Food writer Francis Lam and Brittany dig in to what makes high cuisine and the rise of cooking culture.
**Warning, this episode contains adult language.**
Episode #12 features clips from the following episodes (please click below for hyperlink to full episode):
This episode was produced by Rose Reid, Sarah Abdurrahman and Brittany Luse, with help from Kate Parkinson-Morgan.
It was edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Austin Mitchell and Eric Eddings.
Our theme music was made by Micah Vellian and our ad music was made by Mark Phillips.
Additional music in the show was made by Bobby Lord.
The show was mixed by Matthew Boll.
Stamps.com (Click the microphone on the homepage and use promo code “Sampler”)
Squarespace.com (Use promo code “Sampler” for 10% off first purchase)
BRITTANY: I’m Brittany Luse and welcome back to Sampler, the show where we play you hand-picked moments from podcasts you just have to hear. This week is all about food… why we love it, what it means to us and how our ideas about it are shaped by the world around us. I should note, though this conversation is definitely gonna be meaty (get it?! meaty!), some of the language in this episode may not be suitable for younger ears. So, if you’ve got any kids around, feel free to press pause and rejoin us later, possibly while eating your favorite snack. With that out of the way, let’s get started!
So in the studio today with me is somebody who I greatly admire, who I’m so excited is on the show today. Francis Lam, who is a food writer editor-at-large of Clarks and Potter, which is the lifestyle imprint within Penguin Random House. Also, a judge on Top Chef Masters and a columnist for New York Times Magazine. Like who are you even? Like who are you even?
FRANCIS: I am more than those things Brittany but thank you so much. [laughs]
BRITTANY: Welcome to the show.
FRANCIS: Thank you for having me.
BRITTANY: So we wanted to have Francis on Sampler today because basically I’m absolutely crazy about food and pretty much since the inception of this show I was like so we have to figure out a way to do a food episode like obviously. And…
FRANCIS: You can’t talk about food for more than five minutes without people being bored.
BRITTANY: You think so? Because we’re going to disprove that today.
FRANCIS: I live my whole life on the premise that that isn’t true but I’m a little bit afraid it is.
BRITTANY: Well hopefully we can put that to bed. I think we can. I’m feeling really good. I’m excited about the clips that we have for you today.
FRANCIS: Let’s do it. Let’s try.
BRITTANY: So I’m a huge fan of yours and a lot of your writing. You were a contributing editor for Gourmet before it shut down.
BRITTANY: Oh my god, so that means you know Ruth Reichl!
FRANCIS: I do. Ruth is my home girl.
BRITTANY: Daaamn. That’s so crazy to me! I’m sorry, I’m freaking out right now. I’m so excited. Guys for those of you who don’t know Ruth Reichl is the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine. She is the reason that I cook meat and don’t just eat black beans every day.
FRANCIS: She is a very like obviously… I totally understand where you’re coming from. I was exactly that same way in fact, uh, before I started writing for her for the magazine I met her. I was a very young new food writer. I had I think literally six pieces I had written I think to my name. And I was at a conference, I saw that she was one of the speakers and I went up to her. And I’m like ‘Hi I just wanted to say hello’ and so it was painfully awkward and I think just to be gracious she looked down at my name badge and said like contributing writer Financial Times, and literally I’d written like six pieces for them— and so it was really only barely true that I got this title— and she looks down and says ‘Oh the Financial Times well they don’t print junk’ and I made some stupid joke about like ‘Well I tricked them. Duh.’ Word to the wise: when you’re meeting your heroes don’t make stupid self-deprecating jokes. Like don’t be like hey you should know me because I’m awesome but like don’t be like yeah my shit’s junk. But she, again, super graciously said ‘Oh ok well I would love to see what you’ve done. Why don’t you send me some of your pieces?’ and I was like ‘Awawawaw.’ So that’s how I met Ruth Reichl and that’s how I started writing for the magazine.
BRITTANY: So you went to University of Michigan. You went to culinary institute, started writing. You kind of entered the game at the point where food culture kind of like emerged and changed. So the first clip we’re going to play for you today is going to I guess start with this state of like the world of food presently. So it’s Alton Brown on the Eater Upsell podcast. He’s telling hosts Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner how food culture’s changed since he started working at Food Network in 1999.
