Thursday, January 17, 2019

Cultural Appropriation, Authenticity and Gastronomic Colonialism

In the past few years there has been a great deal of popular and academic buzz over the notion of authenticity in cooking and who has the right to cook a particular cuisine. This is part of a larger debate over what is called cultural appropriation. For a person to prepare and profit from a dish originating from a culture not their own has been labeled a form of colonizing, akin to Columbus having discovered America when there were already millions of people living there. Hence the term Columbusing. Normally it involves a person or business of a dominant culture appropriating the cultural heritage of those subjected for profit.

The original debate in food was sparked over criticism of chef Rick Bayless and the phenomenal success of his high end Mexican restaurants like Frontera Grill and Topolobampo which has a Michelin Star. Rick is a white man from Oklahoma who grew up cooking in a barbecue joint but his fame comes from TV, Cookbooks and his “discovering” regional Mexican cuisine and bringing it to the US. No one doubts that his cooking is a faithful interpretation of authentic Mexican cooking. The principal objection is that he can charge high prices and gain notoriety from this cuisine while those born into the cuisine and whose heritage it represents can rarely charge more than a few dollars in a taco truck or an inexpensive so-called “ethnic” restaurant. Furthermore it is easy for him to acquire loans and expand his restaurant empire while it is difficult for those of Mexican ancestry to afford a brick and mortar business. This is undeniable. Whether Bayless’ interpretation of the cuisine is authentic is beside the point, and whether his cooking has actually furthered the appreciation for Mexican cuisine among the general populace, that is also irrelevant. The fact that he cooks it, some argue, is akin to intellectual property theft, since it belongs like art, music and literature to the people who created it. This a compelling argument.

Underlying these debates has been the tacit assumption among restaurant goers that ethnic restaurants ought to be cheap but if served in a more trendy setting, a better neighborhood and perhaps with white ownership, then they come to par with high end European and American cuisine and they are worth the price. Even if the exact same food is on the plate. It implies that the important factor is not what’s being served but WHO is serving it.

The debate was opened again in earnest when two white American women Kali Wilgus and Liz LC Connelly decided to open Kooks Burritos in Portland, a Mexican food cart selling lobster burritos among other dishes. Their menu was inspired if not directly pilfered from people they saw cooking on a trip to Puerto Nuevo in Baja California, and in an interview, whether jokingly or otherwise, they claimed to have been peeking into windows to discover secrets that women chefs had withheld. In this case authenticity was not an issue, since they really do seem to have discovered some secrets, especially about how to make great tortillas. Nor was price an issue, since this was a relatively inexpensive cart. At issue was ripping off recipes and selling them as their own, in direct competition with people of Mexican descent trying to earn a living from comparable establishments. There was public outrage of such intensity that the women had to close their cart and subsequently a list of “colonialized” food purveyors began to circulate through the city, so people could patronize only the authentic and appropriately owned establishments. The clear message was that only Mexicans should be cooking Mexican food, Thais Thai food, Japanese Japanese food and so on.

The inherent difficulty of this notion should have been apparent from the start, that it was not simply a matter of white owned restaurants stealing the food of less affluent peoples, but actually sometimes Salvadoreans cooking Mexican, Cambodians cooking Thai, let alone people of many backgrounds cooking French with no objection. Further complicating the issue are the many fusion cuisines, not to mention people of mixed ethnicity. Would they be the only people who could legitimately mix say Korean and Peruvian, or African and Hmong cooking depending on their own hybrid heritage?
The entire issue has been opened up afresh with the publication of Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, which asks the question who owns Southern Cooking. His argument is that African Americans and their contributions, not only in ingredients and techniques but the people themselves have been erased from the historical record. Twitty diverts attention from the larger issue by focusing on his own ancestors but I am certain his next work will trace the roots of Southern Cuisine back to Africa.
From a practical standpoint, obviously people are going to cook whatever they want and there’s no way to copyright ingredients, techniques or even recipes unless they’re in print, and even then it’s only the exact wording not the cooked dish itself that’s protected. But the fact that public opinion can make or break a restaurant does mean that the concept of colonialized cuisine can’t simply be brushed aside, as many people have done lately, claiming that all cooking is a matter of ripping off ideas and it always has been. That is certainly true but there are so many unstated assumptions underlying this debate that I think digging deeper will yield some interesting philosophical and even gastronomic insights.

