Culture and Cuisine (por Tejas)

Does it truly matter who runs the kitchen of a restaurant? I believe that as long as the chef is representing the food in the best possible way he can and doing the cuisine justice it does not matter. If the restaurant is termed as “authentic” I, as a patron, am expecting authentic flavors and classic recipes. That is what I expect the chef to provide; their own ethnicity and heritage is essentially irrelevant. If the restaurant prides itself in being “fusion,” then I expect to receive interesting combinations of flavor profiles and unique mixtures of ingredients. I do not necessarily expect the chef to be ethnically from or have a background heritage from those areas, nor should this be a requirement for them to be a chef. In all honestly, some of the best Indian restaurants I have eaten at, throughout the Midwest and California, have mostly Latino chefs, who are equally well-versed in Indian cuisine in the kitchen. As we have discussed throughout the semester, cooking is an art-form and I believe this creative outlet should be open to any and all who wish to participate. So long as an individual is not labeling themselves as a brand ambassadors or inventor of a specific cooking style, flavor profile, or dish that belongs to someone or somewhere else.

I believe that the true problem lies within the way in which a chef or restaurant may label their cuisine and/or dishes, either intentionally or unintentionally, subsequently altering the expectations of the consumer due to this incorrect or misleading label. At Oberlin College, “The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. ‘It was ridiculous,’ Nguyen said. ‘How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?’” (Friedersdorf). I agree, if the school dining hall truly did label their Banh Mi as “traditional,” then their misleading label was inappropriate; however, I do not believe that it would be culturally appropriative without any malicious intent behind the action or unwillingness to remedy their mistakes after becoming aware of its adverse interpretation. As in the case of dining hall chefs at Oberlin, “They seemed very willing to learn and fix what was offending people” (Friedersdorf).

The “appropriative” behavior of chefs at Oberlin seems to be more of a reflection of mislabeling rather than true malicious appropriation. In fact, I would delve deeper into understanding why the chefs chose those specific ingredients when making their “Traditional Banh Mi.” Did the chefs use the ingredients available to their disposal in the best way they possibly could to construct this Vietnamese dish? I believe we must also consider the fact that Oberlin is located in Northern Ohio, most likely does not source ingredients specifically from ethnic grocery stores, and must serve hundreds of hungry college students multiple times a day. Can students truly have such high expectations from such a hub of mass production? Would students at places like Oberlin prefer to be served mac n cheese, hamburgers, and hot dogs every single day because these are the only dishes that represent “American” food? I do believe that Oberlin students were resourceful and took instances such as this mislabeling of food to bring up their larger concern of dining hall food quality, which is an issue at most college dining halls (besides UCLA of course).

I truly believe that a chef’s interpretation of food is his own take on the cuisine, whether it leans more towards being “traditional” or “authentic”, no two chefs are going to create the exact same dish with the exact same flavors. Our visit to Wes Avila’s Guerilla Tacos was a perfect demonstration of this phenomenon. Avila is ethnically Mexican, and one would assume his cooking would demonstrate this Mexican “authenticity”; however, he is one of the first pioneers to end up demonstrating the representation of true Angelino cuisine. His cooking embodies the cuisines he grew up with in LA including Korean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, etc. Guerilla Tacos is Avila’s interpretation, translation, and fusion of these cuisines and is in fact not labelled as cultural appropriation as this is clearly communicated to his customers, “He had gone to culinary schools in California and France, had cooked alongside some of the most recognized chefs in the world…but he had still not found his own style…Tacos. The perfect medium…he could make them with locally sourced ingredients and experiment with unique recipes…it was the way he would bring gourmet to the street” (Avila).

I believe that the story of Wes Aliva is a good juxtaposition to the interesting case of Rick Bayless who has received tons of scrutiny for culturally appropriating Mexican food. However, “He’s done so much work to study Mexican food and culture. He speaks Spanish fluently. He spent five years living in Mexico, visiting every state in the country. And he returns to Mexico every year with his restaurant staff for research and training” (Saini). I believe that Bayless has the full right to be “the face of high-end Mexican food.” Though he is not ethnically nor culturally Mexican, he is an expert in the cuisine due to his deep exposure and immersion into “authentic” Mexico. In an NPR interview Bayless even stated that his cooking, “Doesn’t come from a shallow understanding; it comes from a deep understanding. I’ve done everything I can to make it my own.” This is not an act of “columbusing” in any way whatsoever because Bayless does not recklessly and thoughtlessly appropriate something that has been around for years or decades (Portnoy).  He is not calling his moles, tamales, empanadas, etc. his own genius cuisine – he is truly and fully giving credit to its Mexican heritage.

