Tieghan Gerard, the creator of the popular food blog Half Baked Harvest, found herself in hot water after posting a “quick” noodle recipe that she incorrectly called “pho.”
The popular recipe creator shared a noodle soup recipe to her blog titled “Weeknight ginger pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup)” in February. The recipe, as many pointed out, was not really pho — instead, it was more of a quick noodle dish with caramelized chicken and a “sweet, spicy, tangy sesame chile sauce.”
Immediately, Gerard’s fans began to criticize the inappropriate title on Instagram. Some commenters explained that pho shouldn’t be a quick dish to begin with and that several of the steps in her recipe — like caramelizing the chicken — would not have gone into a traditional pho recipe.
“What upset me the most was that she passed it off as pho,” Suzanne Nuyen, a Vietnamese American recipe developer who runs the blog Bun Bo Bae, told TODAY Food. “The only thing that made it even close to pho was that it was noodles in a broth.”
“I understand that food evolves … but when you’re riffing on a dish, in terms of ingredients, that doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Gerard eventually changed the title of the dish to “Easy sesame chicken and noodles in spicy broth” and issued an apology.
She initially responded to critical comments on her Instagram post, BuzzFeed News reported, writing:
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I understand where you are coming from and have decided to change the recipe tittle [sic]. It was never my intention to offend or hurt anyone or the culture. I will make sure do be much more conscious when deciding on recipe tittles [sic] in the future and be sure to do more research. Thank you for kindly bringing this to my attention, I really appreciate you kindly letting voicing your concern. xTieghan
And a spokesperson sent TODAY a similar statement from Gerard:
“It was never my intention to offend or hurt anyone or the culture. I will make sure do be much more conscious when deciding on recipe titles in the future and be sure to do more research.”
‘Love our people like you love our food’
But many Vietnamese Americans believe the title change and apology aren’t enough. During this time of racial reckoning, when violence against Asian Americans is on the rise, commenters aren’t satisfied with a run-of-the-mill, PR-issued apology anymore, especially from those with such large followings.
“If you appreciate our food and our cultures, why don’t you also speak out on the attacks that have been happening to Asian elders these last few weeks?” one commenter, Mara Van Dam, wrote on the post. “More than ever, our community needs protection of Asians and non-Asians alike.”
In a story from BuzzFeed, one former fan of Half Baked Harvest, Stephanie Vu, said she had reached out to Gerard to politely explain that the dish in question wasn’t pho.
“I don’t know why I’m freaking out about this — this is the food of my people, I should be able to say something about this. But I was terrified,” she told BuzzFeed. But Gerard’s response was dismissive, she said.
“I described actual pho and the entire recipe on the blog,” Gerard reportedly responded, “and state that this is just my creation of what you can make at home.”
Vu said that, in her opinion, the response was not sufficient.
“The lack of acknowledgment can really hurt the Asian community,” Vu told BuzzFeed. “This specific example, despite the fact that it’s ‘small,’ can be extrapolated to casual appropriation situations that Asian Americans experience … the fact that she dismissed me really hurt me.”
Another Vietnamese American fan of Gerard told TODAY that she, too, felt disrespected by the recipe.
“Pho is the ultimate love language in Vietnamese culture. It sits on the stove for hours, simmering in charred spices and herbs like star anise, ginger and cloves,” said Megan Do, Story Slam Lead for the nonprofit podcast Vietnamese Boat People. “It’s the ultimate comfort food and how we say ‘I love you’ in a culture where those words are rarely said out loud. Tieghan’s ‘pho ga’ was nowhere near that.”
What is pho?
Pho, pronounced “fuh,” is a staple Vietnamese soup consisting of bone broth, rice noodles, spices, herbs and meat (usually beef, sometimes chicken) — though, of course, like any dish in any culture, there are variations.
Andrea Nguyen, a Vietnamese American cookbook author and James Beard Award winner, explained to TODAY that the dish made its way to the United States after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
“A lot of people fled the south of Vietnam and came to the U.S. as refugees and began settling in different parts of the United States as refugees,” she said. The refugees brought their food with them and survived “little Saigon communities.”
She said that as time passed and with the advent of food television, Vietnamese food became a larger part of pop culture.
