In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry.
Nancy, let’s talk about cultural appropriation.
That’s when one culture, generally the dominant, wealthy one, takes aspects of another culture and profits from it.
Accusations of such actions have long been present in the music world — white singers taking predominantly African American jazz and then rock ’n’ roll and profiting by introducing it to larger, often richer white audiences, and then a generation later, arguably, doing the same thing with rap and hip-hop (less successfully as black artists were by then able to reach a wider audience on their own).
And these days the food world is teeming with such claims.
White chefs such as Rick Bayless and Andy Ricker, who mostly cook Mexican and Thai food, respectively, periodically come under fire for stealing the thunder, or even the recipes, of Mexican and Thai chefs.
It can be a touchy issue, to say the least, and in these fraught times when both cultural sensitivities and insensitivity seem to be on the rise, it’s putting businesses at risk.
Earlier this year a pop-up in Portland, Ore., called Kooks Burritos was prematurely shut down by owners Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly after a firestorm resulted when people decided that they stole their techniques from cooks in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.
The pair went on vacation there, fell in love with the food and, according to an interview they gave to Willamette Week, well, this is how Connelly was quoted:
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did. They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough. … They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”
Thief! Shouted a collective group of social justice warriors. How dare these rich white women gallivant to Mexico, spy on the locals and appropriate their customs!
The story goes on to discuss how the women then worked hard to figure out how to make the tortillas themselves. But no matter, an accusation of cultural appropriation had reared its ugly head and Portlanders weren’t having it.
Then another Oregon operation, a newly opened place in Corvallis called Hapuna Kahuna Tiki Bar & Kitchen, was pilloried for what some people argued was owner Cloud Davidson’s insensitivity. The Corvallis Gazette-Times said people from the Oregon State University Asian and Pacific Cultural Center “complained about a combination of factors such as the use of a Hawaiian name, traditional iconography displayed in a cartoonish way, and how plastic leis were handed off to consumers.”
Never mind that Davidson had spent his summers on Hawaii’s Big Island, traveled in the south Pacific and loved Polynesian culture, or that Tiki bars were at any rate invented on the mainland as fictionalized fantasy places for escape and rum drinks. Davison apologized and reopened the restaurant as The Salty Dog.
Nancy, I’m sure many of our readers are shaking their heads and thinking that this is simply political correctness run amok.
But let’s take a look at another example. This one is in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.
There’s a “Jewish themed” restaurant there called Pid Zolotoju Rozoju, or “At the Golden Rose,” named for the neighboring Golden Rose Synagogue.
According to a story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the restaurant has no prices because, according to the non-Jewish waiter, who was dressed in fake Hasidic garb including a black hat and artificial side curls, “it’s Jewish tradition to haggle and bargain afterwards.”
I’m Jewish, Nancy. Trust me, that’s not my tradition.
The writer asked if the restaurant served pork — he did notice that it served other non-kosher items, like rabbit kidneys.
“’No!’ [the waiter] replied in horror. ‘Jews don’t eat pork.’
‘But if you pay extra, maybe we can arrange something,’ he added with a mischievous smile.”
Trading on the crudest Jewish stereotypes is offensive enough, but Lviv happens to be the location of one of a Jewish massacre during the Second World War.
This begs the question, where does multiculturalism and influence of other cultures end — and stereotypes and cultural appropriation begin?
The balance of power complicates things. Look at the United States, which forcibly took over the Hawaiian Islands and made war against Mexico to annex much of what is now the western United States, arguably causing decades of marginalization. Under that context it might seem unfair for Americans to take Hawaiian and Mexican recipes and profit from them.
Obviously it’s more complicated than that. Chefs like Bayless and Ricker and many, many others have spent years studying the cultures of the cuisines they now celebrate. And beyond that food continues to evolve and cross borders and it’s hard to argue that any of it really belongs to anyone.
If people are upset, they’re upset.
But I think there’s an upside to all of this hubbub.
As you know, a growing number of customers want to know the story of the food they’re eating.
