If you, like me, are hanging off the left side of the political spectrum, you already know that cultural appropriation is bad. (If you’re not, you’ve never heard of it.) Here’s the deal: if you’re in the dominant tribe, you’re not supposed to swipe some other tribe’s stuff as though it’s just yours for the taking. It’s disrespectful, and if you’re capitalizing on it, it’s unfair, because you have more resources at your disposal. Bo Derek shouldn’t cornrow her hair and act like she invented it. White hippies at the Eugene Country Fair have no business erecting a totem pole. Whatever Miley Cyrus is doing with her fanny, she should stop right now. A lot of this comes down to who has the money and power and who does not. There’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and we’ve been instructed to pay attention to where that line is, so mostly I do.
I’m willing to listen and learn and I do know that it’s never up to me to decide what other people shouldn’t be offended by. But I’m not persuaded that a lot of harm has come to anyone because white people are opening fancy restaurants that don’t serve White Food, whatever horror that is. I’m not saying I’m right; I’m saying I’ve yet to be persuaded.
It gets fraught in a hurry. The immigrant Dagnabbian population is concerned about some white guy opening a Dagnabbian Fusion restaurant and appropriating the cuisine that had been passed down to the Dagnabbits through the ages, without even any respectful attribution. Except for it being referred to as Dagnabbian Fusion cuisine in all the fancy magazines. And meanwhile people are catching on and the Dagnabbian food carts are pulling in cash hand over fist without even having to pay for a brick-and-mortar establishment. And some are aggrieved by the place even being referred to as Dagnabbian because it is not authentic: their grandmothers would never have failed to include the seasoned fish eyeballs in the broth, and you mustn’t use linen placemats on Wednesdays. On the one hand, you must acknowledge your Dagnabbian appropriation. On the other hand, you’d better not.
People, meanwhile, are following their tastebuds.
Disclaimer: I am fish-belly white. It wasn’t anything I planned–it was more of a collusion between my parents–but when I came out the chute, that’s how I turned out. Not saying I wouldn’t have planned it this way if I could have. It’s totally awesome being white, most places. You have to live with blotchy, unattractive skin, but you can also live your whole life assuming no one is looking askance at you, not police, not your neighbors, employers, shopkeepers. If there’s anything standing in your way, you may rest assured it’s probably you.
But if I were a creative chef and had to dance with the ones what brung me, what would I have to work with? Norwegians are swell, and the invention of the little cheese slicer cannot be praised highly enough, but these are people who eat canned corn during corn season. The English wrote some fine sonnets and some sturdy laws too, but they boil hamburgers. Heritage will take you only so far. “William and Ole’s Crapasbord” is not going to fly. Nobody’s going to be breaking down the doors for the lutefisk and kidney pie. Investors will be sorely disappointed and the proprietor will probably be legally compelled to publish an apology to the community in the business section.
|Successful white-owned Thai establishment|
So if a creative white person can’t appropriate someone else’s superior culture in her kitchen, and the only way for her to not rub people the wrong way is to open a Swedish massage, what are we forcing her into? What historical line of work is left for the heirs of this dour, pale culture? Basically, knocking people over the head. Empire-buildin’ and slave-holdin’. We got enough of that going on right in the financial sector. It don’t make it right.
Besides, what’s the point of overrunning all those countries for all those years if you can’t steal their stuff?
I don't see what all the fuss is about. The very word "fusion" implies that it is not "by the book" Thai, but "influenced" by Thai. Which I take to mean using traditional Thai spices and ingredients along with some not-so-traditional ingredients. You don't have to be Thai to cook Thai, and cook it well. I frequently make Indian food, making my own curry pastes, with great results. But I am of Polish descent, not Indian. I could probably make a pierogi if I had all day, but would I make a "traditional" one? Certainly not! Traditional Polish food is very plain, and my taste buds are acclimated to more adventurous fare. I would probably make some sort of Thai-fusion pierogi… which actually sounds awesome, come to think of it. Cooking is an art as well as a science, and it is in experimentation — and "fusion", if you will — that art is created.
I used to make a mean peanut butter sandwich, but now that I don't eat wheat, it's more of a spoon-in-the-jar thing.
Spoon it into celery stalks. yum.
Less peanut butter that way, though.
Does this mean that all of us "blondes" have to stop being blondes?
I think if you're already blonde you have to stay that way, but if you're not, appropriate away. It's all in the balance of power.
I'll see your theoretical William and Ole fusion and proffer up a real world example of Cornwall partnering with Naples: pizza pasties. Depending on one's perspective, they're either an amazing improvement on what they're derived from or something sent straight from Satan's kitchn.
One of the local pasty shops also sells something it claims is a pasty but filled with broccoli and other unspeakables (at least when contained in a pasty crust). I keep thinking I should go harness the energy my Cornish grandmother is generating as she spins in her grave.
This reminds me of when my Italian boyfriend accused me of making "Protestant lasagna," which had hamburger in it.
Wait … lasagna isn't supposed to have hamburger in it?
It is not.
pizza pasties, aka Calzone, are very popular. It's a good way to carry a pizza in your lunchbox and heat it in the oven in the staff kitchen at your lunch break.
I used to make a mean one of those too. I kind of miss wheat, sometimes.
Hey now, sandbuckles — those delicious molded shortbreadish cookies — are pretty darn good (and Norwegian). 🙂
For a second there, I thought you were calling me "Sandbuckles." I liked it.
