Cultural Appropriation and Food

It’s something that I actually thought wouldn’t happen in the culinary world. The mostly-wealthy people that make up the political outrage class love expensive sushi so much that I figured they would stay clear of talking about food and cultural appropriation, if only to keep scarfing down raw fish from an aquatic place rife with parasitic worms.

It’s tough talking about the whole "woke" culture, because it’s amorphous and its justifications usually fall along concepts of ownership and individual, highly person-specific feelings that can’t really be debated. For example, when I was out out recently, a dining companion talked about how using gender pronouns when referring to a woman’s brilliance (the referenced person being undoubtedly brilliant) is basically why women don’t run for office and that it’s a form of oppression from her interlocutor. As an academic point, I think she’s right (after all, for years “man” and “humanity” were used interchangeably), but on a conversational, political-persuasion part, it’s a bad strategy. Similarly with the excoriation of two people audacious enough to sell the burritos in Portland after returning from a trip to Mexico, except neither the academics of it nor the strategic approach have a modicum of validity.  

The burrito place appeared to have drawn a lot of crowds for the past six months, based on the description of it. However, one righteously indignant columnist among many who seem to spend their time constantly complaining about various businesses decided to take a swipe at the two neo-hipster owners. Within a week of the original outrage piece’s publication, the restaurant was dead and its entire self-described internet presence scoured from the earth. Predictably, a local Portland author who echoed the Mic piece has received what seems to be a mountain of lazily written racial slur-filled tweets. So, we’re now at the anti-hot take portion of the cycle, soon to be followed by the anti-anti hot take and then we’ll all find something new to talk about.

It’s incumbent on external analysts of these sorts of events - and what could be more external to Portland, Oregon than North Dakota other than maybe West Texas? - to caveat any critique with the fact that they do not fully understand the local context. Maybe Portland, as a local author argues, is the exemption to the normalcy of multicultural knowledge transfer. The justification for why Portland is uniquely situated to be exploitive for people of color, though, isn’t really outlined in a way that wouldn’t apply to all of the “Western” (ugh, I really hate that word) countries and most of the rest of the world.

The restaurant’s critics do a remarkable job of outlining most complaints around cultural appropriation in a concise approach. While the slippery-slope arguments the Right love so much all have validity as a rejoinder to the complaints about the burrito restaurant (ok, I’ll do one: soca beats inform half of all pop music used by people of every racial background), this approach is so well-trodden it isn’t worth mentioning.

The critiques center around a few arguments. First the restaurant’s critics justifiably argue that looking in people’s windows to get cooking technique knowledge after having received voluntary-given information on tortilla ingredients. As if this is not enough, the owners profited off of their ill-gotten knowledge. Through this behavior, the culture was “hijacked,” which is to say taken from its proper owners and circumvented away from them. Finally, when people acquire knowledge of another culture, they take away ownership (i.e. “appropriate”) from the proper racial or ethnic groups.

The this-issue-specific critique (which are neither my favorite to read or write) of looking in people’s windows, to acquire knowledge of a tortilla-making technique is marginally valid. The arguments are reasonable, but not on cultural or racial grounds so much as common decency around personal space and creepy eavesdropping.

It does merit mention, as many good chefs or anyone who has ever been coached through making Middle Eastern pita will tell you, technique is extremely difficult to explain, even without a language barrier. Ask any person who has tried to learn how to make pita, which seems an apt comparison, from a willing Arab baker and, for the most part, they give you the ingredient list (flour, water, salt) and just say “make it,” because knowledge of these things is so deeply and personally ingrained that explaining it seems stupid or impossible. The challenging part of replicating anything someone else prepared is usually the ingredient ratios and lists, while technique is typically something you either “get” or don’t “get.” This isn’t to mitigate the real potential that the people in that area of Mexico really didn’t want these two women to have access to making this kind of food, but it seems unlikely, since the ingredient lists were willingly given over. It’s interesting to note when readers/writers are willing to be charitable and when they are not here, because within the same source material, the owners talked about experimenting to make sure they were creating the right food, which seems to imply innovative thinking that would change the calculus.

The profit complaint can be dismissed out of hand solely on the grounds that, if applied to all the circumstances the woke people think are appropriative, the nets and cycles of financial obligation would result in a never ending series of financial transfers of cultural and interpersonal debt. Think about what would happen if everything you learned from anyone else that helped you in your career became grounds for sending them money.

Where we get into the general problems with woke culture, though, is simultaneously discussing the concept of hijacking and owning a culture. It would be beyond the scope of anyone to try to define “culture” and how it changes, but it’s interesting lining up concepts of external cultural modification through language of appropriation, while also defining ownership. In adjoining paragraphs, the local critic of the burrito store wrote

Week after week people of color in Portland bear witness to the hijacking of their cultures, and an identifiable pattern of appropriation has been created. Several of the most successful businesses in this town have been birthed as a result of curious white people going to a foreign country, or an international venture, and poaching as many trade secrets, customs, recipes as possible, and then coming back to Portland to claim it as their own and score a tidy profit. Now don’t get me wrong: cultural customs are meant to be shared. However, that’s not what happens in this city.

Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise. [emphasis added] 

What’s so fascinating is that the subtext of these critiques is always that external people engaging with a tradition take it away, modify it in some way, and thus worsen it. The implied aspect, too, is that there is a fixed pool of culture that, when drawn upon by outsiders., cheapens the dignity of authenticity of it. For many, culture can and should be owned by others in a timeless vacuum starting with globalization.

At no point has any member of the woke community ever sketched how to define the proper parameters of cultural definition, change, and nonmember utilization beyond constantly using the phrasing of “dialogue” and “awareness,” because, honestly, they don’t know. Is the model consensus? Should all of the women in this Mexican town have a meeting and decide who gets to cook their particular variety of flatbread? Do the local men get a say, if women are much more likely to cook? If so, is it appropriative or patriarchal to include them? Does eating or cooking define the cultural boundary? When a new culinary technique is used in this town originating from another, poorer village down the street that shares some cultural aspects and not others, is that appropriation or innovation? Where is the line and how is it sketched? I don’t know, but I would reject the premise.

The end point of the woke social consciousness, as others have pointed out, is racial segregation (as evidenced by this weird spreadsheet restaurant hit list for Portland), but, even more importantly, it’s pernicious for anyone to define where culture begins and ends. There’s a meaningful distinction between mocking a culture (read: Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger) and earnestly engaging with it. It is hard to get much more earnest than food, because its enjoyment is almost-certainly implied by its preparation. 

The history of food and multiculturalism, more broadly, is one of transfer. As a friend recently reminded me, tempura is in Japanese cuisine, because of Portugese missionaries. One of the more important ingredients in many sub Saharan African countries and Italy is the tomato, which came from the New World. The dried spicy peppers of Sichuan cuisine that Mao loved so much originated in Latin America. It’s just the way food works and it’s an undeniably good thing. 

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