To the Farmer’s Market

Every Saturday, I take a long drive—a drive that is supposed to end at the largest farmer’s market in the area—but which first takes me through all the areas where there lie, like mermaids in the ocean blue, my one true weakness:  garage sales.  I pretend that I’m not really looking for them.  I am really after something else.

At the farmer’s market, there are pasture raised chicken eggs in blues and oranges and browns.  There are psychedelic cauliflowers like coloring book fractals, done up in prismacolor.  There are miles of ruby strawberries, nestled in their plastic baskets.  And a fresh seafood truck that sells real smoked King Salmon by the pound, among a riot of mussels and clams—the fillets of halibut and snapper—resting on the shimmer and drip of melting ice.


As soon as I write this blog, I’m out the door.  “We need more eggs,” my wife will yell after me.  Those eggs are famous.  People come for miles around just to get those eggs.

But my drive is really for the garage sales—those red hot messes that spread out like beached seaweed on the lawns, those regurgitations of the Jonah’s whale that is capitalism.  You see, I’m a fundamentally nosy person and I like to peak into the lives of strangers who are now exposing a bit of their deepest darkest desires—their regrettable consumerism—to anybody with a dollar.


At one sale in South Pasadena, I came across some hippie artists.  They were middle aged with crow’s feet and the freckled leather skin of women who are not afraid of the sun.  They dressed like extras in a stage production of Huckleberry Finn, with overalls.  And they lived in one of those run down stucco rentals.  It smelled of incense.  All about their lawn was strewn the gatherings of their spiritual journey—books on Zen poetry and vintage tchochkes that must have been rescued at some point from a Goodwill.

It was a two-woman sale—one Asian, one white—and they had that mystical way of talking that only dyed-in-the cloth hippies have:  words like manifesting tippling off their tongues like smooth stones scudding across the glass surface of mighty rivers .  When I arrived, they were both discussing the prevalence of the third gender throughout all cultures–a sign that bisexuality was the natural order of things.  “There is the berdache,” said the Asian woman who wore an intricately woven straw hat on her head.

“That’s the crossdressing shamans, right?  They dressed like women and did women’s work and were honored for their status between worlds.  I think they were psychic.”

“Right, it was the arrival of Western culture that taught Native Americans to hate being gay.”

“I think it’s Indian.  I think they prefer Indians.”

“I can’t get away with that,” said the white woman.


The Asian woman changed the subject.  I could tell she knew this to be true.  And she wanted to make her friend feel better  “Then, you know, isn’t there the third gender—you ran across them during your travels in India?”

The woman perked up.  “Yes, they’re recognized by the Indian government now.  They’ve got representation in Congress or Parliament or whatever you call it.”

The Asian artist woman had just finished laying a bunch of gourds out front.  They were Chinese gourds, dried, yellow and painted.  The brushwork was masterful with images of beautiful women in traditional robes who were no doubt demi-gods.  I picked one up.

“Those are my teacher’s work,” she said.  “She’s a white woman but in 1975, she was invited to go to China to reintroduce this ancient tradition.  The cultural revolution got rid of a lot of old traditions and people were eager to know.”

She went on to explain:  All across Asia after the era of gunboat diplomacy and puppet-statesmanship, the practice of cultural cleansings came into prominence—cleansings that weree about returning to a native past, a native purity, a native identity uncorrupted by outside influences.  Still, a lot got lost.  Christianity is obviously foreign but, then again, so is Buddhism.  You can see the slippery slope that happens when bureaucrats engage in social engineering.  At some point, glasses are suspect and all the intellectuals are wiped out and all the knowledge that they represent is lost in the blood of a Killing Field.

“Yeah, I had a teacher in grad school who did the same thing.  He went to China and brought back the I Ching and reintroduced to the locals a tradition that they had only heard of but were never allowed to practice.”


That teacher was a white man who was a specialist in Native American literature—a man who was credited with inventing the discipline.  He was a real muckety-muck, who flew in once a week from Santa Fe to teach his seminar.  And I remember hearing him read this excerpt of his encounter with fishermen on one of those mighty Chinese rivers and watching the men play the I Ching, which he had pulled from his pocket, well into the evening as the sun set.

There was something so off-putting about that professor’s story.  But he was really proud of it.  He was preparing it into a book—part academic, part memoir—about his travels to China.  There was a power trip underneath it all.  In this act of giving and sharing, there was a power trip.  Even if it whatever he did did some good, there was always that power trip.

Of course, this phenomenon of people of color finding themselves—the bits of their identity—boomeranged back to them through a white person is nothing new.  It is a common experience.  It is perhaps defining.  White people have written the books on the mythology that people of color read to understand the indigenous tradition that they have sought to reclaim.  And that visit to the anthropological museum…its white walls, festooned with the regalia of the exotic, are curated by the invisible hand of others—those not yourself, those not your people, those not your ancestors—who return to you a bit of yourself glistening like a coin tossed into the air.


“Do you want it?” said the Japanese woman.  “We’re clearing out the studio.  I can give you a good deal.”  But I knew I did not want those gourds.  They were not my style.  I already had too many things in my house.  And the price she called was too high.  I wondered about the money that would be left in my pocket to purchase those pasture raised eggs, which were supposed to be my goal, after all, in the first place.

