By request, here are the closing remarks I gave at the recent Beyond Hotdish event—a panel discussion about northern food that took place on Monday June 25, 2018, in the Walker Art Center Auditorium:
I’d like to end with a final thought before we go eat and drink and talk some more. I think tonight’s subject is important for a lot of obvious reasons. Talking more about food, knowing more about the food of your region, eating more food made by people you know, are all ways to eat better, and eating better is, in my world, a path toward living better. But there’s something else about food, and if you’ve sensed any kind of agenda behind my contributions to the conversation tonight, that agenda has been toward trying to find an inclusive definition for Northern Food, which has traditionally been a very narrowly defined thing. Here’s the reason. We are living in a time when otherness is seen, more and more, as alien, and threatening, and sometimes criminal. It is suddenly possible to imagine the unimaginable: That our greatest gift as a species—communication—will fail us. That we could reach a point in our lifetimes where people on the other side, whatever the other side is, will simply become unreachable. That our arms will never be long enough to gather them back in. It is a helpless and a hopeless feeling, and I don’t hate much but I hate that feeling, and I don’t know if all of you have noticed this but no amount of newspaper editorials, and no amount of preaching to the converted on Facebook and Twitter seems to move the needle a single millimeter in the direction of toleration and understanding.
But we do have food. And food, among other things, is a way to take otherness into ourselves in the most direct and simple way. To chew and swallow. To make “somebody else’s something" a part of us. And not just that, but to make otherness something we fall in love with. I know this, because Yia Vang and I did not have very similar childhoods. But I fell in love with Yia Vang’s mother’s hot sauce with sticky rice, and as a result I fell a little bit in love with Yia Vang, and through him I began to fall in love with Hmong food and culture, and then It was no longer something out there. It was something in here. I fell in love with Ann Kim’s short rib pizza, fell in love with Ann, and then fell in love with the vision she could suddenly bring alive, of her family when she was young, gathering around the table, craving Kimchee and KFC. I could see something I had been blind to. I fell in love with Lynne Rossetto Kasper's description of how balsamic vinegar is made, and suddenly I cared about Lynne and cared, via Lynne, about this strange region called Emilia Romagna where all the good food is located. I also happened to fall in love with the Romanian food of my father-in-law, as I was falling in love with his daughter, and found my way into a fractious and argumentative family that was not my own, because I loved their food, and they found it easier to love me once they had confirmed that I truly loved stuffed cabbage rolls, colac, and Romanian sausage. Eating other people’s food makes that food our food. It widens the circle of things we love, and reduces the circle of things we fear and misunderstand. I would invite you all to do something tonight. About one third of the people in this room are in the food industry of your city and your region. Ask your neighbors where they work and what they cook, and then go eat their food. If I could ask one thing, I would ask more of you to eat unfamiliarly, and to fall in love more often. And in that way, to begin changing the world, starting tonight.