From July 18, 2016
At the tail end of summer 2012, shortly after we moved to LA, Jay and I went to Little Sheep Hot Pot in Arcadia. It was my first time having hot pot and I let him order everything for us in Mandarin, surrounded by a primarily Chinese clientele in the middle of a Chinese shopping center. I had never lived somewhere with a large enough Asian population to sustain so many specialized businesses. (Towns in the San Gabriel Valley were among the first Asian-majority suburbs in the country.) It was fascinating.
Fast-forward four years. Jay and I are driving through Madison, WI and stop for dinner at a local hot pot place with good reviews on Yelp. It’s one of the few Asian restaurants we’ve been to in the Midwest and it couldn’t be more different from LA. The only ethnically Chinese people in the restaurant, with the exception of Jay, were the incredibly friendly owners who prepped, served, and happily explained the food to the white, mostly older, customers. I felt visibly foreign, and oddly out-of-place.
And for the nth time in recent memory I thought to myself: This isn’t just about the food (somehow it never is). It’s about something deeper: perception, knowledge, and social status in how we experience ethnic food (somehow it always is).
What do we mean by “ethnic food”?
Historically, most restaurant food was ethnic food. Immigration booms in the late 19th century (Italians and Greeks) and early to mid-20th century (Chinese, then Mexican) corresponded with growth of the middle class. While haute cuisine restaurants were inaccessible to most, immigrant restaurants were cheap and plentiful, the perfect opportunity for Americans with disposable income to feel worldly and exotic.
According to Krishnendu Ray, chair of food studies at NYU, Americans started using the term “ethnic food” in the 1950s to avoid the fraught political overtones of “race.” Ethnic was a gentler synonym for outsiders and ethnic food was a catch-all for cuisine outside the white Anglo-Protestant mainstream.
Over time, certain cuisines outgrew the ethnic food label. This reflects the changing social status of immigrant groups, from outcast to accepted. When Italians first arrived in the Northeast in the 1880s, public health officials warned that Italian food increased alcohol consumption, reinforcing negative stereotypes. As Italians climbed the socioeconomic ladder, so did their food. Now Italian is among the most expensive and popular cuisines in the US.
Compare this to the other two of the “big three” ethnic cuisines in the US: Mexican and Chinese. Both of these cuisines gained popularity after waves of poor immigrants arrived in the US. (Chinese immigrants actually opened restaurants in the 1910s and ’20s to exploit a loophole in otherwise restrictive immigration laws.) But neither group has been integrated into “white mainstream America.” Correspondingly, we expect Mexican and Chinese food to be relatively inexpensive, best enjoyed at hole-in-the-wall restaurants with paper thin napkins and disposable utensils.
This is not strictly an issue of race. Consider the case of Japanese food versus other Asian cuisines. The rise of sushi and wagyu as elements of haute cuisine followed the rise of Japan as a technological hub and economic superpower. As China and Korea gain prominence on the world stage, so their cuisines acquire high-end cachet. Think David Chang and the Momofuku Group in New York City.
But it’s still kind of a race issue. Consider the gentrification of historically poor communities in New York. One study looked at Yelp reviews for ethnic restaurants and newer, trendy restaurants in two neighborhoods: one predominantly Polish, the other majority African-American. In the Polish neighborhood, traditional restaurants were seen as “authentic” and charming, enhancing the appeal of trendier restaurants in their midst. In contrast, the black neighborhood was portrayed as a battleground, with nice eateries posed against the dark background of the ghetto and its seedy restaurants. White immigrant cuisine was elevated, while colored cuisine was marginalized.
So when we talk about”ethnic food,” we kind of just mean “cheap, not-white-people food.” And that moniker comes loaded with prejudices. What we are willing to pay for a plate of food is a measure of how we value the people doing the cooking. Many of the lowest paid food workers like farmhands, busboys, and line cooks are immigrants or ethnic minorities. Restaurateurs and economists go so far as to say the restaurant industry is “kept afloat” by immigrants, but they rarely ascend to top chef positions.
That said, “ethnic food” as a category in grocery stores and on restaurant menus is big business in middle America. According to a National Restaurant Association report from 2015, 66% of consumers surveyed eat more ethnic cuisine now than 5 years ago. 85% say they prefer eating ethnic at a restaurant specific to that cuisine, but 75% also want to see ethnic-inspired dishes at American eateries. Here’s the kicker: 60% of those surveyed take pride in eating a diverse array of ethnic foods.
It’s not just about the food. It’s about what the food says about our lifestyle choices.
What do we mean by “authentic” food?
To a certain extent, “ethnic food” is being phased out of American culinary lingo as our national palate expands and previously exotic ingredients become available in supermarkets. For example, the meal delivery service Blue Apron boasts recipe kits including dukkah-dusted tilapia, spiced lentil stew with naan, and stuffed poblano peppers, hitting Egypt, India, and Mexico in just one week. Chefs who travel widely and mix influences lately prefer the term “New American,” a uniquely American cuisine that is inclusive and celebratory, or “modern American.”
