The bloodletting began, in its way, one thinly cold and sunny morning last spring, at the HmongTown Marketplace in the Frogtown section of Saint Paul, Minnesota. There are more than sixty-six thousand Hmong people in the Twin Cities area, the largest such population in the country. Most are members or descendants of a refugee wave from Southeast Asia that reached the state starting in 1975, with the end of the Vietnam War. Frogtown is also the largest Asian American neighborhood in Minneapolis–Saint Paul.
I had lived in Vietnam in the mid-1990s, and I have traveled widely in the region. What struck me as I walked around HmongTown with my brother, Jason, a chef who lives in Saint Paul, was how well it managed to reproduce the sweep, bustle, and claustrophobia of a central market in a Southeast Asian city. The weather was different, obviously, and the traffic to get here more subdued, which was probably to the good in America’s litigious society. But I was transported.
HmongTown had many things my former in-laws, who were Vietnamese American refugees, would have liked — water spinach or bitter melon in season, rambutan or longan when it was not. While we were married, my first wife and I had lived next door to her parents and her oldest sister’s family in Brooklyn, New York, in a tight-knit, three-generation extended household. Her mother cooked big Vietnamese dinners for us most Sundays, and although she shopped for food in New York’s different Chinatowns, the ingredients were often not as tailored to Southeast Asian tastes as HmongTown. I think she would have liked it, but maybe only for the ingredients. That special “sense of place” I felt might have hit her differently; she had not been back to Vietnam since fleeing by boat in the 1980s.
Jason had taken me to HmongTown to buy ingredients for a project I was undertaking: cooking a traditional and authentic Hainanese chicken rice. Our plan was to use the freshest poultry available, and it was hard to get fresher than breathing. We would choose from a stand in the parking lot with about fifty brown-feathered chickens huddled together in small wire cages.
This classic meal of poached chicken with rice that has been cooked in its liquid, served with three pungent sauces, had become my pandemic dining obsession. It might seem like a small thing, but the grind of pandemic life back in Brooklyn had heightened the importance of cooking to me. I had lost my job, which left me alone in charge of online school, the dog, and feeding my wife and three children. Remote education was a bust, and while the dog and I are tighter than ever, food became a lifeline, a way to tamp down the chest-seizing, sky-falling sensation that threatened each day to overcome me.
Unlike a lot of other people, who during this period had gravitated toward esoteric sourdoughs or “heirloom” beans, I cooked dishes I knew from Vietnam, or from my ex-wife’s mother. I also experimented with Taiwanese three-cup chicken, Japanese oyakodon, and Sichuanese stir-fried tomato and egg. But I had become truly fixated on chicken rice.
I have never been to Singapore, where Hainanese chicken is a national passion. Nor have I been to Hainan, the province in southern China after which it is named. I did not eat it in Vietnam, either, or in Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia, countries I have spent time in. The pandemic had pushed a lot of folks toward a kind of culinary nostalgia; this was a comfort food of a place and people not my own.
But it made sense for me. I have spent more than twenty-five years in intimate settings with Asian and Asian American people: in Vietnam, as part of my ex-wife’s family; with my wife, Tomoko, who is Japanese; and among our friends, many of whom are Asian or Asian American. Make no mistake: I am a Jew from New York. I am not confused about that. I have not “turned Asian,” nor do “I feel Asian.” Yet it would be foolish to think that those years have not changed me. Chopped liver on rye, much as I love it, was not going to be the chicken soup for my COVID soul.
A Hmong man and woman were unloading birds from the flatbed of a battered pickup truck. Like many of the Hmong people at the market, they were dressed in both traditional and Western clothes. The woman wore a conical hat and a North Face fleece, and the man had on an embroidered Hmong shirt and a baseball cap. I had visited Hmong villages in Central Vietnam when I lived there, and my strongest memory of those trips was of grinding poverty and political suppression by the Vietnamese government. The people I met there were warm, although, not surprisingly, many of them were reluctant to engage with foreigners. That seemed to be the case at HmongTown when we asked for help. The couple smiled and did a jazz hands thing that I recognized from Vietnam, which could mean anything from “I’m busy” to “fuck off.”
Jason had moved to the Twin Cities nearly thirty years ago. He had, over time, internalized a bit of “Minnesota nice,” with its pleasant, impenetrable manners. But he was still much like me: short and dark-haired, with a way of holding himself and reacting to people that could read as confident or abrasive depending on the situation, and which people like his wife, whose family had been in Minnesota for generations, would call “East Coast,” and which I would call “Jew.”
He was a chef and cooking instructor at a local community college. Most of his students were non-white or immigrants, many of them Hmong or Vietnamese. But he did not know the gesture. For a moment, he seemed to bristle, the grousing core of his inner Jew burning through the Great Northern geniality. He recovered when a tired-looking Black teenager came over to help us and it became clear that the Hmong couple were not blowing us off. (Jason told me that the poultry company is owned by an intermarried Hmong-Black family.)
The teenager grabbed two squalling, smallish brown birds from a cage. Gingerly holding them away from his body, he dropped them into a narrow cardboard box. When I raised an eyebrow at that, he said the tight quarters kept them calmer. They stopped squalling almost immediately.
“Do you know how much they weigh?” Jason asked.
“About a pound and a half,” the teenager replied.
I was disappointed. Older, heavier birds of at least two pounds are considered best for Hainanese chicken rice. Bigger means more fat, which is important because it is used to cook the rice, and because it means more flavor in the meat. We were off to a bad start.
I have worked on a line in a restaurant kitchen, and I am a decent home cook. So it is with some authority that I can say that my first pandemic attempts at making Hainanese chicken rice were…fine. Not bad. No dinnertime revolt from the kids. Tomoko ate her share. But there were few demands for seconds.
It was hard for me to put my finger on what was wrong, other than it just did not taste right. It was missing something, maybe an ingredient or a cooking technique. Maybe it was the water. I kept at it, each failed effort followed by another. Over time, I began to suspect that I knew why: Could the “not-rightness” of my chicken rice be my whiteness?
Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about food during the lockdowns. These conversations started out about recipes, but they sprawled — to people we knew who had gotten badly sick or died, including some in our family; to Trump, George Floyd, BLM, the protests in his city and mine; the uprisings in workplaces and, of course, in restaurants. The culture, it seemed, was in the midst of a conversation about cultural appropriation and cuisine, one which held that white chefs had stolen dishes from marginalized Americans, largely people of color.
We were familiar with the concept: Elvis, the Elgin Marbles, the football team formerly known as the Washington Football Team. The focus on food, however, was relatively new. Analyses of racial privilege and systemic racism were being applied to cuisine in ways that seemed rooted in genuine emotion and grievance. But we were baffled by the specifics, which often seemed, to us, to border on the absurd.
Was it really “irresponsible cultural appropriation,” as an Eater Chicago article reported, when Top Chef veteran Stephanie Izard tagged a photo on Instagram of a beef bowl topped with cilantro and mint as bibimbap when it was not? Should we be outraged that celebrity chef Christina Tosi’s recipe for “flaky bread” was basically an Indian paratha? How should we feel about a “white-owned trendy spot” in Toronto that was “selling bone broth across from golden turtle pho” and “sexualizing ‘jerk’ sauce”? Or Vice’s assertion that “white vegan influencers have appropriated traditional foods forever”? Or this headline, in Buzzfeed: “After Another White Food Blogger Whitewashed an Asian American Dish, People Want More than Just Damage Control”? Or the chef, again in Eater, who asked, “Why do fast-casual restaurants get a pass on appropriation?” How about “The Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative”?
It was more than a social media or publishing phenomenon. There were examples of real-world accountability: the rise and temporary fall of Alison Roman’s turmeric-and-coconut-milk, non-curry empire; the short life and awful death of Lucky Lee’s, a white-owned Chinese restaurant in New York City that said it would make “clean” Chinese food; the demise of Portland’s Kooks Burritos, a Mexican pop-up restaurant, owned by two white women, that closed after one of them told a reporter she’d “picked the brains of every tortilla lady” she’d met on a trip to Mexico. And, of course, there was l’affaire Bon Appétit.
In the last few years, highly regarded white chefs, food writers, and food personalities, such as Rick Bayless, Gordon Ramsay, Andrew Zimmern, Sean Brock, Andy Ricker, John T. Edge, and others, have come under fire for appropriation. Edge, notably, was pressured to resign from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a progressive nonprofit that he helped found and had directed since 1999. A Black chef named Tunde Wey, whose restaurants are kind of high-concept culinary anti-racism art projects, called on Edge to step down. Wey — whose 2018 Nashville pop-up, called Hot Chicken Shit, gave chicken to Black customers for free and charged white people a hundred dollars per piece — wrote in the Oxford American that Edge had “endorsed and celebrated the appropriation of black Southern food” and should “strip [himself] of the marginal benefits of this appropriation willingly, with grace, or unwillingly by force and with shame.” (Edge did not resign.)
I was aware of these cultural forces as I set out to perfect my chicken rice, and I began to get uneasy. Here I was, exploring a cuisine uniquely linked to someone else’s history and tradition, in an era in which it was becoming the accepted view that I had no right to do so. Was I not, as bell hooks put it in her 1992 essay, “Eating the Other,” looking for a dash of ethnic “seasoning” to “liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”? In her 2003 book, Exotic Appetites, Lisa Heldke wrote that “food adventurers” like me were “motivated by a deep desire to have contact with…an Exotic Other, as a way of making [ourselves] more interesting.” Or, as Tunde Wey told me, “The kind of person who goes looking for ‘ethnic’ food is interested in consuming the culture and parading what they have acquired. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with it, but in practice everything is wrong with it.”
I began speaking to cooks, food writers, and restaurant owners about Hainanese chicken rice. I asked about their recipes, and also if they thought what was I was doing was cultural appropriation. Most drew a distinction between home cooking and the conflicts in professional settings. You could, it seemed, make whatever you wanted in the privacy of your own home. Turning a profit was the issue. I did not argue. Twitter was unlikely to get mad at me for making my family a crappy chicken rice. But the logic of cultural appropriation and food, which I was as interested in as an ethical dinner, suggested otherwise. The impulse to take from another culture, as a white person in the United States, was “problematic” even if I did not sell the final product.
The thing is that my brother and I did not really believe this. Or, rather, we had been educated to believe something else about food, America, and our place in it. The secular postwar Jews we grew up among in New York, for example, believed they had a special connection to Chinese food, which seems preposterous by today’s understanding of ethnicity, race, and culture. (If you were not aware of this, read Vox’s handy “The History of Jews, Chinese Food, and Christmas, Explained by a Rabbi.”) It was a myth, an interethnic fairy tale, similar to the way we were taught that Jews and Blacks were connected by the mutual suffering of the Holocaust and slavery.
We had also been taught that cooking and eating foods from other cultures was a symbol of openness to and acceptance of those cultures, a way to fight bigotry and ignorance. You could make yourself a better person, and America a better country, meal by meal. And you should. It was a responsibility of what was depicted as the signal achievement of Americanness: the melting pot. The culture had by now decided that this was a bunch of Born-on-the-Fourth-of-July bullshit. And who was I to disagree?
But I also saw that some of the ideas underpinning culinary appropriation discourse did not match my “lived experience.” Decisions I had made — fundamental ones about the sort of person I wanted to be — were being interpreted in ways that did not match my intentions. Cooking chicken rice was not evidence of more than two decades spent learning and caring about Asian cultures. It was a racist attempt to chase an “exotic other.” And mastering the dish? That was impossible. Not due to lack of skill on my part, but because I was not Asian. The lesson seemed to be: if you want to get “on the right side of history,” stick to knishes, kid.
