On the sixth episode of their Racist Sandwich podcast, hosts Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed begin to tug at the main thread they feel stitches their young show together: that many people of color were never as aware of their racial identity until moving to the “shockingly white city” of Portland, Oregon.
Ho and Janmohamed are both recent transplants. Ho, co-founder of the New Orleans feminist literary magazine Quaint, is a poet, essayist, and chef who was lured to Portland to run the kitchen at the recently shuttered North Light (she now works the stoves at Marukin). Janmohamed, a national and international freelance writer, arrived last fall when his partner took a job at Lewis & Clark (he’s since been named adjunct fellow at Portland’s Attic Institute).
Their biweekly podcast explores “food, race, class, and gender” through interviews with local food industry veterans. Last month, it used the funds from an Indiegogo campaign to pay Alan Montecillo, the podcast’s editor, producer, and sometimes host (and KBOO’s Pacific Underground co-creator).
Racist Sandwich was born last winter out of a chance meeting between Ho and Janmohamed via a people of color Facebook group made up of a large coterie of local storytellers, comedy improvisers, actors, and hikers. Ho, with a smile, refers to the members as the “People of Color Illuminati.”
When he heard Ho describe her experiences in the kitchen, Janmohamed suggested they start a podcast to discuss issues like race, class, and gender by coming at them “sideways,” using food as point of entry.
By using food as their side door, the podcast’s creators have been able to share with listeners the kind of Portland-based stories that media consumers normally don’t get to read or hear—like how it feels to be asked minutes after meeting someone which ethnic restaurants you eat at based on your ethnic identity; what it’s like to be mistaken for the help when you’re actually the owner of an establishment; how it feels to walk into a restaurant that’s run by white people but that exoticizes and essentializes an entire culture through decor (Ho calls this creating “an exotic mise en scène, no story, just a set”); or the puzzlement white vegans feel when their POC vegan friends create their own group in order to safely and freely discuss the topics and issues important to them.
By exploring these stories, Ho, Janmohamed, and Montecillo have also used their brand-new media platform as a way to signal to other local media outlets (including the local food beat) that non-white voices in Portland are underrepresented and frequently unheard.
“Food media feels like a very niche area. Everyone can relate to food, but not everyone can relate to food media,” Montecillo says. “It’s the classic talk to people and not just about them. I remember an article asking why there were so many Thai restaurants in Portland, and their only sources were a PSU professor and the US Census.”
“My sense is that this question isn’t all that different from problems within journalism in general,” he continues. “If all of the writers, editors, and sources are white, you’re going to (A) get stuff wrong, and (B) contribute to systemic problems in our society.”
In an email, Ho writes that the problems Montecillo describes could be tempered if media outlets in Portland would simply, “HIRE. MORE. PEOPLE OF COLOR.” (The caps and punctuation are hers.)
That’s a hole Racist Sandwich is hoping to fill. In addition to paying Montecillo, the team plans on contracting freelancers from around the country, giving them a platform to talk about how politics, gender, class, and race intersect with food in their own home cities.
And Janmohamed says he hopes local media—and not just the food media—takes note. Hiring more diverse voices, he says, makes for better stories, which makes for better reading, which makes for more loyal readers.
“It would help their bottom line, too, because it would make them relevant again,” he says.
“I want [the podcast] to bring different worlds to different people through their smartphones,” Janmohamed continues—but he recognizes that some obstacles still stand in the way.
“When Soleil and I started the podcast, we recognized that many people do not have access to smartphones because of class issues,” he says. That’s why the show’s creators have decided to come up with “multiple points of engagement.” In addition to the show, there’s the podcast’s very active Facebook page, as well as meet-ups to facilitate discussion. After the podcast’s June launch party, most attendees chose to continue the conversation by going out for drinks to connect and share their own personal thoughts and stories.
“It’s something Soleil and I, both the children of immigrants, wrestle with,” he says. “How do we create content that can be accessible to all, including those for whom English is not their first language?”
If you think you might want to be a part of that community, Racist Sandwich is planning another get-together, this time at Abbey Creek, the North Plains winery owned by Bertony Faustin, the podcast’s first guest and Oregon’s sole African American winery owner.
The party goes down on Sunday, August 21, at 1 pm. If you’re interested in carpooling—or driving a bunch of friends or a few strangers to the event—contact the crew at firstname.lastname@example.org.