Digging into the Racial Politics of ‘Ugly Delicious’

By Guest Contributor: Rachel Kuo

The popular reception of David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious – which seeks to open conversations about food, culture, identity, and politics – demands investigation into how the show actually engages these questions. Beyond troubling concepts like ‘authenticity’, what does Ugly Delicious offer and where might it fall short?

Ugly Delicious has received positive reviews from popular food sites like Eater, while publications like the New Yorker, New York Times, the Boston Globe, Vulture, and Indiewire specifically laud the show’s ability to tackle the cultural politics of food and engage difficult questions about race, class, and power in food culture. Chang himself states that the show uses food as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to talk about broader social topics as well as to represent histories and tell cultural stories about food.

Through Ugly Delicious, Chang is able to talk about the “elephant in the room: racism” (Episode 7: Fried Rice). By leveraging his elite status in the culinary world, his success in building restaurants that ‘mix’ and ‘borrow’ from different cuisines, and his ability to expertly navigate his Korean American identity, Chang is able to engage in debates about culinary appropriation in mainstream media where other people of color who have written bout food and race have been met with criticism, backlash, anger, and trolling.

Ugly Delicious offers introductory conversations around the racial and cultural politics of food. For example, in ‘Fried Rice‘, ‘Tacos‘, and ‘Fried Chicken‘ episodes, the show establishes that in order to talk about food, taste, and authenticity, one must engage the ways in which structural racism decides whose food gets valued and why. What do we do with food when white supremacists want their Del Taco while seeking to deport Mexican immigrants, too? Chang contends with his conflicted emotions about the popularization of Korean food, evoking Ruth Tam’s writing on the frustration of being shamed for one’s food when white people make it trendy.

Despite provoking these nuanced ideas around race and food, Ugly Delicious also reproduces harmful cultural logics and narratives, such as the overemphasis on representational visibility as viable markers for social progress; the exacerbation of problematic racial dynamics around white self-identified cultural experts; and, the erasure of colonialism, militarism, and war when stating that certain food cultures have ‘always’ had global influence.

Given that the show intends to open up conversations about social issues through food, my hope is that it can spark further discussions about the intersections of food, race, power, and capital.

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Comedy Central’s Drunk History on Sen. Daniel Inouye, starring Steve Yeun

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The blog title speaks for itself, but in case you weren’t reading: an upcoming episode of Comedy Central‘s “Drunk History” will tell the story of Senator Daniel Inouye, former Senator and Japanese American World War II veteran of the 442nd Infantry. That, alone, is just pure awesomeness.

But then, add into the mix that Inouye is being played in the dramatic scenes by Steve Yeun, and with a guest appearance by James Hong.

Epic. I don’t normally watch “Drunk History”, but you know I’ll be catching this episode. Video after the jump.

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Steven Yeun to produce and star in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”

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Yo! I just caught this from Phil over at Angry Asian Man!

Steve Yeun, who stars as Korean American Glenn Rhee on AMC’s hit show The Walking Dead, has just announced his next project: a movie adaptation of Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years In the North Korean Gulag.

I’ve already described Steve Yeun’s Glenn Rhee as the best contemporary Asian American male portrayal in pop culture, and have been following Yeun’s career for years. He’s been staying busy in the off-season between shooting for The Walking Dead, and was recently announced as the voice of Tony Chu in the upcoming cartoon adaptation of Chew, a witty comic book that uniquely stars a Chinese American protagonist.

I’m excited about Yeun’s involvement in Aquariums for two reasons.

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Steve Yeun to voice Tony Chu on animated adaptation of “Chew”!

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Steve Yeun, of Walking Dead fame, will voice the role of Tony Chu in the upcoming CHEW animated feature.

(H/T Angry Asian Man)

I can’t help but be excited about this latest bit of news coming out of the efforts to produce a feature adaptation of the critically acclaimed Chew comic series. For those who don’t know, Chew is a quirky title created by John Layman and Rob Guillory. It follows the adventures of Chinese American protagonist (and US Food and Drug Administration agent) Tony Chu, who has the bizarre power of a cibopath: he receives a psychic imprint from any food he eats (except beets). Chu’s power is, understandably, both a blessing and a curse, and Chew explores how Chu uses his ability to solve crime in a universe that has since expanded its repertoire to introduce a broad range of food-related powers.

The series is witty, sharp, self-effacing, and instantly memorable; it belongs on the shelves (or in the digital long boxes) of any comic book connoisseur. More so than many comics, Chew has succeeded not only in creating a uniquely likable hero in Tony Chu, but also a richly detailed world for Chu to inhabit.

After much effort to create a live-action version of Chew — understandably hampered by the show’s routine use of cannabilism as a central plot device —  producers have decided to go in a different direction and create an animated feature instead (that is expected to go straight to home release). This, I think, is a good decision: the show has a very specific tone and atypical humour that I think would not translate very well through a live-action script.

And, in what is a near-perfect casting choice, producers have tapped Steve Yeun, best-known for his incredible portrayal of The Walking Dead‘s Glenn Rhee, to voice the main character of Tony Chu.

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