We're Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation

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We're Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation

A Central American immigrant family in Stamford prays before dinner. They expressed concern over President Trump, some saying their U.S.-born children fear the possibility their parents will be deported because of his policies. Image by John Moore / Getty

Okay, food media, chefs, restaurant owners and home cooks. I get it. Many of you keep saying you want to be able to cook whatever food you want, regardless of cultural appropriation. Set me free, you scream. I am in food chains! Look, no one is realistically going to be able to stop you from cooking whatever you want. No Cultural Appropriation Fairy is standing in your private kitchen, ready to bonk you over the head with her wand every time you cook from a cuisine you were not raised in.

But because of your emphasis on “having the right,” we keep having the wrong food and cultural appropriation conversation, over and over and over again, and to be honest, I’m tired of it. (And yes, I’m going to say “wrong,” because a lot of these attempts at cultural sensitivity are just really misguided.) The problem here is that people are trying to have this conversation in a vacuum, without a larger understanding or acknowledgement of the racial, ethnic and cultural capitalist power structure in America. Until you acknowledge that power and privilege structure, this conversation stays about cultural appropriation, and not food justice or food equal opportunity.

Cultural appropriation, in its strictest definition as the usage of elements of one culture by another culture, is not always (and often not) a bad action. I’ve written about this before, after #PhoGate went down.

Let’s talk about this, since some people are already mad at me.

I’m glad I can grab a cochinita pibil torta from Rick Bayless’ O’Hare Tortas Frontera during an unexpected 10-hour layover. (You probably don’t know how glad unless you are concurrently experiencing this same 10-hour layover.) Bayless’ food is pretty tasty. Hell, I’ll even have the Milanesa. That’s as “inauthentic” as you can get: crispy chicken, Jack cheese, pickled jalapeño, black beans, cilantro crema and tomatillo-avocado salsa. Sounds delicious. The Crispy McChicken was one of my favorite sandwiches growing up, and crispy chicken tastes texturally delicious on a plump torta with these Mexican-ish spicy ingredients.

And sure, Bayless has said some rather clueless stuff, like he never thought about his privilege (OMG), or that maybe he was the victim of reverse racism (LOL). But even though that’s part of the power structure I’m going to talk about, that’s not even the central point.

The point is that Bayless’ restaurant is the lucky one in the O’Hare Airport netting something like $7 a sandwich because he is a product of both his hard work and the privilege he received in our American environment. If you examine the cultural power structure of America (okay, the world) and (food) media in general, you’ll find that Bayless merely took every opportunity our culture offered to him, acted on it, exploited it, and worked hard to get even more advantages. His existing societal advantages helped him get more advantages. If you don’t understand how this works, read about the racial wealth gap.

It’s not that you can’t cook another culture’s food. It’s the lack of examination of the complex power structure that surrounds that appropriation that’s unsettling. There’s a pervasive lack of respect and deep cultural exploration that often goes hand in hand with cultural appropriation. There’s also an even more pervasive lack of activism in the food world against racial and ethnic discrimination. Let’s not pretend this is just about cooking food. It’s about money, power, agency and advancement. It’s about the blatant usage of intellectual and emotional labor sourced from developing nations in order to create capitalist profit in highly-industrialized nations.

So what I’m trying to say to you here is that this is not an individual problem, and it’s not just about cooking from another cuisine. “I must confess that I have trouble accepting this all-or-nothing mission to pry white chefs’ fingers from any dish not of their own culture,” Tim Carman recently wrote in The Washington Post.

No, no, no, no, no. Tim, let’s talk. That’s not what is going on. The Google Doc you mention that points folks to non-appropriative businesses is an attempt to bring some dollars back to communities of color. You’re pitting this as a fight between two Goliaths. It’s more like David and Goliath. Bayless will never lose his stature in the Mexican food community in America and will likely always own the most Mexican food businesses since he has such a huge head start; with a gajillion restaurants, book deals and friends in high places, his status in the culinary world is pretty secure. Business owners of color are just trying to get a little leg up. That’s not easy when it’s harder to get a business loan from the bank as a Black owner. Per Bloomberg, this bank loan difference applies to both Black and Latinx owners “even after controlling for characteristics like credit score or the type of business.”

Hey, I wish I could say I made this up, but the wealth and privilege gaps are real. Business loans aren’t given to chefs solely based on how well they cook or even on how well they could run a business. I’m guessing there’s a Mexican sous chef or 800 who could hand Bayless his toque on a platter in terms of speed and flavor. Loans are based on credit scores, existing equity, references, and a million other things. Immigrants like my parents, who own a restaurant, often don’t have credit when they first come to the States, so they scrape together enough cash over decades or borrow from family, religious or ethnic networks to buy a small business outright. They then spend decades building.