If your hot chicken was derived from African Americans in Nashville (it was), then celebrate that fact. Tell everyone about the Mexican community from which your mole was derived, and if you don’t know, well, maybe find that out. Celebrate their creators. Maybe make causes that are dear to them part of your own charitable activity. Embrace the rich heritage of the food you’re serving, and your customers might appreciate it even more.
Or maybe they won’t. I don’t know, Nancy. There’s a fine line between celebrating where a dish comes from and lecturing your customers.
What’s your take on these endlessly thorny issues, and how do you think restaurant operators should approach them?
Nancy Kruse responds:
Well, shoot, Bret. I’ve barely had the chance to recuperate from hurricane scares and National Coffee Day and its aftermath, all of which have left me pretty jangly. At a time like this, you want to discuss cultural appropriation? I would have preferred a soothing softball question, but, frankly, your examples are so egregious that despite my current state, I feel compelled to wade into the conversation.
As you note, it’s been a terribly hot topic culturally and politically, one that is guaranteed to polarize a dinner party faster than a debate on how important that rain delay really was to the Cubs’ winning the World Series. Until recently, much of the ire of the appropriation police, most of whom I suspect are first cousins to the killjoy diet police, has been directed at artists and writers. You note the musical connection, but I’ve been following with interest the extraordinary controversy raging in literary circles that came on the heels of novelist Lionel Shriver, a favorite writer of mine, being excoriated for her latest novel that depicts a black woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease — neither of which is true of Shriver. As she stoutly defended her right to do so at a conference of publishing pooh-bahs, it probably didn’t help matters that she delivered her remarks on cultural appropriation while wearing a Mexican sombrero. That was to tweak the students at Bowdoin College who had initiated articles of impeachment against non-Mexican members of the student government who’d donned the same headgear at a fiesta-themed tequila party on campus. All I can say to that is pass me a Margarita, Bret, and make it a double. Many in her audience were not amused, but as Shriver pointed out, if she were restricted to writing only what she’d lived, she’d be relegated to churning out stories about 5’2” white women of a certain age who hail from North Carolina.
I guess if we carried this nonsensical line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, we’d need to ban Anna Karenina, since it was written by a man who, as far as we know, never wore a corset and a bustle. At least not in public. Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady would never have been word painted, and on the other side of the gender divide, Edith Wharton’s tender tale of the tragic Ethan Frome would never have seen the light of day. The result would make us all the poorer for sacrificing the compassion, empathy and insight the authors bring to their characters and to life in general.
I’ve been heartened by a couple of recent pieces in The New York Times that uphold cultural appropriation as, effectively, the basis of American society. We’re all here together, mixing it up, the authors contend, and one specifically decries the demand that we stay in the ethnic and social lanes assigned to us by an accident of birth. She goes on to say that the constant melding of thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities is the most natural thing in the world in our all-American melting pot; it’s the dynamic that moves us forward.
Can you imagine how boring it would be if we stuck only to what we knew? It would certainly make for pretty dull stuff from the culinary perspective. Given my mixed Irish and Scandinavian background, my own gastronomic lanes would be paved mostly with potatoes and herring, which make for a pretty pallid palate. O.K., I am exaggerating a bit, since Scandinavian gastronomy is all the rage, and I do love potatoes. But you get my drift.
Last year the Washington Post weighed in with an article entitled Copycats in the Kitchen, which boldly posited that the hottest food trend of the past five years may very well be plagiarism, as chefs freely borrow ideas and get their inspiration from each other. The fact that talented, Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov, say, is working in Philadelphia and has had success with Korean fried chicken and doughnuts is cause for celebration, not censure, to his legions of diners.
In any case, the mashing up of menus is an unstoppable force, Bret. Our industry is built on borrowing and improvising, burnishing and improving. Your own recent article about chefs using familiar tacos as the means to introduce unfamiliar ingredients of all stripes is a case in point,
Of course, you are totally right about fine lines, and there is no question that theft is a crime that should be prosecuted. But the creative evolution of our culinary culture and all its messy stops, starts, blurs and overlaps is not a crime. It’s an opportunity that should be nurtured.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
E-mail her at [email protected]