ALTON BROWN: We’ve all become aware we’re hyper-aware they say that we’re all very very aware because we’re absorbing and consuming food media… but the real game-changer when you get right down to it, for better or for worse, was Starbucks. Because Starbucks is everywhere and now we all accept paying four dollars for a coffee. Everyone does now. So what happened is then of course anywhere that Starbucks was you eventually got third wave coffee so now we’ve got funky pour over coffee shops. You know, so we’re all starting to become very sophisticated in our palates and so we’re starting to value things you know? You can look at Starbucks whether you like it or not, and then Whole Foods, as being something that really in 1999 wouldn’t have existed at the level that it does now. So we’re all extraordinarily aware… we’re willing to spend money on quality. What’s funny though is I think we’re more sophisticated as eaters than cooks. I know people that can detect the difference between whether we’ve made the bouillabaisse with Turkish saffron or Iranian saffron but couldn’t cook the seafood in bouillabaisse if you hold a gun to their head, you know? So we’ve become far more sophisticated as consumers.
HELEN ROSNER: That seems like a logical parallel to the way that food has evolved as part of our culture. Because I think it’s not infrequent that food is analogized to the rise of music in the 70s and 80s. Music saturation of America was not the creation of music. It was the consumption of music and that seems like the root to popular culture. You become a thing for people to purchase and identify things around and know things about rather than become experts in the creation of.
ALTON: Well it’s interesting that you mention consumption because that also has a lot to do with changing business models. You know, people talk a lot about the touring year of 1973 when Led Zeppelin, The Who and Alice Cooper all went out on these massive arena tours that changed the way the business of rock and roll was done and I think that what we’ve done is we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where we’ve changed the way that the food business is done very, very much so. And so I think it’s a good analogy. We are consuming at that level. The only real difference is not that everyone has to consume music. Everyone does have to consume food.
HELEN: There was a really fascinating interview with you in the New York Times. The interviewer was asking you about people loving food and you said that everybody loves food and people try to convince you they should be a next Food Network star, that they should be getting whatever job because they love food.
ALTON: Because they love it so much.
HELEN: And you said this great line which was ‘At best love is the gasoline. It’s not the car.’
ALTON: Yeah I mean if you don’t have the passion you’re probably not going to get anywhere but the passion in and of itself is not terribly interesting. And yeah we do see that all the time, certainly on TV.
GREG: I feel like everyone loves food now and I don’t know if that was the same as 20 years ago.
ALTON: I think people didn’t think you know there was a time when people simply were thinking about how to get enough of it. You know? Or having to get it on the table. My grandmother, my late grandmother who I adored, never could get her head around the idea of Food Network. She’s like I got to get up at 6 o’clock every morning and make breakfast for Bob why the hell would I want to watch that on television? Because it was a thing you did , it was a chore. It was like chopping wood or anything else. It wasn’t celebrated it wasn’t like ‘Oh my gosh this apple butter is artisanal.’ It was like, it’s food.
BRITTANY: So you’ve been in the mix for a long time. Have you seen a similar arc, have you seen a similar sea change?
FRANCIS: Yeah absolutely. My career is obviously a product of that sort of shift of our culture. What we’re talking about in terms of the rise of food media and so the popularization of food media obviously can’t be divorced from just how media’s changed and how we discover new voices has changed. The very first story I had published was for the Financial Times. It came about because I was a student in 2002 and I was like 25 and I was at cooking school and I was over the I’m too cool for school thing. here I am paying tuition dollars to be in a classroom. I’m going to make it count. Right, so I was in front of every class taking notes asking the chef questions stopping the demo every five seconds chef ‘Why this why this why this?’ And then going home and just writing these long emails to friends and family about what I learned that day, or stories and ‘Oh my god did you know there are only three ways of filleting a fish. We learned the 3 ways of filleting a fish. You can fillet any fish in the goddamn ocean! Like that’s amazing! And then that same day I was walking home from school like 10 o’clock at night and some guy comes out of his class and goes ‘Hey, I just learned to fry donuts,’ Opened the box. Brrr. ‘Want one?’ You know like where am I this place is unreal? So I’m like writing these emails to friends and family telling them about this about this insane life I’m living now. And I got a phone call, an editor from the Financial Times said hey a friend of yours has been forwarding these emails to me. They’re a lot of fun. Would you want to write something for us? About what it’s like being a culinary student.
