Or, #NeverPhogetNeverPhogive! Soleil embarked on our first OFF-SITE INTERVIEW and caught up with comedian and writer Jenny Yang this past weekend. She produced and starred in "PBJ is the New Grilled Cheese," a brilliant send-up of that pho video that everyone's been talking about. (AKA the food media's regularly scheduled announcement that they don't give a fuck about us!) Soleil and Jenny talk about community, staying in touch with one's culture, and what it means to respond to racism with art.
Links du jour
- Bon Appetit took the video down and issued an apology, kind of.
- Why You Should Care About the Bon Appetit Pho Uproar
- Don't Call It 'The New Ramen': Why Pho Is Central To Vietnamese Identity
SOLEIL HO: So, I guess the way I eat pho, if you're curious, is I go to Pho Oregon, which is my favorite place in Portland right now. But normally, I go to my grandmother's house, and there's usually Sesame Street on the TV because all my little cousins are there too. And I immediately put Hoisin and Sriracha--
ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: [laughs]
SOLEIL: --all over that shizz. And I tear the basil by hand, just like Chef Tyler. And actually, the funny thing is, when I was a kid, I demanded plain pho with nothing but noodles and broth. And even putting black pepper in it, I remember one time my cousin put black pepper in it, and I asked for another one 'cause I just was so afraid of anything being in the soup. And [chuckles] it's funny because that, for all my cousins in my family, no matter how you can say assimilated or American we are, it always comes back to pho. No matter how picky any of the kids in my family have been, pho is the one thing that we have to eat and that we all can eat. And to me, I guess that speaks to something that is essential to us and our history that we just can't lose. It speaks to the strength of our identity that no matter who we are in my family, it all comes back to pho. And it's just the easiest way that we can relate to each other because I can't have a conversation with my grandmother about politics or even how her day is going. But I can always ask for more noodles.
SOLEIL: Welcome to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, class, and gender. I'm Soleil Ho.
ZAHIR: And I'm Zahir Janmohamed. We've got a very special episode for you all today. Today, we're going to be unpacking the pho video made by Bon Appétit, which featured a white chef how anyone really basically should be eating pho. We have a very special guest, Jenny Yang, who's a comedian in Los Angeles, and Soleil went out to meet her last week.
SOLEIL: Jenny produced probably the best response to the video so far. I believe there's been a few video responses to the pho video, but hers was a really great parody that was, she turned that whole idea of having an ethnic food explained to a majority audience on its head.
For listeners who might not have seen the video before Bon Appétit took it down--because there was such an uproar--we are gonna play a little bit of sound from the video and explain what's going on.
[recorded video clip with upbeat, plucky background music]
WHITE CHEF: When people come in, and you put the bowl of soup in front of them, and immediately, they squirt Hoisin and Sriracha in it, all of the little decisions that are made along the way about seasoning are completely destroyed. There is as much thought that goes into cheap, home-style food as there is in fine dining.
My name's Tyler Akin. This is Stock restaurant in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Yes, pho is on the rise. We're talking about pho in relation to ramen. Pho is a fresh experience. Ramen is like a deeper, more hearty experience.
My approach is to start by putting a few slices of jalapeno in the bowl. Next thing I'm gonna do is squeeze as much lime as they gave me in the soup, because they never give you enough lime. Grab some Thai basil, and you wanna tear the Thai basil. Rice noodles grow in hot liquid. I try to eat a good chunk of those noodles right away. Whereas, if I eat all the broth at first, then I'm left with a bowl of noodles that are lightly dressed in soup. I do not put Hoisin and Sriracha in my soup. If the cook or chef or owner or whoever sees you dump your Hoisin and Sriracha in your soup before you've even tasted the broth, it's like it hurts. I'm a big fan of having as many spoonfuls of just broth as I can 'cause like for me, that is the backbone of this dish. I like to do the twirl when it comes to noodles. I learned this trick from my wife. Whereas you normally hold your chopsticks this way with your finger in the middle, you're gonna switch your grip up to be like this, OK? And then you just spin 'em, and you have a nice, substantial bite of noodles.
That's my approach. It's not the only way. The beauty of pho is you can do it however you want, but if you're gonna put Hoisin and Sriracha in your soup, please taste your broth first. And please don't do it in front of the chef.
SOLEIL: So, Zahir, what did you think when you first saw that video? Did you see that video?
ZAHIR: I did, yeah. I remember seeing it and being outrage. I remember first, to be honest, laughing about it, and I remember laughing several times about it and then logging on to Twitter. And then sort of my laughter turned into a bit of rage and then frustration. It's a question that we get asked over and over again, and I'm so tired of it, is, "Can white people do this? Can white people do that?" That question happens in literature all the time. And I don't really care. I just think that you should do it with respect. And to me, the issue with the video wasn't that a white person was talking about pho, but he was doing it with such a flippant attitude: The idea that his way was the right way. And this idea like if you're gonna put Sriracha on your pho, don't let the chef see. It's like, well, who cares? He doesn't own the dish.
