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Creation, Not Art: At the Table with Ethaney Lee of @tenderherbs

CW : mention of disordered eating, body dysmorphia

Ethaney Lee welcomes you to @tenderherbs. From her inventive take on the Instagram business byline with “ethnic grocery store” to the presentation of elegant yet attainable meals, her food account celebrates the art of sharing a dish. 

Over one hundred thousand people follow @tenderherbs because of Ethaney’s ability to pinpoint in a post the correspondence between senses borne out in cuisine. Her elegantly presented dishes meet thoughtful captions to contextualize a meal in broader lived experience: steak frites reminiscent of a poignant scene in the movie C’mon C’mon; a breakfast bowl reflecting “the kaleidoscope of feelings” Ethaney woke to that morning. With @tenderherbs, there is no elbowing for a seat at the table or being 1000th in the calling queue for a reservation. The posts are exciting because they extend the possibilities of what users thought possible at home. Each dish appears as inviting as the format used to share it. 

In fact, this summer, Ethaney turned this welcoming atmosphere into a reality when she invited followers to sign up for “Dinner Date.” She hosted an evening at her home that set the scene for the New Age Dinner Party in every sense – a sleek aesthetic, consciously-prepared plates, and an experience afforded by social media.

The beauty in Ethaney’s approach to cooking is the creation – it is the fine detail that the chipped edge of a bowl encapsulates the sentiment of a Monday. It is taking pride in simplicity. The honesty in the preparation as in the delivery keeps followers coming back for another helping. @tenderherbs takes the art out of the museum and places it on your wall.

What first inspired you to start @tenderherbs?

I had no interest in learning how to cook growing up. My brother who is two and a half years younger than me is the cook of the family. I thought my mom could teach all the family recipes to him, and it would be fine. When I turned thirty, I realized I couldn’t cook for myself and decided it wasn’t a great look to not be able to care of myself. It hit home when I started dating my boyfriend. I cooked dinner for us, and it was so inedible! I started crying – I was that embarrassed. All of that coincided with me having just quit my job. The pandemic was looming, and I decided to take the time of not working to learn how to cook. I started my Instagram as a silly way for my brother and my mom to keep track of my progress. It was not meant to be what it has become. Preparing dishes is woven into my idea of taking care of myself. It’s how I show care and love for my boyfriend, as well, because we live together. I think sometimes considering your account important can be taken as shallow because it’s a social media platform – but it’s not about the account itself, it’s about what it’s come to represent to me. 

In your bio, you describe your account as an “Ethnic Grocery Store.” Could you explain what the term means to you?

I chose the term because I can relate to the word, “ethnic.” I grew up going to Korean grocery stores. When I first started my Instagram, it was kind of an all-encompassing way of describing the things I liked to cook. It sounds comforting.

What considerations factor into a dish you post?

I normally will post one thing I eat that day. I like showing food that makes me happy. I know that sounds really simple. I don’t post everything I eat in a day on Instagram because the “what I eat in a day” can be a toxic food feedback system. My thought process is what do I have today that I know sounds good that I can just post on Instagram? What do I feel like eating today?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t get you to weigh in on the edible flower debate – all aesthetics or flavor-enhancer?

There is a woman in the food Instagram community who said she thinks edible flowers are the most pretentious joke. I feel insecure about that every time I use edible flowers! The answer is I like certain edible flowers. I will not put a whole entire pansy on my salad or a cake. It can look beautiful, but for food, I don’t think it’s necessary. I do like using radish flowers because they can taste like a radish and chive blossoms can taste like an allium.  

Could you speak to the synesthetic effect cooking has on you?  

I am not the best at expressing how I feel – especially if I am having a hard time. I’ve always been prone to feeling down or depressed, so cooking allows me to share how I am doing or what I am going through with something tangible. With that breakfast bowl, I had gotten into a fight with my brother – we never ever fight – and I woke up feeling very strange. Not good, not bad, but just not right. Cooking allows me to explore how I am doing. It makes me feel better.

To build on that, many of your posts offer insight into why that dish is right for the moment. For you, is cooking catharsis or vice versa?

Both. Cooking is definitely cathartic. If I’m really anxious, I’ll do a longer project like a croissant. It allows me to put my anxiety elsewhere and keep my hands busy. I focus on something that isn’t myself. By the end of the croissant making, I feel a lot less anxious. That’s, in part, why the account has become so addicting: I want to cook something every day because it is this important emotional release for me. 

