Ask Code Switch: You Are What You Eat This week, we tackle reader questions on vegetarianism, the specter of grocery store Columbuses, and the quiet opprobrium directed at "smelly ethnic foods" in the workplace.
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Ask Code Switch: You Are What You Eat

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Ask Code Switch: You Are What You Eat

Ask Code Switch: You Are What You Eat

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What's good, y'all? This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. And subbing in for Shereen this week is the phenomenal Karen Grigsby Bates. Hey, K.G.B.


Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: All right, so before we get into this episode, I want to establish something very important.



DEMBY: I don't know if you know this about me, Karen, but I despise mayonnaise. It's disgusting. I hate it. I will fight somebody.


DEMBY: I - like, I can't stand it.

GRIGSBY BATES: It's such an innocuous food.

DEMBY: It's not.

GRIGSBY BATES: How could you feel so strongly about it?


DEMBY: It's so nasty. Oh, my God. It's just - ugh. And of course, you know, black folks being black folks are like - when I say that, like, I don't eat mayonnaise, they're like, uh, so how do you eat potato salad? (Laughter) I be like, I don't eat potato salad.

GRIGSBY BATES: That yurr (ph) sound I hear is your card getting yanked.

DEMBY: Oh, my God.


DEMBY: Listen; if this is the thing that will get me disinvited from the metaphorical cookout...

GRIGSBY BATES: From the cookout (laughter).

DEMBY: Then listen; I'm just going to have to be on the outside looking in.

GRIGSBY BATES: You and Clarence Thomas. OK.

DEMBY: (Laughter) K.G.B., what don't you eat?

GRIGSBY BATES: Lima beans. When I was seeing "Silence Of The Lambs" for the first time...


ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Hannibal Lecter) A census taker once tried to test me.

GRIGSBY BATES: And Hannibal Lecter was saying, yes, I ate his liver with a plate of fava beans...



HOPKINS: (As Hannibal Lecter, slurping)

GRIGSBY BATES: I'm like, I wasn't disgusted by him eating the guy's liver, it was the fava beans that made me crazy.


DEMBY: Oh, man.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. So I understand there's some foods that we don't eat, won't eat.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: You know, but food is, like, a human basic. Many people consider food or cuisine to be one of the six pillars of culture.

DEMBY: OK, so what are the others? You - obviously, you got language.

GRIGSBY BATES: Religion, music...

DEMBY: OK, mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: Art and something called social habits, which I know is a little squishy.

DEMBY: That could be anything. I mean, food could be part of social habits, right? I mean, like, there's certain foods that we only under certain circumstances.

GRIGSBY BATES: Mmm hmm. Or foods that we're forbidden to eat because they are taboo in our cultures.

DEMBY: Right. That's right.

GRIGSBY BATES: For you, it's mayonnaise.


DEMBY: The thing that's so funny - everybody seems to think that their culture is uniquely centered around food.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Food in Italy is very, very important.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't forget that the Persian food is an inseparable component...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, I think food is probably the sort of center point of Chinese culture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The people of Greece take their food very seriously.

DEMBY: Can you believe, K.G.B., that people are out here eating together? Wow. Crazy.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Food carries with it so many of our ideas about labor and family and gender responsibilities and capitalism.

GRIGSBY BATES: And memory.

DEMBY: And memory. So this week, we're doing a whole episode about food. It's an Ask Code Switch episode. We're answering your questions about food. Or do you think, food as a vehicle to talk about some bigger stuff? And our first question is actually all about belonging. To answer it, we're bringing in our CODE SWITCH teammate Leah Donnella. What's good, Leah?


GRIGSBY BATES: Leah, tell us about this question.

DONNELLA: OK. So my question comes from a woman named Jasmine (ph). She's a first-year college student at UC San Diego. She's Chinese-American, the daughter of immigrants. And she grew up outside of Boston.

DEMBY: I'm sorry.

DONNELLA: Yeah, and...

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

DONNELLA: She has eaten meat her whole life, but for the last three and 1/2 years, she's been a vegetarian.

