[Illustrations: Biodiversity Heritage Library (, )] You did it! Another week down! We’re putting up a post very much like this one every Friday afternoon, to celebrate the fact that the week is done. Down with work! Up with not-work! (Of course, if your work…
Month: August 2019
From architectural feats and notoriously loyal sports fans to public sculptures and hip-hop, Chicago is known for many things, and chief among them might be its iconic foods. (No matter your opinion on the stuff, who here can say they’ve never heard of Chicago deep-dish?)…
In part two of my thought-provoking interview with San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho, we dove right into how she thinks about restaurant criticism.
Soleil explained, “I like to think of restaurants as texts in the same way that you read a book and then you extrapolate upon who wrote the book, when did they write it, why did they write it, what did the audience think at the time? What does it say about society at the time? What kind of snapshot is it? You’re really reading it for meaning, and I think restaurants, you can take the same way.”
When she took the Chronicle job, Soleil announced that she was banning certain words from her reviews, including a widely used adjective like “ethnic.” “When you say ethnic restaurants, I would beg you, not you Ed, but people who are listening, to think about what kinds of restaurants you’re including under that umbrella. Are only some restaurants under that umbrella or all restaurants, because don’t we all have ethnicity?”
Soleil takes her responsibilities seriously. Very seriously. She was recently quoted as asking, ”What if I screw up and no one ever hires a queer woman of color for a role like this again?”
I asked her to expand on that worry. “I get…a lot of messages from young people, younger than me, who are coming up or who are just reading my work and find me inspiring. And so I take that to heart as something that tells me to tread lightly, to be honest with who I am, but to also make sure that the door is open even wider for them.”
To find out what other words and phrases Soleil refuses to use in her reviews, and why she gave a lukewarm review to the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, you’re just going to have to listen. It’ll be well worth your time to do so.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Soleil Ho: I was encouraged to go to classic restaurants and not just focus on new places and just see how they’re doing.
EL: Chez Panisse.
EL: You were kind of disappointed.
SH: And I knew that actually coming out and saying that would be controversial, even though that was the truth of what I experienced.
EL: San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic, Soleil Ho is back in the house with us. Tell us about how you got the San Francisco Chronicle gig. That was like a bolt of lightning in the food writer world.
SH: Was it? Oh my gosh.
EL: Yeah. Forget it, man. It was like, “How’d she get that gig?”
SH: Yeah. So at the time, I was really focused on Racist Sandwich, my podcast. And when we heard that Michael Bauer was stepping down, the previous critic-
EL: Who’d been there for only 32 years.
SH: Yeah. My God. He started the job before I was born, which is very humbling to think about.
EL: So you heard that he was stepping down.
SH: Yes, and there was a lot of excitement over who would be stepping up, and we were part of that excitement. We were so thrilled for the opportunity for things to change and we were sharing the job posting with all of our networks and all of that and there was so much talk and speculation about who would be taking the job, right? But at the same time, I was asking around and a lot of the people that I knew in the industry didn’t apply and I was like, “Oh, okay.”
EL: You had the cooking chops and the food chops and you had enough of the writing chops and the media chops. Is that the way you connected the dots?
SH: No. I thought I was a long shot.
EL: Got it.
SH: Yeah. What really clinched it for me was, well, the Washington Post, Tim Carmen at the Washington Post ran a story.
EL: We love Tim Carmen. He wrote a great story about my book and I loved Tim even before he wrote a great story about my book.
SH: That’s how you’re honest. He wrote a speculative story about it and threw out some names like Tejal Rao, who works at The Times, The New York Times, and me as the two front runners, and I don’t even think I had even applied at the time.
SH: I was shocked.
EL: So he was the one who put the breadcrumbs down.
SH: Yeah. And it was really funny. That was, I think, what made me flip the switch on the application.
EL: What was the application?
SH: Oh gosh. It was the federal questions, like, “Are you a citizen or do you have a felony?” All that stuff, and then, “Upload your LinkedIn profile,” and that was literally it.
EL: That was it.
EL: They didn’t ask for writing samples?
SH: They did eventually, but that was the initial put your name in the hat.
EL: I presume you were then one of 50 people they were considering.
SH: Oh gosh, maybe. Yeah. I’m sure that tons of people applied. I never got a number, though.
EL: And so then what happened?
