Tread Softly, for You Tread on My Culture: Navigating the Food Scene of Los Angeles with Cultural Competence (By Alexandra Demetriou)

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.

rick bayless fish
Chef Rick Bayless ©Adam Alexander Photography 2016

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.

Un almuerzo yucateco de Chichen Itzá

Fue un día de mucha lluvia en Los Ángeles, una rareza por causo de la sequía. Otra rareza de este día fue la oportunidad de probar la comida yucateca. Viajé al restaurante Chichen Itzá ubicado en el Mercado Paloma en la calle Gran Sur para una experiencia única con algunos amigos que quisieron ayudarme con mi tarea.


Imagen 1.  Chichen Itzá en el Mercado Paloma, un domingo ajetreado

El Mercado Paloma es un mercado de restaurantes y tiendas diversos poseídos por emprendedores locales del sur de Los Ángeles. Además del restaurante Chichen Itzá hay Azla, un restaurante etíope vegano, Thai Corner, un restaurante tailandés, una tienda de artesanías oaxacenas, y la Sastrería de Sra. Gloria. El diseño del menú y las paredes de Chichen Itzá fue vibrante y se invita a tomar una experiencia auténtica y humilde pero memorable. A diferencia de los restaurantes mexicanos de los principios del siglo XX, Chichen Itzá sirve con orgullo la comida yucateca. Según al libro de Sarah J. Portnoy se llama Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles, el estatus élite de las cocinas europea, particularmente francés, resultado en muy pocos auténticos restaurantes mexicanos en Los Ángeles.

La cola para ordenar comida en Chichen Itzá fue muy larga a pesar del aguacero. Había aproximadamente doce personas en frente de mí y esperé quince minutos para mi plata, pero después del primer bocado, yo sabía que valía la pena. Tenía ganas de ordenar los panuchos, las tortillas rellenas de frijoles, pavo, y verduras, después de leer un blog de Bill Esparza, pero me salté el desayuno y la imagen del bistec a la yucateca me llamó atención.

El bistec a la yucateca es un filete de bistec de seis onzas, cebollas caramelizadas, arroz, puré de frijoles negros, plátanos fritos, una salsa de tomate y chiles, y tortillas de maíz. El bistec apetecible fue conocido perfectamente. El puré negro y las cebollas blandas y los plátanos fritos crujientes se compensan mutuamente. La salsa de tomate y chiles ligera complementó el bistec suculento. El plátano es un ingrediente típico de México y los sabores yucatecos fueron inspirados por las culturas maya, española, y libanés.

Imágenes 2-4.  La Grace feliz con su plato de bistec al yucateco compuesto de un filete de bistec de seis onzas, cebollas caramelizadas, arroz, puré de frijoles negros, plátanos fritos, una salsa de tomate y chiles, y tortillas de maíz.

No pude comer toda mi comida, aunque los ojos quedaron con hambre. Pedí un cartón de Fabiola, nuestra mesera amorosa, y me empaqué el resto para una cena más tarde. Salí Chichen Itzá muy satisfecha, contenta, y con un deseo para regresar muy, muy pronto.