Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 8.8: On Our Plate
March 25, 2013
Soon to be festless and restless, I journeyed to J-town and KQED for the last few events of an incredible CAAMFest experience. The movies, as usual, have been profound – entertaining, gritty, artful, inspirational and moving. Each year brings me to a deeper place. It’s a trueing process, bringing the wheels into alignment. No matter how much I eat at the table of Asian American experience, I’m always starving for more. We CAAMFesters are insatiable. Films are food – food for thought and heart, and food for the road that we must travel.
Food. Momofuku’s David Chang was on KQED as I drove, walking back the dog a bit on his controversial and by self-admission, drunken, comments on California Cuisine (“every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate.” For more Chang, read this article. But he again said things that turned my stomach a bit – that California and the Bay Area, while being innovative socially and technologically, did not challenge the status quo of food significantly. And what precisely is the status quo of food that must be challenged? As a doctor, I would say obesity, diabetes, processed, unhealthy and fast food – and the fact that millions of people in this country and abroad are starving every day. And the Bay Area has challenged this status quo in many ways, from Alice Waters and organic food to Eric Mar and the Board of Supervisors tangling with McDonald’s over toys in Happy Meals. And people like Anamika Khanna of Kasa Indian Eatery and Denise Tran of Bun Mee challenge the status quo by making healthy Asian cuisine with quality ingredients at an affordable price. This is not even to mention all the restaurateurs and activists pushing for food evolution and innovation through pop-ups, farmers markets, school nutrition and food options for the less fortunate. If you want to make this a competition, David, I’m sure the Bay Area is up for a challenge. I’ll warn you in advance, though – both Denise and Anamika both started out as lawyers. The defense rests.
Food. I attended the Cook Salons and learned about food startups in Chai, Chocolates and Sauces. Three entrepreneurial women spoke about turning their sweet, bittersweet and spicy culinary dreams into reality. Paawan Kothari of The Chai Cart spoke of dissatisfaction working at IBM in marketing; she chose a route of personal engagement, starting with a bike-drawn chai trailer to now three Chai Cart locations and a place on Whole Food’s Shelves. Wendy Lieu of Socola (chocolate in Vietnamese) and Lisa Murphy of Sosu spoke about their processes in making their foods. There was a common thread in all of experimentation, gradients of flavor and innovation by skillfully combining unique ingredients. I don’t think that’s particular to the Asian American experience, but it is resonant with it, food as metaphor and symbol. The real story, as in film, is who’s on screen, behind the camera, or at the wheel of their own venture. What we do with our agency. As far as food goes, I’m more of a consumer than a producer, so I was really grateful for a look behind the scenes.
Grace Lee (The Grace Lee Project and an anticipated film about activist Grace Lee Boggs) will be behind the wheel of a new PBS documentary on Asian American food, tentatively called “Asian Chops”. (Ugh. I hope a better title comes out of the oven.) Well over a hundred community members gathered at KQED to give their feedback and insights on the topic, as well as hear from Lee, private chef and food writer Marc Matsumoto, Louise Lo of KQED and Tim Luym of The Attic who also provided amazing food for the event. The panel was moderated by Leslie Sbracco of “Check Please Bay Area” who noted that her job makes her “work her ass on!” Grace Lee prefaced the panel by saying that “food is palatable to all people, and is a conduit to unexpected stories.” Marc noted food was a comfort and connection to his single mother who taught cooking classes at their home to make ends meet. His interest in food was rekindled when he lived in New York and realized food could bring people together. “Food is a road map to get back to my heritage and roots.” Tim said “food can bridge the gap between fortunate and less fortunate people…it can be art.” He strives to “not waste food and making it with integrity.” “Food, art, culture – it’s all language.”
I had no idea that there were master street chefs who adjusted their curries for the humidity. We talk about dishes made with love, and experience food as an ingredient or even cause for connection. “Food is family and friends,” no doubt, but it’s also discipline, perfectionism and care to professionals and many home chefs. It’s also a venue for recombination (potato chip papadum, bulgogi scramble, kimchi benedict) and potential offense. Chino Latino, a Minneapolis restaurant has a reputation for edgy – read racist – advertising. They market themselves as “street food from the hot zones.” They have a picture of an Asian woman with the tagline “Sexy Pictures” on their homepage http://www.chinolatino.com. “See what’s hot.” I hope that the KQED series can do some work with how racism bends our forks, so to speak. Fork you, Chino Latino.
Why does even food have to tick us off sometimes?
I guess it’s what’s on our plate. I’m glad there are healthier options available.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. You can find more of his writing and performance (including some of his food and culture based poems) atwww.RaviChandraMD.com, where he invites you to sign up for an occasional newsletter. His Pacific Heart blog is at Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.