I know, I know, butter and sugar, how can you go wrong? But I don't really like krumkake all that much. Or fattigman. Or lefse.
We have so many more things that need attention. Not sure why all this little stuff gets in the way.
Well, a lot of what seems like little stuff is big stuff from someone else's standpoint, so it's a good idea to air out one's perspective. But somehow I think this particular issue misses.
Well done, as always! The line is blurry sometimes, and sometimes it's not. And it's hard to tell which is which. Maybe this is the only real price of being white: needing to be very careful and being willing to be wrong, both of which are not easy.
It gets a lot easier to be willing to be wrong, given enough practice at it.
I came for the lifeforms and stayed for the aquatic with a beer chased. Even as a white guy I still love to try everyone else's food, but I'm not so good at hairstyles (no hair) and dancing.
Did your spelchek correct "aquavit" and "chaser?"
I wonder what word spelchek turned into "lifeforms".
Answer up, Jono!
Gawd, I hate spellcheck. Even when I fix it the damned thing defaults to ITS idea of what I am trying to say. "Came for the lefse, stayed for the Aquavit with a beer chaser." I am often tempted to find the person or persons responsible for this abomination and do unspeakable things. So far I have stayed in control of that temptation. So far.
Lifeforms is lefse! Dang!
I turned spellcheck off on my computer, because I HATE when some know-it-all thinks they know what I'm trying to say better than I do. All it does now is give me a red underline under words it thinks I've misspelled. And I usually ignore it, because my version is usually the correct one.
Yeah, well, every other sentence I write has an unsanctioned word in it. So I'm with you.
This all started when Julia Child appropriated French cuisine, and made it accessible to the television-watching American public. The only reason she wasn't prosecuted for this crime was that everyone knew she was probably still working for the CIA (post-war), and that 'a French cooking show' was the perfect cover.
Dave and I went to the Smithsonian, repository of every interesting thing known to humankind, and spent an inordinate time in Julia Child's kitchen watching reruns of her show.
I don't like Dagnabbian food. I don't care who is making it.
Thanks for another fine essay, Murr. I'm planning to appropriate some of it.
You go right ahead.
This is really funny! Where did you get your sense of humor, being all white and not Jewish and stuff?
BTW, in New Jersey, all the Pizzeria's are slowly being taken over by Mexicans. The pies are just as good. As long as they don't change the name from Mario's to Pepe's i'm ok with it. My wife is half Italian, so she is only offended half the time.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I don't know when I got funny, but I remember it happened all at once, on a weekday.
In Delaware, all the pizzarias are owned by Greeks. Maybe the Italians find them too cliché?
Mmm, Greek food.
The line between borrowing and theft on the food front seems small (and permeable). I wonder whether some of those who steal other things feel the same way. A few beads is a perfectly reasonable exchange…
Right! and Yes Ma'am!
Portland has a lefse food cart. http://www.vikingsoulfood.com/#where-to-find-us
Oh. My. God.
Time to make a pilgrimage to Portland!
I don't much care who invented what, as far as I'm concerned food should be multicultural. Let everyone enjoy what they're eating. Guilt free. go ahead and nourish the world. But not with boiled hamburgers, that's the crappiest idea I ever heard. Even worse than canned corn.
From what I've read, there's kind of a consensus among non-white chefs here that this is an overblown concern. There is some movement to encourage people to make a point of visiting establishments owned by minority-culture people.
I am English, and in all my 71 years I have never heard of anyone boiling a hamburger. Whereas Americans commit the crime of putting cream in tea. Now that really is offensive!
When I lived in London in 1973, rumor had it that the Wimpyburgers were boiled. I never had one. Might not be true, but I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Some criticized Paul Simon's staggeringly beautiful, original, captivating album Graceland for its appropriation of South African music. It won Album of the Year when it was released and brought worldwide fans to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Simon described the making of this album, years later, as one of the most vital experiences of his life, in part because of the friendships he made while producing it.
Also, Norwegians appropriated jello as "salad."
Simon flew in several South African musicians and paid them triple scale. He also brought South African music to an international stage. Would it have been better if it had been South African musicians to do that? Sure, but they didn't have the budget and notoriety that Simon had.
All of this is the subject of a lot of talk these days. I've been sitting on the sidelines absorbing it all and wondering. I think the cuisine issue is a little off.
Wait a minute, Jello isn't salad? Jellow with little marshmallows???
no. N.O. that's dessert.
This resonates with me on so many levels. I'm a musician who plays several genres, many (all maybe) that derived from cultures not my own. I try to pay homage to each one but I've failed in some respects. My own ancestry is Scottish but I don't play the pipes. Don't get me started about the food. I'd rather sit down to a good plate of enchiladas. I was also a bellydancer for many years. My first teacher was a white woman who taught me a lot about various Middle Eastern cultures. Unlike many white dancers, she didn't change her name to something sounding Middle Eastern. It bugs me when others do that. I understand having a stage name — entertainers in many places do that — but I don't get choosing a pseudo Egyptian name because it'll get you more gigs. Cue bellydance music as I descend from my soapbox now.
I don't know. I think this comment is going to require a video…
I eat anything as long as is good. One have to experiment to know what's good in life. Never heard about Dagnabbian cousine but hell I'll try it of course. What I'm gonna stop doing is reading your blog while eating because I'm gonna choke laughing on of this days.
Aww, remote murder! That's the nicest thing you could accuse me of!
The only things as funny as Murr are Murr's commenters. Thanks for all this humor in one place.
Right? I love these people. We should all get together for a beer sometime.