BRITTANY: So someone just found you, which is like not – it’s like weird because now it’s like it’s easier to get discovered because you can like just put something on the internet and someone could literally actually physically find it but there’s so many people that are making things that it’s like how do you even stick out at this point? People are like so used to consuming content that way.
FRANCIS: Exactly. But like specific to our culture, you could never get anyone to publish a story now like oh my god what it’s like what is it like being a culinary school student. Now… all people do is obsess about food. Now there’s talk about all the way to the other extreme where like people don’t love music anymore. They don’t go to shows anymore. All they want to do is go to restaurants and Snapchat. You know, food has come so far in terms of its centrality in our pop culture that it’s super dizzying and I just feel incredibly fortunate to have been there right when that wave was about to hit.
BRITTANY: Inherent in what you and Alton Brown are saying is the idea that people are spending a lot more of their money on food. You know, whereas people used to save up because they wanted to see their favorite band — I mean, I do this too — they’ll save up to go to a restaurant that they’ve always wanted to go to that maybe is like a little bit more expensive than like your average night out. As opposed to like dining being something you do before you do the thing, now dining is the thing. I really want to talk about this concept, you know like what makes a food expensive? And that brings me to our next clip. So WNYC’s food podcast The Sporkful did a five-part series called “Other People’s Food.” So as a part of the series, the host Dan Pashman explores the concept of poor people’s food and how we make judgments about the value of some cuisines over others.
KRISHNENDU RAY: Most Americans would hesitate to pay $30 for Chinese food but they wouldn’t bat an eyelid to pay hundreds of dollars sometimes over the last couple of years the most expensive NYC restaurants have been Japanese restaurants.
DAN PASHMAN: This is professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of the food studies department at NYU. He says there’s a reason we’re willing to pay so much more for some culture’s foods than others and it’s actually not about the food at all.
KRISHNENDU: Most of the Japanese, we are familiar with our business folks, our executives but right now most Americans associate Chinese food with relatively impoverished Chinese immigrants. If a group of people are doing well and if a country is doing well economically, we tend to upgrade our estimation of their culture and that feeds back into uh whether we consider it cheap ethnic food or we consider it expensive foreign food.
DAN: This idea that some foods are perceived as higher class than others? Professor Ray calls this the hierarchy of taste. He says over time it changes.
KRISHNENDU: Give it 20 more years, Chinese immigration is going to slow down like it happened with Europe, European immigration. And once that happens we don’t meet relatively poor and impoverished Chinese here our evaluation of Chinese food is going to change in terms of class terms. That happened with Italian food… that Italian food in fact became prestigious only after Italian immigration effectively stopped of poor people.
DAN: And correct me if I’m wrong but generations ago Italian people were made fun of for smelling like garlic.
DAN: And their food was considered low class.
KRISHNENDU: Yeah, nutritionists and public health specialists were full of disdain for Italian food as not good for us because they were eating all this spicy food in those days it was considered especially garlic. And the argument was that all this garlic led to craving for alcohol and what I like about American culture is in fact the possibility of breaking through it, which I think makes American food very interesting and much more open-minded than many of the nationalist cuisines of the other parts of the world.
FRANCIS: I love that guy. You know I think what Professor Ray is talking about there in terms of valuing someone’s food being akin to how you value that person’s culture and, by extension, valuing that person… It’s a really, really complicated issue and almost no one is aware of it thinks of it in those terms, right? And I edit a cookbook—came out last fall— called “Tacos, Recipes and Provocations,” by Alex Stupak and Julia Rothman. And Alex is an amazing chef. He’s got a really super interesting story of his own of how he came to Mexican food. He’s not Mexican, did not grow up with it. As he puts it literally the first two sentences of the book: I’m a white boy from Massachusetts… but he has a restaurant inspired by Mexico. And he was serving a taco that was a taco of seared scallops, caper raisin emulsion, caramelized cauliflower.
BRITTANY: That sounds good.
