ChatGPT can use artificial intelligence to generate high school essays, emails, cover letters, and a lot more. But can it write an episode of The Sporkful? Eater senior reporter Bettina Makalintal joins us to discuss, and to tell us what happened when she asked ChatGPT to write a “stinky lunchbox immigrant memoir.” Do the results reveal something about the way immigrants and food are represented in media today? And what does all this mean for creativity in food and beyond?
Bettina’s story for Eater is called “Great! AI Can Generate All the Diaspora Food Writing Tropes.”
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Beep Boop" by Dylan Myers
- "Lucky Strike" by Erick Anderson
- "Like Fire" by Jacob Gossel
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Party Hop" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Brain Wreck" by Black Label Productions
Photo created by the AI image-generating service DALL-E. This image was created by using the prompt "Renaissance painting of a bearded guy hosting a podcast about pizza."
Dan Pashman: So Bettina, Sporkful producer Andres O'Hara put a prompt into ChatGPT. Can you write an episode of The Sporkful?
Bettina Makalintal: [LAUGHS] Amazing.
Dan Pashman: So this is about to get meta. I haven't read this yet. Okay? Andres wanted to surprise me. ChatGPT says, "Sure. Here's an episode of the Sporkful." If this is good, I'm going on vacation. All right? [LAUGHS] I'm outta here.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. So, can ChatGPT use artificial intelligence to write a passable episode of The Sporkful? Will it some day replace not only food podcasters but also food writers and even chefs? And even if that’s a ways away what does the stuff ChatGPT is generating right now tell us about our own food culture today? We're gonna get to all that, but first, let me take a minute to explain what ChatGPT is.
Dan Pashman: Actually, you know what? Hang on. I have ChatGPT open on my computer, let’s see if it can tell us what it is.
Dan Pashman: How does ChatGPT work?
Automated Speaker: ChatGPT is a large language model that uses a variant of the GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) architecture. It is based on a deep neural network that has been trained ...
Dan Pashman: All right, I got to cut in here. I’m already lost. I guess you still need a human to explain ChatGPT, so I'll give it a shot.
Dan Pashman: ChatGPT is a chatbot. You know, if you’ve ever gone to a company’s customer service webpage and clicked on “Chat With Us” and at first you can kind of tell that you're chatting with a robot? That's a chatbot.
Dan Pashman: Now, typing a request into ChatGPT is not like Googling something. All right, Google gives you a list of websites that hopefully have the info you’re looking for. ChatGPT, on the other hand, has taken in tons of information from the internet and other sources, and using Artificial intelligence, gained the ability to create something new based off that information. And it can create things that sound like they came from real humans. When ChatGPT was first released, back in December, people were using it to do basic writing, like write a college admissions essay.
CLIP (PERSON 1): All right we are here on the ChatGPT website and we're gonna see how well it can write a common app essay.
Dan Pashman: Or produce other kinds of formulaic, standard writing
CLIP (PERSON 2): In this video I’m going to show you how to write an email with ChatGPT
CLIP (PERSON 3): It can help you with grant writing or donation letter writing.
Dan Pashman: But lately, ChatGPT has gotten a little more advanced.
CLIP (PERSON 4): We can actually ask ChatGPT to create a cover letter for a job ad.
CLIP (PERSON 5): Today, I can show you how you can create realistic fleshed out characters in minutes using ChatGPT.
CLIP (PERSON 6): ChatGPT write me a crypto trading algorithm that will make me rich.
Dan Pashman: So, I had to know, what would happen if I asked it to write an episode of The Sporkful?
Bettina Makalintal: Hey, Dan. Thanks for having me.
Dan Pashman: So you’ve written about ChatGPT’s ability to replicate the work of those of us in food media. Let’s go ahead and give it a little test. All right, Sporkful producer Andres O’Hara typed in a prompt, “Write an episode of The Sporkful,” and we now each have a copy of the script it generated. Again, I haven’t seen this yet, but let's see here — but it looks like, Bettina, in this one you’re gonna have to play a guy named Sal. Is that right? [LAUGHING]
Bettina Makalintal: All right, I'm ready.
Bettina Makalintal: I'm not gonna do the New York accent.
Dan Pashman: That's fine.
Bettina Makalintal: I don't think it'll be popular.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Dan Pashman: Welcome to The Sporkful. The show where we obsess about food to learn more about people, I'm Dan Pashman. And on today's episode, we're talking about pizza. It even says now, "pizza parlor ambiance". We'll have to add that in post.
