| Arts & Culture
Food What We Talk About When We Talk About Food: Noah Cho and Bryan Washington in Conversation
“The food scene in the Bay Area is dying because everything is so expensive; rent is expensive.”
Noah Cho: Help yourself to some Frito pie, because this is one of the most magnificent things.
Bryan Washington: It looks so intimidating.
Noah: It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but I feel like it was a really good decision. I’m happy to be experiencing it with you, a Houston local.
Bryan: Having the experience. You know what I mean? But try their potato salad.
Noah: We would never get barbecue this delicious in California.
Bryan: Irrespective of where in Texas you are, the region’s pretty synonymous with barbecue. I feel like, sometimes, you’ve gotta drive a little bit out of Houston proper to really get it, but The Pit Room’s pretty rad.
Noah: I’ve heard that about other cities in Texas, too, like Dallas or Austin. I mean there’s Franklin’s, of course.
Bryan: People who are into Franklin’s are really into Franklin’s, so I’ll never be one to shit on Franklin’s, because I don’t want them to come after me. But if you’re looking for black barbecue specifically, a lot of the folks who are making that food simply can’t afford to live inside of the Loop. They get pushed further and further out as the city rearranges itself. Every Sunday, my family, we’d drive out west of the city in order to find black barbecue.
Noah: That makes me think about San Francisco. I’ve only lived in the Bay Area for ten years.
Bryan: Is the Bay one of those places where you have to have a sort of life there, in order to say, “Okay, I live here?”
Noah: I think San Francisco, no; Oakland, yes. I really love living in Oakland. I grew up in a pretty weird place called Orange County, formerly the Republican hotbed of the state. When I moved to the Bay Area, I was so smitten with it: the weather was nice, the air was clean, people were friendly. Then I came to visit Texas, and I’m like, “Oh. This is what actual friendly people are like.”
Bryan: Where all in Texas have you been?
Noah: Houston and Austin.
Bryan: That’s very self-selecting, right there. I feel like the culture of Houston is very inviting, partly because of the diversity here. Austin marks itself as super diverse, hyper-accepting, but it’s like, “Okay, you have not so many people that aren’t white that live here.” So it’s not really been tested in any shape or form.
I have a friend that just moved out to the Bay, and they aren’t a massive fan of it. They immediately pointed to the people. Which is so at odds with what I would have expected.
Noah: If it was San Francisco proper, I totally see that. I think San Francisco is not friendly anymore, because nobody is from San Francisco—it’s changed so much. I think I read that it’s the only major city that’s getting whiter every year. And Oakland, too, has changed in the ten years I’ve been there. The community feeling is still there. But what community is it, you know?
What I wrestle with is that I gentrified by moving there—I’m a teacher and a writer, so it’s not like I have a ton of money, and I don’t think I displaced anybody where I live because it’s a really old house that’s just been rented out forever. But you know, where do I shop? And I’m really into new restaurants—what are those new restaurants pushing out?
Bryan: This is actually a question I got when I was touring for Lot —“I am a white person that just moved to X, Y, Z neighborhood, and I shop locally, I eat at all the family restaurants, and I don’t really outsource the things that I need in my daily life, beyond that particular neighborhood . . . but I am gentrifying, nevertheless. So am I doing something wrong?”
And there’s not a clean answer to that. I think that Houston, especially, underlines that now, like the fact that we’re a zoneless city. Now I live near Chinatown, but I used to stay out in the Heights, which is north of here. And it was my apartment complex, and then an elementary school, and then a bail bonds shop, and then a gas station and a Thai restaurant. And it was like, okay, what’s the scope of that particular community, and what are you bringing to it? Are its newer residents able to experience the fullness of it in a way that doesn’t detract from the folks that have been there for a very long time? Because that part of the Heights was historically a Latinx neighborhood. And obviously this is something that cities are grappling with all over the country.
Noah: This is my third time out here this year, and I really like it. People in the Bay Area might kill me for saying this, but I think the food here is better.
Bryan: It’s the best food in the country.
Noah: The food scene in the Bay Area is dying because everything is so expensive; rent is expensive. Soleil Ho writes a lot about what is happening right now, locally, because everything’s closing. In Oakland, there was this ninety-year-old Italian deli that shut down because they just couldn’t pay the rent anymore. And people are going to the city council in San Francisco, saying, “We cannot afford to keep these restaurants open. We can’t staff anybody.” Nobody can live in the city, even with a fifteen-dollar minimum wage. The median price of an apartment in San Francisco is $3,000 a month.
