Portland podcasters take on racism in the food world
Zahir Janmohamed and Soleil Ho recording an episode of “Racist Sandwich”
Is racism as American as peanut butter and jelly? One humble food podcast is peeling apart the layers of bread to find out.
“Racist Sandwich” is a podcast all about race and food.The name is a reference to 2012 national media firestorm that began in Portland, Oregon, when a public school principal dared to suggest that school meals should fit the cultural tastes and dietary restrictions of their constituent students. Why serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, asked Verenice Gutierrez, principal of Harvey Scott Elementary School? Why not pita or torta?
“People flipped out and said, ‘Are you calling the peanut butter and jelly sandwich racist?’” co-host Zahir Janmohamed explained on the first episode. “Instead of listening to her critiques about diversity in schools, they mocked her and she was ridiculed and the school had to come to her defense.
“That’s where we got the name for our show,” he continued. “It shows how silly we oftentimes get when we try to talk about food and race.”
Portland is the perfect place to formulate a podcast like “Racist Sandwich.” According to American Community Survey data, Portland is the whitest major city in the United States at 76.1% white. Portland is also a popular foodie destination. Yet one of the city’s most nationally acclaimed restaurants, Pok Pok, serves “food found at pubs, restaurants, homes and the streets of Southeast Asia” and was founded by a white man. In early 2016, a café called Saffron Colonial, which served food inspired by English food from British Empire colonies, opened in what was once a black neighborhood. The name was changed (to B.O.R.C., short for British Overseas Restaurant Corporation) in response to determined protests, both outside the restaurant and on Facebook and Yelp.
“There’s so much to talk about on the ways that food can bring us together, push us apart, and be used for political ends,” co-host and chef Soleil Ho said in the first episode.
Chef and “Racist Sandwich” co-host Soleil Ho
Ho and Janmohamed met at a party earlier this year. Janmohamed, an experienced journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, is no stranger to asking questions of strangers. He approached Ho, who had been working in the food industry for a decade, and struck up a conversation about what it was like to be a chef as a woman of color.
“There’s a lot of stuff in that conversation about race he didn’t know—because he’s never worked in the food industry—that I took for granted,” Ho told me when I interviewed her in August. “It’s really hard finding an equitable workplace.”
The conversation was so eye-opening that he asked her to start a podcast with him on the spot, but she was hesitant. While Janmohamed was an experienced journalist, Ho didn’t believe anyone would want to hear to what she had to say.
“I’m a woman, and I’m also an Asian woman. I am constantly plagued by imposter syndrome,” Ho continued. “It’s a really hard psychological block to get over.”
With Janmohamed’s encouragement, she agreed to cohost; the podcast launched in May 2016 with Bertony Faustin, the first black winemaker in Oregon and director of Red, White & Black, an upcoming documentary telling the stories of winemakers who are part of racial and sexual minority groups in Oregon.
Winemaker Bertony Faustin at his Abbey Creek Vineyard winery
Every other week, the team releases a half hour episode. Although not even six months old, “Racist Sandwich” has over 1,300 fans on Facebook and about 900 subscribers though their FeedBurner RSS, with other listeners coming from iTunes or directly from the Racist Sandwich website.
In addition to the recorded podcast, “Racist Sandwich” leads field trips to businesses owned and operated by local people of color. In late August, the hosts and the producer arranged a tasting event for over 25 people at Faustin’s Abbey Creek Winery, a half hour drive northwest of Portland.
However, for some people, they could be doing even more.
“The only negative-ish feedback that we’ve gotten is that we haven’t pushed hard enough,” said Ho at the tasting. One listener requested that the podcast demonstrate stronger advocacy on labor issues for workers producing imported goods for the United States. Ho agreed that they could do better.
“(The criticism) was super fair,” she said. “That was one angle that I wanted to push, but it’s been a challenge for me to learn to do that in an interview. I didn’t know how to push it in a way that was ethical/kind.”
But it’s not only “Racist Sandwich” that needs to step up their game, says producer Alan Montecillo, with whom I also spoke at Abbey Creek. He says that he would like to see journalists talk to communities of color, not just about them.
“If you’re doing a story about the Thai food scene, maybe talk to people who are Thai,” he says. Montecillo believes one of the best ways for food writers to diversify their lists of reliable interview contacts is to attend events with people who are not like them. However obvious that sounds, Montecillo is exasperated with how often journalists neglect to do this, even if it is an unintentional consequence of working under deadlines. See, for example, the infamous #PhoGate, in which Bon Appétit featured a video proclaiming pho “the new ramen” and asked a white chef from a southeast Asian café in Philadelphia to demonstrate the proper way to eat pho and use chopsticks. This insulted many Vietnamese people, like Ho, who are well acquainted with their own food and don’t need non-Vietnamese people prescribing methods to eat it.
In late September, Ho interviewed comedian Jenny Yang, who parodied the “stewpot of racism” in her own video, PBJ Is the New Grilled Cheese. In the interview, Yang quipped, “Bon Appétit needs to diversify their shit.”
For immigrants and children of immigrants “food is one of the only things that we have left that we can still use to communicate our love and to feel like we have a sense of identity and connection. How dare you tell me how to eat my food?” Yang demanded.
The “Racist Sandwich” podcast is about defining and deconstructing the borders of culinary comfort zones. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a nostalgic American lunch, but only for those who grew up eating them. To some, they’re a strange mess of sickly sweet congealed fruit and oily, over-salted peanut mash that sticks to the roof of the mouth, delivered between two nutritionally-deficient slices of white bread. Tough to swallow, perhaps, but it is an important perspective. What outraged some people in 2012 was that they were being asked to examine their privileged access to their own familiar foods and realize that it excluded the preferred foods of their neighbors.
“When people read something like that, they see themselves too uncomfortably and they assume the worst,” Ho told me at Abbey Creek as Faustin poured her another glass of Gewürztraminer. “They assume that they’re being policed.”
The “Racist Sandwich” podcast invites white listeners to understand how the food industry caters to their presumed needs and consider the hardships faced by disadvantaged and underrepresented workers and consumers. But it is also a podcast by people of color for people of color who want to hear about experiences like their own. The team is determined to reach out to more marginalized groups and expand their own boundaries.
“Doing the podcast has been a kind of affirmation to me to be more of an advocate for myself,” she continued. “Being who I am in this industry makes me a very distinct minority. It regularly puts me in that space where I’m pushing against the dominant narrative of the industry in the media. (Racist Sandwich) is like therapy for me to be a bit more okay with myself.”
Ho, Janmohamed, and Montecillo will keep serving up frank discussions on the intersections of food, race, gender, and class—whether or not everyone is ready for the changes on the menu.