SOLEIL: And the text on it. For those of you who haven't seen it, there's big block text in the video in the beginning that says, "Pho is the new ramen," which is such a strange equivalency to make. I mean, it reminds me of Whole Foods' campaign that said, "Collards are the new kale," right? Who was asking?
ZAHIR: I really think, like you and I had this discussion: I wanna know who the editor was that mixed it and then ended up hitting the publish button. Because in my-- You know, maybe the chef didn't really know how he would be presented. So, there's that as well too.
SOLEIL: So, finally, we're gonna play PB&J is the New Grilled Cheese, the response video, the clapback, as one would say, that Jenny Yang made with her friends. She even started a parody website called Bad Appetite, and we're really looking forward to collaborating with them at some point.
[recorded video with cheery background music]
JENNY YANG: When people come into the restaurant, and you put a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of them, and immediately, they cut off the crust, all of the decisions that have been made along the way about flavor and texture are completely destroyed. There's as much thinking that goes into cheap comfort food as there is in fine dining.
My name is Sammy Chu, and this is my restaurant, sandwich in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are on the rise, and we're talking about PB&J sandwiches in relation to grilled cheese. PB&J is a more complex experience. It's sweet and savory. You know, grilled cheese, it's a deeper, more hearty experience.
My approach is get the whitest Wonder bread you can find, the whiter the better. The next thing I'm gonna do is mix as much mayonnaise as I can into the creamy peanut butter. Creamy peanut butter only, and lots of mayonnaise. We like a pinch of salt on every sandwich, just a pinch. You don't want to over-season your food. If the cook or chef like sees you cut the crusts off before you've even tasted the sandwich, it's like it hurts.
I like to do the twirl when it comes to my crusts. I learned straight from my wife. She's white. I eat as many bites of the dark, dirty crust before I go into the whitest territory of the sandwich. Surround the crust with your mouth in a wall of bites. Not tonight, dark crusty crust! You're not getting away! Into my mouth. I will save you, white bread, from the bad, dark, dirty crust. The white part is the best part.
That's not my approach. It's not the only way. The beauty of PB&J is like, you can do it however you want. But if you're going to cut your crust, please, taste your sandwich first, and please don't do it in front of the chef.
ZAHIR: I think one of the beautiful things about this whole, like when I worked in the US Congress, people always talked about, "Oh, that's a teaching moment."
ZAHIR: I know that's sort of a cheesy phrase. But the funny thing is people are able to speak back, and I think Jenny's is a perfect example. So pitch perfect, timing was amazing, so hilarious. So, we're super excited to have her. The conversation was recorded at Bison Coffeehouse in the Cully neighborhood in Portland. Bison is Portland's first Native American coffee shop. So, we hope you enjoy the segment.
SOLEIL: I wanted to ask, Jenny, first, about the moment that you saw the pho video.
JENNY: Ugh. Yeah.
SOLEIL: Right? What were you thinking, and just your kind of initial response?
JENNY: Well, I saw it actually, around the time that it came out. I think I was one of the first people who saw it because my friend who's from Philly, Cassie, she was just like, yo! Is this video Columbusing? And then I just looked at it really quickly, and I was like, "Yeah, of course." I think it's on Twitter somewhere, the tweet, the reply back. So, that's probably Tuesday or Wednesday when it first came out. And then I just kinda went on with my day. And then I was like, oh, I gotta post on this. So, I finally posted it on my Facebook wall, and it just was like, ugh, this is so wrong. And then everyone just started to chime in. I could just tell from the energy of the comments and on Facebook that it's like oh, this is gonna be a conversation we gotta keep going 'cause this video's really bad, you know?
JENNY: It was just so ridiculous. There's just so many aspects of it that just made all of us just react viscerally. And it was actually through that Facebook thread that a couple of my filmmaker-comedian friends were like, "We need to make a video." And I was like, yeah. 'Cause we were joking about the ideas that we would have for the video. It's like no, someone was just like, "No, let's do it. I have time tomorrow." I was like, "What?" 'Cause the key with making videos is like you need someone who can direct and edit and has a camera. And I don't have that quite yet. So, when she threw down the gauntlet, Tessa Pechal--I don't know how to say her last name, but Tessa--I was like, "Great. Let's do it." Because I felt it. I was like, I can see it. I can see the response for this, and it just kinda locked in my head. Let's put it together.
So, we really, we produced it in 12 hours. 3:00 pm, we declared, "Let's make this." We found a location. I got costume, downloaded the original video. Even after they took it down, someone had posted it. So, I made sure I downloaded it from there. Everything. Secured two other people to help out, and 3:00 pm the next day, we started shooting.
