Por Carlin Pappas
Food has always been a way for cultures to define and differentiate themselves, each cuisine comprised of ingredients and spices that lend to its own unique identity. For example, Indian cuisine relies heavily on the use of turmeric, while Italian cuisine uses oregano. But the question over ownership of a particular food sparks and interesting debate over culinary cultural appropriation. Culinary cultural appropriation is the act of adopting culinary practices of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. Trade and globalization have led to the colonization of foodscapes.
In Portland, Oregon, Kooks Burritos was forced to shut down after accusations of stolen recipes and cultural appropriation. The situation over the burrito cart, operated by two white women, has left many to question ‘who’ exactly has the right to represent the food of a different culture or country.
Chef Rick Bayless, a white guy from Oklahoma, is considered one of the premier experts on Mexican food in the US, with restaurants in Los Angeles and Chicago. His cooking is so highly regarded that he cooked for former Mexican President Felipe Calderon during his visit to the White House in 2010. According to Bayless, many of his critics have said that by virtue of his race he “can’t do anything with Mexican food” (NPR, Godoy & Chow). However, he calls the criticism “plain racism.” Instead, Bayless says his cooking aims to promote the “greatest cuisine on the planet.”
Bayless, who is bilingual and has spent years traveling through Mexico and studying the regional cuisine, explains his love for Mexican food “comes from a deep understanding” of the food and culture. But, realizing what his critics mean when they critique his cooking is instrumental to the debate around culinary cultural appropriation. What Bayless fails to recognize is his own privilege in the kitchen as a white male. According to Francis Lam, “An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention—even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school.” Bayless has the privilege of returning from Mexico to the United States after each visit. To him, cooking Mexican food isn’t a necessity but an economically-beneficial luxury. He is able to profit off of the recipes that represent lived experiences of the Mexican people. Although he admits that his relationship to Mexican food comes with some restrictions (acknowledging that since his name is non-Hispanic, he cannot mess with the food very much), he still neglects to understand his own advantage in his exploitation of Mexican cuisine. While I do think that people of different races have the right to cook foods that are not ‘ethnically theirs,’ it is important that one remembers their own privilege in the process of the cooking as a way of avoiding complete appropriation of a cuisine or culture. Cooks like Bayless should be cautious when equating their culinary experience to those of the people from which their recipes are borrowed.
Bayless is not the only culprit in culinary cultural appropriation. Students at Oberlin College expressed their dissatisfaction with the university’s dining halls. Banh Mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, served at Steven Dining Hall used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw instead of French baguette, grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. One student asked, “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” In an attempt to provide a large number of people with food at a cheap cost, many universities fall in the trap of translating international plates to an American public as a façade of offering a ‘diverse array of cuisine’ Personally, I have not eaten at a USC dining hall since my freshman year, however, I see the same thing happening at my sorority house. At least once a week, the menu will boast an international-themed meal. For example, this week for dinner the menu has ‘Chicken Teriyaki, Asian Veggie Stir Fry, Potstickers, Egg Rolls and Fruit Cobbler’ listed. Simply labelling something as another culture’s cuisine—in this case, calling rice with vegetables “Asian Veggie Stir Fry”—is a blatant example of culinary cultural appropriation and translation. Similarly, many of the restaurants in the village, like Cava and Trejos Tacos, advertise Mediterranean and Mexican fare, respectively, but such titles are subjective towards a largely American audience. Trejos Tacos would not be considered Mexican cuisine to someone from Mexico, but to someone who has less exposure to Mexican food it may be all they know.
Columbising is the process of “discovering” something that has existed forever. It is taking something that does not belong to you, claiming it as your own and introducing it to a new demographic of people. When Lucas Peterson wrote an article on Timoteo, an Elote Man in Lincoln Heights, he was accused of columbising. However, ‘Elotegate’ brought an influx of people to Timoteo’s business and encouraged people outside of his immediate community to try foods that they may not have been familiar with. Food writing is a great way to raise awareness around cultures and different culinary practices. I believe that Peterson and Professor Portnoy’s writing does not appropriate Latino culture, but rather raises awareness around the many different types of cuisines. Writing about food not only benefits the cook, but the consumer. It increases visibility and popularity for marginalized communities.
Over the semester, I have enjoyed writing about my own experiences visiting a variety of Hispanic establishments. I have liked learning about how cooks have adapted and evolved their own recipes to fit the landscapes in which they operate. For example, Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos uses influences from his California roots and applies modern twists to traditional tacos. I believe that there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and culinary experimentation. When cooking, it is important to remain genuine to yourself and wary of exploiting other cultures. It is ok to cook another culture’s cuisine, but important to remember your privilege and background and be mindful of culinary exchange as to avoid appropriation, either intentional or unintentional.