We owe women of color for the foods we love to eat : Code Switch : NPR
LORI LIZARRAGA, HOST:
Hey, y’all. You’re listening to CODE SWITCH. I’m Lori Lizarraga.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
And I’m Karen Grigsby Bates. And today, we’ve got something special on the menu for you, don’t we, Lori?
LIZARRAGA: Yes, we do, Karen. Our story today is a smorgasbord – not of food, but about food. So it’s only right that we start there – with food, Karen. Everyone’s got a favorite. What are yours?
BATES: Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Cuban, hamburger.
LIZARRAGA: Ooh. She had those ready to go.
BATES: How about you, Lori?
LIZARRAGA: I’m a little pickier than you, I think, Karen. I have favorite dishes more than whole cuisines, but top spots for me go to soup dumplings, empanadas, gumbo, black chicken and rice – just, like, any rice, cooked any way.
BATES: Ooh, I’m with you on the rice, and now I’m hungry.
LIZARRAGA: Girl, same. I also love how diverse our favorite foods are. We named cuisines from literally all over the world – unplanned. I didn’t expect that.
BATES: I did. Here in Southern California, we eat the world on the regular.
LIZARRAGA: Mmm. I could eat the world right now.
There is a point to this cruel exercise. And actually, our answers emphasize it because it’s easy to take the variety we have access to in this country for granted. But what we eat and cook tells the story of who we are, where we come from and how we relate to each other.
So Karen, for all those different cuisines you and I just listed, you would think that we’d have just as many diverse voices in food media and publishing. But which ingredients and dishes are popularized and which chefs are bolstered has been filtered through a super narrow lens of an industry dominated by mostly white, mostly male decision-makers. And those decision-makers aren’t at all representative of who is actually behind the authentic variety of food we enjoy in this country. For decades, it’s been women – immigrants and women of color, especially – who have shaped the way you and I eat today.
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MAYUKH SEN: I could have written about 30 women. I could have written about a hundred women. There are so many immigrant women throughout American history who’ve really changed the way America thinks about food and talks about food, even today.
LIZARRAGA: That’s Mayukh Sen. His book, “Tastemakers,” is a group biography that focuses on seven immigrant women in the 20th century whose cooking has influenced the way we eat.
SEN: Without the work of these seven women, words like stir fry would not be part of the American lexicon.
BATES: And the way a lot of Americans learned about stir fries back in the day was through cookbooks. We got curious about what people in other countries ate and how they made it.
LIZARRAGA: And it’s not like cooks could just post their delicious and original recipes to Instagram or monetize their cooking expertise on their own, right? Back in the day, publishing a cookbook was one of the few ways they could establish their authority in the food world. But the women Mayukh wrote about were immigrants – many of them home chefs – voices the food world had really been shutting out.
SEN: They had to come to this country and navigate a very heavily gate-kept American food establishment just to have their voices heard, just to publish their own cookbooks, just to open their own restaurants. And those sorts of challenges are part of the story of American food.
LIZARRAGA: Part of the story of American food, part of the story of American life…
BATES: And part of the story of American publishing, for sure. I mean, I was there, working in publishing in the ’70s, and it was very white and very male-dominated. I mean, Lori, think about “Mad Men,” only with books.
LIZARRAGA: Ugh. And it’s not like it’s gotten so much better either, Karen. A diversity study by a multicultural book publisher surveyed, like, 22,000 press and publishing staff. And of those who responded, 76% were white – in 2019. And even if you are one of the very few POC authors who manage to get through that gate, you’re going to be asked to do more than cook. You’re going to have to get personal.
SEN: My sense is that publishers really clamor for food writers from marginalized communities, like immigrant female cooks, to really regurgitate any traumas that they may have had and their personal stories for wide consumption.
LIZARRAGA: But there’s one chef Mayukh wrote about who didn’t do that and really kind of paid the price for it, Karen.
SEN: Julie Sahni took a very different approach. She was very methodical and just said, this is what classic Indian cooking is. I’m going to show you the techniques behind that. I’m going to show you the equipment that you need, and then we will go from there. I will not regale you with stories about my childhood. So it was a sort of rejection of this impulse.
