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Book Review: Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur, eds., Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader

[ 77 ] December 29, 2015 |

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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.

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Meat Tax

[ 34 ] December 13, 2015 |

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I don’t know that a meat tax could work in reducing consumption to fight climate change, but at least it’s good to see environmentalists understanding that any such move would need to include subsidies to the poor so it didn’t fall overly heavy on them. I always say that greens need a more sophisticated class analysis and this is an example of trying to think through problems with a useful eye to economic justice as well.

The 1970s: America’s Finest Culinary Decade

[ 213 ] December 12, 2015 |

There’s a new Twitter feed dedicated to the food of the 1970s. You should follow it. Some examples:

I was born in 1974 so I missed most of this hell. But I think those of my parents’ generation, which includes a lot of you readers, have never publicly explained what you people were thinking. Why add canned pineapple and/or hot dogs to everything? What’s with molding fish into various shapes? And I love mayo, but really, making it the central ingredient to half the dishes made is a problem.

What happened to this nation in the 70s? Can we blame Nixon for this? Too many drugs floating around? Cooking while on acid flashbacks? Help me out here.

…Speaking of food of this era, I was just reading the classic Gay Talese profile of Frank Sinatra. I knew I liked Sinatra for more than just his singing:

For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with catsup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering catsup all over him.

Do You Love Thanksgiving Traditions But Hate Turkey? Now You Can Split the Difference!

[ 44 ] December 1, 2015 |

Now that we have all recovered from our annual overdose of exceptionally dry meat, we can start planning for next Thanksgiving. Like in all matters, the past offers outstanding ideas. When it comes to food, can you do worse than 15th century royal courts? Certainly the answer is no for the pro-gout partisans among us. And if you like your meats combined and sewn together, it always wins. Take the cockentrice.

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Turkeys were American so we have to make some adjustments since they weren’t in Europe in the 15th century. Here’s the recipe with a capon.

Cockentrice – take a capon, scald it, drain it clean, then cut it in half at the waist; take a pig, scald it, drain it as the capon, and also cut it in half at the at the waist; take needle and thread and sew the front part of the capon to the back part of the pig; and the front part of the pig to the back part of the capon, and then stuff it as you would stuff a pig; put it on a spit, and roast it: and when it is done, gild it on the outside with egg yolks, ginger, saffron, and parsley juice; and then serve it forth for a royal meat.

No reason we can’t do this with a turkey. As the linked article notes, you can also sew the turkey head to the back of the pig if this pleases your fancy. It’s just the early-modern version of the turducken and we all know how excited we became as a nation when John Madden discovered that. Maybe we can bring him back for one last go around on the air with the cockentrice.

In any case, surely this will be a crowd-pleaser to your family. You can thank me later.

The Problem with Burgers is Ketchup, Not Sogginess

[ 125 ] November 22, 2015 |

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It’s like this article was begging for me to comment. Ketchup leather is a stupid invention. Sogginess in burgers from ketchup is not a problem. I eat my share of burgers and when they do get too soggy, it’s rarely because of any kind of condiment barring a ridiculous amount of something being put on it. But the combination of our national technological fetishism combined with the need for capitalism to constantly find new products to create a completely unnecessary product to replace a nonexistent problem. The media thus goes crazy for this exciting new technology. All of a sudden, the new technology is a solution for a problem we never knew we had. Now our lives are so much more complete than they were before we knew said problem existed! And our technology fetish is satisfied once again, at least until we need another hit.

In other words, the problem with burgers is not solved by ketchup leather. It is solved by not polluting them with ketchup. If you do want such pollution, I guess there’s nothing wrong with it in leather form. But it solves no problem and we should reject the entire way of thinking that creates nonexistent problems to sell new products.

The New Fake Meat

[ 144 ] November 20, 2015 |

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I wonder about this new idea of laboratory-grown meat that could replace cows. I confess I’m almost as skeptical about this as I am about Soylent, although I guess at the least some sort of substitution for the horrors of eating would make Dylan Matthews happy. Would Americans eat this? They say no at this point. But then Americans eat all sort of artificial, laboratory-created food. I mean, what the hell is in a Hot Pocket? What is the blue in the blue Gatorade? Frozen veggie burgers? Aerosol cheese? I could go on for weeks with these questions. But meat is a different beast than processed meat products. An actual burger made of lab-meat may well be a bridge too far. There are however certainly good reasons to support the research, which is the impact of cows on the environment is really harsh:

While companies like Modern Meadow and Muufri are still in the proof-of-concept stage, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of displacing the cow. The livestock sector uses 30 percent of the planet’s entire land surface and consumes one-third of the world’s fresh water. The industry also claims 20 percent of global energy consumption, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, trains, and automobiles combined. The massive consumption of water and crops for meat production has a dramatic effect on the environment, exacerbating erosion, habitat and biodiversity loss, and water scarcity.