Dan Pashman: Pizza parlor ambiance comes up.
[PIZZA PARLOR AMBIANCE]
Dan Pashman: I'm standing outside Joe's, although — now this is the audio nerd in me. I have an issue with this — I'm sitting outside Joe's Pizza in Greenwich Village. We shouldn't have pizza parlor ambiance if I'm outside, it should be street ambiance at that point.
Bettina Makalintal: Ah, good point.
Dan Pashman: The pizza parlor ambiance shouldn't start until we go inside. So not much of an audio producer, ChatGPT.
Dan Pashman: I'm standing outside Joe's Pizza in Greenwich Village, one of the most famous pizza places in New York City. That's true. It is. It's a tiny no frills joint that's been serving up slices since 1975. Now, door opens bells jingle.
Dan Pashman: The jingling bells is a nice touch. I do love when, like, again, as an audio nerd, when the bells jingle and the door opens, it tell you.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, it is nice.
[PIZZA PARLOR AMBIANCE]
Dan Pashman: I'm here with Sal, the owner of Joe's Pizza—don't ask me why the owner's not named Joe— thanks for joining us.
Bettina Makalintal: My pleasure, Dan.
Dan Pashman: So, Sal, what makes Joe's Pizza so special?
Bettina Makalintal: Well, I think it's a combination of things. We use the freshest ingredients. We make our dough fresh every day, and we cook our pies in a coal fired oven. But most importantly, we treat every customer like family.
Dan Pashman: Wow, that's such a good cliche. [LAUGHING]
Bettina Makalintal: I mean, yeah. It's all the things that you say if you're like, you have a good pizza spot. [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
[PIZZA PARLOR AMBIANCE]
Dan Pashman: That's great to hear. Now, I know there's a big debate in the pizza world about whether New York pizza or Chicago pizza is better. What do you think?
Bettina Makalintal: Well, Dan, I'm a little biased, but I think New York pizza is the best pizza in the world. It's all about the crust, the sauce, and the cheese, and we've got it down to a science here at Joe's.
Dan Pashman: I can definitely vouch for that. Now, Sal, I heard that you once delivered a pizza to a very famous person. Can you tell us about that?
Bettina Makalintal: Oh, you mean when I delivered a pizza to Bill Murray?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Bettina Makalintal: How does it— how is it doing this?
Dan Pashman: Joe's Pizza has a wall of photos of celebrities that have been there.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So they are known as a pizza place in New York that a lot of celebrities go to.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So it makes sense that they might have delivered a pizza to Bill Murray and even if they didn't, like this—it feels right.
[PIZZA PARLOR AMBIANCE]
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, that was a wild experience. I was working on the counter one day and Bill Murray walks in and orders a slice. I couldn't believe it. I mean, this is Bill freakin' Murray.
Bettina Makalintal: So I make him a slice and he starts chowing down, and then he looks up at me and says, "Hey, can you deliver a pizza to my hotel room later?" And I'm like, "Uh, sure. Mr. Murray." So I deliver the pizza to his hotel room and he invites me in to hang out and watch TV with him. It was surreal.
Dan Pashman: Kind of like reading this transcript.
Bettina Makalintal: Oh my God, you better book that vacation.
Bettina Makalintal: I think there is a specificity to the language, like the inclusions of the, uh, sures, and the likes. Like it does — it does feel like a way that a real person would talk and not just a generated text.
Dan Pashman: Right. It's not just like, "And then I brought the pizza to Bill Murray."
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah. And like, it's Bill freakin' Murray.
Dan Pashman: Right, right. All right, back to the script, we got to see how this ends.
[PIZZA PARLOR AMBIANCE]
Dan Pashman: What kind of pizza did he order?
Bettina Makalintal: He ordered a plain slice of —
Dan Pashman: Wait, sorry to interrupt you, Bettina, but the transcript says “[SAL LAUGHS]” in brackets. Then you start talking. So, your character's supposed to laugh here.
Bettina Makalintal: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Bettina Makalintal: He ordered a plain slice, of course. Like I said, it's all about the basics.
Dan Pashman: Well, Sal, thank you so much for talking with us today and thanks for making some of the best pizza in the world.
Bettina Makalintal: Anytime, Dan. You're always welcome at Joe's.
