'Bad Appetite' Puts the Food World's Cultural Appropriation on the Chopping Block

Comedian Jenny Yang uses her nascent YouTube series to showcase underrepresented voices in food.

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Jul 23 2018, 2:15pm

Screengrab from Bad Appetite.

Jenny Yang never thought she’d turn out to be a cultural watchdog for traditional food media.

When Bon Appétit magazine released a video titled “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho” in September 2016, it took the Internet by storm. The criticism spanned fiery comment boards to hefty think pieces, and the video was taken down shortly thereafter. (I reached out to Bon Appétit for comment, to which a representative directed me to Adam Rapoport’s initial responses.) In the midst of the digital hubbub, comedian Jenny Yang caught wind of the video and set out to turn the tables. Fierce and pointed, Yang’s “How To Eat PB&J” was a hilarious clapback. Her channel, Bad Appetite, blossomed from there and continues the conversation between media and audiences.

If you ask Yang today about the two-year-old video, her eyes brighten with enthusiasm. “I’m so proud that [“How To Eat PB&J”] was my first self-produced video. It wasn’t like I planned to create Bad Appetite,” she says. “It was just a response to that video.”

Long before Yang was propelled into producing Bad Appetite, she worked in Los Angeles politics, lobbying for labor unions and Asian American communities. What drove her toward politics first was the passion to contribute to communities that mirrored her own as a Taiwanese immigrant with a mother who was a garment worker. After years of non-profit work, Yang was burned out and felt she needed to stretch her creative muscles. She quit her political job, and as a “recovering overachiever,” she channeled her passion for representing Asian American communities into comedy. She started starring in videos like “When You Realize He Has Yellow Fever” and “If Asians Said The Stuff White People Say” for BuzzFeed and “Yang’s World

” for Fusion—and when the opportunity presented itself, she started creating her own work.

“I feel like there have been some attempts by mainstream television and even movies that involve food in their storylines or as a context,” she says. “I find that it’s not quite my experience with food as an Asian American immigrant. It’s either fetishized in some movies—like Chocolat—or it’s fantasy like Eat, Pray, Love or even Master of None.”

Yang wants to introduce a space where the everyday person can think, speak and laugh about food in the most accessible way possible. That’s where Bad Appetite’s latest series of videos is headed. It comes from a more personal place; in this series, Yang asks people of color to offer their expertise on recipes from their ethnic background featured elsewhere in media. The first of the series, “Koreans Learn to Make Kimchi From Brad,” debuted this January and features two pairs of Korean immigrant and Korean-American mothers and daughters commentating an episode of “It’s Alive With Brad,” Bon Appétit’s video series about fermented foods starring test kitchen manager Brad Leone.

“I really wanted to do something where it wasn’t me trying to be funny,” Yang laughs. “[Something] where I can just, in a very sincere way, point a camera on the people who live and breathe and probably made the food that we’re talking about [while] growing up.” When I asked Leone to take a look at Yang’s video, he said he found it educational.

“I love to make fermented and aged foods, including kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and, of course, kimchi,” Leone writes in an email exchange. “I think Jenny's video was great. Kimchi is a dish I love to eat and make, and watching Jenny’s video was educational. I recognize that we have a responsibility to be as factually accurate as possible in the content we create—I intend to do a better job of incorporating more historical background and cultural context on the dishes we feature.”

For Yang, Bad Appetite is also about inclusion and diversifying the playing field.

“I have the ability to make videos and I have my own little platform; that’s my own little way of trying to rebalance, to re-tip the scales so we can get more of the voices that grew up with that food culture that we don’t typically see,” Yang says. “Maybe they’re not credentialed as a test kitchen manager or a former chef. I think there’s so much wisdom and meaning that we can get from people who simply live it.”

“I think what’s tough is to acknowledge that there’s history and culture and context behind food, also that we are making the culture as we speak,” Yang continues. “I think that’s what’s really important about having that conversation about appropriation and appreciation. You must, as a starting point, understand people are positioned in different places in power. When you have that power, you have also the power to balance out, just a little bit, the scale of inequality of power in the world and that is really relevant for any kind of media storytelling or representation.”

“I am optimistic that more people are going to give in to the fact that there’s a better way to talk about food and culture,” Yang says of what she envisions for the future of food media. “Because I do know that not just in food, but in other arenas of culture and media, many more diverse voices have been able to speak out and speak back through digital platforms without traditional gatekeepers.”

One of Bad Appetite’s greatest strengths is Yang’s ability to offer a big picture look at these traditional gatekeepers and why their lack of diversity is harmful to the now larger-than-ever audience. “I love Bad Appetite so much because it’s my way of engaging in the food conversation,” Yang says. “That’s so important because I’m so obsessed with food. I’m also obsessed with how awesome our cultures are and how we’re able to have an impact on the mainstream conversation in America. That’s what I really love about talking about food and making fun of it sometimes.”