Your 4th Of July Ethics Quiz: Food Racism?

duck_leg_wrap

Let’s play the ever more popular quiz show, ” Is It Racist?”!

Today’s topic: Late-night television host James Corden has long featured on his show a food-centered “Truth or Dare” variation called “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts.” Celebrities choose to either answer personal questions or take a bite of a food that most viewers would deem nauseating or not properly food at all. Recently the cherubic British comic employed a table in the bit filled with Asian delicacies like chicken feet, pig’s blood and thousand-year eggs.

That was too much for the online outrage squad, apparently. An online petition condemning Corden’s use of Asian foods as disgusting has attracted than 46,000 signatories. The premise is that making fun of Asian food is racist.

Kim Saira, 24, a Los Angeles activist who organized the petition, told an interviewer, “James Corden is a white person and is actively using ingredients from Asian cultures and profiting from it and showing it in such a negative light. There’s a way to not like foods and still be respectful about it.”

The New York Times interviewed Lok Siu, an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley who agreed that Corden’s joke is indeed racist because it disrespects people’s cultures. The choice of Asian foods to highlight as disgusting to typical Americans makes Asian Americans feel more vulnerable or marginalized.

Really, Professor?

Oh yes indeed! “You use food as a metaphor to describe that distance, the kind of strangeness between a group of people that you don’t understand and their habits, the way they’re eating, the smell that comes with the spices,” she said. “There’s something around the way we discuss food, the way we think about food in our acceptance or rejection of it, it’s a rejection of a culture and the people that’s associated with it.” Siu regards the food as a metaphor for Asians not qualifying as “normal.”

“Why is this not seen as racist immediately?” Professor Siu asked. “If he made fun of any other group, would there be a much more broader understanding that that’s racist? It’s not immediately thought of as being racist and damaging because it’s Asian food. There is such a denial of anti-Asian racism in the U.S., and this is a prime example of it.”

Again, I have to ask, “Really, professor?” I’m Greek, and the Greeks drink a horrible wine called retsina, which has resin in it. The Greeks tainted their own wine so the conquering Turks wouldn’t drink it, but continued to drink the foul stuff themselves out of pure orneriness. Is it bigotry to mock Greek wine as terrible? Even Greeks do it. Corden has used infamously icky food from his own country of Great Britain, like blood pudding and head cheese in the segment over the years. He’s also used Rocky Mountain Oysters, a treat from U.S. cattle country. (I’ve tried them.)

Corden, predictably, is vowing never to make fun of Asian food again. “Our show is a show about joy and light and love. We don’t want to make a show to upset anybody,” he says. If there was ever a celebrity I would have bet the farm on being a weenie and capitulating to political correctness bullies, it would be Corden.

Your Fourth of July, hotdogs, corn on the cob and apple pie Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is:

Is it racially insensitive and thus unethical to make fun of Asian foods?

This reminds me of a personal episode. I was having lunch with a friend in D.C.’s Chinatown, and the menu had only mysterious Chinese names. Confident of my Asian food erudition and stupidly unwilling to ask for more information, I pointed to an appetizer entry. The Chinese waiter looked at me askance and said, “Are you sure? Only our Chinese customers order that.” I was insulted, and snapped back, “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me! Of course that’s what I want.” He returned with my dish: Two amputated duck legs with webbed feet attached, sitting on a small piece of bean curd floating in some kind of oily substance.

“Here you are, sir,” he said, smiling broadly. “Just as you ordered: duck feet!” Two other waiters could be heard giggling behind him.

Being the way I am, I said, “Looks delicious! Thank you!” and began trying to figure out how I would eat the damn things. The experience was like chewing salty rubber bands with little bones inside. At least three times as I labored to finish, one of the waiters, three in all, came to our table and asked, obviously enjoying the situation, “You like duck feet?” “Best duck feet I’ve ever tasted!” was my most honest response. And I did eat them. When the waiter handed me the bill, he said, “So glad you like duck feet!” and broke out laughing.

He got a big tip. A good story is almost worth having to eat duck feet, and I learned a crucial lesson about trying to fake my way through ordering at restaurants.

26 thoughts on “Your 4th Of July Ethics Quiz: Food Racism?

  1. My favorite Chinese food story:
    1983, maybe? At the end of the academic year, all (or virtually all) of the grad students in the program got together for a potluck dinner to celebrate surviving the year. One of my closest friends was in fact Chinese, and she promised to bring an authentic Chinese dish. She told us the Chinese name for it, but of course none of us knew what it meant.
    The evening comes, the big moment arrives, and she unveils the much-awaited attraction. In English, we’d call it scrambled eggs and sliced tomatoes. Authentically Chinese, though!

