(Off the Menu plays at CAAMFest in San Francisco Sunday, March 15 at the Castro Theater)
Growing up as a Hmong in America, we have always had Hmong food. However, as we started doing cultural shows and events, I quickly realized that there was Hmong food…then there was “Hmong food.” Since there are more Hmong in America than there are Laotians, Thais and Cambodians combined, “Hmong food” came to be defined by a combination of Southeast Asian dishes—mainly Laotian or Thai. My interest in the anthropology of food draws me to look at Grace Lee’s film, Off The Menu.
Grace should be commended for tackling this dynamic of food representation, based mainly on race—here being Asian or pan-Asian. I believe she did a good job of bringing out the various Asian ethnic foods and restaurants that have adopted to their local food environment but, yet in some ways, still retain their ethnic history and flavor. Her expedition included a Japanese restaurant in Texas, a “family” tofu company in Texas, a Chinese restaurant in New York, an Indian American gathering in Wisconsin and a couple of native establishments in Hawaii.
The content, message and points she presented were quite insightful. She was able to show how these ethnic foods have evolved to accommodate their local cultures. At the same time, they retained their native and, in some cases, religious significance. She did a great job making the establishment owners feel comfortable, even when things may not make sense to the viewers—for example, why is a Japanese restaurant selling Chinese food, as well?
There are two areas that could help. First, she could have provided a brief but more vivid background on how each traditional dish was made or practiced. This would have helped to contrast and drive the points as to the changes even deeper. For example, what is traditional Chinese food for those in the film?
Next, the videography could improve to accommodate an audience used to a faster pace. There were a lot of pauses and silent moments, which I think are good to solicit audience reaction. To the traditional Asian ethnic audience, the points can be driven deeper with these pauses. However, most American audiences may feel like the video is dragging, especially with very little background music to accompany the conversations.
If I had to give a rating on this film, I would give it a three out of four stars. Again, the conversations and points brought out were clear. However, the points could be driven deeper with more of a stark contrast. And then there’s the videography that may be effective for some, but not many others.
With that, I would congratulate Grace on a good job taking on this challenge of looking at various food practices and being able to conclude with what binds them to their past as well as to each other as Asian American food—the relationships we have with our past, with nature and within ourselves.