Why You Should Care About the Bon Appetit Pho Uproar

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Why You Should Care About the Bon Appetit Pho Uproar

It’s been said that history is written by the winners. In that case, is it possible that the dominant voices of food media are the winners of cultural food wars, and that social media is changing that landscape dramatically?

On September 6, BonAppetit.com published a since-removed video called “Pho Is the New Ramen” and accompanied it with the headline “PSA: How to Eat Pho.” Instructional videos are common in the food world, but this one had a catch. In the video, Stock Philadelphia owner Tyler Akin proclaimed that he never taints his Vietnamese soup with sauce, warning viewers that if they did so, they’d be committing a mortal sin against the chef. “If the cook, or the chef, or the owner, or whoever, sees you dump your hoisin or your Sriracha in the soup before tasting the broth, it’s like, it hurts,” Akin said mournfully.

The fact that this throwdown of the authoritarian gauntlet came from a non-Vietnamese-American chef who owned a restaurant that very generally described itself as “southeast Asian” (and casually played host to both Thai and Vietnamese flavors) — well, it didn’t bode well for him as an authority of authenticity. The Facebook stratosphere soon lit up with comments.

“Pho is the new ramen? You mean you don’t put sauce in your broth? There’s no tendon, flank, or intestines?? When Asian food becomes hipster, all authenticity is lost,” one commenter wrote. Respected Vietnamese-American food writer, cookbook author and cooking teacher Andrea Nguyen, who has written about the North-South divide in Vietnam’s taste for saucy pho, posted on her blog about why the video’s premise was problematic, while Sriracha-loving commenters who had grown up eating pho posted their grievances. The title was soon changed to “We Love This Pho.”

In its print version, Bon Appetit mistakenly attributed lemongrass as one of pho’s ingredients. And in an especially cringeworthy ending to the video, Akin taught Bon Appetit viewers his chopstick technique of twirling noodles around the ends of both chopsticks like spaghetti noodles around a fork, and Bon Appetit confusingly declared it “a simple twirling technique that’s a little bit mind-blowing” due to its being “a chopstick technique that leaves you with a substantial group of noodles, instead of picking and slurping your noodles one by one.”

Yours truly was confused by this statement because I’ve never had just a single noodle on my chopsticks, maybe since childhood. My mother would probably flay me alive for eating my noodles too slowly, which allowed them to bloat. Perhaps Bon Appetit meant that using chopsticks is hard for those who are not accustomed, and twirling would help the unaccustomed ensnare more noodles, but this statement seemed to leave Asian-American pals of mine (and anyone else who has been using chopsticks since childhood) just plain confused. Why would we do this, I wondered, when slurping the hell out of your freshly-dunked noodles is efficient, delicious, and a favorite family competition?

After social media went wild, the video was taken down and an apology was offered. A slew of articles about appropriation popped up online on Cosmo.com, Mic, First We Feast and Mediaite. As is the case with many media flaps, the conversation that comes after a controversy can often be more important to a cultural conversation than the controversy itself.

You might be asking yourself why food matters in the grand scheme of anything beyond nourishment and enjoyment, or in the grand scheme of anything political at all. Cathy Erway has written thoughtfully about this topic in her Civil Eats piece “Beyond Talk: Real Solutions for Food Appropriation.” For instance, she writes about how Gullah cuisine has been used — and some say, appropriated — by celebrity chefs like Sean Brock, who are often featured on TV shows that only amplify their fame — and, consequently, their paychecks.

Thinking about food and cultural appropriation is extremely challenging. Many of us would prefer to think of food in terms of our warmest memories of love and nurturing; those memories are housed in areas of our brain that trigger warmth, happiness, holidays and relaxing. But clearly, from the perspective of those whose food, namely pho, was largely ignored by mainstream food media until being declared a media darling and a “new” “it food” — ignoring the issues of appropriation is not always so easy.

For starters, there’s the mere taste aspect of food, as in — what is delicious? And then there’s the matter of considering history and context. I recently judged a taco competition, and the judges were split on taco results. The owner of one taco shop and I were dead set on the most delicious, regardless of authenticity. The proof is in the pudding, we declared. Another owner of a taco shop agreed that our picks were delicious, but that they had not been made from scratch, using time-worn Mexican methods, or with Mexican ingredients. In the end, the judges reached a compromise that awarded both taste and from-scratch authenticity.