JASMINE: And for some reason, I've been feeling recently a little less Chinese because I can't eat a lot of Chinese food. And in a general sense, I just feel less Asian because being vegetarian often means I can't enjoy other cuisines, like Korean barbecue and ramen with my Asian friends. I'm probably going to be traveling around East Asia sometime in the next couple of years, and I don't know how I'm going to eat. I never thought I'd go back to eating meat, but I'm genuinely, seriously thinking about it now because of this racial identity crisis I'm having. OK, crisis is probably a little dramatic.

DEMBY: Uh, a little.


DEMBY: Yeah.

DONNELLA: Just a little bit. But Jasmine explained to me that this pain that she's feeling was not just about not eating meat; it was about feeling this space between her and her family.


DONNELLA: Back in September, she took a trip with her mom to visit her brother in Chicago.

JASMINE: And of course, we went to Chinatown, and we found a restaurant to eat at. And we sit down, we're ready to order, and I'm trying to communicate with the waiter.

DONNELLA: So Jasmine is trying to communicate that she wants this dish, but she wants it with no meat, and she's trying to do this in Chinese.

DEMBY: Uh-huh.

DONNELLA: But the server doesn't understand quite what she's saying. It's kind of loud in the restaurant. She thinks maybe it's an accent thing, so she tries again. It still doesn't go well. And then her mom has to step in and explain. And the server is like, OK, we never do this. We never make this dish without meat, but I guess.

JASMINE: It's like, this whole situation is just me, a Chinese person, barely speaking Chinese, trying to order a barely Chinese dish. And I don't - I just felt so sad.

DONNELLA: Part of that sadness came from feeling like she was a disappointment to her mom, who she says raised her to be Chinese.

JASMINE: I'm in Chinatown. I'm surrounded by Chinese people in this Chinese restaurant. But I could not have felt less Chinese in that moment.

DEMBY: So Leah, it sounds like there's a lot going on here in this exchange.

DONNELLA: Yeah, I thought so, too. It sounded like Jasmine was getting at something deeper, at the heart of her question.

PAT TANUMIHARDJA: It's not about the food, per se, but it's also about the emotions that those different comfort foods evoke in us.

DONNELLA: That's Pat Tanumihardja. She's a cookbook author and a food blogger.

TANUMIHARDJA: The memories that they bring back - the memories of cooking in the kitchen with your grandmother or your mother. And to the woman, fuzziness that you feel, you know, like, when you were sick and your mom would serve you, let's say, you know, a congee that was all-comforting.

DONNELLA: Pat grew up in Indonesia and Singapore. Her parents are of Chinese descent, mostly. And she's also the author of two cookbooks. And her blog, Pickles And Tea, is full of recipes and beautiful food photography. But she says her work is really about telling stories about what it means to be Asian-American through the lens of food. And over the years that she's been writing and cooking, she said one really important thing is that the way we eat, like all elements of culture, is constantly changing.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: So one big takeaway she has for Jasmine is that she shouldn't have to feel bad about changing up family traditions.

TANUMIHARDJA: Food, like language and culture, is meant to evolve. It can't stay stagnant forever. So yeah, don't feel guilty about switching things up, you know. It is the memories and the feelings of nostalgia that is what connects you to your family; it's not chicken or beef or pork (laughter).

DONNELLA: Jasmine seemed to have these really poignant memories of cooking and eating dumplings with her grandparents. Nowadays, they make vegetarian dumplings for her.



DONNELLA: Yeah, it's really sweet.


DONNELLA: And Pat has written that we think of grandmothers particularly as the closest link that we have to our cultures and traditions.

TANUMIHARDJA: They're the ones who have the language on their lips, the recipes in their hands and, you know, their experiences and their memories in their hearts and in their minds.

DONNELLA: But Pat says we should also take that with a bit of a grain of salt. For her first cookbook, she hung out with a bunch of grandmothers. That book is called "The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook."

DEMBY: Uh-huh.

DONNELLA: And she said, talking to these women, she started to realize that our grandparents are not necessarily passing down these ancient, ancestral traditions every time they cook.


DONNELLA: The women that Pat spoke to were mixing things up all the time.

TANUMIHARDJA: Because, you know, they arrived in the U.S., say, like, in the '70s and in the '80s, and while there were a few Asian markets, you know, they were really tiny, and they didn't carry a lot of the ingredients that you would find back in Asia. So, you know, you just have to adapt.

