If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Possibly a Farewell

I thought for a while that I was eventually going to rehabilitate this blog, but I lost most of my desire to eat out once I decided I was eventually going to join the industry - all I want to do is cook! I keep a blog of my thoughts and ideas re: food/life elsewhere, and in writing I've reached certain positions regarding this scene. They can be summed up as such:

1) 95% of food writing, mine certainly included, is profoundly boring. Because you can't yet lick a computer screen, it's inherently the wrong medium.

2) I dislike most foodies, because they also tend to be very boring people. The conversations rarely move beyond "Have you been to so-and-so's new restaurant?" I'm paraphrasing Roger Ebert when I say that food should be ecstatic but still never more interesting than your company.

3) I am not comfortable with the ethics (or lack thereof) of most amateur restaurant blogs. I once was offered a restaurant-review job at a magazine. I wrote two reviews before deciding I was too young and too uninformed to fuck with someone else's livelihood. I don't think I'll ever feel old or informed enough.

4) Most restaurants I see opening in Manhattan feel soulless to me. I am uninterested in trying the vast majority of them, because too often they smell like PR buzzwords and cultural appropriation.

These days, the only places I'm interested in are Chinese places, because someday I'll be part of the young creative force shaping the future of Chinese food in America.

Speaking of which, strangers like me waaaay more when I tell them my next step is cooking school in China - their eyes light up. Most of the people I meet, through this blog and elsewhere, work in finance, and what I've learned is that pretty much everyone in finance loves food, and pretty much everyone in finance has a wildly impractical dream career they're dying to pursue. Obviously, many of us are in this field either because we have to be or feel we have to be, and it can be really hard to leave. I am so grateful that I went to college, grateful that I have a job and health insurance and savings in this economy, and triply grateful that I get to walk away from it and try something else when I so choose. The option to take risks, to invite the possibility of failing spectacularly, is an immense privilege.

As of yet, I have no time frame. I'm not leaving my job anytime soon, which gives me ample time to continue the research and networking I've started. If anybody has any leads on great Chinese cookbooks, let me know. I continue to eat with strangers in New York, so drop me a line. I would especially love to eat with restaurant industry professionals - I'll buy you a drink and pick your brain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tang


Half of my receipts from Xi'an Famous Foods and my old, old laptop.

I've become a regular at the St. Marks location of Xi'an Famous Foods since its opening two weeks ago. My dad is from Xi'an, and I was always begging for lamb growing up even though my mom, the cook in the family, hated the smell of it.

I was one of the pilgrims who trekked to Flushing regularly just to get a fix of lamb noodles down in Golden Mall's stuffy basement cafeteria. Liang Pi, the proprietor, was always there - bossy, sweaty, genial. After Anthony Bourdain featured Xi'an Famous on his Outer Boroughs episode of No Reservations, I could be heard loudly bitching about the descending hordes of white foodies, but secretly, I was so proud to see a Chinese immigrant restaurateur make it big.

And I sure as hell was happy to hear they were coming to the East Village. I announced to all my friends that there was pretty much no point in me eating anywhere else, and as you can see from the receipts above, I wasn't kidding.

The first night I went, they were selling an unidentified orange drink in those plastic boba cups sealed with little anime characters. People kept asking what it was, and General Manager Jason Wang, Liang Pi's son, kept saying in this gently exasperated tone, "I don't know, it's something my dad made." I bought one, thinking it was probably some weird/tasty Chinese beverage.

It was Tang.

