Dir: Grace Lee | USA | 2015 | 55 minutes
Nov 10 7:00 pm | AGO Jackman Hall
It should already go without saying that you should watch Off the Menu with a full stomach. Not just because you’ll be bombarded with images of food, but because the film requires you to think a little bit — a little bit about the food you eat, the people you eat with, and what food really means to you. From the very beginning, Off the Menu doesn’t hold back from its questions. Asian cuisine has gone from the basement and into the mainstream, but does this really provide insight into Asian America? Do we really understand Asian American culture better now?
Director Grace Lee begins her quest in Houston, Texas. Perhaps not one of the first places one would think to visit for Asian American food, but there is no doubt about the pervasiveness of sushi here, courtesy of Glen Gondo, a third-generation Japanese American. Yet, some of the sushi here is topped with Flaming Hot Cheetos and some packed with deep fried jalapeno peppers stuffed with cream cheese. The Korean chefs here aren’t aiming for authenticity — at least not in our usual terms. Lee then asks the question: Is Glen selling out his culture? Or is this something you just do in order to succeed?
Lee’s question then takes her to a Taiwanese-American owned tofu factory in Texas and later to a Chinese American restaurant in New York. The film doesn’t hesitate to visit Oak Creek, Wisconsin, either — a suburb that made headlines in 2012 when a shooting occurred at the local Sikh temple. As for Lee’s last stop, she visits Hawaii, where “everything is mixed,” and the history of food is rooted in generations upon generations of knowledge.
Food is more than what’s seen on a menu. For Asian Americans, it means honouring previous generations and adapting to new cultures, or creating community, or also feeding ourselves spiritually. The most provoking thing about Off the Menu isn’t its question about authenticity and identity, but about how this question relates to ourselves. Each individual interviewed by Lee gives us a different answer of what the food they prepare and eat means for their Asian American identity, and each of them are as valid as the next.
Being a second-generation Chinese Canadian, food and its connection to my roots and identity has had me thinking a lot, too. While watching Off the Menu hasn’t gotten me closer to my own answer of what food means to me, it leaves me in a better place in my fight with my Chinese-Canadian identity. And right now, I want to start that battle with food, with remembering what dishes I grew up eating and what those seemingly endless and ever-extensive family dinners mean to me.