There has been some valuable discussion lately on the need to diversify viewpoints in the world of food publishing, sparked in part by a story in the New York Times. I have absolutely nothing of value to add to this conversation. What I will add is that, to friends who send me links to NY Times stories about Thai food: This is probably a waste of your time. I will not read it. And it’s not solely because the NY Times will never publish me. It’s because I’m not the intended audience for this article. If your friend Tracy comes to Thailand, you’re happy to see her, even if she brought an extra suitcase full of goldfish crackers and candy bars with her, “just in case” because you know, Thailand. Tracy is still a kind, smart person and a beloved friend with a great sense of humor and a lot to add to conversations. But if she went back home and wrote something about the food she ate while she was here, I confess I would only pretend to read it, because I want to avoid as much cringe in my life as necessary that is not of my own doing. No offense. I love Tracy. She’s just not very adventurous when it comes to food.
What I also love is that this sparks a discussion, all of it important, about what is and what is not possible when it comes to writing for a wide audience now. The NY Times comes under fire often — the “both sides” headlines, the horrible Tom Cotton op-ed — because it is the accepted authority on “everything that’s fit to print” among Americans, and an important news outlet for English speakers around the world. That’s cool when sources are all too happy to be interviewed by you, but not so cool when people start to dissect what you say. Everything that is being consumed all over the world — media, entertainment, and yes, food — is being reexamined and the old ways of writing about other cultures, genders, even politics, are no longer cutting it. There is an ad on CNN for Michael Smerconish that never fails to irritate me because he asks, “Whatever happened to when we were united against a common enemy?” The answer to that is, minority people simply weren’t saying anything because they had more than one enemy. What he’s really saying is, whatever happened to when people kept their mouths shut?
One story that I absolutely loved in the New York Times Magazine by Isabel Wilkerson talks about how this reawakening has led to a necessary examination of the old structure that has held up this status quo for decades in the U.S. She likens the American race problem to systemic rot that has seeped into the foundations of a home, threatening to send it all toppling down if not addressed. But one of my favorite moments was of her recollection of attempting to interview a Chicago store owner for a NY Times “Miracle Mile” story, and being brushed off by him because the NY Times reporter was due “any minute now”, refusing to acknowledge that Wilkerson herself was the reporter he was so eagerly awaiting. Things like this have happened to me many, many times, and I don’t even write for the NY Times. I saw myself in that moment, on that page. That doesn’t happen very often to me there.
As a middle-aged woman with all the life draining from me as we speak, I had come to accept that my cultural limbo — an Asian with a hard, inedible little American core — was ultimately a story that’s been “told before”, worthy of hearing only once before heading to the next “OMG durian!” or “bargirls eating bugs!” story. To hear that there may be more places for this “novelty” point of view, as well as many others, is something that I never dreamed possible.