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The Racial Dynamics of ‘Smelly’ Food

For children of immigrants, that shameful, pee-yew ‘lunchbox moment’ extends far past elementary school and into the workplace

It didn’t take a snide comment or passive-aggressive email from a co-worker for Grace Moon to be wary of the food she brings into work. That lesson came directly from her mother, who routinely urged her to refrain from packing strong-smelling meals when Moon was in college.

It didn’t matter how fundamental those foods were to Moon’s Korean palate — things like fermented kimchi and doenjang, the essential bean paste that adds earthy, umami-rich salinity to so many Korean meals. Even beyond the most obvious sources of olfactory funk, Moon worried about the other unfamiliar scents that could float from even mellow Korean foods, like bibimbap (mixed rice) or spicy cold noodles. She was a young journalist in New York City, navigating a series of internships that took place in small newsrooms. You could smell a neighbor’s lunch as soon as you walked through the break room, she says.

“Those communal spaces, where you microwave food and pick up utensils, they were kind of tense for me. I always felt a bit self-conscious when microwaving my food and hyper-cognizant of its smells, and whether those scents would spread into the office,” Moon tells me. “But my mom always said it wasn’t courteous or considerate to pack Korean food and to make Western people smell those strong, pungent odors that they weren’t used to. I dunno. The office is just kind of a weird space.”


It seems, somewhere along the line, that all American office workers signed a social contract that stipulates we aren’t to bring offensively odorous lunches into a shared office setting. There are HR guides on how to deal with complaints about smelly food in the office, and forceful advice on foods you should never pack for work. Coworkers “will hate you” for running afoul at mealtime, headlines declare. And things are only getting trickier in the era of open-plan offices and coworking spaces, the latter of which are growing more and more prevalent alongside an increase in freelance workers. A blog post on etiquette for coworking giant WeWork notes that heating up “strong-smelling food” is a danger zone, especially foods that are “heavily spiced.” “Think about how you would want others to treat you,” the post concludes.

This is a trickier prompt for those who grew up in families and communities that don’t just love eating, but crave foods that have aromas unusual to many Americans. It’s no coincidence that so many immigrants rally around their homeland’s best dishes for emotional support while assimilating into the U.S. — and why it can be so disturbing to lose connection to such a bond, whether because you can’t access that food or because it’s discouraged within the places you occupy. There’s often a paranoia and racialized shame that lingers when people realize their eating habits might reveal something unacceptable about their roots. That quiet embarrassment doesn’t disappear easily, even as stuff like kimchi, fish sauce and Middle Eastern spice becomes hipper and more heavily marketed to the mainstream.

Moon tells me that for much of her working life, she’s been extremely selective about packing lunches that won’t offend: cold items, bread, fruits and other “things I didn’t really enjoy, but thought was polite,” as she puts it. But last year, the stank of deli-catering cheese at an office luncheon made her wonder who, exactly, was defining what constituted “smelly” food. “I know some friends who can’t stand the strong smell of cheese because it’s unusual to them,” she says. “I deal with a lot of, uh, cheese days myself.”

Recent years have seen increased talk about the “lunchbox moment,” a term for when people of color, often immigrants or first-generation in the U.S., realize that what they eat can open them up to ridicule and stereotyping. Scent is one of the most intimate and contextual things we discover about ourselves — I remember being party to a vaguely racist conversation in college where two white kids pondered, with genuine disbelief, how their Indian roommate could smell “like fuckin’ curry.” On the flip side, there’s a running gag in the Asian world that caucasians smell like dairy. It doesn’t help that science on the power of scent shows that it triggers memory recall and more base instincts, say a gag, with hard-wired ease.

I certainly remember my own “lunchbox moment,” in second grade at a school outside of Irving, Texas, where I lived as a child. I usually ate the beige-colored cafeteria food that emerged on thick plastic trays, consisting of all-American dishes like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. Long hours working at a Latino swap meet meant my mom had little energy to pack me a meal every day, so it was a rare treat when I could tote a lunchbox to school. I didn’t anticipate that one meal, room-temp kimchi fried rice with some little smoked sausages, would elicit so much curiosity from the kids around me.

“What is that? It looks like puke,” one freckled kid stated.  

“It smells a lot,” his friend chimed in.

“Why would you eat that?” a third asked.

It wasn’t all bad news — one of my buddies earnestly wondered if I would trade with him (it was cafeteria corn chowder, and no) — but the incident is maybe the first time I recall thinking explicitly about race, and a memory that re-emerged when I started working in offices and felt like I was risking something by heating up certain foods. I realized what my mom meant when she scolded my dad for begging her to make chung-guk-jang, a stew that uses young fermented soybeans that stink to high hell, in our modest apartment in Irving. “Our neighbors will all be giving us the evil eye if we eat that here,” she would say. “Imagine what they would think about us.”

I never noticed the racial undertones in that sentiment until I got embarrassed myself, but thankfully, I’ve avoided problems while living in L.A., save for some stares and questions around the communal microwave at a short-lived newspaper job. Elsewhere in the country, awkward moments can flare up more easily for those living in less ethnically diverse enclaves. The nose is a sensitive tool, and it’s a challenge to predict how other noses will react. Some foods, like chung-guk-jang, Japanese natto or the infamous durian fruit, are so odorous that you wouldn’t ever consider it for an office lunch. But things get trickier when you’re trying to be cognizant of smells and get called out for it anyway.

