Who gets to cook and talk about this food?
Thoughts on culture gatekeeping and the assumptions we need to move past
One of the things that I like about fast-casual concepts is seeing a variety of folks in the kitchen. To go into Xi’an Famous Foods, for instance, and observe people of different skin tones and ethnicities slinging noodles, ladling tofu, and assembling lamb buns brings out a certain level of excitement for me. Being able to share with and teach to others the flavours of a culture is an aspect of diversity that I am eager to see.
Similarly, I’m stoked when recommendations lead folks of all backgrounds to try different regional Chinese cuisines. Having spent much of my life in Toronto and New York, I can tell you that that these two cities, especially over the last decade, go far beyond “just Chinese cooking”—serving up, instead, the nuances from various provinces and populations.
What purpose is there to keep joints a “secret” from others, thereby closing off the open mindedness that we have asked for? It’s almost as if we want to preserve a nostalgia of sorts, but I venture to say that these memories are also the remnants of cultural trauma—as Chef Jon Kung notes in the video below—when it was us against the world, and more specifically, when our food was considered to be “smelly” or "lesser”.
I want to divorce us from the tired narratives and expected performances of who’s cooking what. That’s not to say that I don’t think we should be lending a platform to underrepresented voices (because we should). Rather, I want us to broaden our ideas about who we think of cooking this food, what they bring to the able, and finally, check the prejudices that society has weaved into our thinking for so long.
A recent episode of “Spilled Milk” (a podcast suggested to me by my friend Chihiro a few months back) touches on the topic of cooking outside our culture. Only last week did I finally carve out time time to listen to it (and to go through the transcript), and I have thoughts.
Hosts Matthew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg share a listener’s question about what factors come into play when purchasing a cookbook—or as Wizenberg redirects to a more broad use case, looking for recipes online. The listener highlights the publishing industry’s longstanding reliance on white men as culinary authority figures, and asks the ways in which Amster-Burton and Wizenberg commit to a more culturally conscious consumption of food media.
Both Amster-Burton and Wizenberg admit their blindspots with regards to having looked to mainstream media as their go-to for years. But it’s Wizenberg’s quote below that got me thinking, particularly the last few words (emphasis added by me):
And in the past, you know, to be perfectly frank, it would have never occurred to me that I needed to to step outside of the box of white cookbook authors and actually go to the source
I understand what Wizenberg is trying to say: it hadn’t occurred to her before to look beyond the optimized search results and to consider a set of experts that weren’t championed by Big Media. This mention of the “source”, though, is something that I want to dig into a little more and reflect on who we consider to be the actual arbiters of “truth” when we talk about global cuisines.
British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop is brought up as having been a resource on Chinese food for Wizenberg—a valuable one, but also one where “I think that I can do better.” I don’t know if it’s fair to dismiss someone that has spent their life not only learning a language and relevant dialects, but also educating themselves on regional cooking and culture. I think Dunlop perhaps wasn’t the best example to use; granted, it can be challenging when commenting on the fly for a podcast. An example that might be more appropriate in terms of someone who’s viewed as a go-to because of their mainstream status, but lacks any regard for the cultures they capitalize upon is Jamie Oliver. His takes on international dishes are consistently devoid of any respect and fail to acknowledge his ignorance.
With that said, in my opinion, Dunlop’s a perfectly valid source on Chinese cuisine. But admittedly, in a recent visit to Toronto, I was disappointed to see the Chinese cooking section at Indigo to only be comprised of her texts. I wasn’t upset with Dunlop’s commanding presence; but rather, I was disappointed with a national bookstore chain for not having sought out any of the emerging voices that have been published in recent years, such as Kristina Cho’s Mooncakes and Milk Bread (which prides itself on accessibility, instead of “authenticity”).
So, if I were to add nuance to what I think our hosts are trying to say: we shouldn’t settle and be content with the progress made in how we talk about global cuisines; instead, we should continue the effort to make more space for folks who have a lifetime’s worth of stories and perspectives to share. After all, the headnotes that I relate to most are the ones that recall experiences similar to my own childhood. Sure, the history lessons and beaten path adventures are always going to have their draw, but it’s the diversity in voices where each person can find their own shared connection that has always made the subject of food so intimate.
And these narratives aren’t all the same. My strong aversion to the remark about going to “the source” stems from the consideration that the use of “the” insinuates a singularity. By reducing populations into a monolith, we end up simplifying the nuance of present-day global and multicultural existences into a singular half for the mere purpose of neatly fitting this binary of whiteness as authority vs. the real. And this dichotomy lives in the past, assuming “the real” is still a certain ethnicity who still has a certain story and still is reliable for a finite set of viewpoints.
We have moved so far beyond that point in time. It’s not a binary anymore, nor is there only one story to tell. Sure, immigration is still happening and we have those familiar narratives, but we also have the opportunity to acknowledge a multitude of experiences:
Second- and third-generation kids who may not even know about their grandparents’ food because of assimilation;
Children who revel in the coexistence of family and community cultures;
Interracial couples and children who learn about their family members through the intimate exchange of culturally diverse childhood and family meals; and
Transracial adoptees who grew up steeped in American culture and are using food as a way to understand their biological parents’ heritage.
If you want to cook this food (or any other’s), go for it. Just don’t be lazy. Skip out on recognizable, yet uninformed, voices. Opt to hear from someone who has anecdotes to share and who is no longer interested in performing “authenticity” for misguided audiences. Food is more than just slapping ingredients together for a flavour profile. Food is an evolving expression of culture, and it shouldn’t be stymied because people can’t let go and move past their predisposed ideas of what was.
NYT: “Food is identity. For Korean chefs who were adopted, it’s complicated”
Eater: “The unlimited potential of meat-free Asian cookbooks”
SF Gate: “SF’s Hang Ah Tea Room is America’s first dim sum restaurant, with 102 years of stories to tell”
The Special Sauce Podcast: “Kristina Cho: sweet and savory recipes inspired by Chinese bakeries”