Chew on this: The bitter taste of disparities in the presentation and popularization of food

An illustration of a pair of dark-skinned hands cutting leafy greens on a cutting board. Next to the cutting board is Bánh mì, turmeric, and tacos.
Food columnist Stephanie Du SC ’21 discusses the disparities and difficulties of being a person of color consuming or creating food and food media. (Crystal Yang • The Student Life)

Food plays a large role in one’s culture and heritage. It can be a wonderful amalgamation of history, culture and pure genius, but a lot of it is also rooted in pain and suppression

Food is meant to be shared and celebrated. But it’s equally important to understand the history of different cuisines and respect the cultures in which they were produced. I’m sharing a few glaring places the food media empire has gone wrong, in hopes that we work toward a better and more respectful food future. 

The lack of diversity in food media

Food media in the United States is predominantly white. I first noticed this when I started watching “MasterChef.” In the early seasons, all the judges and most of the contestants were white. When Christine Ha won the MasterChef title in the show’s third season, I was over the moon. It was a small slice of Asian representation where usually I saw none.

There are some extremely talented BIPOC chefs everywhere you look, but they don’t get the same recognition as their white counterparts, whether on competitive food shows, food documentaries or instructional cooking shows. Fortunately, that is starting to change with the rise of widely accessible Netflix originals showcasing BIPOC chefs, their cuisines and the cultures that inspired them.

David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious not only delights one’s senses, but also puts the food empire into the perspective of someone who is BIPOC. It introduces various cuisines, including contemporary ones like Viet-Cajun and long-established ones like Indian cuisine.

After initial criticism for a homogenous cast of chefs, David Gelb’s sumptuous “Chef’s Table has begun to feature more BIPOC chefs. “Chef’s Table” and Gelb’s newer “Street Food series (now with a Latin American counterpart) tell of various chefs’ journeys in cities across the world.

There is the misconception that BIPOC food is not considered fine dining, relegated to a catch-all category of “ethnic food” that is, generally, expected to be cheap. “Chef’s Table” breaks that stereotype by delving into the culinary genius and sheer skill possessed by many BIPOC chefs.

On the other hand, “Street Food” cleverly analyzes the juxtaposition of communities’ deep histories and traditional foods to get to the bottom of various street food cultures. Street food can be accessible to anyone and bring a smile to their faces. The docuseries show the care and immense hard work vendors put into their food, just like any other chef.

Silencing BIPOC voices behind the scenes 

Even though there is now an outward appearance of added diversity in food media, discrimination against BIPOC voices behind the scenes still exists. A recent incident with Bon Appétit involved assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly, who revealed that she and other BIPOC workers did not get compensated for appearances in BA’s viral test kitchen videos, while her white co-workers did. More recently, El-Waylly and two other BA stars, Priya Krishna and Rick Martinez, announced they would no longer appear in BA content after failed contract negotiations for “equitable compensation” for their work at BA. 

An even more recent incident occurred in Dallas, Texas. Peja Krstic, the white owner of a Vietnamese restaurant, shared a featured dish on social media: the banh mi sandwich. However, Krstic initially misspelled banh as bahn.

Tiffany Tran, owner of a local bakery, pointed out the mistake and later commented that the typo hurt her eyes. An escalated exchange continued privately between the two and Krstic even threatened to sue Tran.

In these two cases, El-Waylly and Tran were dismissed as if their presence and perspective did not matter. Media such as Bon Appétit should actively give their BIPOC a space to showcase their culinary talents. As for Krstic, the problem resides in his inability to accept criticism and apologize for his actions. As a white chef cooking Vietnamese cuisine, he needs to respect the culture, ingredients and people.

Cooking cuisine outside of one’s own without care and respect creates its own set of issues, sometimes called food gentrification.

For instance, while Black soul food has a deep-rooted history in the South, attention and media often goes to white Southern celebrity chefs like Paula Deen. It not only diminishes the Black history of soul food, but ignores the Black chefs possessing the skill and proper techniques to execute soul food well.

And ever since kale, collard greens and okra were popularized by monikers like “super food,” their prices have increased, pricing many Black families out of the vegetables they’ve cooked with for decades.

