What Can We Learn from Other People’s Food?

Photo Richard Yeh for WNYC

Photo Richard Yeh for WNYC

Last Thursday, I spent the morning transcribing a three-hour lunch with my father and his brothers. Then, I started crafting it into an article I was already late submitting. Staring at a white blank page, I was stumped. My assignment was to share the experience of a typical Portuguese restaurant meal. But as I listened to the recording and scanned my transcription, I was at a loss.

How was I to put into a paltry 1,000 words the witty banter, looping political talk, bittersweet stories of their having grown on a remote Portuguese island, and the pride in our family’s American-ness now, all through the language of the food we were eating? How was I to articulate the feeling of being in a Portuguese restaurant, when it is simply how I understand what family meals are to look, smell, and taste like? And how was I to do this when most Americans – those who will be primarily reading the piece – have no base understanding of what Portuguese food or being Portuguese actually is?

Mine was the better problem to have. The worser would be having to defend my cuisine and my culture. Or articulating myself as a human being completely separate from that cuisine and that culture.

I’m talking about racism in food.

Later that day, after I’d scribbled out 800 words I’m still not happy with (my kingdom for a horse!), I headed to WNYC’s The Greene Space to watch Dan Pashman ask questions about food and race in a live taping of his podcast show, The Sporkful. Technically there to write about his Other People’s Food series for the Village Voice, I was selfishly hoping that the varying opinions I was going to hear from Pashman and guests Rosie Perez, Ashok Kondabolu, and Michelle Buteau would give me greater insight as to how a few other people looked at their relationship with the cuisine of their home and heritage.

Coincidentally, all three guests are also something­-American. But our similarities regarding the something part kinda end there because of one big difference: my skin is white.

I have a dad with a funny accent. We eat codfish, dance in circles at formal parties, and my male cousins intimidate the suitors of their female cousins (“That’s just like your family!” was tossed at me more than once when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out and similarities were noted).

But most of the very white rich kids who I grew up with in Fairfield County, Connecticut didn’t seem interested enough to make me feel one way or another about it. They had no understanding about Portugal enough to know that at one point the Portuguese were the leading naval pioneers of the world, which is why Portuguese influence can be found all over global cuisine. Or that, because of those trade routes, our history is ripe with atrocities in the slave trade, when we literally just took land and people in Africa, South America, and India. Or that harsh economic struggle has sharply shaped the generations directly before mine, causing emigration of family members still today. If anything, they assumed my family came from Brazil, or that we were poor and uneducated, or that we like to play soccer (we do).

Yes, there were jibes and jokes thrown around growing up. At times, I definitely felt that I was “other”, in ways large and minuscule. But being “other” didn’t come with a sting of being “lesser than”.  Which means I know shit about being judged for my culture because of the color of my skin.

In my work, it’s important that I just ask questions, and then shut the hell up and listen. I check in with myself constantly to make sure I’m not making assumptions about whoever is in front of me for whatever reason (including the copious amount of research I do before each interview), since my brain has had 34 years of hard-wiring to institutionally want to anticipate who I’m meeting. My job is to ask, not answer. Which brings me back to Thursday night.

Pashman and I both make money by talking to people and portraying our time in writing and radio. The Sporkful taping was to be the final episode in his four-part series studying food and racism. Listen to them – what they cover is far too grand for me to just regurgitate here. But after the taping, I was left – as I often am after watching anyone do their job – wondering about how the work affected him, personally and professionally. So while grabbing some quotes for the Village Voice piece, I picked his brain a bit. Keep in mind, this talk happened early the next morning after the taping, with Pashman at home with his wife and kids and me a few hours already into my work. Neither of us had much time to process our thoughts. But when this whole lot is written up, submitted, and live to the world, I can only hope that I’ll be a little better informed about the experiences of others, and a bit better at articulating mine.


What has doing the series taught you about your own racism (not a judgment here… we all have some)?

To some degree I’m still processing it all, but it certainly made me more aware of how we bring our own filters to everything. It’s made me more aware of the filters that I bring to the conversation and that other people bring to the conversation, and how those thing affect all of us.

Until you talk to people about these issues, it’s hard to realize how they affect other people. When you say you are going to have a conversation about race, it either becomes heavy-handed or overly simplistic, or devolves into shouting. You don’t really learn anything from it, and people get defensive very quickly. We were hoping — and I think it’s worked out very well — that starting out talking about food would open up the conversation, because everyone loves to eat and most people in New York City at least have eaten foods associated with different cultures and countries. And so I think there’s an opportunity there to start a conversation that won’t immediately devolve into shouting.

There’s a lot out there to be known about other people’s food. How do you start learning about it and then working with it professionally?

That’s certainly something we focus on in episode one: what’s the right way to work with someone else’s food, and how important is it to educate yourself about the food before you do so?

I wanted to press deeper into that. I think there’s something more there. I think it’s better for all of us when we can learn about each other’s cultures and histories; that’s something we should all work towards. But I also get concerned that… Basically, I really wanted to get at why is it important to someone like Ashok or Nicole or Chitra or Professor Ray that other people learn about their culture before doing anything with their food? I think it’s really important to draw the distinction that there’s a difference between someone going out there professionally as an authority who is going to become the face of the food and make money from it, and someone who’s trying things in their own kitchen. We may need to draw that out more obviously, but after the first episode some people said, “So I’m not allowed to eat any food if it’s not my own food?” Professor Ray said that it’s absolutely okay for me to put my garam masala in my scrambled eggs without having studied its full history, but it’s important to draw that distinction.

