Friday Food for Thought: Cultural theft?

I should be working on my master’s thesis, but I decided instead to create a weekly blog series. Too much of the same routine can lead to stagnation, so I wanted to throw something different into the mix (as well as concoct new ways to procrastinate). I haven’t quite figured out exactly what this series will entail, but I would like it to serve as a space for sharing interesting stories that I come across, most likely those with a food bent. In a recent post, I wrote about how my attention span has increasingly dwindled and how I would like to veer away from simple drive-by information consumption. By sharing interesting stories, I’m hoping to spark discussion and deeper reflection around these topics.

For the first of this series, I want to share a story that I came across a few months ago. It’s old news now, but I’ve still been ruminating on it. Back in May, Willamette Week published a story featuring two gals who had opened a food cart in Portland, and it incited a flood of outrage among eaters. The gals, who are both white, traveled to Mexico last year and opened a burrito food cart upon their return. The impetus behind their food venture stemmed from the tortillas that they had eaten during their travels. They were so enthralled by the tortillas that they tried to learn as much as they could about how to make them from women they met in Mexico.

Back in the US, they tried to replicate the tortillas that they had eaten, but were not immediately successful. After much trial and error, they came up with a recipe that they were satisfied with, so much so that they decided to start a food business. But, they received so much backlash after the Willamette Week story ran that they were forced to close their food operation amidst allegations of stealing from another culture.

Does anyone else find this absurd? First of all, they indicated that they came up with their own version of tortillas. They said that they had observed Mexican women make tortillas, but nowhere in the article does it say that they duplicated any one lady’s recipe in particular. And, as far as I know, tortilla recipes are not patented, so they weren’t stealing anyone’s livelihood. Though tortillas were the key ingredient of their business, they put their own twist on how to serve them — as breakfast burritos stuffed with fries.

There are countless instances of people launching successful food operations serving dishes that are culturally dichotomous with their own cultural origins. For example, Tyson Cole, who started his career as a dishwasher in Japanese restaurants, opened one of the most esteemed Japanese restaurants in the US. Should we boycott his restaurants simply because he is not Japanese? What about Andy Ricker, who was named Thailand’s Culinary Ambassador? Should we shun his foods as well because he’s not Thai? And why aren’t these naysayers banging on Steve Ells’s door, the founder of the internationally successful burrito joint Chipotle? Why aren’t we shaming these culinary entrepreneurs for cultural exploitation?

Did I miss the memo about some sort of unsaid social norm stipulating that one is restricted to starting food businesses only if he stays within the boundaries of his culture of origin? In the US, immigrants have brought distinct cultures from all corners of the world. When we intermingle with one another, cultural borders naturally blur as we borrow and integrate elements from other cultures. Even within my own culture, we see traces of French, Chinese and even Indian influences. After enduring three successive wars, certain elements from the culture of the invaders and colonizers permeated our culture. We, nonetheless, embraced these influences, such as the introduction of bread, coffee, curry, etc, all of which have enriched our cuisine.

I can understand if people were upset because the two gals were bastardizing Mexican cuisine. I see it happen with Vietnamese cuisine as well, but if it appeals to a certain segment of the population, who am I to stand in the way of their enjoyment? It’s their choice to frequent restaurants serving such food and to make variations of my culture’s cuisine. Just like it’s my choice not to eat those foods. Peruse recipe sites and you will see even the likes of the New York Times slap on the word Vietnamese onto their recipe titles simply because the recipe calls for a few drops of fish sauce.

But the thing is, I don’t think people were getting their panties in a bunch because the gals were serving inauthentic burritos. It was because they were white and had allegedly stolen a piece of culture that didn’t belong to them. Nobody should, however, have a monopoly over culture whether it be their own or otherwise, especially when it concerns food. Food is to be shared and discovering it is one of the pleasures that I thoroughly relish. There is already enough division amongst us, as the recent events in Charlottesville, VA have shown. If there are folks who appreciate some element of a culture other than their own and add their own twist to it, should we really demonize them for it?

Was the reaction to these gals and their burritos hypersensitive or am I being insensitive?

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About Nita

Vietnamese-American gastronome with a taste for home cooked meals living in the burbs of Paris.

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