Dan Pashman: Door opens, bells jingle.
Bettina Makalintal: So, Dan, what are you thinking as you read this, as an episode of The Sporkful?
Dan Pashman: Like, it’s — certainly, I'm impressed. Like you said, the dialogue feels pretty natural. I'm impressed that it's able to have an arc. Like it's not just spitting a list of facts. This really has a beginning and a middle and an end. That being said, I don't think it's gonna put us outta business anytime soon. It's still missing the detail. It's missing the human nuance.
Dan Pashman: Quick note: we looked into it later on and the owner of the Joe’s Pizza in New York that’s known to attract a lot of celebrities is named Joe, not Sal. There’s an unrelated pizzeria in Brooklyn named Joe and Sal’s. So ChatGPT seems to have gotten that wrong. I’m a little surprised that artificial intelligence is not intelligent enough to figure out that the owner of a place called Joe’s Pizza is most likely named Joe, especially when that info is online. We found it the old fashioned way— we googled it.
Dan Pashman: So anyway, ChatGPT may not be great at keeping its facts straight. There’s actually a note when you open it up that says, “May occasionally generate incorrect information.” Still, ChatGPT does seem to be very good at creating things that feel real. Like restaurants.
Dan Pashman: There was a story in Bon Appetit where the author, Ali Frances, asked ChatGPT to create a "New American restaurant". And there have been lots of conversations about what is New American cuisine at this point. What even qualifies? So Ali Frances asked ChatGPT to make a menu, a playlist, and even name this hypothetical restaurant. As I told Bettina, ChatGPT named it Harvest & Hearth.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, that sounds pretty on point.
Dan Pashman: I mean, which is like, if I was gonna do a parody of like a crappy New American restaurant, like that'd be a pretty good parody name for the restaurant.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, you need the ampersand for sure.
Dan Pashman: So the menu for this mythical Harvest and Hearth, would feature fried chicken and waffles, burrata, [LAUGHS] Mediterranean flatbreads, sushi burritos, hanger steak, and chocolate lava cake.
Bettina Makalintal: I mean, I think that sounds very accurate. I think it sounds like a restaurant that would exist and would be relatively popular, but is not, to me, like, it doesn't seem exciting. It just seems — but yeah, it seems like something that exists.
Dan Pashman: What I see happening in a lot of mediocre restaurants is that they kind of just cherry pick — they put up the 10 most popular ingredients on hot restaurants’ menus and started throwing darts at different things. And That's how they ended up with their menu.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: There’s nothing cohesive about it and it’s certainly nothing new.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, I think just reading the menu right and the name, it feels very much like a place that's trying to appeal to sort of everyone. So to me, it feels very much like the type of place where you would also expect to see like Edison light bulbs and those like very distinct like metal chairs. I think that when people are trying to appeal to as many people as possible, they do —they make these safe choices that seem sort of like risks. I think it sort of reflects the type of sort of food culture that isn't necessarily taking risks or does not have a strong point of view of its own, but is sort of just hopping onto trends and trying to sort of get as many people in the door as they can.
Dan Pashman: Right. So I live pretty far on Long Island. The whole New York metro area, of course, a lot of Italian American immigrants historically. So there's a lot of Italian restaurants, but so many that I feel like you can't get a license to operate a restaurant on Long Island if you won't serve fried calamari.
Bettina Makalintal: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Like you wanna make tacos, you need to have a fried calamari taco on that list. Like, otherwise, people’s brains can't even process it as a restaurant.
Bettina Makalintal: Oh, that's fascinating.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Bettina Makalintal: That's not an nego — [LAUGHS]. I feel like for me, the one thing I always think of is because I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and like for me, the one marker of sort of like this type of new American place is that they always have like a gochujang glazed fried cauliflower at this point.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Bettina Makalintal: And often it is like a gochujang glazed, fried cauliflower taco.
Bettina Makalintal: So it is like this sort of just a mashup of things where the assumption is that, oh, people like gochujang now and they love tacos and they like fried cauliflower, so it has to be all this one thing.
Dan Pashman: Right. That's like literally like they were throwing darts at a board
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, exactly.
Dan Pashman: Like, all right, the next three things we hit are going in a taco/
Dan Pashman: Because ChatGPT can only draw from existing sources, it tends to create things that feel a lot like stuff that’s already everywhere — in other words, cliches.