I am the daughter of immigrants from India, I cook daal, sabzi, and roti, but as an American I mostly cook pizza, pasta, tacos, fajitas, pad thai, green curry, kebabs, hummus, and various other dishes originating from all around the world. This is a representation of the food I enjoy, the food I have grown up with, and food that just tastes good! I truly believe that ingredients, recipes, and cooking styles belong to different cultures, but, this does not mean they have exclusive ownership over this in any way. Through globalization, the world has inter-mingled and mixed in more ways than we could have ever imagined, and I do not believe that we should inhibit this because of “cultural appropriation.” When it comes down to it, appropriation aligns with an individual’s intent of his or her actions which is extremely difficult to assess; thus, tribute, respect, and inspiration must be given where it is due, which is essential when trying to analyze if something has truly been “culturally appropriated.”

The Importance of Recognizing Whiteness in Order to Avoid Cultural Appropriation in Food and Beyond – Por Rachel

It’s an interesting question. Who has the right to profit from food that does not represent their culture? Who has the right to cook food that they did not know growing up and call it their own? Chef Rick Bayless and Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of NYU’s Food Studies Department and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur talk about this on Dan Pashman’s Podcast, The Sporkful. Professor Ray says that in order to be a chef of another culture’s food you have to educate yourself about the food and the culture, becoming a student of the culture. While I agree with this statement, I believe there is more to profiting from another culture’s recipes and food culture than just learning about their culture.

Between different cultures and cuisines and the way they are viewed throughout the world there are many complexities. One of the main complexities is the hierarchy of cultures and the racial implications. Chef Rick Bayless is a white man from Oklahoma who serves upscale Mexican food in his world-renowned restaurants. Bayless has received both commendations and criticism for his restaurants. Bayless expressed in Dan’s podcast that he has a passion and love for the culture of Mexico and Mexican food. He talks about falling in love with Mexico when he was 14, taking annual trips to Mexico with his family and learning important, valuable life lessons from the people in Mexico. While all of this makes him a student of the culture of Mexico, I am not completely sure his restaurants are still not appropriating Mexican culture to make a profit. Professor Ray explains at the beginning of the podcast that a white person can make food from another culture and succeed while non-whites do not have this same opportunity. When Bayless is asked in the podcast if his whiteness has helped him in any way to succeed, he responded that he had never thought about it before and then he sighted all of his hard work and how difficult it is for restaurants to succeed. While I don’t doubt that Bayless is hardworking or that he is a respectful student of Mexican culture, I think it is impossible not to appropriate another culture if one is not willing to recognize their own whiteness and the way it has in some ways helped them succeed. In a society where there is a such an evident racial hierarchy and constant color-blind racism, Chef Bayless is adding to these major societal issues by not recognizing his own whiteness and the ways it has helped him succeed.

Chef Bayless believes that he is “translating” the food and culture of Mexico to an audience in America in a way that they can understand. Opposingly, Professor Ray says that all translation is a loss of some sort. I believe that both are in some way true. All translation is a loss but if we were never willing to translate anything, cultures would never intermingle, people would never communicate and the world would be a much more disconnected and disunited place. In Los Angeles, we get to see the way that fusing two different kinds of cuisine can be mind-blowingly good. In this fusion, yes we are losing some of the original taste and culture of each of the originals but we are als gaining and incredible new dish that may be appealing to a wider range of people.

Guerila Tacos, Wes Avila’s brick and mortar taco shop in the Art’s District is an example of fusion food. Tacos originated in Mexico but Avila is serving them in ways that are completely different from the way tacos are served and made in Mexico. This being said, Wes Avila does not call his food Mexican food and he is not trying to be “authentic” to Mexican food and culture. Wes Avila described to us on our class visit to his shop that his food is “authentic” to his Los Angeles experience. His fusion tacos encapsulate his Los Angeles upbringing, culinary school experience and passion for food. In this case, fusion food is not taking away from its Mexican roots because it is not trying to be Mexican food. It is trying to be its own individual type of taco and it has been a huge success.

Aculturación en Tiempo Moderna (Blog 5)

Por Lucy Santora

“How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

dice un estudiante de Oberlin College que es de Vietnam. 

