Cultural Appropriation in Food & Elsewhere

Cover of book White Negroes by Lauren Michele JacksonNot to hit you all over the head with the message that systemic racism is an issue that permeates basically every sphere – though it is and if you needed the reminder, here it is – but let’s talk a little about cultural appropriation and racism in the food industry (specifically at Condé Nast with their Bon Appétit magazine), because recipe sharing over social media has boomed in these past few months due to quarantine, and many of us have been baking and cooking a lot more than before and following new bakers and cooks/chefs for their recipes.

For anyone who’s thinking about why I’m dragging politics into food and cooking, because isn’t food just food? Food brings people together! People bond when eating together at the same table, right, and what better way to learn about other cultures than to incorporate their food into your life? That’s great and all, but let’s think about what happens when that food gets removed from the culture whence it (or its influence) came. When recipes such as the Internet famous Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric* by Alison Roman makes no reference whatsoever to perhaps Indian curries or maybe Caribbean curry or any other “ethnic” food culture she might’ve been inspired by – because did Roman invent this combo, or were there influences from other cultures that should at least be cursorily mentioned? Just think about what a surreal experience it must be for anyone who has grown up with something similar to #TheStew to see it show up without any reference to their culture, and then further see this disembodied aspect of their culture go viral… without any credit to their culture? Personally, I think basically everyone ultimately stands to gain by discussing the politics of food, first because as Socrates in the words of Plato said, “the unexamined life is not worth living” and there is lots to uncover and examine when it comes to food and the politics and histories of the dishes themselves in addition to  the food industries and how they contribute to or are influenced by systemic racism; but also because the more you know about the food you eat and/or cook, I think, the more you learn to appreciate the food. As this article from The Atlantic (talking about food media in this quote, but on the topic of whiteness in the food industry as an article): “Devoting more coverage to the social and economic realities that drive the industry—rather than only discussing dishes in a vacuum—has allowed for more meaningful explorations of how food brings people together.” (Giorgis, The Table Stays White).


*Stew. It’s… a curry, right?

Book Cover of Dining In by Alison RomanIf you don’t know who Alison Roman is, you might recognize these hashtags, which refer to her recipes (linked): #TheCookies, #TheStew, #TheTeaCake**, etc. She was criticized recently for comments about two women of colour (Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo), for which she has subsequently apologized, but also about her use of ingredients from different cultures without actually referencing the cultures from which she’s borrowing. But of course we should all be allowed to use whatever ingredients we so desire to, so long as it’s not hurting anyone or anything else, right?*** So why is this an issue? As Lauren Michele Jackson explains in the intro to her book White Negroes, because you can’t escape influences from different cultures in this day and age, what makes cultural appropriation an issue is: “The answer, in a word: power” (Jackson, White Negroes, p.3). If that stew was in fact inspired by (if not just… actually a rendition of) an Indian curry, then we would want to discuss how Roman, a white person, is culturally appropriating from a culture that has already suffered through colonialism by the British empire, maintaining the problematic power imbalance (even if Roman herself doesn’t descend from the British colonizers, as a white person who claims she has no culture from which she descends, she’s basically identifying herself pretty full and well with the privileged white person). Obviously, Roman is not the only (famous) white chef/cook/food person neglecting to reference where the influences for her dishes are coming from – one of the bakers I follow on Instagram, for example, recently published a recipe for a flatbread without naming the flatbread or discussing whether the rolling & coiling step was taken from somewhere else. (I got a quick hunch just now and searched it up and lo and behold the technique is for parathas, with a video of Sohla El-Waylly walking you through it.) Some more thoughts on cancel culture though and how it relates to Roman’s misstep.

And then, as if that weren’t enough for this discussion about cultural appropriation and food, it’s not as if all this criticism about cultural appropriation actually means the recipes aren’t good. I haven’t made it, but there’s got to be a reason apart from infamy that so many people have made The Stew. But this just makes it so much more important that these cultural references are made, so that maybe in the future, it won’t only be dishes with culturally divorced names that appeal to people enough for them to want to make them and make it go viral! How about #TheChanaMasala next time, or #TheHaldiDoodh?

**The tea cake is delicious.

***To be honest even just this determining factor is difficult to follow, I feel, if only because how many of us really look at each brand of food we purchase from and research into their treatment of workers and the environment, and basically whether anyone was harmed in the making of that product? Then there’s also branding and marketing. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t do that much research on the rare occasion I do the groceries, because I’d never actually get any grocery shopping done if I needed to stop and look up where the peppers at my local T&T came from and how that company treats their workers and whether or not it uses chemicals harmful to the environment! But one step at a time is probably the way to go about this, and shopping local will help a lot in this regard.

