“It ends up tasting a lot like a softshell crab, which is like one of my favorite foods. So I loved tarantula.”
Alicia talks to Soleil Ho, food writer, host of Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast, and co-host of the Racist Sandwich Podcast. She’s co-authored a graphic novel about the professional and romantic life of a young chef with artist Blue Delliquanti called Meal: Adventures in Entomophagy — that’s eating insects, a field Soleil has become an expert in. They talk about the book, the tech industry’s obsession with cricket flour, and what it all means for vegans and vegetarians.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics and history affect a diet?”
In this episode I talked to Soleil Ho, food writer, host of Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast, and co-host of the Racist Sandwich Podcast. She has co-authored a graphic novel called Meal withBlue Delliquanti that will be out October 1st from Iron Circus Comics. It follows the professional and romantic life of a young chef who’s obsessed with entomophagy, the eating of insects, a field Soleil has become an expert in. We talked about the book, the tech industry’s obsession with cricket flour, and what it all means for vegans and vegetarians.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Hi Soleil, thank you so much for being on Meatless with me.
SOLEIL HO: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited. I’m such a fan.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I’m such a huge fan of you. Again, I think when we met in real life I was like, “Your voice is just like it is on the radio.” And again, I’m just like, “Oh, it’s Racist Sandwich happening.” So this is actually my first episode that I’m doing, not in person. Can you tell me where you are right now? Geographically?
SOLEIL HO: Yeah, so I’m in Minneapolis, Minnesota right now, in my bedroom closet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wonderful. Yeah, I’m in Houston, Texas actually, to tell everyone, which, because that’s not normal for me. And yeah, we’re gonna, we’re gonna do this on Skype. So like can you tell me about where you grew up, and what you ate?
SOLEIL HO: Sure, yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and we mainly ate well, well OK, so my mom was a single mom for most of my life and so, and she worked in the fashion industry so she was super busy all the time and so when she would get home, you know, pretty frequently she would pull out the drawer of menus and, kind of, fan them out in front of my sister and I, just say like, “Pick one,” you know, so, you know, we, we got a lot of delivery so like Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, yeah. So that was, kind of, the bulk of our daily foods. But then she would, she would make all kinds of things. She was really much, the kind of person who would keep like the gourmet recipe books, you know, she loves that stuff. Or like the Williams-Sonoma, like, cookbooks that they have for like soup or hors-d’oeuvres, things like that. She, yeah, she was an experimenter.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So that sounds like a very, like, New York City way of growing up. To get food delivery.
SOLEIL HO: It definitely was, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I love those Williams-Sonoma cookbooks, those are such a staple of when we grew up, the teaching people how to cook through Williams-Sonoma, which I always felt was so classy. Like when I went to the mall I was like, “Oh, this is life here.”
SOLEIL HO: Oh yeah. I mean I loved tasting all the oils and vinegars, bread cubes. Like that was the highlight of the weekend.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you’ve been on a few sides of the food world. You’ve been a chef, you’re a writer, you have Racist Sandwich and you’re also the host of Popaganda. But how, and when in your life did you know that food would be your professional focus?
SOLEIL HO: Gosh, you know, like honestly, it was, it was when I graduated from college, and I graduated in 2009, that’s when the recession really hit, right? You kind of tanked. I had, sort of like, vague notions of going into academia or working for a museum, because I have a history major and I was really excited about research. And that sort of closed up when I realized slowly that I wasn’t going to be able to get a job in any of the fields for which my bachelor’s degree prepared me. So I went into farming. I started woofing, so, you know, so I signed up with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. And so I was an intern on a farm for a season and it was really inspiring, you know. Like, the actual farm part, the farmer was, kind of, a super duper Catholic and it’s just not quite the most compatible workplace, but, working with vegetables and working with animals and, you know, working with food on this intimate level that I never really experienced before, that was like really, really important to me. And so after the season I started interning at restaurants in Minneapolis and writing about food on my off time to just, kind of like, I don’t know, use my degree a little bit and use my training a little bit. And so yeah, from there it just was it constant in my life until today.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Amazing. You co-wrote a new book, Meal, with Blue Delliquanti, and that focuses on entomophagy, which is the eating of insects. How did this project come about?
