I know. It’s another piece about that Bon Appétit phở video. We just can’t get enough of that mess. And what a mess it was. If you’re tired of reading the dozens of thought articles this has spurned (as I am), I hope to provide a fresh perspective that might make the experience worth your while.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, long story short, Bon Appétit, a food culture magazine, released a video featuring white chef Tyler Akin as he talks about his phở eating technique along with the poorly titled article “PSA: This Is How You Should be Eating Pho” with the tagline “Pho is the New Ramen”. Needless to say, people on the internet went. the. fuck. in.
If you’re not entirely caught up on the firestorm that ensued, here’s a reasonable outline from the Philly Eater: Backlash to Poorly Phrased Bon App Video Results in Yelp Emergency Cleanup Crew
I’ll have to admit that when I first saw the video, I merely posted the *disappointed face emoji*. I thought it was very elementarily problematic; too much of a low-hanging fruit to even write about. I actually laughed at the video. As someone who cares deeply about tackling oppression at the structural-level, I’ve learned to pick my battles.
But as the situation unfolded, escalated, and the internet had its moment, it grew beyond just addressing an ignorant and arrogant chef. Media outlets from across the country started weighing in, some of which were extremely problematic. The chef was harassed via Yelp. Bon Appétit removed the video, changed the name of the article, and issued a cringing nonpology. I ultimately saw it as a powerful moment for the activist and Vietnamese community. So some fierce Vietnamese American ladies and I got together and headed to a local phở restaurant to give our take on our cultural dish, this whole situation, and why it matters and will matter after the storm subsides.
Food culture, as with any, is riddled with white supremacy. It’s so much more palatable for the mainstream audience to stop exotifying a culture that’s unfamiliar to them if it’s presented in a “non-threatening” way. We see this happening in rap music, a genre that was invented by and for Black voices, being capitalized upon by Eminem, Macklemore, and Iggy Azalea for white audiences who feel uncomfortable going into Black spaces. So until we start putting colored faces on the screen and normalizing our presence and authority to a mainstream audience, this isn’t going to change. This is why seeing opinionated Vietnamese American women on screen having a critical discussion matters.
Understand Why Columbusing Matters
A term I hadn’t been too familiar with prior to this incident, the Bon Appétit video came out and all of a sudden this term, Columbusing, was everywhere.
Columbusing (v.) When white people claim they have invented/discovered something that has been around for years, decades, even centuries.
The video was certainly a case of it. In it, there was no mention to phở’s country of origin. It also states that phở is a new trend. So then you might ask, so what if it is Columbusing? Why does it matter?
Earlier this year Iowa’s Republican Representative Steve King made very racist statements about minority populations when he said, “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization? Than, than Western civilization itself…It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”
Columbusing has contributed to this mindset. When white people continue to erase the history, origins, and innovations of POC contributions, we all begin to feed into this lie that white people are superior and it gives them reason to believe that they can continue oppressing us. We have the hindsight to see what that has done to our nation.
So to the people saying, “get a grip, it’s a bowl of soup”, I say to you, without vigilant activism we’ll see white chefs capitalizing off of phở in every city across the U.S. and when there’s no longer space for our immigrant community’s mom and pop shops, it will be too late to speak up. Since phở started being noticed by mainstream consumers, I see chains and shops just like Stock that are non-Vietnamese owned cropping up to turn a quick buck. Even taking a look at Stock’s menu, the chicken phở’ is not stated as being Vietnamese (there’s also mushroom phở, but Akin can take credit for that one). Chef Tyler Akin has options, phở is not his survival. The same cannot be said for our Vietnamese community. This is why Columbusing matters and this is why we’re standing the fuck up against it.
Value Diversity in the Newsroom
One of the social justice areas that gets me more riled up than others is the issue surrounding representation, particularly in the media. Centuries of inaccurate media representation continues to perpetuate a cesspool of social inequality and I’m tired of sitting quiet on that shit. Furthermore, this situation was multiple layers of it and led to actions that were extremely problematic from media and from the community as well.
While the chef should not be free from critique (note critique, not harassment), the brainchild of this project was Bon Appétit. Let’s make that clear. The thought processes that went into the creation and production of this video and poorly chosen article headline was the match to the flame. While I consider this case the truly perfect storm, this kind of inexcusable ignorance is what misrepresentation creates and perpetuates. Bon Appétit not only misrepresented a traditional Vietnamese dish but it misrepresented the chef with that awful headline. In my opinion, whoever made the choice, if on purpose or by accident, to keep that very last line of the video “this is my way, not the only way” made it somewhat redeemable and saved them from an even bigger shitstorm.
Why does this matter? There is a lack of diversity in Bon Appétit’s newsroom. The first thing I thought when I was reading through was not “who’s Tyler Akin?” but who’s Alex Delany. Why is a white guy writing about phở? Where are the Vietnamese people at? We’re out there writing too, where’s our spotlight? If it’s not already apparent, this is a problem.
Secondly, the chef misrepresented phở. In no circumstances is this dish the new ramen, because other than they both being noodles in soups, there is nothing else similar about these two distinct cuisines. Vietnamese cuisine has a wide variety of noodle soups, a handful of which are shown below.