To start, historically it is undeniably true that all cuisines are hybrids. The movement of people, plants and animals, even under forced colonization, slavery and exploitation has nonetheless given us every classic cuisine we now seek to protect. There would be no Italian cuisine as we know it had Columbus, and those who followed, not brought to Europe tomatoes, peppers, chilies, corn, squash, beans, and so on. There would not be Mexican cuisine had not Spaniards brought cattle, wheat and an enormous array of European and Asian plants, spices included. This is only one leg of the so-called Columbian Exchange, but it also went from Africa to the Americas and vice versa. Think of peanuts going from South America to Africa then to the US South. Think of chilies traveling within a few decades from America to Turkey, Szechuan, India, and around the world. Nor was the 16th century the only period of exchange, ingredients have always moved with people so that we had apples from Kazakhstan finding their way to England, wheat from the middle east to China, tamarind from Africa to Mexico to the Philippines. In short, every cuisine on earth is the result of mixing, of people from one ethnicity cooking food from somewhere else and profiting from it.
This then raises the question of what authenticity could possibly mean. Does it point to a specific time and place, a particular restaurant or printed recipe? Authenticity seems to be a moving target. We certainly understand the concept: we balk when ingredients are substituted, when flavors are subdued to appeal to a wider audience, or when a cuisine is outright bastardized as it moves. We understand well that La Choy and Chun King Chinese food in a can are not authentic. Taco Bell is not the same as what they eat in Mexico. Yet we become uncomfortable criticizing adapted and hybrid cuisines that have changed over time among immigrant populations. We say Chinese-American food is its own thing now, no longer what people eat in China, but rooted in Guangdong adapted to American taste and over the past 150 years or so, the cuisine has evolved. All cuisines have evolved, that is the nature of cooking. We say spaghetti and meatballs is Italian-American, worthy of respect in its own right, though it makes “real” Italian people shudder in horror. So authenticity always stands in contrast to something fake, dishonest, stolen, not true to itself.

In fact the root of the concept of authenticity in philosophy goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. His idea was that polite society had made people speak what they expected others to hear, which cut them off from their true emotions, especially those that make us genuine and honest human beings. As a result, the more civilized people became the more unhappy, dishonest, and the more willing to exploit others for their own benefit. In his mind, our natural state was one of perfect equality. And in our natural state we ate simple unadulterated foods. Civilization introduced luxury, which has corrupted us and made us sick. Our entire concept of artificiality in food springs from his ideas. Also, remember Rousseau lived at the height of colonialism and slavery and his ultimate goal was to explore the origins of inequality. It had most to do with being inauthentic, not true to yourself. Thus when we call a cuisine inauthentic, it is not true to what it should be, it uses the wrong ingredients, it’s cooked the wrong way, and most importantly it’s not made by the right person who understands the cuisine, was born doing it and has it in their genes so to speak.
The idea that we are somehow genetically predisposed to enjoy and understand a cuisine is a little unsettling as well. But apparently flavor preferences are not only acquired in utero but are to some extent hard wired into our genetic makeup over centuries of adaptation. If you consider that people have been interacting with their environment for millennia and those that best adapt to their resources, eat the plants and animals that are best for them and cook them in ways that are most nutritious, those people will of course reproduce at a greater rate and pass on those preferences to their progeny. This suggests that we should not only cook, but eat like our ancestors too, as a simple matter of survival. Obviously the color of our skin has adapted over thousands of years to fit the places we inhabit, why too wouldn’t our digestive capacity, our gut bacteria and even our taste preferences? Perhaps people are genetically adapted to certain regions and its local food over time. So Tohono O’odam are adapted to eat local plants like tepary beans and cactus, Inuit are adapted to eat seal. Changing these traditional diets has led to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. The same might be the case for those of European descent eating American plants like corn. So to eat cuisines from places other than those where your people evolved might actually be dangerous from an evolutionary standpoint. Of course culture can teach us to enjoy new foods, and even those that we are biologically averse to like coffee or whiskey. We learn to like those, but it doesn’t mean they are good for us.