SH: And then I got a phone call I think the next day from Paolo, the editor of the food section. We started talking about it and eventually, I think there were three interviews, two over the phone and then one in person, over a few months.
EL: And all with Paolo, who is now the food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. By the way, Michael Bauer was also the food editor for most of those 32 years, so Paolo was also new to the job and he’d come from Eater.
EL: So he had a younger point-of-view in general, also. So a few interviews. And was there any writing or was he just taking notes based on what you said about the food that was served at the restaurants where you were eating together?
SH: No, there was some writing. I had to draft a sample review, which was pretty interesting, and so I reviewed Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis.
EL: That’s Gavin’s restaurant, right?
EL: Gavin Kaysen. He trained with Daniel Boulud for many years.
SH: Yes. So it was a nationally known restaurant, and so I reviewed that place and then I articulated for Paolo what criticism meant to me, and so that was really challenging actually because I didn’t really think about it.
EL: So what did you say?
SH: Let me try to pull it up. I think I might have it on my phone.
EL: Oh, good.
SH: The original-
EL: I want to hear it.
SH: Let’s see. Okay. Oh my God, this is so … All right.
EL: That’s okay. It’s sort of like asking people to read their high school yearbook page, but go ahead. Hit it.
SH: Okay. I see the role of the critic, really anyone whose job it is to issue analyses of cultural productions, as one of putting a work into context. Who is this for? How does this fulfill its stated goals and how do we engage with those goals within our broader social structure? While I hope that the idea of separating art from the artist, the misguided philosophy that assumes that it is possible to objectively view a work outside of its context, is becoming less and less of a priority for critics, I also hope that we can similarly walk away from seeing food as a case of art for art’s sake. I don’t see the critic’s task as one of simply deciding if a food or restaurant experience is pleasing or not, but rather using an aesthetic evaluation of restaurants to tell stories about the connections between people, cultures, and communities. The end.
EL: Wow. That’s some deep—
SH: Yeah. That’s why I’m rolling my eyes at myself a little bit.
EL: No, that’s very impressive. That would’ve gotten you into Grinnell, too.
SH: I think my Grinnell essay, my application essay, was about eating a turkey sandwich.
EL: That I’d like to … could you pull that up on your phone too?
SH: I don’t think I still have that.
EL: Oh, all right. All right. So you got the gig, and were you shocked? Did you get a phone call? Was it an email? Was it a text?
SH: It was a phone call. Yeah, I was shocked.
EL: And where were you living at the time?
SH: In Minneapolis.
EL: In Minneapolis.
SH: Writing full-time, freelancing.
EL: A tough way to make a living. Did you notice?
SH: Yeah. Gosh. Keeping track of everything for taxes was a nightmare.
EL: Everything’s a nightmare about freelancing. But anyway, I digress. It’s interesting because what you wrote for Paolo is kind of your approach to the job.
SH: I like to think of restaurants as texts in the same way that you read a book and then you extrapolate upon who wrote the book, when did they write it, why did they write it, what did the audience think at the time? What does it say about society at the time? What kind of snapshot is it? You’re really reading it for meaning, and I think restaurants, you can take the same way.
EL: That’s really, really interesting. Also, when you first took the job, you published a non-glossary.
EL: I love that. First of all, I just love the idea. I don’t know if I’m calling it a non-glossary or if there’s such a thing as a non-glossary, but you wrote, it was basically terms you would not be using in your reviews.
EL: First of all, how many were there? I’ve only seen five or six.
SH: For the brainstorming part of writing that, I came up with a couple dozen, but I had to distill it because it just would have gotten so long.
EL: Can we go down that list and say why they were verboten? So Kaffir lime.
SH: I don’t say that or write that because it’s a cognate for a racial slur in South Africa, which is interesting, right? Because it’s not actually… The word itself in that context doesn’t mean anything racial, but it does make people feel really some type of way. It’s just easier not to use because makrut makes more sense and it is a word that people actually use in Thailand and often when you use that lime, they call it makrut lime.
EL: Yeah. Makrut is M-A-K-R-U-T. And kaffir, there was that great book that certainly had the negative connotation of kaffir called Kaffir Boy. All right. Ethnic food.
SH: That to me, and I’m a litigator, just mentally, and so I think about all of the exceptions to that. And if it doesn’t make logical sense, then I just freeze right there and it just freaks me out. And so when you say ethnic restaurants, I would beg you, not you Ed, but people who are listening to think about what kinds of restaurants you’re including under that umbrella. Are only some restaurants under that umbrella or all restaurants, because don’t we all have ethnicity?