I hoped to prove otherwise. Because getting this dish right was not just about food. It was linked in my mind to the struggle underway in the United States, in every city, every school, and every office, to throw aside systems that benefited whites at the expense of everyone else. I supported that struggle. I wanted to be part of it. I had, in fact, assumed that I was. Yet it seemed to me that some of the narratives being used to foster a more ethnically and racially just society cast me, if not as an outright villain, then with no part to play at all. And that frustrated me, and frightened me a little, too. If cooking this food could be interpreted as “consuming” and “parading,” what could be made of my Asian wife and mixed-race kids? What awful motivations lurked beneath my love for them? The country was in tumult, careening toward change. I did not want to be left behind, even at dinner.
“Stories about food are fine,” said Ann Ahmed. “But it’s the flavor. It has to taste good.”
Ahmed told me this, with some exasperation, at Lat14 Asian Eatery, her restaurant in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Golden Valley is a Twin Cities suburb and home to the General Mills World Headquarters. I drove past its clinically bucolic campus, crossing Betty Crocker Drive, on the way to Lat14, which is located in a strip mall.
Ann Ahmed is a small woman in her early forties, with a round, tan face and bright brown eyes. When we met, she was wearing a gold-trimmed yellow cardigan with black slacks, and she had her hair pulled back from her face. Ahmed was born in Laos, but her family settled in the Twin Cities when she was four years old. It was a Monday, and the restaurant was closed; Ahmed looked at ease. She invited me to a sunlit table in her elegant dining room. We sat underneath a large chandelier at a table with comfortable, thickly padded chairs. She offered me tea.
I had come to the Twin Cities because my brother lived here, and because he could help me with the chicken rice. But it was also true that Minneapolis and Saint Paul were a locus of significant cultural appropriation flare-ups. In 2018, Andrew Zimmern, who lives here, made national news before opening a Chinese/tiki restaurant called Lucky Cricket when he told Fast Company, “I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.” In 2020, a Mexican restaurant in Minneapolis called Elotes Woodfired Cantina changed its name days before opening, dropping the word elotes after an online petition, which used the hashtags #NoMásCulturalAppropriation and #SomosMaíz, called its use “problematic and unacceptable” because it was an “ancestral and sacred” term, and a food that was “deeply connected to the roots of our heritage and culture.” The restaurant opened as Woodfired Cantina and closed in December.
Another noteworthy local example took place last year, with a viral Facebook post from a chef in Saint Paul named Yia Vang. Vang is Hmong American, and similarly to Ahmed, he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand when his family fled Laos after the Vietnam War. He is a prominent figure in the Twin Cities food scene, hosting a public television program and a podcast, and he was the cover profile in Bon Appétit in May 2020. Vang wrote that when customers asked for a vegan version of a pork sausage his father had taught him, they were attacking his identity. “What you’re really saying,” he argued, “is ‘please can you change who you are.’”
I spoke to Vang about my chicken rice project, and he reacted as many others had: a personal culinary quest was harmless; a quest for profit was a no-no. But Vang also told me that “white communities talk to you better if you don’t tell them that they are the systemic problem. That’s why I talk about my dad with rich old white people. They love it.” I thought he might be letting me off the systemic hook.
Lat14’s name refers to the fourteenth parallel north, which runs through parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia. The menu reflects that wide gauge, with “pan-Asian” and “fusion” selections such as lechon from the Philippines, yum salad from Laos, drunken noodles from Thailand, and more. The snow crab wonton, with cream cheese and apricot chili — none dare call it crab Rangoon — hails from the American psyche of the 1950s.
The menu crosses ethnicities and nationalities in ways that I am sure are delicious: I would be happy to eat Ahmed’s Creamy Tom Yum Ramen. But it also muddles the cultural boundaries that appropriation opponents seek to keep clear. The menu, for example, includes a Bengali coconut curry with jackfruit and shiso, a dish that seemingly has little in common with Ahmed’s background. But it honors her husband, who is from Bengal, in India, and with whom she has two young children.
It is hard to know if Ahmed’s status as an immigrant and woman of color makes a difference in the appropriation debate — or if it does, a difference of what kind? Lat14 is a successful business owned by a person from a disempowered community. Few people, in my world, would argue that that is a bad thing. But according to the logic I am examining, she is still appropriating the food of other disempowered people, and potentially dumbing it down for empowered white palates. Further complicating matters is the oddly patronizing notion that Ahmed was “allowed” to mix dishes from all over Asia because she is Asian. Even worse is the realization that her customers, most of whom are white, might not know the difference, or care. She cannot not be blamed for any of this, certainly, but it seems like someone should.
“I get a little angry about these debates,” Ahmed said. “I just want to cook good food. I don’t want to defend it.”
I had set out to make something called “Hainanese chicken rice,” although that is not its name in Hainan, where it is more often called Wenchang chicken after a poultry breed from the city of Wenchang, where a local saying is that “it is not a party without chicken.” The Wenchang chicken is indeed an exceptional bird, allowed, at least traditionally, to roam free for 120 days, feasting on banyan figs. The dish Wenchang chicken, as prepared in Hainan, does not always correspond with what is commonly known as Hainanese chicken rice — it can be stir-fried in coconut milk or braised in fermented bean paste — except when it does, but even then, it is not, not really.
A 2017 Gastronomica article on Singapore’s hawker centers noted that the Hainanese migrants who first arrived there in large numbers in the mid-nineteenth century ate boiled chicken, but with plain rice. The modern version, with the rice cooked in the chicken’s broth, was believed to have been popularized in Singapore in the 1940s by a vendor named Wong Yi Guan, and then by his “apprentice,” Mok Fu Swee, later the owner of Swee Kee Chicken Rice, which was one of the best-known purveyors of the dish in Singapore until it closed in the late 1990s. Today, if you order Hainanese chicken rice in Hainan, you might get Hainanese chicken rice, but it is a dish that was created in Singapore and then “reexported” back to Hainan. (At least according to Lai Chee Kien in the 2011 book Singapore in Global History. Hainanese people might be less than receptive to this interpretation, and Malaysians have their own claim to the dish’s origin, too.)