LIZARRAGA: And the thing is, Julie Sahni was a renowned chef. In the ’80s, she was reportedly the first Indian woman to lead the kitchen of a fine dining restaurant in New York ever, and that still wasn’t enough for her to succeed to the fullest standing on her expertise alone.
SEN: I would absolutely say that Julie’s decision to reject any sort of memoiristic impulse in her writing probably prevented her work from really having the longevity across generations that it truly deserves.
BATES: Boy, I am just shaking my head over here.
LIZARRAGA: Why, Karen?
BATES: Well, it all just stands in such stark contrast to someone like Julia Child. I mean, she’s a name everyone will recognize. She did rise to fame with a superdense two-volume cookbook 20 years before Julie Sahni would try to do the exact same thing with her own cookbook.
LIZARRAGA: Come on, somebody. She’s connecting these dots. ‘Cause, look, Mayukh wrote about Julia Child in his book, too, Karen.
BATES: Really? Why? She wasn’t an immigrant or a woman of color.
LIZARRAGA: Well, that’s exactly why. As an American, Julia Child became an icon of French cooking. But her fame became something that actual immigrant chefs had to exist in the shadow of.
SEN: I noticed how often so many of these women were called the Julia Child of their respective countries or regions of origin.
BATES: And let’s be clear, fam. We are not knocking Mrs. Child.
BATES: I love her. And her achievements? They’re legendary. But the publishing industry and food media world have the power to choose whose work and whose reach gets the Julia Child reception. It’s seemingly the only difference, then, between who gets forgotten and who gets to become the gold standard.
LIZARRAGA: Nail on the head, Karen. And Mayukh even took it a little further.
SEN: You know, that may have been a comparison that provoked some flattery to whomever was on the receiving end of it decades ago. Yet today, to my mind at least, it has really aged quite badly as a rhetorical crutch because it’s almost patronizes to these women and condescends to them and essentially says that, you know, for you to have any legitimacy at all, you must be compared to Julia Child.
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LIZARRAGA: I bring it all up because Julia Child does two things for us here. She makes the case that Americans weren’t put off by foreign food or intimidating recipes in the ’60s. Much of her career was built on both. And she’s an example of how receptive American audiences can be to fellow Americans – right? – which is why I wanted to talk to a contemporary American chef and cookbook author about what it’s been like for her in this industry all these years later.
PRIYA KRISHNA: When I wrote “Indian-ish,” I very intentionally put, on the cover, “Recipes And Stories From A Modern American Family” because I did not want the book to be put in, like, the international section.
LIZARRAGA: That’s Priya Krishna.
KRISHNA: And guess what? They still put it in the international section in so many bookstores, even though it said American on the cover.
LIZARRAGA: She’s a food reporter for The New York Times and the author of multiple cookbooks. And she is American, born and raised – just up the road from me, in fact – in Dallas, Texas. But like a lot of us, Priya’s background – the one that inspired that cookbook she’s talking about, “Indian-ish: Recipes And Antics From A Modern American Family,” confounds food media and really brings out that 76% white side of publishing.
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KRISHNA: So when writing “Indian-ish,” I wanted to, like, really plant a flag in the ground – like, this doesn’t have to be a little bit Indian, a little bit American. This is, like, a cuisine into itself. I remember thinking, when “Indian-ish” came out, like, it feels like I’m really going against the grain. I’m not italicizing Hindi words. I’m not italicizing dal or Holi (ph). This was a real common practice, the idea of italicizing – sort of, like, visually othering words that were not English. And I was like, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to lean into Indian tropes. I once contributed a recipe to a cookbook where, like, they put, like, a photo of Ganesh in the background. And I was like, what does Ganesh have to do with this sabzi? Like…
LIZARRAGA: You’re kidding.
KRISHNA: And this is a very common thing – to just really lean into these sort of like, quote-unquote, “exoticized” Indian tropes. I really didn’t want to do that.
KRISHNA: I was like, I want the photos to sort of capture our everyday living…
KRISHNA: …In Dallas, Texas, growing up. And now, looking back, if I could write “Indian-ish” in 2023, I would go even further. Like, for example, I put little parentheses next to some of the dishes. Like, there’s a dish called kadhi, which is this amazing dish of, like, turmeric and yogurt and chickpea flour, and it’s just delicious. And I wrote, like, in parentheses, turmeric yogurt soup. But to me, that just sort of fails to capture what the dish is. It’s just – it’s me, you know, inadequately using the English language, which could never adequately describe what kadhi is, which is not really a soup, not really a stew, but sort of its own thing.
