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Francis Lam on Ruth Reichl, Gourmet 2.0, and Barry Sanders

Francis Lam, laid back, sippin' on juice.
Francis Lam, laid back, sippin' on juice.
Photo: Joshua David Stein /

For years Francis Lam was the short grungy Chinese counterweight to the monumental preciousness of Ruth Reichl's Gourmet. Lam wrote, among other things, about The Shamwow Guy, Ho Ho BBQ, a gem of a place in suburban Toronto. and Cairo street food. When Gourmet folded, Lam landed at Salon where he continues to practice his peculiar brand of culinary sociology. One of my favorite pieces by Lam, and one that captures his ability to go beyond an easy joke, is May's What The Notorious BIG Taught Me About Food. He recently wrote of killing a chicken. We met in Madison Square Park on an unusually warm day, near the Salon offices, and ate eggplant parms from No. 7 and kibitzed.

You've said your food writing is, in the literal sense, political. In that you talk about the polis, the people. But some pieces, like the recent one about killing a chicken, seem more overtly political in the vein of Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle. Did you really kill the chicken?
Well, Shelby [Kibler] held the blade. He was the one that actually separated the chicken form his body. But I was there. I was holding on to the poor fuckin' thing.

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer does something similar but at the end he comes to a rather doctrinaire conclusion about how eating all animals is bad, and everything that says otherwise is hypocrisy. He didn't need, really, to go on that journey. What's nice about the killing chicken piece is that there is no neat and tidy conclusion about anything. It just ends.
Foer is obviously very smart and his reasons witnessing that are, I'm sure, super-valid and super-thoughtful, But, for me, I eat meat. I love eating meat. It's a constant sort of negotiation with the world and it's also a practice of being conscious of what you're eating. Maybe that means for fourteen meals, I only eat roast pig and that's fine. Or not fine, probably my fucking heart is going to give out. But I want to have to make myself make that choice every time.

Is that part of your project as a writer, to increase that consciousness, be it writing about Biggie Smalls lyrics about food or the last moments of a rooster?
I never connected those two pieces. Biggie was the greatest of all times so I hope that is clear, first of all. Here's how they are related. The reason I wanted to write about Biggie's lyrics is because I thought it would be fun.The Big man had died many years before and I wanted to honor him in some way or another. At some point the power of the images of food he used were so strong they connected with me.

I have nothing in common with him. I didn't grow up anywhere like that. I grew up in the fucking suburbs. But here, I am listening to him rap about food, being scared of being hungry, rapping about remembering the detail from when he was a kid and young and innocent the image he uses is, I mean loyalty: n**gaz bought me milks at lunch./The milks was chocolate; the cookies, buttercrunch. When I think back to my youth, what do I think of? I think, "Oh that is the egg salad sandwich my mother made me my first day of school."

That harkens back to what you were saying about walking through your hallway in Elmhurst and smelling the different cuisines of your neighbors. You have little in common with them except they're all relating to each other through food the same way you relate to others through food, and that helps you relate to them.
I hope so. I'm not pollyanna. I don't think that if we sat down and made dinner with each other, there'd be no more war. To be frank, it's not always super-clear to me where food and eating with people has a place in politics, in the traditional sense.

To be realistic, if you voted for Bush — both the first and second time — and if you think the President I voted for is destroying the country and you think he is a Muslim terrorist-in-hiding, I don't think I can sit down for a slice of pizza with you and we'll work everything out. Even if we both love pizza. But maybe at least we can talk about the pizza. And from there we can talk about what matters to us about the pizza. We can talk about the first pizza we ever had. Maybe from there we'll learn to trust each other. [Pause] But look, that's never happened.

It's gotta be really good pizza.
It's gotta be the best fucking pizza. I have this theory that if you can talk about food and talk about football, you can talk to 3/4 of America. I love food. I love football. I love talking to people. It's a real self-serving theory.

What's your team?
I'm a Chargers fan. When I first got into football, I was in college in Michigan and we used to watch the Detroit Lions for whom Barry Sanders was at the time playing. They were half-way decent. Anytime you saw Barry Sanders get the ball, it was an experience. It was my first-ever experience watching someone do something with his body that not only could I never do, but that I couldn't understand how it could be done. Years later, when I had gotten out of football, I watched Ladainian Tomlinson. He's a completely different runner than Barry, but it provoked that same reaction.

To transition back to the other main topic of America, are there any chefs who provoke a Ladainianian reaction in you?
Nice transition.

Very Barry Sanders.
Absolutely. Daniel Humm at 11 Madison Park. I've always been a fan of Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz. I've had the pleasure of dining at Alinea twice, and both times it totally blew me away. At some point very early on at Alinea, I stopped caring about the technique. I didn't care what gel he was using. It was in the service of memory, pleasure, evocation, and surprise. I was getting emotional. In between courses, I got up and started uncontrollably giggling and I couldnt' tell if I was going to laugh or cry.

So Gourmet Live is supposed to launch soon.
I'm excited to see what they'll do. Hopefully I'll love it. But I don't know what it is.

Did they approach you, to re-assemble the A-Team?
No, and I got the sense they were not particularly interested in that. Or actively disinterested.

Do you keep in touch with the Gourmet diaspora?
I had lunch with Ruth Reichl a couple weeks ago.

Is she as intimidatingly exuberant and somewhat scary as she seems?
The first time I met Ruth Reichl I was like, "Holy shit, that's Ruth Reichl." I'm never going to meet Sean Penn so I don't worry about it, but in my small world, Ruth Reichl is Sean Penn. What you're going to take away with your meeting or lunch with Ruth is going to be informed by how you negotiate her celebrity. At this point, we can chat, get lunch. We're not super-close but we respect each other. She's a deeply thoughtful person with strong opinions and a real hunger for engagement.

My latest thoughts about her were informed by Kim Severson's memoir, Spoon Fed. She seems terrifyingly perfect, Reichl. The recent New York Times Sunday Routine was completely ridiculous.
What's interesting about someone in Ruth's position is that rightly or wrongly, your life becomes a fantasy. At some point, you feel responsible for that fantasy. She's not going to tell you about the hair in her shower drain. When your life has been the stuff of other people's fantasies, you become responsible.

Right, well if you're the only thing they believe in, you don't want to ruin their dreams that a life could be that fabulous.
Yeah, and there's no Santa either.

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