“How could they just throw out somehting completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” dice un estudiante de Oberlin College que es de Vietnam.  Él refiere a su cafetería donde el ban mí no fue autentico.  Este es un problema porque la comida representa la cultura y si la comida no es auténtica no representa la cultura bien.  La medida en que quiero explicarlo a gente americana es que pizza de Dominoe’s no es pizza autentica italiana y entendemos este. Pero, si Dominoes trata de decir que su pizza es auténtica, es una forma de apropiación cultural.  

¿Es posible para un chef de una cultura diferente para cocinar y preparar la comida de una cultura no suya?

Creo que sí es posible – PERO solo si el chef tiene experiencia con la cultura y la comida. Una persona blanca quien cocinar comida mexicana sin un entendimiento de la comida no es bueno.  Pero si una persona ir a escuela para aprender a cocinar comida de México es una historia diferente.  

Cada traducción no es un actor de colonización O cada traducción es una pérdida de algún tipo 

En mi opinión, depende en la situación.  En un lado, cada traducción resulte en algo que es perdido porque no hay traducciones perfectas.  Pero traducción no necesariamente tiene un elemento malo como colonización.  En otro lado es la responsabilidad del traductor a mantiene traducciones realísticas y si hay errores posiblemente hay intento malo. 

Necesito decir algo – soy una chica blanca de los Estados Unidos.  Mi familia es italiana pero los italianos no son el centro de discriminación en nuestro país.  Porque mi historia, no tengo una perspectiva personalmente en este sujeto.  Pero hablar con algunos amigos quien tienen culturas de minoridad para entender sus opiniones sobre esta idea.  

Una amiga mía quien tiene familia de India.  Ella dice que no le gusta cuando gente usa “henna” para eventos que no son celebraciones.  En su opinión no es un tipo de maquillaje para cada situación, pero es una forma de arte para celebraciones específicas.  Con el sujeto de comida ella solamente dice “Hay más de comida india de chicken tikka massala, esto es la única cosa que los blancos comen, es una lástima”.  

Otra amiga mía es parte Cherokee y ella odia cuando gente visten ropa como el vestido de la cabeza para festivales de música (Coachella).  Comida de americanas nativas no es popular en nuestra sociedad y por eso ella no tiene una opinión sobre esta idea.  

Lo intenté de encontrar una persona en mi círculo social quien tiene una opinión sobre aculturación con comida, pero no fue nadie.  Pienso que gente piensa en aculturación con ropa, celebraciones, y tradiciones, pero no con comida.  Estoy emocionada para ver lo que los otros estudiantes descubrieron.  

Aquí tengo una lista de que es aceptable para usa otra cultura

  • cuando tiene educación apropiado de la cultura (como un chef cocina comida de una cultura)
  • cuando usa para el propósito de educación (ejemplos de vestido de cabeza para mostrar a una clase)

Aquí tengo una lista de que NO es aceptable para usa otra cultura (no es exhaustiva)

  • cuando usa la palabra “autentica” cuando no es exactamente autentica
  • cuando usa ropa para declaración de moda

Qué piensas sobre ideas de aculturaciones?

Food Appropriation por Brooke F

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.

Urban Outfitters cultural appropriation
Rick Bayless

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.

Apropiación culinaria: ¿se pierde el punto? por Allen

El caso de Rick Bayless es buen ejemplo del conflicto que surge cuando un chef cocina comida fuera de su cultura étnica. El contragolpe que ha sufrido Bayless es similar al enfado que fue dirigido a los dueños de “Kooks Burritos” en que los dos casos representan un deseo para autenticidad que tienen los consumidores. Creo que esta demanda es un poco perversa y una forma de postura moral. En mi mente, es obvio que se debe poder cocinar comida fuera de la propia cultura de una persona. En nuestro mundo global y conectado, me parece tonto tratar de regular quien puede cocinar que tipo de comida. Si se aplicaran estrictas líneas culturales en la cocina, casi todos los restaurantes asiáticos y americanos en Los Ángeles tendrían que cerrar debido a sus cocineros mexicanos. Además, muchos ni saben de que cultura étnica vienen en las nuevas generaciones de nuestro mundo mezclado.

