Friday, April 01, 2016

On the Racist Food

This week, I became the old man yelling at the cloud.   I wrote an email to a podcast complaining about its content.  It was On the Media's episode Is This Food Racist?  The podcast was a logrolling platform for another podcast that shares the WNYC distributor and had two main thrusts -- an interview with Rick Bayless, an Oklahoman who has dedicated his life to Mexican food (real deal stuff, not food truck tacos) and the response to a comment the guest made about Korean staple bibimbap about how to improvement.  A key piece of information is that both Bayless and Dan Pashman, host of Sporkful, are white and not Latin or Korean.  At least, that was key to Brooke Gladstone, host of OTM who interviewed Pashman.

I have gotten irritated by podcasts before -- mostly by stuff like how pretentious David Plotz can be on the Slate Political Gabfest -- but never have I actually written an email to voice that.  Food, though, has a powerful effect on me.  There were a few moments that made this happen.

The first was when Pashman, while interviewing Bayless, confronted him about whether he had advantages in his career with Mexican food because he was white.  He said that he never really thought about it, tried to figure out what they were asking him, and pretty much said Mexican food is good.  Afterwards, Pashman and Gladstone could not believe the gall of him unwilling to concede his white privilege.  At this point, the transmission in my brain ground its gears.  For some reason, the idea that his whole food palate is built on him being an American interpreting Mexican food, so the idea of getting advantages in this context is kind of meaningless.

The next was when Pashman acknowledged that during a discussion on Korean food, he suggested an improvement to bibimbap and got an array of calls, some positive, others not where he and Gladstone wrung their hands over whether it was ok.  The podcast played an interview with an offended Korean American discussing how as a child he was made fun of for his school lunches because there were noodles in them.  He then talked about how it felt like a white guy suggesting an improvement to Korean food was like trying to tell his Korean grandmother how to be hotter.  There are a couple of things about this: everyone gets made fun of for their school lunches.  Another is that these sorts of adjustments are how immigrant foods become assimilated so that when the next generation of Korean kids bring their lunches to school, it looks normal.  Finally, there is not definitive bibimbap, and if there were, this guy who called in would not own it.  He's not Korean Arnold Palmer.

The interview concluded with Gladstone asking Pashman if he would continue to experiment like that.  He said, probably yes, but while being more thoughtful of others.  It seems like a fine sentiment, but it also seems kind of crazy.  The idea that making food a different way is imperialism seems like it requires a lessening of the original in a way that really does not happen.  This is not the first time I have seen this sort of complaint, though.  (In the interest of full disclosure: I eat collard greens.  I cook them often, though never with peanuts.)

More importantly, though, is that this is what interaction is.  Integration like this is part and parcel of what America is, especially with food.  Pizza, General Tso's chicken, the California roll, the Cuban sandwich, everything that comes out of Louisiana, chili and the mission burrito are all results of cultures running into each other.

I also think that this is the kind of thinking that leads to people supporting people like Donald Trump.  It's hard not to see this as an argument that white people can't make foods from non-white people.  While the discussion is clearly more nuanced than that, the implication was clearly that this was somehow bad.  When immigrants arrived here with their recipes and found different ingredients available, they improved without feeling enslaved to an idea of authenticity.  I just can't see how the world isn't a richer place because of decisions like that, and if the offended Korean American's complaints cause others to be hesitant to experiment because they do not belong to the ethnicity, that's really a shame.