SOLEIL: Wow! So, I mean, there's a lot to unpack. We posted that video also on the Racist Sandwich page, and that was probably our most popular post of all time.
SOLEIL: 'Cause so many people were also chiming in, and people having arguments like, "This isn't a big deal! He's got a good point." You know..."but he's white!"
JENNY: Yeah, totally.
SOLEIL: There's so many--
JENNY: Aspects to it, yeah.
JENNY: It really generated so much conversation. And honestly, me too. I thought to myself, I'm probably that person who's like, I would sip the broth before I add stuff to it. I am that person. 'Cause I do feel like that's a way of honoring the person who cooks it. And I get what he was saying, but it's just the way he said it, the way it was presented, the additional things he talked about. It just all kind of created this big old I don't know, stew pot of racism it felt like, you know?
SOLEIL: Yeah. Yeah. And the thing is too, it's such a stark and easy example of the things that happen in the food scene every day.
JENNY: Every day. it encapsulated everything, didn't it?
SOLEIL: Yeah. And so, the peanut butter and jelly video is such an about face of that. And actually, what's funny is that I have an example in an essay I wrote about this years ago where I talk about going to a friend's house for the first time when I was eight and having tuna sandwiches for the first time and just being shocked. And just being like, "I don't understand! I don't understand what's in front of me right now."
JENNY: [laughs] Does not compute! Does not compute!
SOLEIL: Yeah. And that sort of turning that around, making something so banal so exotic blows people's minds. And it's the thing that happens to us all the time.
JENNY: Oh, yeah! Oh, no, totally. I've had my tuna sandwich moment.
JENNY: It wasn't until the 7th grade that I had my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
SOLEIL: Oh, wow!
JENNY: 7th grade. This is stuff that people live on from birth, right, in America. And I didn't taste it until lunchtime by one of my white friends, and I grew up in a majority person of color student population. It was like, "Try this." And I'm like, "Oh." She's like, "You never tried this?" And she freaked out.
JENNY: You've never had peanut butter and jelly before? I had it, and I was like, "Oh, interesting. Yeah, I could see how that works." I didn't have a tuna noodle casserole until senior year of high school.
JENNY: And that blew my mind. I was like, "What is this?" It blew my mind because I never knew you could put tuna with noodles in a casserole, and I'm like, "Wow. This is really delicious." It also blew my mind that I'm like, "Oh, this is what you white people have been eating this whole time. Why have you been holding out on me?"
JENNY: This is delicious!
SOLEIL: Yeah! No, I would beg my mom for that.
JENNY: But it's weird for other people. Totally. For us, going to Sizzler or any of these sort of cheap-y, cheapo salad bars was like a treat. It was exotic to us. Mashed potatoes were exotic to us. We were like, "What the fuck is mashed potatoes?! What are you doing with potatoes? Why are you mashing them? Why are you adding cream to them?" Yeah.
SOLEIL: Mmhmm. The first time I made mashed potatoes for my grandmother, she thought it was rice from a distance. And then she was like, just looked at it like, what? She poked it.
JENNY: I like how you're miming out the furrowed brow of your grandmother in front of me right now.
JENNY: Where you're just like furrowed brow, poke-poke, poke-poke. [laughs]
SOLEIL: Hmm. But yeah, we would go to Hometown Buffet--
JENNY: Yes! Classic.
SOLEIL: --just to view the food.
JENNY: And she would marvel, right? She's like, "What is this?"
SOLEIL: Yeah. The buns. She loved that.
JENNY: Totally. And then my mom would see green beans, and she'd be like, "Why do they cook them to death?
JENNY: This is why Americans hate vegetables. [laughs]
SOLEIL: Yes. They've been mistreated for so long.
JENNY: I know. But no, totally. I'm glad that you kind of recognized that: Taking something that's considered completely normal to an "American culture,' right, and being like, "Oh, it's exotic and different and something worthy of describing in this very specific way."
SOLEIL: Right. 'Cause the thing is, this is an interaction that we have all the time on things that we consider just "normal," and the kind of underlying assumption is who is the typical American? And what does a typical American find strange, or what do they need to be, to have their hands held through?
SOLEIL: And there's something so alienating about that. That, for me, was what bothered me about the video.
SOLEIL: Just being told-- And also, just the way I eat pho, which is, I guess, like a savage is that I put all the stuff in it before I taste it 'cause I know what I like. I just eat it that way ever since I was a little kid.
JENNY: Yeah. What's your background?
SOLEIL: I'm Vietnamese.
JENNY: Yeah, so it must have just-- And I was just trying to describe to people, and just from the feedback I've gotten, I really feel like I've gotten a good summary or overview of all the levels that made that video so offensive to us. One of them is that for us, as immigrants or children of immigrants, food is one of the only places that we can usually keep, regardless of whether or not we speak our native tongue, whether or not we get along with our parents despite the immigration or refugee or cultural gulf, right? Food is one of the only things that we have left that we could still use to communicate our love and to feel like we have a sense of identity and connection.