EL: Do you know Alvin from Egg Slut?
EL: Alvin Cailon is a fascinating guy and he opened this restaurant and he has a sign about the food is being made by immigrants. I don’t know exactly what the sign says, and he described it in his podcast as, “It’s just American food in 2019.” And I think that’s a little bit about what you’re saying, right?
SH: Yes. I mean, it’s kind of like saying ethnic people, right? Or in journalism, specifying only the races of people who are not white, right, because that is assuming that whiteness is a default status, the default identity, which is a white supremacist idea.
EL: Are you now forbidding me to use the term ethnic food? This is really hard, man. It’s really hard to unlearn. I’m not young.
SH: Well, you know, what I say, especially when people ask me about, “Are you saying that white people can’t make burritos?” and that’s cultural appropriation, I don’t have any power here. I’m just saying, this is why I phrase the piece as words I won’t use, not words that I am banning from your mouth.
EL: Got it. So what about sustainable? Was that in the list?
SH: It wasn’t, but I do agree that it is sort of a branding word at this point. No one really knows what it means.
EL: No, it’s true. And now when Kellogg starts using sustainable on the package, you know that it lacks a specific meaning. Did you ban farm to table?
SH: No, but it is like sustainable, right? Those things are claims. They’re not facts.
EL: Yeah, it’s true. Right. What food isn’t farm to table?
SH: Right. What kind of farm? That’s the important question.
EL: Right, and responsibly grown. Was that on that one? What was on the list besides kaffir lime and ethnic food?
SH: Authentic was on the list.
EL: Authentic. Why authentic?
SH: Because it doesn’t make sense. What’s authentic for me is not authentic for you. It’s not authentic to the next person. And so as a critic, it’s not a very helpful term. And really, what it says is that I am very sophisticated and I know the way things are supposed to be and you might not know. That doesn’t seem very welcoming.
EL: All right, keep going.
SH: So yeah, I had some gendered words too, like man food or girly drinks and those are words that I’m just not really keen on just because of the stereotypes that they assume about people. I drink whiskey and I love it and I drink it neat and on the rocks, just depending on whether or not I have ice in the freezer. And I have been made fun of in the past for that and it’s just really silly because my gender has nothing to do with what drinks I find appealing or what foods I find appealing.
EL: I don’t know what man food is anyway.
SH: There’s a lot of cookbooks about those, Ed. There’s How to Feed a Man or How to Feed Boys and those sorts of cookbooks that I find really weird, and The Pioneer Woman of course, really I think plays with that. She says that kind of stuff all the time, like how to feed your cowboy.
EL: So what have you learned? You’ve been on the job a year, maybe?
SH: Good God, no. I’ve been on the job for seven months.
EL: Seven months.
SH: I’ve learned that newspaper audiences are very different from digital audiences. The types of people who subscribe to a paper, a print newspaper are so different demographically. A lot of them, they skew older.
EL: They’re older and whiter.
SH: Whiter, more disposable income or they’re retired, so they have a lot of leisure time. And so that’s been really interesting to adjust my expectations of how people are going to react, what stories they actually want to hear and read about, that sort of stuff.
EL: And so do you think that’s changed your point-of-view that you articulated so perfectly in that email to Paolo?
SH: No. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from folks of that demographic, too. They’re excited about what I’m bringing. There’s just a few very vocal standouts that just really wish I would go back to the old way of doing it. But I’ve never done it that way.
EL: Yeah. Whenever you do something that no one else has done, you know you’re going to get some static. I have spent my whole life doing that. It’s not easy, but it’s really satisfying in the end.
SH: Yeah. And another thing I’ve learned too, and this is something that I’ve dealt with my whole life but to a greater extent is how to deal with negative contacts, like negative communications from people that I don’t know.
EL: Especially a formerly shy person.
SH: Yeah. I have to let go of worrying about what people think of me and that’s really hard.
EL: Yeah. That’s the hardest thing about being a critic. I mean, I was never … I was the critic at the Daily News when the Daily News still meant something. And I wrote critical pieces about foods for The Times and that was a hard thing for me, too, because my default position is to try to get people to like me. And if that’s your default position, it’s really hard to be a critic.
SH: Yes. Absolutely.