Ahmed told me she was working on a new restaurant, with a focus more closely on Laotian food. She had originally planned to name it Spice Market. I wondered if she was aware of the Spice Market in New York City, an earlier pan-Asian restaurant, opened in 2004 by the white celebrity chef Jean-Gorges Vongerichten. Spice Market seemed to be the kind of restaurant designed to provoke anti-appropriation outrage, even from diners who didn’t care at all about such things. Vongerichten, a white man, takes cuisine from all over the region, filters it through his French “standards,” eliminates strong flavors, dials down the heat, supposedly “elevates” it, and earns widespread acclaim (and, presumably, profit). Spice Market was enormously popular at its peak and earned a three-star review in the New York Times. I had eaten there, and I had found every bite delicious and inauthentic.
Ahmed was not only aware of Spice Market, she had eaten there, too, and had the opposite reaction. She told me she was “transported” by its elegant take on everyday dishes like ginger rice with a runny egg. It was a “proud moment” for her, she said, that “Asian food could be done like this, by this person.”
Vongerichten’s original Spice Market had closed more than ten years ago, but Ahmed was not going to use the name. Not for reasons of authenticity or appropriation, but of power: Vongerichten’s restaurant group controlled the intellectual property, she said, and it continued to renew the service mark. Ahmed would instead call her restaurant Khâluna, the Laotian word for “please.” (It opened in October.)
“Birds! Birds!” Jason shouted as we walked into the kitchen at his house, toting the poultry in the cardboard box. He wanted to warn away his wife and two teenage daughters, who had registered their disgust at the slaughter about to be done in their home.
There is more than one way to kill a chicken. The Internet, of course, offers lots of videos and how-to articles, of which I viewed and read many. Insteading, a website for homesteaders, focused on three basic methods: “the chop” (decapitation), “the slice” (throat slitting), and “the twist” (neck wringing). Offthegridnews added “snapping the neck by hand” and “broomsticking,” a variant that employed a broomstick for better leverage. Other techniques involved a pellet gun, or a CO2 chamber, or suffocating the bird by stuffing it in a sack and attaching it to the exhaust pipe of a running automobile. I am willing to face the bloody reality of how meat comes to my plate, but carbon monoxide poisoning seemed a tad genocidal.
We had decided to do the slice. Jason sharpened his French butcher’s knife on a set of Japanese water stones. I had complained that the French knife was another deviation from authenticity, like the small birds, and that we should use a Chinese-style cleaver. (I would allow the Japanese stones.) The day before, we had gone to Sun Foods, a large Asian supermarket in Saint Paul, and they had several choices. But Jason had said the knives were of poor quality and badly balanced. He had awkwardly hefted one from the display case.
“I could cut my hand off with this,” he had said.
Jason handed me an apron and tied one around his waist. He was wearing a T-shirt from Wo Hop, the famed American-Chinese restaurant in New York, which is the only place I have ever eaten egg foo young. He played Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” on his phone, prompting one of his daughters to shout, “Not funny!” from the other room.
Whether a live bird was needed for authenticity was an open question. Nong Poonsukwattana, the chef and owner of Nong’s Khao Man Gai in Portland, told me she does not use a freshly killed bird. Neither does the chef and owner of Los Angeles’s Pearl River Deli, Johnny Lee, who has been called the “Hainan chicken whisperer” and the “prince of poultry.” Lee said that “how the chicken was raised and what it was raised for” is more important than freshness. Nicholas Tang, the Singaporean-born former executive chef of Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen & Bar, did not use freshly slaughtered birds for his “Singapore night” at DBGB in Washington, DC. In fact, Tang said he “cheated” when preparing the dish, cooking only the breast sous vide rather than poaching a whole bird. When he makes it at home for his kids, he uses a Prima Taste kit, a Singaporean flavor packet. (He also said that if I planned on killing my own bird, I should let it rest afterward in the refrigerator for a day or two. “You need to let rigor mortis set in, or it’s gonna be tough,” he said.)
The Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of the 2011 memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, told me that a freshly killed bird “makes chicken rice.” Kian Lam Kho, founder of the food blog Red Cook, agreed. He remembered fondly the poultry purveyor coming to his childhood home in Singapore in the morning with live birds. His family would select one, which the vendor would slaughter in their backyard. “I’d hold the bowl to collect the blood and take it to the kitchen,” he said. “It was a fun thing to do.” (Kho is Cantonese Singaporean. He may have been talking about bak chit gai, a Cantonese-style poached chicken dish; the blood can be used for a soup that goes with the poultry.) Chuin Tham, the co-owner of Lion City Coffee, a Singaporean-style cafe in New York that sells Hainanese chicken rice, batted away the question of bird freshness, and the bird, too. “The star of the show is not the chicken,” he said. “You could serve the chili sauce on cardboard, and I’d still enjoy it.”
One of my inspirations for this project came from a video on the YouTube channel Chinese Cooking Demystified. It is produced by Chris Thomas and Stephanie Li, a white American and Chinese married couple who live in Shunde, China. After my first, botched efforts at poaching poultry, Jason forwarded me their video for bak chit gai.
The video featured Li’s father, Dawei, who is a restaurant owner in Guangdong. It showed him, a potbellied, shirtless older man, dressed only in knee-length basketball shorts, rubber sandals, and an apron. He fetched a live chicken from his apartment balcony and crisply went about slaughtering it in the kitchen. He plucked the feathers from the bird’s throat — for easier access to the cerebral artery, Thomas explained. Then, holding the bird tightly in one arm, he used a large, heavy-looking Chinese-style cleaver to perform the slice. The bird squawked and jumped in his grip for a few moments, and Dawei chuckled sheepishly as he collected its blood in a plastic bucket.
I knew many men like Dawei when I lived in Asia. In fact, he reminded me a lot of my former father-in-law. Dawei seemed more like a father figure than some goyishe, Middle-American, small-c conservative who rotates his own tires and thinks Tabasco sauce is too hot ever could. That kind of Franzen-ish schmuck is the male archetype I get, in my American whiteness? I think not. It is just not how my life has worked.