Image: Chef Eddie Hernandez at the Taqueria del Sol
Roberto Piña, un latino sushi chef famoso en Chicago

Si creo que hay un argumento económico que los dueños de restaurantes blancos tienen éxito al detrimento de sus rivales morenos. También creo que los blancos tienen más oportunidad para ganar en este país. Creo que Profesor Ray esta de acuerdo con estas ideas. En decir, “todas las traducciones no son actos colonizadores”, reconoce que puede ver intercambio de cultura productiva dentro de nuestro sistema defectuoso. Estoy de acuerdo. A la misma vez, creo que fracasa en decir que “todas las traducciones resultan en perdimiento”. En decir esto, el Profesor se enfoca en un resultado pequeño del gran problema de desigualdad. También se gana mucho en la traducción. Aunque tengo problemas con nuestra sociedad, no creo que Bayless esta actuando inmoralmente. Claramente ha tratado de entender la comida mexicana de una manera profunda, demostrando que si quiere transmitir la cultura en su modo único. En lugar de centrarse en quién cocina qué tipo de comida, creo que los críticos de la apropiación culinaria deberían enfocarse en causas fundamentales (educación, nutrición, oportunidad económica, salud publica, etc.) de la desigualdad.

¿Cuál es el problema?

“Columbusing” es un termino que definió escritor Lucas Peterson. Se refiere a el fenómeno en que personas ricas y blancas apropian una cosa o idea anciana sin respetar su origen o historia. Aunque clase económica y raza son factores comunes entre los que practican “columbusing”, creo que el factor fundamental es la falta de respeto por la cultura que sea apropiada. Con respeto, creo que cualquier persona debe poder comentar en cualquier cultura. Creo que todos (a lo menos dentro de los Estados Unidos y Mexico) somos fundamentalmente iguales. Compartimos religiones, entretenimiento, comida y cultura, y no hay razón dibujar líneas que nos separan. Si alguien quiere dar su opinión sobre una comida cultural después de tratar sinceramente de entender esa cultura, no tengo quejas.

Escritor Lucas Peterson

En el caso de Oberlin College, creo que hay tres factores en juego. Primero, existimos en un clima político en que estudiantes quieren usar su voz para combatir desigualdad en el mundo. Esta energía es tremendamente buena, pero cuando las grandes desigualdades no se manifiestan, se puede dirigir agresivamente a problemas que son relativamente mundanos. Segundo, creo que la comida en las cafeterías de la mayoridad de universidades no es buena. Es difícil y caro servir comida buena a miles de estudiantes, 7 días a la semana. Tercero, creo que si hay racistas en el mundo que no tienen respeto por culturas fuera de los Estados Unidos y Europa. Siempre los estamos conociendo por la televisión y el internet. No creo que los administradores de Oberlin son racistas de este tipo, pero el deseo de los estudiantes de efectuar el cambio se combinó con insatisfacción con comida mala para pintar los administradores como agresores insensibles. Al fin del día, creo que solo quieran servir comida más variada, pero les faltaron recursos. Este problema probablemente se podría arreglar con poca más inversión en la comida de Oberlin.

Comida en USC

Finalmente, creo que la apropiación y evolución de comida que hemos visto este semestre es síntoma inevitable de nuestro mundo global. Para mi, la evolución de nuevas salsas en Mariscos Jaliscos es lo mismo que la evolución de tacos dorados en Taco Bell. La comida cambia para adaptarse a ingredientes accesibles y las preferencias de los consumidores, y esto no es malo. Para evitar “colombusing”, solo hay que tener respeto por la cultura de origen y el consumidor. Mariscos Jaliscos y Taco Bell ambos son populares con latinos y Mexicanos en Los Ángeles, y no veo nada inmoral en esto (lo inmoral es la falta de salud en la comida y su impacto en el medio ambiente, pero esto es otra tema). Desde un punto de vista moral, me gustaría que todos comen y cocinan lo que les gustan mientras combaten la desigualdad real en nuestra sociedad.











