Although race is a social construct that in many ways is inherently divisive, culture is something that is typically more unifying. However, culture is not something that is easily defined, primarily because it does not have a single source or point of origin. Food is just one particular element of culture that can become especially contentious when deciding who has the right to it…to eat it, cook it, represent it, and profit from it. This in turn triggers a whole range of questions & conversations regarding cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation, culinary cross pollination, food colonialism, columbusing, exoticsizing, translating, and fusion…all in an effort to try and answer the million-dollar question of “what is authentic and who or what can be the true judge of authenticity?”
In the ever-growing rise of the Mexican food industry (and consumption) in America, a white guy from Oklahoma has not only become the poster child for high-end Mexican food & but has also become the self-proclaimed translator & guide of Mexican cuisine for his fellow white Americans. Rick Bayless – this white guy from Oklahoma who has “never really thought about his [whiteness]” and the possible advantages it’s provided in his career – has been a key figure in this conversation about authenticity in the food world…and his situation has been sliced and diced in every way imaginable.
While he has certainly done his homework on Mexican cuisine…traveling to every state in Mexico, living there for 5 years, learning & speaking the language fluently, visiting yearly for “research” with his culinary staff…it does not negate the fact that he is not a member of that culture and community. However, as demonstrated in Gustavo Orellano’s article, the issue is not the fact that Bayless is “a foreigner cooking the cuisine of another culture,” the real issue is that Bayless has said (in his own words!) that he has “done everything he can to make it [Mexican cuisine] his own” AND YET he does not understand why people question his claim to Mexican food (and his massive profit from it) or his privilege when cooking this cuisine that is not his own.
Although Bayless is arguably not openly stealing the recipe for the taco to sell across the street like Glen Bell, he exhibits a similar lack of disrespect for Mexican food with his seeming inability or refusal to acknowledge that being a “translator” for this cuisine not only distances and diminishes it from its original source, but it also causes him to speaks for (and over) the average member of that culture who is not going around promoting & profiting from their cultural practices & identity. While Bayless can adopt Mexican food & culture as much as he wants in order to make it his own, at the end of the day, he can take off his mantle of Mexicanness and ignore its history & heritage whenever he choses, while others do not have the same privilege to simply remove that layer of their identity.
The idea of “Columbusing” also works hand in hand with questions of cultural appropriation, stereotypes, & gentrification. According to Luca Peterson, an Angelo food blooger who coined the term after a controversial article he wrote which popularized a “little known” street vendor, “columbusing” conjures up images of centuries of white-upper class appropriation of Latino culture by “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).”
Much like Bayless’ ignorance about complicated & complex layers of race & culture that a person of color continually wears and can never completely separate from their identity, Peterson’s article failed to completely realize or acknowledge the consequences of his actions. While it certainly brought more widespread attention for the vendor, and generating more business for him, it also revealed his whereabouts and potentially put him at by putting him on the radar of the health department and the local police. Such subsequent & heightened scrutiny is something that could have posed additional pressures or dangers to an individual that did not ask to be “seen” or publicized.
Moreover, what the Elotegate controversy highlights once again is the right, power, and claim to a culture, especially from members outside of that community. No one can explicitly “own” a culture and the sharing, blending, and evolution of cultural practices and traditions is only natural, but the frustration, trouble, and offense arises when there is a lack of respect, self-awareness, and empathy between these exchanges. However, there should not be a black-and-white, blanket rule that one can only write / eat / cook / experience food from their own culture and cannot enjoy & appreciate other cultures (heck that’s what a majority of our class is doing now with our blogs!). But…when something is taken for one’s own use without permission or without paying respect & acknowledging the entire origin/history/life/heritage of what was given…then one starts to fall down the slippery slope of cultural appropriation.
College “Food Colonization”
Recently, dining halls on college campuses have become the latest arena to further dissect questions of cultural appropriation. As students of Oberlin College complained to their administration about the wholly inauthentic Banh Mi sandwich and low-quality sushi served in their dining halls, it was again a reminder that social justice impacts every aspect of our lives. I tend to agree that in that situation could definitely have been considered appropriative since “people not from that heritage took the food, modified it, and served it as ‘authentic’.” While dining hall cooks – many of whom were completely unfamiliar with many of the ingredients & recipes that they were instructed to use and dishes that they were tasked with making – can’t reasonably be expected to replicate the same dining experience with their food for hundreds of students that they could do with individual orders at a restaurant…cheap imitations that rip off a cuisine/culture and are then presented as “authentic” pose challenges & discussions that should not be minimized or brushed under the rug.
At our own USC, our dining halls host several large “theme nights” throughout the year. These special events feature theme-specific menus, music, and décor & have ranged from “Night at the Carnival” to “Harry Potter” to “A Mardi Gras Louisiana Bayou.” While several of the events in the past have sparked heated debate (particularly a Black History Month themed event in which the dining hall featured “monkey bread” as their signature dessert), I’ve seen USC administration try to involve more students in the planning of events as a result. For the recent Mardi Gras theme night, the dining hall reached out to the USC Center for Black Cultural Student Affairs to invite students to be part of the planning committee & designed the menu based exclusively off this student input.
And while these college conquests for better or “more authentic” food may seem trivial or even petty on the surface, they do in fact call larger social issues into question…cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, and marginalization to name a few.
Moreover, they also provide a testament to the burning desires of many people of color…to dismantle assumptions and to simply be heard…to be considered worthy of being presented in a manner that truly reflects who they are…who they aren’t.