Yet there was an unsettling aspect to the video. It seemed to invite laughter at the expense of the bare-chested, cleaver-toting Dawei. Thomas and Li clearly did not intend this. They told me that they were sensitive to potential criticism about cultural appropriation because of Thomas’s race. Over time, they have attempted to deflect it by having Li appear and speak more on camera. But I felt bad for how Dawei might be perceived, and it made me think of the many chefs who are people of color, particularly immigrants or the children of immigrants, who had stories about food and shame.
“I was the kid who grew up ashamed of his culture,” Yia Vang told me. “I didn’t want to cook Hmong food because it was simple food. I wanted to do lavender-foam-gastro bullshit.” The resistance to changing his father’s recipe, he added, was a way of “redeeming myself and the shame I felt.”
These narratives are common enough to be almost their own genre. Ahmed had one about her grandmother sending her to school with a whole fried fish. Even Tomoko did, from her John Hughes–era, suburban Chicago childhood, because her mother packed her lunch in a bento box. (She objected to calling it shame. “It’s food, Ted.”)
I struggled, to a degree, with these stories because I could relate. What would the non-Jewish kids whom I grew up around have made of the creamed herring we liked with bagels? Or the cream cheese and sardines on rye toast that my grandma Ethel used to make me? Or the Limburger cheese stinking up my German grandfather’s refrigerator? (Jews, for many years, were not supposed to buy BMWs and Mercedes, but Limburger was a boycott too far, apparently.)
I asked some of the chefs I spoke to if they thought that greater acceptance of food differences could help create greater social tolerance. Stop shaming the kid’s food and you stop shaming the kid. Mine, for example, have gone to schools where lots of children eat “stinky” food from around the world, and they are not shamed for it, in part because so many of them are eating equally “exotic” things at home, and not always from their own culture. Was that a step in the right direction?
According to Jenny Dorsey, a Chinese American chef who stages “culinary events” that combine modernist cuisine with virtual reality to force guests to address questions about identity and appropriation, the answer is no. “Unless we are actively addressing anti-racism and teaching the history of racism to our children, just making sure our kids like foods from other cultures doesn’t do much,” she told me. “It does little to combat the real issue of systemic racism.” Or, as Tunde Wey said, “One person who goes to one taqueria is sympathetic to the plight of that one person who offers them a service. It isn’t often that that sentiment extends beyond that person to the larger group. The empathic path of food is tenuous once you begin to extend beyond a first or second degree.”
I know I should not argue with their perspectives, although it does make me wonder what the white diners at their food events should take from the experience, once the “empathic path” has been ruled out. Nor am I so naive or self-serving as to believe that even an army of mixed-race kids, let alone my three, could end American racism by scarfing down bite-size kurobuta dogs in the school cafeteria. But if part of the harm racism does is to make them feel ashamed of their food, and by extension their family and their culture, then they should be better off than Vang, Ahmed, my wife, and many others.
“Let’s do this,” I said to Jason. “Waiting doesn’t help.”
I opened the box and took out one of the birds, using my body to keep its wings pressed tight. It was warm and smelled of feces and corn. Jason would do the slice while I held the bird. A few years earlier, he had helped slaughter a pig at a local farm, and he wanted to keep his distance. “Pigs are smart,” he said. “They know.”
“Gotta clean the neck,” I said.
I cradled the bird at my side with one hand. With the other, I reached up and gently smoothed the feathers on its head to soothe it, something I had seen in a video. Then I pulled its head back, exposing its neck, and Jason plucked the feathers. The bird squawked.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Make sure it’s over the bowl.” We had set a metal mixing bowl on the counter to catch the blood.
He drew the knife across the bird’s throat, and it bucked in my arms, nearly escaping my grasp. I noticed that not much blood was coming.
“I don’t think you got it,” I said.
Jason nodded and sliced again. The blood came faster. Some of it sprayed onto the floor. Within seconds, the bird’s neck went limp, and it stopped moving. We did a better job with the second one, which passed after only one slice.
“That sucked,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed. “I underestimated how deep you had to cut.”
Soul Bowl, “soul food reimagined for the urban millennial,” is a food stall in Graze Provisions + Libations, a dining hall in Minneapolis’s North Loop, a gentrifying warehouse district. Graze had the feel of a mall food court crossed with the lobby of a boutique hotel. Attractive young people hung out in interesting chairs, sharing small plates and using eco-friendly cutlery. Along with Soul Bowl, there was a barbecue restaurant called The Fabled Rooster, B.A.D. Wingz, Viva Taco, and Avocadish, billed as the “first avocado bar in the Midwest.”
Many of the dishes at Soul Bowl were named for figures in Black popular culture: Jill Scott Collard Greens, D’Angelo Candied Yams, Big K.R.I.T. Chicken Sandwich, Snoop Dogg Smoked Mushrooms, and more. Customers placed orders at one end of the counter and moved along a line to customize their bowls.
“Our plan is to be the Chipotle of soul food,” said Gerard Klass, the chef and, with his wife, Brittney, the co-owner of Soul Bowl. They would be “scaling soon,” he said, to a second location in the Minneapolis suburbs, and then “Chicago in two years.” (Soul Bowl has since opened a location in Richfield, Minnesota.)
We sat at a table near B.A.D. Wingz, which the Klasses had a stake in as well. They are managing partners of the dining hall. Klass, who is in his thirties, was trim and serious-looking, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans. His short, dark hair was cut in a fade at his temples. He is originally from the Twin Cities’ predominantly Black Near North neighborhood. He went to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis after high school and then worked for Kaskaid, a national restaurant group, after he graduated in 2009. He opened a string of what he called “Cheesecake Factory–style” restaurants around the country during ten years with Kaskaid, gaining experience in corporate food and business practices. His wife’s background was in restaurant management, too, including a stint at La Belle Vie, one of the Twin Cities’ highest-regarded fine-dining establishments.
