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.

16 comments:

Rob Houck said...

First, I think this is a really good presentation, worthy of a 2nd read. Second, here are some initial reactions. Elvis appropriated black, Delta music. Re loans - slaves had better access to capital than freed men - because the slave owner doled out the loans to people he knew. (Some of this is free association, with no particular point.) Picasso would have painted differently had he never gone to SW Africa. Should only Germans sing Wagner? Inexpensive carts? Some of these arguments are misguided impulses to right social inequalities. I just encountered the same discussion in the context of art at the Carnegie International - the ceiling of the main display room has a German work The Tongue of the Cherokee - regarding the adoption of a western alphabet by Sequoyah. Did literacy ruin Cherokee culture? (Plato also had thought about the problems of the written word vs. oral cultures.) One of our best meals in Paris - at Petite Fleur - was cooked by a guy (visible from our table) who certainly did not LOOK French. McDonalds just lost a tm fight against SuperMac in Ireland. Should Germans be permitted to cook potatoes? Should Mexicans eat only llama? "Civilization" comes from the root (a food term) word for cities - away from the source of the food. Good point about gut bacteria. As to food memories - this was a theme at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin. I will come back and try to post a picture. The chefs at this conference were all presented and each gave a short speech about his/her memories associated with the food prepared for about 1000 attendees. I disagree that all foods should be on an economic par with French, Italian and even some German. Some are just plain better - regardless of surroundings. (I favor any restaurant getting a Bib Gourmand rating. NOT a star. Never disappointed.) So...nice rant, Ken. I have sent on to my food history prof at Pitt. (Great class.)

Anne Mendelson said...

Hi Ken -- much food for thought here, and many well-taken insights. Still, I think the perception that Indian, Mexican, Chinese, etc. etc. etc. cuisines are unjustly being held back from figuring in elegant, upscale restaurants misses at least one major point: The unpretentious eateries where much ethnic food gets dished up tend to be strongly rooted in ethnic neighborhoods and function as comfortable, well-understood meeting places for the locals. That whole element of community, of a shared culinary idiom, gets lost when somebody plunks down Indian, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants in places where the rent is sky-high and the prices that have to be charged will be prohibitive for an everyday Indian, Mexican, or Chinese clientele.

Cheers and thanks, Anne

Scott A. Barton said...

Thank you Ken. Rob raised some good complementary points. Your argument speaks volumes in addressing this disjuncture on food, cooking, appropriation and authenticity. The one thing that i think to Dr from my days as a chef, trained in France, was when as an African American I was invited to cook ribs or fried chicken, as if it was in my DNA, and not eually invited to cook, say Coq au Vin since I appeared to be from "off"....

meddie said...

thanks for this very thoughtful commentary, Ken. I have saved it both to peruse more fully over time and to use as a provocation in my food-writing workshops. I tend to agree with most of what you say, particularly the way foods and ingredients morph among cultures and societies without any one person or institution (despite attempts at the latter) authenticating them. Spending a lot of time cooking, eating and talking about food in Italy, I'm aware that one family's beloved recipe for ragu may be considered utter treyf in the family next door. So what's an authentic ragu? It's just impossible to say. And I'm certain the same attitude obtains in Mexico, China and elsewhere too.

Ken Albala said...

Anne, Such restaurants often start off that way, but end up being heavily patronized by people from outside the community who "discover" it. But then they insist on it being cheap, and would never patronize them in an upscale neighborhood, which is why there are few restaurants of that type. And more importantly few can access the capital to start an upscale restaurant, but often people outside that community can. Like Zimmern I guess.

Unknown said...

I like all the above comments. Obviously some very intelligent people here.

Di Murrell said...