A Closer Look at the Ingredients: An Exploration of Cultural Appropriation through a Sub-Par-Food Riot and Elotegate

Por Victoria Martinez

During my time at USC, I have had many opportunities to not only engage with different cultures but develop an understanding of my place in such a beautifully diverse world.  I have come to understand how and why certain lines of respect are drawn in the sand and how best to operate in diverse spaces.  Because of this diversity, I have been fortunate to engage in discourse, both in and out of the classroom, about cultural appropriation and “ownership,” if you will, regarding cultures.  Distinctions regarding definitions can be difficult and fluid, however, I operate with the definition that cultural appropriation involves a lack of context of a culture’s history and/or a “caricature-istic” approach to the specific item of appropriation.  Lack of understanding or wanting to understand is key in instances of cultural appropriation.  Using a cultural item as a gimmick removes the history of that culture from the item with no consequences to the accused.  For example, as explored through the art of black vernacular dance course and additionally through Triglia’s “Apropiación cultural, o la usurpación de elementos étnicos: ¿un problema real?”, Miley Cyrus and her association to twerking.  The argument can be made that she was culturally appropriating that style of dance for her benefit (ie popularity, relevance, etc.) and when it no longer suited her image, she cut ties easily and returned to a brand that suited her.  What was left behind, however, was the history of a culture’s struggle to remove negative stereotypical ties placed on them.  There are prejudices that are perpetuated in society connected to the black female body that black females cannot simply disassociate from.  By using a troupe of the twerking black female bodies in her videos, she perpetuated this prejudice which she has now removed from herself.  Her transgressions will not, however, evade the bodies she used, and the prejudice is perpetuated.  Cultures are not costumes.  In the same breath, it would be inappropriate to throw on a sombrero and fake mustache on Cinco de Mayo because (aside from being an inaccurate representation) it diminishes the experiences of that race operating through the world with stereotypes that cannot be physically removed.

This brings me to my current conversation regarding cultural appropriation and food.  With the help of some important articles, we can come to understand the boundaries in the culinary space. 

In Godoy and Cho’s, “When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ Food,” they pose the question “What is lost, if anything, when you eat a cuisine without connecting to the culture behind it?”  I would venture to state that maintaining respect for a culture through the food is the highest level that you can connect to the culture without being born into it.  People do not have a say what they are born as, but as long as their culinary choices remain faithful and humble to a culture, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to practice a particular cuisine.  Bayless who, according the Godoy and Cho, has travelled extensively throughout Mexico learning and even mastering Spanish is demonstrative of his commitment to the cuisine of Mexico.  Nevertheless, Bayless is still profiting from this cuisine and is not hindered in his success because of his race.  For these reasons, I would not venture to call it racism, as Bayless regards it, because racism is given from a position of power of which minorities are not.  I do, however, think that this level of exclusion is unacceptable. 

I agree with Bayless’s sentiments that not all translation is a product of colonization and would extend this to clarify that translation is a product of globalization.  As mentioned in my previous blog, I do think that fusion food allows room for interpretation of traditional dishes.  This was centered around the idea of globalization which is the process of taking ingredients, recipes, or style of cooking beyond the borders of its countries origin and spreading it around the world.  I mentioned that, “During this process the original cuisine may be changed due to lack of availability of an original ingredient or a different interpretation of the recipes.  Changing something cultural can be tricky.  You want to keep the integrity of the dish and culture while exploring and incorporating new possibilities.  Not everyone will agree with your interpretation or deviation from the original but if you maintain respect for the dish it will come across through the food.”  This concept of globalization directly connects to traducción because things are lost in translation.  Translation maintains the essence of the original message, but not the exactness.

The “scandal” at Oberlin college is a perfect example of the relationship between translation and exactness. Someone would be completely justified if they expressed that a certain dish was lacking in their opinion because it was not more traditional because personal preference is still an influencing factor in deciding taste and quality. But I do not think that limitations regarding ingredients, which is probably the case in most dining halls, is grounds for deeming a dish as cultural appropriation.  Dining halls are concerned with price points at the end of the day and not maintaining the cultural integrity of the dish.  As a means of diversifying the menu, dining halls might include more cultural options, but most likely never at the expense of costing more than any other meal.  It might be more apt to label all dining food as inauthentic, but I think that has more to do with the layout of cafeterias than with microaggressions.  I feel for students, such as those from Oberlin College who, according to Friedersdorf in “A Food Fight at Oberlin College,” were disheartened at the disrespect given to dishes that meant so much to them, but my condolences only extend so far.  At a certain point, I believe that dining halls, even if not appropriately labeled as such, are not meccas of traditional cuisine.  If the students were promised a certain level of cuisine, then by all means they should receive it, but if this agreement only extends to having food available then the grounds for this case dissolve into quick sand.  In my personal experience, I was never under a delusion that Everybody’s Kitchen at USC would serve the perfect Cubano.

