Chris Ying is one of the founders of the food magazine Lucky Peach, and is the editor of an essay collection called, You and I Eat the Same. The subtitle of the book explains that the writings within consider the countless ways food and cooking connect us to one another. So Francis Lam asked Ying to come on the show to talk about it.
Francis Lam: The name of the book is You and I Eat the Same. So, I wanted to ask if you really think that’s true?
Chris Ying: Well, you and I don't eat the same. Right? That's the truth of the matter. On our day to day experience, what you had for lunch today and what I had for lunch today are very different. What you grew up eating is different from what I grew up eating – although I would wager that what you and I grew up eating is pretty similar. [laughs] But, in general, difference is important. Difference is everything. It creates identity. It creates pride and economic opportunity for people, especially when it comes to food. But this book's title You and I Eat the Same was this hypothesis, this question I had that was, “How do we bridge these divides with the other side of the political spectrum or the cultural spectrum?” People who I don't agree with, people who view things like immigration very differently than me, how do I speak to them?
The answer to me was not dwelling in difference, it was to try to find some kind of common ground. We came up with this book title, I called it You and I Eat the Same before the book was done, before I had any idea whether or not this hypothesis would be proven out. It was sheerly because I wanted to have a statement that united us rather than trying to point out our differences.
Chris Ying is the editor of You and I Eat the Same. Photo: Jami Witek
FL: But I'm going to get into the pros and cons of believing in the statement that you and I eat the same because there are nuances, right? And it goes beyond all rose-tinted glasses were you’re like, “Oh, we’re all alike!” And then the other side of it, which is, “Eww, no. What you eat is disgusting. I hate you.” There's a lot of room in between those poles.
Let’s get into some of the things in the book. One of the things I was really excited to read was Tienlon Ho’s piece, “One Seed Rules Them All", about how sesame is pretty close to being a universal ingredient. It's totally central to many Chinese cuisines, Japanese cuisine, Syrian cuisine, Lebanese cuisine, Israeli cuisine, and it's on Mcdonald's buns – it’s on the Big Mac buns! So, there are ways in which we do eat the same and we don't even know it.
CY: That’s right. I love this exercise. When you first started talking about sesame, I wonder what your listeners' minds drifted to. I wonder what was the first dish that people thought of when you said sesame? Chance are it had to do with the last thing they ate that had sesame on it or the thing that grew up eating with sesame on it. For me, growing up Chinese American, my mind goes to the same things that the writer of that piece went to; it goes to tang yuan, these sesame-filled glutinous rice balls. I'm probably in – for lack of a better word – the minority in thinking of that. But sesame comes from Africa.
I like to think about these ingredients as having some sort of consciousness almost. They're so successful: they adapt wherever they go; they're so useful for so many different culinary purposes; we plant them wherever we can; people buy them all over the world, and that species has propagated because it has succeeded everywhere. But, wherever it is, people will say, “I feel like sesame is our flavor. Sesame belongs to us.” And like you rightly pointed out, Americans eating at McDonald's will have a sesame seed bun every day. And in some sense, it feels very American in that way.
All of those differences and the different ways that sesame is applied are so important. But maybe recognizing that layer underneath that this is the same thing and we're all eating it in different ways. As different as we might seem, there's some commonality here, and if we're going to try to bridge these gaps between us, the way that's going to happen is to speak from some place of common ground, to speak to one another's priorities and values.
Read essay excerpt "One Seed Rules Them All" by Tienlon Ho. Photos - Left: Maren Caruso | Top Right: Lauryn Ishak | Bottom Right: Andrew Rowat
FL: It's interesting because sesame, tahini, hummus – there’s a connected dots there. And in my head, I'm remembering this Israeli chef I met once who wants to write a book that's on the magnum opus of the chickpea and about all the ways that chickpeas and hummus are like important to him as an Israeli but also important to all the cultures of the Middle East. This is a region where obviously there's a lot of strife, there's a lot of tension, there's a lot of conflict. And he's like, “Look, we all eat chickpeas.”
