Megan Figueroa: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination!
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa. We just did a little LingComm21 action.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah! And it was really fun. I went for the first two days, and then I had to get my vaccine.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, you got sick.
Carrie Gillon: And then I was out. I couldn’t go.
Megan Figueroa: No. That’s completely reasonable.
Carrie Gillon: Oof. That hit me like a truck. And I have been hit by a truck, so I know.
Megan Figueroa: Oh no! Oh, she has. Everyone, she has.
Carrie Gillon: But let’s go back to LingComm because it was really fun. I’d never used Gather before. You had. I hadn’t. It just made it feel more like a real conference. You can run into each other by accident and chat together with a small group of people. I dunno. It was interesting. I was not expecting to like it. Like, of course, I was expecting to like the panels or whatever but not so much the whole experience. The whole experience was actually quite charming.
Megan Figueroa: It is charming because it’s like – well, I guess you can turn yourself off so this doesn’t happen, which is nice, too – but if you’re walking down the hallway, and you walk past someone who’s also walking down the hallway in their avatar, the video pops up, and you can hear them. When you get close enough, you can see them if they have their video on. It’s very, very charming that that’s something that happens. I think we have Gretchen and Lauren from Lingthusiasm to thank for inviting us onto the panels.
Carrie Gillon: And for doing a lot of the background, getting it all organized. They aren’t the only organizers, but I think they’re the two main ones.
Megan Figueroa: Very cool. They’re talking about doing a second one. So, if you missed this one and wanna do a – you know. I think it’s gonna happen again. So cool.
Carrie Gillon: And it should because that was charming, and I definitely would like to go again.
Megan Figueroa: I got to see and virtually meet some people from Twitter that I just had been Twitter following all this time. That was fun, too.
Carrie Gillon: We got to see at least one of our former guests. We got to see Kory Stamper.
Megan Figueroa: I love Kory Stamper. Got to see Ben Zimmer.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, yeah. Two of our former guests!
Megan Figueroa: Super cool. I got to virtually meet Helen Zaltzman from The Allusionist. I had never met her. We were on the Podcasting 101 panel together. That’s cool.
Carrie Gillon: And I got to meet Pippa from Word Bomb. I’d never met her before. That was cool.
Megan Figueroa: The world of podcasting is beautiful and fun and come and join us.
Carrie Gillon: Especially ling pods. I think we’re just mostly very nice people. Anyway, we have a few little topics to touch on before today’s guests. The first one was there’s a bot on Twitter – the New New York Times. It’s @NYT_first_said. It tweets out every time the New York Times publishes something that has a word they’ve never used before. Often, it’s words that have been around for a long time but it’s just never, for some reason, been in the New York Times. This is one of those cases. But in this instance, it’s “xʷməθkʷəy̓əm,” which is the endonym for “Musqueam.” “Musqueam” is the English name for this people and the language that they speak. “xʷməθkʷəy̓əm” is their own name for their people and for their language.
That’s cool. I was excited to see – so Musqueam is a Salish language spoken basically in the Vancouver area. It was part of a land acknowledgement actually. So, I was excited because, you know, you don’t get to see Salish in Salish very often. I was so disappointed to see so many people make the exact same joke, including some linguists, “Oh, is that Elon Musk’s second child?” People – stop. Take a breath. If you see something that looks really weird to you, think that maybe there’s a reason it looks weird because it has sounds that don’t exist in English. It might be the name of a language or a person who is not the very privileged child of two privileged white people.
Anyway, I was just upset. I probably would’ve been more upset, but I was still suffering the effects of the vaccine, so I was just sort of vaguely upset. But I was still upset.
Megan Figueroa: Well, I mean, so Squamish, when you don’t have the diacritics that you need handy if you’re typing it up, doesn’t it use a 7?
Carrie Gillon: It’s not just when you don’t have the diacritics. It’s the actual, official orthography uses the 7 for a glottal stop. So, it’s “Sḵwx̱wú7mesh,” which was also actually in the same article or op-ed or whatever it was because it was land acknowledgement, and there’re three communities that are always together in this area because they share territory. The xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, “Sḵwx̱wú7mesh,” and “Tsleil-Waututh,” which in English is “Musqueam,” “Squamish,” and “Burrard.”
Megan Figueroa: Right. I remember, I guess, me seeing that for the first time would’ve been from you over a decade ago, but seeing a 7, I’m like, “Okay, this is not something I’m used to.” You might see things that don’t make sense to the world that you’ve been living in, but I don’t think that making fun of it is the coolest way to respond to seeing something that you’re not used to.
Carrie Gillon: Figure out what it is first before you make a joke that makes you look like a fool and like an asshole. Especially if you’re a linguist it makes you look like an asshole.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. It sucks. It sucks so much. I am a person who has definitely laughed at some things where I’ve seen people making fun of, I guess, white women who add, like, you know, the name – I think it’s a meme of like, “Laklynn,” and “Loklynn,” and –
Carrie Gillon: I know exactly which meme you’re talking about. The picture of the chalkboard with all the names crossed out in it. Yeah. It’s funnier because this is a very privileged person, but I think it also let’s us feel okay making fun of people’s names, and maybe we should just not at all.