DONNELLA: And by the way, even if you go back to the so-called original source of the culture - like, if you were to literally travel to China in Jasmine's case - even eating that food might not feel satisfying as a way to connect to Chinese culture because, as Pat is saying, what you're missing isn't some sort of objective, finite thing. Pat, as we said earlier, she grew up in Indonesia for part of her childhood, and growing up, she ate a lot of homemade Indonesian food.

TANUMIHARDJA: But whenever I go back to Indonesia, you know, I find that the dishes are different from what I remember because, you know, the food that my mom cooked for us was probably, you know, maybe a little outdated (laughter).

DEMBY: So it was, like, fixed in time in a lot of ways.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, it's filtered through the fog of fond memory.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: Also, even technology was different at that point.

DONNELLA: Yeah, so many changes; all of which is to say, Jasmine, you might feel a lot of pressure to do things a certain way, to be Chinese enough, and that pressure can come from all over the place. It can come from families or friends and especially yourself. But you are a Chinese-American, so whatever you do is Chinese-American.


DONNELLA: Now, I didn't want to ignore the more practical aspects of Jasmine's question because I think there are some really simple things you can do to make being a vegetarian easier. And for help with that, I tracked down a chef named Eddie Garza.

EDDIE GARZA: So I didn't know how many people were coming, so I said, oh, I'll make a feast; it's a party.

DONNELLA: When we talked to him, he had just finished whipping up a huge batch of jackfruit tamales at his house in Miami Beach.

GRIGSBY BATES: So a quick jackfruit explanatory comma - jackfruit's a tropical fruit. It's a member of the fig family and has kind of a sweet, stringy, meaty pulp.

DONNELLA: Right. And so as you might be able to guess from that, Eddie does not cook or eat with any animal products; he's a vegan. But that wasn't always the case. So like Jasmine and like Pat, he has a lot of fond memories of cooking with his grandmother.

GARZA: She was the typical Mexican grandmother who cooked for the entire family. All my tios and tias would come to her house after work or after school or anything, and she was cooking all day. So when I would come back from school, I would end up cooking in the kitchen with her.

DONNELLA: Eddie said when he first became a vegan more than 10 years ago, his family was thrown for a little bit of a loop.

GARZA: I remember it was at a Thanksgiving celebration at my grandmother's house that my mother didn't know what to serve me. Everybody was eating turkey and tamales filled with pork. And my mother sliced an apple into quarters, and she's like, happy Thanksgiving. I was like, ugh, that's not really how this works, Mom.



GRIGSBY BATES: But Mom can be forgiven for that because, you know, vegetarian you can kind of get - OK, no meat, no fish, no poultry. But vegan has additional rules to it.

DONNELLA: Exactly, yeah. And Eddie said that was it. Like, he didn't feel like his family was judging him. They just really did not know what to do with him.

GARZA: So I had to go and explain that, listen. I like the same Thanksgiving flavors. You know, everybody loves that nutmeg, the smell and taste. And you always - in Thanksgiving, you expect that sage and rosemary and thyme. And it was really just getting them to understand that I want the same flavors. I just need them in a different vehicle.

DONNELLA: So for Jasmine, here's another takeaway. It's really helpful, Eddie said, to explain to your family - sometimes, multiple times - why you care about not eating meat. And you can tell them, whether it's about animal cruelty or environmental justice or health reasons, that your choice is coming from a place of conviction. And it's not a rejection of culture or family. And that doesn't mean they're going to love it right away. And it definitely doesn't mean that you'll stop missing the experience of eating meat with them. But it might help them understand that this isn't just you, like, being weird and obnoxious. One thing that Eddie brought up is that there is a kind of perception in the U.S. that being a vegetarian or being a vegan is a super white thing to do. We think of vegans as, like, white Instagram models with smoothies.

GRIGSBY BATES: And some of them are (laughter).

DONNELLA: Yeah, a lot of them are. But there are a lot of cultures that have traditions of vegetarianism and veganism that go back hundreds or thousands of years.


GARZA: So I grew up thinking that Mexican food was very meaty. But really, it's only a region of Mexico. And I always do like to go and talk about some of the traditions of Mexico before Europeans came in. Mexico was a huge, huge, huge user of just naturally plant-based foods.

