Of course they can! Pho is God’s gift to this world, it descended from the heavens in brothy and delicious goodness to enrich our lives. I love pho and I can eat it everyday. When I was in Vietnam, I did eat it everyday…in fact, I ate it several times a day. I wish everyone can experience the greatness of pho because the more people that eat pho, the happier our world will be. So why is there all this backlash to the the Bon Appetit video of Tyler Akin telling people how to eat pho?
Well, let’s start with some basics.
First, food is culture. As an anthropologist, I study culture and food culture is incredibly important in maintaining identity and tradition. Just think about all the biggest American holidays and think about how central food is to creating the atmosphere. Think about Thanksgiving and the glazed turkey and creamy mashed potatoes. Think about Christmas and your mom’s amazing casserole or your grandma’s jam. Think about the feelings it can evoke. Food isn’t just nutrition and supplement. Food carries meaning, history, tradition, values, and more. It’s why we crave comfort foods when we’re sad, it’s why we often go out to eat lunch with friends to catch up. Our lives revolve around food and believe it or not, it is incredibly important in building identity and pride in communities of color.
Second, appropriation is a real thing. I know a lot of you still question it and wonder why everyone can’t enjoy all the nice things about all cultures, but that’s not really what appropriation is. For those of us who are proud of certain aspects of our culture, of course we are excited to share it with new people so they can be just as excited about it as we are. Appropriation is when you take an aspect of someone else’s culture and pretend to know everything about it despite knowing nothing. It’s when you might mock the people of one culture, and then cherry pick the aspects you like and tout it as your own ingenuity. Think about it this way, pretend you’re Native American and your father owns a headdress, but this headdress wasn’t just something he found at Wal-mart or learned how to make by doing a DIY etsy project. This headdress had meaning and each feather and embellishment was earned and had a deeper significance. This headdress is one of the most important objects in your family and in your culture. And then all of a sudden headdresses are popular with a ton of teenage girls going to EDM concerts, but instead of each feather having meaning, each feather is neon green and covered in sweat. And instead of worn for special occasions, it’s worn while doing drugs and is probably covered in spilt beer. And none of them actually know what any of it means. So even if you can’t fully understand appropriation, you can probably imagine how frustrating it can be. Same with people who wear dashikis and think Africa is just one country, or people who wear slutty geisha costumes for Halloween and claim they’re dressed as China dolls (geishas are Japanese).
So let’s loop this back to our main point. Why are people so angry at Tyler Akin and Bon Appetit? If you haven’t seen the video, Bon Appetit features chef, Tyler Akin, at his Vietnamese-Thai restaurant. Throughout the video, this white chef explains how to eat pho. He says not to add sriarcha and hoisin in your soup, to add jalepenos in it, and twirl it like spaghetti. Oh and it seems like some of the broth is made with chicken (the central flavor of most pho is made by boiling beef for hours at a time). So what’s the problem other than inauthenticity? The problem is Bon Appetit packaged pho as a trend and interviewed a white man’s perspective and used it as the de facto way to eat pho. Look, I’ve been eating pho since I was born, hell, my mom probably ate pho several times when I was in the womb. My mom’s been eating pho since she was born, my grandma’s been eating pho since she was born. So can Tyler Akin eat pho? Yes, of course! Can he cook it and put his own spin on the recipe? Absolutely! But is he the authority on how to eat pho authentically? Hell no. So we have this white man telling tons of Asian people- who’ve been eating pho their whole lives- how to eat pho. And so you can probably see why a white man acting as an authority on our culture without really knowing our culture can be incredibly baffling. Just imagine if those girls wearing the headdresses went and told a Native American elder how to make headdresses or if someone had told me that they wore a Chinese kimono for Halloween (god forbid) and maybe you’ll understand why there was such a negative response.
Thanks for reading y’all! I know this was a longer post than usual, but I did want to shed some light on why people were all up in arms about this. If you have any questions or comments, let me know!
PSA: I don’t think Tyler Akin is a bad guy, the way he ate pho isn’t wrong. You can eat pho however you want. But, I think Bon Appetit did him wrong by the way they packaged the video. Tyler Akin, you do you and cater your fusion recipe to other white people (because we know most Vietnamese people are going to eat their authentic pho elsewhere). Bon Appetit, get your shit together.