Bryan: I feel like Houston’s such a great place to be an artist, regardless of your medium, because the cost of living is so low. It’s becoming more difficult for some of our legacy mom-’n’-pop food spots to sustain a foothold in the city as a result of rising rents, but I don’t think it’s as exacerbated here as it is in the Bay, as it is in New York, as it is in those quote-unquote “food cities.” Because the livability here is just really good.
We certainly have our issues, though, right? The way in which we approach our homeless population, and our residents with housing instability; the efforts the city does not take to ensure that black trans women, for example, are welcomed into their respective communities; the ways in which the city largely neglects folks of color who were wildly affected by the past few hurricanes—not just Harvey, but the litany of lowercase storms that we’ve had throughout the years. And the ways in which certain parts of town are starting to get washed away in these storms, and then re-developers come in, and they flip it; and now you have a part of town, like East End, which is all of a sudden really happening, which is to say that now it’s a lot more white. But Latinx residents developed that community, and they got pushed out. Most folks here can’t afford to pay the rent on a multi-thousand-dollar townhouse.
So we do have our issues, but as far as American cities go, is where I’m the happiest. this
Noah: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the issues that Houston’s facing, because a lot of big cities are facing them. You often hear that the only black and brown people that are hyper-visible in San Francisco are homeless people. You were talking about the Latinx part of Houston, how it’s changed. That was the Mission, in San Francisco, right? It’s a heavily Latinx community, and that’s where Zuckerberg and all those other tech people put down their roots. Now it’s one of the most expensive places in San Francisco to live. And that, of course, pushed a lot of people out to Oakland—I think Oakland is number six in the most expensive rental markets in the country now. And again, it’s like, “Where are the black and brown people going in California?” Especially black people; Oakland was a black city.
The food scene in the Bay Area is dying because everything is so expensive; rent is expensive.
One of the reasons I love Oakland is because the Korean food is actually good there. I have this bias around Korean food, and it might be similar to your bias around barbecue. Because I grew up in southern California—where it is the best, in my opinion; maybe that’s a family bias, but I do think the biggest population of Korean Americans is in LA. The way Korean food in Korea has diverged from the Korean food in LA is interesting—Los Angeles Korean food is very different, it’s its own thing.
Bryan: Is it as distinct as regional mainland Chinese food is independent from American Chinese food?
Noah: If you go to San Francisco Chinatown, you go to an old-school Cantonese place—that’s kind of what I equate LA Korean food to. It’s not catered-to-the-Westerners food, but it has been here for a long time. Of course it’s evolving. There are layers to that, too, because there’s also a colonial legacy.
Bryan: It’s really fascinating. You know about yaka mein, yeah? You have these black soldiers who leave New Orleans; they’re in Korea for the duration of the Korean War. They return to New Orleans, they miss those flavors, they don’t have access to them—so they recreate, to the best of their abilities and given what spices they have, a simulacrum of the noodle dishes they fell in love with over there. And over generations, it becomes a low-key mainstay in New Orleans. People don’t go to New Orleans for yaka mein, you know? They’re not going to Willie Mae’s and asking for fucking yaka mein. But it is something that people know of there, and it becomes a kind of shorthand.
In Houston, a lot of the regional cuisines the folks are entering the city with are definitely in conversation with that of their neighbors; but depending on the chefs you talk to in the city, some might say that Houston is one of the handful of US cities in which you can get those regional cuisines in iterations that are closest to home. Because folks are literally just bringing their recipes. And they’re not catering to white audiences in the city; they’re catering to communities like the ones they came from, within the city, and there’s a market for that. You could probably argue that, by merit of proximity alone, Houston’s cuisine is in itself a sort of fusion; the fact that these can all coexist with one another. Like, I lived next to a Japanese restaurant, and my family ate homestyle Japanese food two or three times out of the week, and then Jamaican food two or three times out of the week because my mom’s Jamaican, and Vietnamese food the rest of the time. Plus the barbecue.
Noah: Sounds awesome.