  2. Don’t know much about duck feet but a couple of chicken feet in the pot will give you broth that’ll firm up like Jello in the fridge. Good stuff.

    • Just make sure to get them “peeled” or blanch and peel them yourself. This is the removal of the scaly outer skin that can hold onto, shall we say, “off flavors” that might be imparted to your broth. Chicken poop soup is bad eats, no matter what your ethnicity is…

  3. There was a column I read a short while ago, by Larry Elder: “On Race, can we all lighten up.” Elder’s point was that there is no need to be offended when no offense is intended or when it’s simply a misunderstanding.
    Intent and reading between the lines are important poking fun at culture. Can we joke about the tastes of other cultures? In joking, knowing your audience is all important (and, often enough, your audience is not just the people who are present).
    A few posts back, I related how my wife and I served a plate of watermelon to my Black boss alongside our pork chop dinners, and, it worked and was great fun. I knew the guy, I was able to judge his sensitivity to cultural humor. But, it was an audience of one.
    Corden’s audience was much more than one. Given the unfortunate wokeness of America and the unwillingness of so many to lighten up, Corden should have been more cautious than he was.
    Was he unethical? Well, stirring up hatred is unethical, and intent is irrelevant when it arises out of willful ignorance. Don’t know if he intended to be offensive, but he was, and he should have known he would be, so, yes.
    But, those who condemn him are far more unethical because they are unwilling to lighten up to the point where they can see a joke and take it as a joke.
    Now, my own second food story, ala Jack – in Germany, thanks to the U.S. Army, I was bold and ignorant in ordering hirne suppe, as I liked to have soup before the main course and wanted to show I knew what I was doing. The waitress looked askance, but, I confidently insisted, and she placed the order. First and last time I have had soup made from the brain of a deer. (It was delicious, or so I insisted at the time.)

  4. I ordered pigeon while in Ireland because it was alleged to be the local favorite. Gamey and greasy. Yuck.

    When eating in a foreign country or a foreign restaurant, best to have a local or equivalent on hand. Best in an authentic Chinese restaurant to have a Chinese friend write out the order on a piece of paper as I did in the early ’70s visiting Toronto’s China town. When we were in Beijing, Mrs. OB and I had her Taiwanese work colleague order the Peking/Beijing duck. It was delicious.

  5. The assumption I’m operating under is that they basically say, “This food exists! It comes from this place! We think you, the contestant, will dislike it!” If that’s all they do, that’s not racist. It doesn’t even have anything to do with race. They could say the same thing about horseradish, or (moving away from the merely unpleasant to the genuinely painful) ghost peppers.

    If they are already known to use European foods with… niche appeal, then I’d almost consider it bigoted for them not to include foods from all over the world. That said, they’re not in the business of educating people about other cultures. They’re in the business of entertainment, and it’s more entertaining the more different foods they can find.

    If part of their show involves insulting different ethnic groups or nationalities based on their traditional dishes, then yes, I’d consider that unethical. I’d rather hope that people would be impressed at the ingenuity and fortitude of rural people across the world whose ancestors learned to sustain themselves on anything their environment had to offer.

    • Agreed, but certain people see anything that is culturally-appropriated as racist.
      Watch this:

      “This virus exists! It comes from Wuhan, China! We think you will dislike it!”

      That statement – about one breath’s worth of one- and two-syllable words – tarnishes me forever as a racist with those certain people. It’s wrong about me and it shows a complete lack of knowledge of the definition of “racism”, but I suppose it’s because they prefer “truth” over facts.

      What’s that statement about “when all you have is a hammer…?”

  6. I (like many Americans of all ethnicities, no doubt) have poked enough fun at British cuisine that I’d be kind of a hypocrite to say yes. Besides, I think most of the people cracking jokes about the more “exotic” Asian food will still happily eat something like pho, Korean barbecue, or (proper) ramen; after all, my mom doesn’t care much for chicken feet despite her semi-rural Taiwanese background, and I can’t stand bitter melon despite its popularity in Chinese cuisine. I’ll defend pig’s blood curd, though, at least when it’s served as part of a good spicy stew with other ingredients.

  7. There’s no longer any doubt in my mind: people are actively looking for ways to be offended. In the case of BLM, for example, the belief is clearly simple-minded rage at the rank-and-file level, but among those further up the chain it’s obviously about power and the grift. Calibrate your outrage correctly, and one can lead quite a handsome life.