I think one thing that was really important, too, with “Indian-ish” was centering my perspective – not writing about Indian food for a white audience – which very much is sort of how many authors of color are taught to write about their food. It’s like, explain it to someone who has no idea what turmeric or cumin seeds or, like, a sabzi is.
LIZARRAGA: Make it accessible.
KRISHNA: Make it accessible. That’s sort of the phrase you hear over and over again. I wanted it to be like, I am centering my perspective and my identity, and you are welcome to come along for the ride. And if you don’t know what something is, Google it. Because, you know, the reality is that people of color have been asked to step outside of themselves our whole lives.
KRISHNA: So why can’t white people do it, too?
LIZARRAGA: You say today you would go further. But then, did that feel like you were really pushing boundaries? And did that make it a challenge to get “Indian-ish” published?
KRISHNA: What was challenging was selling the book, actually. I heard a lot that we’ve already published an Indian cookbook. Isn’t that crazy? We’ve already published one Indian cookbook. Therefore, we’ve hit our Indian cookbook quota.
LIZARRAGA: I wish it were crazy, Priya.
KRISHNA: It’s not like this is a country of billions of people with an enormous diaspora around the world, but we published our one Indian cookbook, so we’re good.
KRISHNA: We can publish 10 cookbooks about pasta, but only one about Indian food. And that book didn’t do well, so therefore we’re not going to be taking another chance. That was the market that I was entering, and that made it really hard. And one thing I kept saying over and over in meetings is, like, would billions of people be making dal and sabzi and roti for dinner every night if this was laborious food to make and put on the table?
KRISHNA: Like, yes, of course, in every cuisine there are quick weeknight recipes, and there are the project recipes.
KRISHNA: And Indian food is no different, but there seems to be this divide that, oh, like, you know, Western recipes are easy, quick, weeknight, simple food; non-Western recipes can’t be simple food. And that was really disheartening.
LIZARRAGA: I think, you know, the concept you’re describing is conflating unfamiliar with inaccessible, almost. And that is a difficult habit or way of thinking to try to break or to try to convince someone that those things just aren’t the same. Do you feel like, in terms of presenting your identity, “Indian-ish” was helpful in that process of helping to sort of get to this place of going even further today with who you are?
KRISHNA: Oh, 100%. When “Indian-ish” came out, I didn’t have a huge platform. I had just joined Bon Appetit’s video team.
KRISHNA: I really had no idea how the cookbook would do. And I would go to these cookbook events, and I would meet not only Indian Americans, but just other, you know, members of diasporic communities just being like, yeah, this book, like, directly spoke to me. It, like, directly spoke to how I feel every day when I, like, listen to Bollywood music and I listen to, you know, Top 40 hits.
LIZARRAGA: Were you thinking of a larger audience that is white or that hasn’t, you know, ever really been interested in or cooked in their own kitchen Indian food? Or were you trying to talk to other families, other women like yourself?
KRISHNA: At the time, there was a very wide swath of people who found Indian food delicious but very intimidating.
KRISHNA: So I was like, I want to target those people. And what I found is that there was an equal number of people who loved Indian food, didn’t grow up with it, wanted to make it at home but didn’t know, like, where to begin.
KRISHNA: Or how to make recipes that didn’t require them to, like, buy, like, a hundred spices, toast them, grind them in a spice grinder and then you start the recipe. And then there were also just as many people who grew up in households where they were making Desi food. Their parents just never taught them. But they crave these flavors. But, you know, immigrant moms, they’re like, a little pinch of this, a spoonful of that. Like, they’re not writing down recipes.
LIZARRAGA: You’re describing my mother to a T.
LIZARRAGA: I’m completely familiar with that. Why write a cookbook at all, Priya, like, any cookbook?