Bryan: Yeah. So having a diversity of culinary experiences wasn’t strange to me. I had Filipino neighbors, I had Spanish neighbors, I had Iranian neighbors, and we’d eat at their places. When you’re a kid, you don’t appreciate it, right? It wasn’t until I started traveling a bit more extensively outside of the city that I saw what a bubble Houston is. I’ve done more than a few interviews where people have asked, “Okay, what is your ideal image of a Houstonian?” Or “What’s your ideal image of a Houston neighborhood?” And the point is that it doesn’t fucking exist. There are just too many different ways to live in the city.
As far as major American cities go, you’re not spending a lot of money to make a life, find a community here. And you can find those communities because we’re so diverse. So I think there are a lot of little things that make this a very livable city. It’s understood that Houston’s got the most diversity in the country, but we’re not shouting it from the rooftops, either, which I think has played into why it seems like we’re so under the radar.
Noah: I’ve read all these articles about Californians moving to Texas.
Bryan: Everybody’s moving to Austin from California. I was in Austin for the Texas Book Fest. If it was a person of color that I was talking to, they would immediately point to how much the city had changed. Because the city’s foundation is molding to accommodate newfound residents with money, so a lot of the folks who are mainstays within that city are being pushed out because they can’t afford to live there.
Noah: Yeah, I mean even Koreatown in Los Angeles—not that many Koreans live there. They do business there, and there are some that live there, but it’s a predominantly Latinx area, or was, and now there are a lot of white folks moving in and changing that dynamic again.
Maybe there’s a comparison to make between LA Korean food and Korea-Korean food, and Vietnamese food in Vietnam versus Vietnamese food in Houston. I think there is a conversation that’s happening even in Vietnam, with a lot of the chefs, Vietnamese Americans, or people who immigrated and are looking to return, going back and bringing Southern flavors there.
Bryan: That’s super interesting. It’s pretty close to the conversation some folks are having around here, although, thankfully, not too often: What should a customer reasonably be paying for what they might describe as casual Vietnamese food?
Noah: My feeling is that it’s worth what it’s worth. You know, I’ve been dismissive about a ramen place in Oakland called Ramen Shop—it’s the most hipster, gentrified ramen you can imagine, like twenty bucks a bowl. And I don’t like their ramen, but I shouldn’t have been so flippant about the cost. Because it’s difficult to make good ramen! All those Asian soups—Korean soups are a little different, a lot of them are pretty quick—but making ramen, making pho, making oxtail soup; that’s a lot of labor. And it takes a lot of ingredients, good ingredients that aren’t cheap. Like beef is not cheap anymore, and beef is going to continue to get more expensive. I guess that’s why, in the Bay Area at least, chicken pho is starting to take off.
It was that same question with Chinese food or Indian food or Mexican food, people not wanting to pay X amount for it, even if it’s made with the best-sourced ingredients. And that’s a mixed message, because you have customers in the Bay Area who really do want locally sourced food.
Bryan: I don’t think that an insignificant amount of the disdain some folks have for paying higher prices for minority-made foods is that they are minority-made foods. Right? No one is going to four- and five-star French restaurants and saying, “Why am I paying fucking forty dollars for the soup?” It’s just sort of understood that there’s a level of craft that was cultivated and retained in order to put that bowl in front of you. How is that divorced from the level of craft that was put into making this bowl of phở? Or this bánh mì ? Or this jerk chicken?
In Houston, if you go into most Vietnamese restaurants and most Chinese restaurants and most Southern restaurants, the staff in the back of the house is Latinx, right? So I don’t think that that fact is divorced from the sort of disdain for paying higher prices for all of this food, either.
Noah: It’s definitely the same in the Bay Area, in terms of who’s actually cooking. The authenticity conversation can be really obnoxious, but that plays into it, right? “Oh, yeah, this is really authentic.” Yet you go into the kitchen, and here is a Latinx person making this dish, and often they have a better handle on it than people from those cultures.
Bryan: Because these folks have been cooking it every day for the past fifteen years.
Noah: Right. I consider myself pretty good at making Korean food, but I guarantee you there are Latinx chefs in Korean kitchens in Los Angeles that are better than me.
Bryan: They’re doing it to work, to live, so they have to keep that level. And in a city like Houston, where the bar is so high, no one is checking who’s in the back of the kitchen if you want, like, Peking duck, or bánh cuốn, or whatever else. Most legacy outlets aren’t, like, regularly profiling the folks in the back of those kitchens just churning out these extremely high-quality meals.
