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This Podcast Host Is Serving Up Sandwiches Wrapped in Politics Of Race, Class & Gender That Are Too Hot To Handle

  • IWB Post
  •  October 5, 2019

I entered his kitchen very quietly. He was prancing about, collecting ingredients and humming a French tune, or so he admitted later, that I couldn’t recognise. He was beaming and something was so beautiful about the energy he was exuding. ‘Come closer and take a sniff,’ he whispered.

A red pot of yellow broth boiling on the stove. I remember distinctly the smell of burnt garlic and there was something else too; an ingredient completely new to my senses. An experience I had no prior memory of. For every other odour emanating from that pot, my brain rummaged through its memories. I peered closely. It must have been the butter swimming and swirling right on top. He offered me a spoon. He looked on earnestly. I took a hot spoonful from the pot and with caution put it in my mouth. Cheese dripping through the sides of my lips. My tongue was quick to not let it fall. I don’t remember saying anything. But I think he could see the gulp warming me up from inside; nice and good. I involuntarily nodded in agreement. My body was just very very happy. 

It is the most vivid memory of food that I have. And strangely, the cook wasn’t my mother but a friend from France who was cooking himself Cheese Sauce to go with his Pasta. 

‘Improvise,’ he answered my unasked question. ‘The trick is to let your heart guide you and do the dance. You will know what ingredient to pick. Like magic!’

Doesn’t every piece of writing on food make you feel like this? Make you think of holidays and home and mother and all the happy memories and all the love? Why and how, then, I wonder has Soleil Ho been able to talk about food from a perspective never thought about before. She talks about food from the place of gender, race and class; topics that are really discomforting. 

This isn’t new. We all know this. We know there exists a food security bill because of the class disparity between people. We know we hand soiled food over to the underprivileged and expect them to be grateful for it. We know how farmers commit suicide over bad policies and empty stomachs. It’s all here; in front of our eyes. Yet, it never really hits us as much to really shuffle our way of living and way of thinking about a fellow human. 

And race? Have we or have I ever thought of food as identity? People who leave their hometowns and villages in search of better livelihoods… do their coming generations know of the food their ancestors ate? 

What did my friend make of the food that local Indian restaurants, a thousand miles away from his homeland, served in the name of authentic from the land of France? And did this ever affect him?

Food has been so basic. Ever since I left home, I have been feeding on my memories. I say feeding because it’s what fills my tummy and makes me groan with satisfaction. Food is home. 

I am so excited to share with you my conversation with the brave, beautiful and bold Soleil Ho of the Racist Sandwich Podcast that has really carved a niche for itself in the area of food talking.

The Racist Sandwich podcast serves up a perspective that you don’t hear often: that both food and the ways we consume, create, and interpret it can be political. From discussions about racism in food photography to interviews with chefs of colour about their experiences in the restaurant world, hosts Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed hash out a diverse range of topics with humour, grace, and very little pretension.

I encourage you to go give it a listen and I promise you will not regret it.

Food and its association with class, race and gender! It’s like an elephant in the room – you see it, I see it, everybody sees it. But nobody talks about it. And now with The Racist Sandwich podcast, you’re not just talking about that elephant but holding it by its trunk and spinning it around the room right on everybody’s face. Why, of all people, are you talking about it?

Well, for me it was very easy. I am one of those people who is always thinking and always analysing. Be it while watching television or reading a book. I get into the feminism of it and what its female characters are up to. So, I am like that. 

I was a chef for a decade and I have experienced everything there is to experience working in restaurants. But I never really spoke about any of it until Zahir asked me about it. He had no idea about being a chef or what it was like to be working in a restaurant. So he had all these questions for me when we first met.

And thus began the podcast. 

And why is it important for you to talk about all things that you talk about?

It’s important because if nobody talks about it, nothing is going to change. Personally, I cannot sit and watch let things happen. I need to talk about it and try to make people understand the ‘why’ of all of it. Sometimes, the language that they use and the things that they do really bothers me and it bothers a lot of people but they are afraid of losing the jobs and being sacked from work.

I sometimes wonder, do people who get over-critical lose their sense of humour over a period of time?

