A Podcast About Food, Race, Class and Gender: Q&A with Soleil Ho of Racist Sandwich

At the end of 2016 in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, I decided to put together the zine Protest Fuel, a collection of recipes, essay, quotes and art all with the goal of inspiring action.

When I reached out to friends to ask for submissions related to the topic, and noed that I really wanted a diverse group of voices and recipes/stories that tackled larger topics, a few people pointed me me in the direction of Soleil Ho.

Ho ended up contributing a piece to the zine, and I have followed her work ever since. A chef, a writer and an activist, for me she has become an excellent resource on some of the tough issues that concern the food industry. Her podcast Racist Sandwich tackles topics like race, class and gender, in a way that is thought-provoking and informative. She and the rest of the Racist Sandwich team are currently raising funds for the second season of the podcast on Kickstarter (a worthy cause for your holiday dollars!).

I caught up with her to learn more about the podcast and her thoughts food, race, gender and class.

Tell us a little bit about you and how you got into the food industry.

I’m the child of Vietnamese refugees and have been a straight-up weirdo for most of my life. I grew up questioning everything and not taking much for granted, perhaps because of how my family had to deal with their lives being completely upended with very little notice before I was born. We’re always standing a bit apart, observing with a critical eye, making sure that we can completely see the contours of everything before we make our decisions. And naturally, that has colored the way in which I occupy my position as a chef and food writer: I’m always looking at the big picture.

To be honest, the real reason that I got into the food industry as a cook was because I graduated from college in 2009, when the recession gave us that nice sucker punch and pretty much all of the jobs for people with bachelor’s degrees dried up to nothing. The people in my cohort had to scramble. I realized that I had the interest and ability to pursue cooking professionally, so I worked at a sandwich shop in St. Paul, Minnesota while apprenticing at another restaurant in Minneapolis. Thank goodness that I had some aptitude at that; otherwise I’m not sure what I’d have done!

What inspired you to launch Racist Sandwich?

Zahir Janmohamed and I met at a dinner party for creatives of color in Portland in January 2016, and immediately started talking about food, because that’s what people do, right? He asked me about what I had experienced as a woman, a chef of color in Portland, so I told him about all kinds of things: the microaggressions from customers and restaurant folks alike, the difficulty in crafting a menu that could please both myself and the dining public, and the racialized dynamics that informed how food media covered restaurants owned by white folks vs. people of color. During the conversation, Zahir mentioned that this would make for really interesting podcast material! We recorded our first episode in February and it’s been go go go since then.

When it comes to the topics you cover – race, gender, class – what are some of the most pressing issues within the food industry right now?

All of these facets of identity are interconnected, but… RACE: the racial wealth gap and how it feeds gentrification, which makes it harder for people of color to invest and work in locations where the opportunity for entrepreneurship and economic mobility is greatest. GENDER: how the necessity to make a living through low-wage work makes it virtually impossible for women in the food industry to report sexual harassment and abuse in that industry. CLASS: As the prices of raw ingredients go up, restaurants and hospitality companies are potentially going to push harder against increased minimum wage efforts or attempt to slim down labor costs in other ways in order to keep their bottom line rather than pass costs along to consumers.

What are some of the most insidious examples of racism within the food industry? 

When I think “insidious,” I think about how oppression often operates along the language level. For example, when we talk about “elevating” a cuisine or dish, we’re often talking about how chef is disassociating it from the lowbrow, which is a very classed and often really racialized label, and making it worthy of consumers with discerning “taste.” Or how we use “ethnic” to clump all non-white people’s cuisine together and reinforce the white supremacist idea that whiteness is the default, and has transcended race entirely.

How do you think mainstream food media is doing at covering these topics? Where is there room for improvement?

Mainstream food media is getting better at this! There have been so many more bylines by marginalized writers in their pages, which is always something to be grateful for. One thing that we would ask is that these publications try harder to staff their editorial positions with people of color, or even just bring on more as special guest editors.

We’re in the midst of a heated cultural discussion about sexual harassment and the treatment of women in a variety of industries, including food. Do you think that this momentum will create a jumping off point for tackling other issues like race?

I want to believe that the racial harassment reckoning is coming, but I really am skeptical because the furious momentum of #MeToo, which was started by a Black woman named Tarana Burke, has been in no small part due to the prominent role white women have had in exposing these big name men. We need to recognize that, for many women in the food industry, sexual harassment also carries the stink of racialized misogyny. These ideologies operate simultaneously: they’re not things to be addressed one after the other. So no, I don’t think it’s useful to think about how the #MeToo movement can feed into a conversation about race; rather, we need to pay more attention to how race is intrinsically tied into how we’ve reacted to the movement and whose voices we’ve seen elevated throughout this process of reckoning.

You do a lot of food and culture writing as well. What does the podcast format allow you to do that writing doesn’t?

The podcast form is really interesting to me, because I never thought that I’d have the personality for it! I’m actually really shy in person and hate the sound of my voice, so to have people react so positively to our show was quite a surprise for me. There’s something really intimate and revealing about hearing someone’s voice that I think is really difficult to transmit through words alone. And their laughter! I think that’s an important aspect of our show, because our mission has always been to create a space for marginalized folks to tell stories which have traditionally not been given much quarter in the mainstream food media. So to make it that much more intimate makes sense.

For people who aren’t familiar with the podcast, do you have any favorite episodes that would be a good starting point?

My favorite episodes shift a lot, but I really enjoy E11: Pho is the New Pho (w/ Jenny Yang) and E36: Eating Big Macs in Qatar (with Omar El Akkad), which are great introductions to what we’re about.

Image: Celeste Noche