The topics I will discuss in this blog post are highly controversial. They revolve around a few contentious questions: Who has the right to represent the food of a certain culture or country? Can a chef cook and prepare food that is not from his or her own culture? For these complicated questions, I have a somewhat complicated answer. I think it depends – but let me explain. For the most part, I agree with Bayless that cooking a cuisine that is not from your own culture is a from of translation rather than appropriation.
For example, living in Australia there was a lot of Asian influence on cuisine. Thus, I grew up eating a lot of stir fry dishes, which my mum (a white woman) cooked. I never thought, nor do I think now, that it was a form of racism or appropriation. Moreover, I see it as a “mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth”, as described in an article by the Atlantic.
But I do believe that there are certain times in which cooking can be a form of cultural appropriation. So, where do I see the difference? I think ultimately, it comes down to intent. Part of me wants to say that you should also give credit to the culture the dish is from, but honestly, not everyone always knows where their food comes from (do you know your Vietnamese noodle soup from a Thai noodle soup, or a Korean noodle soup??) – therefore, not knowing and not giving credit to the culture, doesn’t automatically make you racist.
Like I mentioned, I see the line drawn in regard to intent. Racism is defined as, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. I believe that if someone is creating a dish, from a culture that is not their own with ill intent and with the purpose of putting down or disrespecting the culture – then yes, I would agree that it could be a form of racism. Without that insidious intent, though, I think that cooking food from a different culture or country is a form of exploring, sharing and discovery.
In her book, Portnoy mentions a term known as “colombusing” which means “the act of reckless and thoughtless appropriation (typically by rich white people) of a thing that’s been around for years or decades (a thing that usually belongs to not white-people). I think that Portnoy has the authority to write about Hispanic food, despite the fact she is not Hispanic, due to the fact she has researched the topic deeply. Portnoy has talked to the people who are on the ground, cooking and discussing latin cuisine and thus, I believe she deserves the opportunity to write, comment and share her opinion on the matter.
In regard to the case of Oberlin College, where “students complained that bánh mìs made from ciabatta and sushi from undercooked rice were evidence of culinary cultural appropriation” – I will have to say that I agree that yes, these foods definitely should not be marketed as authentic. If they do not use the traditional ingredients or some form of traditional cooking methods, I think they are a recreation/reinvention and therefore not very authentic. However, again I don’t think this specifically means they are culturally appropriated. It just seems honestly like the dining hall was trying to offer variety in the foods they offer, which in my opinion – is not a crime.
I do have to admit though, I wonder if my viewpoint is clouded due to my experience living as a white woman in the United States – because of course, a certain level of privilege comes along with that innately. I would love to do even do further research and talk to people from different backgrounds (especially those who are most commonly accused of being culturally appropriated.