A Closer Look at the Ingredients: An Exploration of Cultural Appropriation through a Sub-Par-Food Riot and Elotegate

Por Victoria Martinez

During my time at USC, I have had many opportunities to not only engage with different cultures but develop an understanding of my place in such a beautifully diverse world.  I have come to understand how and why certain lines of respect are drawn in the sand and how best to operate in diverse spaces.  Because of this diversity, I have been fortunate to engage in discourse, both in and out of the classroom, about cultural appropriation and “ownership,” if you will, regarding cultures.  Distinctions regarding definitions can be difficult and fluid, however, I operate with the definition that cultural appropriation involves a lack of context of a culture’s history and/or a “caricature-istic” approach to the specific item of appropriation.  Lack of understanding or wanting to understand is key in instances of cultural appropriation.  Using a cultural item as a gimmick removes the history of that culture from the item with no consequences to the accused.  For example, as explored through the art of black vernacular dance course and additionally through Triglia’s “Apropiación cultural, o la usurpación de elementos étnicos: ¿un problema real?”, Miley Cyrus and her association to twerking.  The argument can be made that she was culturally appropriating that style of dance for her benefit (ie popularity, relevance, etc.) and when it no longer suited her image, she cut ties easily and returned to a brand that suited her.  What was left behind, however, was the history of a culture’s struggle to remove negative stereotypical ties placed on them.  There are prejudices that are perpetuated in society connected to the black female body that black females cannot simply disassociate from.  By using a troupe of the twerking black female bodies in her videos, she perpetuated this prejudice which she has now removed from herself.  Her transgressions will not, however, evade the bodies she used, and the prejudice is perpetuated.  Cultures are not costumes.  In the same breath, it would be inappropriate to throw on a sombrero and fake mustache on Cinco de Mayo because (aside from being an inaccurate representation) it diminishes the experiences of that race operating through the world with stereotypes that cannot be physically removed.

This brings me to my current conversation regarding cultural appropriation and food.  With the help of some important articles, we can come to understand the boundaries in the culinary space. 

In Godoy and Cho’s, “When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ Food,” they pose the question “What is lost, if anything, when you eat a cuisine without connecting to the culture behind it?”  I would venture to state that maintaining respect for a culture through the food is the highest level that you can connect to the culture without being born into it.  People do not have a say what they are born as, but as long as their culinary choices remain faithful and humble to a culture, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to practice a particular cuisine.  Bayless who, according the Godoy and Cho, has travelled extensively throughout Mexico learning and even mastering Spanish is demonstrative of his commitment to the cuisine of Mexico.  Nevertheless, Bayless is still profiting from this cuisine and is not hindered in his success because of his race.  For these reasons, I would not venture to call it racism, as Bayless regards it, because racism is given from a position of power of which minorities are not.  I do, however, think that this level of exclusion is unacceptable. 

I agree with Bayless’s sentiments that not all translation is a product of colonization and would extend this to clarify that translation is a product of globalization.  As mentioned in my previous blog, I do think that fusion food allows room for interpretation of traditional dishes.  This was centered around the idea of globalization which is the process of taking ingredients, recipes, or style of cooking beyond the borders of its countries origin and spreading it around the world.  I mentioned that, “During this process the original cuisine may be changed due to lack of availability of an original ingredient or a different interpretation of the recipes.  Changing something cultural can be tricky.  You want to keep the integrity of the dish and culture while exploring and incorporating new possibilities.  Not everyone will agree with your interpretation or deviation from the original but if you maintain respect for the dish it will come across through the food.”  This concept of globalization directly connects to traducción because things are lost in translation.  Translation maintains the essence of the original message, but not the exactness.

The “scandal” at Oberlin college is a perfect example of the relationship between translation and exactness. Someone would be completely justified if they expressed that a certain dish was lacking in their opinion because it was not more traditional because personal preference is still an influencing factor in deciding taste and quality. But I do not think that limitations regarding ingredients, which is probably the case in most dining halls, is grounds for deeming a dish as cultural appropriation.  Dining halls are concerned with price points at the end of the day and not maintaining the cultural integrity of the dish.  As a means of diversifying the menu, dining halls might include more cultural options, but most likely never at the expense of costing more than any other meal.  It might be more apt to label all dining food as inauthentic, but I think that has more to do with the layout of cafeterias than with microaggressions.  I feel for students, such as those from Oberlin College who, according to Friedersdorf in “A Food Fight at Oberlin College,” were disheartened at the disrespect given to dishes that meant so much to them, but my condolences only extend so far.  At a certain point, I believe that dining halls, even if not appropriately labeled as such, are not meccas of traditional cuisine.  If the students were promised a certain level of cuisine, then by all means they should receive it, but if this agreement only extends to having food available then the grounds for this case dissolve into quick sand.  In my personal experience, I was never under a delusion that Everybody’s Kitchen at USC would serve the perfect Cubano.