Noah: You know, Bourdain wasn’t perfect, but I think one of the things he always did emphasize was that. He devoted full episodes to his show to it: “These are the people . . .”
Bryan: “These are the people who are cooking this for you,” yeah.
Noah: I think about that all the time. Where did Chipotle come from? From Steve Ellis, who lived in the Mission district of San Francisco, where he would go get a burrito. That’s where he got that idea, and he took it and made a billion-dollar franchise. If you go down the assembly line of a Mission taqueria, it’s literally what Chipotle is. But there are now far fewer Latinx people in the Mission.
For many years, when people thought of a California restaurant, it was Chez Panisse; maybe Spago in LA. Like that whole farm to table ideal—“I’m going to serve you just the peach, by itself, because it’s a good peach.” That would define the California ethos. I’m wondering if there’s a similar place you can think of for Houston?
Bryan: I’d say there isn’t. There are certainly the restaurants that folks who are writing about Houston, or folks who come to the city are turning to, and pointing as sort of the landmark figures. When Alison Cook, a seminal Houston Chronicle writer, does her , it’s a litany of cuisines from a litany of regions within those respective countries; so you have a restaurant like Hugo’s, let’s say, which would be one of the upscale Mexican food. And then you also have a restaurant like Himalaya, which would be regional Indian food. And then you have a restaurant like Theodore Rex, by local chef Justin Yu, which is molded on many different cultures. And they’re all placed on the same tier. I think the Houston food scene definition, insofar as one exists, would be the ability to have access to all these different cuisines. 100 Restaurants in Houston feature
I don’t think an insignificant amount of the disdain some folks have for paying higher prices for minority-made foods is that they are minority-made foods.
Noah: I don’t know if you were following when Soleil Ho started at the San Francisco Chronicle ; she wrote a controversial but I think very fair of Chez Panisse, asking, review what is this restaurant now? And I think she’s right that it’s a little frozen in time. One of the restaurants she compared it to is Café Ohlone, a popup where they make indigenous California and Ohlone foods, and maybe that’s the actual California cuisine. And that’s why I was asking, is there an equivalent establishment restaurant like that here?
Bryan: A lovely thing about Houston is that I’m saying “no,” but someone else might call bullshit and name five different restaurants. But I don’t think any person you ask would name one singular place. That might point to the Original Ninfa’s, let’s say, or they might point to Fu Fu Café—which is this late-night Chinese restaurant—and that could be their idea of a mainstay in Houston, an establishment that has weathered all these years and these changes.
I think the tradition question, and whether a name can exist on its own, and what that name has to adapt to, is hand-in-hand with the cost question for Houston residents; because I know there are four or five different places in Bellaire that I could take you to, and you will have the best bánh mì of your life for like four bucks. So if you can do that, then why would we drive down to Montrose and go to Uchi, and pay $389 for a meal that is name-brand-backed, and in many ways is critically-backed, but you might not love? Most Houstonians aren’t going to go to a restaurant and drop sixty bucks for a burger. It’s cost-prohibitive. So restaurateurs have to be conscious of that, like, “How can I humanely source these ingredients and keep them at cost for the residents, while serving something that the community will show up for? Whilst they have all these other options?” I don’t think it’s a bad thing that they have to keep that in the back of their heads, because it keeps a relationship between customer and restaurateur, as opposed to a one-sided conversation.
Noah: I think about messages sent to residents. Like having a cash-only Asian restaurant is just as much of a message as a no-cash restaurant, though the messages are very different.
Bryan: Very different. There’s a restaurant called the Turkey Leg Hut in the Third Ward. Black-owned institution, wildly successful locally. Recently, neighbors in the neighborhood have cried foul for the amount of smoke coming from the restaurant. Very coded message, right? Because it’s like, “Too many black people at this restaurant. You’re parking all over the neighborhood, we don’t want you here.”
Noah: That NIMBYism is everywhere. I think about all the minority-owned businesses in the Bay Area that the neighbors complain about, and then the businesses have to put up signs saying, “Don’t disturb the neighbors. Peace and quiet.” Those neighbors and landlords, they just hold so much power in their communities to regulate these things. Is your view that the Third Ward is changing?
