Food Without Borders : Interview with food writer and podcaster, Sari Kamin
Last year, Lucky Peach founder Chris Ying wrote an introduction to You and I Eat the Same. He proposed: “Our thesis is this: Cuisine cannot exist without the free and fair movement of ingredients, ideas and people. Deliciousness is an undeniable benefit of immigration. When people move around, food gets better.” His belief echoes throughout much of contemporary food discussion in America: immigration flavours cuisine.
Coincidently, food writer Sari Kamin understood and embraced Ying’s exact sentiment when she started hosting the podcast, Food Without Borders. The bimonthly podcast is a celebration of the uniqueness of American cuisine and the immigrants who are contributing to its diversity and future. Kamin, an Ohio-raised Canadian now based in Brooklyn, NY, has written for top publications including Saveur, Extra Crispy, Food52, Tasting Table, and Food and Wine. As part of her NYU graduate project, Kamin created Honey and Schmaltz, an extraordinary archive of Jewish-American recipes and stories.
I caught up with culinary ethnographer, and we talked about how immigrants were a positive influence on American food landscape, and why overcoming adversity and no walls are crucial to this gastronomic diversity.
Hi Sari, first tell Us, who or what first inspired you to become a food writer?
I went to the NYU Food Studies program for grad school. I thought I would study Food Access and Equality and end up working in the policy sector. While in school, I started taking classes that explored issues of sociology, gender studies, philosophy, and culture, all through the lens of food. I discovered that I loved researching and writing papers for these classes and I didn’t want to stop learning once I graduated. Writing about food is a way to keep exploring new topics and ideas. Each time, the process of working on a story is like a mini masterclass.
Why did you choose to set up a podcast?
During grad school, I started interning at Heritage Radio Network, an online food station based in Brooklyn. I started doing editorial content for the network, mainly writing about themes that came up during the week on the radio shows. I got more engaged as time went by, and eventually I took over as a co-host on a radio show about the restaurant industry called The Morning After. It was a good fit for me because I had studied Theater in college and really enjoyed the improvisational aspect of the live interview. I worked on that show for almost three years and eventually my co-host moved to L.A. I did it solo for a few seasons but it wasn’t as fun on my own. After the 2016 election, I wasn’t motivated to continue the show. Frankly, I wasn’t as interested in chefs and restaurants when it felt like the world was falling apart. I took a little time off, but decided to take advantage of the platform I had at the station. I created a new show that highlighted immigrants working in the food space. That’s the current show I host, Food Without Borders, which I describe as being about the intersection of food, politics, and identity. It’s now been four seasons and each week I’m happy for the opportunity to ask a few questions but mostly just listen to some incredible stories.
Who has been your favorite guest on your podcast so far? Why?
Hard to say, but the guest that had the most profound impact on me during the interview was Abdi Abujebel, the owner of Oasis Jimma Juice Bar in Harlem. Abdi is a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the U.S. by way of Kenya. When he arrived in the New York, he was broke, severely diabetic, and didn’t speak a word of English. He was living in Harlem getting sicker by the minute because he was eating American junk food which is both cheap and ubiquitous. Abdi went to doctors who prescribed him various medications but never spoke to him about the connection between his diet and his health. Because his father had been something of a holistic medicine man back in Ethiopia, Abdi began connecting the dots on his own. He learned English and started reading up on nutrition.
In his Harlem neighborhood, there was not a place where he could find a meal that was both healthful and affordable, so Abdi decided to create one. Despite not having any restaurant experience, he figured out the means to open a juice bar. He did this with almost no resources at hand. He was able to heal himself, and in ways his community. He identified a problem (lack of access to healthy and affordable food) and created a solution. Despite having endured almost overwhelming adversity, Abdi overcame obstacles that are impossible for most of us to imagine. He is one of the most humble and kindest people I’ve ever met. Listening to him speak, I was literally moved to tears. (The episode can be listened to here)
How do you source your guests for your podcast?
I post about the show on a couple different food-focused Facebook groups I’m a part of it. I also get a lot of PR pitches and recommendations from folks who are familiar with the show. I always have an ear out and several times I’ve found guests while looking on Instagram.
Three foods you can’t live without?
