Diversity is unequivocally a cornerstone of the culture of Los Angeles, and one of the easiest ways to experience the dynamic ethnic interplay that makes this city unique is by exploring with one’s taste buds. It is a great privilege that we as Angelenos have countless opportunities to venture out and try foods from around the globe all while staying in our own backyard, but with that privilege comes the responsibility to tread lightly when crossing cultural boundaries.
There is a fine line between admiring another’s culture and appropriating it, and perhaps no one in the world of Hispanic food exemplifies toeing—or arguably crossing—this line as well as Rick Bayless. An Oklahoma native, Bayless ventured south to Mexico for six years to study and master the art of preparing Mexican cuisine, and has since gone on to open multiple restaurants and receive numerous awards for his cooking. However, he has faced opposition, particularly from members of the Hispanic community, for what some consider an attitude toward Mexican cuisine that borders on appropriation. Bayless himself has remarked that this criticism is a form of reverse racism against him as a white male, while writer Gustavo Arellano argues that it is not Bayless’s ethnicity but rather his privileged attitude that has fueled the controversy. In a case like this, with opinions polarized and strong, it is necessary to ask ourselves what constitutes appropriation, and how we may explore diverse cuisines in a respectful manner.
In my opinion, the defining difference between embracing and appropriating another culture is whether or not one approaches the culture with respect. There is nothing wrong with Rick Bayless studying and falling in love with Mexican cooking, and he seems to at least have attempted to come from the right place in doing so; he can be quoted as saying that his passion for Mexican 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.” Appropriation often comes from a lack of respect, which clearly is not the case for Bayless. However, Bayless may have inadvertently committed an act of “columbusing” when he rashly made the statement that he was exited for the opening of the restaurant Red O to see “how the true flavors of Mexico, from central and southern Mexico, would play in Southern California.” Columbusing, according to food blogger Lucas Peterson, refers to “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).” While it seems evident that Bayless did not intend to make a disrespectful comment, his statement nonetheless implies that he, as an Anglo chef who adopted Mexican culture, will be able to introduce some form of “true flavor” that the millions of Mexicans living and cooking in Los Angeles have somehow overlooked.
Peterson himself was accused of columbusing in 2015 in a controversy dubbed “Elotegate,” in which he was criticized for a blog he wrote about a street corn vendor, though food writers like Arellano and Bill Esparza quickly came to his defense. Cases like that of Bayless or Peterson raise the question of the role that race plays when experiencing and discussing food, and force us to question the way cuisine often gets swept up into cultural controversy.
Personally, I believe that while it is absolutely acceptable to discover, cook, and write about food from another culture, it is important to do so in a way that respects the autonomy and integrity of the culture in question. One can get excited over the discovery of a cultural food that is new to oneself while still respecting the centuries of history and the people who continue to live out and uphold the traditions of said “novel” culture. I agree with Arellano and Francis Lam in the assertion that the phenomenon of Anglos experiencing and embracing ethnically different foods plays a key role in ensuring a lasting spot for those ethnic foods in American culture, rather than relegating them to esoteric traditions upheld only within immigrant communities. Ultimately, taste buds do not recognize ethnic divides, so I believe that all people should feel comfortable experiencing foods from diverse cultural origins and embracing the fact that our ethnically rich community enables delicious recipes to spread and adapt with our ever-globalizing society.
In my opinion, the case of the Oberlin College “food fight” represents a more severe form of cultural appropriation through food, because such appropriation went beyond poorly chosen words and instead took on a physical manifestation through the production and marketing of food that was inauthentic to its cultural heritage. This story is one of countless examples of ethnicities being turned into brand names and the word “authentic” losing its meaning as an adjective in favor of its use as a marketing line. If one is to knowingly produce food that does not hold true to the cultural traditions of a given ethnic community, then one must market it as such. For example, calling a food “fusion” or “inspired” by a certain culture is not misleading, but attempting to sell fraudulent food as “authentic” is essentially an affront against the culinary history of the given culture.
To draw upon my own experience with eating Greek food in Los Angeles, I can say that some of the best Greek food I have purchased has been prepared by Hispanic cooks using traditional Greek recipes. Does that make it any less Greek to me? Absolutely not. Personally, I love introducing my non-Greek friends to Greek foods and I appreciate the fact that even though the recipes are ancient history to me, they can take on a new light and be experienced differently by a stranger to the culture who appreciates even the flavors I might take for granted. Just one thing: don’t try to sell me food that is vaguely Mediterranean-inspired but marketed as Greek—then, we might have a problem.