By: Mackenzie Palmer
Is it a problem? Is it offensive? Is it even real?
Chef and owner of Philadelphia restaurant Stock, Tyler Akin, found himself in a world of trouble when he suggested how to “properly” eat Pho – a type of Vietnamese soup. Akin, who is not of Asian descent, soon felt the wrath of hundreds after online magazine Bon Appetit visited his restaurant and documented his “proper consumption techniques,” titling the supposedly instructional video “PSA: This is How You Should be Eating Pho.”
This statement didn’t sit right with viewers, and the staggering amount of backlash caused Bon Appetit to take Akin’s video down. But the damage had already been done, and it left many furious about America’s attempt to “whitewash” other cultures.
“Oh look, a white person telling us how to eat a foreign food,” Resa Barillas said in the comments under Bon Appetit’s video.
There is a difference between appropriation and appreciation. Akin’s love and curiosity of Asian cuisine is not the problem. However, taking a generations-old dish out of its roots, putting it into the hands of someone outside of its culture and calling it “new” is a problem. Cultural appropriation has been a topic of issue in America for decades - taking traditional customs, elements and practices from ethnic roots, and “Westernizing” them. This makes these cultural elements popular in fashion and taste in the Western world, but removes the cultural significance they have in their origins and lacks proper accreditation.
In the capital of all things new, hip and exotic, Austin, Texas is a pinnacle of cultural appropriation - accidental or not. An Austin food truck named White Girl Asian Food has been the latest fad to come under fire. Owner and head chef Bobbi Jo Rice told Vice Magazine, “I’m a white girl cooking my rendition of Asian cuisine.”
The food truck has been deemed offensive, as many believe she is disrespecting a culture that is not her own. Rice has stated that her main objective is not to be traditional Asian food, but what she refers to as her own take as a white American. “I wanted to get the point across that our goal was not to make traditional Asian food,” Rice said.
“Oh look, a white person telling us how to eat a foreign food"
Though her point is heard loud and clear, the problem isn’t that she is a white girl making Asian food. People are allowed to make any food they’d like. But to start a business and speak over the traditions of these cuisines, it feels as though Rice is promoting herself as spokesman for a culture she does not belong to.
“I don’t like when people try to use things that are culturally significant to other people to profit their own economic gain,” stated Alexis Booker, a freshmen at University of Texas.
Do Rice and others have the right to capitalize on a culture’s traditional cuisines by reinventing them? Is there a reason why specific dishes should be off limits in our capitalist economy?
Rice’s food truck and name are viewed as a lackluster attempt to exploit on foreign flair. “I think it is a means of marketing to other white people, who are also okay with appropriation,” said Delaney Holton, a University of Texas freshman.
Rice says her clientele is diverse with many customers of Asian decent accepting her own rendition of their food. “Honestly I’ve received the most backlash from angry white people,” Rice said.
But when done for profit towards a marketable audience, you automatically become an ambassador for the culture you are representing.
Living in a cultural melting pot like America, food appropriation is bound to happen. Rice described this movement as “progressive.” Patrick Armstrong, founder and co-owner of Spanish restaurant Boca, encourages that food be played with and messed with, stating “food is just food.” “As the world gets bigger, and we start to cross borders, you're just going to see all of that mixing together,” Armstrong said.
I do believe that in the near future we will see more cultures crossing country lines, mixing traditions and cultivating new renditions of food. Fusion restaurants – eateries that combine two regional or sub-regional cuisines into one experience, i.e. “Tex-Mex” – have have gained more popularity, and many of them bring on a whole new topic of food appropriation. Austin fusion restaurant Chi’Lantro combines Korean cuisine with Mexican flare. Their dishes bring together two different traditions, often creating unique food combinations and removing them farther from their original cultures. Manager Zi Tao Kok disagreed with the idea of food appropriation stating, “At the end of the day, people have to eat.”
But food appropriation is a problem. Food isn’t just food when there is a cultural significance behind it, when it has been passed down from many ancestors long ago, when its race of people have fought years for equality and continue to do so. Traditions and cultures should be respected. These dishes and cuisines mean something more to their people than just food to fill their bellies, and shouldn’t be butchered for a profit. I believe food and cooking are great creative outlets which allow people to create and discover new dishes and flavors. But when done for profit towards a marketable audience, you automatically become an ambassador for the culture you are representing. It is then that the culture should be represented fairly and accurately.