On Racism in Food

posted in: Ruminations | 9

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Several years ago an ex-boyfriend’s mother offered to prepare the appetizer for a dinner I was cooking. Her dish, once assembled, was a salad. Yet it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The top was sprinkled with stiff pegs of noodle and raw radish slices, and it smelled like sesame oil.

I asked with genuine curiosity what was in the dressing and she fired off a strange list with the likes of mayonnaise and soy sauce. If food is a means of communication — which I certainly think — then what she was saying with this was, Hey, you’re Chinese so I want to impress you by making ‘Chinese Chicken Salad.’ I know that she had only good intentions. But despite this rational knowledge, I was somewhat offended by the salad.

How can we respectfully represent other people’s food when we’re an outsider? It’s a tricky question at best, and it’s not answered by any one-size-fits-all solution. So I wanted to explore the topic more in a piece on Civil Eats published today, reflecting on these questions and more that have been brought to mainstream attention recently via a series on The Sporkful radio show.

The question at heart of the programming is, “Is it okay to make food from ‘other peoples’ cultures?” and it’s an excellent jumping-off point for further discussions around race and representation in the media. Maybe there are more resources than ever today that we can glean from to respectfully and knowledgeably interpret all types of cuisines. Maybe we ought to make sure all kinds of voices are integrated into not just our conversations around race and food, but our conversations and media around food, period. How does having more people of color — or the lack thereof — in food media impact our perspectives on other peoples’ food?

Getting back to the question of, ‘Is this food racist?’ I’m just not sure we need to keep circling around pointing fingers and asking, “Is this okay?” Would it be better if you’re making other peoples’ food with a deep knowledge of the cuisine? Probably. But you might say that we live in a post-ethnic food culture, where chefs all know their gochujang from n’duja and mix and match freely. It’s something that NYU professor Krishendu Ray spoke very optimistically about on The Sporkful podcasts and elsewhere. I’ve made plenty of dumplings, for instance, with the likes of Buffalo chicken and cheeseburger fillings — is that appropriating my mother’s dumplings? I don’t know. Chitra Agrawal makes South Asian achaar with non-traditional local ingredients like rhubarb. Is that anything besides awesome?

To be sure, I had no beef with my ex’s mother, personally, over making a vaguely Chinese (or perhaps, just “Asian”)-ish food thanks to less-than scrupulous chefs and cookbook authors of yesteryear whom she trusted to translate the cuisine to her. But maybe today it’s different.

Head over to the article on Civil Eats, and many thanks to Chitra, Nicole Taylor, Dan Pashman at The Sporkful and Kim Chou at Food Book Fair for their honesty and boldness in moving the conversation forward.

9 Responses

  1. Eat Like You Love Yourself
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    I think the only thing which matters is if the food tastes good. People may laugh at British food (which is my heritage) but when you see some of the laughable interpretations of it made by top chefs it sometimes feels embarrassing for them (I remember Raymond Blanc once attempting a crumble which was just wrong). But do I think it’s racist? No. Food is like living history, it is a record of the cultures which have interacted over the years. If you look at the food of southern Spain, the history of interaction with the moors from North Africa is obvious in the spices, rice and chickpeas evident in the cuisine. Jambalaya would be fiercely protected by chefs in the southern states in the US yet it derives from similar dishes in French and Spanish cookery. Is that racist? Before colonisation of the Americas there were no tomatoes in Italy and the Portuguese wouldn’t have taken chillis to India… how different the now “traditional” cuisines would be without them!

  2. Marc
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    Hey Cathy, this is something I struggle with frequently. As a Japanese American I get irritated sometimes at the misconceptions of Japanese food perpetuated by non-Japanese chefs. As a chef, I couldn’t imagine limiting myself to only Japanese ingredients (is this even possible in a world where humans have been migrating with ingredients for tens of thousands of years?). This is one of the reasons why I hate the term “authentic” if chef’s only stuck to tradition, we’d still only be eating fruits and nuts. Sushi for example is one of those things that’s been evolving over the last 1000 years, because chefs were willing to break from tradition. Without innovation we’d still be eating facto-fermented fish with the rice scraped off (I’ve had it and it tastes a lot worse than it sounds). The sushi that we eat today (fresh fish on rice) was only created about 200 years ago because an innovative street vendor in Edo cut some corners and decided to make a kind of fast-food. As the previous commenter mentioned I think water matters is that the food tastes good. California rolls with fake crab and green mayo rolled in sugary rice glue, not okay…. California rolls with fresh king crab and avocado in sparkling grains of sushi rice: delicious!