SOLEIL HO: So yeah, Blue reached out to me, I had been a fan of her work and she’d been a fan of mine but we never really talked, but Blue reached out to me out of nowhere essentially, last year, to ask if I’d be interested in working on this book project. And she had already written the bulk of the script, honestly, and she wanted me essentially to be a sensitivity reader, but also to like add chunks to it. So like, a little more involved than just reading. So yeah, like we, we talked it over, you know, I never really thought too hard about entomophagy before. I had, you know, I had absorbed all of their rhetoric and I had eaten insects before, but I never really thought about it, and the way the book tackles it was so interesting to me. Just the idea that like, we talk a lot about how insects are a really good protein source, food of the future, blah blah, blah, right? We don’t really pay much due diligence to the cultures and the traditional food ways from which these insects came. And of course, that is exactly my wheelhouse. I was like, all aboard, you know, I was super excited about that part of it.
And so, I started doing that, I started doing more research into who eats bugs, why do they eat bugs, you know, where? I just became obsessed. Over the course of the year, you know, collaborating with Lou and adding bits and pieces, developing, you know, ideas in this book, I read a lot and I’m a huge fan now of people who eat bugs. I think they’re really cool.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And are you doing any more work on this subject now, now that you’ve kind of immersed yourself in it?
SOLEIL HO: Yeah. So I had a lot of research on my hands that I had done, just reading and reporting for the book that just never made it in because, you know, it is a fiction book, you can’t just, it’s not a research paper.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
SOLEIL HO: And so I had all of this stuff in my files and all of these thoughts, and so I sent all of that to UC Berkeley, who, who had like this food and Farming Fellowship with Malia Wollan and Michael Pollan. And so I was like, “Hey, like, can you give me money to just investigate bugs?” So they said, “Yes.” And so I’m reporting out a story about entomophagy in central Japan, which I’m super excited about. I’m going in the Fall to this landlocked region, in the province, Gifu, where they eat wasp, wasps, it’s really hard to say wasp. They eat wasps, and their hornet as well, like the giant hornets.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh gosh.
SOLEIL HO: They’re about an inch and a half, two inches long.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
SOLEIL HO: Yeah, so I’m super stoked about it. I’ll be making some audio and doing some writing, and hopefully someone will pick up the story.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Amazing. Amazing. I remember reading in the book that tarantulas taste like seafood. Have you tasted a tarantula?
SOLEIL HO: I’ve tasted a leg, yes. They taste a lot like, especially when you batter and fry it, it ends up tasting a lot like a softshell crab, which is like one of my favorite foods. So I loved tarantula.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s amazing.
SOLEIL HO: I think I can just say it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Where do they, where is that traditionally consumed?
SOLEIL HO: In Cambodia.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, cool, cool. So you kind of touched on this, but I have personally only encountered arguments around eating insects from like techie entrepreneurs who want you to buy their cricket flour energy balls, and it’s very, you know, dystopian in my view. But in Meal, you present such an exciting historical, cultural, and culinary perspective and there’s a little about how insects could be the way for future populations to sustainably get protein. But unlike with the tech people, it’s not the focus. I wanted to get what you think about that kind of techie context in which that eating insects as has fallen in the mainstream, sort of, and is, you know, it’s super white, but that’s gotten more attention then, you know, these, the tarantulas that taste like seafood that are traditionally eaten in Cambodia, like, why are we talking about energy balls when we could be talking about that?