JENNY: Right? Regardless. I feel very connected to my culture beyond food because I speak the language. My dad worked for an airline, so we had tickets every year to go back to Taiwan, for me, between age 5 and 14. I feel very, very privileged and fortunate to have had that experience. People perceive me as being super Americanized, but they don't know that I still feel very connected as a Chinese-Taiwanese person, right? But I know for a fact though, even still, feeling that sense of alienation growing up in America, even being around a lot of Asian Americans for me, in LA and Southern California, food still gives me that visceral reaction if someone disrespects it, where you're just like, "How dare you tell me how to eat my food." I feel like that's a key part to why so many Asians on the Internet reacted, you know? It's this visceral reaction of like, you're disrespecting this thing that I hold so dear and hold so personal, and you're making me feel alienated about it, this thing that is actually really close to my heart.
SOLEIL: Mmhmm. For me, it's almost like seeing your grandmother in a test tube.
SOLEIL: You know? There's so many layers of just separation that are brought in, which is why I love that putting the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in that context 'cause you're flipping it in such a way that you're putting all these layers of interpretation and bluster and style in front of something that should, ideally, right, just be this nostalgic childhood, very sacred thing.
SOLEIL: I think that's the really effective part about the video is that it just, it's-- And this is the funny thing too 'cause it ties into the name of our podcast, right? Racist Sandwich refers to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
JENNY: Oh, it does?
JENNY: [gasps] I didn't know that!
JENNY: Oh, my gosh. This was meant to be!
JENNY: Wasn't it?
JENNY: You should just make my video your trailer.
JENNY: That's funny.
SOLEIL: I mean, yeah, it's so perfect because the story is too, there was a Portland Public Schools principal who used the example of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich at an equity training in the schools, and she said basically, that the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you might assume that all the kids are into it. But we have students who are from different ethnicities and different contexts. So, they might not understand it. They might not like that sort of thing.
SOLEIL: So, she used that as an example of ways to talk to kids, using frames of reference that are more familiar with them based on their context.
SOLEIL: And so, the news media picked up on it, and they blew it up to say that she was calling the peanut butter and jelly sandwich racist.
JENNY: Racist. Oh, right, that she was being an apologist.
SOLEIL: Yeah. Which I love. So, that's so funny.
JENNY: Amazing. That's an amazing origin.
JENNY: I love that.
SOLEIL: So, OK. I wanna talk about the impulse to make something in the wake of this because for a lot of us, where it stopped was talking about it on Facebook, getting pissed, and then having these really good discussions. But the peanut butter and jelly video was the first thing that I've seen come out of it, the first product. People have written think pieces, which are really great. But personally, I worry about being stuck in a think piece spiral.
SOLEIL: I'm sure you've read a few of them already.
JENNY: Totally. It's like, can we think piece our way out of a problem?
JENNY: Thinking is a good, big part of it, and I think analysis is important. But analysis and thinking and discussion can happen in different formats.
JENNY: And not everyone can feel like, not everyone can access the thoughts of a think piece sometimes.
SOLEIL: Right, absolutely.
JENNY: Which is what's beautiful about art, right, is you can communicate things in different ways. People can digest things in different ways, yeah.
SOLEIL: Yeah. Especially when you make them laugh.
JENNY: Totally. That's what I love about comedy, yeah.
SOLEIL: Yeah. So, who do you think is watching this video? Who's been watching this video?
JENNY: Oh, my god. It's been so beautiful. In addition to creating this video, I created a mock Bon Appetít site called Bad Appetite, and kind of just a satire of their branding as well. So, the tagline for Bon Appetít is, "Where food and culture meet." And so, for Bad Appetite Magazine, it's, "Where food and culture have a one night stand."
JENNY: Right? 'Cause that's how it felt. It was just this one night stand that you did on this sort of drive-by cultural video you made.
SOLEIL: And the good thing is that the food industry takes itself so seriously, right? I'm sure that chef, that poor sweet boy takes himself so seriously.
JENNY: He does. 'Cause he's a chef!
SOLEIL: He is a chef. He's very serious person, yes.
JENNY: Which deserves respect. He deserves respect, which is true.
SOLEIL: Mmhmm. Mmhmm. At the time, the media really doesn't do anything to kind of circumvent that.
SOLEIL: They're very much about puffing up people's egos until it can't be puffed up no more. And I mean, there's no-- And that's the thing that kind of bothers me about that aesthetic too, behind that video, the Bon Appetít videos: There's no kindness in it.
JENNY: In what way?
SOLEIL: In just like, it was very prescriptive.
SOLEIL: It wasn't funny, or it just didn't feel good to watch it.