On the other hand, as we have seen, ingredients have been moving and mixing as long as people have, so it is impossible to say that there is a people of single genetic descent any more than we can say there is a single unified and definable cuisine that those people eat. It is possible for a cuisine to be codified though with a certain stock repertoire of classic dishes that over time have been defined both by professionals and ordinary cooks who make these dishes. In other words, there is a classic Boeuf Bourguignon, a classic Mole Poblano, or classic Baba Ganouj. There is a right and wrong way to make these and we can very easily tell when a dish is prepared inauthentically, or not the way people in situ or in the homeland prepare it. That’s not to say everyone in the native country makes it the same way, there are always minor variations. Not to say that cutting corners for a home cook is going to be a bad dish, it might taste fine. But we have no trouble calling it inauthentic because it veers away from a classical canon.

Moreover, the idea of authenticity implies that someone went to the place and learned directly from those who own the recipe. Saveur magazine from its very inception was predicated on the notion that a “World of Authentic Cuisine” was accessible through intrepid travel and research and the findings would not be watered down or adapted to American tastes, ingredients or cooking technologies – which of course they always were. This makes me wonder can anything be authentic but the thing itself, can anyone’s cooking ever be replicated outside of that one particular spot? Actually, can one individual ever really make the exact same dish twice? The ingredients are always a bit different, the oven doesn’t always behave the same way, and of course however you time it will influence the final dish. So is the authentic only one particular time a dish was prepared and then thereafter only approximations? Is the very idea of authenticity not completely subjective as well, having to do with the perception of an individual who consumed the dish and then is recalling it later, and then making the claim that this time it is not made “as it ought to be.” I wonder sometimes if the way our minds work doesn’t influence our standards of authenticity in food. Like all memories, taste memories change over time as we remove the negative parts and embellish the good, or sometime romanticize a particular meal in the past in a restaurant or prepared by our mothers. Our taste buds also change as we age, so that something that tasted great when we were young might seem completely lackluster years later. So the real question comes down to who is the authority over the authentic and what kind of credentials could prepare someone to make a claim over a dish? Is your bloodline most important, long experience and heritage or is it simply the acquisition of knowledge and some kind of certification or degree? Or is it acquired skill that gives a chef the authority to prepare a dish and claim authenticity? 

I had to confront this problem recently in writing recipes for a cookbook about noodle soup. To start, regardless of measuring exactly, no noodle rolled by hand ever comes out the same way twice. That’s a simple fact of physics. But the larger issue I had to deal with was my offering recipes that spanned the whole globe and obviously my own limited ethnicity and limited experience in personally seeing these dishes cooked in far flung places. I visited as many of those I could, but there was no way I could cross the whole planet, that would take a lifetime. I had to face the fact that someone like Andrea Nguyen (whom I respect greatly) simply had more authority to speak about Pho than I do simply because she was born in Vietnam, has eaten it all her life, and has traveled there, and has studied it. So it is simply true that if the book sells I will in fact have profited from someone else’s cuisine.