DONNELLA: So obviously, Eddie is talking about Mexican cuisine. But his point is true more broadly. So China has a thousands-of-years-old Buddhist tradition...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

DONNELLA: ...Which is strictly vegetarian.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: And one source I read says that China is home to 50 million vegetarians.

DEMBY: A small town in China.

DONNELLA: Yep (laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: That's a lot of Whole Foods shopping.

DONNELLA: Exactly, and the same is true for a lot of different countries. So you can go pretty much anywhere and find a lot of people who are vegetarians. Being a vegetarian does not make you any less Asian. You can probably find a bunch of Asian vegetarians, even at your school in San Diego. So find them, have potlucks with them. And then, I would say to Jasmine, also, you can find your people online too. Jasmine said she plans to travel around Asia. And there are hundreds of bloggers who have paved the way of finding delicious vegetarian food in every country in the world. So that might even be an excuse to learn more about your culture and history or to open up conversations with your parents and grandparents about their lives and how their traditions have changed over time.

And one last thing I'll say to Jasmine is that it's really great if you are very dedicated to being a vegetarian. But it doesn't have to be an absolute thing. So why not eat meat on special occasions or when you're traveling or when your grandparents come over? I think you get to decide, at any given moment, what's the most meaningful thing to you and what makes you feel connected to the people and communities around you.

GRIGSBY BATES: Also, it's not a life sentence. You can do what Gene did. Do it for a while, decide it's not for you and don't do it anymore.

DONNELLA: Yeah, and then give up on the environment.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).


GRIGSBY BATES: Thank you, Leah.

DONNELLA: Thank you.


GRIGSBY BATES: OK, y'all. We are going to be back in just a minute. And we will be doing some big thinking about stinking, for reals (ph).

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.


DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. All right, K.G.B. This next question is yours. And to help answer it...

ANDREA NGUYEN: My name is Andrea Nguyen, and I'm an Asian cookbook author. And I'm here to talk about, you know, some of the complexities that we have in negotiating Asian foodways in America.

GRIGSBY BATES: Asian cookbook author - you are an award-winning James Beard cookbook author.

NGUYEN: I am modest.


NGUYEN: Thank you.

GRIGSBY BATES: OK, I said it for you.

NGUYEN: (Laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: So we have this letter from this young woman named Sophia (ph) in Chicago. She writes, I am a mixed race Asian-American. My food identity is thoroughly Asian-oriented, though. And that's what gives me warm, fuzzy comfort food feelings and what I make for myself on a daily basis. I shop at a Korean supermarket in my city, and I can't help but notice a disproportionate number of white people shopping for specialty ingredients. What's up with this? Is it trendy to shop at ethnic supermarkets? And is it hypocritical of me as an ethnically ambiguous mixed person to feel a bit bothered by it?

NGUYEN: Sounds like this young woman is trying to think, well, is it, like, trendy for these people to be shopping at the grocery store? I feel for Sophia in many ways. But that grocery store, that Korean market, is also thinking about providing goods and services for more than just Korean people. These are Pan-Asian markets.


NGUYEN: And I went to - years ago, I went to an H Mart, which is a Korean-owned supermarket chain in the U.S. outside of Chicago. It was in the suburbs. So that H Mart is, like, in a former Kmart space. So you can imagine...


NGUYEN: Huge - you go in there, and it is a wonderland of ingredients. And, you know, at Korean groceries right now, like, when I go down the aisle to shop for flour, for example, a lot of Asian cooks are really into, like, Korean flour for making dumplings. Well, H Mart, they will, you know, have the Korean specialty flour right next to Gold Medal all purpose. So, you know, you need to take a look at that and say, well, what's the message there? What's the business plan? The business plan is to provide a one-stop shop for all shoppers in their community.

GRIGSBY BATES: And to actually make a bottom line that will sustain you.

NGUYEN: Exactly - like, one of the things that I love that has been a game-changer for me personally is the availability of fresh turmeric and coconut water because long ago in Vietnamese cooking, people were just like, well, there's, like, coconut soda that has sugar in it. And I just thought it tasted really crappy...


NGUYEN: ...And sweet. And people would cook with it. And I was like - and even when I was a kid, I was like, that's not the stuff that comes from the young, fresh coconuts that they would hack at with a machete. (Laughter) And so now with the trends in healthy cooking that you can, you know, hydrate with coconut water, I'm like, no, that coconut water is for cooking. And (laughter) I don't hydrate with it. I eat. I'm like...