FRANCIS: Sounds good as hell, right? Everyone complained about it. What do you mean this taco costs $12? Like are you kidding me this taco costs $12? This is bullshit. You can’t charge that much for a taco. That taco was called “Scallops JGV,” that was the name of the taco. “JGV” is Jean Georges Vongerichten who is a four-star chef. He has his you know his flagship restaurant, his 4-star restaurant “Jean Georges” in midtown Manhattan. He has served a dish of seared scallops, caramelized cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion of one of the signature dishes of that restaurant since like 1996 or something like that. Alex calls Jean-George up and said hey I would love to serve your dish in my restaurant, can I put your recipe and put your name on it? Jean Georges said yes, sent him the recipe that’s the same dish. Now Alex is saying OK, you would never bat an eyelash going to Jean-Georges and paying $40 for that dish. You come to Empellón, you get the dish on a tortilla literally I am adding more food to that dish it’s $12 and all of a sudden that’s goddamn too expensive. It needs to be cheap. So what does that say about how you value Mexican cuisine and how you value other cuisines? What does that say about how you value Mexican culture? What does that say about how you value the Mexican people? If you’re literally getting the same thing but because now it’s “Mexican” it’s got to be cheap.
BRITTANY: Right totally. We are going to get more into the politics of food after the break. But first, to recap what we’ve heard so far… the Alton Brown clip came from the Eater Upsell podcast and the explanation of why we value some foods over others was from The Sporkful. Sampler will be back with more tasty tidbits in just a minute. Get it? Tasty??
—————AD BREAK BEGINS————
BRITTANY: Sampler is brought to you by Squarespace…the easiest way to create a beautiful website, portfolio or online store.
ROSE REID: So Brittany you know we’re doing this food show…
BRITTANY: Yes, I’m loving it!
ROSE: And I have a food website fact for you…
BRITTANY: Rose, What is it?
ROSE: Did you know that there’s a hamburger on almost every website that you use?
ROSE: It’s the little button with the three horizontal lines…and it’s usually at the top corner of a webpage and when you click on it, a drop down menu comes down.
BRITTANY: That’s called a hamburger?
ROSE: Yea, the three lines are the hamburger.
BRITTANY: Like a bun…patty…bun.
BRITTANY: That’s so cute.
ROSE: mmm hmmm.
BRITTANY: You know… At my last job I was in charge of revamping our website and now that you’re telling me this — I do remember the designer used this term and I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was just in meetings all the time like oh yes…hamburgers…
ROSE: You just like nod and smile, and dovetail to the next thing.
BRITTANY: Well that’s why I work here now and I don’t work there. [laughs]
BRITTANY:You can find the hamburger icon, and other popular web design tools, all over Squarespace’s easy-to-use templates. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the offer code “Sampler” to get ten percent off your first purchase, and to show your support for our show. Squarespace…build it beautiful.
BRITTANY: Sampler is brought to you by Sonos. Sonos is a smart wireless speaker system that allows you to stream your favorite music—and podcasts— to any room or every room in your home. So, like I listen to a lot of podcasts when I’m cleaning up or doing chores at home. Like say, when I’m folding laundry. But it sucks when you can like, get really engrossed with what’s going on while you’re folding the clothes in the living room but then when it’s time to put the clothes away. You have to decide you know ‘You should pause it? Should I try put it away really quickly and come back? You have to walk into this other room, and you can kind of hear what’s going on, but not really it sounds kind of muffled and far away… Then you’re rushing to open up the drawer, and you’re stuffing your clothes in, which totally negates the fact that you folded them in the first place… And then you’re closing the drawer… and running back to the room so you won’t have to stop and go back and re-listen… You know it’s just so annoying because even though you kind of heard what was going on, it’s still like you come back in the room and you’re like… wait what happened? But with Sonos speakers that are synced together, with one in, say, the living room and one in the bedroom, you can walk from room to room and not miss any of the podcast action. To learn more about Sonos…go to sonos.com/Sampler, that’s Sonos.com/Sampler.
—————AD BREAK ENDS—————-
BRITTANY: So we’re back with Francis Lam— no shade to the rest of your resume—most recently famous to me as the editor of the Chrissy Tiegen’s cookbook “Cravings.”
FRANCIS: I’ll take it.
BRITTANY: You’ll take it! For those of you who don’t know or don’t have the Internet. Chrissy Tiegen is a swimsuit model. She’s also married to Grammy-winning R&B star John Legend, she’s also an amazing home cook and she wrote this cookbook “Cravings.” Over the course of like Cravings coming together—which I witnessed via Chrissy’s Instagram — I became really invested in Adina Sussman, the recipe writer who co-wrote the book.
FRANCIS: She’s awesome.
BRITTANY: Like I didn’t know I didn’t really understand the concept of a recipe writer as a job. It was really cool to understand that this was its own kind of discipline. What makes a good recipe writer and a not-so-great recipe writer?