JENNY: He was preaching, yeah. And what didn't help--I mean, let's be honest--it didn't help his cause. He kind of comes off as kind of a condescending bro.
JENNY: His tone. Don't you think? it's kind of a element of it, right?
SOLEIL: Right. I'm very familiar with the chef bro.
JENNY: Yeah, a little bit of the condescending chef, like, "OK, this is what you do. This is how you talk. This is how you eat it." It's that tone.
JENNY: And I feel like that also created a visceral response with some people who were just like, "Ugh. I totally know this guy."
JENNY: "And he's totally mansplained so many things to me that he doesn't know anything about." It represents so much of what we feel is wrong with American media and the dominant culture disrespecting us. I feel like that's what it is. It's not just food. That's the thing. This isn't just food.
Someone wrote on my-- That's what you asked, going back to people's responses, right? I read all of that. I've read all of the Facebook comments. I've read all of the YouTube video comments. And there's a few themes, and I'll get to them. One of them, this one guy, wrote, "There is a pho controversy? How can there be a pho controversy?? It's just soup."
SOLEIL: Mm. Hmm.
JENNY: And I'm like, see? That's the problem. It's not just soup. That's the problem. That's what you don't get. This is not just about soup. It's about everything, you know? In a media landscape where we're rarely represented, food is one of the few things in the mainstream stage where we could actually have somewhat of a voice. 'Cause that shit is delicious, you know? And so, America has been forced to reckon with our food, right?
SOLEIL: They don't wanna reckon with us.
JENNY: Exactly. At least they'll reckon with our food. And so, that's at least an entry point. And so, no, it's not just soup. But 99% of the reactions have just been people tagging their friends and just being like, "LMAO! LMAO!"
JENNY: Which is so satisfying as a comedian, just, "LMAO!"
JENNY: Or like a fire emoji, fire emoji, fire emoji.
SOLEIL: Oh, yes. That's me. [laughs]
JENNY: Yeah. Or my other favorite for a comedian, a response is to see the happy face crying face, the happy crying face. Just, "Ahhhh!"
JENNY: Just laughing, right? Right?
SOLEIL: Jenny just made the happy crying face, and it was so awesome.
SOLEIL: Yes, exactly.
JENNY: Just tears, happy crying face emoji. Like happy crying face emoji, happy crying face emoji, happy crying face emoji. That's very satisfying. So, that's like 99% of the reactions. It's been amazing. And then some people are like, "Oh, is this real?" Or some people are like, "Ugh. How dare you add mayonnaise to the thing." They don't know it's satire.
SOLEIL: Oh! What?
JENNY: "How dare you add mayonnaise to peanut butter and jelly." I'm like, fool, how do you not know this is-- Do you think I'm really Sammy Chu, talking like a bro who has a wife who's white?
SOLEIL: So, I guess quick reality question: Did you actually eat the mayonnaise peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
JENNY: I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I did eat a--
SOLEIL: OK. I was worried for you for a minute.
JENNY: I mean, if I had to, I would've.
SOLEIL: For the art, yeah.
JENNY: I actually like mayonnaise, so it's not like it grossed me out. So. It grossed so many people-- I think the other thing that it worked on a certain level as a food video in and of itself, right? So, regardless of a sort of sociopolitical commentary, just as a food video, people reacted to it too. It made them think about, oh, it makes me wanna eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich now, like the way that we would respond to a tasting video or a food video that we regularly see. It kind of reminds us of the deliciousness of something. And then some people are like, "Ooh, I'm gonna go try adding mayonnaise to this."
SOLEIL: Oh, god.
JENNY: I know.
SOLEIL: Well, yeah, the way they shot it was like so on point for the porn-y kind of nature of food videos, like the money shot right there with the mayonnaise spreading into the peanut butter.
JENNY: That's right. We had to. We had to. But yeah, so, that was fun to just kind of make a food video period, but yeah, I loved it. The other reactions that I got were there was a couple of people who didn't like that we did that little bit about the dark, dirty crusts and the white bread: The whiter the better. 'Cause I think they didn't, on the sort of other side, they didn't get the satire of that too, that it was actually reinforcing. But the character was just sort of trying to be the whitest person ever Asian.
SOLEIL: [laughs] Mmhmm.
JENNY: And so, I just thought it would be funny if this person also had this kind of weird fixation and fetish around darkness and crust versus whiteness.
SOLEIL: Yeah, yeah. Mayo fever.
JENNY: Yeah. Mayo fever. So, there was a couple of those, but for the most part-- And then there were just a couple white people who were just like, "This is totally disappointing. When you do this kind of stuff, and you make fun of white people who love your culture, you're putting up a wall between us." I'm like, you know what? Maybe I want that wall! Maybe I need you to step the fuck back. [laughs]
SOLEIL: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
A: Hi, this is Alan Montecillo. I'm the producer of Racist Sandwich. I wanna take a minute to recognize a few people who donated to our crowd funder: Mae Saslaw, Francie Nguyen, and Parwani Shergar. Thank you all so much for supporting this podcast.
