Cultural Appropriation: A Complicated Issue by Brandon Towers

The idea that the United States is a “melting pot” of cultures and peoples is something that I, and many others, were taught as kids. The melting pot is a result of many different types of people coming together, mixing, becoming, and adding to the culture of the United States. While this sounds great in theory, I learned a few years ago that this actually is not a great metaphor for how immigrants have assimilated into the U.S. It was brought to my attention that the cultures in the U.S. combine more like a salad rather than a melting pot. Salads have many distinct pieces that form the whole dish. It is not a homogenous soup like a melting pot, and I believe this is a better reflection of the U.S. as a whole. The different groups of people all contribute to the whole in different ways. If the melting pot metaphor was correct, I’m not sure cultural appropriation would exist because we’d all be just further contributing to the same larger culture that we make up. In a theoretical melting pot, any American could represent the food or culture of another group because that group would have contributed to the larger American culture. Would that not give them the right to speak about another groups culture?

As far as who has the right to represent the food and culture of a country, I think the right to decide who gets to belongs to those people. This doesn’t mean only those people do represent their country/culture in that way, just that they also get to decide whether or not those who are from the outside can also do so. For example, my opinion on who should or should not be able to cook Korean food should not really matter. However, if it were about a cuisine that was more closely linked to my family history then my opinion should hold more weight. Of course it is still possible for a chef to cook food from a culinary background that is not their own, it just has to be done in the right way. This sentiment is shared by Han Ly Hwang, a Korean chef who said in an interview with Vice “Realmente no me interesa si preparas comida coreana sin ser coreano, pero hazlo con respeto y que sepa bien. Conozco chefs que hacen comida coreana maravillosa y no son coreanos. Pero se distinguen por haber realizado investigaciones sobre esta gastronomía, respetan los sabores y saben lo que están haciendo.” A chef has to treat the food with respect, and spend time really getting to know flavors and ingredients and different pieces of the cuisine that make up the larger culture. And it’s not always easy to know when someone does that. It’s much easier and faster to look at someone and say “what could this white dude know about Korean food?” than to look up someone’s backstory and figure out why they are cooking that type of food.

I don’t think that a chef cooking food from a different ethnic background is necessarily cultural appropriation, but I also don’t fully agree with the alternate given in the article from the Atlantic. Someone commented on the Oberlin college controversy by saying “Mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth is what America does, and in my view, it is the encapsulation of what is best about this country …” I agree that mixing and borrowing and stealing is what America does, but I don’t think it necessarily is what makes this country great (in this case). Of course the mixing of the many unique cultures in America has given rise to fantastic fusion food as well as many other great things. But it’s not like these people had the right or duty to take things from other cultures and “improve” on them. And only a few of the people that do sort of co-opt food from outside of their background do actually impact the greater culture. We all would have been just fine without the newest take on pho or whatever dish is the next “big thing.”


Some chips and salsa from my meal at Frontera Grill in Chicago

I’m huge a fan of Rick Bayless’s food. His restaurants in Chicago are some of my favorites to go to. There is a Frontera Grill in the Chicago O’Hare airport, and it is legitimately my favorite part about traveling. I haven’t eaten anywhere else in O’Hare in years. I wasn’t previously aware of some of his insensitive comments. It seems like saying dumb things must run in the family, because his brother, sportscaster Skip Bayless, has made a living uttering some of the most ridiculous and inflammatory sports takes on national television (I could write a whole different blog on him). That point aside, I do think Rick Bayless has the right to cook mexican food. Going back to what I mentioned earlier, I know he truly and deeply appreciates Mexican culture and food. It’s not like he saw some emerging trend in Mexican food and decided to capitalize on it. He lived in Mexico, he speaks Spanish. He’s not pretending to be Mexican or fronting as if the culture is his own, and he’s taken the time to learn about it and learn from it.

I do agree that Bayless is translating this food for an American audience, but I do also believe that “all translation is a loss.” It is impossible to take food from a different part of the world and bring it someone far away and still preserve the exact same flavors and sentiments. For one part, you are literally losing the terroir of that region when transporting the food (either through preserving it while it is shipped or cultivating it somewhere else). You can translate some dishes really well, but it won’t ever come across the exact same way. I more or less agree with everything in Professor Portnoy’s book about Bayless as well. He has made some dumb and insensitive comments, but he has contributed a lot to mexican food and culture status in America and his food is amazing in my opinion. I don’t believe that some of the criticism against him is a form of racism. I think it is more due to his privileged attitude and the insensitive and unaware comments he makes. The fact that he had not previously thought about how being white could have given him some advantages in his career (from the podcast) is telling about the kind of person he is.  For me, the background of the chef cooking my food is not that important. So while I don’t agree with some of the stuff Rick Bayless has said, I will probably continue to eat at Frontera Grill every time I am at the Chicago airport.