    Racism (and its first cousins misogyny and homophobia) is the perfect charge to level to achieve this (lucky souls like Lori Lightfoot can, and do, score the trifecta by claiming all three).

    As a recovering professional chef (I haven’t lifted a pan for a paycheck in more than 30 years, and still miss it almost every day) I can tell you that serious pro cooks may be able to wow you with the complexity of their offerings. But the foods most of them prefer to eat generally trace back to poverty foods – those developed in poor cultures, where most people ate what the rich folk wouldn’t.

    Most Americans, regardless of when or how their ancestors first showed up, simply don’t understand that in most other parts of the world NOTHING goes to waste. We give our scraps to cats and dogs. But very few other places do that. Thus, it’s little wonder that someone figured out a way to make duck feet in a way that actually tastes good. For the record, I would order those in a heartbeat, with full knowledge, just to try them! But in a place like China centuries ago, wasting protein like that was unthinkable, so you did what you could to make them tasty and that’s what’s for supper.

    This doesn’t mean I like everything – not by a long shot. I find tripe revolting, and it’s extremely popular in first-world France. As a true afficionado of sushi, I’ll try anything – and just about the only thing I’ve ever been horribly disappointed in at a great sushi bar was ankimo – which is steamed monkfish liver. It was described to me as the “foie gras of Japan,” and I can see why. But it was still vile. I like foie gras, but not when it’s overlayed with the aroma of a cod-liver-oil-based ointment my mother used to use on us when we were small.

    Some cultures happily eat grubs – no thank you. Others eat various insects; again, I’ll pass, but you’re welcome to my helping. The fact is that every culture has its culinary oddities and we’ve all got different tastes. This doesn’t mean our distaste for something is racist. It merely means that it’s so far outside of our culinary comfort zones that we just can’t get our heads around the idea. Many cultures find the American fondness for huge slabs of meat served up with starch baffling, for a variety of reasons.

    This, by the way, extends beyond ingredients. There are those only too happy to make accusations of “cultural appropriation” when it comes to food. It is not. When I cook Chinese or Thai or Indian or Mexican food, I do so as a student, not as an appropriator. I do it because I’ve had the good fortune to taste these wonderful cuisines done properly. I want to understand how they’re done, partly because cooking professionally makes you fascinated by differing techniques and ingredients, and partly because I love to eat them and access to these foods locally, prepared by those from that region, is sharply limited. In the case of Chinese, especially, Chinese-American food has been so heavily adapted to North American tastes that it bears little resemblance to the real thing – and almost all of the adaptation has been done by Chinese cooks and restaurant owners. I really want to try the real thing.

    Far as I’m concerned, when I make up a dinner of low-country shrimp and grits, the last thing on my mind is contempt for the poor Blacks for whom this was subsistence food. Rather, I’m thinking “this is absolutely ingenious. They took cheap stuff (grits) and free stuff (shrimp) and whatever else they had lying around and made it transcendent!” For me to cook it is not appropriation – it is the deepest possible respect.

    I could make a similar argument with music, but I think you folks get my drift. This is “The Great Stupid” and “A Nation of Assholes,” to use Jack’s terms, colliding head-on to form a Great Nation of Stupid Assholes. We’d better come up with a way to pull out of this dive, and quickly.

  8. Taste in food is what you have grown accustomed. George Bush hates broccoli and I am no fan of pickled herring. Unless you are George Zimmern who has a show where he will eat just about anything to showcase ethnic foods disparaging certain foods is not racially motivated.

  9. Meanwhile, here’s a popular northern Chinese saying about the culinary preferences of their southern cousins:

    广东人有三不吃:天上飞的不吃飞机;水里游的不吃潜艇;陆上跑的不吃汽车!

    “There are three things that Cantonese/Guangdong people don’t eat: of things that fly, only airplanes; of things that swim; only submarines; of things on the surface of the earth, only vehicles”

    Variations on the saying can be found here: https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/they_eat_anything_with_legs_except_a_table_and_anything_with_wings_except_a

  10. And then we have this article from the Times,

    French food is ‘expression of white privilege’
    A law professor has suggested that France’s food is racist. A video of Mathilde Cohen, discussing “food whiteness” at a seminar organised by the elite Sciences Po and Nanterre University outside Paris, has provoked consternation in France, where cuisine is seen as a cornerstone of the national identity.

    Cohen, from Connecticut University, suggested that French eating habits reinforced the “dominance” of white people over ethnic minorities.