Even just to note the different color of the broth and the meat stock, to say that any of these dishes are like phở and that phở is like ramen totally misses the point. If I went around saying wontons are the new tortellini, I’d offend a lot of Chinese and Italians. Tortellini have a rich history and so do wontons, that needs to be respected. But for some reason when it comes to Asian food, orientalism still applies where people think it’s okay to erase our history. If anything good came out of all of this, it’s that we made the message that it’s not okay clear.
And why? Asian Americans are tired of being viewed as homogenous. We are different. Vietnam is not Japan. Japan is not Vietnam. For some reason, the mainstream U.S. just can’t get this. The results of this problematic generalization is failure to see the issues that impact less visible communities within the Asian umbrella. We want disaggregated data and continuing to lump us all together in these subtle ways defeats that.
Lastly, the media that picked up on this story did a real shit job of it. The first response I’d like to call out in particular is the cringeworthy article from NextShark titled “Ignorant White Guy Tries To Tell Asians How To ‘Properly’ Eat Pho — Gets it All Wrong”, written by Ryan General… you guessed it, a white guy. This article highlighted problematic responses to the video and positively framed the harassment the chef received. The article starts off not even naming Bon Appétit, but instead calling it “an online foodie magazine” and this matters because in omitting the editorial, the article then deflected most of the blame onto the chef. NextShark didn’t discuss the framing of the chef nor the root causes of erasure, it saw an opportunity for click bait. Their article led to increased harassment of the chef. My problem isn’t with white guys eating phở, cooking phở, writing about phở, or even writing about an article about phở; my problem is with white guys continuing to whitesplain things they have no business being the voice of.
The second example of crappy media response was, surprisingly, from The Young Turks. I am a fan of TYT so I was interested in their take on it. However, I was met with not only disappointment, but anger. In the discussion video, the one Vietnamese woman on the panel was talked over by three other non-Vietnamese males (uhm racism AND sexism) and the multiple valid criticisms and dialogue sparked by the video were completely ignored in favor of the harassment. Casting Turkish or Mexican culture as parallel to Vietnamese culture warrants the same criticism as the Japanese comparisons. Responding that people are being “thin-skinned” is not only disrespectful but discredits the valid activism of an entire community on an issue TYT clearly didn’t research. They took a nuanced situation and oversimplified it as over-sensitivity.
Emphasize Constructive Social Justice
The moment I became frustrated equally with Bon Appétit AND the community was when I woke up the morning after the video’s release and saw that the harassment of chef Tyler Akin had led Bon Appétit to remove the video and issue this nonpology:
The learning moment that Bon Appétit could have had was lost amidst the harassment and resulted in them erasing what they had done rather than own up to it and lead by example. The opportunity for critical dialogue had been lost.
I believe the actions taken to attack the chef via Yelp were misguided because it leads to the false assumption that if we make a martyr out of this one person, that all the systemic and structural injustices that led to this happening in the first place will go away. I see this on many social justice oriented spaces where the community has formed a dangerous mob-mentality and any disagreements, even by those within the community, are met with hostility. This isn’t progress. In a time when we’re more focused on delivering the most searing clapback rather than taking the hard route of education, the result is further instances of injustice and the alienation of communities.
Following the outrage and backlash, comedian and writer Jenny Yang starred in a satirical response to the video called “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Your PB&J” that pretty adequately captures why Bon Appétit’s video was so ridiculous to begin with.
Andrea Nguyen, the Vietnamese American phở queen herself, penned a beautiful commentary article to the entire fiasco on NPR, “Don’t Call It ‘The New Ramen’: Why Pho is Central to Vietnamese Identity.”
In my research of chefs and food videos, I came across a heartfelt personal take on bún riêu or Vietnamese crab noodle soup, from Master Chef Christine Ha by Food Talkies. Which also happens to be my favorite noodle soup of all time.
I am empowered by the resourcefulness and resiliency of our community to use creativity and dialogue to add our voices to the conversation, make ourselves heard, and to heal. I am thankful for the platforms and avenues we now have to discuss injustice against our communities in ways that hadn’t been available in the past and every day we will continue to exercise that right.
I’ve been eating phở from my mom’s spoon since before I was old enough to hold utensils. When phở became a “trending” cuisine, I had a tough time reconciling my skepticism. Food is culture, food is identity, and the dismissal of that food is traumatic. As a Vietnamese American, the only person who’s allowed to tell me how to eat my phở is my mama. Watching her garnish her dish with steamed sprouts, torn basil, and limes was the way I’ve learned to eat my phở. Meanwhile, my father would douse his soup with hoisin and a touch of siracha and I’d grown up seeing my younger brother follow suit. The heart of this dish is its personable experience and what it has meant for generations of Vietnamese families.
The takeaway message from this project is the importance of progressive dialogue and how do we as a community, Asian American, Vietnamese, and mainstream, start to come to the table in constructive and not destructive ways. Bon Appétit’s second apology was eventually a productive outcome from the train-wreck of a situation. I just hope they don’t prove to be empty words but will incite change within food culture and society as a whole for how underrepresented voices are presented.
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