Megan Figueroa: I know. That’s what I’m flexing on right now because, yeah, I mean, I feel totally okay laughing at her because, for me, it seems like punching up or laughing up or whatever.
Carrie Gillon: It kind of is, but it also lays the ground for, like, making fun of names in general. I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable about it, but now I’m like – ugh. I think I’ve decided, no, I don’t find it okay. It’s okay if you do because I do think it is still punching up. This is just where I’m landing now.
Megan Figueroa: Well, it’s kind of like how if we say that Donald Trump isn’t speaking English, it’s not him that we’re ultimately gonna be harming with that, it’s gonna be other less-priv –
Carrie Gillon: That’s a good point.
Megan Figueroa: – you know, minoritized people in whatever way. It kinda feels like that to me now that I reflect on it.
Carrie Gillon: It often ends up – well, I guess it can be basically anything – but it often ends up being very anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Asian. I think those are the three main groups that get fun of for their names.
Megan Figueroa: It’s not worth it to me to make fun of Loklynn, Laklynn, whatever. That’s what it ultimately is going to reinforce is anti-Indigeneity and anti-Blackness and all that.
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
Megan Figueroa: Well.
Carrie Gillon: But speaking of words. [laughs]
Megan Figueroa: Yes, speaking of words.
Carrie Gillon: Today, we talk with a food writer about the way that we talk about food. It’s very interesting.
Megan Figueroa: I’ve been so excited about this. I’ve been wanting to talk to someone who writes about food or, I dunno, anyone who’s willing to talk about food for a long time because I think that there’s so many ways that we talk about food that are so upsetting to me because a lot of times, at least in the Southwest where I am and what I read, it’s about Mexican food. Often, it’s calling it “junk food” or “unhealthy” or, I dunno, all of these things. Just really wanted to talk to someone else about it.
Carrie Gillon: You just wanna continue the bean discourse.
Megan Figueroa: Yes! I always wanna talk about beans. Exactly. Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: We’re so excited to have Jaya Saxena, who is a writer and editor from New York City. She is a staff writer for Eater and her work has appeared in GQ, Elle, the New York Times, the Toast – ugh, rest in peace – the Daily Dot, the New Yorker, Racked, Catapult, and others. She’s the co-author of Dad Magazine, the author of the Book of Lost Recipes, the co-author of Basic Witches, and most recently, she is the author of Crystal Clear: Reflections on Extraordinary Talismans for Everyday Life, an essay collection. Thank you so much for being here.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you.
Jaya Saxena: Thank you so much for having me.
Megan Figueroa: I think that just right off the bat the first question – ever since I was little, I was like – I thought food writer was one of those dream jobs. What is a food writer? Is it different from food critics? Because I was wondering about that.
Jaya Saxena: Yes, it totally is, which is definitely something I’ve had to explain to multiple family members because I think, for a very long time, if you were writing about food, which is also such a relatively new thing to write about, but it was as a restaurant critic. I am not a restaurant critic. We do have restaurant critics at Eater.
Basically, I write about food culture. That can mean so many different things. I think, especially, maybe over the past 20 or 30 years, food and restaurants have started to – we’ve started to talk about what they mean to us culturally as a society whether that’s as recreation, whether that’s connecting with food through what it means for your identity. There’s a lot of food that intersects with stories of immigration, stories of culture, of race, of those sorts of things. It absolutely has to do with labor and with supply chain and economics. It has to do with the environment.
It’s really reporting on all of these different aspects of human society through the lens of food. I think it’s a really great way to talk about all of these things because food is so personal and so visceral. Everyone needs to eat. For the most part, everybody has at least one type of food that they enjoy more than others or feel a special connection to. Again, for the most part, people have working taste buds. Also, with COVID, that has been such a thing of the loss of taste and how that is really personally affecting people.
I think it’s a really quick and emotional way to get someone to care about, you know, “All right. Do you love their restaurant? Well, their workers are trying to unionize. Here’s why you should care about that story.” “Do you love this fruit? Here’s how the environment and Global Warming is putting it at risk.” “Do you love this type of food? Here’s how the people who originated it are facing racism.” There are so, so many angles and so many things to play with. It’s a really great way to talk about so many things.
Carrie Gillon: Why did you decide to become a food writer?
Jaya Saxena: Sort of for that reason. I have always – I like food. I like cooking. I like eating out. It was really interesting to me, I think, all the ways that people really do interact with food. Also, as a millennial, I came of age during the rise of quote-unquote “foodie” culture. It was put upon me as well in a way that this was a thing that you should be interested in, a thing that being interested in makes you a worldly, cultured person. I absolutely absorbed all of those ideas.
