Privilege: Pt. 1: Wealth
What determines “value”? This is something I’ve touched upon before, so I wanted this dish to approach the topic with a different angle: the relationship between value and privilege. I’ve been thinking a lot of how each of us measure value in relation to something’s usefulness to us, but often don't recognize that inherent subjectivity when judging others.
This dish is an expression of the duality of value: it’s a local radish, poached in wagyu fat & coal essence, stuffed with uni; the broth is fermented foraged mugwort; the leaves are sesame, dusted with radish leaf ("root to tip cooking") and Sichuan peppercorn; the ceramic is custom and lined with literal dollars. It took a lot of work to make this, but for who does it actually hold any value? It takes a certain amount of privilege to ascribe value to these 2 bites of food; for those with the means, it could be valuable due to its raw materials, hours of labor and ‘bigger message’. But for those who are trying to literally feed themselves, it's worthless (if not over-complicated and offensive).
The interplay of privilege and value feels especially poignant in health/wellness. There's an article in The Atlantic titled, “Why So Many Rich Kids Come to Enjoy the Taste of Healthier Foods” that I found extremely interesting: not only did high-income parents have "budgets to force Brussels sprouts on their children 10 times”, the value proposition of said Brussels sprouts when the intended audience didn’t eat it was seen differently. For wealthier parents, neglected Brussels sprouts fed to another person was not a ‘waste’ — but it was marked as such in the lower-income families. In spite of both having "extremely similar understandings" of healthy/unhealthy options (contrary to popular belief), lower-income families commonly chose the latter -- and often both felt guilty and were publicly shamed for doing so.
So the question posed by this dish is: as part of the privileged class who can eat well (in both senses of the word), how can we reframe our approach to helping those who struggle to? How do we move past shame/blame to something that considers the issue more holistically?
Watch the BTS of this dish (food and ceramics) in this video here.
Privilege: Pt. 2: Race
The second part of my “Privilege” series is about the innate privileges of race, titled “That’s Disgusting”.
Eating authentic ethnic food hasn’t always been a trendy way for foodies to gain social currency as it is now — before then, a whole generation of minority children had their schooldays marred with “lunchbox moments”. I still remember being too embarrassed to eat my pig feet over rice in the lunchroom, so I would hastily eat in the bathroom. As I got older, I would get into screaming matches with my mom demanding I be put on the school lunches, even though they were total garbage and too expensive for us to afford, because I was sick of feeling like an outsider. The privilege of race goes far deeper than social status — it’s about having agency over who you are and how those like you are represented. I call this the perpetual bystander effect: watching the majority race be given authority to offer an opinion — whether valid or idiotic — and having it make an outsized impact on your societal standing without being given the space to explain, contextualize or refute. When minorities are forced to listen to an outsiders’ dictation of who they are and the rules they must follow in “their” society, that is the privilege of quiet racism. How can we start changing this? I believe it starts by listening. Trying to learn the context of others’ actions as an individual before generalizing. Learning to step down so others’ voices can join in, because everyone deserves to be respected enough to speak for themselves.
This dish is composed of ingredients that have “turned cool” in the last few decades: eel (roasted), garlic chive (as Chinese Americans know, this is what makes some food “smell like farts”), oysters (torched and blended into sweet potato), snow fungus in a duck tongue & chrysanthemum sauce and fried mealworms. It’s served in a metal lunchbox under sharp white light, adorned with a sticker that doesn’t contain a name, but a judgement.
Note: hear me speak more about this dish in my TEDx Talk titled "How Food Can Be A Source of Identity, Intimacy and Vulnerability".
Privilege, Pt. 3: Gender
None of us are immune to the messages we absorb from the outside world. Even when we disagree with them and “know better”, even if we digest them analytically, the way the world perceives us inevitably informs some part in how we see ourselves. That’s the idea I'm trying to capture with my newest dish, “Never Enough”, the final installment of the “Privilege” series. I’m releasing this as both a ceramics piece and a plated dish.
For the plate I made, I wanted the piece to evoke a vintage, 1950’s vibe to give guests a supposed context for the course — hence the sepia / newspaper look. However, all of these headlines are pulled directly from womens’ focused magazines in the last ~10 years, ranging from Cosmopolitan to Vogue to Women’s Health. The idea here is that even when, in 2019, we SAY we have a more holistic view of women as individuals and what does (and does not) define their worth, what we SEE and HEAR are “antiquated” messages on the daily. So how can we dismiss these as some figment of the past when they exist acutely in our present?
The mentality that a woman is just a sum of her parts (prioritized by its usefulness to men) and an expiring token of beauty doesn’t only exist among magazines, though they are an exceptionally visible example. Wielding “wellness” as control over women’s bodies and touting the unachievable goal of “having it all” is a mindset that most of us Millennial women have been indoctrinated with from the get-go. As adults, we are also often guilty of reinforcing these same viewpoints to those around us (just look at the nastiness Monica Lewinsky continues to be subject to!) because it feels so natural. What does it matter, besides — it’s just a few words, right?
This plate is meant to be a reminder that these messages are not some time capsule into the past. These are unconscious biases that seep into our everyday, ingrained worldviews we need to consciously and actively address in order to improve as a society. The composed dish (which you can watch in this video here) is a ‘cute little cupcake’ that’s unexpectedly savory. It's made of partridge, a tiny bird with a robust flavor and meatier overtones than many other foul, accented with both sweet (fenugreek, which tastes a touch like maple syrup) and bitter (golpar, a zesty seed native to Iran). It's topped with an in-your-face ‘frosting’ made of sunchoke & blue cheese mousse with pomegranate arils, again in direct contrast to expectations. The combination of these flavors are complementary as a trio, but far more pungent by itself -- just as womxn are more than the sum of their parts, and cannot be spliced into any one facet of their personality. Together, this dish and the plate stamped are meant to show show the chasm between the spectrum of what womxn actually are and small space we attempt to force them into.