Dan Pashman: To be clear, as far as we know, restaurant owners and chefs are not using ChatGPT to pick restaurant names or write menus — at least not yet. But where ChatGPT may make inroads sooner is in home cooking. Most people looking for recipes online don’t necessarily need something new and different, they don’t care if a million other people have done it. Right? They just want to make something easy and delicious.
Dan Pashman: And finding recipes on ChatGPT is not like googling. Instead of wading through pages of search results to find the recipe that’s just right for you, you can ask ChatGPT to custom tailor a recipe. Maybe you want an easy pasta dish for a family of four, but someone in your family doesn’t like tomatoes, so you don’t want those in it. It can do that. You can tell it to change the recipe to make the dish spicy, or vegetarian. If you decide you want leftovers, you can ask for 6 servings and it’ll change all the quantities for you. It will keep adjusting the recipe in response to your requests. You can ask it for side dish recommendations, or wine pairings.
Dan Pashman: And ChatGPT’s recipes have become a hot new social media trend. Michelle Meng, a former software engineer, she started a TikTok and YouTube channel comparing ChatGPT recipes to the recipes of big name chefs and recipe developers
CLIP (MICHELLE MENG): AI vs. Gordon Ramsay: Who makes better scrambled eggs? AI vs Binging with Babish: Who makes the better mac and cheese? AI vs. Maangchi: Who makes the better Korean Fried Chicken?
Dan Pashman: In an interview with Eater, Michelle said the human chefs typically win, but that the AI, quote, “does surprisingly well every time.” And I could see ChatGPT becoming a threat to websites like All Recipes, and to individual food bloggers, and pretty soon. Those sites get a ton of traffic from home cooks googling to find recipes, which is not a great system for home cooks. You got to sift through a bunch of results to see which recipe seems best, and you may have to combine recipes to get something right for the people you’re feeding. It’s annoying and time consuming. I see this as a real problem that ChatGPT could eventually solve.
Dan Pashman: In the world of professional cooking and food media, I don’t know that there’s such a clear problem that ChatGPT is in a position to fix. In those worlds there’s more of an emphasis on creativity, new ideas, pushing things forward. Can ChatGPT do that? Here, again, is Bettina Makalintal:
Bettina Makalintal: You know, I saw an example on Twitter where this AI engineer—he like essentially fed in a picture of a fridge, where you could see some pretty obvious ingredients like grapes and eggs. And it assumed that there was like cheese in one of the bins, for example. He essentially asked it to generate recipes based on the ingredients in the image. And so ChatGPT was able to do that. It created like a passable list of like a smoothie and omelet or whatever. But then he tried to make it go a little bit more specific and he asked it to make food recipe ideas that are tasty yet unique, and the average human won't be able to think of this.
Bettina Makalintal: And so one of the things that it generates is a sweet orange omelet, for example. Right? So it can do things that are new or have novelty and aren't things that you're gonna see all the time. But I think still it's like, does that make sense?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Bettina Makalintal: Like a sweet orange omelet is, I guess, new and that's not a thing people do. But you know, I think most real humans would tell you like, maybe that's not a common thing for a reason.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Bettina tests ChatGPT to see how well it can write a personal essay about the immigrant experience. If AI can write a passable food essay, what does that mean for food writers now? And what does it tell us about why certain stories keep getting told? We’ll discuss, stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week on the show I was in Alameda, California, sharing an incredible lunch at Sidestreet Pho with Andrea Nguyen. Andrea’s written a bunch of cookbooks, including her latest, Ever-Green Vietnamese. She says her mission is to demystify Asian food without dumbing it down. But she also knows that people don’t always stick to the script.
CLIP (ANDREA NGUYEN): People are gonna take my recipes, they're gonna go home, they're not gonna follow them. So then how can I give you guardrails? How can I give you cues so that I can teach you something about cooking and about intuition? And in Vietnamese we have this term called “keo,” which means intention. And that's good cooking.
Dan Pashman: Andrea and I also talk about how her approach differs from a younger generation of cookbook authors, and why it was so important to include the American part in her Vietnamese American recipes. That one’s up now, check it out.
Bettina Makalintal: As a child, I remember always feeling like an outsider in my school. I was one of the few kids who came from a family of immigrants, and I often felt like my lunchbox was a glaring symbol of my difference. My mom would pack me traditional dishes from our homeland, and I would be so self-conscious about the smells and the flavors that would waft out when I opened it.