Ha! Well certainly not. I don’t think I know of anybody who is like that. We can’t assume that things that are a hundred percent pure and true. There are always shades of grey. There is a never complete white or a complete black. The sense of humour comes from the irony of it. I am the most critical persom I know and I think I have a great sense of humour.

Then why do you think we, as a community, fail to take certain pieces of writing or acts in good humour? There was a lot of backlash that Calvin Trillin received for his poem summarising the Chinese cuisine in America or Tyler Akin’s DIY video on making Pho (a Vietnamese soup). 

In the age of social media, everybody is trying to grab attention and attract followers, for reasons good or bad. And maybe, these people weren’t even aware of the racist undertones in their work. 

Oh most definitely. I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning thinking that they going to be racist or misogynist. And nobody thinks of themselves as any of these things. People who think that they are good can end up participating in activities that support really awful things.

I can with my words, very unintentionally, hurt people I have never met. Or think of buying an expensive coat that was made in terrible working conditions. So, realising that in small ways we can have larger repercussions, helps me actively prevent such things. 

So, I wake up in the morning hoping to be a little more open. So if there is somebody who says, ‘Hey, you hurt me!’, I hope I can be open enough to say, ‘I am so sorry.’

So, it’s just that. I only hope people open up to apologising and accept their grey zones if pointed out. 

Soleil Ho

I understand. Amidst all these talks of white supremacy and the white gaze that directs all our actions and decisions, don’t you feel we contribute to it in large ways? Every time we use English as a language to communicate and exchange and even criticise, we are succumbing to the white supremacy. An Indian talking to a Vietnamese in English. I guess that sums it up. 

That is a really interesting question. It’s a fact that I am in a diaspora. Born in the United States, the second language that I learnt was English. It was a language I had to learn to fit in. To survive. My grandparents don’t know English, they don’t understand that language. Their children and their grandchildren have to interpret the information for them so they can operate in the world.

I can say is that it’s a tragic thing. So I wouldn’t say that using the language hands control over to the white Americans or European Americans or the Anglo-Americans, but it is definitely an indicator of our past. It is a symbol that says people have been displaced. You and me speaking in English to each other is a chapter of our shared history. 

My country was ruled by the British for over 200 years. So their language, the culture, their mastery over us is deeply ingrained in our subconscious in many strange ways. The idea and worship of white skin, for example, is a tragic remnant of those 200 years. And big corporate houses continue to promote this idea. Because they too are surviving, trying to make a living and I don’t suppose they can be called wrong either then. 

Absolutely! We have to survive. And the people with money are the ones who decide the terms of arrangement. A lot of this has to do with supporting people with their needs to survive, keeping them from the industries while this sphere of dependency on the colonial powers for their language and their means to survive gets built alongside. And this has happened to a lot of indigenous people back in the United States and also places like Hawaii, for example, and globally where this dependency is almost intentional.

While we are talking about history, I’d like to understand if evolution of human and his food interests you? We began our journey as Homo sapiens and hunter gatherers. From that point to this point where we talk about food from the comfort of our homes and studios and on the radio and relate it to class and gender and race. How have we travelled along this path? 

I don’t want to look at this from a critical lens. I think it’s sort of a backward thing. There are a lot of story ways but… I think we are travelling through a phase and by we I mean, the educated class, upper-class, the leisure class that has begun to look at food as an aesthetic pursuit, a leisure pursuit. And WE have a way of thinking that separates art from its context. So a lot of the criticism that people like me a living and the analysis that we make regarding food is really an attempt to bring the context back in its place. It’s saying that you cannot detach food from its history. It’s really important to talk about. It’s about giving back to the land, to the people and back to history. Give credit where it’s due.

I think capitalism sort of interrupted the practice of eating food. I mean in capitalism you don’t have to do anything except make a transaction and it’s all done. But the pleasure of making food and the meaning in it has been, for a long time, in sharing with the people, as a community builder and as national identity.

How does it feel to be at the helm of this podcast that is making so much noise?

It’s pretty exciting honestly. The most wonderful thing that was said about my podcast was by a writer who said we have created space for people who think about food, write about food, talk about food… to sort of express their frustration, their views and their critique on the way that institutions, mainstream media, and publications have been talking about food. So I am very grateful to be able to provide space and not be afraid to talk about powerful people from big organisations and institutions who sometimes say things that perpetuate cultures and ideologies, the likes of white supremacy or patriarchy. 