One of the three Frontera Grill restaurants in Chicago O’Hare airport

To quote an article from NPR, “ Columbusing is when you “discover” something that’s existed forever. Just that it’s existed outside your own culture, nationality, race or even, say, your neighborhood.” I couldn’t think of a better way to say it myself. I wish I had more context for Petersen’s article, but it did not seem like columbusing to me. I absolutely think it is possible for a non-latino to write about latino food. They just have to do it in the right way. It is very similar to what was mentioned earlier about how chefs have to approach food from outside of their background. The writer should not frame the food as some “new trend” or use different terms for the foods instead of the original ones (translating or using new and traditional terms together is fine). Just pay homage to the culture that creates the food, and don’t sensationalize it.

I can relate to the banh mi situation, but from the reverse perspective. The first time I tried banh mi was in the Cafe 84 dining hall. It was soggy bread with a gross vegetable slaw. It was not good, and I did not like it at all. A couple years later I visited Vietnam during my semester abroad. I was apprehensive to try banh mi, but it only took one bite for me to realize what I had at USC was not banh mi at all. I had one or two a day for the remainder of my trip there. I do agree with the student from Oberlin. It is wrong to take modified heritage food and label it as authentic. I don’t have any issue with modifying the food, but presenting it as authentic is disingenuous and wrong. It goes back to how the chefs have to treat the food and culture with respect, and in that case they did not do that.

At least in my experience, the fusion food I have encountered does not seem like a product of racism but it might be a form of cultural appropriation. I haven’t done the necessary background research on the chefs or owners to determine if they are culturally appropriating, but my gut feeling is probably a few of them are just exploiting the current popular food trends for a quick buck. They might not be as invested in the culture and history of the food and just want to profit off of it. On the other hand, Taco Bell seems like a better example of cultural appropriation. I don’t think it’s a product of racism, but after learning the founder’s story in this class I definitely think it’s borderline appropriating. To me, Glen Bell’s story seems similar to that of the girls from Kooks Burritos. He got some Mexican chefs to show him how they made their tortillas, and then he took that idea and started his own restaurant in a predominantly white area of Los Angeles. According to Professor Portnoy’s book he then “constructed his restaurants with a Mexican “theme park image using faux adobe walls” and a “mission-style bell tower” that gave its customers a sense of the restaurant’s authenticity.” So he took the tortilla, added his own fillings, and then passed it off to consumers as authentic Mexican food. It seems like cultural appropriation to me, and the food has only been further altered as time has gone on. And I’m sure his restaurants inspired a whole new generation who believed they “columbused” tacos as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t eat at Taco Bell, or that I’ll never go there again. But going forward I’ll probably be more conscious of where I’m eating and the culinary history of the food and chefs as well.

3 respuestas a “Cultural Appropriation: A Complicated Issue by Brandon Towers

  1. anouskachoraria

    Brandon me gusta tu metafora de la ensalada a los ángeles y los EEUU en general. También es importante como tu crees y el chef Han Ly Hwang dice que la raza de la persona no importa mientas que prepare comida con respeto y sepa bien.
    También completamente estoy de acuerdo que comentas sobre Rick Bayless. Ha tomado el tiempo para ensenarse sobre la comida mexicana, habla español y es un experto en la cocina mx y el país y su espíritu también – no cocina para capitalizar en la comida.

  2. Sarah Portnoy

    Brandon,
    Muy bien escrito. Estoy de acuerdo contigo–sobre la separación de la persona y la comida que prepara/vende. Me encantaría probar la comida de Frontera Grill un día y los libros de cocina de Rick Bayless de cocina mexicana son muy buenas. Y sí–ha hecho su tarea–habla español, ha estudiado la cocina de manera profunda. Pero parece que ser un “jerk” (por no usar otra palabra) es parte de su personalidad. Decir que sufre de “reverse racism”….¿en serio?
    Me alegro de que los temas de la clase te hayan hecho pensar dos veces.

  3. nred9

    Brandon, me gustaba muy bien tu artículo. Nunca he entendido o pensado de esta idea de los Estados Unidos como una ensalada en vez de un “melting pot,” pero ahora estoy de acuerdo porque lo has explicado muy bien, como cada parte en una ensalada es distinto y todos contribuyen individualmente al “whole” de la ensalada. Reí cuando leí tu comentario sobre los comentarios de los hermanos Bayless; y al mismo tiempo estoy de acuerdo como dijiste que sus comentarios son muy insensibles. Es muy interesante de entender esta tu perspectiva sobre estas cuestiones porque también ya has comido a sus restaurantes y te gustan. Es interesante que también todavía vas a comer a su restaurante en el aeropuerto. Aunque no estoy de acuerdo con las prácticas de Bayless, quizás debo probar uno de sus restaurantes de todas formas para ver para mí mismo lo que causa toda esta “hype” sobre su comida.

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