Bryan: Every neighborhood in Houston is changing. Some significantly slower than others, but changing nonetheless. It’s not that gentrification isn’t happening in Houston to the extent that it’s happening in Chicago and New York and everywhere else, it’s just slower—partly I think because of the cost-prohibitiveness for many of the residents, but a solution to that is just to outsource residents, right? Then you have folks moving in who can afford to pay. And all of a sudden you get a skyscraper in Montrose where there wasn’t one before.
Chinatown, like Bellaire-ish, where I live, isn’t gentrifying as rapidly, sure; but Montrose is. There are ways in which the city capitalizes on the alleged notoriety of its neighborhoods: “Oh, yeah, Beyonce’s from the Third Ward,” but that’s the conversation they want to have about that neighborhood, not the ways in which the schools throughout it are loudly segregated.
Noah: There’s that myth-making that you’re talking about in Oakland, too: “Oh, Ryan Coogler is from Oakland. And Kehlani is from Oakland.” But the Oakland they grew up in was very different. Coogler did put Oakland in the opening of Black Panther , but it was shot in Atlanta, because what he was looking for to frame that scene doesn’t exist in Oakland anymore.
Fruitvale Station is where Oscar Grant was shot, and if you go to Fruitvale Station now, one of the biggest, hottest restaurants is right next to it. It’s called Nyum Bai, it’s owned by a Cambodian woman, it’s great. And yet you look at all the high-rises going up there, all the apartment complexes and new businesses—what Fruitvale Station is has completely changed.
Bryan: Montrose, where we’re eating right now, is certainly that way. Two decades ago, this place would not be here. And the conversations that are being had in this city around food are changing because of the ways in which the scope is magnified. Because Bourdain was here, and he’s talked about how great Houston food is. Because Chang was here, he’s talked about how great Houston food is. So folks are aware, and they come down here and they see it. But I think a big reason why Houston doesn’t play a much larger role in the national food narrative is that its residents—I don’t want to say that we’re not as vocal, and I don’t want to say that we don’t care, but I think it’s somewhere in between.
Noah: Or they’re just like, “Oh yeah, that’s just Houston,” and they don’t need to promote it.
Bryan: Very much that. I think that’s a gift, because it’s one less thing to give me a fucking headache, but I wonder how long it’ll last, at the same time
I think a big draw of living in this city, in all of its diversity, is living the life that you’d like to live, whatever that looks like, as long as you aren’t infringing on anyone else, and also sticking up for your neighbor’s ability to do the same. I grew up just west of the city proper, and my neighborhood was pretty diverse. Just because of my particular revolutions through the city, I’m very, very seldom in predominantly white spaces now. So it’s really only when I’ve gone to book events, ones bracketed by cost-prohibitiveness, that I find myself in predominantly white spaces. I did a reading fairly recently in midtown, on the top of this fucking restaurant, on the roof, right? And it was me, and a Korean woman in the audience, and we were holding it down for people of color.
But obviously that isn’t even remotely indicative at all of the general interest in the arts in the city. The audiences for free shows in the park are wildly diverse. Outdoor symphony audiences are wildly diverse. When I did my launch for Lot here, back in the spring, the audience was as diverse as the characters in the text. So I think that pervasive whiteness within the arts here is largely contained to a certain class of well-meaning, moneyed white people attending ticketed book events featuring folks of color for the sake of optics (and whatever clout those optics might yield for them , specifically), which isn’t a local issue so much as a recurring motif within this country’s entire publishing industry.
When I did my launch for Lot here, back in the spring, the audience was as diverse as the characters in the text.
Noah: I can only speak from my perspective, but a lot of the Asian writers? We know each other. In the Bay, specifically, but I think even more nationally. We find our way to each other pretty easily.
Bryan: I think it’s similar for the younger cohort of black writers, black fiction writers, or younger people of color doing things for legacy mags. Everyone’s sort of aware of each other, because the pool is just that small. It may seem like it’s grown, but that’s just because there were so fucking few people that were being able to work in these spaces prior, without this sort of mandate of, “Okay, you’re the one for these three or four years; and now you’re the one for these three or four years.”
Noah: It’s also because of publishing.
Bryan: Yeah. It’s prohibitive, I mean it’s lack of access.
Noah: And so coastal, too.
