On Cultural Appropriation and Food
I am not sure where to start with Minneapolis restaurant Travail. This restaurant was trendy and popular, and I’m certain it will be just as trendy and popular when it re-opens. I’ve been there, and it’s definitely an interesting concept for the Minneapolis food scene. Recently, the Travail team launched a pop-up restaurant called Umami. Since Umami is closing soon, I feel okay about writing this post. For now. It might get really hot and uncomfortable in here…
Umami came out with dim sum concept which made me uncomfortable. Why? I don’t know the intention or the purpose behind it so it screamed cultural appropriation to me. Because they think dim sum is the next hipster food trend? Because white folks rolling $5 soy sauce marinated chicken wings in carts is just a cool thing to do? And are they claiming expertise on an “exotic” culture? Do they feel entitled or necessary to “elevate” a foreign custom rather than cultural exchange or participation? Do they understand the history and customs associated with dim sum? Most importantly, is Umami’s idea of dim sum considered fusion cuisine (i.e. cultural exchange) or cultural appropriation? I have more questions than answers because cultural appropriation is such a complex and delicate subject. You’re talking about culture, history, ethnicity, food justice, race…and everything in-between. This article from Soleil Ho in Bitch Magazine resonated with me a lot:
“American chefs like to talk fancy talk about ‘elevating’ or ‘refining’ third-world cuisines, a rhetoric that brings to mind the mission civilisatrice that Europe took on to justify violent takeovers of those same cuisines’ countries of origin. In their publicity materials, Spice Market uses explicitly objectifying language to describe the culture they’re appropriating: “A timeless paean to Southeast Asian sensuality, Spice Market titillates Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s piquant elevations of the region’s street cuisine.” The positioning of Western aesthetics as superior, or higher, than all the rest is, at its bottom line, an expression of the idea that no culture has value unless it has been “improved” by the Western Midas touch. If a dish hasn’t been eaten or reimagined by a white person, does it really exist? Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, often claims that to know a culture, you must eat their food.”
“These items speak to the Westerner as cultural connoisseur and authority, a theme that has shone like a brilliant Angolan diamond in the imperialist imagination ever since Marco Polo first rushed back to Europe to show off the crazy Chinese “ice cream” that he discovered on his travels. I don’t doubt that these guys love bulgogi and soba and want more people to enjoy them, but that kind of appreciation certainly doesn’t seem to have advanced their understanding of the Asian American experience beyond damaging and objectifying generalities.
Their commonality is their insistence on appreciating a culture that exists mostly in their heads; they share a nostalgia for someone else’s life.”
I also love Eddie Huang's opinions on cultural appropriation:
“If someone’s going to profit off this culture, it should be the people who brought it.You’re really taking somebody else’s art form, bastardizing it and putting it in a form for others to consume. Most people in the food industry are just too basic to understand that, because they’re so obsessed with the taste.”
"I would never want to be the person to tell white people. ‘You can’t cook this.’ It’s not about, ‘You’re white and you can’t cook it.’ It’s about power. There’s very few things that someone from Thailand can bring to America and get people to pay top dollar for. Food is one of them. And when somebody else does it instead, it’s like, ‘There goes our opportunity.’”
So I have to ask you this, at what point does food cross into the line of cultural appropriation?
Sometimes I’m not introduced [in stories] as Delphine Zampetti but just as ‘the wife of’ Aizpitarte…That doesn’t help things evolve. And that never happens the other way around.
— Delphine Zampetti (Chez Aline in Paris) on female chefs and media coverage (via)
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