The chef David Chang recently posted an innocuous photo of the shrimp cocktail he was about to enjoy at the famous Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco to Instagram. Bolder was his caption: "The best white people food ever invented," he declared. "I love it so much."
One shouldn't ever read online comments, but a quick look at the feedback under Chang's photo showed that his cheeky quip hit the mark: There were many LOLs and #truths to that effect. But what struck me as odd was the tacit acknowledgment of this unheralded, underappreciated cuisine: "white people food."
Let's be clear: "White people food" isn't a racist description and its connotation isn't disparaging. Think of it as shorthand for a very particular, very personal set of interactions with food, and most often experienced by the children of immigrants.
As we celebrate our country's great diversity on Canada Day, we should take a moment to consider that diversity through an edible lens. Just as many Canadians have fond memories of eating wonton noodle soup or chicken tikka masala for the first time, many others have complicated feelings toward the first innocuous shrimp cocktail of their lives.
I'll start. As a child of the 1990s, my affinity for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knew no bounds. So when Chef Boyardee introduced Ninja-Turtle-themed pasta in a can during commercial breaks for the cartoon, I knew I had to have it. So, as a spoiled only child is wont to do, I begged my mother for it, despite not really knowing what "it" was. After all, I was growing up in a traditional Chinese household, on a steady diet of white rice and steamed fish. Mother knew best and said "no" enough times, but she eventually relented after a stream of tears at the supermarket. I ate the canned pasta, microwaved, for dinner that night. It was crushing to discover that I hated it. The kids in the commercial looked so happy with their bowls of orange, gooey, salty-sweet, turtle-shaped starch. Why couldn't I be like them?
In adulthood, it's been comforting to find that anecdotes such as mine are almost like a rite of passage for ethnic minorities.
I've spent the past few weeks surveying friends and co-workers on the subject of their first meal of white people food, and everyone was always quick to answer, those memories permanently impressed from a young age. There was cheddar and salami on Wheat Thins crackers at a friend's house; a hot dog with ketchup and mustard shortly after arriving in Canada; Wonder Bread with Cheez Whiz at daycare; TV dinner. Most people didn't offer up taste critiques without more prompting. The idea of the dishes was more important: that you could spend your entire life to that point eating Italian pastas, Malaysian noodles or Sri Lankan curries, then be suddenly confronted with foreign foodstuff that everyone else seems to take for granted.
At their most lighthearted, these childhood remembrances are inherently hilarious, like the time in Grade 10 when I was introduced to tacos. It was a DIY evening, where we each filled the hard shells with cheese, lettuce, salsa and ground beef. Once the shells were finished, everyone at the table sat back and sighed, having enjoyed the fun meal – except me. To the shock and awe of my friends, I kept on going, scooping toppings on to my plate and eating them like some bastard stir-fry medley. There were no leftovers that night, to the chagrin of my friend's mother. Not only was it a silly way to eat the remains of tacos, it was also an embarrassing realization that my household etiquette of literally eating until you are full didn't hold sway under other roofs – especially as a guest.
At the other end of the spectrum, an introduction to peanut-butter sandwiches can be fraught with feelings of otherness and exclusion. A friend remembers being offered her first by a classmate in Grade 1 or 2. All the white kids had them; she had sticky rice. "I wanted to have the same lunch as everyone." At that nascent age, a shared peanut-butter sandwich that someone else's mother may have slap-dashed together became a vehicle for necessary cultural exploration. "Then I made mom buy me some more."
The chef Eddie Huang recounts a similar tale on more visceral terms. In his bestselling memoir Fresh off the Boat, a raw look at growing up as the son of Taiwanese immigrants, he writes about his first encounter with one of the most beloved white people foods.
At a friend's house (it's always at a friend's house), he asks, "What's the orange stuff?"
"Macaroni and cheese," his friend answered.
Huang deemed the dish "nasty" and "it stunk like feet."
He's clear-eyed about the cultural implications of thumbing his nose at mac 'n' cheese: "I suddenly realized that converting to white wouldn't be easy."
Thankfully, as the years go by, white people food needn't be about "converting to white." You eventually have another shrimp cocktail and slowly it becomes yours, too, the memory imbued with nostalgia rather than angst.
I'm happy to report that all of the people I surveyed, despite the potential emotional scarring of all those non-ethnic meals, are well-adjusted adult citizens of Canada. The American chefs Chang and Huang owe much of their international success to their Korean and Taiwanese culinary heritage. And I eventually realized good pasta doesn't come from a can.
White people food as a cuisine takes its cues from the awkwardness of childhood. It encompasses the desire to fit in, to want what everyone else is having, to try something for the very first time. Then you grow up, and invite friends over to your own house for taco night.