  3. Gabi Moskowitz
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    Food is art, but it is also history, and, as you said, it’s a form of communication. I totally understand why the salad was a little offensive–even if you completely understood and felt her good intentions. She made a salad that she wanted to communicate, “I see you,” to you, but instead it communicated, by way of her limited understanding of Chinese food, that she in fact did not. Even if she didn’t know better, and even if she meant well, I totally get why it felt bad. My hope is that what comes out of the general conversation about appropriation in food is less some assertion about what is and is not okay for people to cook depending on their ethnicity, but rather, an increased consciousness of when and how we borrow from other cultures and what that might mean to the people to whom the culture belongs.

  4. Dori
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    Seems to me the offense lies in outsiders who cook/eat/talk about another culture’s food without appropriate sensitivity to and consideration for the human beings connected to it. It’s as much about the people whose lives and identities are forged and impacted by a cuisine (and the external factors that get attached to it) as it is about the food itself. I was pretty shocked by how clueless Bayless seemed to be about this on the Sporkful. I’ve also thought about Pashman’s remarks, about green bagels, gefilte fish, and why they don’t bother him as a Jew (or me). I suspect if “Jewish food” was raised in a part of the country/world where Jews weren’t (mostly) white people in a place of relative privilege, he might feel differently.

  5. Sadhbh
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    Great article. You give an interesting perspective and insight. Hard to believe we are still faced with these prejudices. Keep up the great work.

  6. Cathy Erway
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    @Eat Like You Love Yourself: First of all, I love your name so much. Secondly, you bring up an excellent point about the notion of cultural appropriation not just being limited to people of color, which is something you might enjoy reading about in Jacqueline Raposo’s response about being Portuguese-American, too. http://wordsfoodart.com/2016/03/29/what-can-we-learn-from-other-peoples-food/ And, food is global, so what to do now? Great points.

    @Marc: The weirdest thing is that the word “authentic” is becoming more and more problematic amongst chefs & content creators but more & more valued by investors and decision-makers. I agree with you and have heard so many voices of backlash to the notion of “cultural appropriation” in the last few days because food is so global today.

    @Gabi Moskowitz: Your thoughtful, people-first attitude on food is reflected in your comment and that vision of the future of greater awareness in how and why (and when we started, etc) borrowing from other cultures is so pertinent.

    @Dori: OMG true, living in NYC we’re in a jungle of fusion and/or whimsically borrowed traditions from food, and when we grow up with it, that’s de rigeur about our understanding of foodways. I would love to hear what your kids think of all this 🙂

    @Sadhbah: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed.

  7. Michelle
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    Glad that you blogged about this and wrote that article! Wanted to share this article because it’s another element of food and racism: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/31/childhood-friends-called-my-food-chinese-grossness-how-did-it-become-americas-hottest-food-trend/
    As someone who has had those experiences of kids making fun of the food that I ate when I was younger (“carpet” or “hair” sandwiches…), I appreciate the fact that mainstream cuisines has become more accepting of these foods once thought to be foreign and therefore disgusting. However, I do think that it is problematic when chefs — mostly white — and in large part the media around food, portray this sense of innovation and discovery when they incorporate food from other cultures. The American pallet may have only recently discovered kimchee and dim sum, but there is nothing new about it!?
    I really appreciated the recent NY Times article about young Chinese American chefs. I’d like to see more people of color in the cooking world and helping our culture and our pallets understand the rich and complex history of the cultures behind this food!

  8. yan
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    i love Thai food espessially Khao niao

  9. Bill
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    The only question is why are we are even listening to people who seem to want to place racism on almost any topic one might come up with. When I first read this I burst out laughing wondering if this were really a serious topic. Instead of asking the question, rather explore how you might be successful making the foods of your culture and let your customers decide what’s good and what’s not. I am pretty certain the general public does not think about race when they go to a local eatery.

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