We're also looking for sponsors. So, if you're a business or an organization, your support can help us make this show even better. We're trying to do a lot more here at Racist Sandwich, whether it's providing more kinds of digital content or airing stories by freelance producers in other cities. So, if you wanna support this show and make food journalism more equitable, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. OK, back to the show.
SOLEIL: Why do you feel the impulse to make something?
JENNY: Oh, that's right.
SOLEIL: Like when something is really fucked up, and you see something really fucked up, why is that your response?
JENNY: Well, my response is usually to comment and share on Facebook because I do feel like I provide a little bit of a service for folks who follow my Facebook stuff and on Twitter, sort of to bring to light some stuff that I think is a problem or that we should know about. Usually, the way I channel other sort of unhappiness or feelings of injustice, I usually channel that into doing standup comedy. And so, I do have that outlet, but that's usually live, and you don't get to see it. It's not reproduced. It just happens once, or maybe if I do the same bit over and over again.
But for something topical like this, I think I've been struggling with the way to create art from that too. And so, for me to do this for the first time, self-producing my own comedy video where I could talk about something like this has been very satisfying for me. Especially because it felt like I was able to create something funny that also helped to voice the sort of unhappiness of so many people, you know? Hence the sort of how it became viral and all the comments of LMAO and the cry happy face, you know?
JENNY: It's just so satisfying to see that! 'Cause some of the responses too have been, mostly it's mostly Asian Americans. It's a mix, but it's a lot of Asian Americans who are like, "Oh, my god. Did you see this? She's making fun of that pho video." And then there's been a number of comments that are just like, "Ha ha! Retaliation! Ha ha! We got you back!" Because sometimes, even as Asian Americans in the media landscape, we don't feel like we get a chance to talk back or if there's anyone doing that on our behalf. And so, that felt very satisfying to be a part of that.
SOLEIL: To be an Asian American superheroine a little bit?
JENNY: Swooping in.
SOLEIL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there's so many-- Retaliations a really interesting word.
JENNY: Someone said the word retaliation.
JENNY: That's a very specific word.
SOLEIL: How's it feel to have your video almost like weaponized?
SOLEIL: it's like the nuke option.
JENNY: Well, 'cause a lot of people would also comment, saying that my petty is level 2,000, and they're here for it.
SOLEIL: [laughs] Mmhmm, mmhmm.
JENNY: Or that my video was savage, which I also embrace as a compliment. And savagery meaning that it is that sense of weaponized art or weaponized culture making, right? It's getting back. It's striking back. Because we felt this sense of harm. We felt this sense of offense. And so, in a way, this is a response, right? It's a striking back. To be like, no, this is how it felt.
Choosing PB&J is also sort of choosing a frame of reference for a mainstream, "mainstream" in white Americans to be like, "This is a little bit of a taste of how it felt for us to watch the pho video."
SOLEIL: Yeah. I think the genius too is that it was really good-natured.
JENNY: Generally, yeah.
SOLEIL: Yeah, for the most part. And hopefully, people would be able to laugh at themselves too when they see it. But it was almost like a side swipe. It wasn't directly like, "Tyler you are a whatever."
SOLEIL: "You are a gross human." And it made something new.
JENNY: I was much more direct when I talked about this issue last night live.
JENNY: But the video definitely is a more sideways way to get at it, yeah.
SOLEIL: Did you ever respond to him on Facebook?
JENNY: So, if y'all don't know, Tyler Akin, the original How to Eat Pho chef, he actually messaged me on Facebook. I've not responded.
JENNY: Because I'm trying to consider-- I was kind of joking about this, but maybe we could talk this through in terms of what next. So, I'm actually a kind of person who's not just gonna say all I care about is making people laugh 'cause I do care about issues. And I used to work in politics, and I believe in mobilizing if we want things to change. And so, I think the problem I have is I'm glad people received this video well and that people thought it was funny, just in and of itself. What I'm concerned about is the issues that we're talking about are so much bigger than Tyler, right? It's issues of gentrification in the Fishtown neighborhood. It's issues of the fact that he could get all of this money to open up this kind of a restaurant where he could upcharge some of this food that people in our community can't charge that much because we have to work off of cash, or we didn't have that much capital to start with, and we have a tiny store. And it's the only way that my family can survive because my parents are discriminated against because they can't get a job. There's just so many things at play. And how do you restore justice in this sense?
So, there's the term restorative justice for all these other realms. So, my question is what kind of restorative justice framework or process can there be for a guy like Tyler who makes his money off of pho, right?