KRISHNA: Cookbooks are a reflection of where the culture was at that time…
KRISHNA: …And how you fit within it at the time. And in a lot of ways, that can be really hard. There’s little sentences I’ll read back from “Indian-ish,” and I’ll, like, cringe a little bit. I’ll be like, ugh, why’d you describe it like that? Or why did you say it like that? But then I’m like, you know what? That is a snapshot of that period of my life and where I was and how I thought about my identity and food. And so in that way, I think cookbooks will always be important because, of course, we have, like, social media, which is a very dynamic platform that is constantly changing, but there’s a real permanence to cookbooks that I think makes them really important cultural artifacts that I don’t think will ever sort of go out of style.
KRISHNA: And I think for that reason, I’m really glad I documented my recipes in that way.
LIZARRAGA: Priya Krishna, thanks for your insight. We appreciate you.
KRISHNA: Thanks for having me, Lori.
BATES: Coming up, how cooking authentically is about so much more than the ingredients or technique of a dish.
REEM ASSIL: You know, for me, like, every dish has a soul to the dish, has a spirit, has a history. And as long as that stays intact, I feel very strongly that everything else is flexible.
BATES: Stay with us.
LIZARRAGA: CODE SWITCH. We’ve been talking about how food and cooking is this incredible way of expressing identity.
BATES: Right. Through cooking, through owning restaurants, through writing and publishing recipes. And for a long time, people of color in the food industry have had to jump through the hoops of a tightly gate-kept publishing world.
LIZARRAGA: Which has really been dominated by what’s accessible to a Western audience.
BATES: And all that led me to our next guests. Von Diaz is a journalist who writes about the foods of her native Puerto Rico and of her life in the American South. And Reem Assil is a restaurant owner and former community organizer who has written about foods of the Arab diaspora, including the breads of Syria and Palestine. We talked about what really makes a recipe representative of who they are and where they come from. And Reem said it’s about so much more than a list of ingredients and techniques.
ASSIL: You know, for me, like, every dish has a soul to the dish – has a spirit, has a history. And as long as that stays intact, I feel very strongly that everything else is flexible. And I say this because that’s how people have evolved over the course of time. Like, I think that for the immigrant experience, for Arabs, the food that they remembered when they left in the, you know, ’60s or ’70s has evolved, right? No one family has that authentic way to make that recipe. Everybody has a different spin on it based on what’s available to them. So why not be flexible? You know, you don’t have pomegranate? What is another thing that’s tart and that you can put in there? Like, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. And in fact, the dish becomes better over time when people discover these things. Also, there’s this conception that our cuisine is not adaptable, is not flexible. And, in fact, it is very adaptable.
BATES: That brings up the word that I’m afraid to use because you may all throw something at me virtually. It’s the A-word. It’s authenticity. Von, you had a very funny quote somewhere, I think, in the introduction to your book where you said it’s Puerto Rican cooking. It’s Puerto Rican ’cause I made it.
VON DIAZ: Yeah.
BATES: What exactly does that mean in terms of maybe challenging the reader a little bit about what they think they know about where you come from, what you cook, who you want to eat it?
DIAZ: Yeah. Well, I love this question around authenticity because it leads to a series of other interesting questions, right? Like, authentic to whom, right? And under what conditions? When I taught food studies at UNC, I would often ask my students to think about who the authenticity was for, right? Who is the consumer of that authenticity? Who needs for something to be called authentic Chinese food, authentic Puerto Rican food? I doubt it’s the people themselves, right? I don’t personally look for food because someone has told me it’s authentic. I eat the food and decide for myself whether it feels like – you know, to use something beautiful that Reem said – can I detect the soul of the dish, right? Is it in there? And again, to the question of authentic to whom – right? – there is only one Von Diaz there is only one Reem Assil.
The circumstances that created me include a lot of hybridized cultures. Puerto Rico is a place that is African, Indigenous, Spanish, American and more, at this point. So does my authenticity require all of those things to be represented in a dish, or is my authenticity more about the quality and the freshness of the sofrito that’s used as the foundation for the beans, for the sauces, for the stews? I also – piggybacking on something that Reem said, food is alive. Cuisines are alive. If you don’t adapt them – right? – if you don’t change the ingredients, then it’s not living, right? It’s not evolving. And there are a number of things happening in our world today that require that we evolve our cuisines, right? Climate change is upending everything we know about agriculture year in and year out.