“You had Vietnamese Americans opening restaurants that I describe as ‘crossover restaurants’ that are not in Vietnamese enclaves that are serving a lot of non-Vietnamese people, you know at higher price points with quality ingredients,” she explained. “ And so, people start becoming more familiar with Vietnamese food.”
Nguyen added that she has three traditionally Vietnamese dishes she calls “gateway dishes”: spring rolls, banh mi and pho.
“The thing that beautiful about Vietnamese food is that you can have it your way,” she laughed. “And it’s customizable, it’s personalizable. And it has gone in many different directions.”
Nuyen echoed this sentiment, adding that “anything is banh mi now.”
“Americans really like banh mi,” she laughed. “Even if I personally don’t think it’s a banh mi, the presence of that pickled carrot and radish at least implies a basic understanding of what it is.”
What are best practices for recipe creators?
The idea of cultural appropriation in food writing is by no means new. Even last month, Shake Shack was accused of the same after releasing a “Korean” fried chicken that was, critics argued, not actually Korean.
In 2016, Bon Appetit published a story originally titled “PSA: This Is How You Should be Eating Pho,” with a video starring a white chef from Philadelphia making pho. The video claimed, “Pho is the new ramen.” Though the outlet later apologized for the pho misstep, it was only the beginning of what would become a racial reckoning at the magazine, which culminated in the resignation of Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport when current and former staffers shared stories of discrimination within the company.
Related: “Cultural appropriation allows a pick-and-mix strategy whereby American culture can take what it wants to market. South Asian ingredients and practices are valued, but not the finished cuisine per se,” one expert said.
Following these accusations, the company apologized last summer for being “far too white for far too long.”
“As a result, the recipes, stories, and people we’ve highlighted have too often come from a white-centric viewpoint,” the apology read. “At times we have treated non-white stories as ‘not newsworthy’ or ‘trendy.’ Other times we have appropriated, co-opted, and Columbused them.”
It is certainly not that Asians and Asian Americans don’t want people to enjoy their traditional food: Both Nuyen and Nguyen said they love that non-Vietnamese people are interested in making Vietnamese-inspired food. But both thought that recipe creators should take accountability for what they’re creating.
“You know, I don’t police things,” Nguyen said. “But if you have this reach that is really varied and diverse, respect those people.”
Nuyen said she doesn’t consider herself “super traditional” and she herself regularly riffs on traditional Vietnamese dishes but she just wants people to “treat the original dish with integrity.”
Nguyen echoed those sentiments, adding that authenticity isn’t a “precious thing that is fixed in time (that) only belongs to people for whom it’s part of their heritage.”
She explained that it’s a matter of thoughtfulness and skill — the Vietnamese word for which is “kheo.”
“And when we talk about someone who has kheo, we are discussing about the fact that they thought things through. They have looked at the foundations of things,” she explained. “They are skillful, and they know the classics and they can riff.”
Nguyen said she didn’t think Gerard and the like would need to do some “totally hardcore thing where they go in-depth about a subject, but just go beyond, ‘This is so delicious and I was so busy and just wanted something in less than an hour!’”
“That’s vapid,” Nguyen added. “Look into it, research it, you know, what’s the history of it. How do you make this, why do you think do that?”
Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation
Do took a harsher stance, accusing Gerard of having a “repeated history of taking bits and pieces of various Asian cuisines, mashing them together and calling the dish something it’s not.”
“There’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Her lack of acknowledgment of the rich cultural history her dishes are inspired by is the definition of cultural appropriation,” she said. “In the end, it’s the same story: she benefits from these altered dishes while our culture is erased.”
Nguyen said she believes food is about storytelling — and that the story of the food is what makes it taste good.
“If we don’t have context about food, then food doesn’t taste that good, we don’t have the story,” she said. “I want to tell you what my relationship is to food and food and cooking. It is a process that’s our relationship … and that makes everything taste so much better because it’s much more beautiful and it’s filled with humanity.”
She added that of course over time, traditionally ethnic dishes become more recognized by the American public: “At what point is a taco just a taco?” she offered as an example.
“When something, a dish, goes into the English language dictionary so that I do not have to italicize it anymore in my writing,” she said with a laugh, adding that banh mi and pho are both in the dictionary.
Editor’s Note: Suzanne Nuyen is a former TODAY intern.