Book Review: Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur, eds., Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader
The twenty essays that make up Eating Asian America demonstrate both the multiple approaches to food studies in an era where that field has exploded and how food is a wonderful window into the complexities of race and immigration over the history of the United States. Asian immigrants have transformed American foodways, have had their own foodways transformed by American imperialism and social norms when they immigrate, and often find themselves torn between their own cultural traditions and the social norms of the new world in which they find themselves. I recently ran across this Ruth Tam essay in the Washington Post about how she was embarrassed by the Chinese food she grew up with in the United States because her friends made fun of how her house smelled, but now white people are embracing this same food. In some ways, she says this is good, but she also feels it cheapens the experiences of her and other Asian immigrants:
But while some eateries get it right, the United States’s take on “ethnic” food often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Recently, I discovered I can order bone broth, like my grandmother used to make, in New York City — the same way I would order a cold-pressed juice.
“2015 is the year of bone broth!” the “Today” show declared in January. “These days, the hottest food trend is a steaming cup of soup.” The morning show touted bone broth as a newly discovered wonder food of “Paleo dieters and wellness enthusiasts,” making no mention of its grounding in Chinese culture.
In the United States, immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism — a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood — or high-minded fusion — a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite. One conspicuous example is an upcoming eatery in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood that packages discount tourism and high-minded fusion into one menu. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant seeks to re-create Southeast Asia’s “expat experience” — not for Asian residents in D.C. but for D.C. residents who crave the feeling of visiting Asia with other foreigners.
“When you travel in Southeast Asia, you have two experiences: the cultural experiences with the temples, food, and people, and then a phenomenal traveler’s culture, too,” chef Alex McCoy told Washingtonian. “That’s the inspiration for this place. We want to introduce people to Thai cuisine, but frame it in the eye of a traveler.”
This is a good entry point into Eating Asian America. To quote the introduction, “this volume is the first book-length collection of scholarly essays to consider how Asian-American immigrant histories are inscribed in the production and dissemination of ideas about Asian-American foodways” (5). The essays use a wide variety of scholarly approaches to understand the intersection of food with class, race, gender, ethnicity, and/or sexuality to build a broader comprehension of the centrality of these issues to American history and the present. Ranging from how Cambodians took over the donut industry in Los Angeles and how Hawaiian chefs started to incorporate local ingredients and dishes in the islands’ highest-end restaurants to the development of Filipino food in the United States before World War II and how Hawaiian artists are incorporating food into their works, Eating Asian American takes a usefully broad approach to these questions.
A few words about some of the strongest essays. Heather Lee’s essay telling of the life of a Chinese immigrant restaurant worker in New York’s Chinatown from the 1920s through the 1940s opens up a fascinating world of family connections spanning continents, the extremely hard work laboring in these kitchens, and how American unions trying to organize the restaurants had no place for Chinese workers. Heidi Kathleen Kim explores how the Japanese concentration camps of World War II tore apart Japanese-American family eating arrangements through the poorly organized mess hall kitchens, but also shows how white Americans sometimes protested against these conditions at the time and how Japanese-Americans have embraced the mess hall kitchen declension narrative in their memories of the camps. Robert Ji-Song Ku discusses the history of Kikkoman soy sauce, asking why, since it had been part of the American food scene since 1868, does the company choose to forget this and instead celebrate 1957 as its entry into the U.S. market, when it opened its San Francisco office? The answer is twofold, that it’s a marketing attempt to attack other soy sauce brands as tainted and inauthentic and that by doing so, it is assuming that the Asian immigrants eating Kikkoman before 1957 were not real Americans either. Martin Manalansan enters into the complicated politics of authenticity, comparing a Christmas meal he attended at a Filipino-American family’s house in Queens that devolved into a debate about what was really authentic Filipino food (should it include hot dogs, which were introduced by U.S. troops and which have become common in many Asian food traditions where the U.S. has stationed its military) and the Anthony Bourdain No Reservations Philippines episode which focused on a Filipino-American who is brought to his family in the Philippines and leads to great ambivalence. There are several other excellent essays as well.
As one finds in edited volumes, the quality of essays vary widely, as does the interest of the reader in them. A few of the essays are so obvious as to wonder about their inclusion. Did you know that food trucks in Austin that combine Asian and Mexican ingredients succeed because they are mobile and use the internet to create a buzz around their food? That’s the insight of one essay. I’m not commenting too much on the last part of the book, which revolves primarily about representations of food in novels by Asian-Americans, largely because I just don’t have anything to offer, although those with backgrounds in literary criticism may well find them quite useful.
This book does not shy away from the types of theoretical approaches that might interfere with the enjoyment of the general reader. The first footnote is after all a listing of Michel Foucault’s major works. But barring that, a lot of readers will find this book quite useful and at least some of the essays really fascinating. One of the great things about food is that because it is one of the common experiences all humans share, it can ground jargon in a reality that educated readers can relate to, even if they lack training in the given academic field. And in the end, most readers will get something positive out of Eating Asian America, if not from every essay.