GRIGSBY BATES: Don't drink it. I'm going to make it with my caramelized shrimp.

NGUYEN: Exactly. And so there are recipes that I've been chasing for years, such as this turmeric coconut rice that my parents, like, talked about when I was a kid that now I'm, like, able to make it with coconut water and fresh turmeric. And it is so awesome - and also virgin coconut oil is - I mentioned coconut oil to someone recently. And they were like, oh, I use it for my skin and my hair. And I'm like, you know what? Put it in your food. (Laughter) So these, like...

GRIGSBY BATES: It also tastes good (laughter).

NGUYEN: It also tastes good, yeah. Let me lick your skin or something.


NGUYEN: But, I mean, it's like these are things that would not have happened if it wasn't for things that happened in the mainstream food trends.


NGUYEN: So to denigrate food trends as being something that's negative, I'm like, I see those as positives because I am going to exploit them.

GRIGSBY BATES: Final question - you had a really interesting comment when I shared Sophia's letter with you. And she was saying, should I, you know - I'm not exactly sure why I'm uncomfortable about this, but this makes me uncomfortable. Should they even be here in this store? And you said, of course they should. Anybody could be anywhere. But don't forget who the food belongs to. Explain that a little bit.

NGUYEN: Well, I think that this is something about cultural appreciation, you know?

GRIGSBY BATES: Versus appropriation.

NGUYEN: Exactly.


NGUYEN: Exactly. And, you know, appropriation is where, like, there is, like, this kind of negation of the roots and foundation of some aspects of culture.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's not how it's really made.

NGUYEN: Right.


NGUYEN: Or forget it. I don't want to do it really well, you know? I'm going to - I'm Vietnamese, but I make, like, the best tacos.


NGUYEN: (Laughter) And it's like maybe I make the best tacos. But, you know, where did the taco come from?


NGUYEN: I think telling the stories and understanding the roots of culture is important because it provides context for rich meaning in our lives because otherwise, my goodness. You know what? We might as well just be eating sticks and cooking them over rocks or something. I don't know. But it just wouldn't be so exciting. And so I - so yes, people - when you're, like, going into a different cultural situation, it's great to, like, find out more because that, like, totally enriches your lives. And it helps you really bridge ideas. And then when you make that food, when you're eating it, there's something more there. It's got extra flavor, you know?

GRIGSBY BATES: It's not just about the food.

NGUYEN: Right.


GRIGSBY BATES: That was Andrea Nguyen, author of "Vietnamese Cooking Any Day" (ph).

DEMBY: All right, y'all, on to our last question.

CHRIS HAMMOCK: My name is Chris Hammock (ph). I live in Fort Worth, Texas.

DEMBY: All right. Chris' family is from the Philippines. And he works in an office.

HAMMOCK: It's always felt like the no smelly food courtesy rule in offices is kind of an attempt to whitewash what I eat. And Filipino food tends to be pretty pungent, especially, like, the seafood dishes that we have. But it seems to be true of lot of food for people of color. And I was just kind of wondering, is the hatred of smelly food rooted in something more sinister than just the dislike of smells?

DEMBY: So you know this rule, right? Like, in a lot of offices, it's like, don't heat up fish in the microwave because then the whole lunch area smells like fish...


DEMBY: ...Or egg salad or whatever it is, right? So Chris says his office doesn't really have any explicit rules around that. And no one at his job has ever said anything about his food. But he knows that people feel some type of way about, quote, "ethnic food." I'm doing air quotes here. Y'all can't see it. And so he packs his lunch, but he avoids pungent foods in favor of something more acceptable, like, you know, Italian food or whatever. But when he does make something vinegary - like adobo or pancit - he will close his door for lunch. So to help answer Chris's question, I tagged in someone who thinks big thoughts about food.

SOLEIL HO: My name is Soleil Ho. I am the restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.

DEMBY: And prior to this fancy, new gig, which she just started, Soleil used to be a chef and a co-host of the "Racist Sandwich" podcast. And I asked her about the stinky food in her life.

HO: I grew up thinking fish sauce smelled good. You know, I grew up thinking that catfish head soup smelled delicious, right? I wasn't told that fancy cheese smelled good. I think it didn't really register for us 'cause we couldn't afford fancy cheese anyway.

