Last week, the Washington Post published a Portland, OR-centric story titled “Should White Chefs Sell Burritos?” The story explains the mounting accusations of appropriation against Portland chefs who become famous for and profit from the cuisine of cultures that are not their own. The Post asserts that these accused chefs aren’t harming anyone’s culture by disseminating facets of it — in fact, they’re more ambassadors of the culture they’ve chosen to represent than anything else.
Like those chefs, the best part of my food career has only ever been sharing — sharing the labors of our Test Kitchen with colleagues and friends, the knowledge of the extraordinary chefs we work with and the little secrets that will help nervous home cooks become confident culinary enthusiasts. As a result, I’m having trouble even interpreting the term “cultural appropriation” with regards to food. Actually, that’s an understatement: I don’t understand the cultural appropriation of food at all. Case in point: I had a freaking sushi doughnut the other day and wasn’t mad at it. Sushi. Doughnut. (Sushi McDoughnut?)
It’s easy to say “cultural appropriation” the same way it’s easy to say “racist” or “ignorant.” It feels good to say “cultural appropriation” — it rolls off the tongue nicely, sounds intellectual and all of a sudden you’re on the road to moral superiority. The moment you get the opportunity, you need people to know that you’ve cultivated and discerned yourself, and you’re not like those meat-and-potatoes people at all, so don’t associate you with those people! …Except we’re not, nobody is.
I’d venture to say that this many years into the age of pop food media and recipe-sharing, no food belongs to anyone anymore. I for one refuse to fight about food or believe anything edible belongs to me or either of my cultures (I’m bi-racial). Not when our school lunches are fashioned from ketchup and breadcrumbs, a few corporations pay millions to lobbyists to keep their monopolies legal and mass-produce the majority of our food, and one in six Americans is food-insecure. So in an earnest attempt to help unify the food media community and its consumers, I’d like to share some instances that could be conceivably viewed as cultural appropriation of food, but aren’t.
My mother, a professional Indian chef and certified white blonde Jewish lady from Long Island, learned the endless complexities of South Asian food by immersing herself in residential kitchens around India, where my dad is from (often to the utter perplexity of the cooks, none of whom spoke English). She learned some of her best-loved dishes from my uncle’s mother, who is Indian, via Pakistan, via Afghanistan.
Speaking of my mother, I ended up hanging out in-utero for more than a week longer than anticipated. To get things moving, my mom sought a fiery solution from a family friend who is a fifth-degree karate black belt of Jamaican and Chinese heritage. No, he didn’t roundhouse kick me out of her; but he did promise that his extra-spicy goat curry recipe would shake me loose in no time flat. I was born later that evening. I told that story to a week-overdue pregnant friend who’s been doggedly learning to make authentic Yorkshire pudding for her British husband.
Our lead recipe developer Paul Harrison makes phenomenal Mexican food, having worked as a prep cook for years in a small Michoacán restaurant in the Los Angeles area. Where’s Michoacán, you ask? Ask him, he’s done the research and grunt work, soaked the chilis, blended up the salsas and marinades, churned out thousands of tortillas, fed the staff and spoken the Spanish.
My fiancé was formerly married to a Japanese woman. As a result, he makes the okonomiyaki in our house, grating slippery mountain yams by hand (which any Japanese person will tell you is a labor of love and source of itchy red hand sores). I was formerly married to a Swedish guy, via Iraq. As a result, I make the biryani in our house. That’s a win-win, right there, a house with killer okinomiyaki and biryani. Come over for dinner any time!
The best Korean taco I’ve ever had was in Korea.
The best Chinese food I’ve ever had was not in China, but in India.
The best Indian food I’ve ever had was not in India, but Singapore.
The best Singapore chow mei fun I’ve ever had was not in Singapore, but in New York.
And the best street hot dog I ever had was not in New York, but in Amsterdam. There may have been some contributing factors involved, but it certainly speaks to the point that these assertions are all subjective and relative anyway.
None of these examples ever agitated feelings of theft, fraud or any of the sentiments behind public outcries of cultural appropriation, and all come back to my original idea of sharing as a kind of protective status. While profiting off the longstanding craft honed by another culture might sound like a convenient livelihood, it’s not like most chefs are making enough money to leave their kitchens for cookbook tours. Working hard for the purpose of nourishing minds and bodies has to be exempt from negativity, doesn’t it? We can’t exactly share some white dude’s Chinese tattoo that means “perseverance” (hopefully) or his sweaty, molting feather headdress at a music festival. We can only throw him side-eye and hope he gets with it at some point. But if he decided to devote his time to learning how to make killer pao de queijo from his Brazilian girlfriend’s grandmother and start a food truck, called, I dunno, “Pao Pao Pao!” I’d have nothing but admiration.
That said, if we still need to decide whether this chef or that individual is guilty of what sounds more and more like the largely fabricated charge of cultural food appropriation, let’s apply some more reasonable criteria than “Is it authentic?”
One: has this person learned the recipes and techniques from a primary source out of a passion for cooking? Two: is this person diluting the potency of the source itself or willfully diverting diners away from a primary source? And finally: what precisely would be accomplished by bringing up this facet of “call-out culture” after all is said and done and the dishes are washed? Of all the issues the greater food community has been tasked with solving, is a white chef’s (delicious, mind you) ethnic food honestly worth a headline? Including this one?