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'Racist Sandwich': This podcast wants you to think critically about race and food

by Melissa Hung /
Zahir Janmohamed and Soleil Ho, co-hosts of the "Racist Sandwich" podcast.
Zahir Janmohamed and Soleil Ho, co-hosts of the "Racist Sandwich" podcast.Courtesy of Racist Sandwich

Soleil Ho's and Zahir Janmohamed's podcast about race and food was born at a potluck.

In January 2016, Ho and Janmohamed met by chance at one in Portland, Oregon. Ho, a chef and food writer, and Janmohamed, a journalist, began talking about life in the restaurant industry.

“I don’t think he’d ever talked to someone who worked in a restaurant before, especially a woman of color,” Ho recalled. “He was fascinated — and I think he was kind of shocked by all of the things I said about the reality of it — just about being a woman, and the way that you’re treated when you’re a person of color in management positions in restaurants.”

"A lot of what’s shaping our ambitions for a second season are about addressing our own biases.”

"A lot of what’s shaping our ambitions for a second season are about addressing our own biases.”

Ho, who is from a family of Vietnamese refugees, told Janmohamed, the son of Indian immigrants from Tanzania, about how culinary schools graduate men and women at relatively equal rates, yet women don’t advance in their careers.

She also told him about the time she introduced a few Asian ingredients into a menu that she created for a restaurant, and how the owners balked, saying it was too Asian.

“I do think the restaurant industry is very masculine and very white dominated,” Ho said. “It's still queer folks and people of color who shoulder the brunt of the inequity in the industry.”

Intrigued, Janmohamed proposed that they start a podcast together about race, gender, and class in the food industry.

Living in Portland shaped their ideas about the project. Ho noted that Portland is known as a food town, but the pair perceived that much of the discourse on food came from white restaurateurs who served food from nonwhite cultures. “We thought that was really curious,” Ho said.

Their podcast, “Racist Sandwich,” launched in May 2016.

Its name references a media firestorm over an incident in which a Portland Public Schools principal was falsely accused of calling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches racist. (She was speaking about implicit assumptions and that not all students share the same frames of reference, local media has reported.) In the first episode, Ho and Janmohamed talk to Bertony Faustin, Oregon’s first black winemaker.

Now, 19 months later, the podcast has 40 episodes — a new episode comes out every two weeks — and is downloaded between 20,000 and 30,000 times per month, according to Ho. It was also named a 2017 Saveur Blog Award finalist.

Show topics have included the politics of the word “curry,” food insecurity, racism in food photography, and undocumented immigrants working in the restaurant industry. Their guests include people of color who work in the food industry as well as artists and writers, including comedians Hari Kondabolu and Jenny Yang, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Isaac Fitzgerald of Buzzfeed.

Ho and Janmohamed have both since moved away from Portland — Ho to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Janmohamed to Columbus, Ohio — although producer Juan Diego Ramirez remains in Portland. But they’re committed to working on the show long distance and are gearing up for a crowdfunding campaign scheduled to launch Dec. 15 to fund a second, more ambitious, season.

“I do think the restaurant industry is very masculine and very white dominated. It's still queer folks and people of color who shoulder the brunt of the inequity in the industry.”

“I do think the restaurant industry is very masculine and very white dominated. It's still queer folks and people of color who shoulder the brunt of the inequity in the industry.”

Topics they hope to cover on season two include the racial wealth gap and mental health in the food industry. They also want to travel and conduct more interviews in the field — not only because they believe they’re more fun for listeners, but also so they can invite more guests on the podcast that they wouldn’t reach otherwise.

Living in different cities, the Racist Sandwich creators interact mostly online to produce the show, which can exclude guests who are not tech savvy. The podcasters also have their eyes on other regions of the U.S.

“We know that we have a bias towards coastal stories and towards cities,” Ho said, noting that she’s from New York City and that Janmohamed is from California. “So we really want to look beyond that and look into the Midwest and the Deep South and places that maybe aren’t so covered in food media and by us. A lot of what’s shaping our ambitions for a second season are about addressing our own biases.”

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