    The video of Mathilde Cohen is here

    • Wowee.

      Ms. Cohen clearly doesn’t understand the first thing about the French and their eating habits. Lest others here think she might actually know a few things, I’d like to puncture a few of her balloons. Having done my formal culinary training in France, I think I’m somewhat better qualified to comment than she.

      First, we must understand some aspects of history. What is now France was long controlled by the Roman Empire. When that empire faded, the French continued to eat pretty much as the Romans did (England was actually the last nation in Europe to largely abandon that influence). So if there’s any culinary hegemony, it starts with Rome.

      Next came Catherine de Medici, who was sent to Paris, kicking and screaming, into an arranged marriage. She made a deal with her family and in-laws: “If you’re going to send me to that god-forsaken hellhole, at least you won’t starve me to death.” So she was allowed to bring a corps of superb Italian cooks (who were closest to the Empire and managed to shrug off some of its worst culinary influences earlier). It is from those Italian cooks that what we know of today as French cuisine largely emerged. The French certainly put a lot of spin on the ball, but many of the techniques now considered essentially French actually have their roots in Italy. All the French did was to refine them to a very high level.

      High-end French cooking was limited primarily to nobles and the ultra-wealthy merchant classes until Robespierre and Company showed up and started cutting heads. A lot of very talented kitchen folk found themselves on the streets, and the only thing they knew how to do was cook. This was really the start of what we consider the French restaurant.

      Meantime, much of the rest of the country was slowly evolving culinarily. We need to understand that things like charcuterie (terrines, pates, dried sausages etc.) and many types of cheese weren’t created for any reason beyond being ways to preserve proteins in the days before refrigeration. The reason we eat them to this day is because those techniques weren’t just good food storage – they were delicious! And much of French cooking traces back to the way things were done in the agricultural regions of that country, based upon what grew there. This is why in Brittany and Normandy, one finds lots of nice dairy- and fish-derived food – but little bread, because wheat is tough to grow there. It’s why Alpine cuisine is also based on cheeses and root vegetables and preserved meats – that’s what grew. It’s why northeastern France, in areas like Alsace, are so similar to the styles of western Germany – that’s what grew. It’s why Provence is loaded with things that grow well in a Mediterranean climate. There is no single thing known as French cooking. Each region has a distinctive style, based on what grows there and who was doing the growing and cooking!

      When I was studying in France in the mid-80s, north African restaurants centering on cous cous were immensely popular. It was an inexpensive night out, loaded with flavor, and graciously served. Years later, north African and middle-Eastern techniques and spicing started working its way into haute cuisine. And that’s not all.

      Two anecdotes for you. When I was in cooking school, we had a demonstration one afternoon with a well-regarded chef. Among the dishes he presented was a composed salad. It all looked straightforward enough until he produced a can of Niblets and preceded to sprinkle them like croutons atop the dish. “Corn is an amazing vegetable,” he informed us. “It is one of the few that actually tastes better coming out of a can than fresh.” My classmates and I, about half of whom were Americans, gasped. But it made sense; the vast majority of corn grown in France is used as silage, not as food for humans. But I did find it interesting – not for the first time – that French cooks are ALWAYS looking for interesting new ideas and ingredients.

      Second anecdote happened early 2000s, when I had a posh ski resort in the Alps as a client. I was there in the summer; the chef of a Michelin two-star restaurant (an absolutely lovely man) invited us to lunch. Don’t remember exactly what it was, but it had a bit of a kick to it and he proudly told us that the dish included chiles, which are basically unheard of in French cuisine – at least, at that time.

      I made the mistake of asking “Really? What variety?” He had no absolutely idea – in fact, he didn’t know that there were so many different types of chile with so many different heat levels and aromatic qualities to them. As an American chile freak, I certainly knew – but all he knew was that this was an adventurous new ingredient and he was having a lot of fun playing with it.

      The bottom line is that French cooking may have its eccentricities, but it is decidedly not racist. The French are always looking for new was to faire plaisir – to give pleasure – at the table. They don’t care where it comes from as long as it’s interesting and tastes good – and as long as they can sell it to happy customers.

      And this bimbo doesn’t have a freaking clue what she’s talking about.

      • Fantastic. Thanks, AIM. I’d heard French haute cuisine was essentially northern Italian in its origins. I thought the Popes brought it when they were in Provence for quite a while.

        • By “tuna fish,” can I presume you mean canned tuna? Ever had fresh – either raw, as sushi, or simply seared so that the interior is still blood red and cool? It’s fabulous.

