“Cultural Appropriation” Nonsense

So it’s been all the rage in the food world of late. First, the Oberlin College issue, which had Lena Dunham supporting students who decried that the sushi and bánh mì served in the student cafeterias were not “authentic”, and therefore an example of “cultural appropriation”. 

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Next was Bon Appetit’s video of a white chef schooling people on how to eat pho (pronounced “fuh”, by the way, and while you’re there, hygge is not pronounced hoo-gah, but like this. Get it, and tell your friends. Then eat some cake and knit a sweater and feel like you *get* Scandi culture.)

Some “critical” muscle has gone into supporting how wrong it is for white people to “Columbus” non-white food cultures, and how food media contributes to marginalising marginalised food cultures by allowing white people to represent them. A few exceptions, however:

While Asian cuisines are broken down into individual countries, Africa is treated as a monolith, with all 73 recipes affiliated with the continent listed under one filter in the database. The authors are overwhelmingly (84%) White – although some recipes are authored by Frances Lam, who is Chinese. Only one author has East African roots and only one other is Black. 

Thank god, a Chinese person representing Chinese food, at last. Because Fuchsia Dunlop, who is easily the leading expert on Chinese food in the Western world, and Rick Bayless, a white man from Oklahoma City who has been awarded the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle (conferred on ‘foreigners whose work has benefitted Mexico and its people’), as well as being asked to cook the White House state dinner in honour of Mexico’s then-president Felipe Calderón in 2010, are clearly too white to do that job.

But who is this Francis Lam?

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What, a Chinese person schooling us on ratatouille? What fresh cultural appropriation is this?

And what if I, a white Danish-by-birth, cisgender woman were to claim that I make the best pizza in the land? In a pan! 😱

I don’t want to, or mean to, downplay the fact that of course marginalised peoples are more easily downplayed and marginalised, for the simple reason that they often don’t have the media-darling exposure that many (incidentally) white chefs do simply because the latter are better positioned than most immigrant chefs are likely to be to “grab investors or news media attention – even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school or is quick with a witty quote” (link to an article about Rick Bayless et al. authored by, incidentally, Francis Lam, for the New York Times).

But I do take exception to blanket generalisations about the “power of White people” to (apparently) automatically distort and disrespect what others take seriously. It goes something like this:

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So – per this argument – the male gaze has become the white gaze, and us white folk can’t help but decontextualise every “ethnic” encounter, and erase any context in which it arose.

I don’t pretend to ever make traditional pho in my kitchen (though I might throw together a bastardised version because I have a bunch of Asian-y ingredients that need using, like fish-, hoisin-, plum-, etc sauce, and miso), but I do pay careful attention to my father-in-law’s recipe for bobotie, which involves three groups of ingredients, named Group A, B, and C, which always calls to mind the Group Areas Act many years ago here in South Africa, now thankfully over but certainly not forgotten.

If you start with a perception that white people can never do anything right with a cuisine outside of their own culture, and then stop only at examples that purportedly support your argument, you’re probably begging the question. And not in a good way. (Google it.)

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