Bayless Burritos?: Cultural Appropriation and Food (By Jared Alswang)

In an increasingly globalized world, cultural appropriation has become all but universal. Cultural appropriation, the adoption and adaption of cultural elements of a minority group by a majority group, reaches all facets of life; and Los Angeles, a diverse, cosmopolitan metropolis, is at the forefront of this cultural blending. In general, cultural appropriation is labeled with a negative connotation, however, in some sense, cultural blending can be an essential piece in building Los Angeles’s unique, melting pot culture. With super markets stocked with kimchi, frozen burritos, and packets of ramen, cultural appropriation, or in some cases cultural misappropriation, is no stranger to the food industry, especially in Southern California. My opinion on the subject aligns very closely with that of Rod Dreher’s: “Mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth is what America does, and in my view, it is the encapsulation of what is best about this country.”Bayless

Rick Bayless, in the Sporkful Podcast, White People, Mexican Food, talks about how he aims at “translating” Mexican food, so that it could better cater to a new audience. In a sense, Bayless is breaking down a cuisine, which may seem foreign to some, into terms (ingredients) that people unfamiliar with the culture may understand. In my opinion, “translating” merges someone’s comfort-zone with his or her adventurous side. This opens up the possibility for someone to be introduced to a new cuisine that they may have been skeptical to try before. Food acts as a doorway to culture, and by better understanding food, people may begin to better understand the culture as well. For that reason, I disagree with Professor Ray that “all translation is a loss”. I believe “translation” is not a byproduct of ill intent, but rather of cultural exchange. In a world so interconnected, it is important to foster cultural understanding and not ignore the reality of the globalized 21st century. In my opinion, as long as this is done tactfully and respectfully, it is a force of good, not evil, meant to bring people together in celebration of delicious food. As Rick Bayless puts it, “all translation is not a colonizing act.”

In general, I believe the intention of modifying or redefining a food is not to disparage or take away from the food, but more so to explore where it may fit in a new market and population. That being said, such a food, such as a Dorito’s Locos Taco from Taco Bell, should not be seen as a pure representation of Mexican food or the Mexican people, as it is an artificial recreation. The line of racism is drawn by the interpretation and portrayal of the food, not the food themselves. If people use a cheap Taco Bell taco to represent Mexican culture and society, that is a deleterious misinterpretation and if the creators of that taco advertise it in such a way, that is even worse. Taco Bell is a prime example of Columbusing. Columbusing defined in Profe Portnoy’s book Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles 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),” paints a picture of the darker side of cultural appropriation of food. Taco Bell takes food cherished by the Mexican people and brings them to the international community in a thoughtless and careless way. What is most wrong about Taco Bell in my opinion is not the way it recreates the taco; I personally find them delicious. Instead, it’s the way Taco Bell grossly misrepresents Mexican culture in attempt to increase profits. The way Taco Bell brands their reimagined tacos and burritos, such as with the Taco Bell Chihuahua, places a negative portrayal of the Mexican cuisine and people. This is “thoughtless appropriation”. It is shameful to use food, something that brings people together and should be cherished, to bring down or misrepresent people. People need to be cognizant that food can have a deeper meaning and is not simply just a meal.

Eloquently put by Oberlin College junior Tomoyo Joshi, “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture”. Cuisines must be appreciated as they represent culture and tradition and food is central to many people’s identities and heritages. However, culture should not be kept secret, but instead revered and cherished by all who share a respectful interest. For this reason, anyone who is willing to take the time and effort to understand and appreciate a cuisine should be allowed to cook it. In my opinion, cultural appreciation and respect transcends racial background. Although it is difficult or maybe even impossible to ever reach the same level of belonging and cultural knowledge from a different background or upbringing, this should not exclude people from participating in cultural learning through food. It is difficult to be the face of a food if you are not from the culture, but that does not mean you cannot become an expert in it. Race should not be a prerequisite for food. Like for the millions of people who immigrated to the United States and adopted a new culture to call their own, cuisine should be the same.

