Is This Food Racist? WNYC's 'The Sporkful' Explores 'Other People's Food'

Host Dan Pashman and actor Rosie PerezEXPAND
Host Dan Pashman and actor Rosie Perez
Richard Yeh for WNYC

“How do our assumptions about people affect our assumptions about their food...and how do other people’s stereotypes about our food affect how we feel about ourselves? What happens when chefs cook a cuisine that they weren’t born into...and what happens when there’s a backlash?”

Dan Pashman is asking big questions with his series — Other People's Food — on the WNYC food podcast The Sporkful.

If you live in New York City, you’ve most likely eaten “ethnic” food. From Inwood to Battery Park, there’s no better place in the world for leisurely nibbling at Spanish tapas, scooping Ethiopian dorowett up with chewy injera, racing through K-Town for karaoke and barbecue, or stumbling exhausted to the halal cart after work. Yes, we live in the best of cities in the best of times for international cuisines. But are we in the best of times for talking honestly about what those foods mean to those who grew up with them — and to those who didn’t? Is food itself a respectable gateway into a discussion about culture or race in general?

“When you say you’re going to have a conversation about race,” Pashman tells the Voice, “the conversation either becomes heavy-handed or overly simplistic. You don’t really learn anything, and people get defensive very quickly. We were hoping that by starting out talking about food, we would open up the conversation about racism. Everyone loves to eat, and I think there’s an opportunity here to start a conversation that doesn’t immediately devolve into shouting.”

Spread out over four episodes, the series strives to explore a wide breadth of what it means to cook, eat, or earn your living through "other people’s food."

The first episode of the series (which premiered last week) features award-winning Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless, Brooklyn Delhi owner Chitra Agrawal, cookbook writer and podcast host Nicole Taylor, and New York University’s department chair of food studies, Professor Krishnendu Ray. The episode questions if there is a “right way” to work professionally with another culture’s food and how important it is that one be well-educated before making any public claims.

That question is a personal one for Pashman. Back in October, he wrote a piece for Digg about how Korean bibimbap would be made all the better if the ratio of chewy rice seared in the bottom of the dolsot (stone pot) were increased via being cooked in a more bundt-pan-like structure. "I admit my experience with Korean food is limited, or rather, pretty typical for a white guy from the suburbs," he wrote. "I’ve had bibimbap and Korean bbq, I’ve dabbled in kimchi, and that’s about it. So what business do I have suggesting there’s a better way to prepare a classic Korean staple?"

Fair question, right? Had he left it there, he might have gone on his merry way. But he didn’t. He continued on with, “Well, sometimes it takes an outsider, someone free from the bonds of tradition, to see a new and better way.”

For the record, Pashman doesn’t claim to be an authority on food, but he does make his living from talking to people about it. Many readers, both Korean and non-, had no problem with what he wrote. Others accused Pashman of whitesplaining, like reader/listener Nick Cho, who tweeted at him: “Can you understand why Koreans would be offended by your piece? Or are you too white? Serious question.”

Pashman took this to heart, bringing Cho on the show to discuss the personal experiences that led him to find the piece offensive. Cho spoke about the insults thrown at him during childhood when he brought Korean food to school. How it’s insulting for someone to take centuries of another person’s culture and think they can improve it. Cho was not asking for an apology; he was asking Pashman to listen and learn about a personal history not his own. This led Pashman to further question of himself and others: “Where’s the line between culinary cross-pollination and cultural appropriation? What’s the difference between taking inspiration from someone else’s food and ripping it off?”

Dan Pashman, Ashok Kondabolu, and Michell ButeauEXPAND
Dan Pashman, Ashok Kondabolu, and Michell Buteau
Richard Yeh for WNYC

From there, more questions arose.

Can you use saffron from Afghanistan, garam masala from India, or chiles from Oaxaca if you don’t know the stories behind them? Are we to stick – professionally and personally – to only our own cuisine? What does that even mean? If you meet someone from another country or culture, is asking about his or her cuisine a fair opening for conversation? Or does that imply that you’re racially stereotyping them, assuming you know something about them as an individual human being because you’ve eaten the food you associate with their country of origin?

That last point took center stage last Thursday, when the fourth and final episode of Other People's Food was recorded in front of a live audience at WNYC’s the Greene Space with actress Rosie Perez, Ashok Kondabolu (formerly of the hip-hop group Das Racist), and comedian Michelle Buteau.

“I was definitely struck with Ashok’s point that it is problematic when, just because you’ve eaten someone else’s food, you think that you inherently gain an understanding of their culture,” Pashman says. “Just because you went and ate at an Ethiopian restaurant doesn’t mean you know more about Ethiopians...unless you knew zero about them before. You shouldn’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back for what you know just because you’ve eaten at one Ethiopian restaurant.”

With so many questions asked and varying opinions in the series presented (see below for the full podcast lineup), it’s difficult to pinpoint one clear conclusion about how much progress has been made regarding racism in food. Yes, it's generally a tiny touch easier for non-white chefs to find success in varying kinds of cuisine because, as Professor Ray mentions in the first episode, chefs like Floyd Cardoz fought hard to make some headway in an industry that assumed he could only cook Indian food. But for the most part, many people still make assumptions about people through their assumptions about their food. And those assumptions are not color-blind.

"I think the difference is because maybe you're not of color," Perez said to Pashman on Thursday when he wondered why he, as a Jewish man, is not offended by the assumptions people make about the food he eats. "I think there's a difference there because [when you're of color] there's an assumption that you've never ventured out or eaten outside of your culture. That you're limited in the ways of the world. It has a lot of negative connotation to it."

Opinions between guests sometimes differed. Sometimes experiences were shared or similar. But throughout the series, Pashman says that "more than anything, we hope this will be the kind of conversation you just don’t hear that often."  

Other People's Food

Part One: White Chef, Mexican Food
Tuesday, March 22
Rick Bayless, Chitra Agrawal, Nicole Taylor, and Professor Krishnendu Ray share their views on culinary cross-pollination, cultural appropriation, and cultural exchange, and host Dan Pashman talks with a listener expressing his frustration with how the show represented Korean food.

Part Two: What's 'Poor People's Food'?
Tuesday, March 29
How do our stereotypes about people affect our assumptions about their food, as well as how we consume it? Why does Italian food cost more than Mexican food, and do some foods perform better than others when represented on social media? In this episode, Nicole Taylor discusses her relationship with fried chicken and Southern foods from her childhood; Chitra Agrawal, the obstacles she’s faced while breaking into food media; and Professor Krishnendu Ray, how the media shapes our value judgments about different cuisines.

Part Three
Wednesday, March 30

In 1960, Joe McNeil and other members of the A&T Four sat at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, were refused service, and remained sitting until the restaurant closed. Their sit-in inspired a wave of protests that led to the desegregation of restaurants across the American South. In this episode, Dan Pashman joins McNeil for a slice of apple pie – the dessert McNeil ordered when the Greensboro lunch counter was finally desegregated. Now a retired major general of the U.S. Air Force, McNeil recounts his personal story of activism and discusses the finer points of apple pie.

Part 4
Thursday, March 31
The series concludes with audio from the “Is This Food Racist?” live event, featuring Ashok Kondabolu, Rosie Perez, and Michelle Buteau; catering by Chitra Agrawal and Nicole Taylor; and a special appearance by Joe McNeil. Perez, Kondabolu, and Buteau discuss their experiences navigating American and immigrant food cultures while growing up in or around New York City, and the themes explored in prior episodes of the series, including cultural assimilation and appropriation.


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