While white people have a multitude of privileges, one aspect of white culture that is lacking is the actual culture. Because white people, especially in America, believe that our culture is a melting pot and one where we take a little from each culture. This phenomenon is well explained in Professor Portnoy’s book with the term “columbusing”, which is “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 idea is sewn into the fabric of our country, quite literally. It is everywhere, food, fashion, home decor, and most times people don’t even realize what they are doing. An example that is frequently in the news is Urban Outfitters, the poster child for cultural appropriation. They are constantly under fire for stealing designs and idea from Mexican cultures, prints from Indigenous tribes, amongst countless other call outs. Urban Outfitters benefits from stealing the bits and pieces from other cultures, producing them cheaply and selling them for exorbitant prices, and paying no respect or gratitude to those cultures while passing them off as their own. While this is extremely evident in fashion and unfortunately many Halloween costumes, this is also seen in food and in the culinary world.
Food is something of tradition, a foundation for every culture in the world, while fashion is something that is innovated and created everyday from scratch. So in the case of food, it almost seems as if you are without a rich cultural background, you are without the ability to cook. This often results in borrowing of other cultures, fusing your American culture with the culture one attempts to emulate or pay homage to. When white people cook Vietnamese food or sushi, are they committing the same act as Urban Outfitters? Are white people only allowed to grill up cheeseburgers and hot dogs as their American tradition calls for? For chef Rick Bayless, a white man from Oklahoma and incredible chef of Mexican cuisine, he thinks no. Rick speaks on his experience as a white man exploring Mexican culture and food, talking on his “deep understanding” of the culture. Rick speaks fluent Spanish, has travelled extensively through Mexico, and attempts to bring his own twist to Mexican food, while maintaining the tradition. Is a deep understanding enough, or does it need to be a part of your blood, your heritage? In my opinion, I think if someone genuinely takes the time to learn a language, travel, talk with people and explore another culture they have the right to share their experiences in a culinary manner. But of course, I am coming from a perspective of a white woman who has no idea what it’s like to have someone rob and appropriate my culture. That being said, I think it is easy to diminish one’s culture to a Chipotle or Baja Fresh, but I believe Rick Bayless is a different case, as well as many other white American chefs who do an excellent job communicating another culture’s cuisine to Americans who otherwise would not experience it without traveling long distances. Food brings us together, and when done in a respectful and understanding manner, white Americans can show other Americans of all races a new or familiar cuisine we can all enjoy.
Another example of white men cooking other culture’s food is a good family friend of ours, Jeremy Umland, who found the Japanese restaurant Ozumo, which has locations in San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Monica. Jeremy is a New York native, and happened to be an incredible baseball player, incredible enough to live in Japan and play internationally for several years. He became fluent in Japanese, played baseball with Japanese locals, and fell in love with the cuisine, so much so that when he returned, had a dream to open up his own Japanese restaurant. Ozumo serves traditional dishes such as sashimi, sushi, and higher end and more experimental Japanese dishes. All the chefs and staff are of Japanese descent and communicate with Jeremy in Japanese. They are able to bring their culinary arts and culture to California because Jeremy was able to experience another culture and be inspired to bring it to us. The food is not only authentic, but delicious. Most ingredients I am unfamiliar with, but through my experiences at Ozumo I was able to get out of my comfort zone and try all these exciting flavors authentic to Japan, and gain a new respect and understanding for a culture I have yet to experience through a visit, all because of our friend Jeremy who lived in Japan to play baseball.
My experience with food at USC is that it is either at a dining hall and gross, or average and extremely overpriced. So for the culinary appropriation study, I decided to go to SunLife Organics, which is a health food company based out of Malibu with overpriced juices, smoothies and acai bowls amongst other treats. Most of the employees are Lululemon’s target customers and they are all fit, fun and on the run. The walls have bible verses carved into them, and that paired with the inspiring novels on the wall scream white culture. There is a smoothie sold for $32 dollars and I bet it doesn’t even taste good. I have searched and searched for an authentic Brazilian açai bowl time and time again, and the only time I truly feel like I succeeded was at the farmer’s market I used to go to in San Diego. My friend would speak in Portuegese with them and give us deals on the most delicious and fresh açai bowls I’ve ever had. SunLife Organics, amongst the multitude of other white health brands attempting to recreate the açai bowl have given no homage or respect to the Brazilian dish. The base, “açai”, is a watered down smoothie that only sometimes contains açai, and an American serving of granola and fruit doused in coconut shavings. The açai bowl as been repurposed and up sold under the brand of “health foods” and stripped of it’s original cultural intention. The açai puree was originally intended for martial artists in the Amazon, but none of the culture or history has remained in tact. SunLife organics is columbusing this dish in order to turn profits in the wealthiest parts of the country. While I understand this is a fusion of white/American culture and Brazilian, it feels extremely whitewashed and not at all a fusion. I believe many people do not know the origin of açai bowls, but they will always remind me of my Portuguese speaking friends, cold and meticulously prepared açai, fresh fruit, granola, and drizzled honey.