Taking On Cultural Imperialism: Andrea Nguyen's Righteous Anger

I love a good rant, especially one that expands my own entrenched—read: unquestioned/lazy/privileged—attitudes, and noted chef, cookbook author and teacher Andrea Nguyen has a doozy on her eponymous blog:

"It’s aggravating to read again and again that the Mediterranean diet is the way to go for healthy habits. The implication is that something associated with the geography of Europe is the only thing we can turn to to save ourselves!" Nguyen wrote of a recent special section in the New York Times on the Mediterranean Diet.

"We all lead cross-cultural lives and we cook and eat that way too," Nguyen stated. "The Diet has become a meme that smacks of cultural imperialism," exemplified by the introduction to the section by Times reporter Alice Callahan that states "definitions of the diet have evolved over time, so we won’t limit ourselves to fare from the Mediterranean region."

Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam, won a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Cookbook in 2018 for "The Pho Cookbook" and is a 2024 nominee for her new book, "Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super Fresh Recipes, Starring Plants from Land and Sea." She also writes freelance articles for the Times, which makes her speaking out about the topic in a public forum both unusual and courageous.

The section in the Sunday New York Times was titled "Healthy, Simple, Delicious: How the time-tested Mediterranean diet can offer real benefits, with recipes to help you get started" (top photo).

A photo the Times used as an illustration (above) is just one example. "The cultural takeover is strong," Nguyen wrote. "For example, this stock photo of a 'Mediterranean diet' includes avocado, tomato, and what looks like a knob of ginger. And, is that turmeric in the lower left?"

Nguyen, after reading the section then seeing the cartoon above in her Instagram feed, said it reminded her of the reason she started writing in the first place. "If I remained quiet and let the Mediterranean diet swallow up foods like tofu and avocados without respecting their place of origins (China and the Americas), I wouldn’t be doing my job," she wrote.

Nguyen pointed out that the section emphasizes five categories of foods as exemplars of the diet: whole grains; fruits and vegetables; legumes/beans/lentils; nuts and seeds; and finally, healthy fats. But she noted that those five categories are representative of traditional diets around the world, and referred to the Blue Zone studies that found five locations on the globe where people consistently live healthy, active lives to well over 100 years of age.

Saying it's time we came up with a broader, more inclusive descriptor for a healthy diet than one coined in the middle of the last century, she wrote, "We should learn from other cultures because they speak to our modern experiences, which is intersectional and cross-cultural. We should identify and respect what those cultures have to offer, not slide everything into a comfortable, digestible rubric."

All I can say is, "Hear, hear!"

Travel Tip for Your Next Beach Trip: Think Berries!

My first story for Travel Oregon is all about berries—where to find and eat the strawberries, blueberries and cranberries that deliciously dot the Wild Rivers Coast Food Trail and the Central Coast Food Trail.

I got to talk to farmers like Betsy Harrison of Valley Flora Farm near Bandon, who with her two daughters grows the organic u-pick strawberries that are eagerly anticipated up and down the coast. Down around Elkton is Estill Farms, where Paula Estill grows both organic and conventional blueberries—and if you don't have time to pick your own you can pick some up from her at the Florence Farmers Market on Tuesday afternoons. And in early fall there are the region's famous cranberries, available fresh in October and November at farm stands and area farmers markets.

Local foraging expert Jesse Dolin said not to forget the wild bounty of the region,  listing evergreen huckleberries, salal berries, blackberries, red elderberries, thimbleberries and salmonberries to be found in campgrounds and along hiking trails in the area. I can taste them already on my griddled pancakes drizzled with maple syrup.

Read the story and make plans to visit if you haven't already!

Top photo of strawberries from Valley Flora Farm; lower photo of blueberries from Estill Farms.

Civil Eats' Top Stories 2019: Mine Included!

"We publish one or more thought-provoking and breaking news stories each day of the week. We’re on track to publish 250 articles in 2019; below are 20 of our best, in chronological order, and chosen to showcase the breadth and depth of our reporting."

Cory Carman of Carman Ranch.

With that announcement from Civil Eats' founder and editor-in-chief Naomi Starkman, I found out I was included on a list of the top twenty stories the prestigious national food news outlet published in 2019.

My profile of fourth-generation Oregon rancher Cory Carman outlines a movement taking place across the country where small farmers and ranchers are working to build a sustainable business, improve their soil and the health of the planet through pasture-based, regenerative practices. It was thrilling, as it always is, to talk with someone so articulate and passionate about what they're achieving, as well as to hear about the struggles and challenges of going against the prevailing "get big or get out" mentality that pervades current agricultural policy.

Grass and nothing but.

"The push is always for any brand to go national," [Carman] said. "Instead, we need to think about production on a regional basis and build out and support appropriately scaled infrastructure. That’s where you can really have the magic."

I'm honored to have my work included on this list along with some of my food journalism heroes. Read the full story, and please consider supporting the work of Civil Eats to tell the stories of what our food system could be, along with the challenges we face in getting there.

Summer Reading List for Food-ophiles

Civil Eats, which I like to think of as a national version of Good Stuff NW (ahem…), has just put out its summer reading list of books about our food system, 21 New and Noteworthy Food and Farming Books to Read This Summer.

Included are a wide range of topics, from Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., by Ashanté M. Reese; to Robyn Metcalfe's Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating. There are a few more traditional(-ish) cookbooks, too, like Indian(-ish): Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna, and Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, 100 Recipes and 230 Variations by Abra Berens. There's even a celebrity(-ish) tome from author and journalist Michael Pollan's mom and three sisters called Mostly Plants: 101 Delicious Flexitarian Recipes from the Pollan Family.

I also contributed a review to this collection, of an engaging book from first-time author Stephany Wilkes called Raw Material: Working Wool in the West (top photo) that describes her transition from high tech executive in Silicon Valley to itinerant sheep shearer in the American West. My review said, in part, that she "brings to life the cast of the interesting characters and ornery sheep she encounters on her journey to understand the ranchers and the land they steward, and [to] discover the terroir of wool."