Written in Poor Form
Like most people, I would say my social media content is a wide mix of funny, educational, or flat-out weird posts. If the content is useful, thought-provoking, sentimental, or just plain funny, you will probably get a humble like and retweet from me.
Earlier last week, I came across a tweet that fit all of that.
Between its ironic role reversal and its perfect imitation of the typical New York Times voice, Soon-Tzu Speechley’s tweet truly is a comedic masterpiece. Though the satire intends to make fun of orientalist and colonialist takes on food, unfortunately, these takes continue to exist.
Case in point, last week, The New York Times published a piece on Thailand’s fruits and their strong economic leverage. The author, Hannah Beech, is not only the Southeast Asia Bureau Chief for the publication but lives in Bangkok and has spent a significant amount of time in the region covering various topics.
Given Beech’s sheer experience in the region, it is disappointing to see what starts out as an introduction to Southeast Asian fruit quickly devolve. The article praises Thailand’s role as a dominant fruit exporter but resorts to overused tropes (i.e. Durian smells! It is so difficult to eat!) to describe the same fruits. The dissonance is strange.
Not only that, but it is a perfect example of problematic, Western-dominated storytelling.
For example, Beech introduces the rambutan, a sweet white fruit that is similar to a lychee. Beech notes that the fruit is yummy but “bears more than a passing resemblance to a coronavirus”. Given the ongoing pandemic, this is a poor sales pitch.
Beech then continues on and introduces the jackfruit, another sweet-tasting fruit with a stringy texture whose presence in the West has been on the rise. Compared to “a banana’s easy extraction, dissecting a jackfruit is to hack through a jagged sheath, then painstakingly pluck out rubbery polyps that taste like overripe Juicy Fruit gum.” I too, enjoy being told that my food must be dissected like a science experiment and then described as “rubbery polyps”. Add to that the imagery of overripe (synonyms which include rotten and decayed) gum, jackfruit may need to invest in a good PR manager.
Osayi Endolyn, an award-winning writer specializing in food and identity, takes Beech’s article and break downs its language and how it “insidiously perpetuates white supremacy + colonialism”.
Endolyn further points out “This ain’t about attacking the writer, nor the NYT. It’s about how easily we accept racist rhetoric.”
So, is there hope for food media?
I would like to think so.
As someone who is passionate about food, I recognize that writing about food can be challenging. Having to introduce and (essentially sell) cuisines from other cultures is a difficult task, especially when the overlap between two groups is not always apparent. Add to that the necessity of being considerate of other culture’s customs and traditions, food media can be a sensitive topic.
However, when the United States ranks highly on the scale of most ethnically diverse countries but food media is largely gatekept primarily by those who are white, the narrative of food quickly can become butchered.
Problematic food media isn’t a dying form. As a matter of fact, in 2020, it is alive and well.
With the Black Lives Matter movement spurring people to confront their privilege and anti-Blackness, people are beginning to recognize just how deeply ingrained problematic framing of information is embedded within our society.
To Endolyn’s point, it is vital to scrutinize not only content, but the framing, context, and narrative at large in all conversations. Are we missing important points of view? Is this maybe not the full picture? We must check and unlearn racial, socioeconomic, and cultural biases.
A large motivation behind starting Broken Eggshells was to specifically have these conversations about the intersections of food. As I continue in my food education journey, I want to remind myself to stay educated and to stay vigilant.
In the meantime, kudos to Soon-Tzu Speechley for capturing problematic food media, orientalism, and colonialism within the span of 50 words. Talk about some succinct writing.