The word authenticity has always rankled me. Authentic is a questionable word, considering the fact that my favorite “Korean” dish growing up was one brought about by the Japanese occupation of Korea, and that my favorite taco is one that Lebanese immigrants supposedly brought to Mexico. Al pastor is known for its sliced pineapple topping, but if someone started topping it with some crazy grilled peach concoction and it was damn good, I’d be the first one in line every day. Tradition is important to me, but innovation in favor of deliciousness is even more important to me.

I think eating a delicious pho that satisfies you is more important than eating an authentic pho. I want all the bean sprouts and Thai basil and Sriracha, even if I’m happy to eat half the bowl of simple savory broth on its own. So whether someone in Hanoi likes it that way isn’t my most important question when I’m seeking out, with a bloodhound nose and laser taste buds, the most delicious of delicious.

But in addition to the quest for delicious, some other things matter too — like history and culture. Context matters, and sensitivity matters. When you’re talking about (and eating, and making) food, you’re dealing with the lifeblood of people. Acknowledging that you are learning as an outsider, rather than teaching as a master, can be helpful. Acknowledging that credit (and money, and documentaries) is often not given where credit is due in our cultural food conversations is helpful. Just thinking about the matters at hand, trying to be sensitive, asking questions, and admitting humbleness, is helpful.

I don’t know very much about pho. When I eat it, it has very little context to me. I’ve been to Vietnam, and I’ve eaten pho in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve taken a Vietnamese cooking class at the Institute for Culinary Education. I’ve read what I could find about its history and admired Rachel Khong and Andrea Nguyen’s articles in Lucky Peach. I find it a savory, delicious balm, but I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand pho with the depth that someone who experienced it in context does — someone whose mother brewed up huge five-day batches that the family subsisted on for three meals a day for five days, as my Vietnamese-American friend pointed out is common. There’s something about the way that food is woven into your life experiences and cultural identity that gives it another layer of deeper meaning.

For me, that food is tofu, in all its rich and beautiful forms. When you’ve had the same food over and over again — when you’re poor, and when you’re rich(er); when you can barely reach the table, and when you are the nervous teenager making dinner for the first time for your family of chefs; when you’re lauded at home for eating so much tofu, and when you’re wretchedly teased at school because your mom packed some weirdo foreign food in your lunchbox; when you’ve danced around the kitchen begging your mom to fry up some delicious slices of it so you can gobble it up, and when you’ve pouted and declared you wouldn’t eat it because there’s no soy sauce with sesame seeds; when you’ve uglycry-eaten it, humbly dressed with lonely leftover Chinese delivery soy sauce packets in your empty first apartment just so you could mimic having a warm Korean dinner with your mom, and when you’ve feasted on it fancily dressed with scallions and piled high at your beloved Korean language teacher’s wedding banquet — then, that food takes on a special meaning.

Especially when it’s long been an outsider food to mainstream American society that bolstered you emotionally against racism you faced at school, a food that comforts you when you think of your ancestral home that you visited as a child, that dish takes on a special meaning and a special pride. Sometimes it’s hard to see your culture so easily peddled; “marinated Korean seitan sandwich, $12.99” and “house-made vegan kimchi, $3.99” are on the menu at my favorite vegan place and sometimes, standing in line, I think of the times I was teased for eating it at school or for stinking up a communal workplace fridge with it, back in the times when it wasn’t cool enough to have a watered-down version at Whole Foods and no one gave a fig about its probiotics.

This isn’t to say I don’t think folks who aren’t Korean shouldn’t make kimchi; I just think sometimes people don’t care to dig deeper to gain more value from the food they eat. Kimchi is not just a trendy accoutrement to spritz in aioli, but a passed-down tradition that knit together communities of farm women for centuries as they practiced the tradition of kimjang. Indeed, some people would say that kimchi saved Korea from starvation and protected it against the tides of international intervention, when it suffered poverty in the gut-wrenching aftermath of the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. My mother and I recently continued that tradition by sitting on the kitchen floor and making kimjang together with whole cabbages, and I was able to interview her and get her recipe to share with the world — and of course I’d love for you to make it, regardless of your heritage.

