THY TRAN is a San Francisco-based writer and chef-instructor who specializes in the history and culture of food. Her research into how diverse communities grow, cook, sell and eat has taken her from Seoul to Singapore, Cusco to Kochi. In addition to contributing features in publications such as the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Saveur and Fine Cooking, she co-authored Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide, Taste of the World, Essentials of Asian Cooking and The Kitchen Companion. Thy is a founder of the Asian Culinary Forum, a nonprofit organization that hosts multidisciplinary symposia exploring the forces that affect Asian communities and their cuisines around the world.
Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?
Thy Tran: Firstly, I’m a freelance food writer and editor, with an emphasis on providing historical and cultural context in nonfiction culinary reference books (cookbooks, food encyclopedias & dictionaries, travel guide books, etc.). I’m also a chef-instructor (I was trained as a chef and used to work in restaurants), so I teach a range of cooking classes, for both youth and adults, lots of nonprofit cultural centers, culinary academies, and the like.
I started a nonprofit, Asian Culinary Forum, to try and address the media’s messed-up representations and narratives of Asian communities and their food. But that’s definitely a labor of love — all volunteer work but extremely rewarding, too.
For the work itself, I veer strongly away from trend or lifestyle topics. I’m mostly interested in how people cook in their own homes, the kinds of decisions they make for their themselves and their families, and how what we eat is a living thing, always changing, no matter how hard we try to imagine it as “true” or “right” or “authentic.”
I didn’t start out specializing in Asian cuisines (I was trained in “classic” French traditions), but once I started freelancing, it was obvious that people expected me to address Asian cuisines and would, more importantly, pay me to do that. I do LOVE what I do, so no complaints. But there’s definitely some pigeonholing that happens in the professional world.
Bani: How do power dynamics play out in the ways we read and write about food?
Thy: Oh, honey, food is ALL about power!
Cookbooks that are meant to be sold to travelers as souvenirs will still have a bit of romanticizing of history, rural communities, mother’s kitchens, etc., and then set up a dichotomy between imperial dishes (which are the ones that tend to become famous in other countries) and “country cooking” of the peasants.
Take any classic cuisine, from France to China to Thailand, and it’s the flavors and stories of the court society that is served for special occasions, including upscale restaurants for travelers. Parallel to that, people like to “discover” and experience rural food off the beaten path. The cookbook industry reflects that tendency to think of food in those two categories. Normal, everyday food regular people eat is not what most people think when they think of the flavors of another country.
There’s a difference between power and privilege. The two are related, of course, and as international travelers and women and people of color, we negotiate them in complex ways.
When I was a student and traveled low budget in Europe, I had trash thrown at me and learned the racial epithets for “Asian” in various countries just by walking down the street. Now, in business dress, people assume I’m Japanese or Chinese, and so they treat me very well, to my face at least, because they think I’ll spend lots of money.
Bani: Then it shifts when we look at who’s marketing whose culture for which audience and who gets appointed the authority on a country’s cuisine.
Thy: Ahh, yes. And hence the reason that it was three women of color, all of whom worked in food publishing, who founded the Asian Culinary Forum. We were so tired of seeing others determine the narratives.
Bani: That’s dope.
Thy: Some would say it’s “the market” who determines what ends up in cookbooks. For example, editors will say that people will want, for example (a real one), a story about clay pots in Vietnamese cooking, because when they go to the restaurant, they always see on the menu clay pot catfish or tofu or whatever dish.
You will try to explain to the editor that NO ONE in Vietnam or no Vietnamese immigrants use clay pots. It was used during times of war and poverty, when the military needed metal or when a person can’t afford modern cookware. But the editor will say: well, we already shot the photo, and the food stylist used a really beautiful clay pot, and so…please write a few paragraphs about this “traditional” method of cooking.
Notice that the readers are always assumed to be white, or at least not of the ethnicity of the author of color. That’s a seriously huge assumption that deeply affects the voice of travel and culture (including food) writing.
Bani: Yes, the default reader remains white, even though statistics show otherwise.
Thy: So, how can you argue with “the market” which is a stand-in for “majority” which is stand-in for “white”?
Bani: And the writer must twist their voice to suit the white gaze. The result in a lot of food and travel writing is you end up getting a lot of white people tryna sound like each other.
Thy: I used to joke that Saveur magazine had three basic narratives for their features:
1) Back in college, I visited this completely alien country and fell in love with it immediately. I wandered the alleyways and discovered amazing places with real people serving real food. I revisit as often as I can, and I now consider it a second home. Here’s a great recipe for paella.
2) When we fled the war, the only thing we took were the clothes on our backs and our grandmother’s recipe book. Now, join me as I return to my homeland and learn how to make dumplings while reconciling with past devastation and modern development. [Insert requisite description of boy using cell phone while riding a water buffalo.]
3) When I was little, our nanny/cook/farm hand would let me sit on a stool in the kitchen and she’d sing while grinding corn. Here is her recipe for tamales.
Bani: Terrible, please stop! Is that what you meant by pigeonholing in the industry – getting sicked with the Asian stories, as long as it’s in their voice?
Thy: I could go on for hours about voice, whose voice becomes expert and why, and the way money becomes a part of that equation. It’s a very touchy topic among my colleagues, and I can tell you that there are many Facebook debates about this among food writers.
Well-meaning white writers feel real confusion and, depending on their personality, varying levels of anger and grief about why we writers of color are upset at the invisible expectations. I should say, invisible to them.
Pet peeves — like anonymity in photo captions (“sidewalk vendor serving up delicious soup”) or tired tropes (“her grandmother’s recipe”) — sound like petty complaints and apparently should be dismissed in the face of a world traveler’s good intentions to explore and educate.
Deeper issues, such as who can become instantly an expert in anything outside of their own experience gets lost in things like “the market” or by explanation of passion being the most important part of travel and writing.
Bani: Their delicate feelings always gotta come first.
Thy: I think the privilege of being a blank slate — that any interest can become an expertise (and one that earns you money) — is something still very much taken for granted. On the other hand, I can assure you that there isn’t a single editor who would sign me up for an article on traditional uses of olives, even if I traveled in the Middle East for a summer and read a few cookbooks — which is what many white writers can get away with.
Bani: Shit. Seems bleak.
Thy: Actually, I think the whole abundance of unique personal approaches to cooking on the internet now is a good thing for this. When you have gatekeepers, the stories are obviously much more controlled. There isn’t money in internet writing, but then, that’s a good thing for the larger picture.
Bani: Yes – fuck the gatekeepers. The larger the picture, the better.
Thy: I also make a point of holding editors accountable for terrible decisions. You don’t want to burn bridges if you plan to keep making money, but there are ways of letting the editors and others in the industry know about irresponsible, unprofessional practices. Once, an editor decided to change my submitted article drastically without letting me know. I wrote a piece on Sikhs and their tradition of serving free food to everyone regardless of race or religion in their gurdwaras. I mentioned a festival in California’s Central Valley where 90,000 people shared food with all-volunteer labor and no money exchanging hands. The editor decided that couldn’t possible be right, and so she just downgraded the attendance to 9,000.
She also shifted the entire article into first person, and even made up some conversations at the temple, in order to make it more “authentic.” This resulted in me seeming to talk while everyone was cooking in the langhar, which would have gone completely against the practice of meditation and silence in that particular kitchen. The article ran that way.
The changes were so egregious that, years later, I mentioned them when I was a speaker at a major food conference in front of nearly a thousand other writers and editors as an example of what needs to change. So, never stop fighting, but you just have to think carefully about where you can make the most impact.
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