SOLEIL HO: Right, yeah. So the main reason is that I think we are very much invested, we as in like, just people who are thinking about food, right, in Western culture, we’re very much invested in appealing to an audience, like a perceived audience of white, upper middle-class consumers. And you know, for that reason, crickets and grasshoppers are the face of entomophagy in the West because they are very friendly, you know, they’re very PR-ready, media-savvy insights. Unlike like tarantulas, unlike, you know, flies or grubs. I think there’s an easier sell for a variety of reasons, but they’re just, they’re less hostile, you know, they’re very focus-grouped, in a sense. One thing that I found really interesting in my, in my investigations and my research was, there are these really interesting tech-led initiatives to ranch them essentially, to raise crickets in the US.
So they had facilities that can raise a billion individuals at a time and like that boggles the mind, right? Like a billion creatures in this, in this building, and they are working on ways to automate that too because crickets are nocturnal, so you have to feed them at night and, you know, it’s harder to pay people like staff to work overnight. So it’s a lot easier to just feed them with robots. And so there’s like, all of that stuff too going on. So one thing that I find really troubling about that is the idea of a monoculture, which I think, if we want to talk honestly about sustainability, we can’t have more monocultures, and that is just not gonna work. If the cricket collapses and we get in this position where we are dependent on crickets, you know, what’s going to happen? You know? If you’re raising a billion individuals in one building, disease is going to spread really, really fast, especially if they’re all the same species.
Those sorts of considerations, we’re not seeing too much of the discussion of, but that’s one thing that I’m afraid of because we’re so overly-invested in appealing to this consumer who is afraid of spiders, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
SOLEIL HO: So there’s that little bit of it. Then, one thing I found fascinating in the course of working on this book was the idea that insects are going to feed the world, you know, like, because they’re so efficient to raise and all that stuff. But the essential contradiction to that is that the majority of the world eats insects, right? They already do. And the initiatives that are banding about this rhetoric are the ones that are selling this, you know, very premium price product to people in, like, Silicon Valley who are not in want of food. And so like, there’s that contradiction to me is like they’re invested in feeding the world, but they’re not actually the world, you know, for the most part.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right.
SOLEIL HO: There are some organizations that have opened up, like, processing plants and factories outside of the U.S., which is great, but the majority are just making super fancy exotic foods, essentially, for people with money. That was the weird part for me is like, why do we care that Westerners are eating bugs, because we’re not the ones with the problem, not the ones who actually have to, we’re not at the front lines of the overpopulation debate or like, you know, a scarcity or water wars or any of that stuff, right? Like we are pretty well insulated, by design. And so it seems intellectually dishonest to me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. Why do you think, you wrote about, sort of, in a similar vein, your recent Taste piece about the consumption of dog meat and the racist perceptions around that. Even as someone who doesn’t eat meat, like I read that and was just like, “Well thank god someone is pointing this out,” because, you know, the hypocrisy around the way people talk about various animals is just, no one really considers it in the way that you did. There’s kind of a similar thing, like this obsession with who eats what makes it more legitimate in a way. Do you see that, that these things kind of relate to each other at all?
SOLEIL HO: Yeah. Especially along the lines of like, otherizing, right? Using food to cast someone else as a barbarian or inferior. So like, yes, with dogs, like it’s been used, it’s been weaponized. The act of eating dogs has been weaponized against East Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, especially in war and in like acts of imperialism, it’s been a tool to illustrate how backwards people like me are. It’s a practice. It’s pretty regional. It’s pretty, it’s not a universal thing in those regions. So you’re using that to justify westernization intervention, you know, all that stuff has been really like blatant, right? And so the same kind of, the same applies to insects where people associate insect eaters with dirtiness and poverty and that’s, you know, that’s a big like stereotype of people who eat bugs. They eat either because they’re desperate, you know, they eat them because they don’t know better or they can’t eat chicken or whatever, when that’s not really the truth.