I don’t think of myself as solely a food writer, but I think – I’m not trying to put myself in the category of the best food writers, but I do think that that the best food writers are people who are just writers about a ton of other subjects and happen to turn their focus toward food. I think, to me, it just seemed like a really interesting subject to play with and to be able to talk about a ton of different things.
Carrie Gillon: How does one become a food writer? What do you need to do?
Jaya Saxena: I think you just need to start thinking about food along those lines. I mean, I do think that the best way to do it is, again, don’t immediately limit yourself to just writing about food. Write about everything. Write about anything you want because that will only make the times when you do write about food that much more rich and engaging because you’ve not only been looking at this one subject for your whole career, you’ve been looking at so many things.
Yeah. There have been plenty of times in my career where I haven’t been – actually, most of my career I have not been solely a food writer. But I do think that has helped me be able to bring other things that I think about and have reported on into food writing.
Megan Figueroa: Well, I feel like any kind of story, if you – okay, you’re writing about something, whatever it is. If you think about it, there’s probably food somewhere in there.
Jaya Saxena: Absolutely. It’s so funny because I realize now that I start thinking of food in so many other contexts. One of my biggest things is any time there’s an action movie, and people are running around for days, and maybe the only time you see them rest is when they stop in a motel to regroup or whatever, I’m always thinking, I’m like, “Aren’t you hungry? When did you eat? When did you have time to eat?” I just want someone to acknowledge that at some point over this four-day chase and heist, somebody has had to stop to eat. I wanna know where. I wanna know what they ate. I wanna know how they made that decision. Because it’s just so wild to me that they would spend that much time – I’m like, “You have to be exhausted by now with how hungry you are.”
Carrie Gillon: And no one ever gets hangry. If I were in that movie, I would be hangry, like, 30 minutes in.
Jaya Saxena: Exactly. And I wouldn’t be able to focus on whatever plan we’re all concocting because like – [laughter]. Yeah, I do think, truly, in any story, fiction or nonfiction, there is food somewhere. And if there isn’t, there should be because you’re missing something.
Carrie Gillon: It reminds me of the original Star Wars how you don’t know how long it takes. It could be just a couple of hours long, or it could be days or weeks. You don’t have anything like eating food or anything to mark the time.
Jaya Saxena: I think you see Luke drinking that blue milk at the very beginning and then, other than that, I truly – I think there was one meal scene. But yeah, very, very few.
Megan Figueroa: That’s funny too how you say there’s no food to mark time. I could easily break down my life – I’m in my early thirties now – into sections based on what food I was obsessed with at the time. I mean, that’s just how important it is. This is great because I think for a lot of people and for me too, even though I was pretty old when Ratatouille came out, that’s what I thought about when I thought about food writer.
Carrie Gillon: Interesting. [Laughs]
Jaya Saxena: That’s really funny because that’s certainly more critic, but I do think being able to think about the – and, of course, critics do this, too. Even if you’re writing about a specific restaurant, I think the best critics always bring all these ideas of culture and economics and politics and whatever is going on in the rest of the world into their criticism because it’s never just a matter of “Does this food taste good or not?” because that’s subjective.
I mean, there’re certainly things where if you’re like, “Literally everything I was served was under-cooked and raw,” or had a pound of salt on it that made it basically inedible to anybody. But outside of some really extreme things, I think there’s a lot to be considered when you’re being a critic of like, okay, if this is an expensive restaurant, who has access to this restaurant. If you can pay that much money, is this worth your money or can you get a better meal for cheaper elsewhere? Who’s the chef? Who’s cooking this food? What culture food is it? Is it the culture of the chef? What are they trying to do? There’s so many questions there. I really think the best critics use a restaurant review to explore much bigger things.
Megan Figueroa: I feel terrible that I don’t remember who tweeted it, but it was a food writer, I believe. I’m Mexican American, and I’ve never thought this before. Someone said, “We’re relying on Mexican food being cheap, but it’s because we see the people making it as cheap.” It could be more expensive – it should be more expensive.
Jaya Saxena: That’s a huge thing. There was actually a study done a couple years ago about that broader question both with Mexican food but a lot of what’s considered quote-unquote “ethnic” cuisine and how positive Yelp reviews of what’s more European-background restaurants – like a nice French restaurant, a nice Italian restaurant – positive reviews will note the cleanliness of the restaurant, the beautiful design, I think, not seeing how expensive it is as a downside, seeing it as like, “Yes, this is really valuable food,” whatever.
Whereas taco places, Chinese restaurants, a lot of, yeah, what is considered “ethnic food,” it was given positive reviews when, essentially, white people were able to see it as a hole-in-the-wall, when it was cheap, when they got to feel like they discovered some quote-unquote “authentic” but dirty and cheap place. Whereas, right, there’re plenty of Mexican restaurants where Mexican chefs are doing innovative, interesting things, or they’re just trying to use as good quality ingredients as they can and pay everyone a fair wage, so everything is going to be more expensive. It’s still taken a long time for a lot of white people to understand what to do with that because they’re so under the impression that this is cheap street food.
