Dude, what’s that smell? The Sriracha shutdown and immigrant excess

—Anita Mannur and Martin Manalansan

All across America, bottles with a green cap, rooster and fiery chili sauce that were once exclusively the mainstay of fast food style Asian restaurants, have been slowly making their mark on mainstream palates. In 2011, the popular television show The Simpsons featured an episode—described by executive producer Matt Selman as a “love letter to food culture”—in which Bart Simpson’s usually pedestrian palate becomes attuned to the finer possibilities of sriracha.

In 2012, as part of a national campaign to introduce a new flavor, the Lay’s potato chip company announced Sriracha as one of the three finalist flavors, along with Cheesy Garlic Bread and Chicken & Waffles. Cheesy Garlic Bread Lay’s eventually went on to win the contest; some claim it was because the signature piquant taste of sriracha could barely be detected in the chip’s flavor. In 2013 the national bagel sandwich chain restaurant Brueggers introduced the Sriracha Egg Sandwich. Not to be outdone, Subway followed suit with their version of a chicken sriracha melt.

By the end of 2013, sriracha popularity seemed to be at an all time high. From January to December of 2012, some 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce had sold, and on October 27, 2013, the first Sriracha festival was held in downtown Los Angeles. Americans, it seemed, could not get enough of the hot sauce. That is, until it came into their own backyards.

On October 28, Huy Fong Foods, the purveyor of sriracha, was sued by the small town of Irwindale, California for causing “burning eyes, irritated throats, and headaches” to its residents. An initial report published by the Associated Press tellingly described the odors produced by the Huy Fong plant as “a nuisance.”

Huy Fong’s owner and creator David Tran’s mistake was in assuming that the sriracha boom meant that the town of Irwindale would accept the changes that came with the presence of Asianness. In many ways, his story was that of the consummate Asian American model minority who had made his mark through hard work and perseverance in America. From origins in Vietnam to “making it” as an ethnic entrepreneur in the US, the story of sriracha, and in particular that of Huy Fong, can be understood as a quintessentially Asian American story.

David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese origin, was among the first wave of refugees to leave Vietnam in 1979. Fleeing Vietnam aboard the Panamanian freighter “Huy Fong,” for which he later named his company, Tran started his fledgling company in the town of Rosemead, California in the mid-1980s with an initial investment of a meager $50,000. Over the next two decades, the company, which exclusively harvests jalapeños grown in Piru, California, grew dramatically, largely by word of mouth, and has become one of the most popular condiments with something of a cult-like following.

Food historian John T. Edge notes that part of sriracha’s success is in its ability to position itself as malleable to many palates: “Multicultural appeal was engineered into the product: the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. And serving suggestions include pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and, for French speakers, pâtés.” Despite sriracha’s obvious connection to Thainess—the sauce, according to a recent documentary, Sriracha (Dir. Griffin Hammond, 2013), has its origins in the town of Si Racha—Tran disavows the necessary connection to one particular national lineage, noting, “I know it’s not a Thai sriracha…It’s my sriracha.”

As the company expanded, it moved from its more modest location in Rosemead to a larger factory in Irwindale. And with the growth of the factory, resentment of the presence of Asianness has been more acutely expressed through a refusal of the visceral and purported offensiveness of Asian odors. Ultimately it is the inability of odors to remain in place, the toxicity and the purported public health danger of Asian coded comestibles that has come to characterize this stage in the sriracha story as a story of racial exclusion in an Asian American context.

As Martin Manalansan has written elsewhere, “smell in America…is a code for class, racial and ethnic differences.” Yet cities are expected to function as odorless zones, both literally and psychically. Traces of immigrant excess must always be kept at bay and where food is concerned, difference must be managed to ensure that the kind of food one finds at the table is synchronous with the mandates of a multiculturalist ethos of eating. It must not appear “too foreign,” “too different”, “too oily” or too aberrant. In other words it must not be too offensive, lest it upset a carefully calibrated balance of acceptable multiculturalism.

Sriracha seemed poised to become America’s next favorite condiment. But condiments have to be manufactured somewhere, and when Asianness comes to roost in the town of Irwindale, population 1,422 (2% Asian American, 47% white), the cultural odor of the town also changes. And taste for difference, as history has suggested, can often only go so far. The winds in the California city of Irwindale not only transport the sharp smell of chilies in the sriracha sauce, they also convey the heavy weight of Western history’s fraught encounters with olfactory experiences.

Throughout the ages, smell has been used to mark things and bodies that are sinister, sinful, dangerous, foreign, diseased, and decaying. Modern cities were planned under the idealized schemes of de-odorized landscapes. Accoutrements to contemporary living include room deodorizers and air fresheners that aim to eliminate unwanted odors and showcase social uplift and class distinction. The Sriracha incident in California reeks of all these historical antecedents and cultural symptoms. The very fact that sriracha has been called a “public nuisance” and a potential health threat is part of a longer tradition that views Asianness as a public health menace. The SARS epidemic of 2002, with its concomitant xenophobic links to the fear of Asian bodies, is not far removed from the panic about Asianness discursively inherent in the charges being levied against Huy Fong Foods.

In the midst of all the accusations and counter-accusations of state overreach, cultural insensitivity and xenophobia, smell should not be seen as merely a potential health hazard but rather as a crucial signpost of where we are as a society and as a nation in the 21st century. Indeed, to consider sriracha’s odors a public nuisance is not far removed from the kinds of radicalizing language that is used to put immigrants in their place. We may like our sriracha bottles on our tables, but we don’t want it too close, lest it contaminate our spaces of living. Like the Asian American bodies with which we associate the bottles of hot sauce, we prefer to limit the spread of Asianness.

On November 29, 2013, three days after the Los Angeles court ruled in favor of a partial shutdown of the company, Huy Fong Foods released a simple statement to the public with a banner reading, “No tear gas made here,” placed outside its Irwindale factory. Those simple words summed up what is perhaps really at stake here. The underlying issues which have led to the fracas about sriracha are very much about toxicity, but the banner is as much about dispelling the notion that the product they are making is toxic as it is about pointing out that underlying racism and charges against Huy Fong are mired in a more dangerous form of toxicity—one that seeks to vigilantly remind immigrants about where they do and do not belong.

Anita Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian /Asian American Studies at Miami University. Martin F. Manalansan, IV is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Mannur and Manalansan are co-editors (with Robert Ji-Song Ku) of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (NYU Press, 2013).

1 Comment on Dude, what’s that smell? The Sriracha shutdown and immigrant excess

  1. What an engaging and thoughtful essay! Your discussion of the sauce suggests that it functions like Zizek’s concept of the “psychotic kernel of difference”: The other can be incorporated either as exotic fetish or a sanitized and displaced version of the normal self. But there is always some detail in which the other’s alterity is located, and which marks the site of actual repudiation. “I love my Indian neighbors, but their food smells…” is, I think, an example that Zizek actually uses. Thanks for this wonderful piece!

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