With the human population set to hit nine billion by 2050, it’s no wonder that livestock is the fastest-growing agricultural sector on the planet. Removing the cow from the global food system, then, seems like an obvious solution to the looming challenges of feeding the post-industrial world. A comprehensive University of Oxford assessment suggests that popular adoption of cultured meat production in Europe could yield approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use and 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventionally produced meat. For a world wracked by growing systemic crises like hunger and water scarcity, ditching the world’s approximately 1.3 billion cows for less resource-intensive sources seems like an opportunity too good to pass up.

That’s a big deal. The article goes on to focus on some local organic farmer who puts her buyers in touch with the land and the food cycle through holding burger nights on the pasture, which is fine and all but I think goes farther to demonstrate the disconnect between the modern food movement and the need to feed 7 billion people. But the questions of fake meat and the need to replace cows on the planet are interesting and important ones.

Halloween Candy, Brought to You by Child Labor

[ 17 ] October 31, 2015 |

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On this Halloween, it’s worth asking whether the candy you are eating or handing out was produced in part by child labor.

It’s particularly troubling as a parent to know that there are now more than 2 million children harvesting cocoa in West Africa alone, according to a recent report by Tulane University — and most of those kids are doing hazardous work. And sugar isn’t any sweeter. According to the US Department of Labor, either child labour or forced labour is used to produce sugar and farm sugar cane in 17 of the world’s countries. A lot of the Halloween candy Canadian kids are consuming may contain child labour, we just don’t know for sure.

As a World Vision employee, I’ve seen the pictures and read the accounts of child labourers working on cocoa and sugar plantations in some of the world’s poorest countries. I’m familiar with the toxic pesticides to which many of these kids are exposed each day, without any safety equipment. I’m acutely aware of the machetes they swing for eight or ten hours a day to harvest cocoa pods, often on an empty stomach.

Talk about a razor blade in an apple. Imagine a machete on a bare hand or foot.

Additional information on child labor in cacao is available here and here. On child labor in the global sugar trade, see here and here.

All of Your History Stories, In One Fine Collection

[ 52 ] October 9, 2015 |

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Like the environmental post yesterday, there are a lot of interesting historical posts I’ve been meaning to talk about. Let’s move through them all at once.

1) Extremely expensive dinners in 19th century America. Turtle for all!

2) In the late 19th century, Christians responded to Satan’s minions practicing “science” by showing how the scripture proves the Earth is flat. Today’s conservatives are slacking off in their anti-science ways. Step it up people. Sounds to me like we might have a new requirement for being elected Speaker of the House.

3) Decolonizing elementary school American history, a much needed phenomenon to teach our children something other than Puritans were awesome and prepare them for the multicultural American of 2015.

4) People sometimes complain when I write about the Civil War and battles over its memory that this is all long ago and doesn’t matter. This is an incredibly myopic view, in no small part because conservatives are fighting this war all the time and they pick their battles wisely, i.e., they force textbook companies to tell conservative history. Such as that slaves were workers brought from Africa to work on agricultural plantations. But not slaves. Don’t mention that word.

Sometimes, It’s Good to Know Who to Blame

[ 325 ] September 30, 2015 |

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Scott is not incorrect that a major problem with bagels is the ridiculous amount of cream cheese. I am fairly agnostic on the point as I like cream cheese, but the point is fair. But a far greater problem is the terrible quality of the 99% of the bagels in the United States. It drives me absolutely crazy that 80 miles outside of New York City, no one bothers to prepare bagels properly and everyone, including the ex-New Yorkers, seem perfectly happy to accept Dunkin’ Donuts bagels, or even more atrocious, bagged and frozen bagels, products not deserving of the name. We are in a major food renaissance in this country, with middle and upper-class white people appropriating food cultures from around the world for their own tastes, focusing on fusion, new experiences, regional foods of Mexico and Thailand instead of what has become broadly known as Mexican and Thai food in the U.S., local ingredients, organic, whatever. And yet, for all the hipsters who have come in and out of Brooklyn in the last 10 years, it seems that no one has decided that a great idea would be to combine the food artisanship of the time with learning how to make good bagels and then moving to Portland/Austin/other hipster site of the moment and opening a first-class (or even second-class) bagel shop. Instead, we are in a world of poor bagels except for the rare times most of us get to New York (or Montreal–I don’t want to offend those who believe in that tradition, which I have never had since I’ve never been there).