However, other examples of cultural appropriation, such as fusion, in my mind, do not produce the same damaging and inappropriate results that Taco Bell and its cultural misappropriation does. This semester, I ate at both Revolutionario: North African Tacos and 23rd Street Café. Both of these restaurants take bits and pieces of Mexican cuisine and incorporate them into the traditional foods of the owners’ backgrounds, North African and Indian respectfully. They are also similar in that I would not describe them as pure fusion, rather Indian food and North African food with the addition of a tortilla. These two restaurants prompt the questions of who has the right to use an ingredient and in what settings. In the case of 23rd Street Café, there is a fine line between whether the tortilla is stolen and used inappropriately or whether it is used out of a sign of respect and appreciation for Mexican cuisine and culture. I tend to fall on the latter side of the argument. In my opinion, in this interconnected and cosmopolitan world, borders should not be rigid. With the fluidity of culture should come the fluidity of food. This sharing between cultures and groups is what makes America and especially Los Angeles so unique and special. The chicken tikka masala burrito, in my opinion, is a symbol of this cultural sharing. It has always been my belief that food brings people together and this is epitomized by fusion food. In the USC dining halls some dishes seem to be half-hearted attempts to use the food of a different culture. It is understandable, how this may be offensive to someone who reveres a food that helps define his or her culture. But on the other side, it is difficult for a place such as a college dining hall to prepare a diverse range of dishes from different cuisines properly and personally I would still rather have access to these diverse foods and cultures at a lower quality than to be shut off from them altogether. Cultural and culinary appropriation can, in times, be damaging, especially when done tactlessly. However, it can also bridge cultural differences and create something extraordinary.

6 respuestas a “Bayless Burritos?: Cultural Appropriation and Food (By Jared Alswang)

  1. lindsaymarty

    I totally agree that Taco Bell’s fast food empire designed primarily to reap profits does a disrespect to Mexican food. It would be great if people could recognize the deeper meaning of food and its cultural ties rather than simply scarfing down meals. Do you think it’s possible to change the culture of how we eat in the US to make people more aware of the cultural value of the food they eat each day?

  2. jamieclarke34

    Jared, this is a great post! You do a wonderful job of clearly defining cultural appropriation at the beginning and expanding on it with examples throughout the blog post. I especially thought that your discussion of Taco Bell does a great job of illustrating the cultural appropriation of food. I agree that Taco Bell can be tasty, but it completely lacks cultural ties and disrespects Mexican culture by ripping it off to make a profit. I also thought that your comments on Tacos Revolutionario and 23rd Street Cafe were interesting!

  3. hannahthomas321

    Jared- I thought it was really interesting that you mentioned cultural appropriation can actually be a positive force. I’ve never heard it discussed that way, but you’re right that the mixing and sharing of cultures is a really important part of Los Angeles. I agree with you that Taco Bell is a massive culprit of Columbusing. The way that Taco Bell Advertises is a negative sort of cultural appropriation that creates stereotypes.

  4. Tayanna Todd

    Definitely agree that you brought up some great point in your blog, especially about how reckless and thoughtless appropriation is what inevitably causes problems! Cooking, just like writing, speaking, protesting can be a very powerful & vocal social/political statement! However, it’s interesting to note the impact of those who appropriate (whether or not they have negative/malicious intent) & how they ironically don’t seem to suffer any negative consequences for their actions…if anything they often seem to profit more than they normally would on their own. I think fusion is a better example of cultural sharing/blending/mixing and is something in which no one cuisine or culture is inherently elevated or exploited more than the other; however, cultural appropriation is more of a demonstration of a cultural “exchange” that becomes one-sided, exploitative, or is not mutually beneficial.

  5. beccadunn13

    I also agree that cultures should break down barriers and allow for their cuisines to influenced and mixed with others. It is interesting that you describe cultural appropriation as a positive thing, because it typically has a negative connotation. Perhaps you should consider the phrase “cultural appreciation” in place of appropriation.

  6. Sarah Portnoy

    Vaya, Jared, muchas reacciones diferentes a tu blog. ¿Vas a contestar? No sé si el lado positivo de cultural appropriation que mencionas es appropriation o fusion, como sugiere Tayanna. Algo para considerar…
    Creo que estás en el campo de Gustavo Arellano–él considera hasta Taco Bell comida mexicana–tiene una definición muy amplia de la comida.
    Es interesante leer tu blog en ingles esta vez!


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