This is the hardest question. I like really salty, flavorful foods like olives, pickles, and anchovies. I could live without anchovies, but I’d prefer not to. It’s hard to imagine a summer without copious amounts of tomatoes at almost every meal. Is wine a food? That would probably be my third.
At a recent conference, a restaurateur and chef in conversation suggested that when food satisfies the five tongue senses it conjures familiarity - would you agree?
I think we all enjoy food more when there is some level of memory invoked. I’m sure you’ve heard people say that their mother or grandmother’s chicken soup, or spaghetti, or brisket is the best version they’ve ever had. That’s because nostalgia is the most potent of seasonings. Food is comfort and when it reminds us of a person or a place or moment that we love, it’s all the more enjoyable.
How has immigration changed the food landscape of America?
I don’t think we can even talk about there being a food landscape of America without talking about the ways immigrants have impacted our food culture time and time again. We can start by talking about the African slaves that were first brought here against their will between the 17th-19th centuries and trace a clear line to what we now understand to be Southern Cuisine. We can look at the massive wave of immigration between 1880-1920 that brought in more than 20 million immigrants, mainly from Europe. Almost 25,000 Chinese had immigrated to the U.S by the early 1850’s in search of California’s gold rush although the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 curbed this migration. Irish immigrants came in droves trying to escape the famine back home and almost two-million Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe came seeking refuge.
In NYC, the majority of Jews lived in the Lower East Side which was where the poorest immigrants lived. They opened Jewish delis, but often ate at Chinese restaurants which were both more affordable and more welcoming to them than the restaurants owned by their Italian neighbors. With each wave of immigration, our food system has become more enriched by those bringing their traditions from abroad and introducing them into the melting pot that is the food landscape of America. This is without a doubt a cliché, but one that is undeniable. Without the mixed heritages of our nation, our food landscape would be a bland terrain, lacking flavor, spice, variety, and diversity. This is not even to mention the immigrants that till our soil, harvest our food and staff our restaurants. Immigrants are the backbone of our food system and the heart of the American food landscape.
Who owns food?
Nobody owns food and everyone is entitled to nutritious and affordable food. There are food traditions attached to culture and heritage, but traditions can be shared and passed on.
Does food have a ‘heritage’ or can we [make] our own food heritage?
Food can have a heritage because food has history and origin. Food can have terroir and food can be emblematic of cultural traditions. That being said, people can create their own food traditions as long as they are not taking credit for a heritage that is not their own.
Can you name some current food trends?
I think a big trend is to just be more adventurous when eating out. I see people excited to explore different types of cuisine but I also think there is a return to home cooking. I also think the popularity of cooking shows on TV has inspired more ambitious home cooking and that enthusiasm is reflected in cookbook sales. Of course, I also see people obsessively trying out the latest no-carb-Paleo-Keto fad diet.
What do those trends say about America?
Americans have become more adventurous in their eating but also want to be thin and are struggling to find a balance.
How can the food media become more inclusive?
Hire more writers and editors of color. Diversify their staffs. Talk to people who don’t all look the same. Ask for the opinion of a Chinese person [instead of a white male chef] when writing about Chinese food. Go into other neighborhoods and review restaurants that aren’t cost-prohibitive for most people. Start listening more and talking less.
What is the best thing about American cuisine?
That it’s always evolving and is a reflection of our diversity.
What does the future of food look and taste like?
There are some really exciting shifts towards sustainability happening right now. Plant-based cuisine no longer feels fringe and many companies are figuring out how to add fair-trade, organic, and responsibly-sourced products into their portfolios. This shift towards sustainability will continue because if the world doesn’t end by 2050, there will 9 billion people to feed so plant and insect-derived proteins will become mainstream. The future of food will be more vegetable forward than it is now and we’ll hopefully become more resourceful and efficient with our ingredients.
What does the Us in USA mean to you?
To me it means All Of Us belong here. America is great because it’s a place where immigrants have been able to prosper and every aspect of our economy has benefitted from our tradition of inclusivity. I think people who support Trump’s racist travel ban and shitty wall should not be allowed to eat tacos. I mean, you shouldn’t get to denounce immigrants and still eat their food, right?
Words: Nikki Hall