Appropriation doesn’t preclude anyone from loving, living with and cooking other foods. Andy Ricker is one of the most respected chefs of Thai cuisine in America; I seldom turn down his wings, and followed him around to most of his various Pok Pok incarnations, from Phat Thai to Wings to Whiskey Soda Lounge. But part of the problem is that so little is understood when it is eaten, and so little credit is given to the silent numbers of people who have faded into the kitchens of history. This is where the politics of food, colonialism and gender come into contact with one another; western countries have long adopted and profited from developing nations’ dishes, sometimes exoticizing and fetishizing them in the process, and failing to give due credit to the originators. While I don’t think that Ricker fetishizes Thai food, I wonder what it means that the most well-known, successful chef of Thai cuisine in America is not Thai. While I’m sure he worked very hard to get where he is, the traditions he draws from are millions of mothers toiling in obscurity across Thailand who will never see a single American dollar. As Eddie Huang once said (and I’ll paraphrase), most grandma and mom chefs on their worst days could smoke their fancy chef sons in the kitchen. This is an intersectional issue — it makes us ask questions of gender as well as race and ethnicity.

Many small restaurants, such as your local Pho 45 or Pho 75 (named for important years in Vietnam’s history), excellent though they may be, do not have the connections, cultural agency or marketing tools to grace the fashionable pages of food spreads. Since media exposure often equals dollars and cultural power, it’s worth thinking about what the media chooses to feature as the representative of a certain ethnic cuisine. Poorly-lit, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese pho shops with Sriracha-stained plastic tablecloths don’t always make for beautiful videos, because taste doesn’t always easily translate into interesting visuals. However, it is the job of a videographer and producer to do just that — make it interesting, stains and all.

In thinking about who gets the glory in the food world, we often forget that immigrants from Latin America and South Asia, who keep our restaurants running, get not one-millionth of the credit they deserve for expertly cooking every cuisine under the sun. Nguyen mentions on her blog that she has encountered Mexican chefs speaking Vietnamese and making damn good pho — and these are the very folks who are expertly sous-videing, grilling and prepping your food in kitchens across America right now, most with nary a food award or worshipful magazine article to their names. The Street Vendor Project, with the Vendy Awards, is one of the few organizations that honors immigrant food workers in New York.

Social media may be the powerful pluralist tool to change the landscape of food and restaurants today. The first response post from Bon Appetit failed to address the cultural appropriation issues at hand, and merely said it was taking the video down because it didn’t want to be “a space that allows for harassing comments and threats toward chefs and restaurant owners.” When bloggers and commenters responded that they wondered if the magazine understood why they had even been upset about the video in the first place, Bon Appetit responded with a second post that clarified their position on September 10. “Finally, the video sparked a debate on the issue of cultural appropriation in food, a topic that has deservedly received ample discussion lately. And it’s a topic that we editors at BA will discuss in coming weeks, figuring out what role a mainstream food brand like ours should play in regards to it,” they wrote. Though the Pho Flap of 2016 may have initially been upsetting for viewers, the deeper thinking that has resulted has already increased awareness and furthered the conversation about cultural appropriation.

In the same way that a person you are already physically attracted to becomes more beautiful when his or her personality intertwines with your own, spending time with and getting to know a dish — and, as a result, its cuisine and its people — can be a process that can take many years, and require patience. You don’t know everything about your partner after a year, and things he or she does may still surprise you after years of being together. Declaring yourself an authority of a certain cuisine might be a little premature after just a year or two of cooking it, or a few-year stint living in Asia. So, while there’s no need for pitchforks, there is a need for honest and earnest conversations that happen again and again, in person and in social media, and to try to listen with open minds when people are upset by appropriation and speak up for their once-maligned cuisines that are broaching the American mainstream.

And now all this food talk has made me hungry, so I need to go see if I can mash up some al pastor pork and slices of pineapple with a big bowl of pho.

Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. Tweet her @dakotakim1.

Pho photo by Anthony Tong Lee CC BY

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