Should “cooking rights” exist? Appropriation and translation of cultural dishes – Olivia Ontjes

The topic of cultural appropriation and translation through food is a complex issue with valid arguments for either side in my opinion.  The questions surrounding the “rights” to cook certain food extend beyond the kitchen and into political conversations. This class has not only exposed me to a new culinary world, of Hispanic and Mexican food in L.A., but also exposed me to the political power and nature that food serves – something I never fully appreciated before.

Growing up in North Carolina, I never questioned where diverse food – like Mexican food, Chinese food, Japanese food, or Mediterranean food – came from. I never considered how the food on my plate compares to the food being served and prepared in its country of origin. I never considered who does the cooking and how the modification of traditional recipes has a larger implication than just swapping out ingredients – but instead can represent cultural appropriation and social-injustice to those minority groups.

The topic itself is still one that I do not feel I have much authority to speak about – since I am not of a minority nor do I feel a strong connection to a certain culinary practice. Of course coming from the South I feel a connection to BBQ and other “southern comfort food”. But I cannot fully identify with a specific culinary practice or kitchen. Thus, it is hard for me to completely relate to or understand the arguments that certain chefs, due to their race, do not have the authority to cook other cultures’ food – like the critics against Chef Bayless for being a white male cooking Mexican food. Nor do I fully understand how the modification of traditional cultural dishes is a form of social-injustice or oppression of said cultures – as argued by students at Oberlin College. However, I still appreciate these arguments and the perspectives of these critics. As quoted in the article concerning the Oberlin College students’ formal complaint against their dining hall venders (for for inappropriately modifying traditional, and cultural dishes):

“This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.”

I understand how the dining hall’s actions can be viewed as a lack of respect for these cultures, and thus a form of social-injustice. Through the students’ activism, attention is being placed on the importance food serves as a “cultural vessel” – especially within the melting pot of the United States. Students at Oberlin College have voiced how food serves not only as a representation of one’s culture, but also a mechanism in which minority cultures can be unfairly manipulated and appropriated. However, I think these students must also acknowledge the potential restraints their school faces for funding for their dining halls and how the acquisition of ingredients for some dishes is difficult.

In the end, I understand the basis of the majority of arguments made surrounding the “rights” to who can cook certain cultural dishes and how these dishes should be cooked outside of their nation of origin. I do believe that food is a form of cultural identity and thus should be respected the same way people respect others’ religious practices – like the type of clothing worn. However I believe if the intention is pure and just, then anyone should be able to prepare and appreciate another culture’s food. Food is a way to communicate and celebrate something unfamiliar – through tastes, smells, and experiences. I believe if the chef has pure and respectful intentions for the culture he/she is representing in their cooking – then I don’t think it should matter who is in the kitchen making the food or how they share their dishes with others to enjoy.


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