The term cultural appropriation has often been referred to an action committed by individuals or groups who choose to dress themselves in attire or headdress that are not related to their ethnic or cultural background. In addition to that, it can refer to individuals or groups who wear or style their hair a certain way that undermines the historical context of why that hairstyle came about in the first place. These examples include individuals who choose to wear cornrows or durags for the sake of fashion or an attempt at being hip and stylish. It also includes individuals who wear Japanese kimonos or a war bonnet at Coachella to also try to look cool or stylish. While these examples are important to address, cultural appropriation and these examples are not mutually exclusive. Cultural appropriation also exists in the food and service industry.
There have been recent incidences where cultural appropriation has been called out in relations to food. Take Bon Appétit for example. This food and entertainment company is known for posting mouth-watering videos of food and trendy places to visit. They posted a particular video back in 2016 which caused an uproar amongst the Vietnamese and Asian American community. Bon Appétit audaciously posted a video addressing its audience that “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.” On top of that, they went so far as to call it the “new ramen.” This sparked conversations of cultural appropriation for many of the individuals of the Asian American community. Many felt that it was disrespectful for a white chef in Philadelphia, who owns a restaurant named Stock, was telling the audiences how one should consume Pho while also making a blanket statement that pho is the new ramen. The offense is not that he is a white chef who knows how to cook pho nor is it a problem with Bon Appétit showcasing pho to the public. The root of the issue is that when a white male chef chooses to tell the public how one should consume a food that does not even belong to his culture, it is offensive. It erases the experiences of what it means to be Asian American, especially Vietnamese American.
This example subjects us to consider where other forms of cultural appropriation of food takes place and who should cook and represent the food of the culture. Certainly, a white chef should not be the representative of the food of the culture. He or she does have the ability to cook the food of the culture and can profit off of it if he or she so chooses to put it out in his or her menu. However, the chef does not have the right to assume that he or she is the expert in the that culture’s food. A prominent individual who is known for this is Chef Rick Bayless. He has been the face of this debate on whether a white man should be the representative and expert on cooking Mexican food. Chef Rick Bayless has immersed himself in Mexican cuisine. He has learned the language and has profited from the food. He has in a way translated Mexican food for the audiences who are not familiar with this type of cuisine. He has elevated Mexican food, but he is not the only chef to do that. Just like Professor Krishnendu Ray stated, “Translation is a food and an interesting thing. Not all translation is a colonizing act. But all translation is a kind of a loss.” It is a loss where Bayless tries to cater to the more anglo audiences and whitewashes the food that he believes that he is an “expert” in.
In an interview with NPR, Bayless responded to the criticism, saying, “I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only — only — because of my race.” Bayless’ comment is problematic in itself because as Gustavo Arellano points out that “Bayless is claiming reverse racism for anyone who question whether he has the right to cook Mexican food.” Bayless should not claim reverse racism for being white. He should acknowledge that his privilege and power has benefitted him. It has opened doors faster for him than chefs of color. So yes, it is okay for Bayless to cook Mexican food. It is not okay that Bayless dismisses his critics and disregards the privilege that has afforded him the many opportunities that has been given to him while there are still chefs out there who can better represent their culture’s food. On a larger scale, it points to the issue that only a white chef can make food from a certain culture mainstream. In relations to Mexican food, many who have immigrated to the United States have had to assimilate while holding onto their culture. This is the experience of many immigrants. However, Chef Bayless does not have to go through the lunchbox moment. He does not have to experience discrimination while consuming one’s cultural food. Much like many immigrants, including myself, I had to grow up in country where stereotypes and stigmas have almost caused a rift between my culture for trying to be American and Asian. I empathize with the critiques and sentiment of those who disagree that Chef Bayless is insensitive and should not be the face of Mexican food. Food goes beyond consumption, especially for individuals who grew up being harassed and discriminated for their food. When an individual consumes his or her own culture’s food, it is a political act. An act that says, “I am not assimilating nor am I apologetic for being proud of my identity.”
While I believe that it is justifiable for a chef to cook food from another culture that he or she is not a part of, it is not justifiable to disregard the historical context and dismiss the audiences who are outraged or question their intentions. In an article by The Atlantic on the discussion of cultural misrepresentation of dining hall foods, the writer addresses many points. One that stuck out the most was when the article describes the misrepresentation as a “mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth” and that it was the beauty of America. Just because this country has been built on slavery, stealing and genocide, it does not make it okay to continue to steal another individual’s culture to simply benefit it without acknowledgement. Aside from this, the discussion in The Atlantic article does bring up valid points, especially in relations to dining hall food on college campuses. It is imperative to acknowledge that the chefs behind the dining hall food are working, at times, at minimum wage. They are not as privilege, as Chef Rick Bayless, to go out of the country to have a culturally immersive experience. Food being misrepresented even occurs on USC’s campus. I can remember during my sophomore year when a dining hall advertised that they were offering sushi and it turned out to just be a bowl of rice and seaweed with meat. It occurs in the food court such a Fertitta Hall where they serve pho but it tastes nothing like pho. Even the noodles weren’t correct. On one hand, I understand the sentiment brought on by the students of Oberlin College, but on the other hand, I agree that the workers who are making the food on college campuses are not on a even playing field in terms of knowledge about other culture’s food.
Much like Professor Portnoy puts it in Chapter 4 of her book Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles, columbusing is “a term Peterson defines 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).’” This is the case with food, not all, that exist on college campuses and many other places that serve another culture’s food. The point of all of the discourse on cultural appropriation of food, especially Mexican cuisine, is that chefs who do not belong to that culture should have respect for the culture first. They should do their research and engage their critics and explain why they have chosen to focus on that cuisine. In relations to Professor Portnoy, she may not be Latina, but she has shown respect and has done her research on Latin food. More importantly, she has credited Mexican chefs and have not claimed that she is the expert on a culture’s food.