SAPAHM Guest: Grace Wen

Hi friends! Today we have Grace Wen visiting with us today! I don’t think we’ve ever had a post like this before, and I think it’s really cool. Grace is also part of the Smithsonian Heritage Month series, specifically, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! I think it’s really cool how food and culture is so intertwined – and how Asians especially seem to be touching on the subject this month. 😉 Hey – with so much good food, why not, right? Anyway I think Grace leaves the best closing here possible, so I’ll just leave her – and you all to it! Michigan cuisine ahoy! [And you’ll see I’m on my best behavior for SAPAHM because I didn’t even make any snarky comments about that state up north! … >.> I mean…] *angelface* 😉

Asian Americans in MichiganDuring the first few years of my career, I wrote articles for food magazines and book proposals for local chefs. Although I write mostly fiction now, I have an essay in the book Asian-Americans In Michigan where I share my experience as an ABC (American Born Chinese) who rarely cooks or eats Chinese food.

I credit my parents for my eclectic tastes. My childhood family meals could contain Campbell’s soup or Kentucky Fried Chicken one day, stir-fried vegetables or rice porridge with dried fish and pickles the next. My earliest cooking memories with my mom include making everything from potstickers to Little House On The Prairie cookbook dishes to classic Quaker Oats oatmeal raisin cookies. We even have a family baklava recipe, which was given to us by a Lebanese friend thirty-five years ago. I may be Chinese, but my food habits reflect America’s delicious diversity. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I found two other Asian-American authors who write about their connections with food and Michigan:

Coney Detroit by Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm

Katherine Yung and co-author Joe Grimm deep-dive into one of the signature foods of Michigan, and Detroit in particular–coney dogs. Coneys are natural casing hot dogs cradled in a steamed bun and topped with beanless chili, mustard, and chopped onions. It takes practice to eat it one-handed without dripping sauce on your clothes, but it’s yummy, worthwhile practice. In southeastern Michigan, you can often find a coney island restaurant nearly every mile. Some, like the legendary Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island in downtown Detroit, are next door to each other. I live within walking distance to three coney islands myself.

Yung writes that her husband inspired her love for coneys. That love shines through as she explores the history of coney islands and coney culture, visits the local manufacturers that supply the Detroit area’s many coney islands, discovers food spinoffs (coney pizza, anyone?), and even interviews a Michigan artist who creates coney-themed art.

Stealing Buddha's Dinner

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

Bich Minh Nguyen writes poignantly about her tumultuous childhood as a Vietnamese immigrant in 80s-era Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her grandmother cooked traditional specialties such as spring rolls, beef satay, shrimp chips, and red bean cakes, and her Latina stepmother introduced her to tamales, arroz con pollo, and empanadas, but Nguyen longed to have what other kids had: Cheetos, Bundt cakes, candy bars, Spaghetti-Os, Little Debbie snack cakes. To her, those foods represented what it meant to be a “real” American.

Nguyen uses food to illustrate the vast differences between her and her neighbors. Her best friend rejected the Vietnamese food Nguyen’s grandmother made, and lunchtime was fraught with anxiety as students compared the contents of each other’s lunch bags. In one chapter, Nguyen devotes ten pages to food descriptions in books, recognizing that the white protagonists in the stories she loved, such as Laura Ingalls, Jo March, and Harriet the Spy, represented girls she wished she could be. In the end, as she made spring rolls with her grandmother, she embraced the multiple cultures in her life instead of rejecting them, accepting that she can never become like her blonde friends no matter how much “real” American food and culture she ingested.

Gastronome Jean-Antheme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” Readers, how does food reflect who you are, where you’re from, and where you live now? Has it changed over time?

2 thoughts on “SAPAHM Guest: Grace Wen

  1. dholcomb1

    I love food–it’s my drug of choice. lol And the reason I should exercise more.

    But, seriously, I’m more adventurous as I’ve aged. And, I’m exposed to more choices/cultures/available options, too.

  2. Grace Wen

    @dholcomb1: Oh yes, food is my drug of choice too (and yes, I run so I can eat). Isn’t exploring fun? It’s easier now that more grocery stories carry specialty ingredients. I love the variety!


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