Food – the Best Medicine?

Last night I had a conversation with someone who had spent some time in Hong Kong. One of her biggest takeaways from the experience was the way that people looked at what they put in their bodies on a daily basis.

Food was not just food, but also medicine. Whatever was going into their bodies, mattered. And could energize you as much as it could cure ailments.

While I never spent significant time on Hong Kong, this was something I appreciated about my time in Mainland China.

The chance to see a different perspective on every day things.

Food as medicine? You mean, it matters what we put in our bodies?

Growing up as a runner it was always important to have a meal of chicken and pasta the day before a race – you know – for extra energy.

I suppose that considering the impact eating could have on the way our bodies perform was not a foreign concept.

But finding the balance of hot and cold foods, was always so interesting to me. Particularly when foods that appeared to be cool as cucumbers – like a mango or an ice cold beer – should be carefully balanced with cucumbers and an assortment of green vegetables with “cool” properties.

How do we find balance in our diets?

What does a balanced diet look like?

What do we know from our own cultures – and what insights might other cultures offer to us when it comes to right balance for daily eating?

Yelp-ing: How and for Whom?

I have a couple friends who are pretty excited about Yelp. They are regular contributors. One has even achieved the exceptional – elite status. And not just once. She’s a three-time champ.

Having watched from the sidelines for quite some time now, and using it regularly to make more informed dining-oriented decisions, I’ve started to feel like the right thing to do is to give back.

And given my foray into the restaurant business, I’m also quite interested in how it feels on both sides. While I’ve been in the seat of a diner more than my fair share of times, lately I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be behind the counter as someone who aims to serve.

I had a great conversation today with two gentlemen about how they use and think about Yelp. The question I thought to be most interesting – what do the stars mean?

Since there are various things that go into a review and much of it comes down to expectations:

Is it 5-stars for what it is or 5-stars compared to everyone else?

One of my conversation partners says for him it comes back to this one basic question. If somebody was to ask him, where should I go to eat in New Haven?

His answer would look a bit like this:

Answer = Food Quality + Experience + Service + Price

My other conversation partner then wondered back to the question of the number of stars “for what it is.” Let’s say that we’re eating at the only buffet in New Haven – no matter what type of food – does that change the numbers of stars you assign?

Are we comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges?

Now, I’ve had a bit of experience with the whole social media rating game having worked at The Linden Centre, a boutique hotel in rural China (Yunnan Province, Dali Prefecture), where hospitality meets a richer educational and/or immersion experience.

TripAdvisor was always on the owners minds, and rightfully so, so many people use it to inform their final decisions about where they will stay. Anything less than a 5-star review on some levels felt unacceptable.

But after a conversation with one of our guests one afternoon, my perspective changed.

Instead of reading the positive reviews, he actually likes to read the negative reviews first. For a place like The Linden Centre, and most places he would choose to stay, these reviews are few and far between.

The advantage to reading the negative reviews is that he can very quickly figure out how much he is or is not like the people writing. And whether the things they care about are the things he cares about.

Rather than reading all the good stuff, the “bad” stuff he finds to often be more useful and more telling. Of course the good stuff helps for some recommendations on how to spend his time. Or point him in the directions of things not to miss.

But the bad stuff could be the clincher, in a very good way, whether or not he thinks the hotel is a good fit for him and his lady.

In slightly more direct words, he told me, the negative reviews helps him decide if the people writing them are crazy. And, if so, he definitely wants to do the opposite of whatever their review says.

I thought back to that moment today because of this article we talked about at lunch.

It’s interesting what expectations we bring to the table when it comes to dining – and reviewing. And how some of us feel we have the liberty to comment on things – and desire to influence the decisions of others – without balancing the facts.

In the unhappy review highlighted in this article, the writer(s) expressed their displeasure that stemmed from a service that the restaurant did not offer. After following through on their promise to write a scathing review, someone from the restaurant wrote a direct and thoughtfully tongue and cheek reply.

But let’s zoom out for a moment.

While we may make many balanced and level-headed decisions on a regular basis, what sometimes makes us so resolute about our opinions, especially in those times when our opinion has not taken into account all the facts?

Why do we sometimes project ourselves – and our biases – into our on-line and off-line conversations with others? Do we realize it when we do this? Do we realize it when others are doing this to us?

These reviewers were so hell-bent on getting their food, they forgot to take into account that deliver is just not an option.

But, of course, they’re right. Aren’t they?

