our society. While people will take the time to lovingly photograph a $30 steak for their Instagram feed, will they also take the time to support campaigns for restaurant workers to make a living wage?
When people rush to try to hottest new restaurants, do they think about the gender and race dynamics of who’s behind the scenes in those kitchens? What Khushbu, Soleil, Korsha, and other food writers of color like them are trying to do is to make people see the way food is never consumed in a vacuum. What we eat, where we eat, and who is supported by those choices is a huge part of our society and economy that’s not talked about enough in food media. Articles and TV shows about food shouldn’t just cover the tastiest new cupcake but delve into how food connects to who we as humans. Now, those are some issues worth chewing on.
Aghhh, sorry. I’m sorry about that last pun, guys. I had to do it [laughs].
This show is produced for Bitch Media by Alex Ward at Sounds Like Pictures. Thanks so much to our guests for taking time to be on the show this week. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker.
Today’s episode featured some great old songs about music. For a list of all the songs and artists, check out the article about this show on the Podcast tab of BitchMedia.org.
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