In the case of Kooks Burritos, as described in Japhe’s “Algunos chefs hablan sobre la apropiación cultural en medio del caso Kooks Burritos,” this is a clear event of cultural appropriation.  The main red flag is the loss of context and history of the culture.  As stated in an interview, one of the owners confessed to watching other women cooking burritos through a window.  This physical window of learning turned theoretical as evident in their chicken and waffle burrito.  There is mimicking without the wholistic understanding of the cuisine which present on the menu and in the flavor.

One of my favorite discussion of cultural appropriation and food can be found in Portnoy’s Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles through the scandal of “Elotegate.”  Elotegate was coined by Lucas Peterson, who received negative backlash for “columbusing” or appropriating something that has been established as “discovering it.”  He wrote an article about Timoteo, an Elote Man in Lincoln Heights which brought an influx of people to try something new to them but established to the community.  Columbus, as studied in history, left the people he “discovered” with disease and ruin.  Peterson on the other hand helped, through a mutual agreement not present in the historical example, Timoteo gain so much popularity that his stand often closes early from selling out.  If the agreement was mutually beneficial, I do not think that there should be this much contention.

This brings me to a final reflection of the food trucks and restaurants I have explored this semester.  I can definitively say that these adventures have mostly brought me to places that maintain respect for both the culture and the cuisine presented, including the fusion food truck.  Although, that is not to say that I have not had inauthentic encounters with food.  On USC’s campus there is a café that serves what is listed as a “Cubano.”  On my first encounter, I was floored that I had not found such a meal sooner and excited to get a taste of what I thought would be mostly authentic.  I unwrapped the sandwich under the wasteful amount of paper wrapping to reveal a sub-par Cubano.  I was ever so slightly disappointed, but still excited that the option was present on a campus too far from a better version.  I, unlike the student at Oberlin, realized that meal was a result of limitation in accessibility of cheap ingredients that would make for a better version, not an example of cultural appropriation.  These examples are more readily accessible in establishments such as Taco Bell who cut almost all ties to Mexican cuisine in creating a “Mexican American” chain.  All context and history of cuisine is separated from the Crunch Wrap Supreme; instead, the focus is placed on the iceberg lettuce and always frozen, never fresh ground beef.  Maybe one day, food on college campuses will be hotspots of gastronomy teeming with authentic cuisine, but until then I will take another Cubano.

Culinary Appropriation: Rick Bayless vs. Kogi Food Trucks

By Natalie Redington (featured image is Yellowtail Aguachile from Rick Bayless’ Restaurant, Topolobampo)

On my way to a quiet study space to write this blog, I was speaking casually to my best friend about the idea of culinary appropriation, which can often be a touchy subject. My friend (who preferred to remain anonymous for this blog) is from Hong Kong, and I was curious to hear her thoughts. She stated,

“It really frustrates me when the reason [Asian food] is brought to light or made cool is from someone who doesn’t know my culture and is using it to gain popularity. Dumplings aren’t cool because white people discovered it. It’s been there for centuries. If I brought it to school [for lunch], people would’ve laughed. It’s like that for so many people where they get made fun of [for the food they eat], but some celebrity chef makes it popular and then people around me are talking like they know what [Asian food] is because they’ve had it once. It’s fucked up that people not of my culture pick and choose the parts of it they want to appreciate, and they appreciate it until they don’t. My culture is not a fad.”

As someone also of Asian heritage, I can relate to these sentiments, and I’ll touch upon them more in depth towards the end of my blog. However, Asian food culture is not the only food group that is being appropriated or popularized by the white majority. As evidenced both by popular controversies and the readings of this week, white chefs – particularly Rick Bayless – cooking food from Latino cultures have received a lot of backlash. This idea of “culinary appropriation” comes with its pros and cons – think Bayless’ elevation of Mexican food beyond burritos and combo plates vs. his monetary gain off tradition/ideas from another culture. In the end the cons outweigh the pros, as what’s most problematic is the unwarranted borrowing, or moreover, stealing, of culture through culinary practice.