SOLEIL: Right. I don't know! I mean, that's the thing that we've been struggling with because there's so many-- We've been talking about the impact of all of these things with restaurateurs, with chefs, with people in the industry and people outside of the industry. There's so many policy-level things that have needed to change and that still need to change.
JENNY: Totally. It's bigger than us.
SOLEIL: Yeah. Just like bank loans. Black folks being redlined still.
JENNY: Yeah, everything.
SOLEIL: All of these things are contributing to the end product, which is the pho video.
JENNY: And Bon Appetít. Can we just talk about Bon Appetít too? I feel like that's the other area where we haven't talked enough about.
JENNY: Bon Appetít needs to diversify their shit.
SOLEIL: Yeah. And he didn't approach them.
SOLEIL: I'm pretty sure they picked him to talk about this.
JENNY: Yes, and the producer framed the questions and made him respond that way too, which, but he still responded that way. He's been trying to deflect blame onto Bon Appetít, but let's be honest.
SOLEIL: Right! I mean, the food industry is--and this is something that we at Racist Sandwich have been harping on to is that--the food industry is horribly homogenous. The kinds of stories and the kinds of angles they try, that they make normal are not normal.
SOLEIL: And they're very much framed within white supremacy and sexism, racism. All of those things are very much the bread and butter of that industry.
Oh, I did have a sort of peripheral question too. How do you feel that the bulk of what you're famous for on the Internet--you're Internet famous--a lot of it is very message, or it's about politics? Maybe not directly, but it does refer to some aspect of identity politics.
SOLEIL: Is that your beat? How do you feel about that?
JENNY: Well, people perceive that to be my beat. So, it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
SOLEIL: Right. You get called upon, right?
JENNY: Oh, yeah. Totally. To represent. And you know, I don't hate that. It's something that I really care about. So, that's why it's reflected in my work. But one of my first videos that I did with BuzzFeed three years ago was actually a mini-viral hit when they were first developing as a BuzzFeed video department. And it was called If Adults Threw Tantrums Like Toddlers. And it was just me throwing tantrum like toddlers in public and otherwise. That was very satisfying too.
JENNY: You know what I mean?
SOLEIL: Yeah, yeah. I feel like most of my adult life is avoiding the very strong urge--
JENNY: To just throw a tantrum?
JENNY: Yeah, so, as a comedian, I just wanna be silly too. So, that's why I act in other people's stuff, and it's fun.
SOLEIL: That's kind of a thing that I've encountered too, is like since starting Racist Sandwich, I've gotten a lot of inquiries to write about, "Hey, this fucked up thing happened. You wanna write about it?"
SOLEIL: And personally, I feel like I will do it if I want to.
JENNY: Totally! Otherwise, pay me. Honestly.
JENNY: 'Cause it's a lot of emotional labor to have to respond to negative things. Yeah. It takes emotional labor to feel and react to something that's messed up, but also to then try to transform that into art or words or communication. I think that's what's tough. This is work, and hopefully, the more we do it, the better we'll get at it. And also, the more we do it, hopefully, we'll be supported with resources, right?
JENNY: That's the hope. Yeah.
SOLEIL: I think it's really great that you were able to make this video with a community.
SOLEIL: That's the restorative part for you, right?
JENNY: Totally. That I've developed enough of a network of people who could help me produce this thing. We got this location for this beautiful big kitchen, open kitchen taht could look like kind of a restaurant kitchen because of the Asian American artistic and creative community that I'm a part of in LA. So, we did it at the Great Company, and at the last minute, they said, "Yes. Come through. Shoot for two hours."
SOLEIL: That's awesome. Yeah, there's such a difference between doing it with a community and then just feeling alone and laboring alone for other people.
JENNY: Yes, totally.
SOLEIL: And we need to do more community work and just collaborate more 'cause that's how we dig ourselves out.
JENNY: We should have a Racist Sandwich-Bad Appetite collaboration.
SOLEIL: We totally should!
SOLEIL: Oh, my god. I would love that.
JENNY: Yeah, that's what it is. We could only become stronger together. And even if we-- And it's great that we're like-minded, but we all bring different skills and resources. And so, that's what's beautiful about this, right, is to come together in that way.
SOLEIL: And riffing off of each other, vibing. More ideas come out.
JENNY: Yeah, this is part of the conversation. This is exactly why I wanted to do the video. This is the kind of conversation I want us to engage in, you know? Which is why I'm really trying to think, I'm trying to be thoughtful about how I will respond to Tyler's Facebook message. I just don't know how because there's so many things. So many things.
SOLEIL: Ugh. Such a great responsibility.
JENNY: He's reached out to Nguyen Tran too.
JENNY: Apparently, they've talked.
JENNY: So, I might talk with Nguyen, but I'd like to come up with some really good thinking around-- 'Cause he essentially apologized to me. Why apologize to me?