It’s hard, too, because it’s like – you don’t wanna denigrate cheap street food because it’s also great.
Carrie Gillon: It’s also amazing.
Jaya Saxena: It’s also amazing. It’s like, right, not everything has to be high-brow expensive. Not everything has to be quote-unquote “low-brow” street food or everything, but when your expectations is that one cuisine has to be one or the other, it’s very weird. It’s very frustrating.
Carrie Gillon: There are some places in Phoenix that are high-brow Mexican, but I think that’s probably an exception.
Jaya Saxena: Yeah. There’re definitely a couple places – I live in Astoria, Queens, and we have a decent Mexican population. But for a long time, most of the Mexican food was being served out of delis and Bodegas, and it was Mexican people running them so, in addition to the more tradi – you can get a turkey sandwich, and then they also started making tacos. One of my favorite taco places in the neighborhood is actually called “Salerno Pizza.” It is a pizzeria. Some Mexican people bought it, and they do serve pizza, but they have added an entire Mexican menu to it.
I remember the first time I went, I tried the pizza, and I was like, “This pizza’s okay, but it’s by far from the best place in the neighborhood.” And then someone was like, “No, no, no. That’s actually a taco place.” I was like, “What?” [Laughter] Because they never changed the name.
Carrie Gillon: I love things like that.
Megan Figueroa: I love it.
Jaya Saxena: Then there are more sit-down restaurants that are – either sit-down restaurants that are more of a party atmosphere. There are sit-down restaurants that are more of a fine dining atmosphere. There’s a whole range – and all of them selling Mexican cuisine. Some of it is, I guess, quote-unquote – the binary between “traditional” and “authentic” is also one of those things that really does not exist but, like, many different styles, many different influences, stuff from many different regions. I think that it’s starting to – more people are understanding what that means. But yeah, I still think there’s this expectation of like, it’s only good if it’s cheap and comes out of a taco truck.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. You mentioned some words used to describe different types of restaurants, and we’ll get back to that, but before we move on from just what it is to be a food writer, I wonder, as a woman of color, if you, or you’ve seen this happen to other people, have been pigeonholed into writing about certain topics?
Jaya Saxena: I feel relatively lucky in that, at least when it comes to food, I have not been super pigeonholed into that. I think that is because 1.) I have the ability to stand up for myself to that. I am not – I mean, there are a lot of things at play. I do not feel guilty about saying, “I feel like you’re pigeonholing me,” if someone is doing that. I am also half-white, so I do have, you know, some white privilege going on in there that I think certainly benefits me. I think I do work with a team of people that is aware of this happening and really does their best to keep anybody from feeling like they have to write about certain topics.
I have never really been told like, “Oh, here’s something happening in the Indian food scene, and now it’s your job to write about that.” I’ve absolutely turned down things that maybe I could’ve written and could’ve written well when I’m just like, “I’m sort of exhausted right now and I don’t feel like talking about this,” or I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say about this subject in previous pieces, and I’m not interested in writing anymore about this right now. But that’s me, and this is my super lucky circumstances that I’m under. Earlier in my career, and I know for a lot of people still, this is very much a thing that happens.
I think there’re so many factors to it. I think absolutely there’re a lot of editors that see people of color as just, like, there to write about whatever racist thing is going on currently. I mean, even now after the shooting in Atlanta, all these papers being like, “Hey, if you’re a Korean American or if you’re a Korean translator, please get in touch with our local desk,” or “We’re looking for freelancers,” and it’s like, “If you thought this was an important community to report on, you would’ve done this work before there was a shooting.” It’s very clear that you only think this is important now, which is, you know, I guess better late than never, but I don’t know.
But also, I think a lot of people, understandably, take it upon themselves. I mean, there absolutely have been times where I see a white person writing about a subject just completely showing their ass with what they’re doing, and I’m like, “I could’ve written this so much better. Why didn’t you ask me?” Why didn’t you ask another Indian person or South Asian person or whatever the intersection of identities happens to be? It’s the frustration where it’s like I know I could write it better or other people of color could write this better with better perspective, knowing that is shouldn’t be our job to swoop in and say, “Hold on, hold on, let me help you save face here by being the expert.”
There’re plenty of things that I’m just not an expert on. I’m half-Indian, and this does not at all qualify me to be an expert on the breadth of Indian cuisines, on Indian politics, on what it means to be an Indian person in America. I know my experience. I do not know anybody else’s experience.
Carrie Gillon: It’s interesting also because the bon appetite thing kind of taught us that at least in some instances people have the opposite problem – they weren’t even allowed to talk about the recipes from their own communities.