DIAZ: There are things that don’t grow, that used to. There are a lot of interesting potential ingredients that we’re finding to be really resilient to climate change that folks are starting to grow. So now some things will be replaced by other things. The United States – forgive me for using the tired cliche, but – is a super melting pot, right? There are people from all over the planet that live in this country. And those of us who get to live in big cities, live side by side with one another. When I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Flatbush, which was a heavily Caribbean neighborhood.
DIAZ: And so the culture, the foods, the ingredients that I would encounter were, like, Trini, Jamaican, Dominican, Black American, you know, just general American, right? When I lived in East Harlem in New York – heavily Puerto Rican and so on. I live in Durham, N.C. now. There is a large Asian community here. I encounter Asian ingredients that I used to have a hard time finding. And so in order to keep the cuisines alive – which, again, I think we should – we should adapt them because why not make things better – we have to keep playing. Like, we have to keep experimenting. I don’t think it serves cultures or cuisines to be orthodox about them.
BATES: Reem, your cookbook is called “Arabiyya” – did I pronounce that correctly?
ASSIL: Mmm hmm.
BATES: Which means Arab woman. What was your intention with that – especially with this relationship with authenticity?
ASSIL: Mmm hmm. Yeah. It’s kind of in a playful way. It’s the spirit in which I like to do everything. You know, as a child of immigrants growing up in a very suburban, predominantly white – I was always the other – right? – always having to explain for myself and always put in the box. So I basically reclaimed my identity. The title really is a reclamation of my narrative, and it’s a way to take everything you think about when you think of the Arab woman and then open this book and have it all turned up on its head, right? Take every trope, every stereotype – that’s really what I wanted to do with this book.
Obviously, there’s also a reclamation of the Arab woman spirit – you know? – as the carriers of the culture, as the folks that have always had to be up against these systems of patriarchy. It talks about basically the intersectionality of my identity – that I’m not just Arab, you know? I am a woman. I’m a person of color in this country, right? I am an organizer that has organized for many years in Black and brown communities. So my food reflects Oakland as much as it reflects Palestine. It’s all these things.
BATES: I’m wondering if either of you – or both of you – are finding that cookbook editors are more receptive to this kind of 360-degree treatment of culture when it’s joined with culinary things. I’m wondering if, even now, you’re finding editors pushing back maybe a little, going, mmm, that might be a little too assertive for being able to get your books out here – you know? – you want the widest possible audience.
DIAZ: I can offer two very different perspectives from two very different book processes that may actually reflect a change over time. So my first book was published in 2018, and it took me two years to get that book sold. And I was told – not so delicately – that there really just wasn’t that much interest in Puerto Rican food. And so I did feel like I was rowing upstream quite a bit with my first book.
Today, I actually find that I’m being actually asked to push into that space. I have editors coming to me very directly, like, can you push a little bit further into these ideas around colonialization or even the question that you’re asking, Karen – right? – what is authentic? What makes it authentic, right? And I think there is a new landscape. And I will say, at least from my perspective with my forthcoming book, the only places where I still have to, like, kind of butt in is when folks suggest ingredients that are just completely inappropriate. For example, there’s a recipe that has sugar cane in my forthcoming book, and that gave some folks pause when we got into the editorial, and I was like, y’all can pause all you want. It is a staple ingredient for the Caribbean. And so if you are a person who doesn’t have access to sugar cane, maybe that’s just not the recipe for you to make, right? Like, it doesn’t have to be for everyone to resonate.
BATES: So there is an evolution. I’m wondering – you know, how much harder is it for you all because you are these intersectional identities?
ASSIL: I think that being a woman and being a woman of color and, like, where social justice is the in thing, you can get really tokenized in that process. And so for me, it was really important all the way through the creative process that, if I could smell tokenization, I would sniff it out (laughter) right away. I’d be like, nope, we’re not putting that. You know, I wanted everything to come from a place of power because, yeah, this is documented history, and I want other women to pick this up and see themselves reflected in it. So I wanted my book to speak to a mainstream, but I didn’t want to be in the white gaze, so to speak, as this sort of rags-to-riches brown-girl story of, like, even she can make it in the food world.