Hector Rivas, a 29-year-old IT specialist in Kansas City who is Latino, tells me about a time last year he brought Mexican pozole to work on a cold winter day. It’s a brothy pork stew, flavored with roasted chiles and onion, and Rivas didn’t anticipate that heating it in the microwave would create any offense. He found himself singled out anyway, as a white coworker half-jokingly asked him how such a simple dish could stink so much. A few others in the break room giggled along, and while the whole encounter took just a few seconds, it brought an embarrassed flush to Rivas’ face. “I’m not stupid, I know that there are probably a few dishes I like that aren’t appropriate for an office setting, especially if I’m eating at my desk,” he says. “But I felt out of place in that moment. I feel like lunch is one of the few times of the day I really look forward to. It’s isolating to realize that people don’t get what you’re eating and have little interest in finding out.”

The conversation around smelly food isn’t always a racial one — plenty of “white” foods have a strange scent to them, whether it’s salami or Roquefort or canned sardines, and white people have been plenty guilty of bringing strong-smelling stuff to work (including food from international cultures). Moon, Rivas and others I spoke to say that they’re less interested in blaming whiteness or mainstream America and more curious about figuring out the best way to distinguish bad manners from cultural identity. “I’m still too shy to bring a lot of foods to the office, even if I think they should be acceptable, because I don’t want to come off as rude or selfish,” Moon says. “But the question I started asking myself a year ago is whether this is common etiquette or a form of prejudice. What turns us off and what’s okay when it comes to odors just says a lot about what’s foreign to us and what isn’t.”

Coworking spaces can be hard to navigate because of the lack of relationships with the people around you, but that hasn’t stopped Marie, a white woman who works in construction for WeWork (she requested a pseudonym), from bringing lunch foods that have pungent ingredients. The smelliest foods are always “the most memorable,” she says, citing favorite flavorings like kimchi and fish sauce. Marie mitigates the impact by separating the strongest ingredients (like an intense sauce) and adding them after the more neutral portion of the meal (say, a rice bowl with meat) has been reheated. “This might not actually work to contain the smell,” she admits. “I’ve worked out of dozens of WeWorks, and nobody’s said anything. But I’m in NYC and folks are a lot more open to a more broad range of flavors and smells.”

The standards are starting to change in some workplaces, and I notice it in my own office, where the once-weekly free lunch menu features shrimp curries and raw fish dishes alongside buffalo wings and greasy pizza sliders. This is L.A., of course, but tastes have already started shifting in a number of cities that are seeing demographic change, toward the younger and more racially diverse. Immigrants and first-generation children are projected to account for 83 percent of growth in the U.S. workforce between 2000 and 2050. Given that exposure to diverse races can change opinions and tastes, it’s not unrealistic to imagine that the standards of respectful eating in an office will get more flavorful in the future.

Part of the problem may be the setting, too. Small office spaces mean even moderate smells can travel fast, and widespread overworking means that more than 60 percent of American white-collar employees are eating at their desk, in front of a computer screen. Marie notes that while the etiquette around food smells is “overstated,” she sees it as a symptom of a culture that discourages taking a proper meal break away from the work area. Marie’s only had a handful of jobs where she felt comfortable taking lunch away from her desk, but she recalls one boss who only let the staff take a desk lunch once a month. Most of the time, they gathered at the lunch table each day.

“Sitting face-to-face neutralized all strong odors. If you know your coworker is eating garlicky rice, and you’re eating a turkey sandwich, it’s less bothering than if you’re both eating over your keyboards in an open office without a break,” she says. “Lunchrooms should be boisterous, vibrant places with lots of smells. And I can’t think of anything I’ve drawn the smell line at, other than microwave popcorn, which seems capable of permeating walls.”

It’s not so easy, however, for some people to commit to enjoying their “smelly” foods. Rivas says it took a few weeks for him to bring a lunch from home again after the pozole incident, though he laughs about it now, and Moon is ramping things up by bringing basic Korean dishes, such as gimbap (rolled Korean sushi with vegetables) and bulgogi (soy-sauce marinated beef). Rivas says he feels “ridiculous” for being self-conscious (“I can’t help it, for now”), but earlier this year he began bringing in homemade Mexican food to share with the office, starting with tamales. “Seeing people enjoy it, getting to talk about it a bit, it actually helped my own head,” he tells me.

There will always be unwritten rules of office etiquette, and limits even on the most progressive end of the smelly food spectrum (seriously, open a durian fruit). Plus, sometimes the origins of the nasty smell in the office aren’t what they seem. I remember, for instance, a moment from my old job, when my boss stood up from his desk to glare down the hall and declare, “Good lord, it stinks.” It was a minuscule office, but we were a familial staff, and friendly accusations began to fly. It didn’t take much sleuthing to find the smell was my fault. Apparently, I lost a corner of my poppy-seed bagel in the bottom of the toaster.

The office reeked all day.