FRANCIS: It’s knowing who your audience is. It’s recognizing, hey writing this for a home cook who is really primarily in being able to make dinner for his family in, you know, a limited amount of time on a Thursday night. Or knowing, OK, no this is a recipe for a woman who is really going to entertain and has, you know, seven hours to spare to make this dish. And when you can get yourself into the headspace of that person – how well can you communicate to them? Cook at a high heat for seven minutes? OK, what do you mean when you say cook at a high heat for seven minutes? Your stove and my stove are not the same your pans and my pans are not the same. Does seven minutes mean I want it dark coffee brown? Does seven minutes mean the onions are starting to get translucent? I think a really beautiful recipe writer can use evocative language to put that image in your brain so you know what you’re looking, seeing, smelling, listening for and like touching for. Or you know do you want to be a very highly technical recipe writer who’s really super obsessed with accuracy for the most common use case? Right? So they will test the recipe 19 different ways from Sunday…
BRITTANY: Like just test them for foolproofness. Sort of like the way that I’ve written this… can like is this something that you can do.
FRANCIS: Can anyone screw this up?
FRANCIS: To me it’s not about like oh what is a good not good recipe writer it’s like what is that recipe-writer’s style what are they trying to do and who are they trying to write for? So Chrissy’s book… it was like one of the easiest books to edit in terms of the recipes because Chrissy and Adina were so straight-forward and clear as to what they wanted and they wanted the food to be very accessible, very approachable because that’s how Chrissy cooks on her own. You know?
BRITTANY: There’s an entire chapter in this book—and it’s divided into all these different things—starches and carbs, salads if you need them, supper. But there is this whole section called “Thai Mom.” And that chapter takes someone’s cuisine from their origin country, something that’s really personal to them and managed to translate it? Which is a term that I don’t even like necessarily using. But managed to sort of like simplify it without dumbing it down and to make it approachable to somebody who may have found the ingredients or techniques unfamiliar, but still maintaining the integrity of what it is that person eats. So Chrissy is a self proclaimed home cook, and she was criticized even before the book came out, just for not being a chef and for writing a cookbook. And I really loved the “Thai Mom” section because is was like, Chrissy… she may not be a chef, she may not be classically trained, but by growing up around Thai food and by being Thai and having a Thai mom, she’s like inherently an authority on the cuisine. In a way that somebody who’s trained in it, but might not share that same background can’t be. So our next clip is about that. It comes from a different episode of the WNYC Sporkful series “Other People’s Food” – it was a series – it was just so good we couldn’t pick only one clip. This one is something that sort of like stopped me cold a little bit when I heard it. In this episode host Dan Pashman is interviewing Rick Bayless. If you haven’t been to one of his numerous Mexican restaurants in Chicago – even I’ve eaten at the Frontera Grill in the O’Hare airport.
FRANCIS: It’s terrific.
BRITTANY: You probably know Bayless – yeah it’s actually really good. It’s really good. You probably know Bayless from his long-running PBS show “Mexico—One Plate At a Time.” So he loves Mexican food but he’s been criticized by some for being a white guy who makes Mexican food. So in this clip Pashman addresses the issue with him.
DAN PASHMAN: For Bayless’s part he sees this as just the way foods move around the world.
RICK BAYLESS: You ask most Mexicans about mole which is the most revered dish in the Mexican repertoire and they’ll say oh it dates back millennia. It came from the pre-Columbian cultures and then I always want to ask then why are 50 percent of the ingredients in that mole from elsewhere in the world? It just doesn’t make sense. You talk about a red chili sauce, yeah you can say that goes back for millennia. But mole is actually a fusion dish that has elements from southeast Asia and elements from Europe blended together seamlessly with ingredients from the new world.
DAN: And so when you look at things that way I can see how you taking Mexican food and bringing it to the U.S. and in some ways adapting it to help “translate” it — to use your word—to a white American audience is in keeping with the same traditions that created Mexican food in the first place. It doesn’t seem like such a crazy departure. But as much as I know that there are many grandmothers who are who love you like their own grandsons because of your work and your cookbooks, there are also other Mexican and other Mexican-Americans who are like screw this guy Rick Bayless. And so how do you feel when you get that kind of reaction to your work?