DEMBY: Soleil is Vietnamese-American, by the way.

HO: In Southeast Asia and South Asia, so much of our food culture is about preserving. And, you know, fish sauce is one of the smelliest foods.

DEMBY: So Soleil says your taste in smells...


DEMBY: ...Is acquired, in a way.

HO: Once enough people in our lives tell us that something is good, we're keen to believe them - right? - especially our families, who - that's their job, is to teach us, like, what is OK and what is not OK.

DEMBY: All right, K.G.B., we were just talking about a Korean supermarket, right? Let's imagine for a second that you're walking into one. What is it that you're smelling?

GRIGSBY BATES: Mmm, fish sauce.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: Dried fish.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: Often fermented food.

DEMBY: OK, so now let's imagine that you walked into, like, a Kroger or a Harris Teeter or some sort of chain, mainstream American supermarket. What are you smelling then?

GRIGSBY BATES: I would imagine I would be smelling things like bread baking. But in general, I would imagine that the smell in mainstream or chain groceries are definitely more muted.

DEMBY: Right. So the cultural historian Constance Classen has written about this thing called olfactory neutrality, which is, basically, broad cultural imperative toward odorlessness (ph) in public spaces. And so going back to the 1950s, an entire industry sprung up in the U.S. around deodorization - right? - which also coincided with the rise of suburbs and these ideas around cleanliness and orderly lawns. And it's worth thinking about who was not allowed to live in those deodorized, sanitized spaces - right? - the kinds of people who were already considered unpleasant and dirty and disorderly and smelly.

GRIGSBY BATES: And interestingly enough, they looked very different from the people who were living in the deodorized, sanitized spaces.


GRIGSBY BATES: So housing segregation in everything, even odors.

DEMBY: That's absolutely right. And odors are powerful.


DEMBY: Physiologically speaking, olfaction is one of our deepest, most sophisticated senses. Smell, of course, is linked to the way we taste things. But it's also linked to the way we feel things - you know, like, in our hearts.

GARZA: Have you ever just walked somewhere and you smell kindergarten? Like, has that ever happened to you? That's happened to me so many times. And I smell that. I sometimes smell, like, eighth grade.

DEMBY: That's the chef Eddie Garza again. And the reason that he has that sensation, the reason you've probably had it too, is because the olfactory bulb in your nose is connected directly to the amygdala and the hippocampus - the parts of your brain that elicit emotion and memories. That's why you might not have any reaction if you see one of your ex's T-shirts. But you might get all flustered and in your feelings if you smelled one of their T-shirts. I hear you, listener, sighing wistfully. I know. Trust me, I know. I do. Ahem, sorry.

All right. So given that connection to feelings, maybe it's not surprising that all around the world, you can find cultures who imbue smell with all kinds of social and moral meaning. Classen writes that going back to ancient times, smell was often a marker of class. Rich people could afford niceties like perfume and incense, gardens and homes with ventilation. They smelled like money. Their houses were kept clean by the slaves and servants who worked in them. And those people - those people smelled like labor and toil. Smell could often denote the work you did, whether you were a tanner or a fishmonger or whether you worked with textiles. The philosophers and fancy people who lived in cities felt that people in the country smelled like livestock and garlic.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I imagine the rules are different for men and women too, right?

DEMBY: Oh, 'twas ever thus.


DEMBY: Our ideas around smell are gendered. Classen writes that women were obligated to smell good and perfumed. Attractive, young women were often described in ancient literature as being fragrant and sweet-smelling, while older women - women who were just past the age of what was considered desirability - were said to smell foul. Prostitutes were said to smell unpleasant, which is why the Spanish word for whore - puta - comes from the same Latin root as putrid. And it's tempting to be like, oh, these are just puritanical, Western constructions around smell and gender; oh, how constricting, how gross. Well, Classen says that the Desana, an indigenous group in Colombia, state that women smell of fish and men smell of meat. So they had this elaborate set of strict rules about the sexual impropriety of mixing those different-smelling foods.