When gentrifiers alter traditional foods and practices for their own economic gain, it diminishes the history and significance of the food. Kale should not be sold at such steep prices. Turmeric is not the new superfood. Kimchi is not the new miso. All of the mentioned ingredients have been around long before they become popularized. As gentrifiers appropriate and commodify these foods, they not only become less accessible to communities but also can hurt BIPOC businesses and restaurants.

BIPOC foods are often exotified, simplified or undervalued

BIPOC cuisines served in the West are often looked down upon. Like previously mentioned, instead of being afforded the dignity of having a spot in haute cuisine, these cuisines are relegated to being “cheap,” fast options. People order Chinese, Thai and Indian food on the regular because it is cheaper than French and Italian dishes.

There’s an expectation that food from BIPOC cultures should be cheap. I’ve had non-Chinese people tell me that they would never pay more than $30 for a Chinese dish. This saddens me, especially when the same people are willing to pay $30 for a pasta dish.

Krishnendu Ray, author of “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” believes that the more economically developed a country is, or the richer the immigrant, the more expensive the cuisine can be. He argues that once Italian immigrants were no longer associated with poverty, their food moved into fine dining territory.

There’s also the misconception that cheap BIPOC food equals cheap labor. Some people don’t realize the grueling, difficult work that goes into each dish when a cuisine is considered on its face to be inherently inexpensive. They don’t realize that each dish is made with care, skill and quality ingredients — as a result, they just don’t see “cheap” food as worthy of quality, no matter the labor put in.

It also hurts to see the way American media represents Chinese food — it’s so often reduced to fried rice, chow mein and orange chicken. A lot of people don’t know that China has one of the most diverse cuisines in the world. Each region specializes in dishes and flavors that are vastly different from each other. Within that, 56 ethnic groups exist with their own unique take on food. Orange chicken didn’t originate in China — it was a dish created for Westernized palates. 

Many people, not just Americans, fail to recognize that each culture’s food isn’t encapsulated by just the few dishes restaurants serve most often. It saddens me that so many people are not aware of the immense variety of flavors within Chinese cuisine and cuisines all over the world.

There is a history of disparaging the food choices of BIPOC

Criticizing a culture’s food is sadly nothing new. One issue that has already existed, but has become worse during this pandemic, is disparaging Chinese cuisine. Throughout my life, I’ve been questioned if I ever ate dog because I’m Chinese.

During this pandemic, questions like this escalated. Some people I’ve talked to have just casually dropped “eating bats” into conversations or memes. Chinese Americans are getting assaulted and blamed for the existence of COVID-19, and Chinese restaurants and other BIPOC mom-and-pop shops in the U.S. have deeply suffered as a result of the pandemic.

Rather than focusing on specific meats and disparaging people for their choices, we need to have a conversation about meat consumption in general. Environmental impacts aside, a lot of commonly eaten livestock, such as pigs, cows and chickens, all carry viruses that could result in a global pandemic. For example, H1N1 was a novel virus strain found in pigs. It first was detected in the U.S., but became a global pandemic in 2009. Today, pork consumption is still common. 

It’s important to note that cultures across the world base their diets off the resources available to them. Not everyone has access to the same ingredients. For example, some indigenous groups like the Inuit ethically hunt and consume seals, beluga whales and caribou. We must spread awareness and normalize different diets. Just like how it is wrong to exotify Hawaiian luau food, it is also wrong to disparage other indigenous foods. 

There are so many instances of inequalities and disparities when it comes to food — this column barely scratches the surface. Though food media has become more diverse, it still needs improvement. We need to continuously educate ourselves on different cultures and appreciate the diversity of cuisines, many of which are still misrepresented and exotified. Additionally, disparities in the industry don’t just include a lack of BIPOC chefs in media, but also the way BIPOC food industry workers and customers are treated.

As always, we need to recognize our privilege, whether it’s racial or socioeconomic. We must acknowledge that each culture is different and food inequality exists. Respecting our differences and being conscious of our language and actions are steps forward to showing appreciation for varying cuisines and cultures.

Stephanie Du SC ’21 is TSL’s food columnist. She is a biology major and aspires to work in health care. Her favorite quarantine activities include making noodles and experimenting with new dessert recipes.

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