EL: You can be an enthusiast, but it’s hard to be a critic. So how did you overcome that?
SH: I have to take things very slow and try to really silo off my email reading time from my relaxing time because it’s a smart phone so I can get emails anytime. And the hard part is actually, the Chronicle’s food section comes out on Sundays and that is when I get a lot of emails and I have to really try hard to not read them on the day that I’m supposed to be taking off.
EL: But Sunday is the day of rest, anyway. What’s the biggest surprise and the biggest disappointment?
SH: The biggest surprise to me was, I guess, how similar high end restaurants are to each other. And so few of us on this planet are able to go to all of them and compare them.
EL: Right. You found that you were able to go to them and you were like, “Oh, it’s kind of like the last one.”
SH: Yeah. So to suss out differences and to really be able to identify how deeply entrenched the trends are in these places has been really fascinating, because I had this assumption going in because I never really got a chance to eat at places like this on the regular, that they would all be so different because of how much money they charged, which is funny because I thought of them in terms of painting for instance, or art, like really strong art. You have your Jeff Koons and then you have your Picassos and then you have your Cindy Shermans, and they all have such different aesthetic approaches and they use such different forms. But in the restaurant world, it’s pretty samey.
EL: So what’s been the biggest disappointment?
SH: I don’t know. The lack of imagination when it comes to a vegetarian or vegan food, actually.
EL: And you’re not a vegetarian or a vegan, as we know.
SH: No, I was a vegetarian for a few years when I was in high school and so I get it. I know what it’s like. And so I thought by now restaurants and just people in general would have more ideas.
EL: San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho is in the house with us. You began with a less than stellar review of a sacred Bay Area restaurant cow, Chez Panisse. Why?
SH: I wanted to, and I was encouraged to go to classic restaurants as well and not just focus on new places, and I think that makes sense. It’s healthy to check in on these places and just to see how they’re doing, especially as a way of calibrating for people what I’m into, what I like, what appeals to me, because I’m new to the scene, and so why not evaluate kind of the standard?
EL: Right. And you were kind of disappointed.
SH: Yeah. I guess that is also one of my disappointments, because I don’t come into restaurants with a thesis in mind. I show up with an open mind and I’m willing to experience all I can in order to come up with something interesting to say about them. And so, yeah, the sad part was that I had really not good experiences there and I was so surprised after everything I’d heard about it. And I knew that actually coming out and saying that would be controversial, even though that was the truth of what I experienced.
EL: Sure. I’m sure your editor loved the fact that you were going to start out with something controversial, too.
SH: Yeah. I didn’t mean it, but it just kind of came out that way.
EL: And I read the review and what you were saying is what happens to a lot of restaurants like that, which is- they stop moving, and then when they stop moving and stop changing, people have a tendency to get sloppy. And I think you were saying that that happened both at the cafe and at the more formal Chez Panisse, right?
SH: Right. Yeah. And I didn’t write about this, but I couldn’t help but contrast it with my experience working at Biona, for instance. It was a 25 year old restaurant and Susan was there all the time and she was terrifying.
EL: You mean terrifying because she was so focused or terrifying because she could legitimately be intimidating?
SH: She was so focused. She really put the fear of God in all of us as line cooks. She made it clear what her standards were and they were exacting. But the food that came out was consistent and it was good. It was really, really good.
EL: That’s in opposition to what you found at Chez Panisse where Alice is spending a lot of time going all over the world espousing for great causes.
SH: Right, yeah. I think that what she does is amazing, but I don’t know what happened with the finesse of the restaurants.
EL: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so interesting because there are a lot of talented people still working there. But it is interesting because what you’re saying is that even institutions need to evolve and they still need a leader.
SH: Yes. And as a baseline, they need to be pleasant places to be and they need to produce exceptional or at least edible food.
EL: Whew. Thwack. Are you saying that some of the food you had at Chez Panisse was not edible?
SH: I mean, it was as a baseline, yes. You could consume it for calories.
EL: You are damning with faint praise here. So where do you see yourself taking the job?
SH: It’s really hard to say. There’s so many really big issues that will have relevance to the food world.
EL: And it’s true. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed in the food culture and observing and writing about it is that first of all, it touches every aspect of people’s lives. As long as that’s the case, there’s always going to be something to write about.
SH: I wrote a little editorial about this a few weeks ago, but when I entered the scene, there were three critics working in San Francisco full-time, or at least putting out consistent reviews. And now I’m the only one who is not freelancing.
