Novelist and essayist (and The Writer columnist) Yi Shun Lai wanted to start a literary magazine for years – specifically, a magazine focused on writing by marginalized writers about food.
“A few years ago, people started pointing out the fact that most articles about ethnic food – Japanese, Thai, Mexican, etc. – are written by white people,” she says. “When I first started writing for publication in the ’90s, I saw that publishing wasn’t as friendly to marginalized writers as it needed to be, and I wanted to do something about that as well.”
Enter Reads & Eats, a monthly online magazine written exclusively by marginalized writers showcasing culinary delights from grilled cheese and tuna casserole to Brussels sprouts and chai tea. “It behooves us to read more minority perspectives,” Lai says. “I want writers to walk away from me with added confidence and the understanding that they have the right to put their work out into the world. What they have to offer is worth other people’s accolades and adulation.”
Tone, editorial content
Lai looks for pieces that explore unexpected juxtapositions. The first issue of Reads & Eats, published in August 2020, features an essay titled “Taco Salad is French” by the queer writer joj, followed by a recipe that directs readers to mix the salad in a “HUGE BOWL.”
“This is a piece that is born out of joj’s childhood in Appalachia,” Lai explains. “They were poor and mixed taco salad in a 5-gallon bucket, and then brought this dish with them to their now-middle class life in Provence, France.”
“I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Taco Salad, friends and colleagues of all social classes, from all over the world. When we moved to France, it came with us. My French partner eventually took it to his traditional family potluck – mixed in a giant Ikea stainless steel bowl instead of the five-gallon bucket – and it was the only dish without leftovers. Someone wiped the bowl clean with their baguette.”
“Down-home Appalachian taco salad brought to France excites me,” Lai says. “I want pieces that explore connections people wouldn’t necessarily make on their own.”
A transgender writer from Ohio who goes by the name of L wrote the featured essay in the September 2020 issue of Reads & Eats. Titled “The Waste Can,” it tells the story of how L –previous to her transition – begins to see herself clearly when she’s working as a dishwasher at the Cracker Barrel and accidentally dumps an entire can of food waste over herself. She writes:
“Back in my apartment, I blasted the mess off my skin with scalding water. I left the light on, so I could see whether or not I’d washed everything off. When I finally stepped out, after much gargling and scrubbing and cursing, the mirror was completely fogged with steam. For a second, my long-haired reflection looked like a woman. I smiled, then, not yet understanding why.”
“Again, there’s that odd juxtaposition about discovering yourself in a pile of garbage,” Lai says. “How do you discover yourself in such an unusual fashion when you’re working in what is by all measures a bastion of conformity? This woman managed to find herself in a really unorthodox fashion. Drawing on these connections is super-important to me.”
Queer Bengali-Bihari Texas-based author Ena Ganguli has an essay titled “Making Chaa” in Issue #3, published in October 2020. In it, she explores her relationship to chai, spelled “chaa” in South Asia’s Bengal region.
“In this piece, she describes learning how to make chaa from her grandmother, or dadi,” Lai says. “Every morning, she starts out by weighing spices and dumping them into the saucepan on the stove and then brewing loose leaf tea. She writes that this action of making chaa isn’t only for herself but for people she loves and cares about – her new friends and family in Texas. It gives her a strong connection to her dadi in Bengal and helps to establish her own ritual, as well.”
Lai appreciates how Ganguli’s prose navigates sentimentality without being maudlin. “You want to be able to honor the people who’ve come before you,” she says. “This piece allows readers to feel a connection between generations that really matters to this writer.”
Advice for potential contributors
Marginalized writers whose work has appeared fewer than five times in any publication are welcome to submit creative fiction and nonfiction about food. As a staff of one, Lai has to cap monthly submissions at 25; when she exceeds this number, writers get an autoreply and must wait until the ninth day of the following month to submit again. Lai looks for work by racial and ethnic minorities, neuroatypical writers, writers with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+.
“This is a place where you can feel free to submit the stories you thought wouldn’t be worth anyone hearing,” Lai says. “The more we can make space for everyone’s stories, the better off we’ll be as a society.”
Reads & Eats at a glance
Genres: Nonfiction and fiction.
Word count: 750 or fewer.
Payment: $100 per essay.
Submission format: Pasted into body of email after brief cover letter.
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019).Twitter/Instagram @WildMelissaHart