Pho Is Now the New Ramen and People Are Pissed!

Bon Appetit just put out a viral new video, highlighting the work of a chef-owner…and, in the process, nearly wrecking his career. The chef is Tyler Akin—a bro with a five o’clock shadow and a telegenic soft-spoken demeanor who looks like he could totally hang out with you at a frat house kegger but totally object to the widespread non-prescription abuse of rohypnol. The food is Vietnamese pho—the food of my people—that bowl of hot noodle soup that is the cure-all for a night of regrettable decisions and hang-over.


The schtick is simple. Pho was billed by BA as the next trendy food item—the new ramen. Tyler Akin was supposed to lay down the law—the method, the process, the sequence of gestures—with which you genuflect before the bowl of steaming goodness.

But the video went viral for all the wrong reasons. Viewers—not just Asian viewers—savaged poor Tyler Akin. He was appropriating. He was Columbusing. It was food-gentrification—the take-over of the culinary Sesame Street by NPR liberals and their SUV strollers.  For those who have witnessed this phenomenon before–with ribs and tacos and fried chicken–the entire disaster that was the BA video was all too familiar.

The video was brought to my attention by a childhood friend—a nice Jewish boy who wanted to know if this was appropriation? If the restauranteur was overstepping? If it was kosher? So after much deliberation, I wrote him a much-too-long note and I will distill it for you: First, I would assess Tyler Akin’s advice and look at it for what it truly is. Second, I would make a distinction between Tyler and the ways that he is framed.

From where I sit, Tyler’s pronouncements are actually not that terrible. It may be offensive to Vietnamese people who really know how to consume pho and don’t need a white boy’s advice. But his advice is pretty okay: take a sip first, try not to load down the soup with sauce. Some of his advice is crazy and would get you quite literally slapped: use a shit-ton of limes or twirl your chopsticks like a barbarian. This is genuinely crazy-talk and I would stop listening to any self-procalimed “expert” if they talked like this.

But I probably wouldn’t condemn him to the third rung of a fiery Guantanamo. And over-all, I’ve heard variations on this advice before—advice that has been repeated in iterations by the likes of the bestselling cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen, who is not only a specialist in Vietnamese food but a bestselling author who is about to come out with a book dedicated exclusively to the national dish, pho.


Andrea Nguyen

Still, there are some problems with his advice, not so much for its content but for its provenance: I know exactly where Tyler got his information. He got it from Andrea Nguyen. He is basically reciting the exact advice—in the exact sequence—that Andrea Nguyen gives about eating pho in a widely read article (except for that crazy talk about the limes and chopstick). How do I know? I’ve read Andrea Nguyen’s work and I have a Ph.D. in literature…so I have an eye for things like intertextuality. And I have a nose for plagiarism because, you know, my bread and butter was sending kids to the Dean for just this kind of shenanigan.

Don’t get me wrong: What Tyler Akin did is not plagiarism. The food-bro is simply reciting what others have said before him. And what has been said before him doesn’t need attribution, because this is general knowledge. And it is subject to Fair Use.

But the problem with Tyler’s advice is that it’s not theoretically sophisticated. It’s an oversimplification and a distillation…and it loses its nuance. For example, an outsider might explain to you about the broad outlines of kosher but somebody immersed in the traditions might explain more systematically the logic behind the restrictions. Andrea Nguyen, for instance, explains why you don’t add any sauce to the soup before you taste it: it clouds the soup; the purist tradition from which pho descends comes from the North of Vietnam where they are so persnickety, they don’t even add vegetables, let alone sauce; the soup is meant to be tasted at its very essence.

This is something that a connoisseur of pho—someone like Andrea Nguyen—knows and can explain. So Taylor, who mentions none of this, comes off as a frat boy teaching another frat boy moves—plays—that he can use to get some action on a date.

The larger issue for me is not poor Tyler who is really a pawn in the media game. It is Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit could have used any number of really great Vietnamese chefs, writers, critics to disseminate this message. Why not Andrea Nguyen, who has a masters and actually performed research in Asia about foodways and has several bestselling books on Vietnamese cuisine?

Why not Diep Tran, who comes from a Vietnamese family famous for her pho—a restauranteur who has been consistently named to Pulitzer Prize Winning Critic Jonathan Gold’s List of great places to eat?

Diep Tran

Diep Tran

These people are not only great chefs, they are highly educated. AND they not only speak amazing English but have stage presence. There are literally dozens of great chefs, restauranteurs, writers who are Ivy-League trained and fully capable of talking about the food.

But I think that ultimately, Tyler Akin was given the opportunity because of the optics: He is white and he makes the scary Asian food not-so-scary. Let’s face it: Everybody wants to look at a white guy—especially a white guy that looks like him. After all, you might seriously have drunk a foamy beer out of a red cup at a kegger with this charming rascal, and he would definitely have been your wingman. No doubt about it: that bro would tell you if some ass-hat slipped a funny pill in your boozy Natural Light.