Eddie Huang and Food as Cultural ExpressionPosted: July 15, 2012
I’m not much of a foodie. I haven’t been to a lot of New York hot spots, nor could I name any celebrity chefs. Part of it is I hate waiting in lines, and the other part of it is I hardly ever leave my neighborhood to eat. Plus, good dining is quite literally an acquired taste, and my palate (and foodie vocabulary) is probably not so refined or evolved as to be able to truly appreciate (or praise) great food.
I do, however, follow chef and writer Eddie Huang‘s blog Fresh Off The Boat, which is hilarious (his recaps of Girls episodes are gold). For those of who don’t know who he is, Eddie owns the Taiwanese restaurant BaoHaus in Manhattan and is something of a food personality in New York City. He’s extremely outspoken and likely has his share of enemies in the culinary world, but his irreverent writing voice is fearless and funny, and I respect the way he challenges stereotypes and champions minority voices and perspectives. Plus, I always admire Asian Americans, and people in general, who succeed while breaking the mold of parental and societal expectations.
(Full disclosure: I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I haven’t yet made my way to BaoHaus, due to the whole “vegetarian” thing and the whole waiting in line thing, but it’ll happen soon. Sorry, Eddie.)
Anyway, I’ve been reading up on a couple of brouhahas Eddie’s recently been embroiled in. Francis Lam, a food writer and fellow Michigan alum (I actually met him once in college at this rad summer program called NELP when he taught a guest class on food, although he may have no recollection of it), wrote a piece in the New York Times at the end of May about how American-raised chefs garner more success than immigrant chefs in preparing ethnic cuisines. Lam strives to be as balanced and objective about the topic as he can, but Eddie, who’s friends with him, calls him out on throwing “mad softballs in the article,” wanting him to “HAMMER” the Western chefs. They continue the conversation in a great piece on Gilt Taste, raising points about cultural commodification, classism, immigration, and the American ideal.
Then, at the end of June, Eddie lambasted Marcus Samuelsson, apparently a superstar world-class chef, in a book review in the New York Observer. Samuelsson owns and runs Red Rooster, an upscale soul food restaurant in Harlem, and has recently published a memoir Yes, Chef, and Eddie takes him to task on a variety of matters, namely trafficking in stereotypes and paving the way for gentrification. A lot of the commenters on the Observer page take offense with Eddie’s piece, decrying him as an attention whore and a jealous restauranteur in something of a straw man argument, but I think he makes some valid points that dig at something more than the taste of a food.
I’d always thought of good food as mostly a positive thing. It’s just so damn tasty, and breaking bread’s a great way to bridge cultural differences. Reading these pieces, however, it’s been eye opening the role that class plays in cuisine. A point that Eddie makes in one of his blog posts is the peculiarity of Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and raised by adoptive parents in Sweden, being the face of soul food as a transplant, even a welcomed and embraced one, in the Harlem community. Eddie defends local communities and cultures and denounces assimilation, and he’s frustrated by the culinary imperialism of the coopting of ethnic cuisines by the dominant culture. And in a place like New York City, this narrative ties directly into gentrification and the loss of local flavor.
While some of his invective may be directed at various celebrity chefs, it seems that Eddie’s true issues lie with food writers and editors who steer culinary discourse and fads. The critics and tastemakers in any creative field–whether culinary, literary, artistic, or cinematic–are always part of the dominant culture. As the gatekeepers, they invariably seek food, or books, or art, or movies that reflect said dominant culture, which in this country is mostly white and upper middle class and so-called “educated.” For something to be seen as the “best” and therefore representative of a field, it needs to fit pre-established notions of what “good” is, and that criteria, when it comes to something like food, is established by a small, particularized palate. While critics and tastemakers purport to be objective, the fact remains that their perspectives are colored by the limited lens of their class. What Eddie wants is for other voices, particularly minority ones, to be heard.
I don’t know where I’m going with all this, but I find the whole conversation interesting. And all this thinking about food is making me hungry.