Authenticity does not travel well. Go find it where it flourishes i say and appreciate it for what it is.'Authentic' food depends on rather more than a list of the correct ingredients and a person who knows how to cook it.It depends upon the memory in the hand that prepares it, the type of pot it cooks in, the source of heat and the way it is applied, even the water, it's terroir, it's climat and much much more. Removed from its specific setting authenticity steadily morphs into something else - nothing wrong with that but maybe then it doesn't matter so much about who cooks it or how; whatever crude classification the food carries - 'Mexican' 'French' 'Chinese' it has ceased to be authentic but becomes part of what JK Galbraith called 'the conventional wisdom'.

Mari Firkatian said...

Hi Ken,
I so enjoyed your post. I just started my lesson on Columbian Exchange and although my students are Freshmen I will try to use parts of your blog post in class to stimulate discussion.

I would also suggest that we should consider why people search out "authentic" food. Is it a form of travel without most of the attendant discomforts? Does it satisfy some need to feel "cosmopolitan" "global" or "globe trotting" and thereby feel connected to the rest of the world? Then, perhaps, one can make the leap to eating at chichi restaurants, that charge up the humble burrito, because those diners do not really want to visit the mom and pop types of eateries (for whatever reason)?

Thank you for the thoughtful piece. I can't wait to reread it.

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Garima Kothari said...

Hello Ken,
This was a brilliant read!
Calling a recipe authentic is almost similar to having a reference book to go to when in doubt. Getting rid of the concept will pretty much leave a huge population in lurch. At the cost of sounding extreme, I am going to compare this concept to faith. Having faith helps in keeping sanity or presents hope when there is confusion. So, yes, I agree that authenticity is a matter of preconceived notion, but it is still required to sustain the fabric of gastro-beliefs.

Gary Porter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary Porter said...

Your closing statement regarding authenticity seems incongruous with the rest of your post, which seems to be a call toward a more "authentic" authenticity, with respect to cuisine and culture. Maybe we ought to abolish the way the term has been weaponized.

Heather said...

This post addresses an ethical issue that I've been struggling to land on, and so I appreciate the insights you've articulated. It would be reassuring to be able to pinpoint the specific factors that make an "inauthentic" version of a particular cuisine so offensive and what makes something "inauthentic" in the first place. I would imagine that the type of public reaction hinges on the replicator's intentions. The perception of the colonizing aspect, when white owners are able to profit from another culture's cuisine, could produce the kind of public reaction that Rob (above) called, a "misguided impulse to right social inequalities." With that in mind, the people who reacted strongly against Kooks Burritos were certainly misguided, and probably riding a social media trend wave sparked by one naysayer. Rather than outright appropriation, Wilgus and Connelly seem to have had the intention of perpetuating a food-memory, which was in fact a memory from their own personal experience, and export that memory to their local population, and earn some profit as well--a common goal of business owners. Contrasted with any large chain restaurant serving dumbed-down versions of other cuisines (your post mentions plenty), where the love of a food memory is corrupted to make max profits the #1 goal.
For me, personally, that's the issue at hand. When I make a decision against a particular restaurant or chain serving a foreign cuisine (and by foreign I mean a variety of things, "inauthentic," from a culture other than the owner's, yadayada), I think it's because they're not sharing something that I want to enjoy. They're not being true to the spirit of the recipe, or they're not being innovative, and it becomes uninspired, motivated instead by profiting off something familiar and making it even more bland as to appeal to a wider population.
I cook in a sandwich shop where we sometimes recreate dishes from a variety of sources. We often refer to cookbooks for soups, sides, preparations of meat, sauces; and we replicate sandwiches that have been popularized in other restaurants, some of them local shops that had closed down, and in other parts of the country/world. There have been times where I felt a twinge of guilt for serving something not of our own creation, although we always treat it as an homage to the original source. And that's really what it's about: We're trying to continue the legacy of something we and others have known and loved, and keep it in circulation for posterity. Restaurateurs who are able to do this--AND provide the atmosphere, quality of ingredients and dining experience to justify charging higher prices--they're able to pay their employees more, giving them a better quality of life, perhaps even allowing them to approach the type of lifestyle held by the restaurant's clientele.