Yes, America is a melting pot, and the idea that there is a “mixing” of cultures that occurs is undeniable. But the line often gets blurred. Bayless speaks about how mole is a combination of ingredients from all over the world – with different “elements from Southeast Asia, Europe blended together seamlessly with ingredients from the new world” (Sporkful). The people of Mexico took that and created a signature dish that is unique and specific to their culture. In turn, Rick Bayless takes that specific set of food and recreates/copies it and profits from that. For example, on his dinner menu at his restaurant Topolobampo (a favorite of Obama’s), you can find dishes that are very specific to Mexican culture, such as carne asada, aguachile, tacos, and elote. While he may put his own spin on it by adding Yellowtail or “foie gras crema,” he takes a cuisine away from its roots because he implements higher-priced items such as those just listed. Then the food becomes tailored to a different audience – one that is often white, and of a higher socioeconomic background, and that is how the food becomes more popular. The street vendors down in the Piñata district or out in Boyle Heights might not be able to afford such ingredients, and the food they make is just as tasty; however, they’re discriminated against, and their food still continues to be considered low-class because they don’t tailor to a certain group of high-paying or influential customers. Professor Portnoy, in her book, Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles, expands on the racial discrimination against street vendors, quoting first from Lorena Muñoz: “‘the space in which these immigrant vendors practice their trade is ‘racialized,’ meaning ethnic or racial identities are ascribed to a minority group by the dominant one’…[For example,] in Los Angeles, Latino street vendors are typically regarded as undocumented regardless of their actual citizenship status…these stereotypical representations place vendors into a larger discourse of national and state immigration policies and attitudes that are informed by race. As the early history shows, vendors have been racialized since they first sold tamales on the streets of downtown Los Angeles over a century ago” (105). This is in great contrast to Rick Bayless, who does not have to worry about many of these issues.

Rick Bayless, owner of Topolobampo & other high-end Mexican restaurants — The Daily Beast

Bayless states, “I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only – only – because of my race. Because I’m white, I can’t do anything with Mexican food. But we have to stop and say, ‘Oh wait, is that plain racism then?’” (Sporkful 22:55). No, it’s not racism. While it’s admirable that Bayless has spent a long time living in Mexico, conducting research and getting to know the background information of traditional Mexican food, the problem lies in the fact that he’s not of Latino/Mexican descent. Because of this, he actually DOESN’T experience racism like most Mexicans/Mexican-Americans/Latinos do, even as often as on a daily basis from the general public, especially towards their food which has, for a long while, been considered to be low-class. As my friend stated in regards to her Asian culture, Bayless simply gets to choose what he deems to be the best part of Mexican culture – the food – and experience and recreate that, while becoming famous and wealthy off the traditions, recipes and preparation techniques that he stole from another culture. He also does this, most importantly, without also experiencing the other facets (meaning, the bad parts like racism and discrimination as well) of what it’s like to be a minority. The fact that he states, “I just don’t even understand where they’re coming from” in regards to his Mexican naysayers, exemplifies exactly this concept – he is so far removed from what it’s like to be a minority that he can’t even fathom the idea of why he could even potentially be in the wrong (23:55 Sporkful). I was pretty taken aback by the insensitivity of this comment. Rick Bayless knows Mexican cuisine very well, and instead of being an ambassador for the culture and teaching others about the history of Mexican food, continues to cater to only a certain group of people.

On the other hand, writing about a certain food culture is NOT appropriation. Both Peterson and Professor Portnoy do not steal from Latino culture but instead aid it immensely by popularizing it, without going so far as to steal from the culture (meaning, trying to recreate it/put their own spin on it and then profit from it). Their popularization through writing in turn helps support businesses and makes a larger population aware of the different types of food available; they expose the general public to a delicious type of food that may have been unknown before in a helpful way. In the case of food writing, it is not so much appropriation as it is a sharing or overlapping of cultures. Some critics may argue that Peterson, a food writer “columbused,” when he wrote about Timoteo, a street vendor selling corn. Peterson defines this term 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)…[it] conjures up centuries of white upper-class appropriation of Latino culture” (106). While he received some backlash on exposing Timoteo for reasons related to potential “police harassment and fines,” gentrification and other issues (which means this type of publicity is not meant for every single street vendor out there, and permission must be granted), I agreed with his defense where he stated that the vendor “gave permission to Peterson to write the story… [and responded, saying] ‘Yeah, great. I get to go home earlier. We sold out.’ Clearly, the vendor benefited from his outing with the media” (107, 106). While some may view this as gentrification of a type of food that existed for a long time before white people discovered it, this, in my opinion, is different than appropriating food culture. Peterson, through publishing this article, supported Timoteo’s business, and encouraged others to try foods that may be out of their comfort zone or far from what they would normally eat. This opposes Rick Bayless’ method, where he profits immensely from taking a food, recreating it and “adapting it” or tailoring it to white standards and then making it popular.