What has you feeling so resolute these days that you’re not willing to take other important facts into consideration during your next conversation about it?

When do you want to believe something so strongly that we’re willing to overlook the facts?

How does that influence our review(s)? And how does that affect others involved in that and future moments?

So, when we’re making comparisons, are we comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges?

And when we’re assigning ratings – is it 5-stars for what it is or 5-stars compared to everyone else?

Is it 5-stars for them or is it 5-stars for you?

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First thing’s first – the focus of the post written by Andy Isaac is a restaurant called Voltaire and I would absolutely love to go to Kansas City to eat there.

My conversation partners are working on a couple cool businesses these days.

The first, IQzic, a new music platform that just might provide a fun way for you to find your next favorite artist(s). Interested in getting in on the ground floor? Consider supporting their Indiegogo campaign and/or signing up for the beta launch.

The second, Chairigami. Think the furniture you need, that’s durable, but also easy to move, because it’s made of cardboard. Myself, I’m thinking about going for a standing desk, but you should see what might fit your life and your space here.

And by the way, you may have been wondering where we ate today – Sitar, Indian spot, buffet lunch. Hence the hypothetical “only buffet in New Haven” question.

As far as my review, I haven’t written my first one yet, though I’ve pretty much decided what I’ll give them. 3-stars. Food was fine. Service was good. Nothing to write home about. But the company was exceptional.

Though I wonder how I’ll feel while thinking more about the meal when I write my review. And how I’ll feel next week. I only had a few items today. But with an afternoon of work ahead of me, and since I’m planning on being a regular, I was pacing myself.

Francis Lam on “Why I talk to Americans about food”

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In the midst of a day of damp and drizzle there was warmth under the pavilion at the Yale Farm thanks the Yale Sustainable Food Project and a fellow named Francis Lam (note the second to last line on his bio, it’s worth the one minute distraction).

“Why I talk to Americans about food” was the 20-minute starting point that sparked a longer group chat. I found a number of things he had to say – aided by his delivery – extremely powerful. And at some points, I was very much moved.

Today I became a big Francis Lam fan.

Here are a few of my takeaways in (almost) chronological order.

Lauren from Biloxi, Mississippi told Francis an incredible story about how eddo (taro root), something prescribed to her to take, something she absolutely abhorred, became something she developed a taste for, something that helped her get her life back, bowl by bowl.

Lauren also gifted Francis with a fuller understanding of what it means to end up someplace when he asked how she (a woman from Barbados) ended up in Biloxi. “I didn’t end up in Biloxi. You end up somewhere when you try to go somewhere else and find you’re not appreciated there. I came to Biloxi.” You can read a story about Lauren here.

If you can talk about food and talk about football, you can talk to 75% of people in America.

I like to write about the stories of other people. The ones people that entrust with me when they talk to me.

As a kid, a friend told him, and he self-confirmed that people wouldn’t like to talk to him because he was Chinese. Different.

What talking means on the surface is something different underneath – it means you belong.

Food is also a powerful way to talk about culture. I eat food because I love food. I cook food because I love food. But I write about food because I love people.

We don’t often talk about how food can not be all sweetness. We don’t usually talk about how complicated our relationship is with food and how complicated our relationships are with others.

“What in God’s name is that awful smell?”, the day he threw out his lunch was the day he learned a lesson about shame and assimilation.

Power is all value-neutral. Food, like many things, can do as much good as it can do harm.

He referenced an interesting extended conversation with Eddie Huang (chef and owner of New York’s BaoHaus), which started with this article by Francis in the New York Times (“Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes”) and continued as a conversation between Francis and Eddie with “Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Food?” Francis says the crux of the conversation ultimately boiled down to what it means to call something American.

Francis thinks that America celebrates immigrants as a larger part of American culture. That America is a concept, not a place. And if America is great because of the American dream, then our strength is in our diversity.

Why not look at who we are trying to be rather than focus on where we fall short?  It’s not necessary to give up who and what we are to blend in. We’re not a melting pot, but a mixed salad. In America, you are part of my salad and I’m a part of your salad.

And we should talk about it. Maybe we’ll have a good time, maybe we’ll walk away from each other. In the end, it’s not so easy.

But when we’re talking, we belong together.

—–

And more from the discussion that followed.

When someone talks about something authentic, the first questions that come to mind: where is it from (chances are more specific is more ‘authentic’) and what time period? As most people, culture, things are constantly changing, to define authenticity, it’s important to know when and where it comes from.