So who is responsible for the terrible bagels of America? There are probably many perpetrators, including Murray Lender, a man Yglesias lauds precisely for his mediocre product, because of course. but one is a man named Daniel Thompson, who just died. His “contribution?”

Daniel Thompson, who five decades ago automated the arcane art of bagel making, a development — seen variously as saving grace and sacrilege — that has sent billions of mass-produced bagels raining down on the American heartland, died on Sept. 3 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 94.

His family announced the death last week.

A California math teacher turned inventor, Mr. Thompson was a shaper of postwar suburban culture in more than one respect: He also created the first wheeled, folding Ping-Pong table, a fixture of American basements from the mid-20th century onward.

But it was for the bagel machine that Mr. Thompson remained best known. The invention changed the American diet, ushering in the welter of packaged bagels — notably Lender’s — now found in supermarkets nationwide, and making the bagel a staple of fast-food outlets.

“There was a kind of schism in bagel-making history: pre-Daniel Thompson and post-Daniel Thompson,” Matthew Goodman, the author of “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” said in an interview on Monday. “What happened with the advent of the automated bagel-making machine was that bagel makers were capable of producing far more bagels than had ever been imagined.”

I like defeating my brother at ping pong, so I give the man some credit. But his bagel machine was clearly a mixed blessing, if one can call it that. I guess that maybe–maybe–one can argue that without mass popularized bagels, it would have fallen by the wayside like a number of other Jewish foods and instead there is the potential for a demand for a better product. This is basically what Yglesias argued about Lender in the link above. On the other hand, given that New Yorkers, or a lot of them anyway, still demand a quality product produced properly, I doubt it. But if we assume this argument might have some legs, I guess we could look at the rise of Taco Bell moving into more sophisticated Mexican food as maybe a path to bagels, although again, here the increasingly popularity of a better class of Mexican food is really related to larger immigration patterns and the exposure of whites to that food through randomly stopping in an Oaxacan restaurant (although the reality is that Oaxacan-owned restaurants in the U.S. only serve a small fraction of what Oaxacans actually eat, including few of the best dishes for reasons that I think are about modernity and work practices but that’s for another post).

Anyway, most of the bagels we eat are pointless lumps of carbs with little value. Daniel Thompson is partially to blame. Demand better bagels!

It’s also worth noting how the bagel machine was used to bust the bagel makers’ union.

Bagel-making was still a skilled trade then, restricted to members of the International Beigel Bakers Union, as the name was Romanized after the organization was founded in New York in 1907. (Until well into the 1950s, the minutes of the union’s board meetings were taken down in Yiddish.)

The bagel-maker’s craft was passed down from father to son, fiercely guarded from outsiders’ prying eyes. In a contingency that seemed straight out of Damon Runyon, or perhaps “The Untouchables,” nonunion bakers trying to make and sell bagels risked paying for it with their kneecaps.

“Every bagel that was made in New York City up until the 1960s was a union bagel — every one,” Mr. Goodman said. “The reason why this union was strong was that they were the only ones who knew how to make a proper bagel. And that was the keys to the kingdom.”

The union — New York’s Local 338, with some 300 members — could hold the entire metropolitan area gastronomic hostage and, in disputes with bakery owners over working conditions, often did.

“Bagel Famine Threatens in City,” an alarmed headline in The Times read in 1951, as a strike loomed. (It was followed the next day by the immensely reassuring “Lox Strike Expert Acts to End the Bagel Famine.”)

Then, in the early 1960s, Mr. Thompson’s machine changed the bagel forever.

That’s really written in an anti-union fashion, given the use of the term “gastronomic hostage” to describe what seem to be bad working conditions. You know what would be great? Quality food made by unionized workers who are well-paid in safe conditions. Instead we have low quality food made by non-union workers who are paid peanuts. Welcome to America.

A Particularly Terrible Way to Attract a Mate

[ 21 ] August 7, 2015 |

This ad seems less than effective.

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Today in Outsourcing

[ 77 ] August 2, 2015 |

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The Chicago factory that makes Oreos is closing and moving to Mexico. 600 people thrown out of work. The company’s CEO makes a cool $21 million a year.

Minnesota in One Image

[ 229 ] July 30, 2015 |

It’s nice when an entire state can be summed up by a single letter to the editor.

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