In Conversation: Soleil Ho, Simi Kang, and Tracey Deutsch

Entomophagy: past, present, and future

November 15, 2018

The “Thinking Food” folks took advantage of Soleil Ho’s time in Minneapolis to chat with her about food studies, racism in the food industry (and in the food writing industry) and the ways that the 2008 recession shaped her career path.

At the time of the interview, Soleil was the host of two podcasts, Racist Sandwichwhich focuses on race, class and gender in the restaurant and food industry, as well as Popaganda, which she does in conjunction with Bitchmedia and which offers feminist analyses of pop culture. Since that time, she has also become the author of a book, Mealand will begin a full-time position as restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chroniclein 2019.  Simi Kang, a longtime “Food Fellow” who is writing about commercial fishing and the politics of Asian American food in Louisiana in her dissertation interviewed her, along with Tracey Deutsch, associate professor in History and doer of critical food studies. The interview has been edited for clarity.

T: Simi and I wanted to talk with you, Soleil about your really innovative work. How did you come to be the kind of food writer you are?

SH: I was educated at Grinell College (Iowa) and a lot of my work focused on cultural studies, broadly understood.  I studied the history of revolution in Latin America, power dynamics globally, feminism and gender studies—all these things were mixed up in my head.  After I graduated, I was struggling with what to do with all of that in the real world. This was especially keen, since I graduated when the 2008 recession hit. The most viable path towards employment was in the food industry, so I started working at a farm in Alexandria, MN and also in restaurants as a basic prep cook. If I’d stayed in academia or gotten the usual “bachelor degree” jobs that used to exist when folks got out of school, I wouldn’t have had the same interaction to people across class lines. Instead I found myself in the position of explaining to people the things that I had learned, as we all did our work.  I used food as a metaphor to get around the hurdles that social class posed. For instance I progressed in my culinary career as a chef, I just would get drunk late at night and rail against Henry Kissinger to my staff—that kind of thing. That was just my life. (laughter). Eventually I moved to Portland and met my podcast partner  and friend, Zahir Janmohamed.  He was and is a very successful journalist, he had worked in Congress for Keith Ellison; so he had a real reputation and career already.  But  we started talking at a party about general issues around food: racism in the food industry and food media, about women and sexual harassment.  And  we decided, mutually, to start about a podcast about it.  He wasn’t as aware of some of this stuff, and there was a lot I was trying to get out but didn’t know who to talk to.  Together we started Racist Sandwich.  We thought we’d do maybe ten episodes and now we are on our sixty-first.  It’s been going for two-and-a-half years.

SK: I loved this piece you published in Bitch about cultural appropriation, “Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine,” The premise as I understand it, is that we are not allowed to talk about our own food, as people of color. We aren’t allowed to have agency over the ways we interact with that food—that is all mandated by someone else.  I love this piece and I teach it in almost all of my classes. Can you tell me more about how your thinking may have shifted around this or how you see this now?

SH:  I wrote this piece in 2013 and it was my first explicitly about race. People were enthusiastic about in a way that surprised me. In fact, it was solicited; the online editor of Bitchat the time, Sarah Mirk, encouraged me to do it for a food issue ofthe magazine. I’d written very low-key pieces about food before, but nothing really complicated. But I knew Bitchwas a feminist magazine and thought they’d be receptive to something like this.

The essay is about encountering people, in that time period, who were not Vietnamese but who knew about pho,and were parlaying their knowledge of Vietnamese food into thinking they knew Vietnamese people. I pointed out the problem with that line of thinking.  It’s not an uncommon problem.  Lots of food writers have said “if you know the food, you know the people,”  or things very much like this, e.g., to know a people, you eat their food.  Of course that isn’t true! There’s so much  don’t know about Vietnamese people and I eat this food practically every day.

So, in the essay, I used popular media to talk about this.  I included shows and songs that came out at the time (eg the song “Asian Girls” or the show “Bizarre Foods”).  Now as I think back, I would not have talked about things like “Asian Girls,” because it dates the essay. (Simi: I just show the video to them!). The essay is pretty evergreen otherwise; I still agree with most of it.

If I had more time and space, I would talk more about hierarchies and power dynamics within Asian-America. This was on the cusp of Asian-American food exploding as a cuisine.  Now, I’d delineate what it means that Vietnamese food is popular now, as opposed to Chinese.   And I’d ask why do people within the community have different reactions [to the popularity of Vietnamese food]?  For instance, there are tensions between my grandparents who could feasibly open up a store called “Oriental foods,” and me, who was horrified by that. There’s tension between the older generation who are fine with any recognition of Vietnamese food and people like me who are like “Oriental is racist.” We will look that gifthorse in the mouth! I ask my relatives all the time now, “How do you feel about this? There is quinoa and pho in the NYTimes?!”  They’re happy that at least there’s pho there, but I see it as problematic. I would love to focus more on changes between generations, because its more about us, and not just how do we look to white people.

SK: I’m also wondering about how when an Asian food is popularized in the United States, its often one region that becomes the image of that food, for instance, “Indian” food at many restaurants is very specific to a region.

SH: We are in a time in which regionalism is trendy in the food world. In NYC, we have X’ian versus Szechuan versus Fujianese].  Being able to distinguish regions is a mark of knowing Chinese food—of being a connoisseur. It’s fascinating to watch. 