EL: I read that piece that you wrote. I actually subscribed to the Chronicle just to read you, I have to admit.
SH: Oh, thanks.
EL: I read that piece and I was struck because Adam Platt wrote a memoir where he says it’s a golden age of restaurant criticism. And I’m like, “What planet is he on?” There are so many fewer legitimate restaurant critic jobs where they pay for your food and you get to go to a restaurant more than once. They’re being cut all over the place, even in a town like San Francisco.
SH: I mean, especially, because the cost of eating out here is so much higher.
EL: It’s true. And so the disparity between the haves and have nots in San Francisco is so great. And so as a result, the disparity in the prices and the places middle class people can go or working class people can go, those choices are kind of limited, and now you have all these restaurants way at the top that nobody can go to, except if you’re a Palo Alto venture capitalist.
SH: And so that part makes it hard for newspapers or magazines or all weeklies to justify the cost, because if you do a proper review of, let’s say Benu, Corey Lee’s restaurant in downtown San Francisco, at a minimum that would cost, gosh, $930 just for the food.
EL: For how many people?
SH: For one person to eat three times.
EL: Basically $300 a meal. That’s insane.
SH: Yeah, it’s quite a financial commitment.
EL: So what does it mean that three places that used to have full-time restaurant critics are now moving to freelancers? And I’m sure they’re cutting their budgets and I’m sure they’re expected to go to a restaurant once. Is that because of the internet? Because people make their choices based on other things.
SH: I think it’s a confluence of things, but there is the digital effect. There is the downturn in newspaper and print media in general and food budgets, like I articulated in the newsletter, are really easy to cut because it’s a leisure thing. It’s not breaking news. It’s not someone was murdered on 6th Street, that sort of thing, which costs very little to cover.
EL: The fact of the matter is, if you want to find out where you should eat, there are lots of places to go besides newspapers. And that wasn’t always the case.
SH: Yeah. And so people do ask me about Yelp and Google reviews and all of that stuff all the time, how do I see myself as relevant, and I work really hard to add value because what I can add is context. Like I said when I articulated my view of criticism to Paolo, what I can add is an understanding of what a restaurant means to its community, to its customers, to the people who work there, all of that stuff.
EL: Who are your biggest influences as a writer and human being? When I was doing my research, I read about Wesley Morris and Ruth Reichl and Hanif Abdurraqib.
SH: When I was a kid, I would read New York Magazine and the New York Times reviews all the time, actually. And so Ruth was one of those people I would read, and Gael Greene, all of these folks who were talking about restaurants beyond just, “I had the steak. It was salty. I had the mashed potatoes. It was pretty good. You should go here.” You know what I mean?
SH: They wrote like people who read books.
EL: They wrote like people who read books. I like that. So there were those people. And what about someone like Wesley Morris?
SH: Oh man. Wesley, he really brings the autobiographical aspect to his film writing, which I thought was really great, and he uses it so powerfully, and the way he transitions from vignette to actually talking about the aspects of films, he really blows them up and makes you realize why they matter to people.
EL: And what about Hanif Abdurraqib?
SH: He is an amazing music critic. He’s a poet also, but he had this book that came out last year called They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is amazing. And he writes about like The Weeknd, about Carly Rae Jepsen, about all of these really obscure punk bands in Cleveland, Ohio.
SH: Yeah. And the way he writes about them and talks about emotion and just viscerality and the feeling of listening to this music and what it brings out as far as memory and tragedy and all of this stuff, it’s so rich.
EL: What about influences as a person, as a human being?
SH: I think that there is so much that I have gained from working in restaurants as a line cook because it really humbled me. When I graduated from Grinnell, I was at the top and thought that I was the smartest person on earth. I got really into literary theory and psychoanalysis and all this stuff, but I didn’t know how to translate that into talking to humans. Does that makes sense?
SH: I really wanted to spend my days reading like Deleuze, and Décarie, Foucault and McCann all of these big thinkers-
EL: Just like me. I spend my all my days reading those. So wait, and so restaurants, you mean, brought you down to earth in a big way?
SH: Yeah, because then I had to figure out, “Okay, how am I going to converse for five hours with the grill cook who was an ex-coal miner from Virginia?”
EL: That’s really, really interesting.