Jaya Saxena: Right. It winds up being such a frustrating thing. I think that there’s a lot of pressure put on people of color. I mean, I know that every community has their own arguments over how to make a certain type of dish, but if bon appetite publishes a pot roast recipe, and the author the recipe is white, and another white person is like, “That’s not how you make pot roast. That’s not an authentic pot roast,” it doesn’t have – I think there is a general understanding that everyone’s pot roast recipe is different. Everyone puts their own stuff in it. No one’s sitting there being like, “You mashed those potatoes wrong. You need at least two more tablespoons of butter in there for it to be authentic American mashed potatoes.”
Whereas I do think there winds up being – when you’re given so little space to show your culture, whatever that is, and you maybe get one shot – out of the 50 pot roast recipes that are gonna appear, you get one shot to show an Indian dish, a Mexican dish, or something – all of a sudden you have the weight of multiple cultures on your shoulders. You have to both convince every – you know, if I was to put my family’s dahl recipe in there, I at once have to convince every white person that this is an authentic dahl recipe, and I have to convince every Indian person that this is a worthwhile dahl recipe even though it probably looks very different from the way their family cooks it.
At this point, in my family, it probably looks very different from the way anybody in India might cook it. You have all of these conflicting – you know, what does a recipe look like in your country of origin? What does it look like in the American diaspora? What does it look like to a white person looking for something authentic that is based on their own notions of what authenticity means? It’s too much. It feels like nothing can ever live up to those expectations.
Megan Figueroa: The bon Appetit, that’s a good example. I was gonna say, too, the Alison Roman and Chrissy Teigen thing where I think a lot of people are perhaps thinking about this. I mean, I think that happened during quarantine, right? It was within this last year.
Jaya Saxena: I think it happened right at the beginning. I do remember Alison Roman – I only remember this because it was sort of funny that two weeks before, she’d tweeted something about like, “Please don’t get me canceled in quarantine,” and then like –
Megan Figueroa: That’s funny.
Jaya Saxena: And then two weeks later or something this happened.
Carrie Gillon: Can one of you explain what actually happened just in case people don’t remember or don’t know?
Jaya Saxena: Yeah. I’m trying to – if I get some details wrong, please correct me. From my memory, Alison Roman, I believe, had been on a podcast, and the conversation turned to how other people in these food media spaces were monetizing their brands in this way. I do remember Alison Roman was using this podcast to announce or either talk about the fact that she had just launched a capsule collection with some independent cookware brand that it was gonna be a set of Alison Roman-branded products.
But at the same time, she called out both Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen for – like, Marie Kondo for selling organizational things that you could buy for your house, and Chrissy Teigen, I think, for also having a line of cookware and other things that you could buy and basically being like, “They’re sellouts,” just criticizing them for that. Roman was criticized for the fact that the two people she called out were Asian American women – also for being sort of a hypocrite because she was doing a very similar thing.
But then it absolutely led to, I think, a bigger conversation over how a lot of Alison Roman’s recipes maybe used ingredients, spices, techniques that were more common in a lot of Asian cuisines which, again, anybody can use turmeric, anybody can use coconut milk, this is fine. Everyone should do that. But I think one of her most famous recipes, the stew, is essentially a coconut chana masala. It has a lot in common with a lot of South Eastern Asian cooking. She made no mention of that until she was pressured to do so.
To me, Alison Roman is far from the worst offender on a lot of these things. It’s just like, for anybody – in a lot of organizational spaces we have the phrase “cite don’t bite.” If you got an idea from somewhere, name that place. If you got the idea to use some of these spices and some of these techniques, you’re absolutely allowed to turn them into your own thing, but just mention it. Just mention it. It’s that easy.
Megan Figueroa: It is that easy. It really is.
Carrie Gillon: Cite your sources.
Jaya Saxena: Cite your sources! No, but it – because Alison Roman wasn’t trying to claim that she invented curry in any way. No one thought she was. But just say it. Just cite your source.
Carrie Gillon: And just don’t shit on other women – especially women of color. It was just really strange for her to do that, in particular, because, yeah, like you said, she was doing the same thing.
Jaya Saxena: Right. And I think that was the thing that was wild. I do not think that Marie Kondo or Chrissy Teigen are in any way above criticism, but the particular criticism that she was lobbying at them was just like, no, this isn’t it.
Megan Figueroa: Definitely a wild celebrity controversy. But I think it was really important because I saw so many pieces where people were finally thinking – or not “pieces” – but on Twitter, people were finally thinking about food in a deeper way, I think. It’s just one of things where, like we were talking about earlier, it’s everywhere. We eat every day or whatever. But do we really stop and think about food?
Carrie Gillon: Speaking of that.
Megan Figueroa: Yes! Yes! I was like, “The perfect transition.”
Carrie Gillon: In an essay you wrote for Eater, “The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment,” you address a long-standing trope that kids from immigrant families grow up being embarrassed about their food. First, what is the “lunchbox moment” and why is this idea so prevalent?