Simply trying new-to-you menu items is being replaced by a more nuanced pursuit: the search for “authentic” food. For highly educated Millennials, one of the main driving forces in American food culture today, that sought-after authenticity combines travel experience, extensive local dining, and cuisine-specific knowledge. The necessary conditions for this brand of authenticity are population density, granularity, and (lack of) cleanliness.
First, an authentic restaurant ought to be in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population. The idea is that competition and local expertise will drive the bad restaurants out-of-business and create sustainable supply chains for specialized ingredients. For example, all of the recommendations in the Food & Wine list of the “Best Ethnic Food in the US” start with descriptions of the local immigrant population. Want Chinese? Well, “the number of Chinese-born Flushing residents has doubled since 1990” so you should probably look there.
Second, it’s gauche to talk about “Chinese” and “Indian” food like they are monolithic entities. Authentic restaurants highlight specific regions: Cantonese dim sum, Shanghainese scallion pancakes, and newer entries in the food lexicon like Xinjiang lamb and Oaxacan tamales. The greater the level of detail, the more authentic. A 2015 industry survey ranks “regional” and “authentic” among the top five ethnic food trends in the country, but the distinction is moot: regional is effectively synonymous with authentic ethnic cuisine.
Third, authentic food should feel gritty and down-to-earth. I might be in suburban Illinois, but I want my dining experience to make me feel like Anthony Bourdain on “No Reservations,” slurping soup out of unwashed melamine bowls in a tin shack somewhere in Cambodia. Tyler Cowen’s “Six Rules for Dining Out” embody that ethos: “When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly? Poor construction? Broken plastic signage? A five-and-dime store? Maybe an abandoned car? If so, crack a quiet smile, walk through the door, and order. Welcome to the glamorous world of good food.”
The first two conditions for authenticity seem reasonable, but the last part makes me cringe. White, well educated Americans have been saying things like this about immigrant food since 1890 when New York socialites started hosting “slumming parties” in Chinatown. We conveniently, repeatedly, relentlessly put the food of poor, colored immigrants into the “other” category with the immigrants themselves.
How do we change our problematic view of immigrant food?
“Authentic ethnic food” must be cheap because we refuse to pay more for it. Therefore, the ingredients must be inexpensive, the labor must be inexperienced, illegal, or free from family members, and the rent must be low. These conditions are not conducive to restaurant experiences associated with fine dining, experiences we clearly value and are willing to pay for. (Fine dining spending rebounded faster than the rest of the food service industry after the Great Recession.)
Our dining choices are based on stereotypes about immigrants that impose conditions that reinforce those stereotypes and keep immigrant food out of the mainstream of modern American dining. As Krishnendu Ray says in The Ethnic Restaurateur, “The circulation of taste through the social architecture of class and race allows for the creation of a subcultural niche, say for the best taco, genuine dim-sum, or most authentic fried chicken, yet rarely assures a position among elite food cultures.”
Given these observations about food culture, you could take the pessimistic view that everyone is a racist and everything is terrible. Not only do we treat other people badly, but we also treat their food with less respect. Good job, Team USA.
But I prefer to take the optimistic outlook: Americans love food. Food is strongly coupled to social identity. So we can learn to appreciate, and even love, other groups of people through mutual respect for delicious cuisine.
America, with its long history of mass immigration and ethnic diversity, is probably better equipped to leverage food culture for positive social change than most Western European countries. (But that’s not stopping notoriously elitist countries like France from trying to promote acceptance of newcomers, for example, Syrian refugees, through food.) We just have to be careful how we go about this pursuit.
The socially regressive and classist elements of food culture come to the fore when we take a consumption-oriented, voyeuristic approach to ethnic cuisine (or any cuisine for that matter.) There is a sense that one can travel to the best restaurants (media outlets from CNN to GQ covered the most recent World’s 50 Best List), enjoy their most celebrated offerings in contextual isolation, then come home and tell friends about how great it was.
Eddie Huang illustrates the issue with this approach in his book Fresh Off The Boat. When he visits his family home in Taipei, he sees tourists pick a single stall for beef noodle soup (a Taiwanese staple that’s gaining popularity in US cities), so they can check that item off their food-tourism list and move on. Huang, on the other hand, spends his entire summer eating beef noodle soup, over and over again, at every restaurant he can find in order to better understand his mother’s cooking and make his own broth.
Therein lies the difference: a consumption-oriented outlook posits the individual against the other where the production-oriented approach demands greater immersion and creates learning opportunities. I’m not saying we should all drink dozens of bowls of beef noodle soup to demonstrate proper appreciation for Taiwanese culture, but it probably wouldn’t kill us to look up a few recipes and think about what makes a good broth.
So how do we leverage ethnic food, and really all food, for positive social change? My ground rules are pretty simple:
- Cook more.
- Talk less.*
A few months ago, I embarked on a mini-food adventure to organize my thoughts on culinary topics, from books to restaurants and many recipes in-between. Though it was a useful exercise to give structure to my culinary curiosities, it didn’t look like there was going to be enough content to make that blog interesting, and it was taking attention away from this blog.
So I decided to consolidate, moving my favorite content from the food blog to this space for safekeeping. This is the second of those migrating posts. -xoxo, A