          And if you mean canned tuna, well… have you ever had the really good stuff? As in, canned in Italy in real olive oil – or better yet, canned in a glass jar?

          Reason I ask is because the stuff we all know as “tuna fish” mixed with lousy mayonnaise is something I’ve seen cats refuse.

          • Honestly, this applies to most foods and ingredients in general; even boiled broccoli is a very different veggie from, say, stir-fired broccoli.

    • Here’s an entertaining takedown of Cohen’s original paper (plus a link to said paper): https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/06/24/unintentional-humor-of-the-day-why-french-food-is-racist-and-expresses-white-supremacy/

      My additional thoughts would be that while Cohen isn’t necessarily wrong about *some* French people (including those in positions of authority) being racist about food even today, her implied thesis about French food being racist in and of itself smacks of someone stretching the evidence in order to make follow a trend (especially since she uses the term “whiteness” to refer even to policies and attitudes that are clearly at least partly aimed at other “Western” cultures like America). For example, she implies that the “Frenchification” of couscous is an act of “colonialism”, but cultures all over the world adjust outside food to fit local tastes and circumstances, such as the case of the tasty castella cake (adopted from the Portuguese by the Japanese, and then adopted from Japan by the Taiwanese). I particularly take offense to the implication that being interested in “traditional and regional cooking” equals “whiteness”; the concept at its most extreme may be ahistorical (in the sense that no cuisine develops in an independent vacuum), but there’s nothing racist about wanting to preserve, say, early 20th-century methods of making madeleines or xiaolongbao, even if new variations of doing so will inevitably arise.

      Basically, Republican France does have a troubled history in terms of its approach to cultural/regional diversity (e.g. the decline of the Breton and Occitan languages), but this type of “academic” work only muddles the waters and makes it harder for people to take reports of actual French racism seriously.

      • Frankly, steaks are trick in racists. They think chicken Parmesan is inferior in all respects. And don’t get them talking about bacon, the other subordinate white meat.

        jvb

        PS: just so we’re clear: Cohen’s argument is stupid, supported by stupid evidence, and reached a stupid conclusion.

      • Julian, thanks for that! A fast read of the takedown gave me a chuckle.

        Ms. Cohen also overlooks that the term “chauvinism” derives from Nicholas Chauvin, a soldier for and posthumous devotee of Napoleon. You can guess the rest.

        The French are an interesting culture. A Frenchman in full cry makes the most jingoistic American look like a piker in comparison. I remember well the first time I got into a political argument with a Parisian local in a bar. In mid argument, I busted out laughing, and he was greatly incensed. “You don’t understand,” I assured him. “This is the first time I’ve had enough faith in my command of your language that I could have this argument.”

        That stopped him in his tracks, and he stiffened. Then he said “Ah, bon… You are still wrong, and an asshole. But I understand. Let me buy you a drink.”

        I have believed since I lived there that it may be the only Western culture in which the majority are clinically depressed, and that their towering achievements in visual arts, cuisine, music and couture are essentially attempts to create external meaning to deeply conflicted interior lives.

        Well, not all of ’em. Renoir could have painted Judgment Day in such a way as to make it look warm and appealing.

        But the French have always had a rather definitive view that French culture was superior to all others. They rail at the Big Mac and the fact that American cinema outsells theirs ten to one. Odd for a nation whose rock and roll sucks, and which has an active vocabulary a quarter of the size of English, relying on complex idioms and word sequences to express certain ideas.

        No doubt that last has a lot to do with why French is the official language of diplomacy: it’s so easy to misinterpret! 😉

  11. My one Chinese-American friend (he’s half Chinese), a trauma doctor who grew up in Oregon, said today of traditional but “bizarre-to-us” Chinese dishes like duck feet, “We never ate that crap.”
    I have never been one to criticize what other people eat to get by, even if I find it personally, uh, distasteful. Haggis comes to mind, which I have seen and smelled but never tasted, along with lutefisk. Also, letting any portion of a meat animal go to waste, like chicken feet, for instance, was never a consideration for us since we had hogs throughout my youth. I have literally never seen anything organic that a hog won’t eat.
    Hunting wild game and fishing remain a part of a culinary culture that many of us here hold on to, as do people in many parts of the country. Many people consider eating wild game disgusting, or at least many have told me so over the years. Of course, I have heard the same said about vegetables such as turnips, okra, black-eyed peas and several types of cooked greens. If a TV show chose some of our regional cuisine as repellant, I would not be offended but rather amused by their lack of culinary sophistication.

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