In the case of Kooks Burritos, as described in Japhe’s “Algunos chefs hablan sobre la apropiación cultural en medio del caso Kooks Burritos,” this is a clear event of cultural appropriation.  The main red flag is the loss of context and history of the culture.  As stated in an interview, one of the owners confessed to watching other women cooking burritos through a window.  This physical window of learning turned theoretical as evident in their chicken and waffle burrito.  There is mimicking without the wholistic understanding of the cuisine which present on the menu and in the flavor.

One of my favorite discussion of cultural appropriation and food can be found in Portnoy’s Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles through the scandal of “Elotegate.”  Elotegate was coined by Lucas Peterson, who received negative backlash for “columbusing” or appropriating something that has been established as “discovering it.”  He wrote an article about Timoteo, an Elote Man in Lincoln Heights which brought an influx of people to try something new to them but established to the community.  Columbus, as studied in history, left the people he “discovered” with disease and ruin.  Peterson on the other hand helped, through a mutual agreement not present in the historical example, Timoteo gain so much popularity that his stand often closes early from selling out.  If the agreement was mutually beneficial, I do not think that there should be this much contention.

This brings me to a final reflection of the food trucks and restaurants I have explored this semester.  I can definitively say that these adventures have mostly brought me to places that maintain respect for both the culture and the cuisine presented, including the fusion food truck.  Although, that is not to say that I have not had inauthentic encounters with food.  On USC’s campus there is a café that serves what is listed as a “Cubano.”  On my first encounter, I was floored that I had not found such a meal sooner and excited to get a taste of what I thought would be mostly authentic.  I unwrapped the sandwich under the wasteful amount of paper wrapping to reveal a sub-par Cubano.  I was ever so slightly disappointed, but still excited that the option was present on a campus too far from a better version.  I, unlike the student at Oberlin, realized that meal was a result of limitation in accessibility of cheap ingredients that would make for a better version, not an example of cultural appropriation.  These examples are more readily accessible in establishments such as Taco Bell who cut almost all ties to Mexican cuisine in creating a “Mexican American” chain.  All context and history of cuisine is separated from the Crunch Wrap Supreme; instead, the focus is placed on the iceberg lettuce and always frozen, never fresh ground beef.  Maybe one day, food on college campuses will be hotspots of gastronomy teeming with authentic cuisine, but until then I will take another Cubano.

6 respuestas a “A Closer Look at the Ingredients: An Exploration of Cultural Appropriation through a Sub-Par-Food Riot and Elotegate

  1. miayanez

    Me gusta su comentario sobre Taco Bell y cómo no ya declara su conexión a la comida mexicana. Se debe recordar este hecho cuando se come en una restaurante “fast food” como Chipotle y Panda Express–no son lugares de tradición por comida mexicana o china. ¿Piensas que los restaurantes “fast food” o americano deben declara que no son tradicionales? ¿O la gente debe saber este hecho y no puede estar decepcionado cuando no come un gran plato?

  2. Brandon Towers

    Estoy de acuerdo con su conclusión sobre Bayless. La crítica de él por ser blanco no es racismo por muchas razones, pero también la exclusión de una raza en algunos tipos de comida no es aceptable.
    Tus puntos sobre “columbusing” y “elotegate” son interesantes. Sí, Peterson ayudó al elotero pero en ese tiempo era ilegal para ser un vendedor ambulante. El artículo de Peterson puso el elotero en peligro de recibir multas de la policía.

  3. lucysantora

    Me gusta su idea que “traducción es un producto de globalización, no de colonización”. Este es muy interesante porque muestra cómo traducción ocurre en nuestra tiempo moderno. Hoy en día un taco se creando por un chef blanco porque globalización no de colonización. Una buena descripción de este concepto.

  4. Sarah Portnoy

    Victoria,
    Bien escrito y expresado.
    Siguiendo el comentario arriba de Lucy–puede ser la traducción de un plato un ejemplo de colonización Y globalización? No sé… por otro lado, creo que el problema principal con Bayless es que no se da cuenta, como mencionaste, de su privilegio y por lo tanto dice cosas estúpidas.

  5. rachelmagnin

    Estoy de acuerdo con sus pensamientos sobre la comida en el “dining hall” en Oberlin College. También pienso que es importante ver al punto de precio y ver si las personas están ganando dinero con la apropiación de una cultura. Es importante ver a las intenciones, las limitaciones y el lucro. Me gusta tu apreciación y positividad sobre el cubano a través de estar negativo sobre la calidad.

  6. ariannaproul

    Victoria, I really enjoyed reading your blog. Your connection to Miley Cyrus was very interesting and I liked how you recognized the aftermath of appropriation like this, the struggle of the culture appropriated to recover from the negative stereotypes. I agree people should be able to cook without having to disclose their race or justify why they can cook a certain culture, as long as it is done with good intention. I also don’t believe dining halls are necessarily the best venue for a multicultural food experience, but the students at Oberlin College were correct in the dining halls’ insensitivity of certain meals, such as using meat in an Indian dish on a religious holiday even though religion leads many to not eat meat.

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