You know, there’s this great example in the book about tarantulas actually, you know, we’ve been talking about tarantulas, but there’s a stereotype that people started eating them during, like, the Khmer Rouge regime and, you know, because there was no food, but that ignores the fact that people have been eating those tarantulas from even before that regime. Like, it was a delicacy. There’s that, there’s that notion of who can be a gourmand and why? Like, people in Cambodia can appreciate tarantulas for their tastes, for the delicate flavor, for the way they cook. And you know, they don’t only eat out of the animalistic instinct for protein. Right?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. I know that you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, but there is a bit of a discussion now that this is becoming more of a conversation around whether insects count, sort of, as meat. And, I recently was offered some ants to pair with a cachaça, and was told, “Oh, you must have the ants with the cachaça or you can’t really understand the cachaça.” And someone else was like, “No, she’s vegan.” And I was like, “you know what, if I can’t understand cachaça without eating the ants, I’m just going to eat the ants right now.” But I didn’t feel, like, great about it as a person who, you know, I’m navigating right now, like my own limits with, with meat and with animal products right now. And you know, when I ate them I was like, I don’t know if I want to do that, but I think, like I’m interested in like, even though this isn’t like your world really of like being vegetarian or vegan, but like, what do you think, like if you had a vegan friend who came to you and was like, “I just don’t know if I should eat some cricket flour?” If that seems like a sustainable way to eat protein and maybe I should, but you know, what is your take on that?
SOLEIL HO: Oh man, I guess I don’t feel very good about telling people, I don’t know, I’m not like the morality police, by any means, even though people try to pretend I am, I’m not, and I’m flawed in that way, but I do think that, you know, if you are a vegan because you don’t want to take life that is, you know, a pound of cricket flour, I believe, contains like thousands and thousands of individuals. Like the scale of life-taking in a pound of cricket flour is like extremely high. If you’re wanting to think about numbers, right? Versus a single steak. So it’s hard, right? It’s like a weird, it’s a weird thing to grapple with because, with insects especially like, it’s just, it’s hard to think of them as individuals, as like alive.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
SOLEIL HO: That’s why it’s so easy to kill them, right? And so if you want to think about it as far as a harm done sort of thing, I dunno, it gets really sticky, right?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh it does. I mean like, I felt bad about eating the ants, but yesterday I slapped a mosquito that was on my boyfriend’s forehead. So, you know, where do we draw lines? I killed that mosquito on instinct. I was just like, “Ah, you have to die.” But would I feel bad about eating cricket flour? Yeah, I dunno. These are the things we must, we must ask ourselves. So to kind of go back to some more political type issues, I guess, we talk a lot on this podcast about veganism’s, like, whiteness. So I would love, I always want to get like outsider, kind of, perspective on like, how do you perceive veganism? Like, do you perceive it, which like my own fear deep down is that it is a First World folly, that it is a meaningless thing. How do you perceive veganism? Both as a cuisine and as like this movement?
SOLEIL HO: Oh man. OK. So as someone who has been a chef and someone who appreciates just the act of cooking, I find veganism and any sort of like restrictive cuisine, right, where like you are just, you have to exclude a certain category of foods, as a rule, I find those really inspiring actually, because you have to be more creative, you know, this is why I hate steakhouses. I fucking abhor steakhouses. They’re so boring. They’re the worst. It doesn’t, it’s just a meat, it’s a steak. You salt and pepper it, you sear it, you’re done. And it’s just like, ugh, it’s like so boring. And so like, you know, vegan food at its best is like extremely creative, right? Because you have to, as the chef or a cook, appeal to someone for whom this steak is potentially an alternative, an easy one. So you have to appeal to the senses, and you have such a variety of things to choose from to do that and, you know, bring out like savory notes in like tomatoes or parsnips just like, you know, vegetables and fruits, is so, is such a challenge and so, intellectually, and just like as far as craft goes, I’m way more impressed in someone who could make a really good vegan meal than an omnivorous one.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right.