Bryan: Right, although I think that’s changing. I don’t think you have to be in New York, I don’t think you have to be LA; I don’t think you have to be based on a coast anymore. I think that that’s one good thing, as far as publishing changes. And I don’t love New York, to say the least. I couldn’t do what I do, living in New York.
Noah : It is really nice having a mass around you. I don’t know if I would have those connections, or a writing career, without social media.
Bryan: I certainly wouldn’t.
Noah: Years ago, there was a NPR Twitter discussion about interracial love, and I just was tweeting about being a product of that, and what that means. Kat Chow, from NPR, was like, “Hey, would you want to expand that into a larger piece?” I met Nicole Chung, who said, “Do you want to write for The Toast?” Somebody from the Atlantic saw my Toast essay, and asked, “Do you want to write a piece for the Atlantic?” Now I am working on something bigger. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but I love writing it.
Bryan: When it comes to any creative project, I maintain that if it’s not fun, there’s no reason to do it. And I’m glad that I finished my new novel, Memorial . I think part of the difficulty of it is that there are not a lot of comps for it. Not a lot of places to turn for what I was trying to do. Lot was kind of like that, too, although also not really. There’s just not a lot of contemporary literary fiction set in Houston, featuring characters that are of and from Houston. So one thing I’ve been happy about is that I’ve heard in different pockets that there’s a growing interest in those narratives coming out of the city.
And it’s been interesting to see where narratives show up. I like when kids email me, like high schoolers, that’s the best feeling. A friend of a friend told me the other day that Lot was on the fucking Houston PD recommended reading list, and I’m just like, “What?” Are they thinking of Lot when they fucking pull me over for no reason?
Noah: I didn’t even know [the police] have recommended reading lists.
You were mentioning there were certain people you had to show Memorial to, right? To feel okay about it?
Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. I have a few friends that I all but wrote it towards. Whenever I write about queerness, and the way that it intersects throughout my life, I’ve got folks in my life that are vehemently not here for that. But that’s okay. I’ve just been very fortunate with my parents, and my friends.
I was just in New York, and I talked to a few people who have read it, and it was the first time that I was having a conversation about it with someone who wasn’t a friend or an editor. I think that I’ll have to come up with a way to negotiate that conversation.
Noah: Do you think you’ll do a Bay Area tour date?
Bryan: I want to. I mean, a lot of my tour dates have just been an excuse for me to check out everybody’s Koreatown.
Noah: We don’t have a Koreatown; we have a Korea Street, in San Jose, which is further south. And in Oakland there’s a tiny neighborhood where I spend a lot of my time, because that’s where I found the only good soondubu place. It’s like, “I’m having a shitty day, I think I’m going to go get some soondubu, and ask them to make it spicy enough that I feel nothing else for the rest of the day.”
Bryan: I feel that way about soondubu, I feel that way about bánh mì, I feel that way about beef patties.
Noah: I think pho fills that niche for me, too.
Bryan: Do you have good pho out there?
Noah: So some would say no. I would say there is pho that I’ve enjoyed. Orange County, where I grew up, has one of the largest populations of Vietnamese people in the country; the pho down there is incredible. So of course when I went to the Bay Area . . . it’s kind of like Mexican food, you can find really good Mexican food in the Bay Area, but compared to LA, no. Regional Chinese, much better in LA. What the Bay does well is that local California style, mid-range restaurant cooking; very good. And there are good paradigms of each type of cuisine in the Bay Area. Like there is one really good Sichuan restaurant.
I don’t think the ramen is particularly good in the Bay Area. LA has good ramen. But I’ve spent a good amount of time in Japan, and nothing’s quite like that. I’m sure you ate some really good ramen while you were in Japan, too. That was such a great piece .
Bryan: Thanks for reading it. Obviously I am privileged to be in a position to write for The New Yorker , of all places. But it’s interesting . . . I think there is a way of writing about food, about eating, and about the connections and intersections you make, that is, although this is maybe basic to say, difficult to condense into an algorithm as a direct result of its layers. And I’m not in love with the idea of universality, or something that’s universally interesting. But there’s something deeply attractive to me about food writing that’s working on four, five, and six different levels, and it certainly wasn’t something that I sought to do.
Noah: I didn’t write about food initially. I was writing about my racial identity; I was writing about teaching, my educational philosophy. And it was Nicole at Catapult who was like, “Hey, you tweet a lot about food. You want to write about it?” Even when the column started, I hadn’t intended it to be about Korean food. When I sit down to write, I just kind of search and find what’s in my heart. I don’t know what it says about me that it always winds up being this.
