Why is cultural appropriation of cuisine an issue?
The question of who can cook cuisines of other cultures and label it as authentic has been a part of an ongoing conversation in the fields of culinary arts and cultural appropriation for several years now, as I believe it should be. While appropriation of cuisine is inevitable, and shouldn’t be completely avoided, as that would be a hindrance on the productivity of cuisine as an art form, the outright appropriation of a culture’s cuisine, on the whole, is wrong for a number of reasons, in my opinion.
One reason why stealing a culture’s cuisine and selling it as authentic is problematic is due to the appropriators themselves. In most cases, those who appropriate are from a more powerful, dominant culture which has a history of subverting the culture from which the cuisine is stolen. When those from dominant cultures steal a culture’s cuisine and then profit from it, this is just another way in which this culture subverts and asserts dominance over the other culture.
Rick Bayless is one of the most controversial examples of appropriative chefs. While he has the best intentions at heart, and while he has done a great deal of research to ensure that his Mexican food is as authentic as it can get, the outcomes of his actions are still much less than ideal. I agree with Gustavo Arellano when he says that Bayless’ success is a result of his privilege, which is much more than many Mexicans or Mexican-Americans could say. It bothers me that Bayless cannot admit that he inherently has this privilege, being a White man from the U.S., and I think that his lack of admittance on any front is disrespectful to the Mexican chefs that he has inadvertently displaced in his colonization of their food.
Another reason why cultural appropriation of cuisine is such an ongoing issue is because of the representation it takes away from the appropriated. When a dominant culture has the power to represent a culture’s cuisine to the rest of the world, it runs the risk of botching the world’s impression of the cuisine and thus the cuisine’s culture, if they do not represent the culture correctly. As we have seen in the false authenticity throughout Mexican restaurants in L.A. that cater to expectant tourists, this is a very real threat to the vulnerable, appropriated communities. When their identities are reduced to a tourist trap run by someone outside of their culture, the appropriated are ultimately seen as much different than they are in reality.
This is the reason why the students at Oberlin College were upset with their dining halls’ appropriative meals. They came to the dining hall expecting the traditional meals of their homelands, but instead, they were met with cheap renditions that still claimed authenticity. As Tomoyo Joshi said…
“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture…So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
My experience with cultural appropriation of cuisine
The majority of my personal experience with appropriated cuisine has hardly been as outright as the example of Rick Bayless, but after learning more about the subtleties of appropriation in the form of translation, fusion and smaller modifications to a cuisine, I have noticed that appropriation is all over.
Translating a cuisine, as Bayless said, is a way of making a foreign dish understood. While I can agree that this is an integral part to encouraging a richer appreciation of a cuisine, I also agree with Professor Ray when he says that in this translation, an aspect of the cuisine’s true meaning and identity is lost. The translating of Mexican food is all too common in the white-washed Mexican restaurants of Los Angeles, such as El Cholo, where their menu items cater directly to Anglo tastes, rather than sticking to true tradition. These traditional recipes have been translated so heavily that they are virtually unrecognizable to Mexicans themselves – a fact which is upsetting considering how their representation via cuisine is surely misleading and/or tarnished.
Fusion restaurants are another, relatively new phenomenon that have joined the conversation on cultural appropriation. Kogi and Guerrilla Tacos are two examples of fusion that I’ve encountered this semester, and while I can see how the idea of fusion can cause controversy, I am certainly not opposed to it outright. As I stated at the beginning, I think that the inspiration and the act of sparingly borrowing from other culture’s cuisine is not necessarily a colonizing act. As long as a chef is not seeking to represent the culture with a recreation of an “authentic” cuisine, I think the harm done to the culture is negligible. In the spirit of cuisine as an ever-evolving form of art, I believe that the inspiration from other cultures is expected and should not be overtly discouraged, otherwise, how can cuisine move forward in new and innovative ways? The culinary geniuses at Kogi and Guerrilla are certainly not occupying the space of an entire culture’s identity, but rather, they are building on their own knowledge, and respectfully gathering practices from other cultures.
With increasing globalization making our world smaller and smaller, appropriation is an unfortunate inevitability, but if it must happen, it must be done in a respectful way, that does not colonize a culture or misrepresent it entirely.