When it comes to the conversation around cultural appropriation, who really owns what? There can be great power to be able to go to a place and leave. For those who come and go, the experience may be devoid of a lot of history and context. For others it may already confirm what they thought they knew / wanted to know.

And feelings can sometimes be quite complicated when something you’ve been eating for your entire life, something that you may find a little bit tiring, and at some time may have even been a bit ashamed of, becomes popular.

If the opposite of authentic is inauthentic, then where does something like authentic Thai-American food fit? And what about food throughout the diaspora? How does American-Chinese food differ from African-Chinese food? Then there’s food from the Congo you find restaurants owned in France by Chinese people. Also, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s.

Restaurants will also go through different phases of development – from the places to ‘feed our people, our food’ to catering recipes to a different set of taste buds.

Politics doesn’t have an answer to assimilation issues any more than we do. Where do traditional national narratives fit in our increasingly globalized melt… mixed salad?

A very thoughtful question: What does it mean when America spreads its food culture around the world? Is it burgers and fries served on every corner of the earth or is it the rise and spread of processed foods? Looks more like #2, which changes the culture of eating – both the social dynamics as well as the nutritional value in food.

There was some feelings discussed at the intersection where nostalgia meets horror at why Lunchables were once such a sought after lunch item. Inside their lunch box/bag was a freshly made lunch with whole foods while they longed for that purely processed bento box of a snack pack.

Isn’t it interesting that there are many people in America who don’t really, regularly, or ever cook for themselves until college and beyond? What if kids started cooking earlier? How would this change their relationship with food?

—–

One of the biggest takeaways from the day with Francis was this idea of when we’re talking, we belong together. It hit me right in the gut when he said it and moved straight towards my heart.

I decided to put in that whole line into my Google images search. What came out? An interesting book cover for a New York Times Bestselling Author (also an illustrator) named Todd Parr called, We Belong Together.

At first thought, even though we’re operating with a salad bowl approach in mind, a book about adoption and families didn’t seem to be the best fit.

But as I thought more about it, talking, being together is ultimately about adoption and the acceptance of our ideas and each other. And family, or community, is the manifestation of more and more of these positive relationships, bringing us together to a place we feel we belong.

 

 

Bran(d)ing Food

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It took me awhile to get into cereal, as a kid. It just didn’t excite me. And we had plenty of bread products around. Also, oatmeal.

When I finally came around, one of the great bonuses, I thought, were the health benefits. And it only got better when I started sampling – and more regularly consuming – these cereals that I thought were meant for grandparents. Fiber One was one of those cereals. And I put cereals like this in the same category as prunes – great for you and great to ensure your system runs smoothly on all cylinders.

I find marketing and branding infinitely interesting. What do you choose to – or not to – share about what you have and what it does? What do people choose to – or not to – listen to and what do they choose to care about, reflected through the decisions they make with their actions, their time, and their currency of choice?

Every situation is a bit different. Different people have different perceptions, which are influenced by a whole host of things that ultimately boils down to what they have experienced and what people tell them.

This morning I was looking at a box of Fiber One, and read what you see in the photo above, “With Whole Grain First Ingredient.” My first thought: what a funny thing to put on a box.

As I thought back to my experience as a cereal consumer, a consumer of information about cereal and of food in general, and my interest in marketing and communications, the next logical place to go? The ingredients.

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And there it was, Whole Grain Wheat (first ingredient). Then, Corn Bran, Modified Wheat Starch, Xanthan Gum, Color Added, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Baking Soda, Aspartame, and then a whole slew of vitamins and minerals.

I could not have told you (before I looked each of them up), what most of these ingredients are or mean. And now that I do, they are fillers, but mostly harmless.

To contrast, while snooping around a farmer’s market the other day in New Haven, I came across an interesting breakfast product: quinoa oatmeal strawberry cereal [made by Garden Fresh Baby in Westport, CT]. An appropriately named product in that what’s-in-the-name is the same as what’s-in-the-package.

What does the marketing, communications, and branding of food look like in the future? Will whole food products have names that are greater than the sum of their parts? Or do people just need a reminder of what’s inside straight away once they are in the space of certain brands they trust?

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Addendum: Admittedly, I have never done much reading into various ingredients in processed foods. Here are several articles I found of interest for corn bran, modified food starch, xanthan gum, and aspartame. The article on aspartame is particularly good food for thought given how studied and talked about this food sweetener has been over the years.