Also earlier last fall while I was still writing the book, Bon Appetit ran a little video of a white chef, Tyler Akin, cooking Pho and essentially telling people including Vietnamese the “right way” to cook it, and not to add hoisin or Sriracha. The title was “PSA: This is how you should be eating Pho.” It then showed him twirling noodles around a pair of chopsticks, which is just ridiculous. He was soundly attacked and instead of really addressing the issue, Bon Appetit just removed the video. It would have been an interesting learning opportunity. I think if they had been honest they could have just said, here’s the way this one chef likes it, and how you can have it at his restaurant. It might not be traditional, and if that’s what you want here are the places to get it, owned by people of Vietnamese descent. I faced the same dilemma writing my own pho recipe and I just came out and said, there is nothing authentic about this. It suits my taste, you might like it too. It will be fun to cook and that might be more rewarding than going out to buy it at a restaurant. That is, I haven’t taken anyone’s recipes, I made one up and encourage readers to do the same.
I directly addressed the question of colonized cuisine in another section of the book where I offered recipes drawn from my own ethnic roots – which is Sephardic Spain, Greece and Turkey. I’m not sure what kind of authority my bloodline affords me. I didn’t really grow up cooking or eating these dishes, except when I was very young. I actually grew up mostly eating mass produced industrialized food. I may have rediscovered these dishes consciously, but somehow it felt very inauthentic claiming that no one should criticize me of cultural appropriation here, because this is where my own ancestors came from. So what? Do I have any more right to possess these dishes than to ramen or pho, which I probably prepare much better?

Ultimately the entire question is what gives anyone the authority to speak about a topic or prepare a recipe? Does your genetic background? I don’t think so, though I see nothing wrong with claiming your heritage. Does your experience? It may if you’ve grown up eating in a particular culture. Does serious research? I think that does certainly help. I teach Italian Renaissance history not because I have a single drop of Italian blood, but because I studied it for many years. I probably know it in better detail than most Italian people. The funny thing is I recently did a 23 and Me DNA test which said that I share the same genes with about 6.5 percent of Italian people. It doesn’t exactly mean I’m Italian at all, but theoretically I could say, but I have minestrone in my genes, see? Does that really give me authority to say how it should be prepared?

While I don’t think there is a simple solution to this problem, and I don’t think it should be summarily dismissed either, I do think there are various strategies to overcome it. First of all we should be willing to patronize restaurants from cuisines around the world and pay more for them, simply as a matter of bringing them on economic par with French, Continental, and even now Japanese restaurants that are able to charge more, pay their staff more and make more profit. There should be elegant and perhaps expensive Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Ethiopian restaurants. These cuisines in fact have longer histories than French, which is only a few hundred years old. I also think your genetic background should have nothing to do with your right to cook a particular dish. Your experience should and your skill, research and devotion to it should. Perhaps most importantly, cuisines not your own should be treated with reverence and respect, as you would any facet of culture not your own. Just as if I decided to play Javanese gamelan I would learn how to really do it, not just bang around randomly on the bells. The same goes for the cooking, I should learn the classic techniques, and then if I depart from them, make it clear that I am doing so. And never claim that my innovation is the way people ought to do it.
That is to say, I am not against innovation, mixing of cultures, and the evolution of cuisine. Once you have decided exactly how a recipe ought to be made and allow no variation you are essentially killing that recipe, you have made of it a historical artifact worthy only to be observed in a museum, not a restaurant or home kitchen. Cooks must be given free rein to invent, use new ingredients, and play with techniques. This is how great new recipes are discovered. But the cook must also be circumspect about what he’s doing and not claim to be authentic or correct about a dish when that’s not true. 
In conclusion, while I recognize the validity of critiques of cultural appropriation, I do believe that everyone constantly borrowing ingredients, techniques and recipes from everyone else, with respect and economic equality, is the only way to gain a real understanding of each other. Drawing culinary boundaries of ownership only sets up other kinds of cultural and social boundaries. And as for the concept of authenticity, I think we should banish it immediately.

Update: The entire debate has started again recently with Andrew Zimmern's latest venture into the restaurant business - Lucky Cricket in which he said he will bring authentic Chinese regional cuisine to the Midwest. I haven't been there but apparently it does nothing of the sort and his maligning PF Chang and Panda Express did him no favors, let alone the many Chinese-American restaurant owners whose food has been deemed inauthentic.