If you’re going to hold yourself up as an authority, it makes sense that you have to understand what you’re talking about, but the idea that no matter how you’re interacting with someone else’s food you should get to know the culture, that’s what I had a hard time wrapping my brain around.

Is that the real issue, or is that indicative of deeper concerns that stem from long-standing inequalities? I was definitely struck with Ashok’s point last night that it is problematic when, just because you’ve eaten someone else’s food, you think that you inherently gain an understanding of their culture. Just because you went and ate at a Ethiopian restaurant doesn’t mean you know more about Ethiopians… unless you knew zero about them before. You know more than zero, but you shouldn’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back for what you know just because you’ve eaten at one Ethiopian restaurant.

The conversations in this series made me understand how this might come across to someone from another culture, when they feel marginalized when a white person walks around like they know something about the culture just because they ate the food a couple of times. I can understand why people wouldn’t like that.

Last night, you starting your interview with Michelle by saying, “My first question to you was going to be, Are people too sensitive? But then my producer and I spent ten minutes today tying to figure out what the most appropriate way to ask you where your parents are from, without being insulting or problematic. So maybe I answered my own question…” Were there questions you were afraid to ask because of not knowing how sensitively someone might take a question, and does that make sensitivity subjective? Are we not having honest discussions about race because we’re afraid of how the conversation – on either side – might go?

In the weeks leading up to this series, people would ask, “Are you nervous?” And I wasn’t until people kept asking me that.

Are people too sensitive? I don’t have the right to tell people that they don’t have the right to feel. I don’t think anyone should tell anyone else that they don’t have the right to feel something. If you think that people are too sensitive, you should stop and question why the issue is too sensitive to that other person before you just dismiss it.

I don’t know if sensitivity is the word I would use, but I think sometimes people who have good intentions get very worried that they’re going to accidentally say the wrong thing, or use the wrong word, or their words are going to come out differently than they intended, or that they’re going to be heard by the recipient differently than the way they were intended. Which then might end up taking the conversation to a place where it’s not going to be productive. I don’t know if that’s sensitivity, but I think people get scared of that. No one wants to be called a racist, or ignorant. So people get afraid, “I don’t know that the right word is, or how to frame this, so I’d better just say nothing.” Because that’s the safest way not to screw up.

It’s hard. It’s something I struggled with in this series. I don’t ask everyone “where are your parents from” questions, but in this series I have to ask about someone’s makeup. I would be doing a disservice to listeners were I not to ask. But how do I ask that? So, yes, it’s a concern. If you come across as someone who’s curious and wants to learn, and you do more asking and less telling, than most people will welcome the conversation. Even if you say something that’s not 100% politically correct.

Considering this series’ first episode and the question you asked Ashok about if it’s ever okay for people (white people, specifically) to make their living off of another culture’s food, where are we now regarding “non-American” cuisines and their chefs / product makers making their mark or getting into the spotlight of eaters / buyers / critics?

I’ve learned it’s definitely still not equal. But it certainly seems like there’s been a lot of progress. We’re moving the right direction, but there are still improvements to be made.

And it’s not just about chefs of color being able to get financing and open a restaurant and getting famous and successful. One of the concerns we heard over and over is that chefs of color get put into a box. There’s an expectation that they will cook the kind of food that people associate with people who look like that. And it’s very hard. Floyd Cardoz talked about how it took years for him to convince anyone that he could cook anything besides Indian food. Whereas a white chef can go to another country, cook the cuisine for a couple of years, come back, and “fuse” it with other ideas, and then it’s like, “Ooh, look how interesting!”

There’s often this sort of condescending “exotification” that happens. Like, “This white chef went to this foreign land and plucked this obscure spice out of nowhere and is teaching us about it and introducing us to it!” That spice isn’t exotic to the billion people using it! There is benefit, as Professor Ray says, to introducing someone else’s culture to those with no understanding of it, but it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. It should lead to a greater understanding.

So I’m optimistic. There’s not an easy answer. There are still concerns with the disparity in the field, but it does seem like it’s getting better, and hopefully it will continue to get better.

Maybe it’s partly from working on a food podcast, but I eat a lot of different food cultures now than I ate growing up, and my kids – who are three and five – are eating foods now I didn’t eat until my twenties. That’s progress. If they have a limited idea of the culture at age five, they’re going to have a deeper understanding in adulthood. My kids are so far ahead of where I was at their age as far as knowing about different kinds of foods.

I live in Long Island far outside of the city, and there’s a chain next to Ikea in Hicksville, Noodles & Company. I’m not endorsing the quality of the food or judging it as far as hybrids or bastardization, and I wouldn’t go there for “authentic” anything. The fact that it exists to me is not exactly a sign of “progress”, but there’s a chain next to an Ikea that has foods I’d never heard of when I was five years old! One thing Professor Ray says on that episode is that any time a food is translated, something is gained and something is lost. I’m sure with this chain, something is lost. But something is gained. And that gain is that my five year old is eating food I’d never heard of when I was five. I’m optimist that, in twenty years, that rudimentary introduction to other cultures will lead to them having a fuller understanding of other cultures.

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