SH: Not in a condescending way, because people can sniff that out, but how do I relate to him as a person? And so I had to learn a lot of that.
EL: It sounds like your influence as a human being are just other human beings that you came into contact with in a really direct and organic way.
SH: Yeah. There’s nothing like syncing up with someone working next to you when you’re working on one project or one plate of food together.
EL: So you’ve expressed some concern about your legacy. You’re a little young to be expressing concern about your legacy. But I’ll give it to you. “What if I screw up and no one ever hires a queer woman of color for a role like this again?” Can you talk about that? And you clearly take your responsibilities very seriously.
SH: Because I know that with visibility comes a lot of responsibility.
EL: And Delmore Schwartz said with dreams come responsibility, but keep going. I digress.
SH: I get a lot of communications, a lot of emails, a lot of messages from young people, younger than me, who are coming up or who are just reading my work and find me inspiring. And so I take that to heart as something that tells me to tread lightly, to be honest with who I am, but to also make sure that the door is open even wider for them. As Nicole Taylor, who is now the food editor at Thrillist said to Grub Street when they interviewed her, “I just want that door to open wider and wider and wider.” And that was her stated goal in doing what she does.
EL: It is one of the primary goals for you, as well.
SH: I don’t want the door to close or get smaller. I don’t want people to be satisfied and then go back to the way things used to be. And as a millennial who came up during the Obama administration and saw what happened after, I’m very cognizant of how that can happen.
EL: Well, you know what’s the key to your being able to do that? And you’ve displayed it countless times during this interview. You can laugh at yourself. Don’t ever lose that quality. It’s a really important thing, because you do take your responsibilities really seriously, but you should still be able to laugh at yourself. That’s a hard thing to do.
SH: There is an element which I embrace of humiliation in being visible, especially in something like food criticism, where you’re often the one doing things that are really silly in exchange for making really interesting writing, like standing in line for like an hour for seafood. Who does that?
EL: That’s true. All right, now it’s time for the Special Sauce buffet. It’s not like a lightning round, but it’s just these questions that I’m trying to get at interesting answers, and we’ve succeeded for the most part. So who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. Could be living or dead, poets, writers, politicians, musicians.
SH: Okay. I would say Janelle Monae.
EL: Love Janelle Monae.
SH: I would say Lizzo, as well.
EL: She’s also a musician, right? Lizzo.
EL: Yeah, yeah, I’ve head of Lizzo. Keep going.
SH: Marie Curie.
EL: Marie Curie?
SH: Yes. And Emma Goldman.
EL: Emma Goldman. This is an intense, yet joyous maybe … I hope it’s joyous. You’ve got to have some fun at this last supper.
SH: Oh yeah.
EL: So what are you eating?
SH: I would want to eat Ethiopian food.
SH: Yeah, because it’s really easy to share.
EL: That’s true. You get that injera, and you just do your thing.
SH: Yeah. And it’s very vegetarian, vegan friendly.
EL: That’s true. And what’s for dessert though?
SH: Right now my favorite kinds of desserts are bingsu, the Korean shaved ice, and some fruit.
EL: And some fruit. Oh, how northern California of you.
SH: Well, it’s very Asian of me. We should just eat fruit for desserts.
EL: That’s true. That’s true. But I associate northern California because they have the best stone fruit, like the peaches and plums and pluots and all that stuff. So who are you listening to?
SH: Wow. Well, I bet Janelle and Lizzo would probably not want to listen to themselves over dinner.
EL: No, exactly. That would be gauche. That’d be wrong.
SH: But Stravinsky.
EL: Stravinsky. Out of nowhere, you’ve come up with Stravinsky. I like that. Like The Rites of Spring? What are we talking here?
SH: Rites of Spring probably isn’t the best for dinner.
EL: All right.
SH: It’s really intense. But maybe some Nutcracker.
EL: All right, so what do you cook when there’s nothing to eat in your house? Although you’d probably have to eat almost every meal out.
SH: Yeah. What I usually cook is rice, and then I have an entire array of canned fish from Asian grocery stores in my pantry, and so I’ll just empty out one of those, maybe fry an egg, and that’s a meal.
EL: And does your husband cook?
SH: Yeah, he tries.
EL: Thwack. He tries?
SH: It’s hard for him to cook alone. I think he needs encouragement.
EL: Got it. He needs you.
EL: He needs you. Do you have a guilty pleasure or two?