Dan Pashman: Back in December, Bettina put a prompt into ChatGPT that said: “write a stinky lunchbox immigrant memoir.”
Bettina Makalintal: One day a group of boys started making fun of the way my sandwich looked, and I could feel my face getting hot with embarrassment. Then one of my friends who was also an immigrant, spoke up and defended me. She told the boys that the sandwich was delicious and that they were being rude. That small act of kindness made me feel less alone and more proud of who I was.
Dan Pashman: If you haven’t guessed already, this is the essay ChatGPT wrote in response to Bettina’s prompt.
Bettina Makalintal: As I got older, I learned to appreciate the diversity of cultures and backgrounds that made up my schools and community. I began to see my lunchbox not as a source of shame, but as a representation of my unique heritage and the love and care that went into every meal my mom packed for me. I realized that being different wasn't a bad thing. It was something to be celebrated.
Dan Pashman: All right. That's — I — we can't, it's just too cheesy at this point, Bettina. I gotta jump here.
Dan Pashman: So Bettina, what inspired you to put this specific prompt: Write a stinky lunchbox immigrant memoir — into ChatGPT?
Bettina Makalintal: I am a first 1.5 generation Filipino American immigrant. So in my community there is this really common story where you are like the kid who is the sort of outlier in your community because you're the one, child of immigrants, for example. And so this happens to you where you bring your food to school and people make fun of you. And it's become this very common way of telling this, idea of like not understanding your culture as a kid, but then growing up and accepting it.
Dan Pashman: I think we've had guests on the Sporkful share this exact experience: The lunchbox story.
Bettina Makalintal: To me it seems really common, right? But is it common enough that it would be identifiable to ChatGPT? And as you know, as I think that example makes clear, it is pretty identifiable to ChatGPT because it produces a pretty solid facsimile of it.
Dan Pashman: Right. And look, it's not the greatest writing. Obviously, it reads a little bit, sort of like a high school essay. But it does have the key tropes of the story. I went to school, my lunch smelled "funny", people picked on me, I felt bad. But as I got older, I learned to embrace my culture and learn a valuable lesson about diversity. But there are some — there are some glitches.
Bettina Makalintal: Oh, absolutely. I think like once you look at it a tiny bit more closely, it starts to unravel.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] Right. So for instance, it says that you brought a sandwich. Your character in the story brought a sandwich which is not typically what an immigrant of color who has had this type of experience would have been likely to bring.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah. Or it's like the sandwich is unlikely to be the thing that you would get made fun of, right? Like more likely it's that the sandwich is the thing that you start to bring to school after you get made up fun of for say like bringing Filipino chicken adobo that like smells vinegary and kind of sharp.
Dan Pashman: So the story’s got some issues, but the fact that ChatGPT is able to understand the basic arc of it, the dramatic tension of it, tells you that the stinky lunchbox story must be out there a lot. And it is an enticing narrative. It starts with conflict but ultimately is a feel-good story. It's simple, formulaic, with good guys and bad guys.
Bettina Makalintal: The like "bad guy", which is like the kids in the lunchroom making fun of you ...
Dan Pashman: Right. I always picture the — Johnny from the Karate Kid.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, exactly.
Dan Pashman: Any like high school bad guy is always that blonde-haired guy who played the jerk in like five '80s movies.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, it's like this distinct cliche, right? That you can sort of like make — like anyone who's reading it can just make up the bad guy,
Dan Pashman: Right
Bettina Makalintal: It assumes that your current self is completely, you know, peaceful with your cultural identity and there's no tension anymore. You just accept it and love it. And I don't think that necessarily is considering all the ways that like food and identity can still be a form of like pain or conflict as an adult. It's very much like this thing happened and it's over and it's all resolved.
Dan Pashman: So you continued to test ChatGPT. You asked it for a different kind of, sort of immigrant food story trope.
Bettina Makalintal: I did. Yeah. So I think another story that I think is really common is, you know, every so often there is a new essay that makes the rounds in food media circles about, you know, cut fruit as a sign of love, specifically when like Asian parents cut fruit.
Dan Pashman: Right, it’s the story of a parent cutting up an apple or a mango and handing it to their child …
Bettina Makalintal: It's portrayed as the cut fruit is sort of a metaphor for their love, if the parents are not necessarily able to say that or they're not the most, like, sort of verbally affectionate. The cut fruit is a symbol of that. And so, yes. The next prompt I tried was: “Write a diaspora memoir about Asian parents cutting fruit.”
