Off the Menu: Asian America belongs to that sordid genre of well-intentioned but ultimately insalubrious schmutz. It is the Public Broadcasting equivalent of San Pellegrino's Best Female Chef: Nice gesture, I suppose, but offensive in the final analysis. Even at its best, a program which purports to tell the story of Asian American foodways in one 56-minute episode would be hopelessly cursory. The task isn't Herculean. It's not even Sisyphean. It's just a fool's errand.
"Every time I go out these days, I see people taking pictures of their food. And it seems like most of them are Asian..."
This episode is a co-production of the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, with support by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. There is a nice website with some additional content, but the cornerstone is this one-hour documentary. The film is being broadcast all this month on PBS, the same network that aired a two-part, four-hour program devoted to one man's road trip across the country more than a century ago and another 71 minutes to a documentary about an all-male Swedish synchronized swimming team. There are over 19 million Asian Americans living in the United States who represent dozens of countries, about as culturally dissimilar from one to the other as the United States of America is to Peru. They deserve more than 56 minutes.
The patsy for this particularly bad decision is Korean-American filmmaker Grace Lee. Lee, an amiable bespectacled woman, certainly has all the right indicators for a public television filmmaker. She is an accomplished documentarian, having written and directed projects like The Grace Lee Project, a charming if slight exercise in looking up all the women named Grace Lee Grace Lee could find. She has the same ponderous and chatty manner any fan of Serial recognizes. She is fond of ending a segment by asking an intriguing question but, unlike in Serial, these questions often go unanswered. This belies a serious sloppiness in Lee's work. The following is part of an opening soliloquy and tidily displays some of Ms. Lee's weaknesses as a documentarian:
"Every time I go out these days, I see people taking pictures of their food. And it seems like most of them are Asian...
... There are entire websites devoted to this...
... And it's all over social media. So what exactly is going on here? Why are we so obsessed? Why am I so obsessed?...
... Asian food is everywhere right now. But does reviewing Asian restaurants on Yelp really give anyone insight into Asian America...
... or do we just think we understand a culture better when it is in our stomachs?"
Just to domino the shit out of this, the first statement is crazy anecdotal, tending to gross stereotype and methodologically unsound. If Ms. Lee eats predominantly at Asian or Asian-American restaurants or restaurants with a predominance of Asian American customers — as one might expect from a filmmaker making a movie about the aforementioned topic — then of course that would be true. I, who eat at restaurants with a predominantly white clientele, could accurately say the same about white people taking pictures of their food. Secondly, that "entire website" is a Tumblr. There is literally a Tumblr for everything. There's even one devoted to white people taking pictures of food (though Asians do make an appearance). Thirdly, that YouTube video has 1,476 views. That is hardly "all over social media." Fourthly, what? Please repeat the question, removing straw men. Who possibly claims reviewing anything on Yelp teaches anyone about anything? Also, enjoy the token white couple, I like the subtle dismissive "just," and also, to answer your question, yes. Isn't that the entire point of the documentary?
If the entire hour consisted of specious statements buttressed by risible evidence, Off the Menu: Asian America would be Ishtar-bad. At least worth a hate-watch. Sadly or happily, Grace Lee is pretty good at finding some interesting Asian American subjects. I mean, it would be hard not to. There are over 19 million of them. Lee profiles six:
A critique of the documentary should in no way be seen as a diminishment of the individual stories.
• Glen Gondo, a third-generation Japanese-American, nicknamed, at least by Ms. Lee, the "Sushi King of Texas." Gondo runs Tokyo Gardens, a restaurant group in Houston, as well as a line of supermarket sushi, under the label Sushiya.
• Gary Chiu, a second-generation Taiwanese American whose family founded Banyan Foods, Texas's oldest tofu factory.
• Wilson Tang and Jonathan Wu, the two young Chinese-Americans who run New York City's Fung Tu.
• The Sikh community at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Park, home of the tragic shooting in 2012, back when those things seemed rare. The gurudwara hosts a weekly meal called the langar.
• Gabby Kawelo and Hi'ilei Kawelo, a father-and-daughter team of octopus hunters in Hawaii. Hi'ilei also runs a sustainable fish pond called Paepae o He'eia.
• Some of the young men and women working at Ma'o, an organic farm and youth center in Wai'anae on Oahu.
I include them here because each of these stories are worthy on their own. A critique of the documentary should in no way be seen as a diminishment of the individual stories. If anything, as alluded to at the beginning of this piece, the problem with Off The Menu isn't Chiu or Wu or Gondo. It's the hubris to attempt to tell all their stories in so little space. Six words: Good for flash fiction, bad for documentary.
But one can't chalk up the failure of Off the Menu simply to the inherent flaws in the project. One wonders if a more focused writer could have made sense of the constraints. Not only are these stories teased and never told, but their selection seems totally random. In one hour, instead of narrowing her focus, Lee tackles food services, restaurants, agriculture, aquaculture, and religion. She profiles first-generation, second-generation, and third-generation Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Taiwanese Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans, and, autobiographically at least, Korean Americans. She leaves out Filipino as well as Vietnamese communities, populations which both vastly outnumber the Japanese and Korean communities in America. Is there any rhyme or reason to her selection, or is this just "documentary by Google's 'I'm Feeling Lucky'"?
The failure of Off the Menu isn't the failure of its subjects but of its focus. Compared to other Asian food documentaries — I'm thinking here of The Search for General Tso — it's too broad to be compelling and too specific to be universal. There is chatter of Off the Menu becoming a series, which makes me wonder what's next: Off the Menu: Hispanic Americans, or perhaps they'll just go with Off the Menu: Not White People. Whoever at PBS or KQED decided less than an hour was an appropriate allocation of time to discuss, even in the most offhand way, the manifold foodways of Asian Americans should be banished to pledge-drive purgatory for the rest of their career.
This excoriation is indeed withering but there are a few beautiful moments that shine through. An excursion to Jonathan Wu's grandfather's house, inadvertently revealing something we all suspected: all old people in the suburbs have unwieldy and obsolete printers on their dining room tables. A bullet hole at the Sikh temple under which is engraved on a brass plaque, "We Are One." An octopus speared, its tentacles grasp angrily in desperation before it's thrown into a cooler aboard a dinghy. These images are arresting, moments of brilliance in a project that manages to buff away the luster of the gems it considers. But they're worth tuning. Anyway, it's only 56 minutes, a blessing and its curse.
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars