Our department’s own Karen Leibowitz (Ph.D. ’08) recently described how she and her partner, Anthony Myint, became accidental restaurateurs and philanthropists. Besides serving delicious and creative food, first out of a borrowed truck, then at a borrowed Chinese restaurant, the couple’s projects (Mission Street Food, Mission Burger, and Mission Chinese Food) donate profits from their ventures to food-related charities. Since 2008, their donations have reached numbers in the tens of thousands. How cool is that?!
Later this month, McSweeney’s will officially release the couple’s first cookbook, Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant. The book is as smart, playful, and self-conscious about language as the original street food concept – PB&J (pork belly and jicama) sandwiches – and proceeds from all sales go to Slow Food USA.
McSweeney’s describes the book as “more than one thing: it’s a cookbook featuring step-by-step photography and sly commentary, but it’s also the memoir of a madcap project that redefined the authors’ marriage and a city’s food scene. Along with stories and recipes, you’ll find an idealistic business plan, a cheeky manifesto, and thoughtful essays on issues ranging from food pantries to fried chicken. Plus, a comic.”
Karen was good enough to lend me some of her time to ask her questions about Mission Street Food, the concept, the book, and the ways that being a literary scholar helped shape the couple’s projects along the way.
MH: I’m totally fascinated by the appeal of the “pop up” restaurant and fancy food trucks. Why do you think there’s so much appeal to this way of eating-out right now?
KL: Since we first started in the moment of the crash, a lot of the media seized on the idea that we were using this model as a response to a bad economy. I think [the appeal] has more to do with the internet. The reason why this model works now is that people can find us [on the internet]. You could not have had a pop up restaurant before — how would people find you?
More generally, what we were doing has something in common with the internet in it’s radical democracy. Our customers are self-appointed critics, we’re self-appointed restaurateurs. Previously you had to establish yourself, perhaps even go to culinary school. We just sort of pushed in because we had a kind of internet-granted sense of the world. It’s like blogging. In fact, we have a blog (http://blog.missionstreetfood.com/).
I also think there’s a larger trend toward food media right now…you know, you’d never have pop-ups before The Food Network.
MH: It’s not every day that a graduate student transitions to running a restaurant. (I’m trying to find a way of saying, “You are awesome,” without making KL uncomfortable.) What unexpected things translate between studying literature and running a restaurant?
KL: I always said that working in a restaurant is not so different from teaching…you have to be caring but firm. You are telling someone with all your actions, “It matters to me that you get something out of this, but these are the rules.”
MH: (Laughter) That’s hilarious, and so true! Tell us a little bit more about how being an English graduate student might have informed how you approached writing a “non-traditional” cookbook.
KL: The book contains about a dozen short essays that punctuate the narrative of what we did. Those essays gave us a chance to talk about some of the cultural issues that most people don’t really go into when writing a cookbook and in the essays, we often cite theory that I first encountered at Berkeley. Some of it is tongue-in-cheek, like when we talk about Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” to set up an essay on “subcultural capitalism.” I also used my access to Berkeley’s library system to research some of the food science that we cite in another essay on satiety. Luckily for us, McSweeney’s is more willing to get into some of those issues than other presses.
MH: When you opened Mission Chinese Food in 2010, some eyebrows were raised that you were calling what you served “Americanized Oriental food.” Anthony wrote on the blog: “Our use of the term ‘oriental’ is not meant to be offensive. The word is derived from a root meaning ‘eastern,’ which represents a Eurocentric orientation to Asia, and it was most often used in a bygone era when Europeans viewed the regions east of the Mediterranean as exotic lands full of ‘romance and intrigue.’ For us, as Asian-American cooks, using this loaded term is an indictment of the Eurocentricity of fine dining, but it’s also meant to desensitize the term in that transcending-racism-by-not-interpreting-every-single-thing-as-racist way. You know, like the ‘queers’ did.”
When you chose the phrase, were there ways of thinking about ethnicity that you brought to brainstorming because of your training?
KL: To be honest, we used the word in a tongue-in-cheek way, so we were somewhat surprised that the word caused as much controversy as it did. My husband/co-author is Asian-American, but when we sat down to write the book, he wanted me to draft the essay addressing our use of “oriental,” so we wouldn’t just fall back on the phrase, “as an Asian-American,” as though that would explain everything. My essay, written from the perspective of a white graduate student working in a Chinese restaurant, included a long footnote on Edward Said’s definition of orientalism. Of course, that annotation drew upon my graduate training, but I think in the end it comes across as a joke about academic seriousness.
As restaurateurs, our attitude toward ethnicity has been pretty flexible—we’ve always given ourselves permission to plunge into any culinary tradition—and as a result, we are skeptical about claims of culinary “authenticity” if they require that a person’s ethnic identity correspond to his or her style of cooking. So I’d say that our use of the word “oriental” was partly a way of challenging assumptions about identity and cooking, but it was also just a way of having a bit of fun.
MH: In a class for Sam Otter, one of my classmates heroically recreated the “turkey innocent of bone” from Frank Webb’s The Garies and their Friends for our end-of-the-year-dinner. Are there dishes that you’ve had influence over that drew from literature?
KL: Not really. I specialized in nineteenth-century British novels, which tend to exhibit a certain distate for fine dining and often imply that sauces are suspiciously French. I suppose there are a few juicy chops in Dickens, but Thackeray makes food seem truly repulsive and Austen treats gourmet tastes as a character flaw. And even in cases where my favorite authors want the food to sound good, our customers probably wouldn’t jump at turtle soup or blood pudding.
So I didn’t make any overt literary references, but our menu was covered in wordplay. Actually, I think my husband was responsible for the most egregious puns, like “S’moregasbert,” which was like a fancy S’more with Camembert.
MH: Omg YUM.
All purchases through McSweeney’s before the official July 26th release date will include a $10 donation to Slow Food USA. Buying through McSweeney’s post-release means a $5 donation, and buying through other sellers will yield a $1 donation.