Author: Jorell Ellazar
Like any other person during the quarantine, I have found ample time to sit on my couch and watch some Netflix. Of these shows, my favorite is Ugly Delicious with chef Dave Chang where he spends each episode delving into a particular dish and explores its cultural, and social impact on a national and international level. For example, in the episode Fried Rice, they discuss the humble nature of the said dish and uses this as a platform to discuss the complex nature of authentic Chinese cuisine as he also compares this against our Westernized knowledge of Chinese American food. But in each episode Dave Chang goes into the reason why the discussion of each titular dish is important. Of course, the research and exploration into all of these foodways and dishes are done with conversing with multiple people in different restaurants and different countries which is something not possible during the age of social distancing.
People who adhere to the functional medicine practices know that food is an integral part of promoting one’s health. Some of us adhere to the keto diet, paleo diet, vegetarian diet, vegan diet, etc. We do this because of our health and the needs of our bodies. I personally do not follow a specific diet, but I am conscious about the food I’m eating. I use almond and coconut flours for baking and have found myself finding veggie alternatives for certain deserts I loved eating growing up. But what draws me towards Dave Chang and shows like Ugly Delicious is the love of food and community food can build. Personally, my first exposure to food was watching the Food Network when I was young which led me to learn how to cook by the age of 10. At that age I was cooking foods such as fresh pasta, raviolis, and crepes. For some of you functional medicine enthusiasts, this means wheat, gluten, inflammation, food sensitivities, and autoimmune diseases. But as an overweight child, this meant I could have a positive relationship with my food, understand where it came from, share my cooking with my family, and, most of all, not be ashamed of eating. When I started to adopt a functional medicine approach to food, I started to notice a couple things. The first is that I had to let go of a lot of the Filipino foods I enjoyed eating growing up which are mainly fried foods and pork based. Living with my mom, it was easy for me to let go of a few of these dishes because she is also health conscious and has let go of a lot of red meat from her diet (and so have I). But every time I’m with my family either on my dad’s side or in the Philippines, I know I have to adopt my red meat-eating side in order to fit into my family and avoid being rude. And that’s what food means in Ugly Delicious – a way of practicing how to connect with people through food and then replicating that food continuously in order to maintain that established community. Some would argue that people can establish a community through making healthy food. But in places categorized as food deserts and third world countries where people can only afford to eat what’s provided, the idea of making a health alternative isn’t an option.
When it comes to COVID-19, having a connection with our food through cooking is now more important than ever. Although some of your favorite restaurants may still be open for delivery, the ones that are strictly brick and mortar may not be around for much longer. Dave Chang’s restaurant, Momofuku, had to lay off about 800 employees because without a regular influx of customers, revenue, and virtually no need for labor, the odds of restaurants like that surviving by the end of the quarantine is slim. For the restaurants that do not affirm our functional medicine ideals this may not sound like such a bad thing (awful thing to say). But the problem with this comes with who survives the pandemic: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC etc. The pandemic means that fast food restaurants will survive and will be even more omnipresent than ever since they will no longer be competing with hole-in-the-wall grassroots restaurants some who affirm a more whole foods and environmentalist approach to food. Another thing we lose from restaurants is culture. The reason why being able to cook our own food is important is because we may no longer live in a world where we can rely on other people to make the food of our culture, religion, or beliefs.
A lot of restaurants were made from those chefs taking their inspiration from eating in different countries or wanting to show people the foodways or cultures they have grown up in. Other restaurants also affirm a more environmentalist worldview or affirm a diet that some of us may follow (I’m sure some of us may go to certain restaurants because of their vegan/vegetarian options). So when it comes to COVID-19, it really reminds us that the food industry is essential and the people working there are essential as well. It may have reminded some of us how little we actually cook. And being able to prepare our own foods for our health or beliefs will be important to bring us toward a new normal in hopes that we can rebuild the food culture moving forward.