DIAZ: You know, women are the keepers of culture everywhere on the planet. And I will agree that, despite women being the domestic ones – you know, the folks that take care of the home, that take care of the family – we don’t have proportional representation, probably, in any field. Cookbooks certainly are among them. I also know that, despite my positive experience with my current book process, the folks making decisions at the highest level, particularly for major publishers like the ones that Reem and I are working with – those spaces do continue to be white, and there do continue to be a lot of men that, like – there’s an expression in Spanish called a chingona…
DIAZ: …Which hopefully, yeah, I mean, like, you know, for folks who haven’t heard of that – right? – is like a bada** woman – like, a tough and hardworking person who is confident. That’s sort of, like, how I translate that term. And I think that part of what I’ve been seeing is a lot of us in this space insisting – right? – we are the keepers of culture. We don’t have to do it this way. My culture is incredibly expansive and has lots and lots of intersections with other things. I am not one thing. It’s like, I’m not just a woman, and I’m not just Puerto Rican. I am, you know, created of multiplicities. And I am seeing that widely in the field. I’m seeing a lot of really, like, wonderful brown women who are body positive, who are insisting – right? – that, like, you can be a fat woman and a cook, and no one should think anything about it or judge you for the way that you – there’s, like, some really interesting things going on in this space that I think do reflect some work that’s being put in and also reflect the ways all of our, you know, myriad Black and brown communities are deeply woven into the fabric of American society and, at this point, inextricable from it.
BATES: If you could wave a magic wand or a magic whisk or whatever it is that chefs use, what would you change, if it was in your power, about how books by people who look like me are produced and are sent out into the world to succeed?
ASSIL: I want to see more imprints that are owned by people of color, started by people of color, for people of color because I think the people at the top are still sort of making the decisions and are the gatekeepers to our cultural narratives. It’s going to be really hard for us to have resources to tell our stories and to tell them well. I think only when the people who share kind of cultural experiences with you that everybody gets to benefit.
BATES: How about you, Von?
DIAZ: If I had a magic – we’ll say it’s a magic cleaver…
LIZARRAGA: You are chingona (laughter).
DIAZ: Yeah. To change something, I think there needs to be a concerted effort to be doing reconnaissance amongst communities that are underrepresented. A lot of times, the excuse that folks give for why there isn’t a person of color in the running is that they didn’t have that many applicants. And it’s like, well, OK, if we want to be truly restorative in this world – right? – if we want to engage in practices that lead to justice, then we need to go out into communities that are underrepresented and get to know these talents, right?
There are – and this is still true to this day – abysmally few editors of color at major publications like the ones that Reem and I are working with. And it shows, right? It puts a lot of onus on the writer to represent – right? – and to do an excellent job. So, yeah, my magic cleaver would lead to some concerted efforts to get to know the culinary talent that maybe hasn’t made it yet ’cause they’re – you know, they’re the future.
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BATES: Reem, Von, thank you very, very much for your time and for your insight and for your good humor and for your books.
DIAZ: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks, y’all.
ASSIL: Thank you so much.
LIZARRAGA: How amazing were those women, Karen? I could listen to them all day.
BATES: Me too. But at this point, Lori, I’m focused on eating, not reading. So I’m going to go see what’s in the kitchen. But I should point out that all the books we talked about, there’s a link for those in the show page. Take a look.
LIZARRAGA: Ending right where we began – hungry.
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LIZARRAGA: And that’s our show. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is [email protected] And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, before we go, we want to give a quick shoutout to our CODE SWITCH Plus listeners. We appreciate you, and thanks for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH Plus means getting to listen to all our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.
BATES: This episode was produced by our intern, Olivia Chilkoti, and Jess Kung. It was edited by Dalia Mortada. It was engineered by James Willetts.
LIZARRAGA: And a big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam – Christina Cala, Courtney Stein, James Sneed, Diba Mohtasham, Kumari Devarajan, B.A. Parker, Gene Demby, Taylor Ash, Steve Drummond and Veralyn Williams. Our art director is LA Johnson. I’m Lori Lizarraga.
BATES: And I’m Karen Grigsby Bates.
LIZARRAGA: Call your granny.
BATES: See you.
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