SH: I don’t, and I don’t believe in guilt when it comes to food.
EL: Yeah, I’m with you. I think I’m going to throw that question out. Mallomars don’t make me feel … Do Mallomars make you feel guilty, Soleil? I love a Mallomar.
SH: They make me feel happy.
EL: Yeah. Mallomars could be on the flag.
SH: Yeah. They deserve a prize. I mean, that’s the thing, right, about guilt is that you want to do this thing because it makes you feel happy, so why should you feel ashamed of it?
EL: Who would you like to have a one-on-one lunch with just to see how they think?
SH: The Zodiac killer.
EL: Zodiac killer. You’re full of surprises.
SH: I want to know. To me, serial killers are the most confusing people. I wouldn’t write love letters to any of them or anything like that, but I’m so curious about why.
EL: I wasn’t suggesting that you need to marry or write love letters, but it is an interesting choice. The Zodiac killer. All right, that’s cool. It’s just been declared Soleil Ho Day all over the world. What’s happening on that day?
SH: I would hope that it’s a lot like Festivus where everyone just airs their grievances.
EL: No, this is not a time for airing your grievance because we already do that 24/7 now anyway.
SH: Oh man. Because to me, the most transformative and important thing is just self-awareness and honesty, and so I would hope that any day named after me, there’s that element that takes place.
EL: But what would people be doing as they’re being self-aware? They have to be doing something. They can’t just be being self-aware.
SH: Yeah, transforming negative feelings into positive action would be the most wonderful thing.
EL: Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, Soleil Ho. Read Soleil’s fantastic reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle. I do. I do. I’m not kidding. I do subscribe because of you. Soleil, it’s been awesome and I can’t wait to hear the reboot of … Are you going to be involved in the reboot of Racist Sandwich?
SH: I don’t think so, but I’ll be their spiritual adviser.
EL: Got it. And people can still pick up a copy of Meal, right?
SH: Yes. We’re on Amazon, but also on Book Depository and anywhere you could find comic books.
EL: That’s cool. Anyway, thanks so much. It’s been awesome, Soleil.
SH: Thank you.
EL: And we’ll see you next time, serious eaters.
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Editor’s note: Resetting the Table is a monthly Serious Eats video series celebrating the diverse foodways that inform the way we eat in America. In each segment, Elazar Sontag cooks and talks with someone whose work in food, farming, or social justice is making a difference.
The sun is beating down on Oko Farms, and goldfish the size of sandals swim lazy circles through a tank of water shaded by a tarp-covered tent. Sunflowers sway in the wind, a light breeze rustles through planter beds, and bees hum as they move between clusters of bright little flowers. It’s not the kind of scene you expect to find in noisy, traffic-jammed Brooklyn, squeezed between a pizza shop and a banner promising “Fast & Professional!!” tax preparation services. But on this plot of land in Bushwick, Yemi Amu has transformed an abandoned concrete lot into New York City’s largest outdoor aquaponic farm.
Yemi utilizes the space on her farm to grow many of the vegetables she ate growing up in the coastal city of Lagos, Nigeria. Alongside onions and kale, she also grows gburé (water leaf), clove basil, several varieties of rice, sorghum, and other hard-to-find vegetables and herbs for Nigerian chef friends to incorporate into their cooking.
Aquaponic farming is a sustainable method of growing plants and raising fish simultaneously, perfect for areas like this one, where a fire hydrant is the most accessible source of water. In aquaponics, water from a large freshwater fish tank is filtered to remove solid waste, then it’s pumped through pipes into plant beds, providing the plants with nutrient-dense fertilizer. The plants filter out any toxic waste from the water, so that it’s clean when it returns to the fish tank, and the cycle repeats. This method of farming uses just a fraction of the water that conventional methods use.
Other farmers turned the Bushwick lot down, since without a water source it wasn’t farmable land. But Yemi saw the empty lot’s potential for aquaponic farming, and got to work.
The 2,500-square-foot farm she has created acts as a community space of sorts. Students regularly visit Oko Farms to learn about aquaponic farming, and Yemi welcomes anyone in the community to wander through and learn more about what she’s doing. When she’s not tending to her own farm, Yemi helps build aquaponic farms throughout New York.
Early one morning, I headed to Oko with the Serious Eats camera crew to meet Yemi, learn about aquaponic farming and the incredible work she’s doing in her community, and to cook lunch on the beautiful farm.
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