Neal Milner: Should We Debate The Meaning Of Food On Social Media — Or Just Taste It? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeIn Hanalei, near the start of the 20th century, a Chinese immigrant named Chock Chinn opened a Chinese restaurant called C. Akeoni Store.

It lasted close to fifty years.

In 2019, Arielle Haspel, a lifestyle blogger and healthy diet advocate, opened a Chinese restaurant called Lucky Lee in a topnotch Manhattan location.

It lasted only eight months.

Chinn’s restaurant thrived because it was all about the taste of his food. Haspel’s went down the tubes because it was never about the taste of her food at all.

Lucky Lee’s was about sociology and social media.

Here is a partial list of dishes on C. Akeoni Store’s 1898 menu: sweet and salty buns, rice cake, steamed and baked Chinese pastries and tarts, pickled pork, boned duck, stuffed mushrooms.

But also: roast beef sandwiches and potato salad, ham and eggs, baked papaya custard, coconut, apple pies and homemade ice cream.

Plus chop suey, which was a particular favorite of the paniolo, Hawaii’s cowboys.

Akeoni’s menu reminds me of the potlucks my wife Joy and I went to when our son played Little League ball close to a century later.

At the restaurant and the potluck there was something for everyone. For us mainland haoles, potluck was a chance to sample new foods and for the locals to observe exactly what we were willing to eat and, just as important, what we weren’t.

The first restaurants of any kind on Oahu were Chinese restaurants. Eating out was a new idea here. It was a new clientele, so the idea was to give them a little bit of novelty plus a lot of familiarity and comfort.

Were the Chinese dishes made like they were in China? Not likely. Did those paniolo who enjoyed eating chop suey — probably with forks — know that in China authentic fancy chop suey was made with offal? Not on their cowboy radar.

It was much less about being authentic, and much more about bring eclectic. It was about the food, which implies enjoying yourself and stuffing yourself, rather than about “cuisine,” a hoity-toity word that implies “culinary” (another hoity-toity word) boundary maintenance to avoid inauthenticity and cultural appropriation, which is what Lucky Lee’s encountered.

Akeoni Store: Asian-Pacific fusion before fusion was cool. “Let’s eat already.”

The multimillion-dollar La Choy company was essentially Akeoni writ large.

It was founded in 1922 by two recent University of Michigan grads. One was a Korean immigrant who by law could not even become an American citizen. The other was a haole kid from a small town in Michigan.

You can read the full history here, but long story short, they figured out how to convince the American public that cooking Chinese with an American twist was healthy and sophisticated. Among the converts was my mother, who made “chop suey” Jewish-style in the same pot that she made her chicken soup and matzah balls and cooked it about the same way.

The company pioneered two ingredients that became staples. One was canned Chinese vegetables.

The other was fried chow mein noodles, which became a garnish for chop suey as well as for potluck-style tuna casserole both on the continent and in Hawaii. Let the good times roll.

In the piece about La Choy’s history, a second-generation Chinese American woman talked about how her parents missed their traditionally cooked food, and how La Choy helped them acclimate by offering products that were at least in the right direction.

“I guess my feeling for La Choy is that it worked,” she said, “but it didn’t always feel super authentic to us. But we were glad it existed.”

All mixed up, or as people in Hawaii might say, “chop suey.”

So, for immigrants and their families, concepts like cultural appropriation or authenticity were not part of their lives. Those words were not part of their vocabulary, the times did not foster these ideas and there was no social media to make these ideas major issues.

Which brings us to Lucky Lee.

Lucky Lee was to be a Chinese restaurant with a twist — a healthier version of the Chinese foods people like.

Haspel said her recipes were a “clean” cuisine that would avoid the bloating people get from traditional Chinese food — less “oily, “salty” and “icky.”

She said all this on social media. Uh oh.

Because then, according to the New York Times, “quite predictably,” she was flamed on social media.

There was so much blowback that Yelp temporarily disabled its listing because of what it called an “unusual activity alert,” corporate talk for “Man the lifeboats! The shit’s hitting the fan!”

The criticisms were about cultural appropriation and stereotyping Chinese food in ways that Chinese in the U.S. have been fighting against since they arrived. She was accused of benefiting from Chinese cuisine and culture while being ignorant of their context.

Chinese food. Stir fry beef with vegetables sauce.
Chinese food should be judged by how it tastes, not what people say about it on social media. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The critics said it was arrogant of her not to recognize that she was just another white person telling people of color how she could cook their food better than they could.

She apologized over social media, of course, but to no avail. She changed the restaurant’s décor to deal with the critics who said the place was faux Chinese. Lucky Lee’s shuttered just eight months after it opened.

This controversy was never about the quality of the food. The social media flaming happened before the restaurant even opened its doors. What Haspel thought was innovative, her critics found so offensive that for the sake of principle they would not even try it.

Not tasting but rather sociology and history.

Now, here is what I don’t want to do: get in a battle about cancel culture, microaggressions and the menace of social media.

Take whatever side you want on that but remember how different this food fight was from the patrons at Chinn’s Kauai restaurant who decided whether to eat a dish by actually putting it in their mouths and tasting.

The biggest difference today is social media. The social psychologist John Haidt recently wrote a piece about how social media is making Americans “stupid.”

By that he means that, thanks to social media, which encourages anger and fear, we have moved away from cooperative engagement and more toward fear and loathing.

The angriest, most political people use social media the most. They are a small minority, but they set the tone and define the agenda. They are the Big Anger, Big Picture people.

Part of me is sympathetic to those Lucky Lee flamers. For someone with media savvy, Lucky Lee’s owner was surprisingly clueless and insensitive. And of course, historically, the Chinese in America have suffered discrimination and stereotyping.

But another part of me strongly sympathizes with those back-in-the-day paniolos who could have cared less about “real” Chinese food and just wanted to get away from the cow smells for a while, set themselves down and get themselves a tasty morsel or two.

“Hey Chinn. This tastes pilau.”  “What’s wrong with it?”  “Too salty.”  “I’ll see what I can do.”

Or the Little League parent whose only questions are “What’s the score?” and “What’s to eat?”

Read this next:

Why Early Childhood Mental Health Care Is So Important

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

My father had his first coronary in his early 40s and died after ten heart attacks at age 62 at age, despite major dietary and medical interventions. The damage had already been done due to a very unhealthy traditional ethnic diet. There is so much serious diet-related life-threatening disease in Hawai`i due to changes to traditional diets that have evolved over time. The traditional diet of Okinawa, for example, has lead it to be designated as the primary "Blue Zone," leading to the highest life expectancy on Earth. People leading themselves to an early death from what they eat - with more salt, sugar and fats.

Eastside_Kupuna · 1 month ago

Well social media back in 1898 was pretty much word of mouth. It did exist just not in this modern sense.

surferx808 · 1 month ago

Well written and really interesting article. I thoroughly enjoyed this! Reminds me of my mom putting brown sugar on our poi as kids and how my part-hawaiian dad would cringe. But we loved it! Thank you for this wonderful piece.

lynwo808 · 1 month ago

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