By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Corresondent
Check your Facebook feed and chances are someone somewhere has posted a picture of their dinner.
America’s love affair with food is evident on social media
It’s not surprising then that someone would produce a documentary about food.
Peabody Award-winner Grace Lee ( The Grace Lee Project, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs) new film Off the Menu makes its national television debut this coming Tuesday on your local PBS station (check your local listings).
The film has been a favorite on the festival circuit since debuting in March at CAAMfest in San Francisco. It’s a joint project with San Francisco PBS station KQED and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).
Lee takes her viewers on a road trip across America for a big bite into America’s obsession with Asian food.
“CAAM had approached me about making a documentary that could explore the breadth and diversity of Asian America,” said Lee to AsAmNews. “I immediately thought food would be the way to do that as it’s a topic that everyone can engage with and one the most accessible entry points into Asian American culture for general audiences. Everyone thinks they know what Chinese food is or has been to a Chinese restaurant — but what do they really know about the people who make it, serve it, provide it. and so forth?”
Along the way, she gets to meet some of the people who bring us their various incarnations of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Hawaiian food and explores the role food plays in Asian culture.
“I made the film with food as a WAY to explore unexpected characters and stories within our communities. Just looking at food would be unsatisfying.
“In the United States, people are much more aware of Asian cuisine than when I was growing up in the 80s in the Midwest. Barely anybody knew what Korean food was — kimchi was very foreign. Now you can buy kimchi at Costco and it shows up on everything from gourmet burgers to quesadillas. Like Sriracha, it has entered the mainstream.”
Lee introduces us to “the sushi king” of Texas, a family run tofu business, a french trained Chinese American chef in New York, and a Hawaiian man who rebuilt an 88 acre pond designed to grow fish for the community.
The most poignant moment of the film comes when Lee visits the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where a racist gunman in 2012 killed six people before killing himself. We see the powerful role food played in keeping the community together and providing comfort for its worshipers.
Lee learns in her travels that the diversity of America has lead to variations of traditional foods that are sometimes no longer traditional.
“People love their orange chicken and sweet and sour pork — old standbys will never disappear off the menus because generations of Americans have grown up eating these dishes at the same time menus have become more adventurous,” Lee said. “I think different cooks and restaurants are thinking about specific audiences when they create a meal. They can cater to the people who know the foods intimately or they can make sure they can cast a wide net to appeal to market research. Sometimes it’s about personal expression or accessing a flavor memory; sometimes it’s about moving product. I think you can find that in any culture.”