Bread And Butter: Cultural Appropriation And Food
I want to tackle a subject I’ve been pondering for a while, but frankly haven’t yet dared address: cultural appropriation as it applies to food and eating. I’m hesitant about this because, one, as you may have noticed, ‘cultural appropriation’ is a tetchy term, a signal to gather your people and prepare for war. Two, because I’m part of the dominant culture here, I don’t want to come across as preachy about something that I’m just really trying to understand myself. And three, I really don’t want to assign guilt to some of my favorite food experiences. There are so few real pleasures left to a lady, you know?
But this is an important topic, and knowing about it can help to make a difference in making the world a little more equitable with relatively little effort on my part.
Writer and foodie Rachel Kuo writes that cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture (the people with the power) adopt parts of another culture in a way that takes it out of context, oversimplifies it or is coercive. This is different from cultural appreciation, which certainly exists, and the nuance can be hard to define.
Eating recipes and ingredients from other cultures is a powerful tool to open doors, a good way to start conversations and share some of the most interesting everyday experiences from a different way of living. But, when the dominant group reduces another culture to just a cuisine, boils down complex and difficult histories into menu items, that’s where it gets problematic.
Think of it this way. If you happen to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how did you feel when “Book of Mormon the Musical” came on the scene? To me, it felt weird. I happened to be in New York City when the show was new on Broadway. Walking those busy streets with young men dancing across billboards in dark suits and name tags hovering over me, and seeing the name of my sacred text in a cheerful font plastered across the side of a bus was odd. It seemed like an attempt to condense my entire religious experience, the complexity of my community, into a three-hour musical comedy. What if people who left that theater thought they understood the Mormon experience? Who was making money from this narrative?
Now imagine that people think they understand your history, opinions, politics, conflicts, culture, and passions because they ate funeral potatoes and fry sauce. That they associate your most sacred experiences, all the people you love, and your most painful memories, with green jello.
While food can connect people and serve as a way to learn about experiences outside our own, it becomes problematic if food is your only identifier. There’s a loss of complexity and culture if Japan is reduced to ramen and sushi, Mexico to tacos and burritos, or India to curry. What do you know about the cuisine of Cambodia? If it’s just about dog, ask yourself why. In that entire, richly historied country, why do we hold on to that one narrative, whether or not it is true? How does it serve us?
Our perceptions of foods that are “authentic” stem from simplistic ideas about what a certain country represents to us, not what it actually is. For example, what is now Vietnam was occupied by China for a thousand years and then painfully colonized by France. This period of colonization led to things like banh mi (sandwiches), currently popular across the U.S. This doesn’t mean that you have to stop eating banh mi, but knowing the context matters.
People from different cultures have their own food preferences, too– unique ways their family makes something or variations in the way they prepare their own food. When you ask for “authentic” ethnic cuisine, it’s like asking for the most authentic way to eat a hamburger. It just doesn’t exist, except in our own minds. By asking another culture to conform to what we believe about them never feels good.
When food gets disconnected from communities, people can start forgetting or ignoring the challenges faced by those people. We might love Mexican food, but not care about issues such as labor equity and immigration policy. We’re borrowing the pieces of a culture that are most easily digestible to us, and ignoring the rest.
There are strong relationships between food, people, and power. The best way, I am finding, to avoid future missteps with cultural appropriation is to be humble, curious, and willing to change. So keep frequenting your favorite falafel and pad thai places, but show that you really value this cuisine and the people who bring it to you by digging a little deeper.