I suspect that this would fall under “unpopular opinions” but, yes, I think you can be culturally appropriative of food. I’ve never heard/seen anyone talk about food specifically as being culturally appropriated, but I highly doubt that my thoughts on this subject are unique. I suspect I just haven’t seen some wonderful work done by others. Also, I am relying on the theories and work of others who talk about food justice, even if they haven’t actually connected it specifically to cultural appropriation. *Also remember: This is just my own opinion. There are people in marginalized and oppressed groups who may completely disagree with me.*
So let’s begin with what I *don’t* think constitutes cultural appropriation of food, to get some of the angsty stuff out of the way. I don’t believe it is cultural appropriation to
- eat food from another culture
- to learn how to cook food from another culture
- to modify recipes from another culture for your own enjoyment
- to eat at restaurants, authentic or otherwise, that serve food from another culture
- to enjoy learning about another culture thru the traditional and/or modern foods of that culture
So no, I don’t think you are a racist asshat because you love guacamole or pad thai. I don’t think you are a privileged douchefuck because you sweated to learn how to make a killer tagine that is now the centerpiece of your family’s holiday meals.
“What’s left?” you may ask. “I can eat what I want, cook what I want, share what I want… okay… then how dare you say that it is possible to appropriate food? Where are you going with this?”
When we talk about food justice we are talking about a few different things. What I will concentrate on here are:
- Access to the foods and ingredients that are meaningful, traditional, and wanted within our culture.
- Access to high quality and fresh foods and ingredients that are available to low income people in low income neighborhoods.
One way that food can be appropriated is by making it difficult for those of the culture from which it stems to gain access to it. For example, quinoa has become very popular outside its native home of Bolivia, but with that popularity comes a price to the Bolivian people that what was a staple of their diet is now too expensive for them to eat. It’s fair to assume that it will be replaced by less beneficial alternatives, most likely imported and pre-packaged. I’m not saying that everyone should throw out their quinoa or feel useless guilt for eating it. I am saying that it is a good example of where access to a traditional food has been appropriated by people in such a way as to make it inaccessible to the culture from which it comes. We can think about how much of it we eat, if there are more fair ways to get it, and look for ways to support policies and practices that help Bolivians to be able to make an income off of this seed while still maintaining their cultural practices and access to their own food.
Put another way for U.S.ians, can you imagine not being able to eat an apple or have your July 4th homemade apple pie because the government decided to export most of them, thereby raising the prices of the few available here? Sure, you might see some increase in your income, but it wouldn’t be enough to buy you those apples you once took for granted. And it wouldn’t be enough to help you to retain the centrality of the apple to your diet. Oh, but hey, apples are a pseudo-cultural marker of the U.S. (“American as apple pie”, Johnny Appleseed, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, etc.) but aren’t actually a staple for most of us anymore (though perhaps they should be).
Another way that I feel food can be appropriated is by fetishizing it, especially when it includes commercializing it. Privileged white people who visit an “exotic” country and learn all they can about the local cuisine, only to come home and write best-selling books, appear on Martha Stewart, and eventually parlay the experience into their own television deal are a good example of this. Haven’t you ever wondered why the food stations are so overwhelmingly pale even as “festive” and “steamy” meals from “far-away lands” are being cooked up using modern technology? How much of that money do you think makes it back into the hands of the people who generously shared their family recipes with the soon-to-be celebrity chef? When the “experts” of our food are people from outside our communities, that is a form of appropriation.
In a lot of ways food becomes the symbol of a culture. Take fry-bread for Natives. Who hasn’t heard a joke about fry-bread? Do I think it’s wrong for non-Natives to eat fry-bread? No, I don’t. But I do think it is wrong when non-Native dieticians etc. point to fry-bread to explain all the health ills of Natives. I also think it’s wrong when non-Natives refuse to acknowledge the painful history and creation of fry-bread, and the poverty and scarcity of other food that it also symbolizes. And it is wrong when Natives are reduced to “fry bread eating, commodity taking freeloaders”, just as it is wrong when Mexicans are reduced to “beaners”, Arabs to “goat grillers”, and South Asians to “smelly curry eaters”. When our traditional foods are pointed to as jokes or ways to further oppress us, to mark us out as different in a way that is mocked, that is not respectful.
Our traditional foods are central to our cultures too. For some of us there are a lot of memories around sharing those foods, and for many others of us the food was part of our journey back to our people and culture. An honest recognition of that by others is necessary to respect that food. There are also traditional times/occasions for certain foods, and taboos, that should be honored. You can share in our food, but there is still an element of privilege, theft, and imposed change that has to be acknowledged at the same time. Minimizing YOUR theft and imposed change, respecting the traditions that guide when and how that food is served, and being thoughtful of what the food represents for us is a good first step to genuine cultural understanding that moves past appropriation.