RICK: Well, usually people that, um, have that opinion of me don’t want to have a conversation. Um, those people that say it are usually very political and they have a mouthpiece and they just go around saying it and everybody thinks oh lots of people must believe that and honestly I don’t think they do. I know that there have been a number of people out there that have criticized me only, only because of my race. Because I’m white I can’t do anything with Mexican food. OK, so we have to stop and say wait is that just plain racism then?
DAN: So what is it that you think people… what is it that they don’t understand? Like what’s the conversation that you want to have with them? What do you want to say to them?
RICK: I would just like to talk to them about Mexican food and I would talk… I think that within ten minutes into a conversation I could share my passion for promoting what I think is the greatest cuisine on the planet. And that it doesn’t come from a shallow understanding of it. It comes from a very deep understanding of it. I’ve done everything that I could to make it my own and I just don’t even understand where they’re coming from. It just sounds like sort of weird racism.
DAN: Do you think that at times in your career it has been to your advantage to be white?
RICK: [pause] I don’t know the answer to that. I certainly have never thought about that. I mean the fact that um I could talk to people in a certain way, um, maybe that has been an advantage of mine? But still I had to craft the words. It wasn’t just because I was white that they would come to my restaurant because restaurants fail at alarming rates and I think probably all of our listeners know that and to be a growing restaurant for 30 years says something that has to do a lot I think with the flavor of the food on the plate.
FRANCIS: Well I first want to say I don’t really see any valid argument for like who can and who can’t make a food.
FRANCIS: So a few years ago I wrote this story for the New York Times that was called “Cuisines mastered as acquired tastes” I think was the headline they gave it. And it was about this idea of chefs who have become famous for cooking cuisines they didn’t grow up in. And in a lot of ways have become the ambassador for these cuisines even though there are plenty of immigrants who represent those cuisines in this country. And I talked to a lot of people including Rick Bayless about their experience doing that. In that article I remember I was talking to Andy Ricker who has restaurants a number of different restaurants under this name of Pok Pok. He is a white guy from Vermont lives in Portland, Oregon but has travelled to Thailand for quarter to a third of every year for the last 20-some odd years and has learned to cook food there and his restaurants are the food that he has discovered in his travels. And he was saying you know people look at me and say it’s so weird that this white guy’s cooking Thai food. I don’t know if I can trust it or what’s the deal with it or whatever. And it’s like but no one looks at an Irish chef cooking Italian food and is like what’s up with that? You know? There’s a great restaurant in New York: Tertulia. It’s a Spanish restaurant and the chef’s name is Seamus Mullen and there aren’t that many people who are ready to be like yo Seamus… Seamus? You can’t cook Spanish food what’s up with that?
BRITTANY: But do you think that has to do with also like there’s not really there’s not like a history of colonization between like Irish people and Spanish people. Like the optics… there’s a history of like colonization and imperialism with a lot of countries around the world… The optics of that I feel like make people uncomfortable and history in general. To my mind kind of change.. . it’s not necessarily the same scale. Like an Irish chef cooking Spanish food is not necessarily the same as a white guy from Vermont like picking up Thai food.
FRANCIS: Sure and this is what I want to say to that too. I think I’m super sympathetic to that argument. I’m super sympathetic to that argument like that like, yeah it is kind of weird and kind of screwy that like… when Pok Pok opened in New York City it was like instantly like people all over the food media food blogs were like this is the Thai food game changer for New York City. Finally New York is getting like really serious Thai food and there are 300 Thai restaurants run by Thai people in New York City. There are three-hundred Thai restaurants in New York City… not one of them was really worth your time until Andy Ricker showed up? And Andy would never say that. Andy would never say that and Andy is a friend of mine and I respect him greatly but I just think the degree to which people launched themselves at his feet when he showed up in New York City was really interesting and instructive to me and actually inspired me to look at this issue that all these “immigrant cuisines” or “ethnic cuisines” or whatever you want to call them have like white saviors. And so I spoke with Andy and I spoke with Alex Stupak from Empellón who later became an author that I worked with. Obviously I also respect and admire and Rick Bayless is someone I respect and admire enormously. And Rick said a lot of interesting things. He’s a super intelligent and super thoughtful guy. And he did say in some ways I think I do have an advantage in terms of learning the cuisine not growing up in it because I don’t have to be wedded to the way my grandmother made something. That doesn’t have to be like the ultimate version of that dish for me. I can go and find many different versions of a dish that many grandmothers made and I can pick and choose like just based on taste and based on what I’m learning as an outsider… there are ways in which being an outsider gives you a different kind of perspective in some ways a more instructive perspective than being an insider.