No doubt about it. The same Tang of those obnoxious orangutan commercials you saw during after-school commercials, Tang of the sweet and chemical tang. I thought I'd been hosed like a roundeye until Gaby sent me this essay by novelist Yiyun Li. She writes,
The year I turned 16, a new product caught my eye. Fruit Treasure, as Tang was named for the Chinese market, instantly won everyone's heart. Imagine real oranges condensed into a fine powder! Equally seductive was the TV commercial, which gave us a glimpse of a life that most families, including mine, could hardly afford...Even though Tang was the most expensive fruit drink available, its sales soared. A simple bottle cost 17 yuan, a month's worth of lunch money. A boxed set of two became a status hostess gift. Even the sturdy glass containers that the powder came in were coveted. People used them as tea mugs, the orange label still on, a sign that you could afford the modern American drink. Even my mother had an empty Tang bottle with a snug orange nylon net over it, a present from one of her fellow schoolteachers. She carried it from the office to the classroom and back again as if our family had also consumed a full bottle.
Yiyun Li was born in 1972, making her younger than Liang Pi, but I want to make this exotic Tang narrative fit. I want it to fit because it's the kind of American Dream story I'm still sentimental for (even though my progressive education says I'm not supposed to be). I picture Liang Pi carefully mixing Tang and sealing each cup, preparing to open his shiny new East Village restaurant over Fourth of July weekend. His son Jason, 22, college-educated, and bilingual like me, is not in the picture. Kids like us don't associate Tang with a better life, we associate it with surfing orangutans.
The truth was, our family had never tasted Tang. Just think of how many oranges we could buy with the money spent on a bottle, my father reasoned. His resistance sent me into a long adolescent melancholy. I was ashamed by our lack of style and our life, with its taste of orange-peel water. I could not wait until I grew up and could have my own Tang-filled life.
The Tangy scenario I've imagined feels like the time I watched my dad lug home a case of red wine from a community center wine-tasting class. "Can you taste the butter?" he asked, frowning and sipping, "They said it tastes a little bit like butter, can you taste it?" Children are selfish when it comes to our parents - I don't think we allow them to have fully realized identities, they're just our parents! But this was a rare moment when I saw Dad's life in context: the Cabernet was an achievement, a hard journey ending in a wine-filled, middle-class, American life. And it killed me that he couldn't taste the fucking butter notes.
I had not thought about the boy much until I moved to America 10 years later and discovered Tang in a grocery store. It was just how I remembered it - fine powder in a sturdy bottle - but its glamour had lost its gloss because, alas, it was neither expensive nor trendy. To think that all the dreams of my youth were once contained in this commercial drink!
I hope Liang Pi never realized Tang was just another cheap powdered beverage occupying shelf space between Country Time and Kool-Aid. I hope when he decided to sell Tang, he thought he was giving his customers the best America had to offer.

There was no Tang in the minifridge when I went to Xi'an Famous tonight.
"Did you guys stop selling Tang?" I asked Jason.
"Yeah, it was just something random my Dad did. Why? Did you like it?"
"Yeah, I did. I really did."
"Well, you're definitely the only one. But I'll tell him you liked it."
"Good."

I have a Pepsi with my lamb face salad.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger

I took the winter off due to time and money constraints, and also because it was exhausting and sometimes boring to eat with strangers all the time. Many things have germinated quietly during the cold months, and I've figured out my next steps, career-wise, as well as a few other projects I want to do, food-wise. Strictly Platonic will probably not be the same blog ever again, but I have too many thoughts to suppress, so I guess I'll write other food-related things here until a better platform emerges.

In the Colbert style, I present two things today in the Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger format:

First up, Tip of the Hat to Eddie Huang of Baohaus. Have y'all heard of Baohaus? It's the new gua bao joint that's taken the NYC food scene by storm lately. I haven't been yet, and, being a chink of the uncouth mainlander variety, I've never even had a gua bao in my life. Nevertheless, I've been following Eddie Huang on his blog and I'm digging a lot of what he has to say. Two posts in particular sum up my own feelings on fusion and Chinese immigrant restauranteering.

Every food lover seems to have an opinion of fusion, but when I come across a fusion-y menu item, my question is how they got the idea to put galangal in the beef wellington (not really, that would be gross, but you get the idea). By my reckoning, "fusion" cuisine is the best in the world. Vietnamese cuisine is fusion. Creole is fusion. Pretty much every cuisine in the world is some degree "fusion." The difference in heart (and taste) is that great fusion comes from resourceful people working with what they have in a foreign setting; it comes from diaspora, not some kid out of cooking school with a bag of tricks but no sense of place. Authenticity is not about sticking to a recipe, it's about having a sense of place.