Is running the Instagram account your principal occupation? Do you monetize the account in any way?

@tenderherbs is my main thing right now, which is funny because I don’t make money from my Instagram. I do some projects here and there, but I found it hard to break into monetizing your account. I haven’t worked a 9-5 for about three and a half years now. 

Have you always sought to connect with people through cuisine or was this the happy byproduct of developing an account that resonated with a wide audience?

Food was always a way that my family and I connected. My brother is huge into cooking – he got that from my mom. We had dinner together every single night growing up. My mom is the type of person who likes to order the whole menu when we go out so that we can try all the dishes. When my partner and I first started dating, we connected through food. I was just coming out of an eating disorder, and I was stressed about having to go on these dates and eat. The process of us getting to know each other and going out helped me remember and appreciate how good food is and how much connection happens over sharing a meal. I never really expected to connect with people I’d never met in my life through my Instagram and food I eat daily. 

I admired the honesty of your post on June 12 in which you described your contending with body dysmorphia. I wonder if you could speak to the Catch-22 of needing social media to connect while knowing it perpetuates a dangerous eating culture among its users.

Throughout my teens and twenties, I never experienced disordered eating. It hit me when I was twenty-seven out of nowhere. Really hard. It’s something I’ve continued to struggle with since then. The “what I eat in a day,” that I touched on before can be really addicting to watch but incredibly toxic because I’ll be like I eat way more than that in a day or I don’t eat meals that seem as well-rounded. Having a food Instagram opens you up to people’s opinions about what you should and should not eat – as someone who struggles with disordered eating and who can be body dysmorphic, it is hard to shake those comments off. That particular day, this person was full-on shaming me for what I eat and cook, and it made me feel really bad. They made me wonder if I had gained weight and wonder whether I should eat dinner that night. I take it as progress to overcome those thoughts and take care of myself. My Instagram keeps me accountable. 

To build on the previous point, how much of posting is for followers and how much is for yourself? 

It’s both. I use my Instagram as a journal – especially with the captions. Maggie Nelson wrote in Bluets that people just want to be witnessed, and I think that’s so true. For me, the image of my Instagram is for people who follow me, and the caption is more for me. It’s a way that I can express what I’m thinking. Out of that, I can have what I’m feeling that day to be witnessed. 

Since the pandemic, the dinner party has seen a renaissance: people of all ages got more into cooking and developed a new appreciation for intimate settings. What are the keys to the New Age dinner party? 

A great playlist. I also think candles are key – I like the look of a moody dinner ambiance. Obviously, the food. I don’t ever want people to think that you need to depend on a good table-scape to have a dinner party, but I do think setting the table up makes a huge difference. It sets the mood for whatever you are trying to achieve that night. For Dinner Date, I wanted the night to have an air of romanticism. When I go out to dinner with my best friend, we have a date together. I put together a menu that sounded like what I would want to eat if I were going over to someone’s house to having a friend over. I wanted to make food that I felt comfortable preparing as well. Nothing I wouldn’t cook on a Saturday for dinner. I didn’t want the menu to be fancy or “special.” It was food that I would eat anytime of the week. 

Where do you envision taking the account next?

My brother will sometimes bring up the idea of us having a place together in a forest up north where we basically serve two items with one seasonal special dessert. One day owning a small café with my brother would be a dream. For right now, I would love to continue doing Dinner Date – it was a fun and anxiety-inducing experience for me, but it made me really feel okay I can do this, and see that people do like my cooking. It was exciting that people wanted to be a part of something that I want to create. I would like to do more recipe sharing as well. 

Anthony Bourdain wrote that “a good cook is a craftsman – not an artist.” Yet, each of your posts appear carefully composed with an attention to texture, color, and light. Have the rules changed? Is artistry a prerequisite to connecting with people through food now?

Browsing through my Instagram feed, a lot of the dishes that people are making look a lot more like art than food. It’s not my preferred way of eating or cooking – which may sound odd given the attention I give to the plating of a dish or ensuring there is vibrance and color in a post. But I do understand what Anthony Bourdain is saying. There are some food accounts which I follow that I can’t imagine are eating what they post at home for dinner. Social media has encouraged people to be more artistic and creative which is exciting, but for me personally, I don’t think it looks delicious to present one chargrilled onion and a balsamic reduction as a meal. For people that come to my account, I don’t ever want the impression to be that the food I am eating is somehow not within grasp. I want people to think that looks good, I want to try to make this.

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