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TEDxIVC: How Food Can Be A Source of Identity, Intimacy and Vulnerability

I gave my very first TEDx this March, at the first ever TEDxIVC in Santa Ana, California. My talk was 15 minutes long, titled "How Food Can Be A Source of Identity, Intimacy and Vulnerability". The full transcript is below, full video can be watched here:

“Food brings us together.”

We’ve all heard this. I will go as far to say this may be the most contrived statement we hear about food. The problem is, its emotional appeal has become all but meaningless despite the fact people do continue to physically eat in close proximity to one another. Today, I want to move us away from using food as a function of being together and instead, give back its power as a tangible, visceral part of human connection. If we can reshape the common perceptions that food is meant to be a passive activity, a unidimensional source of pleasure and celebration, or a form of sustenance, I believe that we will allow food to better nourish us both physically and emotionally.

Let’s start with the end goal of human connection. For me, those formative moments often started out exceedingly ordinary: my new roommate and I sitting amongst 100 wooden pieces from IKEA that were promised to us as a bed, with one allen key and two bran muffins between us to realize its full potential. The unwrapping of that first terribly chalky muffin unraveled into confessions of bodily insecurity, opening into family trauma, and coalescing into a fear of failure at our first jobs out of college. As we sat there, we ate, we cried and we ended up…just sleeping on the floor.

It is a great privilege to be in the presence of someone’s vulnerability, precisely because it requires the sharing of something with a propensity towards pain, with a possibility of disconnection. The aftermath of revealing our imperfections marks new ground that we can’t return from – a reorganizing of where “you” stand in relation to “me”. In this way, I argue the framework of food in our society adheres to a similar pattern: it distinguishes the two of us, the lot of them, into distinct categories drawn not just from what we eat, but how we eat and where we eat it. Food’s soft power is rooted in its ability to shape our identities, ultimately influencing the way we see ourselves in relation to others.

Anthropologically, food tells the stories of how we got from where we were to where we are now. For instance, the rise of dairying in societies like France has evolved its population to one that is 90% lactose-tolerant, which is biologically quite rare. It also gives us historical context of societal change, such as the perception of Italian food rising from being compared to ‘train food’ – a term used by James Beard himself – to high cuisine alongside the socioeconomic ascent of Italian-Americans. It is fascinating how food can relate social behaviors with distinguishing personal ideologies – so much so, a political scientist was able to show that the question ‘have you eaten at an Indian restaurant in the last 10 years?’ could differentiate people with or without a ‘cosmopolitanism’ mindset and anticipate their voting choices.

What I’d like to highlight here, however, is the inherent duality of food in all of these examples: as it creates an ‘in’ group, it must then also designate an ‘out’ group – and this is not always an innocuous delineation. Examine the idea of lactose tolerance actually being a minority trait through the lens of non-European immigrants here in the U.S., who were long taught to perceive their body’s rejection of milk and cheese to be uncommon—even inferior. I still remember how embarrassed I felt, watching my mother gulp down Lactaid before we ate at a fancy French restaurant – another reminder of us being outsiders. Look at recent instances of racism following Covid 19, where everyday Americans hurled insults like “the Chinese deserved this because they eat bats”, despite the virus’ unclear origins. The fact that food can draw such a line in the sand mirrors much of our anxieties with being vulnerable in the first place, which is probably why we so strongly prefer to see food as a carrier of goodwill and ignore its equally divisive nature. As ugly as it is to acknowledge food’s role as both enemy and ally, I argue that we need to do so in order to fully harness its multi-layered impact on our lives.

As a chef and well, someone who loves to eat, accepting the times where food also hurt me has not come easily. Specifically, two of my most painful memories lie at the intersection of food and shame. The first, when I am 6. It’s summer camp in upstate New York, and I’m holding a small cafeteria tray as I slide down the dinner buffet and receive my allotment for the evening: a giant slab of pink meat I’ve never seen before. As I walk back to my table I wish for chopsticks, puzzling over the oddity of serving food so large and impossible to eat. Forks are a new instrument for me, so I take one and stab the meat squarely in the middle. I’m moving it towards my face now, the ham’s edge angling ever closer to my mouth, a little drip of meat jus teasing down my chin when my teacher grabs my hand and waves it in the air for everyone to see. She’s furious, but I don’t know why. “We do not eat like this.” She says, addressing the others and not me. “We have manners.”