Jaya Saxena: The lunchbox moment is basically this experience that a lot of people have had if you’re an immigrant, if you’re a child of immigrants, if you are of a non-white family and your family sends you to school – it’s so hard. I’ve tried to explain this so many times, and I have not yet come up with a good word for the type of food that your family would send you to school with because I don’t necessarily want to say “ethnic.”
Carrie Gillon: I don’t like that word.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Jaya Saxena: I don’t like that word. Saying “non-white” feels weird because that’s – you know. But let’s say you’re an immigrant, and you’re sent to school with the food of your family’s culture. Maybe that culture is not as familiar to the other kids that you go to school with. I think maybe a classic one is you come from a Chinese American family. You go to school. Everybody around you has ham and cheese sandwiches. You open up your lunchbox, and there are dumplings in there. Or there’s something with fish sauce or ingredients that most of the white kids around you are maybe unfamiliar with.
All the kids look over and are like, “Oh my god, what’s that?” and identify this as you’re eating something different from the rest of us. Oftentimes, in a negative way. This kid will be like, “Ew, that’s gross,” “That smells weird,” What are you eating? That’s disgusting.” It’s a moment that teaches this kid that this food of their culture, of their family, is seen in a negative light by the rest of their community or by this community that they have to spend every weekday with.
There’ve been some famous pop culture examples. I know there’s a scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where she goes to school as a kid, and she opens up her lunchbox, and it’s moussaka, and all the kids are like, “What?” I know in the show Fresh Off the Boat, and Chef Eddie Huang has talked a lot about going to school with Chinese food and being made fun of for it and bullied for it.
So, a lot of these kids will go home feeling ashamed, begging their parents to cook them something else, refusing to eat their lunch in front of other students. It can be this really traumatic experience. I think the reason it is so prevalent both in pop culture and in memoir and in nonfiction is because it has happened to so many people. When I wrote this piece and was trying to complicate the narrative –
Megan Figueroa: Which you did beautifully, by the way.
Jaya Saxena: Thank you. But I very much wanted people to understand that I’m not saying that this is something that got overblown. This happened to thousands if not millions of people. This really changed a lot of people’s feelings about their own cuisine or maybe was the first time that they realized they were different from their peers or the first time they were made to feel guilty about it. Maybe it was the first time they experienced racism. It is this really powerful moment for a lot of people.
Megan Figueroa: Why did you wanna write this at this time?
Jaya Saxena: It’s really funny, and I write about it a little bit in the piece, where it sort of came up after reading a piece that I had written about five years ago about Pizza Hut. It’s this whole piece where I’m like, “I’m Indian, and I’m white, and I’m a New Yorker, and my grandparents live in New Jersey, and New York has such a strong pizza identity, but I just wanted to eat Pizza Hut stuffed crust” – just all these swirling identities and how I felt about food through them.
I ran into somebody at an event who had mentioned that they really liked this piece. On a whim I was like, “I wanna re-read that. It’s been a while since I read it. I wonder how it holds up.” I came across this moment in that piece where I wrote about seeing other kids in the cafeteria be made fun of for their lunches and how that affected me and how I internalized to be wary or be ashamed of Indian food because I saw this happen.
I was re-reading it, and I was like, “I don’t remember that happening. I don’t remember ever seeing that. Where the hell did this come from?” It was really jarring to be like, “I just put something in here that, upon re-reading, I really don’t think happened.” I don’t think I was intentionally trying to lie. I think that that story has become so ubiquitous that I think I sort of assumed that I must’ve experienced it.
When I was trying to think about why I maybe felt conflicted over Indian food, I was like, “Well, it must’ve been because I witnessed someone being bullied; I witnessed some form of racism,” because otherwise it meant that I just sort of absorbed it from a bunch of other places and not one direct moment. I think that’s harder to write about. And I think five years ago I wasn’t as good enough of a writer to tackle that.
But then I was like, “Wait a second. I never felt ashamed of my food.” I grew up in Manhattan. I went to a public elementary school. There were kids of all races, all backgrounds, lots of kids who were immigrants or had an immigrant parent in my school, so a lot of different cuisines around, but also, I realized that most of us were just eating what was in the cafeteria. There was no bullying if everybody was eating the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was made by the lunch lady.
I was wondering, “Wait a second.” This is spoken of among various immigrant diasporas as a universal experience. It was like if you’re an immigrant, a child of immigrants, a person of color, this has happened to you. I wanted to be like, “This did not happen to me.” I’m sure there are other people that this did not happen to. Or it happened to and they didn’t feel ashamed about it. Or it didn’t happen to, but they still felt shame about their family’s food in a different way. I just wanted to look at all of these other experiences and try to get at this idea that, when we start talking about any experience as ubiquitous, as having happened to anyone, it starts to be really limiting.