I wonder if the same thing will happen to Vietnamese food. My father’s side of the family is from Hue, they’re from Central Vietnam, the food I grew up eating at their house is different than the food I grew up eating at my mom’s parents’ house. It serves a rhetorical purpose though, to erase the nuance…for white supremacy!

T: Right, but as you say it is also a rhetorical move to name the nuance and insist on the nuance, to position yourself as a knower, in order to claim cosmopolitanism 

SH: Yes, and to actually recognize the nuance at least acknowledges differences amongst people…which I think is a net good. It is so complicated. who is actually building that level of knowledge? For it to be equitable, it would need to be people from those communities leading the conversation. I am part of that, you are part of that…we are part of this legacy of people trying to shift these conversations around food.

T: One of the wonderful things you do on The Racist Sandwich is to insist on talking about labor and food and race in the same breath.  I wonder if you can talk about the work that Racist Sandwich does around this and also how you see food-writing generally dealing with issues of paid and unpaid labor?

SH: A lot begins with fact we are really steeped in neoliberalism.  And we (on the podcast) have fallen into this trap too. One of our important resources on the website is the PDX POC-Owned Food Directory.I insisted on that because I knew that people would want to do something after they listened to the show.  You want to physically do something in response to inequity (and then of course Instagram it). So, we started this, but inherent to this resource was the flawed idea that capitalism is the way to save yourself and the reallocation of capital will save the world—which is of course not true. We had a debate over this, but decided that if it helps materially improve the conditions of the people we care about, within our community, then it is ok. 

Which is to say our conversations about labor are ongoing.  We are about race, class, and gender.  Class is not a unique theme.  It informs our whole approach.  The work of Krishnendu Rayis really important to us, as we think about whose labor is more valuable. We privilege the voices of people whose labor has been devalued historically. I’m a socialist…and that is part of the deal, I don’t have to say [class and labor]. It’s the air I breathe.

T: I think that perspective really informs the programs you all do.  You don’t explain why you’re talking about labor, you just do it

SH: The thing about food media, especially mainstream food media, is that you have to justify your coverage; like this is the “diversity issue,” or now we are all talking about sexual harassment.  But this should just be what you talk about all the time.  Writers have a fear of alienating their audience, which is understandable because you need all the readers you can get, but I think it’s a waste of the potential of food writing.  Because you have access to people, you can have these conversations about bigger things that are really interesting but a lot of people don’t know how to talk about it. Editors, and people who decide what goes onto these pages, often have a supreme lack of imagination.

SK: What a democratic way of saying that. It seems like mainstream coverage of food labor is polarized between undocumented workers who are framed in a clichéd ways as pitiful subject—and celebrity chefs.  And there doesn’t seem to be much gradient otherwise.  Those two frames are pretty sedimented.  There isn’t a lot of in-between.

SH: And there is a sense of benevolence that accompanies this coverage.  It’s a symptom of the lack of diversity of the staff.  Also, since most food writers are freelancers you don’t get to take as many risks. It’s way easier to write list of Thanksgiving side-dishes than it is to go out and talk to laborers in a field and risk your career and your time and personal safety (because there’s a lot of anti-labor violence). It is so much easier to respond to the PR email about Guy Fieri and get that interview with him.  You get to be safe.  You don’t have to know a different language.  All of this contributes to what we see now. The important thing to emphasize is that the current perspective is the product of so many problems and faults that we take for granted.  Food is a lifestyle topic so a lot of people read food writing and accept it as that is the way it is. That is why my approach is so steeped in media analysis. I follow and cultivate relationships with people at Bon Appetit  and in the foodie world because I want to know what they are thinking. I want to have these conversation and cultivate some hope.

T: And I think part of creating that hope is the work you do to denaturalize those systems.  The work you all do is always about denaturalizing that way of reporting about food. 

T: I also want to make sure we talk about the new projects you all have going on.

SH: Today we released an episodeI’m really excited about.  It’s about Palestinian liberation and how food politics plays into that.  For instance, the question of who owns products/companies like Za’tar hummus.  We talked with organizers of NYC-based Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement about the whole concept of gastrodiplomacyand how Israel is using the concept of the new Israeli cuisine. It  exposes so much that you don’t think about. The story behind it is so complicated. A ubiquitous item such as hummus has so much complexity. We interviewed Amanny Ahmad, a Palestinian chef and artist, and Ora Wise, who works with Amanny, and we had the privilege of having the poet George Abraham.

T: Tell us about the book you have coming out?

SH: It is a graphic novel called MEAL: Adventures in Entomophagy.  It’s about a group of people trying to open an insect-centered restaurant in Minneapolis and how they work to market this in a way that is respectful of the fact that for many people this [eating insects] is a normal thing. Insects for me are fascinating.  They exist at so many debates over national sovereignty, and globalism, and trade.  Who has the power of determining the course of this insect or this cultural product? Who is going to be exploited for it? There is a lot of rhetoric about insects being the future of food right now, but we don’t talk about how insects are thepastor present of food.  And that is really important, since most of those people are in the global South, living in conditions very different from the US…It’s a really worthy conversation to have.  And having it in graphic form makes it very accessible.

T: What an intriguing book, Solei!

Thank you for spending time with us. We look forward to speaking and hearing more from you.