By the time I’m 13, I’ve internalized this shame and manifested it into anger. It’s fall now. I’m in our kitchen, screaming at my mother, insisting I can only eat school lunch from then on. “We can’t afford it,” she pleads. I can feel her exhaustion but I don’t care. In this choice of me versus my family, of assimilating as an American or staying an immigrant, I hated the chains of my lunchbox, with its garlic-chive dumplings and pork belly the others said smelled of farts, looked like dog food. “Well you aren’t a very good mom then!” I win the argument, so I bury that hurt deep down inside, knowing I willingly turned my back on something I loved.

See, food is visceral because it throws into sharp relief the invisible lines that govern you and me. It forms memories that are frighteningly crisp, and perhaps this is why we so often push it away or diminish its power, afraid of what it can dredge up. But look – just now, this retelling of what once ostracized me likely connected us in some new way because of its crossover to your own stories of shame, loneliness and loss. With this context, if I now tell you an aside of my Irish-American father-in-law requesting my food for his first meal after beating cancer, I think you would understand on a different level how that moment for me felt particularly bittersweet.

We cannot remove pain and only be left with joy, which is why it’s no wonder we feel our interactions with food today to be so sterile and flat. We’ve manufactured food to fit into a small ecosystem that only ever makes us feel good, or at least not bad, by using enforcements like ‘table manners’, sexual allusions like #yolkporn, and – of course – the lure of excess so easily found in restaurants boasting caviar, truffle, wagyu at a moment’s notice.

But the gap of vulnerability remains, and the easiest way to fill it is with planning. When I started hosting dinner parties out of a cramped 1 bedroom apartment in New York City, I spent a lot of time obsessing over curating the right people, selecting the right topics, orchestrating new-age non ice breaker ice breakers. There were some good ones over the years, I’ll say that, like when we asked guests for their biggest failure and used each answer as a name card. But there was always a hesitation in the crowd I couldn’t push past. Every evening as desserts began to fill the room, I was filled with simultaneous dread and frustration, a feeling that what was missing was not something I didn’t know but rather what I been too scared to include. As a chef, expressing vulnerability and cooking are two sides of the same coin; if I truly wanted the privilege of connection with my guests, I had to start with myself.

So I took that memory of me at 13 years old and turned it into a plated dish. Here, my shame sits in a metal lunchbox. Inside are many of the same things I once hid from public view, snuck in bites of on the toilet, except now it’s been gentrified into something clever and expensive for the benefit of everyone else. Garlic chives, the newly discovered secret to Chinese cooking; freshwater eel, but with no barbecue sauce to mask its robust flavor. Sweet potato with an uncanny oceanic brine from oysters, once a poor man’s rations, now a restauranteur’s cash cow. Duck tongues, creamed into a sauce that envelops white snow fungus punctuated with mealworms. It’s a small dish, just three bites, over quickly like the insults and the whispers, but the flavor, I know, lingers uncomfortably in the back of everyone’s throat.

Food’s faculty in highlighting the complexities – and often hypocrisies – of human relationships has become the founding principle of my nonprofit that grew out of those dinner parties. In our series Asian in America, the idea of the “Model Minority” I show as a maze, the tension between believing in the American Dream while occupying the constant state of being in-between. That bold green is from chrysanthemum, an East Asian staple now so popular, American chefs are laying claim to discovering it altogether. Yet no one speaks up. Acceptance and sacrifice are bound tightly together for the model minority, and I too fall in line. The star of the dish is veal sweetbreads, the one exception to the rule that offals are distasteful – it serves as a reminder that everyone is welcome, as long as you stay the course, present a palatable, approachable version of yourself. I hide all of this under a steamed rice sheet, its slippery texture so off-putting to many, just like my perpetually incorrect answer to ‘Where are you from?”

There will always be a you, and a me. But when we allow food to reflect our entire range of emotions, we also give it the fluidity to find moments where we occupy the same space. I think this is what we are reaching for in the adage ‘food brings people together’. We have always intuitively associated food with a sense of closeness because both require connecting with some intimate part of our identity. This repeated exposure doesn’t get any easier, but it continues to be more and more rewarding. I can now say with conviction that unless I feel absolutely terrified at the prospect of a course landing on the table, it probably isn’t ready yet.

Food has always been about more than sustenance for us as human beings. It is rooted in feeling, its visceral nature a result of how we physically interact with it and our emotional attachment to its presence. Its ordinary nature belies an incredible ability to infuse intimacy in our everyday, and offer a cross-section into our relationships – with others and also ourselves. So tonight, I urge you – let that connection start at your own dinner table, even if it is set for one.

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