When the children of asylum-seekers are being held in cages, it’s hard to not be consumed by a sort of directionless fury. Once you’ve left voicemails for your senators and signed that ACLU petition, it can feel odd to just proceed about your week as if everything were normal. At a time like this, it’s especially hard to write about anything that seems as inconsequential as the announcement of a new TV show.
And yet the TV show in question offers its own sort of hope. Eddie Huang—the guy behind BaoHaus who wrote Fresh Off the Boat—has announced he’s developing Cash Only, an unscripted TV series that will bounce between immigrant kitchens to uncover their impact on American life. Huang’s angle for the show, as he explained it to Deadline, is worth copying and pasting in full:
“Immigration is what’s made America the most interesting experiment in the world. While not all Americans understand and welcome immigration, a lot of the anger towards immigrants could be resolved if it wasn’t presented as a zero sum game where dominant culture loses every time an immigrant is granted entry. I hope we can provide much needed perspective on this issue by examining the world through the eyes of the globally marginalized.”
Read that last sentence again if you need to, and you’ll see that he’s talking about empathy. Not sympathy—not looking in on the lives of others with pity or condescension; but empathy—finding resonance in the feelings of others in a meaningful, experiential, even transformative way. Empathy is the gateway to acceptance.
Empathy is also the specific gift of our greatest food writers. It’s why Anthony Bourdain’s death was such a loss. It’s why Jonathan Gold is a national treasure. They know that empathy is at the core of writing—of criticism, of making television, of telling stories. They see how food can open us up, make us receptive to the seemingly foreign, and allow us to experience it as fascinating, beautiful, challenging, and fun. Food is a gateway to empathy.
There’s no more immediate or effective way to be thrown completely out of your element than to step into a restaurant serving unfamiliar food. In my neighborhood, I can dip into any number strip-mall joints serving cold bowls of mul naengmyeon or mounds of chapulines with fresh tortillas—dishes that may have struck me as weird at first but opened me up to the total contingency and weirdness of my own cultural background. They’re dishes that shake up my paradigm for normalcy. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a preference for the food that brings us comfort. But a tendency to hole up in a little nest of familiarity, when extrapolated to the political, becomes a dangerous way to live. It becomes a life devoid of empathy.
And this can all be misappropriated. Donald Trump can grin over a second-rate taco bowl while declaring his love for “Hispanics” and completely miss the point. Shallow appreciation of a cultural product can become a smokescreen for actions rooted in white supremacy. An encounter with the Other through the visceral experience of a meal doesn’t guarantee the development of genuine empathy. That takes effort, time, and willingness to admit you’re often wrong. It takes being receptive to the idea of being wrong.
What engenders receptiveness in some and not others? I don’t know. I do know, though, that some of us can be swayed. Some of us can be caught off guard by a surprising glimpse into the life of another—through a spoonful of kak’ik or a bite of a pupusa out or an episode of TV—and over time the scales fall from our eyes. There are some of us who simply need that outside impetus, something to light the fuse. And maybe that something is a food show. There’s no premiere date for Cash Only yet, but at the moment it feels pretty urgent.
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