BRITTANY: No, certainly—trust me, I did not arrive at this job through traditional means so I can understand that.
FRANCIS: Exactly, exactly. So he brought that up and I’m like oh, that’s super interesting, that’s super valid. But when I heard that interview that he did with Dan I was surprised to hear… Well I was really interested when he said wow I’ve never really thought about whether or not being white has given me any kind of advantage and his instinct was to say like no I don’t think it has because I still had to pull in the work… and then he says well maybe if there was one it’s that I can maybe talk to somebody in a certain way. And I think that’s the key. One of the things that’s really hard to talk about white privilege is, look, I’m not saying you didn’t have to put in the work.
FRANCIS: Rick Bayless put in the goddamn work. But being a very mediagenic, very sort of mainstream good-looking white American certainly gave him advantages in terms of the media. The most succinct way I heard someone talk about this idea of white privilege is not that the game is set on easy for you—it’s that the game is set on harder for someone else. And actually someone was telling me like a teacher actually was doing this, um, had this exercise in their classroom. And they put the garbage can at the front of the room, told everyone to take a piece of paper ball it up and throw it in the garbage can. And everyone who gets it in the garbage can gets a point but you had to sit at your desk and do it. So all the kids in the front row made the basket and they were like ‘Yeah!’ and most of the kids in the second row made the basket and they were like ‘Yeah!’ and then all the kids in the back row missed the basket and they were like… that’s kind of what white privilege is like. You didn’t choose to be where you’re sitting, right? It’s not like you couldn’t have the skill to shoot it in from the first, second, third or fourth row. Like you did it — congratulations, awesome. It just means that you might not realize it but the person throwing behind you has a little bit of a tougher time doing it and you might never have to see that it because you just look at the basket. And for myself, the same way, like I sort of regret talking about that classroom exercise in terms of white privilege because I’m not white but I experience plenty of forms of privilege in my life for sure. And I’m not always aware of where my privilege gets in the way of my being this where someone else with the same level of intelligence and skill and intentionality might have a different harder time doing what I’m able to do.
FRANCIS: So just privilege generally is a hard but important thing for us to keep examining in ourselves.
BRITTANY: Well, Francis, you said at the beginning of the interview that you can’t talk about food for more than five minutes without people getting bored. Do you think we did a good enough job disproving that?
FRANCIS: [laughing] You’re trying to get me to grade the show.
BRITTANY: Maybe a little bit.
FRANCIS: Well yeah because we didn’t have to talk about food. We didn’t have to sit here and talk about like ‘Oh my god, this pizza and tomatoes the acidity of the tomatoes balances so well with the cream and the cheese… Oh my god and the chew and the oh my god and you can really taste how long it was fermented… Oh my god…’
BRITTANY: We talked I did I think we did manage to push beyond that a little bit. Well thank you so much for coming.
FRANCIS: Thank you for having me.
BRITTANY: So I don’t know about you guys, but this episode made me hungry. I might have to get some tacos after this. But first, let’s review our buffet of clips. Today on our journey through the complicated culinary world, you heard Alton Brown describe our modern food culture on the Eater Upsell podcast. And the clips on expensive vs. cheap food and Rick Bayless confronting his privilege both came from The Sporkful.
This episode was produced by Rose Reid, Sarah Abdurrahman, and myself with help from Kate Parkinson-Morgan.
It was edited by Annie-Rose Strasser.
Special thanks to Austin Mitchell and Eric Eddings.
Our theme music was made by Micah Vellian and our ad music was made by Mark Phillips.
Additional music in the show was made by Bobby Lord.
The show was mixed by Matthew Boll.
Sampler is a production of Gimlet Media.
Thanks to our sponsor Sonos. Sonos is a smart wireless speaker system that allows you to stream your favorite music— or podcasts— to any room, or every room in your home. To learn more about Sonos, go to Sonos.com/Sampler that’s sonos.com/Sampler.
Thanks to our sponsor Squarespace, the easiest way to create a beautiful website, portfolio, or online store. Squarespace features easy-to-use templates and 24-7 support. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the offer code “Sampler” to get ten percent off your first purchase, and to show your support for our show. Squarespace… build it beautiful.
———————AD BREAK END——————