• Thoughts On Food and Cultural Appropriation

    by  • September 11, 2017 • You are probably sorry you asked • 2 Comments

    So, here are two things about me that I’m struggling to reconcile:
    1. I like to eat and cook lots of different types of food.
    2. I am against cultural appropriation.

    Let me expand on the first. I love trying new foods and flavours, and, once I try something, I really want to learn how to make it myself. In Toronto, I am fortunate enough to be able to try cuisines ranging from American to French to Pakistani to Eritrean to Sichuan to… etc. And because Toronto is home to thriving, diverse communities, the ingredients for the cuisines I love are often available in local grocery stores. It’s fun to learn new techniques, try copying new flavour profiles, and find out how to use new ingredients.

    New-to-me, that is. Because when I try my hand at miso soup or Korean-style bibimbap, I’m using recipes and ingredients that are as familiar to other communities as matzah meal and gefilte fish are to mine.

    I grew up eating many traditional Eastern-European Jewish dishes, as well as some particular-to-Toronto/Montreal Jewish dishes based on the food available to Jewish families a generation or two ago. My mom also cooked typical Western (American) food (hamburgers, hotdogs, spaghetti and sauce), and we ate out at a variety of restaurants, again, mostly Westernized.

    That means that a lot of the food I enjoy now is not only from other cultures, but from cultures whose communities have been racialized and marginalized in ways mine hasn’t, at least not as recently.

    Members of those communities have pointed out that in many cases, marginalized groups’ traditional foods are subject to cultural appropriation.

    To me, cultural appropriation depends on two things: the use or embracing of traditional elements of one culture by members of another, and, more importantly, the distribution of power between the two groups. Again, to me — and I have no right to tell other marginalized individuals how to feel about or define situations where their culture has been appropriated — the key question is: who gets control over the meaning of the cultural artifact?

    If the originating culture is powerful enough — for example, in the case of Western chains like McDonald’s expanding across the world — their cultural artifacts retain the meaning they assign and remain instruments of achieving their goals/promoting their own worldview. This is not cultural appropriation: although marginalized groups may criticize McDonald’s, the originating American culture still dictates the dominant understanding of the restaurant and the food served there. Furthermore, many more powerful originating cultures force other cultures to adopt their cultural artifacts, implementing devastating consequences for refusal. So, not cultural appropriation.

    However, if the originating culture has less access to power than the adopting culture, the adopting culture imposes its meaning on the artifact/practice, silencing rather than spreading voices and ideas. This is cultural appropriation.

    For unfortunately common example, consider white settlers’ use of Indigenous headdresses as costume pieces or props. Indigenous headdresses are specific to particular Indigenous cultures, and within those cultures, they have special, sometimes solemn or sacred meaning. However, white culture already drowns out Indigenous voices and has done so for hundreds of years, often with the explicit purpose of erasing Indigenous knowledge and history.

    White people using our social power to erase the voices of actual Indigenous folks, commodifying something sacred for our own entertainment and ignoring the protests of the people who originated it, is cultural appropriation. Treating marginalized cultures as treasure troves of objects and practices waiting to be “discovered” rather than communities of people is cultural appropriation. Deciding that cultural practices are acceptable only when white people use them is cultural appropriation.

    There is so much more about cultural appropriation that’s important to understand, but this blog entry is already getting pretty long, so I want to go back to the idea of food and cultural appropriation.

    My knee-jerk reaction has always been “… but food is different.” Why? Let’s be honest: probably because I like it, and I’m not as invested in other popular forms of cultural appropriation. If I had to dig a little further, I’d say also because I’m unconsciously categorizing desire for particular foods with biological drives. I don’t know what it is that makes me “crave” a particular dish, but it feels like something not tied to conscious thought. If a particular food turns my stomach, I can’t reason my way out of gagging.

    But that argument doesn’t hold water. True, I can’t control my visceral reaction towards certain foods — whether that’s salivating or sickening — but I can always control the way I behave. My body needs food, not specifically shawarma or sushi. I can choose not to eat something without having to make it about how disgusting I find it. And I can always control my behaviour toward other people who are eating food.

    So I’m left with the threadbare “reason”: because I really want to eat different cuisines.

    I don’t think that the imbalance in power between different cultures means I have to eat nothing but what I grew up with, but I do think it means I have to be mindful of how I approach the cuisines of other cultures, particularly of those that are marginalized in ways mine is not.