I had asked to talk to Klass, and to other Black chefs and restaurateurs in the Twin Cities, because of a perception I had about food and cultural appropriation: not all appropriations are created equal. It was one thing, for instance, for Andrew Zimmern to put the better part of his leg in his mouth about Chinese food. That provoked an uproar, no question, and though he apologized, it would be untrue to say that his gaffe was either forgotten or entirely forgiven. Still, my instinct is that if Zimmern had said he was saving the Twin Cities from these “horseshit restaurants masquerading as soul food that are in the Midwest,” the fallout would have been more explosive.
That seemed right to me. Among the people I spoke to, there was near-universal agreement that the food of Black Americans fell into its own category and had to be treated with greater care. “Black people are still being killed on the street while white chefs are able to succeed and own the food media,” Jenny Dorsey told me. That juxtaposition may be hyperbolically strange, but it is true. Tunde Wey’s opinion was more nuanced. He said he was hesitant to create what he called a “taxonomy of evil or harm” but that “Black American folk were enslaved, and in America they suffered unique oppressions. It is a unique situation.”
The food professionals I spoke to in the Twin Cities held similar views. Lachelle Cunningham, a Black chef who owns several soul food– and education-inspired businesses, told me that “if you have white soul food, made by a white chef, in a white neighborhood, with a white vibe — Black people will come, but they’ll say that’s not soul food.” Chef and restaurateur Justin Sutherland, who is part-Black and known nationally for his stints on Top Chef and Iron Chef, said that “African American culture has been pillaged in every way: music, sports, fashion, and more. African Americans are like, ‘Leave our food alone! What else do you want to take from us?’”
And Jametta Raspberry, owner of a catering company called House of Gristle, said she had tried soul food at white-owned restaurants in the Twin Cities and felt a sense of discomfort and even betrayal. “It was icky,” she said, and laughed.
But what if the “taxonomy of harm” was less clear? Take Ann Kim, a Korean-born, Minnesota-raised chef. In 2019, Kim became the first woman and person of color from Minneapolis to win a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest — for making not Korean food but pizza at Young Joni in Minneapolis.
The reaction to her newest restaurant, Sooki & Mimi, which opened in February 2021, has been a little different. Tortillas and corn are its specialties, and though Kim, when I spoke to her, was careful not to call the cuisine Mexican, she had been criticized online as an appropriator. One critic was Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef in the Twin Cities who added her to a Facebook list of culinary appropriating chefs that included Andrew Zimmern, Rick Bayless, Sean Brock, Martha Stewart, and others. “Let’s keep calling them out,” he wrote.
Kim told me she was surprised and upset by the accusations. “I didn’t associate myself with cultural appropriation. I’m not white or male, and I’m an immigrant,” she said. “This can destroy careers and lives.” There had been no significant harm for her yet, and it seemed unlikely that there would be. But I could understand her frustration. The transition from oppressed to oppressor must be jarring. (Justin Sutherland, by the way, was one of the owners of Woodfired Cantina, and he told me that he had only reluctantly agreed to remove the word elotes from its name. “I’m multiracial,” he said. “I can cook whatever the fuck I want.” I think he was joking but not joking.)
The Twin Cities have a reputation for progressivism and moderation, but it’s tricky. The quality and diversity of the restaurants is high, and there are many “nice” places to eat. But not many of them are owned by Black people. In 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, the New York Times reported on Minnesota’s lack of Black-owned food businesses, noting that “of the more than half-million businesses that the 2012 census reported in the state, about 20,000 were Black-owned.”
Would ending appropriation address these realities? Possibly. It seemed unlikely that it would hurt efforts to do so. But why focus on what is essentially a byproduct of systemic racism, or perhaps a reflection of it, when more direct forms persist?
Klass, for example, agreed that the appropriation of soul food bothered him, calling it “a part of the history of why things are the way they are.” But it was only one of many problems he faced in the restaurant industry.
Soul Bowl had emerged after several years of supper clubs, catering, and restaurant pop-ups. A full-page spread on it in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine helped lead to a spot at Target Field and, from there, to Graze. It had not been easy, Klass said. The pandemic had hit them as hard as anyone else. Stadiums were good marketing but did not generate much profit. A stand-alone restaurant location fell through, and when Graze became available, Klass said “it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. I asked myself if I really wanted to be doing this.”
But they did it — as a way to overcome a lack of trust at white financial institutions by presenting a “high-quality, consistent product served by Black people,” or what he called a “clean package.”
“Investors want a business plan,” Klass said. “But what they really want is for you to know someone they know.”
The solution to cultural appropriation and food that I found the most intellectually and emotionally uncomfortable was the idea of white people “stepping aside” and giving up power. White chefs, in this formulation, can help end cultural appropriation by simply not doing it. This is, of course, not limited to the food world and is part of a larger theme in which white male Americans no longer “center” themselves, with applications as narrow as not interrupting women and people of color in meetings and as broad as who represents the Democratic Party. It is also relevant to my project. One might ask why, in a national debate over protecting oppressed people from exploitation, I have devoted myself to the question of: What about me?
Fair enough. But I cannot ignore my personal stake in a changing country. Forget the chicken. I am in no position to step aside from my career or from planning for the financial well-being of my kids. That means I have to determine for myself what are ethically responsible ways to act toward less empowered people, within the limits of my capacity to withstand sacrifice and without accepting depictions that overstate my empowerment. All that takes a bit of thought, nu?
This dynamic was on my mind when I met Eddie Wu at Cook St. Paul, the diner he owns with his wife, Eve. The restaurant was closed, and had been since the beginning of the pandemic. Burnt Chicken, a Caribbean pop-up, or “residency,” as Wu called the long-term takeovers he was doing with chefs, nearly all of them immigrants or people of color, was using the space. (The Wus own the building.)