And odor has always been an important way that people have marked the other - you know, whether or not those groups actually smelled different from each other or not. For centuries, in Europe, there was this widespread notion of foetor Judaicus, which was this belief that Jewish people smelled like goats and garlic. White folks in the U.S. have obviously long said that black people had an offensive and disagreeable smell because anti-blackness is usually just crazy and wild like that. In the early 20th century, there were all sorts of stereotypes in the U.S. about how European immigrants smelled like garlic - Greeks smell like garlic, Italians smell like garlic.

GRIGSBY BATES: Seriously, what is it with racists and xenophobes and garlic?

DEMBY: I know.

GRIGSBY BATES: Garlic's great.

DEMBY: Garlic smells so good. All right, whatever. And so you have this dislike and suspicion of certain groups of people, which naturally got transmitted onto people's cultural traditions, more broadly. So you had dislike of their music and their clothing and their religions and, naturally, their cuisine. Here's the restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, again.

HO: I think a lot about how, you know, the smelliness of food has been weaponized, not even violently, but just as far as making fun of people, putting them down, keeping them out of housing.

DEMBY: Soleil says that in Great Britain, landlords often have rules in the books and bylaws about the kinds of things that their renters are allowed to cook in their apartments.

HO: Like, you will not make, like, overly pungent food or smelly food. And that's part of how they, you know - some of them who are really acting in bad faith will, like, sort through who they might actually be willing to give this housing to.

DEMBY: And in the States, a lot of people who want to eat foods with the most, let's say, robust aromas, they've let go of those food traditions in order to become more American.

HO: Like Norway, right? Like, Norwegian culture which is famous for lutefisk, which is another very smelly, preserved fish thing. That's kind of disappeared into the culture as Norwegians have become, you know, the classic whites.

DEMBY: Trading in smelly fish for hot dish. But that's not what our boy Chris, the letter-writer, is trying to do. So I asked Soleil to put herself in Chris' shoes.

HO: Oh, man. If I were Chris - so the first thing I think about is the project by Jenny Yang, a comedian, called Bad Appetite. One of the initiatives of that project is bring your smelly food to work day. And so I would look that up and reach out and just, like, talk it out with people who experience the same thing because it is a lot more common than you think.

DEMBY: A lot of folks have told us, you know, about their lunchbox moment when they were growing up. You know, they brought in some kimchi or some oxtail from home, only to get dragged by the other kids in the cafeteria for their weird, stinky food. And a lot of people carry that shame, the stigma, around their family's food well into their adult life. But Soleil is kind of like, I don't really give a...

HO: I'm a monster. I love working while I eat. And, you know, it's just - after a certain point, you just stop caring.

DEMBY: No. Soleil says, of course, there's some caveats here. You have obligations to the folks around you, who you work with, who may have, you know, some sort of sensory super-sensitivity, right? - like, if someone around you is on the autism spectrum and the smells from your food are just too much for them. Maybe there are people around you who are pregnant. You got to be mindful of that. But after that, she says, you really kind of just got to do you.

HO: It's the food that you love. And I think that, to me, that trumps (laughter) any nonsense that anyone can throw at me because it's good. And if they can't get on the wagon with me, then sorry.

DEMBY: So Chris, go smash that pancit - and please, save us some.


KELIS: (Singing) My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they're like, it's better than yours. Damn right, it's better than yours. I could teach you, but I'd have to charge.

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Before we go, though, Karen, you have a song that's giving you life.

GRIGSBY BATES: I do. You know, whether I'm a vegetarian, a carnivore, I'm always going to be a dessert-etarian (ph) because, you know, sugar. And so this is a song about a lot more than food.


KELIS: (Singing) ...What the guys go crazy for. They lose their minds - the way I wind. I think it's time.

DEMBY: That's, of course, "Milkshake" by Kelis.


DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH, and maybe you'll hear that question on an episode just like this one.

GRIGSBY BATES: Sign up for our newsletter at It's a mouthful, I know, but at the end of that, you'll get a great newsletter that I actually write. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever fine podcast can be found or streamed.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella - who you heard earlier - and Sami Yenigun, with help from our intern, Tiara Jenkins. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Leah Donnella. And of course, a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - it's so weird not to say your name at the top - Kumari Devarajan, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, L.A. Johnson and Steve Drummond. Shereen Marisol Meraji is back next week. I'm Gene Demby.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: Be easy.



KELIS: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la.

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