Dan Pashman: And I mean, like what were you expecting when you typed in that prompt?
Bettina Makalintal: Honestly, I thought that one was pretty niche. I didn't think that it would get it because, I don't think there are as many examples of that as there is for the lunchbox story.
Dan Pashman: And so how did ChatGPT do with that?
Bettina Makalintal: It did quite well honestly.
Automated Speaker: As a child growing up in a traditional Asian household, I can remember the countless times when my parents would carefully cut up fruit for us to enjoy as a snack. It was a small but significant part of our daily routine ...
Bettina Makalintal: It generates the big takeaway that fruit cutting, and this is in quotes, “The fruit cutting was a metaphor for my parents’ love and care for us. They wanted to make sure we had everything we needed to be healthy and happy. And the fruit was just one small but important part of that.” It pulls out all of these sort of assumptions about family life. Like for example, that the household is a traditional Asian household. You know, and that fruit cutting is sort of this more meaningful part of the diaspora experience than just a snack.
Dan Pashman: What does the fact that ChatGPT can do a pretty good approximation — can infer this metaphor based on a pretty basic prompt, what does that tell us about the trope and the Asian parents cutting fruit metaphor story?
Bettina Makalintal: I mean, I think for one thing it reflects our entrenched cultural stereotypes about Asian parents. Like i.e., that Asian parents are inherently cold and withholding and traditional and strict. Right? I think that is sort of the cultural implication when you say the word Asian parents, even though that's like — I don't think that's necessarily true. Like I don't think my parents who are Asian were particularly strict or cold or withholding.
Dan Pashman: So here’s a less obvious issue with ChatGPT. Because it draws from everything that’s been done before, it’s liable to not just repeat cliches, but also perpetuate stereotypes. If Asian parents have usually been depicted a certain way in the past, ChatGPT will see that pattern and repeat it.
Dan Pashman: Which leads to another question: How did these become patterns and cliches in the first place? How did these seemingly specific stories about stinky lunchboxes and Asian parents cutting fruit become so common?
Dan Pashman: Well it started because it was some peoples’ real lived experience, and they wrote about it. Bettina thinks writers see these stories as a way to quickly connect with readers of similar backgrounds.
Bettina Makalintal: I think there is this very real feeling that we were sort of othered and excluded because of our foods. And so I think it's — this is an easy sort of way to find your community of people who have had that experience. So I think that's sort of why it's become shorthand for this like Asian American immigrant kid experience.
Dan Pashman: So that’s where it originated. But then editors and those in power in food media heard these stories and they latched on to them, kept gravitating towards them, because they check certain boxes.
Bettina Makalintal: Food media is looking for a certain type of story, which has to move through a narrative arc pretty clearly. And it has to be pretty relatable to anyone who's reading it, right? And I think that the cut fruit story, like the stinky lunchbox story, it's not a terribly complex story, right? It's one where there is this — there is this conflict. For example, in the cut fruit, it's that your parents don't say I love you, but there is a pretty easy way they get around it, which is cutting the fruit. And then the takeaway is, again, like that really comfortable narrative of food brings us together. I think there is sort of a frustration, especially within Asian American writers, for example, that these narratives are just used way too often and that they are at this point a little bit boring and kind of stuck in the same orbit of thought. Like it's not really — it's not pushing the conversation any further. It's just the same story over and over again.
Dan Pashman: The more nuanced stories are not always so neat and tidy, and don’t always leave you feeling warm and fuzzy …
Bettina Makalintal: There's also a lot of food stories that the takeaway is something that is more uncomfortable, right? Like if we're talking about, say like gentrification in food, that is a story that can be like more prickly for certain people and people won't feel as good after they read it.
Dan Pashman: I feel like we're talking around something a little bit here, but like when you're talking about "people won't feel as good" are we're talking mostly about white people?
Bettina Makalintal: I mean, I think readers in general, but I think particularly like readers who are not — readers who are not of the same sort of cultural background as the author. And yeah, I think a lot of the time that is to a white audience, but at the same time I think it does apply to anyone who's not from the background of the writer.
Dan Pashman: So in other words, in the stinky lunchbox story, there are good guys and bad guys and the good guys win, and it’s all in the past anyway. In a story about gentrification happening today, you may have a reader who recently moved into an area that’s getting more expensive, where some residents are being forced out. That reader is then implicated in the story. It’s not so warm and fuzzy for them at that point. And that reader might also be the editor who decides whether or not this piece gets published.
