Using Food as a Lens to Explore Social Issues: Q&A with Soleil Ho
For about the past two years I have been working on a personal endeavor called the Women’s Wisdom Project, a series of 100 different portraits of inspiring women. This week I had the opportunity to profile Soleil Ho, and her interview is right up the Comestible alley.
You may know Ho from her podcast Racist Sandwich, or now in her position as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. She’s a self-described “ethno food warrior,” and she’s using this platform of food as a way to challenge people to rethink their perceptions, their assumptions, and their judgements about people, food and in turn, culture.
Growing up in New York, she spent over a decade working in restaurants. Her grandparents came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam, and that family history has informed her work. She has been diligent about showcasing how embedded racism and oppression is in food, writing pieces on food assimilation, how white chefs win most food awards, a restaurant chain that tried to ban Hawaiian businesses from using the word “aloha,” how to avoid cultural appropriation, and the outdated concept of colonial food. As she wrote in her review of Le Colonial, a French-Vietnamese restaurant, “nostalgia is a blurry lens through which we can view history. We often rewrite it so that the hard, inconvenient parts are pushed to the sidelines in favor of what makes us feel good.”
Thanks to Soleil for taking part in this series!
Anna Brones: What does wisdom mean to you?
Soleil Ho: The way I try to act out wisdom is through silence: really considering my words before I speak so that I can stand by everything that I say. To me, it’s also accepting that I don’t know everything and making sure that, to the best of my ability, I consult with others and do my research before talking about things that are new to me.
Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?
After the trial that let George Zimmerman off for the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2017, filmmaker Tanya Steele wrote an incisive and real essay about the constant work that Black people need to do to look harmless to white strangers. There’s a line from the piece that I keep going back to: “I will stop contorting my being to accommodate white neuroses. That’s my new civil rights movement."
Your work includes being a chef, podcaster, writer, and restaurant critic. What would you say is the driving force behind what you do? Is there a common thread that ties all of those things together?
Each of those roles was motivated by the acknowledgement that food — like many cultural productions — is an easy way for us to talk about bigger things. A chef knows this because food (and by extension music, decor, language) is part of how they tell their own story. I see my role as a writer and critic as respecting the thought put into that by interpreting and analyzing what those values mean in our social contexts. There is so much that lies beneath the surface of our most minute actions and interactions; revealing the breadth of what everything means is the point of my job, in my mind.
You're currently working as the SF Chronicle food critic. The Washington Post has referred to you as the "third wave" of food critics. Does working in an industry with such a long history that you are consciously working to change feel like a lot of pressure? And along those lines, how do you see the food media landscape shifting and how would you like to see it continue to evolve?
It does feel like a lot of pressure! If you’ve been working to diversify your field and then become that diversity, the pressure to perform excellently is enormous. I think that thought about food has become more rigorous and serious — no longer an escape from politics — thanks in part to the burgeoning interdisciplinary Food Studies work in academia, and that excites me. With that in mind, it’s also really important to not just discount the work that’s been done in the field prior to that professionalization: people outside of academia and the professional critic class have understood how food could serve as an apt metaphor for social issues for a very long time. So many indigenous and marginalized organizations around the world have historically focused on food sovereignty as a way to galvanize their communities.
Through your podcast Racist Sandwich and your writing you have focused on food as a lens for tackling important issues like race and gender. Why do you think food is a good vehicle for doing this?
Food makes for an excellent starting point for a Socratic way of getting to the politics of everything. Why are you eating this? Who made it? Why do you call it X? Where did it come from? Who harvested this?
How do we work to better amplify marginalized voices, whether that’s in food or elsewhere?
A good thing to always remember is that you can choose to continue learning about perspectives that aren’t your own: “I don’t know” isn’t an end, but a beginning.
What wisdom would you share with your younger self?
You can also sign up for Ho's weekly San Francisco Chronicle newsletter, Bite Curious.
This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project by Anna Brones, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.