Food and Culture are areas that are constantly evolving. Fusions between cultures have occurred both naturally and forcefully for many centuries. More recently, the question of authenticity has been a lively factor in food debates around the world. Furthermore, critics are questioning whether or not chefs have the right to prepare food outside of their personal cultural backgrounds.
In his article, “Apropiación cultural, o la usurpación de elementos étnicos: ¿un problema real?” Adrián Triglia describes cultural appropriation as someone taking elements specific to a culture and striping them of their authentic meaning. He writes, “es lo que ocurre cuando se usurpa un elemento cultural con finalidades que nada tienen que ver con las que se le atribuyen” (Triglia). In Professor Portnoy’s Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles she mentions the concept of columbusing, and quotes Peterson, who defines it as “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).”
I believe that there are two distinct ways to examine cultural appropriation and columbusing in regards to food in the US. One example would be Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly, former owners of Kooks Burritos, and the other is Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Restaurants.
“Creo en la inmersión cultural respetuosa, construir una relación con las personas, honrar y apoyar sus creencias. No mucha gente se toma el tiempo de aprender sobre otras culturas de manera respetuosa.”Gregory Gourdet, Munchies –Apropiación Cultural
Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly opened Kooks Burritos in 2017, and gained initial success. It all started when they took a trip to Baja California and became obsessed with Mexican cuisine. They asked women in broken Spanish what their process was, and the women’s hesitation to share the recipe coupled with a language barrier between them led Wilgus and Connelly to peer through windows to observe the tortilla-making process first hand. When this information was published in an interview months after opening Kooks Burritos, the women came under fire. People believed that they had stolen authentic tortillas and had blatantly disrespected Mexican cuisine. Many critics accused the owners of cultural appropriation. Shortly after the interview was published, Wilgus and Connelly made the decision to close their restaurant.
Although I like to believe that Wilgus and Connelly did not have malicious intent, I do think that their way of imitating Mexican cuisine was “reckless” as Peterson would say, as well as a bit tone-deaf. When recreating an element of a culture, such as cuisine, I think it is extremely important to do so with respect and care. It is of utmost importance to truly understand the cuisine at a fundamental level in order to recreate it.
“It doesn’t come from a shallow understanding of it, it comes from a very deep understanding of it.”Rick Bayless, Sporkful Podcast
Rick Bayless is a famous American chef who specializes in Mexican cuisine. Rather than one spontaneous trip to Mexico, he spent several years in Mexico truly learning about all elements of the cuisine. He brought his knowledge back to the US, publishing his first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, in 1987 and opening Frontera Grill, a Mexican restaurant in Chicago (Portnoy). He is also often criticized and accused of cultural appropriation. He prefers to view his culinary works as “translation,” or making traditional Mexican food more familiar so that a wider population of Americans would be interested. For example in the Sporkful podcast, Other People’s Food Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food, Bayless describes how he wouldn’t simply say “mole,” but rather would describe it as “a Oaxacan red mole from the coast” (Bayless, Sporkful Podcast). Bayless goes on to explain how he “started pulling out the familiar things and listing the ingredients that sounded not too frightening to people, in fact they sounded really delicious” (Bayless, Sporkful Podcast).
I believe that Rick Bayless’ background and commitment to learning Mexican cuisine allows him to explore Mexican food in a respectful way. He even acknowledges his position on sticking to tradition rather than experimenting with Mexican food when he says, “because my name is not hispanic, I cant mess with the stuff very much. And I realize that, and I accept that” (Bayless, Sporkful Podcast). I believe that acknowledging an admiration for Mexican culture and respecting that culture’s authentic past is a vital part of participating in the recreation of their cuisine.
An important distinction between the two situations is Bayless’ “deep and resonate” love for Mexican cuisine, whereas Wilgus and Connelly seem to have a more fleeting interest without truly making an effort to understand the culture.
“La cocina es por mucho el ejemplo más puro e íntimo de expresión cultural y por lo general el quién puede cocinar qué se convierte en una batalla más amplia que afecta a la sociedad.”Brad Japhe, Munchies – Apropiación Cultural
When looking at the restaurants I have tried throughout this course, Taco Bell is a very clear front-runner for cultural appropriation. Glen Bell, the entrepreneur who founded Taco Bell, very clearly did not do so to attempt to understand and share Mexican culture. I think this is a prime example of columbusing, through his cheap imitation of Mexican culture, like the bell tower and “adobe” walls, as well as food, through the use of cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce. In contrast, I visited several other restaurants that were the polar opposite of Taco Bell. For example Sarita’s Pupuseria, Guisados, or Guerrilla Tacos. In all three instances, I felt as if the owners were truly trying to share their culture and their experiences, rather than simply selling a Spanish Fantasy Past, which asserts a theatrical version of Latin culture.
In conclusion, I think there are many ways to look at cultural appropriation within Mexican cuisines in the US. However, if I were to attempt to generalize my opinion on the topic, it would come down to the genuine intent of the chef, and how much effort they invest to understand the food and culture of the foreign region they are recreating.