Dan Pashman: I asked Bettina if that’s what she meant when she was talking about the difference between a gentrification story and the stinky lunchbox story.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, exactly. This one is saying like, someone in the past was racist.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Bettina Makalintal: And now everyone is just happy and comfortable in their identity.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Bettina Makalintal: Which I think is partially why it’s so popular.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Bettina Makalintal: I think this proves to me that like we need stories about these sort of ideas, like the complexity of cultural identity that are a little bit different and aren't so — you know, aren't so easy to just sort of like pin down by a computer.
Dan Pashman: When people who work on artificial intelligence are asked about how ChatGPT is going to affect people’s jobs, they often say it's is not about replacing people, this is a tool that people can use to create bigger and better new things. Of course, anytime you’re creating anything new, you’re building on ideas that came before. So you need to know what else is out there. Maybe ChatGPT can be a tool in that sense. It can distill huge amounts of information on a subject, which will give you that base of knowledge and allow you to create on top of it faster and more effectively.
Dan Pashman: But Bettina sees ChatGPT as a different kind of tool. Because it’s good at recognizing patterns in food stories and culture, she sees it as a way to figure out what not to do.
Bettina Makalintal: I think, for me, it does feel like a helpful metric of just being like, okay, this is the really common and predictable way to tell this story. I can look at that, what it's generated about this stinky lunchbox moment, and I can think, okay, well, like what can I do to make sure that my story is more specific or what can I do to make my story have a different takeaway or just sort of run people through these same concepts in a way that is different and feels more interesting or feels more unique to me than just this regurgitated common narrative.
Dan Pashman: The idea that it's a tool, to me, it's like in any creative pursuit, and let's talk food writing, recipe development, running a restaurant, there's always gonna be people who are coming up with new ideas and pushing things forward. And there are gonna be some people who are kind of following the trends. But they could still like, be good at your job and make a living and have a life. So you introduce a tool like this, I think that for the people who are able to stay on the cutting edge, yes, maybe they'll be able to use it as a tool, but I think a lot of those other folks are gonna struggle.
Bettina Makalintal: Yeah, I mean, I think it kind of comes down to what your goals are as a creative person, right? And I think that ChatGPT fits into the idea of just sort of producing for the sake of producing or like producing just to sort of do the bare minimum. Like it helps that act of like making something. But I think a lot of chefs and creative people and writers, you know, like myself for example, are like not motivated by just making something. Like, you wanna do something that is creative, or if you wanna do something that is boundary pushing or interesting, you aren't gonna be happy with just that rote production. Right? You want something that is more thoughtful and complex. I don't think it'll take away the sort of artistry of cooking or the artistry of writing, because I think there will always be people who will be motivated by that inherent pursuit of doing something clever.
Dan Pashman: I agree. Creative people are motivated by not just by shoveling coal into the fire to keep the train running. It's about that pursuit of a new idea of something. Any creative person knows that feeling. Like when you hit on something in your head, you're excited or there's is a topic that you find especially compelling, it's exciting. I've been doing it for 25 years. It's still exciting when you hit on something like that. If you have this like incredibly powerful tool that is going to distill for you what has been done before with a depth and breadth that you didn't have before, will that allow whatever you create that's new to be better because you have this foundation — you're working off of this foundation that's so much bigger and more powerful? Or will it dumb everything down?
Bettina Makalintal: I think it will dumb a lot of things down. But I do think that, like, especially speaking on a personal level, I do feel slightly motivated by the idea that I need to like outdo or outrun what it can do. So I think there will always be people like me who feel like they must do better and they must do more creative and interesting work than this thing that's coming for our jobs.
Dan Pashman: Well, Bettina, I think you're one of the best food writers out there, so if ChatGPT takes you out, we're all screwed.
Bettina Makalintal: Thank you. Knock on wood.
Dan Pashman: Next week, we look at a particular food that’s shown up again and again in Black music, from the Harlem Renaissance to Beyonce. That food? Jelly. Why is jelly such a big part of musical history, and how did the internet bring jelly to a new generation of listeners? Listen next week to find out.
Dan Pashman: In the meantime check out last week's show, featuring cookbook author and food writer, Andrea Nguyen.