Readers to Eaters was launched nearly a decade ago by Philip Lee and his wife June Jo. In the years since, they’ve told the stories of some of the most recognized growers and chefs in America and received plenty of accolades along the way. Through publishing, hosting pop-ups, and organizing events with schools, libraries, and farmers markets, Readers to Eaters is breathing life into food literacy and telling inclusive stories that inspire young readers from every background.
Their 2017 title Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix, follows the story of Korean-born, LA-based chef Roy Choi. We chatted with the couple about the inspiration for their new release, being woke to our daily food choices, and more.
How did the concept for Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix form?
June Jo Lee: Roy Choi received a lot of media interest soon after his Kogi BBQ taco truck was launched, and his remixing of food cultures especially caught our attention. Philip and I suggested the idea to Jacqueline Briggs Martin, who wrote the first two Food Heroes books on urban farmer Will Allen and chef Alice Waters.
Jackie invited me to co-write the story. Roy Choi and I are born the same year in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated to the United States. We share a similar American experience — growing up in California, eating Korean food at home, living between two cultures and feeling as though we never quite fit in. We also share a passion for food culture and caring for people through food. So race and culture was deeply embedded into the story.
I heard a radio interview with Roy who talked about his favorite hip hop songs — 2Pac’s “I Get Around,” NWA’s “Dope Man,” Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That,” and Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” These rhythms paced Jackie and my street rhymes.
Jackie found the through line of our story — the streets — which is my favorite element in the book. I found the meta modern expression of “remix” of foods, flavors, people, histories, cultures, ideas, and futures.
Who should read this book?
Philip Lee: The primary target is for children between 3rd-6th grade, but we’re so pleased that it has reached middle school to high school students as well. For younger readers, they connect to the story on how good food means to their body and family. The older kids are interested in the story on food justice and how good food can impact their communities. Kids of all ages connect with the illustration by graffiti art pioneer Man One. There are very few books that capture street culture and so we especially to excited to pair this story on street food with street art.
How has the book been received, and has anything surprised you about its reception?
PL: The book has won numerous awards, including the Seibert Award Honor for Most Distinguished Informational Book 2018. It was named a Notable Children’s Book 2018 by the American Library Association.
What is most surprising is the reach of this story. We have educators in rural Arkansas and Kentucky telling us that the children are loving the book. It’s a very different world for them. Reading about Korean taco trucks is like science fiction to them!
We’re also moved by how readers connect with the immigrant story. The Korean taco truck is not a marketing gimmick but a reflection of the blending of communities in LA, with Koreatown next to the Mexican neighborhood. This this story on culinary remix is a also a story about the new America.
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix and the rest of the “Food Heroes Series” focuses on living chefs and food producers. Is that an intentional choice, and if so, why?
PL: We make an intentional decision to only feature living “Food Heroes” as we want children to understand that this is a living movement that they can take part in now. While the people we feature are changing what and how we eat, their success is not guaranteed so we want encourage today’s youth to join in. We hope children would feel empowered by reading about these food pioneers and be inspired to make changes in their communities by growing, cooking, or sharing food.
Is there a difference between literacy that’s about food vs. literacy that’s accomplished through food?
JJL: “Literacy about food” is simply knowing what/why/how we eat. It’s about being woke to our daily food choices and understanding where our food comes from and all the trade-offs made to get the food in front of us. It’s about understanding the nested nature of our food systems and the global to local food economies that are being resourced or not. Food literacy means listening to how your body feels after you eat and in the long-term. It means cooking, growing, fermenting some of the foods you eat when you can, and not just being a “consumer” all the time. It means talking about what you are tasting: comparing flavors and textures, acknowledging the producers and processors, critiquing the cook, creating a food memory with your friends and family.
PL: “Literacy through food” means promoting family reading through something that we do several times everyday. It’s far easier to get parents to read with their children on something that we’re all familiar with. We also feel parents don’t have to build literacy by reading a book. Read a recipe or food labels. They tell a story too. A Harvard School of Education study found that children learn more “rare words”—sophisticated words to build a robust vocabulary—at the family dinner table than reading books. So food, in this case sharing food, is an important vehicle to not only nourish our bodies but our minds too.