This semester as part of the SPAN 385 class, I experienced “fusion” food a few times – whether that was at Guerrilla Tacos or X’tiosu Kitchen, and I’ve eaten at Kogi food truck before. Professor Portnoy’s article in conjunction with Pilcher, titled, Roy Choi, Ricardo Zárate, and Pacific Fusion Cuisine in Los Angeles, gave a brief history of the origins of the Kogi food truck and its owner, Roy Choi; this story is what fascinated me most from the reading. Portnoy and Pilcher describe how, “Kogi fusion grew from Choi’s childhood in the culinary and social borderlands of Los Angeles…particularly Boyle Heights was a gathering place for diverse migrants, including Mexicans, Italians and Jews, as well as Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos” (10). He grew up experiencing the collective group identity of all these cultures coming together, in unity against those who discriminated against the Boyle Heights community. In my opinion, the creation of the Kogi food truck was an authentic and warranted borrowing of cultures, because “Choi’s taste buds were informed by these years of walking the streets of Los Angeles, where Mexican food blends seamlessly with American fare through cross-cultural marketing and intermarriage…Kogi’s fusion cuisine was not just a mixture of cultures, it also reflected the cross-class encounters of the Los Angeles streets, as Choi combined a tattooed, hip hop street cred with the professionalism of a CIA training” (10, 12). Choi implemented into his food truck all of what he knew from his childhood, and because he grew up as a part of this marginalized community, he isn’t picking and choosing only the parts of a culture he wants to profit from – as a minority and having grown up in this community in Boyle Heights, he’s already experienced it all. Most importantly, Choi’s food “brought people from different walks of life together” (12). Kogi’s food trucks not only mix cultures through its creations like “short rib tacos, kimchi quesadillas, and Kogi sliders,” but it also creates a positive environment for bonding over food.

Roy Choi, owner of the popular Los Angeles-based Kogi food trucks — The Daily Beast

In relation to my own Asian heritage, I’ve spoken a lot about my noodle parties – and I apologize for the repetition, this is just the only real comparison I can make. With Thai food generally comes a certain amount of culinary appropriation as well, but I’d like to focus specifically on the noodle soup my mom makes (a family recipe). For the longest time, I didn’t know the English name of the dish, until my mom sent me a post by Chrissy Teigen (who is half-Thai) on Instagram of her daughter eating what she called “Thai boat noodles.” I had never realized there was an English name for it, because my mom referred to it as “kuay tiew,” (pronounced quih-TYOW, ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ). I then googled it awhile back and found a white woman recreating this dish (I searched again on YouTube and couldn’t find it…). I didn’t find myself as angry as my best friend from Hong Kong is/was, but it was more of a question of “How would you even know?” How would you know how to make this? How would you know the history behind these noodles? How would you know what little things to add to the soup (like a dash of fish sauce and vinegar, a sprinkle of brown sugar and a spoonful Sambal Oelek) that make all the difference? I’m not so much angry that this person is “appropriating” my food culture as I am worried that they’re advertising it in a way that doesn’t showcase its full potential! Let me make it for you instead and it will taste much better!!

If you want a little background/context about these noodles I keep going on about, here’s Chrissy Teigen customizing a bowl in Bangkok (I’m aware that, yes, this could be an example of a famous person making this type of food “cool,” but in my opinion, she is showcasing her heritage).

In conclusion, culinary (and furthermore, cultural) appropriation is a subject that doesn’t have a simple answer. If we didn’t mix and take from other cultures, there would be no sense of evolution or progress as cultures come together, especially in the “melting pot” that has almost come to define America. However, it’s still important to realize that some cultures pride themselves on their food, music, traditions, language, and other facets as uniting factors in face of other issues like racism, discrimination, or lack of acceptance from others because they’re different. And it becomes frustrating when the white majority thinks they can simply take one of those factors, like food, without experiencing the other repercussions of being a minority, especially at a time like this in America, with unprecedented divisiveness and political turmoil/unrest. Sometimes culinary mixes work, like in the example of the Kogi food truck, but others, like Rick Bayless’ restaurants do not. Culinary exchange must be first, carefully done, and also taken into account/interpreted on a case-by-case basis.