Cook St. Paul was a local mainstay called Serlin’s when Wu bought it. The menu at the time noted that it had been in business for more than fifty years and that “although the demographics have changed, we remain the same.” A few years earlier, Wu had done a nine-month apprenticeship at a Korean restaurant in St. Paul called Sole Café, and he was interested in cooking Korean food. But, initially, he stuck mostly with traditional white American fare at Cook St. Paul. The menu had eighty-four items, and only four were Korean. Many of the customers, who were from the “demographic” (white) that had changed, were unhappy about even that. “They didn’t embrace the bindaetteok,” Wu said, referring to savory Korean mung bean pancakes.
Wu regularly spoke to chefs about doing pop-ups at Cook St. Paul, including a Hmong American restaurateur named Lang Vang; Vang’s pop-up did not work out, but when Wu decided to do his own, with Korean food, he told Vang about it. “Lang is really connected among Hmongs,” Wu said. He shared the event on social media, and right away three hundred people responded that they were interested. “More than a thousand showed up. We had a line down the block for four hours.”
After that, Wu began hearing stories: Eddie Wu, I hear he’s Chinese. No, he’s Hmong. No, he’s a white guy using the name Wu to get people to like his food. Eddie Wu is a white man from Saint Paul, a former marine who had grown up in a nearly all-white community. Wu is his wife’s surname. He took it when they got married. “I am as much of a European genetic mutt as you can get,” he said, adding that he had no “heritage nostalgia” for the food he grew up with, which deepened the experience at Sole Café. “I got to see what it means to have a culture,” he said. “Making kimchi, doing this for hours, I began to see this isn’t just food. It’s who they are.”
After the pop-up, he added more Korean food to the menu at Cook St. Paul. In 2019, City Pages named it the Best Korean Restaurant in the Twin Cities, although Wu said that he tried unsuccessfully to convince them to give the honor to Sole Café. Wu also said he did pop-ups, hundreds of them, with more than fifty different chefs. Yia Vang took over Cook St. Paul every Friday for nine months at one point. Wu liked pop-ups, he told the New York Times in the article about Black food businesses, because he wanted “exceptional chefs of color” to get recognition instead of “the boring white dudes that we’ve got a never-ending supply of here in Minnesota — which includes me.”
Pop-ups are not always helpful for incubating restaurant businesses, Wu told me, particularly ones that are led by people of color who may struggle to turn exposure into capital. Restaurants can charge high fees, and some take a large cut of sales. Wu, however, kept the costs so low that he said he lost money doing them early on. Eventually, he figured out how to break even, charging a flat rate that covered his staff and utilities.
“Naivete got me through the first couple of years,” he said. “I didn’t care. I was pregnant with it. My vision was happening.”
In late 2019, Wu again decided to make changes to Cook St. Paul. He believed that the largely working-class Black and Latino and Asian people in the area did not want a full-service, sit-down restaurant. He simplified the menu and lowered the average dish cost to ten dollars. Sales plummeted, and he had to cut staff. “I got so much hate mail for changing things,” he said.
During the lockdown, his plans changed again. He told his wife that “maybe we should step aside and let other people make something.” In the New York Times, he explained his goals by saying, “I can use what privilege I have. Enough with white people.”
I struggled with what to make of Wu. We had a lot in common: a mixed-race marriage, a devotion to Asian food, and a desire to join in progressive change. But there was an earnestness to the way he spoke that I found hard to accept as sincere. Pregnant with his vision? Yes, he acted as a champion of chefs of color, but that made him a notable figure around town, someone whom reporters like me called for interviews. And, yes, he had had “enough” of white people, but the Korean food he likes to cook, which he learned from a Korean person, that was pretty much a white thing. His drive to give away power could be seen as a way to claim it — some grand, and perhaps self-aggrandizing, act of self-abnegation.
He said that doubts about his motives were typical. “People are always skeptical of me. Their first question is always, ‘What’s in it for you?’ I tell them it’s good marketing,” he said with a shrug. “That helps.”
The longer we spoke, the more I accepted that what he was doing was genuine. But my approval was irrelevant. Earlier that day, I had visited a Black restaurateur named Jared Brewington. Two of his restaurants, Funky Grits and Thigh Times, had both failed. (He is currently renovating a pub in Cologne, Minnesota, a small town about forty-five minutes from Minneapolis.) Funky Grits was located directly across from Cup Foods, the deli where George Floyd was killed, and he attributed its failure, in no small part, to that location. “If Funky Grits had been located in a different neighborhood, a hundred percent it would still be open now,” he said.
Brewington was respectful of Wu and said that he was “using his platform in a time when it is needed.” But he also said that “Black people laugh at white people trying. My white skin hurts. I hate being white because Black people exist. Comedy helps, but it is privilege-y as hell. You did a thing for me.”
We plucked and cleaned the birds, then harvested as much fat as we could from them, rendering it in a saucepan. After Jason removed the solids and dusted them in salt, we ate them. Some Asian recipes use these as a garnish in soups. You might find them floating in a bowl of pho in Vietnam. But for us, it was gribenes, the Yiddish word for “scraps,” which my grandmother gave us as a treat when we were young and still lived in Queens. My nieces, who have lived all their lives in Minnesota, found it nearly as objectionable as killing the birds.
Next it was time to cook the chicken, and from that point on, we were in the realm of family practices, questionable websites, and reasonable differences of opinion. I had not discovered a single, definitive method or recipe. We had cobbled together a sort of chicken-rice consensus, plus whatever Jason thought was safe and would taste good. The only constant seemed to be to make a sincere effort to understand and acknowledge the origin of the recipe. To cook “someone else’s” food, you needed to take the time and energy to learn about it.
Jenny Dorsey cautioned me to avoid some contemporary traps. “Look beyond the first page of Google,” she said. “Search engine optimization favors problematic words or phrases like ‘authentic’ or ‘better than takeout.’ So, if you click on those, you’re making the problems of racism worse.” She also suggested that more was necessary than just reading about the recipe. “It’s frustrating for a white chef to profit off another person’s food culture without understanding their ethnic and national issues,” she told me. “There’s always these microaggressions about how exotic and beautiful you are. But at the same time, white shooters are trying to kill you as a weird object they have to ruin or gain control of.”