CY: Right. There's so much crossover and mixing and melding of flavors and ingredients in that region because there is so much similarity in origin and background. And in Tienlon’s piece about sesame, she points to this interesting example that some of the best tahini factories are Palestinian-run, but that ingredient is so important to Israelis. They have brokered away in which the rabbis can monitor the factory to make sure everything is kosher and they have special permits that allow the delivery trucks to travel across the West Bank. It's incredible that, given as much conflict as there is there, this ingredient, this taste, this flavor is so important. Like we can make peace for that. We can’t make peace for other things, but let's at least make a little temporary peace for good tahini.
FL: I don't want to get too much into the geopolitics of it, but a lot of conflicts are political and they're at the level of the government and the level of political leadership. On the daily person level it's like, look, I love tahina. I just want to be able to eat it and I want you to be able to make it. I want to be able to pay you money for it.
CY: Yes. That's so relevant here too, isn't it? A lot of these arguments about immigration and border security, they're happening in the abstract in terms of politics. I think that regardless of which side of the political spectrum you're on, your day to day experience of other people, of immigrants, isn't defined by what you're hearing in the political arena; it's defined by your day to day experience of it. Like the people that you run into and the foods that you eat. And again, I'm not trying to look at this with rose-colored glasses and say we eat Mexican food and therefore we can all agree that we should have open borders with Mexico. That's not what I'm saying at all. But, I'm saying we should try to dwell in commonality in order to have constructive conversations.
Hot chicken has grown into a global phenomenon, but it began life in Nashville, Tennessee, at restaurants like Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish. Caption from You and I Eat the Same. Photo by Sean Brock.
FL: There's another side of it too though. There's another piece in the book by Osayi Endolyn [“Fried Chicken Is Common Ground”]; her article is about fried chicken. And my understanding of what she was saying in the article is that in some ways saying we all eat the same can be a problem. Because in her essay everyone loves fried chicken: I love fried chicken, you love fried chicken, people around the world love fried chicken. But then to flatten it all out and say, “Hey, everyone makes fried chicken and everyone loves fried chicken” is to ignore the fact that in the United States, for a huge part of our history, frying chicken was something that black people did largely for other people. And their specific history is ignored it. No one can say who invented it, but it was produced in black kitchens for commercial clientele and largely white clientele for a really long time. That history is ignored and those people don't get credit. If anything, it's turned into this gross stereotype about black people, that they love and eat fried chicken.
CY: The problem and the difficulty with the conversation that we're having in food media here – and by and large, this conversation is happening largely in food media and not at your average dinner table – about cultural appropriation, or what Krishnendu Ray calls in this book culinary misappropriation, is that people want defined rules. The people who are trying to cook food that was originated with somebody else want to know what's off-limits, they want to know how to do it right, and those who feel ownership over it can't necessarily provide those rules.
When it comes to fried chicken, we do have to make special dispensation in this kind of idea of togetherness and unity, and sharing of ingredients and ideas for African Americans specifically, whose history and contributions to the culinary canon in America have been systematically erased, minimized and trampled over.
That piece starts with a guy named Morgan McGlone, and Morgan runs several hot chicken shops in Australia. He’s a half Māori, half Irish guy cooking hot chicken, a subspecies of fried chicken invented in Nashville, halfway across the world and he's serving it to people who by and large have no idea about the history of fried chicken. And to know Morgan is to know like one of the most generous, kind and thoughtful people cooking food. When I thought of him and when I talked to Osayi about him, I wanted to know if we could use him as a case study. Can we think about a person that we really like and respect but who's doing something that we're not entirely sure is okay? Can you just serve Nashville hot chicken without the context, without the culinary history, halfway around the world?
There's no straightforward answer. And there's no way for me to say, “You're allowed to do this. You're allowed to serve Nashville hot chicken anywhere you want so long as you're a nice guy who speaks four languages and I know not to be racist.” That's not possible. Unless people want to make me like a cool judge of that sort – I’ll take that job. [laughs] But, that's why it's complicated. Just trying to know, trying to ask the questions, and having the conversations is the best that I've gotten so far – that's as far as I can take it. Having these conversations is as good as I can do for now.
FL: No easy answers to life big questions.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.