The Take-Out: Responsibility in Food Writing

How to talk more respectfully about global cuisine


Pho Dan (Photo by John Anderson)

It may seem a little overwrought to say this, but writing about food does carry significant responsibility – not only to the men and women who make their livelihood off of the business of eating, but to the traditions and history behind a meal. Telling the story involves so much more than taste and smell, but that doesn't always go over smoothly when a writer dives into a culture that is not his or her own.

Look to the recent controversy involving a Bon Appétit video discussing the proper way to eat pho or even some eye-opening articles from the Chronicle's own archives. Writers often get it wrong. Privilege, ignorance, and – too often – unrecognized prejudice still have much to do with the way we talk about food. The more we listen, the better we can honor the diverse culinary heritages we all enjoy.

Of course, as someone whose culinary traditions involve canned green beans and processed cheese, I don't have much authority here. So I decided this week to do a little listening myself.

Julio-Cesar Flórez Zaplana, Llama's Peruvian Creole, sous chef at Péché: "The fact that people think just because it comes from a different country that it should be cheap. That it will be of low quality. When it is the complete opposite. Food costs the same to make regardless of what country it comes from. We all use the same ingredients in this country to make our own culture's cuisine.

"I can say as a Peruvian chef, that I feel like I am not taken seriously because of this. Even though Peru is the gastronomic capital of the Americas, and I am a trained and experienced chef. In fact, the produce in Peru is far superior to anything you find in the USA and I know this is true for other countries as well. Austin is a hard city to do 'ethnic' food because of the lack of diversity. People are not exposed as much as other cities like Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, NYC, etc. That's why I think Austin is behind other cities as far as cuisine goes.

"Also I hate it when they ask, 'Is it like Mexican food?' Of course it's not. It's a different country on a different hemisphere! How can it be the same? 'Can I have some chips? Do you serve tacos?' No! We are not a Mexican restaurant. Just because we speak Spanish doesn't mean we are all the same. But I do love the look of surprise and happiness on their faces when they try it, and their minds are blown. Also one of our pet peeves is when they refer to Peruvian ceviche as 'different.' It is not different, it's the most true and original. It's like saying H-E-B sushi is more real than properly made sushi."

Melody Fury, Chronicle restaurant critic: "The words 'ethnic' and 'exotic' are used to describe people to imply that they don't belong. It reminds me of the age-old practice of gawking at, appropriating, or even fetishizing non-Eurocentric cultures. While it's fine to say that something personally tastes exotic (i.e., 'These are new and exotic flavors to me'), to label entire cuisines as ethnic or exotic means that the culture does not belong in the American fabric. We all have ethnicities. We are all exotic in our own ways. Embrace diversity and stop using those terms to single others out.  

"Another pet peeve is when food writers judge 'authenticity' in an overarching way that dumbs down the complexity of entire cuisines. For example, how does one define 'good Chinese food'? The vast variety of regional cuisines within China alone is dumbfounding.  

"It is crucial for writers to account for regionality, and how cuisines translate differently as it travels and evolves in different places. Admittedly, this is one sin that I've been guilty of earlier in my writing career. Today, I approach cuisines that I'm not an expert on with curiosity and an openness to the fact that I may only know a small sliver. I seek expert knowledge and only speak with more authority as my exposure and familiarity grows."

Kay Marley-Dilworth, ATX Food News: "One of my pet peeves is when people think all Mexican food should be like Tex-Mex: heavy on cheese, almost always spicy. The lighter, delicate flavors of much Interior fare then get slammed as bland. It's comparing oranges and apples. (Also, nachos made with DayGlo canned cheese are an abomination.) In this day where salsa rivals ketchup as the favorite condiment of the nation, you'd think that people could discuss traditional dishes such as menudo as 'nose to tail' eating and chapulines as a sustainable protein source, instead of focusing on ingredients unfamiliar and unappealing to themselves and their disgust with same. Basically, don't tell me my food is gross when I know it's delicious, and don't mind a bit that I'm eating tripe or bugs.

"Also, breakfast tacos come to mind as an example of cultural appropriation. When I was a kid, we never called them 'breakfast tacos,' they were simply 'breakfast.' And tacos were always tacos, with no Taco Bell-esque distinction of crispy taco/soft taco. God forbid I should ever have referred to my mom's fried corn tortillas waiting to be filled, as 'hard taco shells.' I'd have gotten the chancla."

Jennie Chen, MisoHungry: "I saw a phrase yesterday – 'Don't yuck my yum.' My takeaway from it is to be respectful of other people's preferences – be it culturally rooted or not. Some of the traditions of other countries are deeply rooted in their history. Just like many of our individual preferences stemmed from our family histories. My family ate whole fish regularly as we lived on the coast. Having an entire fish at the table and fighting over the head was pretty normal. My mother often used fish heads for broths, leaving them in the soup so we could scoop out the cheeks. I'm sure other families have different traditions too. A pet peeve is when people are put off by foods they've never heard of, instead of saying 'Tell me more.'

"It isn't only about trying a food, though that is one behavior in this complex issue. It is the prejudice against foods unless the food is presented by an approachable chef along with discarding the culture from which the food originated. Why would visiting a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant for a $5 bánh mì be unthinkable, but it is fine to visit Elizabeth Street for the $13 bánh mì? ... And I don't mind fusion food or reinventing foods so long as it is done respectfully to the culture. Don't call it the 'improved' version. It implies you improved someone's culture and history. Call it your version or your interpretation."

Pat Lee, owner of PhoNatic: "When it comes to Vietnamese food I feel like I am as qualified as anyone. I was born in Vietnam and grew up eating Vietnamese food, pho in particular, for as long as I could remember. We all have different preferences when it comes to pho, so it bothers me when someone tells you that the only way you should eat it is the way they eat it. No hoisin or sriracha? Huh? That's on every table at every pho restaurant I've ever been to. You should always taste your pho before you add anything to it, but after that customize to your heart's content. Add nuoc mam if it's too bland. Add hoisin if you like it sweeter. Add sriracha and jalapeños if you like it hot. And limes if you love it sour. That's the great thing about pho, you should have fun with it and make it your own.

"Food is such a great conversation starter and a way to explore other cultures. We should all be open minded when it comes to different types of cuisines, but it's important to not force your views or opinions on others."

Rachel Matthews, And Then Make Soup: "I was nonplussed to watch pretty much everything I grew up eating on the 'Russia' segment of Bizarre Foods. Nothing bizarre there at all ... "

Linda Nguyen, Girl Eats World: "My pet peeve is when you share if you feel offended and someone who isn't a minority tells you it isn't a big deal or it wasn't meant to be taken a certain kind of way."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Julio-Cesar Flórez Zaplana, Llama's Peruvian Creole, Melody Fury, Kay Marley-Dilworth, ATX Food News, Jennie Chen, MisoHungry, Pat Lee, PhoNatic, Rachel Matthews, And Then Make Soup, Linda Nguyen, Girl Eats World

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