I had done plenty of research, and I am not a white shooter. Granted, I had not gone to Singapore and staged at a hawker stall, mincing ginger for six months without ever looking at a bird. But I had a strong sense of the prevailing methods for making an authentic Hainanese chicken rice, even if no such thing existed. Authenticity may be a myth, but I was not about to fry the damn thing. More important, I had deepened my understanding of what it should taste like, which presented its own difficulty.
A properly made Hainanese chicken rice, cooked as most people in Singapore might expect it, can be highly challenging to the palates of many Americans. First, it is boiled chicken. There is no “extra crispy” Hainanese chicken rice. The skin is supposed to be rubbery and chewy. Textures of this sort are prized in the cuisines of many Asian countries (and many non-Asian countries), and I have grown to appreciate them over time. But most Americans do not, and that includes a lot of Asian Americans.
Doneness? The “safe minimum internal temperature” for chicken, a USDA measure, is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. By most Asian standards for Hainanese chicken rice, this would be overcooked. The meat should be pink at the center and perhaps a little bloody at the bone. Sanitary regulations for restaurants are complex, and there is no one “legal” temperature. Johnny Lee, the “Hainan chicken whisperer,” for example, cooks his birds to 140–145 degrees for white meat and 155 for dark. But that is not typical, in my experience.
Temperature for serving? The chicken should be cold enough to maintain a layer of gelatin between the skin and the meat. Most restaurants in the United States, again, are not going to do this, because cooked food is supposed to be kept warm for health reasons, and also because most Americans do not want to eat chicken Jell-O. (Johnny Lee and Nong Poonsukwattana serve theirs warm.)
We brought a pot of water to boil, then added knobs of ginger and cloves of garlic, which we’d smashed flat with a (French) cleaver, and green onions. Next we were supposed to dunk the birds in the pot. The idea was to quickly get hot water into the cavity, using the gash made by the slice as a sort of sluiceway. This was supposed to help the chicken cook more evenly. Jason shook his head at this.
“I don’t see the difference between dunking or not,” he said. “Boiling gets hot water in there pretty good.”
He also rolled his eyes at another typical practice among some Asian people: washing the chicken before cooking it. My former mother-in-law did this after scrubbing the bird with salt. I do it, too. Salt did nothing to clean the bird, Jason said, and washing poultry was unsanitary. “You get chicken juice all over the place, and it doesn’t kill salmonella. Cooking kills salmonella.” But the birds were covered in blood and poop. We gave them a rinse.
I insisted on the dunk, too. Holding the birds by the head, I submerged them in the water three times for about a minute. Afterward, we reduced the water to a simmer and let the birds go for about thirty minutes. When the thighs reached 155 degrees, we got them into an ice bath to stop the cooking, a technique similar to the European method of “shocking” vegetables and one that was supposed to enhance the skin’s jellylike texture.
For the rice, we followed a method I had found online from the owners of a now-closed restaurant in Singapore called Twe Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice. We fried shallots and minced ginger in oil until it caramelized and cooked down to a paste. Theirs was the only recipe I saw that did this, although I found plenty of variety: turmeric in the stock, dried shrimp in the rice, maybe some lemongrass, or fish sauce, or sugar; Johnny Lee added rendered fat to the rice after it was cooked. The paste went into the rice cooker with Thai jasmine rice, poaching liquid, salt, chicken fat, and pandan leaves.
We made one dipping sauce by blending bird chilies, ginger, garlic, sugar, salt, calamansi juice, and some chicken stock in a food processor. A lot of recipes called for a second, slightly less hot chili, but we only remembered to buy bird chilies at HmongTown. I excused this with my former mother-in-law’s method for judging the heat in her nuoc cham, the Vietnamese dipping sauce: if it made her cough when she tasted it, it was good. Ginger, garlic, green onions, a bit of sesame oil and salt, and a little more broth went into the processor for the next sauce. The last one was a mixture of sesame oil, sweet dark soy, light soy, and chicken broth.
The chicken should not be cut like a typical American bird: wings, thighs, breast, and legs in six discrete portions. My former father-in-law used to do the cutting in what seemed, to my eyes, a haphazard, potentially dangerous whacking that resulted in some irregular pieces.
“I know how to cut a chicken, Ted,” Jason said, a little huffily, and I will admit that he produced a nicely butchered plate, with neat pieces just right for chopsticks and dipping.
We spooned the soy mixture lightly over the meat, sprinkled on chopped cilantro, and ladled the other two sauces into bowls. We fluffed the rice into steaming piles.
“Shall we?” I asked, and Jason nodded yes.
The rice was rich and sweet from the broth and the ginger-shallot paste. The sauces were hot and sharp and acidic. This left the chicken. I picked up a piece of thigh meat from a shallow pool of its bloody juices. I squeezed it gently between my chopsticks until globules of gelatin emerged from beneath the skin. I took a bite. The meat was cold. Its texture was more resistant to the tooth than if it had been cooked longer. The skin was springy and chewy.
There was a sense of futility to my efforts that I could not escape. No Singaporean chicken master was going to magically appear in the kitchen, clutching a dead bird in one hand and a cleaver in the other, and pronounce our Hainanese chicken rice “authentic.” Getting it right would not end cultural appropriation in food or expose it as a farce. Nor would it decide whether Ann Ahmed could represent her culture by making something other than Laotian food, or if Ann Kim was allowed to sell great tortillas. Woodfired Cantina may not have had elotes in its name, but it did have them on the menu, and Gerard Klass would still probably have to work harder than a white chef to get a loan, even if Eddie Wu never sold another bindaetteok in his life. No plate of food, prepared at home or sold in a restaurant, was going to solve these kinds of problems, or the larger ones they signified.
But the chicken was right. I knew it was. I also knew that there are people whom I could never convince, people who would look at what I had done and see only bias and exploitation. The best I could do was to cook as the person I believed myself to be, and hope that it would be enough for the America we would become.