I think with any identity, with any label, with any experience like that, there’re these aspects in which it’s really enriching and opens you up to things when you can connect with other people being like, “Hey, that happened to you, too?” We can bond here. You can start thinking of your identity in new ways. But then there does come a moment where, if you’ve put yourself into this box, it then becomes a limiting space, and if you haven’t experienced that, well then, do I fit in with this identity anymore? Can I talk about my identity in a way that doesn’t assume that I have had these experiences?
I think I just really wanted to say there’re a lot of ways that people experience their food growing up. There is no one, ubiquitous experience. We can bond around that. We don’t all have to have this one thing happen to us in order to be able to bond around these ideas.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, we don’t all have to experience the exact same trauma.
Jaya Saxena: Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: Out of curiosity, Megan, did you ever encounter this?
Megan Figueroa: Yes, but it was different because I went to a 95% Latinx school, so the thing that was happening, actually, was that, if you brought your lunch, it was quote-unquote “embarrassing” because of socio-economic reasons. It was more like, “Only the poor kids bring their lunches because they can’t have the cool food in the cafeteria,” which is just so, as an adult, I’m like, “The food was so terrible in the cafeteria.” All these things that I like –
Jaya Saxena: Oh my god.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Just the different way I came to it.
Jaya Saxena: There’s so many aspects of that. In a lot of the feedback that I’ve gotten from this piece, I’ve heard so many things like that. I realize we must’ve had an opposite thing because I think in my school cafeteria lunch was like the cheaper option, and so if you brought your food to school, that was a different – I think, too, there were a lot of people with working parents. The idea that you had somebody who had the time to make you lunch and send you to school with lunch was like a different little thing.
I was a on a radio program, and there was one white person who called in who mentioned that they grew up in a vastly, vastly majority Mexican town in Texas. She was the only one essentially bringing “white food” to school – or they had some conversation in class where it’s like, “Oh, what does your family make for Friday night dinner?”, and everyone was talking about various Mexican food, and she was like, “Pork chops.” And the classmates are like, “What?” There’re so many different versions of this.
And so much of it just has to do with power dynamics. That white girl in that majority Mexican town, of course, maybe felt ostracized in that moment, but she’s still a white person in a white supremacist country, so it has different weight than a person of color being bullied for their lunch in a majority white town or, right, a poorer person being bullied for their lunch in a really rich town, or something like that.
Megan Figueroa: It’s so complicated – just the dynamics of the cafeteria when you’re a kid is just like, I guess – I mean, hearing you, reading your piece, it must’ve been just a little bit different everywhere, too, depending on where you are and when you grew up.
Carrie Gillon: I don’t think I ever ate in the cafeteria. It was a thing that just didn’t appeal. The food looked gross.
Megan Figueroa: I does now that I think about it. It’s funny, too, because when I got to high school – so then I was in a majority Anglo school – bringing your lunch was preferred, unless you got the snack bar type stuff, unless it was taco salad Tuesday. But if you – that’s when I got kind of embarrassed about – I wouldn’t have wanted to bring tortillas or beans and rice or anything to school, but then these people are eating terrible Mexican food, and I’m one of them. I’m like, “I need that taco salad.” [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Oh, teenage-hood.
Megan Figueroa: I know. Puberty is strange.
Jaya Saxena: Wow. It really is. I think that’s what I wanted to show is just there’re so many factors here. There’re a lot of people who said their other classmates notice what they were eating but in a really curious way being like, “Whoa, what is that? I’ve never seen that before! That’s really fascinating,” in a way that they just wanted to know more, and they wanted to try it and thought it was cool.
I think one of you just said also when this happened is a big factor. I was in elementary school in the 90s. Probably 10 years before, it would’ve been a totally different story in terms of maybe what people were used to, who even was allowed to immigrate to the country, all of these sorts of factors. And then now – I did get some feedback of people saying, “Unfortunately, this bullying has still happened to my grade school kid.” It is absolutely not one of those things that’s gone away just because we’ve been talking about food more. I think, culturally, people are more encouraged to try different cuisine. It’s seen as you’re a cool and cultured person if you eat a lot of different types of food. But that hasn’t stopped people from being bullied.
There’re all these different aspects. I think what happens is that the story of the lunchbox moment of just like, “I went to school. The kids bullied me for my food. I felt shame.” It’s such a straightforward story. Those story beats are so crisp. They’re so clear. They get across this huge feeling of racism and oppression so quickly that I think a lot of people flatten the story into those beats rather than talking about all the other nuances and things that might’ve been going around that. I think, because of that, it starts feeling almost obligatory that everyone must’ve felt this, and everyone must’ve felt the same feeling when it happened to them.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder if we can now shift the last section, basically, to how we’ve perpetuated this idea. For me as an outsider in food writing, I feel like a lot of perpetuation happens because of media and how we hear food described. How is language used to other people in cultures and food?