In that way, Eddie Huang and his Baohaus very much "emspiritfy" the type of restaurant I might open someday. I was talking to my friend, the talented Gabriela, about why there's no good Mexican food and very little good Chinese food in Manhattan. In a grander sense, we were also talking about why Mexican food and Chinese food belong in the "cheap ethnic" box rather than "haute ethnic" box (think Japanese food) in the mind of the average white American yuppie foodie.

"The good stuff still lives on in enclaves, serving their own communities," I remarked, "tacos on 116th, Chinese places in Flushing. All places with no real menus, no real ambiance, no English speaking staff, much less any kind of PR strategy. And how many immigrant restauranteurs can afford the overhead in hip Manhattan neighborhoods anyway?"
"Who's going to serve authentic food but make it better, more accessible, then?"
"People like us, I guess. English-speaking, college-educated, social media-savvy."

Eddie seems to be successful because he's done exactly that: kept the authenticity, amped up the quality, and gave it both foodie cred and a dynamic personality. (The words "Niman Ranch" go a long way toward accomplishing two of the above.) So props to him, I'll be interested to see what he does next.

~~~

Next up, Wag of the Finger to Andrea Scotting, who posted this jaw-dropper on The Atlantic today. Here's a test: how many words of that article can you read without rolling your eyes? My eyes met heaven after ten, but let's be honest, the title had me suspicious from the get-go.

Aside from the disturbingly flippant Afghanistan/Haiti allusions, by far the most vapid quote was this one: "But I clearly have a nagging, deep-seated case of something that makes me frame everything in life through food."

Lady, that frame is called privilege, which is clearly something you've never paused to consider very deeply. This is abundantly clear by the lame attempt to claim "equal opportunity" food racism because you also get distracted by New England wasps and their lobster rolls. I agree on one thing: racist is not the right term for you because you can't be racist toward white people. A New England wasp, you see, has never been made to feel Other because of his lobster roll. This is like when Madonna wears a bindi, it's fashion; when an Indian woman wears a bindi, it's foreign.

For you, this must be difficult to understand, because you seem to treat the people of color who provide goods and services in your life like your personal recipe dispensers. I'm sorry, but it's pretty fucking offensive that "dal" lights up in your head every time you see an Indian person. God forbid that person be allowed to exist beyond connoting a foodstuff. Even if it's not true for you, a contributor to The Atlantic who hopefully wrote your article tongue-in-cheek, a lot of people do associate
ChineseAsian people with fried rice/chicken wings/MSG and little else (case in point).

As a person of color, I've come to see food both as a boon and a bane. While it does allow people to connect (and I'm sure that's what you thought you were doing with that call-center employee), boiling people of color down to the bite-sized pieces of their respective cultures happens all too often at the expense of acknowledging the ongoing struggles of the people themselves. Conservatives and liberals alike get to say "look how multicultural we are, all gathered together eating bibimbap," while disenfranchisement and xenophobia remain unchallenged.

And no, cutting a check to the Red Cross does not mean your work is done: if you're going to commoditize, consume, appropriate, "discover," or denounce the commoditizable, consumable, appropriatable, discoverable, and denounceable parts of someone else's culture - most often the foods - at least grapple with the truth that it's because you are white and wealthy that you get to look at the world around you as a smorgasbord.* This is your frame, and you're lucky to have it.

Addendum: Oh good, I'm not the only one who's appalled.
Addendum 2: I read back over some old entries and realized that I've basically said all this before, but in a nicer way.

*You also have to get comfortable with your privilege, because you're not a bad person and at the end of the day, it's ok to keep eating that bibimbap. You can even sing Kumbayaa if you'd like. You just can't write pithy articles about "food racism," because that shit is dumb and pisses me off.