Let’s talk about the right way to appropriate, because we all do it. Ideas aren’t free when Tim Carman writes them for The Washington Post, so I’m not sure why they should be free when a dozen abuelas who make tortillas in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico are interviewed by two white women from Portland. Granted, recipes are hard to legally copyright and these abuelas may not have worried about protecting their intellectual property, but a culturally respectful thing for Kooks to do would have been to go back and deeply explore the food over time, profit-share or pay for recipes, set up a foundation or scholarship for street food vendors and their children, and/or even post their photos and stories on the Kooks cart to give them credit so they could augment their own success. It’s not always what you do, but how you do it. I would’ve loved to have supported a delicious Kooks cart if I felt like I could get with what they were doing, but what they essentially did was use abuelas as free consultants and teachers. Folks would charge $100 an hour or more for that kind of consulting in New York.

Doesn’t sound like Kooks Burritos considered this. If they have, I haven’t heard about it. It’s a little bit like the really annoying kid who always copied your homework in class instead of doing the hard work and presented it as his own without giving you any credit. Recipes and generations of culinary work aren’t easy to come by, literally or culturally: try to be respectful of that labor. But aha! The real problem here isn’t even the copying, but the fact that copying kid is more popular with teachers and students than you are, so he’s always getting more gold stars for his work that he copied from you. Your teacher really likes him and thinks his work is incredible, so she even has him speak at the assembly, and he gets recognition from the principal because of that, and so he eventually gets an academic scholarship to a good high school, and then an Ivy League college, and then gets a way better job than you. How messed up is that? He didn’t even do the work! You’re still flipping burgers at your hometown grill, cursing him under your breath, while he lives it up in the big city.

How Western and privileged do you have to be to not understand how American and privileged you are to take this impromptu Christmas trip to Mexico and “borrow” all these recipes and eat unlimited $5 tortillas with a side of lobster and then bring them back and have a food cart pop-up so soon after? It’s because you have money and connections.

So it’s not that you can’t cook a food. In most cases, no one will (or even can) stop you from doing whatever you want to, especially if you have the money and power to do. But don’t pretend you invented it, Columbus. The “New World” was already here and doing just fine when you arrived.

Own your privilege, which includes the luxury of impromptu travel, owning a business and having connections. But every now and then, try to examine the power structure and why you have the advantages you do. Maybe even step aside every now and then to suggest someone else for that magazine spread who’s explored the culture more deeply than you or has been raised in it (maybe that free abuela consultant you plumbed for recipes?), with all the deep cultural and psychological connotations that are woven into being raised in it. Magazine editors go with what they know and what they feel comfortable with, but they need to push themselves further. The power structure and nepotism of media is evident in the glorification in magazines of the Andy Rickers but not the Pim Techamuanvivits (yeah, have you ever heard her name if you’re not in the food world?). Press equals dollars, and dollars often equal surviving and thriving.

American culture is in a period of flux right now that is making a lot of status quo folks uncomfortable. With those changes come a lot of growing pains, like our election of Trump. We can only hope that we keep working to talk to one another, grow with one another, and listen to one another with clear eyes, full hearts (sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Friday Night Lights), and full acknowledgement of privilege and power structures.

Let’s please stop that “You’re so divisive/You’re a troublemaking reactionary when we’re all just trying to be happy and eat good food” narrative. Food lovers and chefs of color didn’t draw these lines of divisive power and privilege; they were already there.

Intangible artifacts, ideas and recipes are vitally important, but let’s extend the cultural appropriation conversation into the vital topics of food justice and food equal opportunity. Eat somewhere you’re not used to eating every week for a year and slowly start talking to people; volunteer in a community garden or food bank not in your neighborhood; make a donation to a food justice organization; create, volunteer for, or donate to a business ownership training program for chefs of color or immigrants; host a Yemeni, Honduran, Somalian or Syrian refugee dinner. No offense to my friends and colleagues, but most food writers and chefs I know don’t do this. We’re so caught up in what the hottest restaurant in Manhattan is that we’re forgetting the important stuff at a time when it’s vital not to.

Use food as the powerful tool to unite that you claim it is. Be in service. Think globally and act both globally and locally. Struggle to make this country a truly more equal opportunity employer. It’s not just about what you eat and cook; it’s about how you do it. Maybe, in the end, it’s not about what you eat, but for whom and with whom you eat.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and mute my Trump trolls on Twitter. Happy eating.

Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. Tweet her @dakotakim1.

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