JENNY: He's basically trying to say that he's a good guy, and he apologized to me. So, I wanna think about how do I wanna respond to that. Do I accept his apology? If not, what am I asking him to do?
JENNY: What would you say? What would you want him to do?
SOLEIL: Man. That's a good--
JENNY: He's just one person, but what would you ask him to do?
SOLEIL: He's one person. My impulse is to not crucify, right?
SOLEIL: I mean, that's not helpful or productive.
SOLEIL: I would want to go out with him, not in a romantic way, but I would--
JENNY: Yeah. Not romantically.
JENNY: Meet him.
SOLEIL: Yes. I'd like to meet him, and I'd invite him over to meet my family.
SOLEIL: And that's when we start to talk, you know?
JENNY: And what do you think might come out of that?
SOLEIL: I mean, I think what-- And this is me because I love to emotionally labor for everyone. But--
SOLEIL: [chuckles] I think the reason why he comes off the way he does and the way that he acts in that video and that Instagram post where he ridicules someone for using a spice blend for their pho, 'cause he's alienated. He's alienated from Vietnamese cuisine, which is something that he obviously cares about.
JENNY: He clearly doesnt' connect in some way, right? How would you talk that way if you really connected with the community?
SOLEIL: Right. And so, I would bring him into the community and show him this is real for us. And that's kind of where--I hate the word healing-- but yes, that's where he would start to heal something.
SOLEIL: 'Cause I felt nothing from him.
JENNY: Yeah!!! Yeah! That's a good point we haven't talked about is, when I watch that video, almost like, why would I wanna drink your soup?
JENNY: Why would I wanna sip your fucking stock? 'Cause soup and stock is so elemental and simple that really, what makes it good or bad is the love, right?!
JENNY: It's the love that you put into it! Why would you eat at a place where this guy clearly doesn't talk the way, talks about his own food and the cuisine in this way that feels very loveless and clinical. And even if he-- I can see that he probably has love and pride for being a chef, and I could see that. He wants to be a good chef. He wants to be technically good, probably. He wants to show that he's technically good at this food, that he's doing it justice. I get that. That's not the kind of love that I respond to in food.
SOLEIL: Right. I mean, he needs to just--people like that, not just him--but it's one thing to be a good chef, but it's another thing. And that's being a good community member, being a good human who connects with humans, just understanding. And I think he probably went to Vietnam or whatever, like you were saying. Maybe he popped a squat once in a while. But he didn't connect with anyone. He's never connected.
JENNY: Yeah. So, this is our assumption that we got, that he communicated from that video.
SOLEIL: Yes. And so, to me, based on what little I know of him, that is what I'd wanna do is just say, "Tyler, come over. Meet my bà ngoại, and let's chill and try to understand how we interact with this thing that you love so much." Because we connect on that. He loves it. I love it. The rest is all stuff that we need to help him fill in, if you want to. We don't have to, but that would be, [laughs] that would be the thing that I would feel inspired to do.
SOLEIL: I mean, that's the thing, right? I think that's what happens when things get Columbused. The item is fetishized, the product. But the thing that's missing is the human element.
SOLEIL: The emotion and the memory and just the feeling that this is integral to something really important. That's silly, but it's the feeling that this inspires. Not just a home video kind of feeling, you know?
SOLEIL: What would you do?
JENNY: That's a good start. I don't know. We'll see.
JENNY: I'm still taking ideas, figuring it out.
SOLEIL: OK. Cool. Well, thank you for talking with us today, talking with me.
JENNY: You're welcome! Thank you so much. I'm so glad we got to connect.
SOLEIL: Yeah. So, tell us again who you are, where we can find you, and all that jazz.
JENNY: I'm Jenny Yang, and you can find me online at JennyYang.TV. And from there, I'm always online. So, chat with me on socials: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, everything.
SOLEIL: And this is Soleil Ho broadcasting out of, well, not really. This is Soleil Ho recording at Bison Coffeehouse in the Cully neighborhood of Portland. Thanks for listening.
JENNY: Racist Sandwich, yum!
ZAHIR: Thanks for listening to Racist Sandwich.
If you like the show, please tell your friends about it, and rate us on iTunes. It helps. We're on Facebook and Twitter @RaceandFood, and you can email us at email@example.com. Our website is www.RacistSandwich.com
SOLEIL: Our show was recorded at KBOO Community Radio in SE Portland and produced by Alan Montecillo.
ZAHIR: Jen Tam designed our logo, and we got recording help from Chris Farstad. Thank you so much, Chris.
SOLEIL: On our next episode, we'll be talking to Nicole Taylor, author of "Up South Cookbook" and host of the Hot Grease Podcast. She's also a food writer who lives in Brooklyn.
ZAHIR: Stay tuned in two weeks for that. Thank you.
Transcribed by StoryMinders