It’s something extraordinary, you know. Exploring your identity with food in a land that is not a part of your history. I want to understand your definition of home. A concept that eludes me. You say, ‘Home is always the process. Something you build bowl by bowl.’

Ho: You know, I think a lot about the epistemology of immigrants and what it means to embody that. In studies on gender roles, gender is continually referred to as a construct, a verb. You’re always doing gender. Be it in our dressing, the way we talk, the way we walk. We are always aware of our gender. So it is a process and this understanding is very important for me.

So when I say that home is also a process, it is not a fixed location, atleast for an immigrant or a displaced person or refugees. It is very much work that you do to create a space that is safe. I mean look at all the questions of identities and sometimes a space that you have physically that you call ‘home‘, may not be safe if you are, say, a woman or queer or if you are strange in some ways. So, build that home elsewhere by talking to people, being a community and for me, the easiest way of doing that has been by feeding people.

Soleil Ho

Can we talk a little about Ijeoma Olua? I was introduced to her through your podcast and her articles are just so overwhelming. She works extensively on feminism and social justice; her article on the Boston cream pie was just sad. But at the same time, it was so real.

It was one of the most relatable articles as an Indian, because what divides people here with their food is class. This sense of power that the upper-class enjoys that lets them decide what people from lower class are entitled to eat. I work in a school run by the government where their mid-day meals are taken care of by an NGO. I know a lot of people who would advise me against consuming that food because they fear its quality control measures but not a finger raised while the humble kids from poor background continue to feed on that. And it’s just how it is. If you do not have money, a lot of times you are at the mercy of those who have the money for the food you are ‘allowed’ to eat.

Will we ever change the way we think of people?

Ho: You know, it’s really interesting that you ask me this. A lot of times I think about why I do what I do and… 

I honestly don’t want to burn down the government. And with Donald Trump at the helm, I cannot do that. But what I can do is use the education that I have. Ijeoma is also a very brilliant person. She uses simple ideas in simple language is that other people can relate to and understand very easily. And that is something I try to do with my writing. I write about subjects and I write about things that I hope will make people rethink and review their ideas and the way they talk to and about other people.

Ijeoma’s article affected you; a reader in India. That is so powerful and so important. I think that is a lot.

When you write an article and publish it, the thoughts get amplified by the number of people reading it. Slowly the word gets spread person to person and it turns into something concrete that is taken notice of globally. This is the hope of every writer, I believe.  And is that your dream with food?

My dream!!! Of gosh… umm. 

I have always been obsessed with eating. It’s one of the greatest pleasures in life – to put up something delicious on the plate every now and then and it’s just a very emotional process for me.

So honestly my dream has been to try something new every day and eat the best food possible. If I can cruise through my life eating delicious food, I think I’m going to be very happy.

Does your family listen to your podcast?

Ho: Well, you know, not a lot of them listen to it. Ha ha! I know it is a lot to listen to, the time that goes into it… urgh whatever!

But, yeah, my mother is very supportive of it. She thinks I’m really smart and really appreciates it.

Soleil Ho has been working in the restaurant industry for more than a decade, having done everything from waiting tables to washing dishes to working as an executive chef. Somehow, she managed to pursue a career in nonfiction writing, publishing numerous literary essays and running Quaint, a semi-notorious feminist literary magazine. She graduated from Grinnell College and thought getting an MFA from the University of New Orleans would be cool. She managed to attend the New York State Summer Writers Institute and sneak into AWP 2015 events before the siren song of burnt fingers and ticket printers pulled her back into the restaurant world.

Her more literary nonfiction has appeared in The Atlas Review, Interrupt Mag, Mason’s Road, and Weird Sister. Most of her food writing and restaurant reviews can be found in BITCH Mag, Render: Feminist Food & Culture Quarterly, and the Heavy Table. Her chapbook of nonfiction essays, Hungry Ghosts, was published in 2016 by The Atlas Review. And also when she was six, she made a Teddy Grahams popsicle by freezing partially chewed crackers in a Dixie cup.

Find her on Twitter @hooleil or on Instagram @holeil.

Update: The Racist Sandwich Podcast is coming back for a third season in November.

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