A culinary celebrity who has been the subject of quite a bit of criticism, Rick Bayless is one of the foremost chefs specializing in Mexican food. Bayless began his business in 1987 in Chicago with his Frontera Grill but today has a thriving empire of Mexican food restaurants in various different places. Bayless’ whiteness and disregard for Mexican culture while working as a prominent Mexican chef are concerning to many – he admits in a podcast on Sporkful that, although he doesn’t think his work is cultural appropriation, he has never considered his own white privelege. The speaker on Sporkful who addresses the criticism that Bayless has faced states that Bayless’s food translation and disregard for Mexican culture might not be intentionally harmful but still might have some negative effects – in the speaker’s words, “not all translation is a colonizing act” but all translations are “some kind of a loss.” This is where the importance of a dialogue comes in – from Bayless’s interview, it really sounds like he has not spent any time considering or trying to understand the perspectives of Mexicans who think his cuisine is an assault on their culture. Perhaps if Bayless had made more of an effort throughout his career to really engage with the Unites States’ Mexican population and gain a greater understanding of Mexican culture, his efforts as a chef would retain more of the culture’s authentic elements and be appreciated by a wider audience.
Some take the controversy over cultural appropriation one step further and apply it to not just cooking food but also writing about food. In Professor Portnoy’s book, she describes the controversy underlying some food discourse in early 2015. When reporter Petersen wrote an article giving the whereabouts of Timoteo, a prominent elote salesman of the LA area, many critics quickly spoke up in disagreement. Many argued that no one should be able to “columbus” something that has been around forever – Petersen himself defines columbusing as “the act of reckless and thoughtless appropriation (typically by rich white people) of a thing that has been around for years or decades (a thing that usually belongs to non-white people).”
Despite the controversy, in my opinion, Petersen is not in the wrong – I believe that his article was beneficial to Timoteo’s business and that, more importantly, the consent and understanding established by Petersen with Timoteo ground his article in the moral right. I would arrive at an entirely different conclusion if Petersen’s elote article was something he dreamed up to gain fame and fortune for himself alone and it was detrimental to Timoteo’s elote stand; however, this has not been the case. Similarly, Professor Portnoy’s work in the food writing scene is also grounded in understanding – she has established relationships with many of the people she writes about, and it seems to me that her writing has the power to promote awareness of their businesses and ultimately benefit them. In my mind, cultural appropriation occurs when either this writing occurs without a coherent understanding between the author and the subject or it is detrimental to a business or individual.
In response to the question posed by Maria Godoy in an NPR article – “When do you think it’s OK to cook other people’s food?” – I essentially think that some sort of dialogue needs to take place between the chef outside of the culture and members within to establish respect for the culture first, as is the case with Petersen and Portnoy. When someone (perhaps someone like Bayless) uses another country’s cuisine to become rich and famous (and establish an empire of restaurants) without really ever considering the perspectives of and establishing a dialogue with people from that culture, this is when you cross the line to cultural appropriation.
Cultural Appropriation in the USC Community
An example of appropriation that I have seen at USC is the Asian food served by various dining halls throughout the university. Just like the disappointment at Oberlin College in response to the “cheap imitation” of banh mi, the food served at this USC dining hall appears authentically Asian and has Asian names, but this is where the similarities end. However limited my experience with Asian food might be, I do know enough about it to say with confidence that the Asian food served in USC dining halls is inauthentic. The food lacks flavor, is generally bland and a far cry from authentic, tasty Asian food. I have even seen them put out normal, rigatoni pasta, like something one might see in a dish at an Italian restaurant, instead of noodles with Asian food – as student Nguyen at Oberlin College states, this makes it seem as though USC simply “throw[s] out something completely different and label[s] it as another country’s traditional food.” USC’s food is an example of appropriation primarily because this is an attempt of a rich university to capitalize on the diverse dining interests of its diverse student body, but in doing so, they fail to provide authentic food. While I do not think USC is being overtly racist by failing to provide authentic food, it is definitely an area in which the university could significantly improve.
In the article about Oberlin College, the author states “the dining hall is serving cheap imitations of East Asian dishes because all college campuses serve cheap imitations of all dishes––they’re trying to feed students as cheaply as possible, and authentic banh mis, never mind sushi, would cost much more.” While this might be true, USC does manage to serve dishes that seem more similar to the food of other national cuisines – for instance, the meat and vegetables USC serves are often at least somewhat to similar to things I ate for dinner during my childhood, as are the foods offered for breakfast. So while the poor quality of the Asian food in the dining hall might be attributable to low-budget dining hall operations to a certain extent, I still believe that it occurs in part due to cultural appropriation and the lack of respect for many of the cultures USC students are from.