Book Cover of The Cooking Gene by Michael W. TwittyBefore I delve a bit more into Jackson’s book, I want to briefly mention the allegations of racism within Condé Nast and recent coverage of the publishing company. I was introduced to this blowing up with a mention (@) of Sohla El-Waylly’s IG story (it’s been more than 24h but has been captured in this Twitter thread) about racism at Bon Appétit and Condé Nast more generally. I’m not going to go into this too much, because there are many articles out there (e.g. Vox, New York Times, among others) that you can go and read to learn more about this, but! If you do want to learn more about the intersection between race & food, here are some fun ways to do so:

And now let’s get back to where we started, with White Negroes by Lauren Michele Jackson. In the chapter on “The Chef”, talking about Paula Deen and cultural appropriation in the food industry, Jackson says “Most white chefs need never consider the racial and cultural implications of the food they make. To them, ingredients are just ingredients and techniques just techniques, there to be picked up and implemented and adjusted at will…They can take for granted that their food, no matter what tradition it’s drawn from, what genre it fits into, will be given the benefit of the doubt of a fine food worth its price” (p.124), as compared to the negative stereotypes that plague certain ethnic foods, “presumed to be crude, artery-clogging, less sanitary, and produced by low-skilled workers, and therefore ought to be as cheap as possible” (p.124).

So here’s another layer of racism in the realm of food: how it affects the way people view restaurants of particular ethnicities. Here’s a pretty good article about how we devalue “ethnic foods” such as Mexican, Indian, or Chinese food (#legend), which talks about (as Jackson also does) how this is pretty racist:

To view them through the lens of gastronomic bigotry as unclean is a reflection of one’s own perception of the community at large. In essence, it’s saying your kitchens are unclean, and by extension, so are your people.

(Engstrand, The Racist Reasoning Behind ‘Cheap Eats’, 2018)

I included the year there because 4 years before that article came out, another one from Slate did (also referenced in Engstrand’s): Gastronomic Bigotry. Next time you get food poisoning and you immediately blame the non-European-style restaurant you went to, think about this.

Alright so I was actually going to cover more ground and talk about how racism and cultural appropriation are discussed in the fashion industry as well in White Negroes, but this post is getting very long, so I will leave you with this video & this quote and this exhortation to put yourself on hold for White Negroes!

I think one of the references Jackson makes to a scene in The Devil Wears Prada, though applied to fashion, actually addresses the issue across the board too. We don’t think enough about where things are coming from, where the influences are from, and those who have to power and audience don’t think often enough to credit those (less privileged than them) from whom they’re taking. (When watching this clip, add another layer of connection where the designer “probably saw that and was like, “Ooh, that’s wonderful, I’m going to put it on the runway” and instigates the cycle. But we never start the cycle at the kid that was walking down the street. We start with the person that has all the accolades and all the visibility” (Jackson, interview with Vox)):

And then take a moment and just think of how many aspects of your sartorial choices, your choice of intonation and speech, your gestures, have their roots in Black culture. I doubt anyone has to look too far to come up with an instance of cultural appropriation – even if we narrow the activity down to appropriation of Black culture – but in case you’re having some trouble thinking of any, Jackson will make sure you don’t make it out of this book without some food for thought. Examples of cultural appropriation in popular North American culture abound in this slim but insightful – and eye-opening – volume by Lauren Michele Jackson, and I’m willing to bet you’ve been exposed to and influenced by at least one of these topics explored in these pages: White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation. I have to admit right off the bat: most of the examples covered in this book went over my head completely in their reference, not because I wasn’t alive during the time these things took place, but because I live(d) under a rock and avoided a lot of contact with popular culture. Even still, Jackson gives enough context that I was able to follow along, so if you’ve either also spent your life under a rock like me, or have forgotten about many of these examples, fear not!

As a related aside, this article from the Huffington Post: Is This The Right Way For Fashion To Do Cultural Appropriation? (2016) (I mean, obviously fashion shouldn’t be doing cultural appropriation at all – what Oskar Metsavaht is doing in this case is a more responsible way of engaging in cultural exchange rather than appropriation, because he explicitly seeks consent from the population he is borrowing certain elements from, and collaborating with the Ashaninka people to figure out culturally sensitive ways to feature elements of their culture in this line in addition to ways in which the line can give back to the Ashaninka people.)

And I’m (finally) going to leave off with this quote by Amandla Stenberg:

What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?

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