Bryan: I think it’s a great thing. I mean, when my editor reached out to me about The New Yorker ’s food column, I thought, I don’t know. I’m just someone who eats. Like I don’t know that I can say anything particularly revelatory, or paradigm-shifting, as far as that is concerned.
Noah: I consider you one of the best food writers in the country. You, and Soleil Ho, Helen Rosner, Jaya Saxena for Eater . . .
Bryan: Soleil is excellent, Tejal Rao is excellent, Korsha Wilson is excellent, John Birdsall is excellent, I mean all these folks. Eric Kim and Samin Nosrat do such awesome work. Danny Chau, he’s left The Ringer , and he’s excellent. Frank Shyong’s work over at the LA Times is so stellar.
Noah: I don’t know if you’ve been reading Rax King’s work—she has a column in Catapult called . Her writing is hilarious. And did you see Jenny G. Zhang’s Store-Bought Is Fine boba piece ? Oh, man, I was having so many ’90s-growing-up-an-Asian-teenager-in-Southern-California flashbacks reading that.
Bryan: There are ways in which folks are really pushing into these legacy and mainstream food narratives without much regard for, like, “Will white people understand this,” right? Like beyond just, “I brought this meal to elementary school and kids shit on me every day for a year; and now I really appreciate it.” Which is a valid narrative, and a very important narrative. But there are so many more. The ways in which folks are taking those narratives, and in some places splitting them and allowing them to grow and multiply—it’s been really rad.
Noah: I do think it helps to have people in positions to allow writers to do that. One of the things I told Nicole was, “I do not want to italicize any Korean words in this at all. I don’t italicize it when I’m speaking about it, so I don’t want to italicize it here. I feel really strongly about it.” And she was like, “Yeah, we don’t italicize non-English words in the magazine, anyway.” So there are no italics anywhere in the column, and I love that.
Bryan: I feel extremely strongly about it, too, particularly when I’m writing about this particular city. Because the implication of a dominant language in this city, what does that mean? In Houston, if you’re not speaking Spanish, then everything that you’re saying should be italicized, if we’re operating on that paradigm.
Noah: When does it stop getting italicized? “Taco” isn’t anymore.
Bryan: When more white people can be comfortable. When they can picture what you’re saying. Because people know “taco,” it’s not as allegedly foreign.
Noah: Lately I’ve noticed “kimchi” not being italicized. The evolution of kimchi in this country is such an interesting story of assimilation. I grew up around a bunch of Asians, so if I brought kimchi for lunch, people would more likely ask me for some than make fun of me for it. But going to a farmer’s market now and seeing some bearded hipster selling vaguely fermented cabbage, and calling it kimchi? It’s weird. Unsettling. Disorienting?
When I sit down to write, I just kind of search and find what’s in my heart. I don’t know what it says about me that it always winds up being [food].
Because on the one hand, it’s like yeah, that’s cool that people like this thing that everybody eats every day in Korea; but do you actually get what it is? Do you get what it’s for? I don’t want to tell anybody how they should use kimchi, because kimchi’s an infinite thing. But it’s really odd to go to a grocery store and hear this guy say, “Oh, the probiotics in here are great.” That was a Korean government plot to make people eat kimchi—that’s how they sold it to the West, which was very smart of them. But now that is the dominant narrative. Kimchi is women’s labor. That’s historically what it was, something women gathered to do—to make together. Do people really understand and respect that history? But on the other hand, I also think anybody can and should make kimchi. Have you ever made kimchi before?
Bryan: Mm-mmm. It intimidates me.
Noah: It’s really fun. There’s a phrase in Korean, “son mat,” which more or less means “the taste of your hands.” So, whatever you cook has that taste in it. When you bake bread, it’s your bread, because it was your hands that did that.
And I don’t know a) whether that concept translates well to Western people, or b) that people think about that when they’re making it. But when I make kimchi, I really think about the labor as I’m salting every leaf and tearing up the cabbage. I’m thinking about what flavor my little biracial hands are putting in this food right now. So if someone wants to make kimchi, I’d urge them to think about that, too.
