"The greatest gift they gave me was the ability to say, 'I'm gonna do what makes me interested and happy,'" said Francis Lam when we chatted about his parents on this week's episode of Special Sauce. The New York Times magazine columnist and editor-at-large for Clarkson Potter joined me in the studio shortly after winning two IACP awards for the best narrative food writing and food-focused column. He's also in the running for two of next week's James Beard journalism awards. Let's just say he's one of the best food writers we've got.
As a child of Chinese immigrants, Lam's family table was often set for late-night dinners with a mix of traditional stir-fried greens and Roy Rogers fried chicken. The juxtaposition of two cuisines represented both his parents' immigrant status and their assimilation into American culture; he says he "grew up in this home that sort of by force—or rather just organically—ended up creating what I think of as a purely American identity."
Today he's exploring the gustatory lives of cultural icons like Chrissy Teigen and Questlove, helping them turn their passion for cooking and storytelling into food-centered books that go beyond just recipes. When working on Teigen's book, Cravings, Lam says he appreciated her unique voice from the get-go and encouraged her to run with it—despite her initial hesitation. In the end, he says, "It's not a diet book, it's not a how-do-you-get-my-body kind of book. It's, 'My macaroni and cheese is fuckin' better than John Legend's macaroni and cheese and here's my goddamn recipe.'"
In this episode of Special Sauce, Lam and I discuss how he tends to "go for the cheeks" and why his parents are proud of him for doing so. He also talks about how normal it is for writers to hate writing—but why he still encourages aspiring authors to explore their passion for the craft. Finally, Francis and I have a spirited discussion about cultural appropriation and sensitivity in the American food culture.
[Mac and cheese photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]
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