    Negotiating these ethics mean constantly revising what I think and do based on the feedback of those in marginalized positions. For now, here are my guidelines for myself:

    1. Check my gut responses. I am allowed to feel repulsed by dishes that trigger my disgust response, but that doesn’t mean I have to share those feelings in that manner. A polite “No thank you” with a pleasant expression will suffice; similarly, I can avoid sharing reviews, articles, or photos that emphasize elements of another culture’s cuisine as “gross” or “shocking” or “weird.”

    2. Don’t resist paying what food is worth based only on the mental “standards” for that cuisine. My idea of what food is “worth” is based on an ethno-centric set of Western cultural standards. Labour and ingredients go into everything.

    3. Where possible, choose sources that respect the culture from which the food comes. That can mean eating at a restaurant where the owners/master chefs identify with the culture. Or reading recipes from bloggers who are sharing their own culture or showing respect and acknowledgement to other cultures and colleagues. Or staying critical of recipes and food bloggers whose attitude toward other cultures is sketchy.

    4. Don’t fetishize “authenticity.” Yes, it’s important to make sure that food/recipe sources are “authentic” in that they acknowledge/respect the originating culture, but concentrating on “authenticity” is less about respect and more about policing/one-upping. It’s an attempt by someone outside a culture to set foods within the culture on a hierarchical scale for the purpose of “one-upping” others. Cultures are not monolithic, and guests to another culture do not get to police what is “real” and “not real” host cuisine. There are no “authentic” matzah balls, just matzah balls the way my family does them and matzah balls the way other families do and fusion cuisine matzah balls from people who create new food. All of them can be great, and all of them can be yucky, depending on your tastes.

    5. Use the language and etiquette that the host culture prefers. Sometimes, it means educating myself so I don’t lump together a bunch of dissimilar regional cuisines into one larger blanket style (e.g. “Chinese” or “Indian”). It definitely means not using phrases like “ethnic” as code for “food from people who aren’t white,” and it means making sure to learn about cultural etiquette without imposing it on others who probably know better than I do — don’t be the white lady who insists on being Miss Manners for another group’s culture by insisting that “actually” you’re “supposed” to do XYZ (“because I read it online/saw it in a TV show once”.)

    6. Engage with social responsibility in other ways. Make sure that “Japanese” and “Pakistani” and “Eritrean” aren’t primarily “types of food for my consumption” in my head but “human beings for their own intrinsic worth and self-actualization.” Behave when eating out in different culture spaces as though anyone I know or ever will know from that culture will see me and judge my respect for who they are based on my actions.

    7. Keep learning. My appetite for new tastes (and appetite in general) is not as important as other people’s wellbeing. There are tons of articles and perspectives getting published on this topic all the time, and I should listen to voices that are different from mine.


    I write SFF, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and I’ve been known to knock off a play here and there. I’m represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Stick around – who knows what might happen?


    2 Responses to Thoughts On Food and Cultural Appropriation

    1. October 5, 2017 at 2:07 pm

      It seems like there are lots of complexities to all this that you present and motivate these worries fairly well, My main worry that may just be pedantic is that I’m not sure the blanket term cultural appropriation communicates well the transgressions you are worried about, which seem to be a mix of distinguishable worries about respect (including things like being open and compassionate), stereotypes, prejudice and other expectations we can have (consciously or unconsciously) of others, and then worries like respecting labour rights, fair trade and so on. Perhaps the argument is that these things weave together the problem seems to me maybe they do reinforce each other, but even so the complex is made up of individual characteristics so we need to be able to identify the elements as much as the complex, in order to deal with it.

      My other worry that again is to some extent just pedantry is that it seems difficult to define to what cultures or cultures a food might belong as with say the potato which has an Andean origin but has fully integrated into any number of cuisines over the centuries (Irish, Eastern European Jewish etc.). There are clearly all sorts of worries that can still attach to a food stuff of indeterminate origin (exploitation, prejudices around particular constructions etc.) but again it just seems confusing to try and bring up culture as a general frame in that analysis.

      After reading your blog post, I read this article, last week, in the Globe and Mail about issues of authenticity, appropriation and the status of ethnic cuisine and ethnic chiefs in the Toronto food scene. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/whose-food-is-itanyway/article36439158/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com& Perhaps it will be of some interest.

      • October 9, 2017 at 10:21 am

        Thanks, Allan! Will check out the article :)

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