Jaya Saxena: And food and everything. I certainly think there is a tendency for a lot of food media to speak about – well, 1.) we’ve been dancing around the idea of this word “ethnic cuisine.” I feel like that, even though we really try to get away with it, still is so used by so many people. It’s such a weird word because it’s so vague. Like, “ethnic.”
Carrie Gillon: Everyone has an ethnicity.
Jaya Saxena: Everyone has it. What are you talking about here? You know that that is code for “non-European food,” for food made by brown people, for cheaper food, for all of these other things. This is a really euphemistic phrase. I think there’s a tendency by a lot of media to treat maybe non-European cuisine as more of a fad, that there’ll be an issue of a magazine or a big story – and I mean, nobody’s blameless in this – of talking about something as like, “a hot new trend.” Unfortunately, a lot of people who maybe make that style of food are able to capitalize and find success when people think of something as a trend. That is their time to hit.
Of course, trends do happen. I think we wrote about, recently, how there’ve been a ton of birria restaurants and food trucks and stuff opening up. This is a style of Mexican cooking that has become very popular recently. But unless you’re talking about the history of that specific style of tacos and cuisine and where it came from and maybe why it is showing up now, from my recollection, I think it was in the 80s that one guy brought it from Puebla to Tijuana, and then it went from Tijuana to LA, but unless you’re talking about the whole history, it makes it really easy for people to think of this food as just something, I guess, easy to consume for them rather as something with its own history, its own culture.
I think a lot of people consider European food, also, the default. When you see all these roundups of like, “Easy to cook weeknight recipes,” it’s very rare that anything but Italian and British, vaguely French, sort of continental cuisine is gonna be in there. One of the big things I feel like that’s happened maybe over our lifetimes is that certain very watered down or reconstructed ideas of Mexican cuisine are in there.
You were talking about the taco salad. I think that a lot of families now absolutely consider a taco pie – families will have Taco Tuesdays, you know, some easy way to make enchiladas in a baking dish, whatever. That seeped in there a little bit as acceptable for weeknight, every night, cooking. But I think a lot of that is considered, you know, still very European-centric when we talk about it.
I think there’s just – what is the term? – “Columbus-ing.” I think that there’s still a lot of white people talking about foods that they have maybe discovered for the first time acting as if that means everyone is discovering this for the first time. I’m like, of course, everybody has a first time that they have learned about a certain cuisine, the first time they’ve tried a certain dish, and you’re absolutely allowed to talk about the experience you had trying something for the first time without acting like it’s new.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: How can people in the media or the rest of us be more thoughtful about the way that we talk about food?
Jaya Saxena: I think for so many people, just recognizing – somehow it is a large step for a lot of people to recognize when something is new or unique to you does not mean it is new or unique to the world. I really do think being curious about the history of different cuisines is helpful. I especially think learning about the history – if you’re in America, learning about the history of immigration in America and what that means with regards to food.
We were talking about authenticity a little bit before. People will talk about Mexican cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Thai cuisine, Indian cuisine as whether it’s authentic or not when you have to realize there are entire prongs now that are, essentially – Chinese American cuisine is its own cuisine at this point. It’s delicious. It’s wonderful. You can see the threads of where it ties back to Chinese cooking in China in various regions. But that doesn’t mean it’s not its own cuisine in its own right. You can respect it as that.
I think sometimes with Mexican cuisine or with Southwestern cuisine or some other Mexican food in LA where it’s turned into its own thing that you wouldn’t find in Mexico, and you’re like, “That’s good! That’s interesting!” We want people to be trying new things. We just want them to be trying new things with a respect to where this food came from and an understanding of that.
So, I know food is literally the most consumable thing there is. It’s the most consumable product. That’s the whole point of it existing. But trying to see it as something that exists outside of your immediate consumption of it, and what it means culturally, and what it means politically, what it means regionally, all of these things is just – yeah. I think that makes it more fun to eat. I like when I have a meal and I get to talk about these things with my friends. I think that just enriches eating and cooking so much more.
Carrie Gillon: I’m so hungry now. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: I know! It is lunchtime here.
Carrie Gillon: It’s close to lunch, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Well, thank you so much.
Jaya Saxena: Thank you for having me. This was really great.
Megan Figueroa: This was so much fun. We always leave our listeners with a final message – don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Jaya Saxena: Fantastic message.
Carrie Gillon: This month we would like to thank Julia Weisser.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Dana Elaine.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Julia Singer.
Megan Figueroa: Yay – oh! Two Julias.
Carrie Gillon: True! Double Julia Month. It’s not July. And John Laurentiev.
Megan Figueroa: Oh my god, there’re three J-names. Wow.
Carrie Gillon: Oh no! [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: J, J – shit. What do you say when there’s three – like, “squared” is two. What is three? “Tripled”?
Carrie Gillon: “Cubed.”
Megan Figueroa: “Cubed.” Yes. J-cubed. Thank you so much.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our website is vocalfriespod.com.