Bryan: That’s ideal. Because it is labor. It’s so easy to separate ourselves as consumers from the actual production. And then you have the price conversation, and then you have a conversation about respecting the cuisine. You find yourself tweeting, “All Indian food is disgusting,” or some parallel hideousness, because food becomes a sort of entity that’s wildly separated from your conception of what is normal, or what is a mainstay in your very particular reality.
Noah: Those “controversial food take” tweets were something. People went wild.
Bryan: Just log off. Oh my fucking god.
Noah: What is Indian food? If I asked that guy to explain it, in his own words, I don’t think he could. But if he tried, he would hear himself.
Bryan: There’s a certain amount of work that folks just don’t want to do. I think this is parallel to the conversation in literary fiction circles of writing outside of your own experience. I’ve been to more than a few readings where someone has said, “Hey, I’ve noticed that there’s a diversity of characters in your narratives. I also want to write about someone I am not.” At this particular reading, it was a white guy who wanted to write a Vietnamese narrator. “Can I do that?” he asked. You’re not asking me for permission, right? Because you know you can do it. You’re asking for absolution from criticism, which no one can give you.
Like, if you just wanted to do it, then you could start by simply respecting that particular community, and writing with humanity; there’s a certain amount of reading and research that you should be doing about and around that particular community; you should be spending time with that community, and within that community, whatever that means to you, and imbuing whatever characters you’re writing about and toward with the benefit of the doubt. Ideally, the conversation or the question would shift from “Can I do this?” to “How can I make this character a fully realized person, with their flaws and loves and trials and successes and dreams and hopes and tribulations, on the page?”, which is always the hardest job of all, no matter who you’re writing about. People aren’t any one or two or eight ways: they’re full of multitudes. Making that work on the page is fucking difficult. But that’s too much work. So people just ask if they’re “allowed” or not.
I think it’d be dishonest, at best, to have a monocultural narrative set in Houston. I think it was a privilege to grow up here, because you’re just surrounded by the world in a lot of ways. And I don’t think that you get that in much of, if not most of, the States.
Noah: I think I have to be grateful for that in California, too, that I was around other people. That I am “other people,” right? But then, there were also no black people in Orange County. I mean, Orange County was founded by the KKK. Do you know who Gustavo Arellano is? He used to write for the OC Weekly , and he wrote these histories of every Orange County city. These cities had been founded by the KKK. Anaheim, KKK. Yorba Linda, KKK. So that subtext is very deep in Orange County. If you leave the big cities in California—if you drive out of LA, or you drive out of San Francisco proper and go inland—you will see Confederate flags, and you will see Farmers for Trump, giant anti-Nancy Pelosi notices everywhere. And people don’t realize that California exists. Yes, San Francisco and LA have these progressive reputations, but you go an hour out, and it’s red. And it can be racist.
Bryan: Just by merit of the population, Houston is a pretty accepting city; I think it’s a pretty comfortable city to live in. You drive thirty minutes outside of Houston and you are back in the South. But the South contains multitudes, is the thing. The South is the most diverse region in this country, right? And that is unfortunately overshadowed by the explicit and implicit racism.
Noah: And there is such a thing as American cuisine, right? It originated here, and it originated in the South. Did you watch Mind of a Chef ? The Sean Brock season was very interesting to me.
Bryan: You know, it’s fascinating that you bring that up. I watch this one conversation from Ugly Delicious every couple of weeks, because it’s just fascinating—there’s Dollye Graham-Matthews and Brock, with Chang as this sort of arbiter of the conversation, and the way Graham-Matthews plainly says the thing: You can cook it if you want to. But know that we’ve been doing this for a very long time. We just ask that you respect it.
Noah: That’s my kimchi conversation. Make it. Take good care of it.
Bryan: I mean, Lord knows that I cook across cuisines on a regular basis. I love cooking Korean food. I love cooking Tex-Mex. I love cooking Jamaican food, and Filipino food, and Japanese food, and I’m deeply invested in honoring those cuisines, and their histories, and listening to folks who’ve cooked within them and honoring them, too. Living in Houston, none of that is particularly strange, or even noteworthy, which is maybe both strange and noteworthy.
The only thing the overwhelming majority of the people having this conversation are saying is: Just acknowledge and respect the fact that this is something that we’ve been doing for some time. Not saying that you can’t do it, but if you’re going to do it, please respect it. Don’t be a fucking asshole.