An Interview With Leslie From @prettycarbs: Redefining Authentic Food Culture

Photo courtesy of Leslie Yeh.

Food has always been a way to keep the culture alive. Many immigrants pass down recipes to their children in hopes that their culture will continue to be present in their families. But somewhere along the way, with colonization and the Westernization of cultural foods, we have lost the authenticity of where our food comes from. Leslie from @prettycarbs strives to show the true nature of immigrant cuisine through the lens of immigrants and not their colonizers while at the same time redefining what we view as “authentic.” 

It feels super intimate because it’s something that you do on a daily basis to feed yourself but also as a form of enjoyment. But more recent generations have been able to embrace a little bit more: it’s not just about surviving

Leslie Yeh

Photo of Leslie. Courtesy of Leslie Yeh

Food really brings people together and we can see that through so many new media channels that have emerged, focusing on food and food culture, like Tasty Buzzfeed. In what ways is food a way to keep the culture alive, especially for immigrants when they are outside of their home countries? 

I think it is twofold: on one hand, there is that cultural connection in terms of nostalgic flavors and the rituals that you go through on a daily basis.  I think why so many diasporic communities kind of gravitate towards food as something that helps them connect with their culture is because it’s part of their everyday routine. It feels super intimate because it’s something that you do on a daily basis to feed yourself but also as a form of enjoyment. But more recent generations have been able to embrace a little bit more: it’s not just about surviving in terms of you know getting the nutrients you need but it’s also something that you really appreciate. It’s also a form of cultural ambassadorship. A lot of times people have been introduced to different cultures through their food and it’s an easier place to enter. I do feel like a lot of times that is kind of romanticized and people think that if you get everyone around the table there will be world peace, and we all know that that’s not really the case, but there is an argument to be said that if you are open to trying different things in terms of food, you might be more open to different ideas.

 I think a lot of people here and in diaspora communities use food as a way to connect with a culture and not so much as a means of surviving. The way that food has evolved, the journey that it makes is really complex. Why do you think it’s so important to outline that journey and ensure that people know how food has evolved? 

Throughout history, it’s only certain kinds of people that are writing about things that bring in their own biases and that’s not to say that like they were doing it in a bad way or on purpose but it is offering one specific perspective and, a lot of times those stories do get lost especially in communities that don’t get as much exposure, like a lot of indigenous communities. So I think it’s really important that there are people in academia, people in the nonprofit space, people in the food world, who are trying to reclaim those narratives and make sure that we know where things are coming from. That also makes people a lot feel more connected to the food they are eating in the process of cooking and farming and all of these things that happen before the plate in front of you. 

Photo of Nourish Volume I. Courtesy of Leslie Yeh.

While I was reading your first zine it was so surprising to see the way some food items have traveled here and the way that they’ve evolved and there’s a part where you talked about how food has evolved because a lot of immigrant families have to be resourceful when they come here. In what ways has that cultural cuisine evolved as a byproduct of that resourcefulness?

“I don’t think a lot of people think about it like that because there is this pressure for authenticity, so that was my inspiration for creating the zine in the first place. These aren’t the best recipes but they tell such interesting stories about a family and that is what makes it authentic in my mind.”

Leslie Yeh

Through the process of creating this, I tried to talk to people who have unique perspectives like my friends, who have their own life experiences, but also like people who are in the academic world and have more of a broader view of how things evolve. Two examples that come up frequently when you talk about immigrant cuisine in America is Chinese American cuisine and Italian American cuisine. So these are two things where a lot of times people dismiss it as bastardized but when you think about it as their own form of food and how it’s evolved separately from the homeland, you start to realize that it’s not authentic but who really cares about authenticity when you know this is valid to a form of survival. For Chinese American food and Chinatowns in general, every single aspect of it is rooted in survival. The reason why Chinatowns exist is because of housing discrimination and because they were forced into these communities where they had to become very insular and then in order to survive and to make money,  they had to market themselves as exotic. That’s why you see all of these visual cues and the aesthetic of Chinatowns in the food that you get, it has roots in one specific part of China because that’s where those immigrants came in.  From a family perspective, as you pass down foods, especially for first-generation Americans, you reach a point where you just want to know what the real way of doing this is. You can’t dismiss the fact that there’s a lot of people who live in places where they don’t have access to ingredients, and the word fusion gets a bad rap because people think that you’re ignoring both cultures that you’re taking from. But that is also connected to immigrant creativity where it’s just like, okay, here are the things that I’m working with and what I know how to do. I don’t think a lot of people think about it like that because there is this pressure for authenticity, so that was my inspiration for creating the zine in the first place. These aren’t the best recipes but they tell such interesting stories about a family and that is what makes it authentic in my mind. 

Before our diaspora communities were established, they had to create their own food culture because they do have to mix in whatever they have. I did find the recipes that you made really interesting, definitely told a story, and it reminded me of things that my family had done in the past. And I know you had the Bengali American experience highlighted in the zine – what was that experience of collaborating with others like and how did that really shift your perspective?