SOLEIL HO: Was that right to call a meal omnivorous? I don’t know.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I do.
SOLEIL HO: A meat inclusive one.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, that’s good. Yeah. Do, we’ve talked about this a little bit, but you know, as a movement, like, do you have any thoughts on how veganism like functions in the world, kind of?
SOLEIL HO: Yes. I don’t know, like, I have a hard time personally because I have seen so many examples of vegan companies using really colonialist rhetoric.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Of course.
SOLEIL HO: Especially when talking about indigenous foods. Right? Especially like, for example, there’s a company that makes a vegan fish sauce and you know, they bandy themselves as like the first ones and like, look how gross the process of making fish sauce is, why would anyone eat that? And you know, there are pictures of like piles of dead anchovies, right? Which is like, yeah, it’s kind of yucky. But like it’s what Vietnamese people eat every day, the majority, right? Like, it is something that we honor and love and it’s like an integral part of our identity. And so like, I understand the tendency to, I don’t know, to be like, look at this great alternative to this thing that you might be grossed out by, but “gross” is such a context-based thing. Also like they were erasing the work of Buddhist Vietnamese people who have made vegan fish sauce for centuries. And so, there was that part of it too where it’s just like, come on, like, you’re not the first, just because you have a nice label.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. Yeah. Veganism is built on labels, on cute labels. You know, you know, I think that, and that’s awful. And when I went, you know, the same thing, I’ve written a little bit about it but like with tempeh or like that where people are like, “Look what we’ve created,” and it’s like, no, you have completely, you know, most vegans eat tempeh and then don’t know that it’s an Indonesian food and that just seems so insane to me. And then there’s, you know, so many issues which I’m, I just talked to someone about, you know, different butters or alternative butters and it’s like, will we have to be concerned with like, the carbon footprint of that butter versus if you live somewhere where butter is being made, maybe it would be better to eat the cow butter than the butter that was made in a facility that was, you know, thousands of miles away, you know, it’s, there’s all these concerns that I, I hope become more of a conversation topic among vegans. But yeah, I need to look up that fish sauce.
SOLEIL HO: I think there’s like a p-h in there, like “phish” sauce, I don’t know, it’s silly. Yeah. But yeah, I’m totally behind veganism as like a political stance and a set of principles and, you know, I think if coupled with, like, you know, I don’t believe it’s essential or, let me rephrase that. I don’t believe it’s possible to be conservative and vegan, right? Like, I don’t think that that makes sense. You know, I want to include veganism as one facet of a broader set of communitarian values that are, like, meant to uplift all people in the world and give everyone the need to control what they put in their bodies, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So for you is cooking a political act?
SOLEIL HO: I’d say yes. You know, the most surface level way that that is a political act, to me, is in terms of my own like, sense of being a woman, and cooking, because, you know, for so much of my career that made me a minority in the kitchen, right? Like in restaurants. People would assume that I was the pastry chef. Which is like, pastry is a fine category of cooking. It’s just not what I was doing. But it is a category of cooking in which women are often siloed in fine dining and that’s an important part of the formation of that role and way we think about it. So for me, being visible and doing what I did was political, just cooking and just sticking it out with everyone else, and keeping up and even being better than the men around me, was really important to me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. Is there any way beyond gender that, that you found it to be political?
SOLEIL HO: Yeah. I mean, gosh, just in terms of, like, identity, which is such a corny thing to say. Me cooking like Vietnamese and Cantonese food is an important part of hanging on to my family traditions, you know, and like cementing my sense of identity within those things. And, you know, I can’t speak those languages, and I can’t really converse with my grandparents, but I can make food that they recognize, and for me, that’s really important, and it’s so corny. I’m so sorry.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, that’s amazing.
SOLEIL HO: That’s corny as fuck.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, absolutely not. Well, thank you so much for talking with me.
SOLEIL HO: Thank you for having me. This was really good.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Great.
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