As a creative, one thing I really struggle with is validating my own work and my own perspectives. I’m always hesitant, I never want it to just be ‘this is what I think and it’s valid because this is what I think,’  which is why I knew I wanted to layer in different voices. I’m never going to be able to represent everyone, but at least I can provide sampling and show the similarities, the differences, the connections there. Also talking to experts has been really interesting because I’ve talked to both industry people \like restaurant owners and to academics. It’s very different talking to these two people because they have expertise in very different ways and you begin to see really interesting connections. 

Photo of @prettycrabs logo. Courtesy of Leslie Yeh.

What was the most challenging aspect of creating the zine? 

I think that the most challenging part is to make sure that I am bringing in various perspectives into a given volume. I don’t want any given volume to be focused on one immigrant community.  In the process, I’ll be talking to a lot of people and then I’ll start thinking about [how] I don’t have enough room in this one, but for the next volume I have all of these people that I’m really interested in talking to and collaborating with, but how do I create something that can encompass all of these different stories – so I think that’s one of the biggest challenges.

I found what you said about authenticity really interesting for sure.In Indian households, every family has their own chai recipe and they put different things in it. So I found what you said about authenticity really interesting. What do you think is the definition of authenticity and how do you think it has changed?

Well, I think I think there are multiple different definitions. I think society thinks it’s one thing but you can talk about authenticity at many different levels. You can talk about how something is authentic to a national cuisine versus a regional cuisine but you can also talk about it on a family level or on a personal level. I think that the definition is evolving. But I think there are cultural leaders and thought leaders who are trying to shift the way we think about it so I think it’s a work in progress.

I definitely feel that way too, I think we have continued to redefine what authenticity is and I think the realization is that there isn’t just one way to look at it and the food that people make in their home countries is as authentic as the resourcefulness that happens in diasporic communities, so what do you hope your zine accomplishes in terms of redefining authenticity?

“I approach it in a way where I want to look at this world of food culture from as many different perspectives as possible, whether it’s looking at it from ingredients versus talking to people who are restaurant owners versus looking at it from a historical perspective.”

Leslie Yeh

Photo of Nourish Volume II Cover. Courtesy of Leslie Yeh

I don’t really approach it as I’m aiming to shift perspectives on any given thing, but my goal would be to offer more entry points for people to talk about food culture and to understand that this is something that connects us in a lot of different ways. It is something that is an intimate experience, so I approach it in a way where I want to look at this world of food culture from as many different perspectives as possible, whether it’s looking at it from ingredients versus talking to people who are restaurant owners versus looking at it from a historical perspective. It’s less so about the food, more so about the culture and the stories and the personal experiences that are related to it.

 I think we often view immigrant experiences all the same so it’s really cool to outline the ways in which they are different but also still similar. In what ways do you hope to continue to see food culture evolved and what changes would you like to see in that community?

 I would like to see more nuanced perspectives.  A lot of times people latch on to something and it seems really cool to come in with hot takes on everything, but I feel like what’s lacking there is empathy and recognition that a lot of people have very different experiences. Yes, we can push for more representation and diversity, but what does that mean in a way that isn’t tokenizing? I don’t know how this problem can be solved but I think that we are on the brink of something so it’s really exciting to see where we go from here. 

I feel like when I was little, eating cultural food wasn’t really cool and now we’ve seen this westernization of cultural foods. What is your opinion on that westernization? All of a sudden it’s cool to eat cultural foods and put a western touch – that isn’t necessarily authentic, so what do you think about that?

It bothers me less when people play around with it or make it more palatable to other populations because that’s something that’s done everywhere. My family is from Taiwan, so I go there a lot and when you eat Thai food, it’s very different from the Thai food that you would get in Los Angeles, and in some ways, the LA version is a lot more authentic to different regions of Thailand. You don’t want to erase culture and you don’t want to just make turmeric lattes and not acknowledge where it comes from and the cultural value of it, but at the same time I think it’s really cool that people are more willing to try different things. At the same time, it does make me mad ’cause a lot of people went through the childhood trauma of wanting to distance yourself from culture, and it’s really sad to think about how that’s something that has defined generations of children growing up and now it’s brushed off as cool. 

What can people look for in Nourish volume two?

This one has a lot more stories in it so it’s a little longer than my last one and it features some different people. I think my first volume was a little bit more evergreen, it’s not really rooted in a certain time. This second volume is rooted in the experience of living in a COVID world and how that has shaped different communities and perspectives. The theme is survival, and I came up with this theme before any of this happened because immigrant survival has always been something that could offer a lot of stories. My vision for it really changed because that word means something so different now, and during the early days it was all of these restaurants closing and Chinatowns were empty, but then this resurgence of people who are really trying to take action has been really interesting too. I think it really speaks to what we have all lived through for the past six months now, and what that means in the context of a personal level, a family level, but also historically what the present means in the context of a broader history. 

Photo of Nourish Volume II. Photo Courtesy of Leslie Yeh.

What has been the community response? What are the reactions from people and how has that inspired you and motivated you to continue making zines?

A lot of times people are receptive to it in different ways, so I think it’s refreshing to have people to talk to about it. I learned so much in the process of putting this together through talking to people, so it’s just been really great and really refreshing to be able to interact with people who have such different life experiences than my own, but then also feel connected through these stories.

Be sure to buy Nourish Volume 2 here

Follow Leslie Yeh on Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/p/CFUkrXZjILt/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

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