The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Should white chefs sell burritos? A Portland food cart’s revealing controversy.

Portland, Ore., has become the epicenter in a growing movement to call out white people who profit off the culinary ideas and dishes swiped from other cultures.

In the days since two white women were shamed into shutting down their pop-up burrito cart after telling a reporter that they had “picked the brains of every tortilla lady” in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, Portland has become all but fed up with cultural appropriation within its city limits. One writer has stated, flat out, that “Portland has an appropriation problem,” going on to explain (the boldface emphasis is the writer’s):

Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.

Someone in the City of Roses has even created a Google doc, listing the white-owned restaurants that have appropriated cuisines outside their own culture. For each entry, the document suggests alternative restaurants owned by people of color. One “Appropriative Business” is Voodoo Doughnut, the small doughnut chain accused of profiting off a religion thought to combine African, Catholic and Native American traditions.

Who can’t identify with a campaign to support the people whose voices are muffled in a culture still dominated by white males? Some immigrants might take this the wrong way coming from a white guy from the Midwest, who works at a mainstream newspaper, no less. Yet, I must confess that I have trouble accepting this all-or-nothing mission to pry white chefs’ fingers from any dish not of their own culture. Part of it has to do with the country we share, a land of immigrants, whose food is available to anyone with even a tiny sense of curiosity. A white diner is bound to fall in love with some of it.

[The humble power of immigrant restaurants: ‘You can’t hate someone if you like their food’]

The problem, of course, is not that a white diner falls in love with an immigrant cuisine. It’s that a white person profits from the cuisine or, more troublesome for many, becomes the leading authority on it, rather than a chef born into the culture. I’m thinking specifically about chefs and/or authors such as Rick Bayless (with Mexican cuisine), Andy Ricker (with Thai food) and Fuchsia Dunlop (with Sichuan cooking). Bayless, a James Beard Award winner multiple times over, has faced the question of cultural appropriation so often, he once wondered aloud if it’s a matter of reverse racism.

Bayless’s response didn’t go over well in some corners, in part because he sounded so whiny, as Gustavo Arellano wrote for the O.C. Weekly. Despite Bayless’s apparently thin skin, Arellano supports the chef’s work:

And as I’ve written before — hell, I wrote a whole book about it arguing this next point — anyone who loves Mexican food should thank gabachos for their insatiable desire for chili, nachos, tacos, micheladas, fajitas and all the “Mexican” food trends that have swept across the U.S. over the past 125-plus years. Without them, both the gabacho consumer and the cook, Mexican food in this country would be as remarkable as sauerkraut.

In fact, Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, argues in favor of cultural appropriation, but only if the outsiders embrace more than the plate of food sitting in front of them.

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“If you pay attention to the food and to the language and to their lives, that is not a colonizing act,” Ray told The Washington Post’s Lavanya Ramanathan. “I, in general, do not think appropriation is a bad thing. There’s all this discussion about cultural appropriation. Should we all be imprisoned in our little holes, with our cultural walls, completely closed off to others? If you are eating another’s food, engaging with their lives, engaging with their ways of conceiving the world, that is a welcome engagement. That is how newness enters the world.”

Ray’s position starts to get to the heart of my own feelings on the subject. Accusations of cultural appropriation are often grounded in an underlying assumption: that privileged white folks contribute nothing to the culture from which they steal. The two white women in Portland were accused, for instance, of not compensating the Mexican women who shared some of their tortilla secrets. On that micro scale, I suspect there are indeed countless interactions between curious white chef and immigrant home cook that go unrewarded to the latter, all in the name of research.

But on a macro scale, the involvement of white chefs and restaurateurs with foreign cuisines can benefit all. Take Josh Phillips, a white partner in Espita Mezcaleria, a Shaw establishment dedicated to the food and drink of Oaxaca. The “vast majority” of Espita’s roughly 65-member staff is Mexican, Phillips says. They’re paid decently, and all full-timers are offered health benefits. The restaurant employs not just one full-time tortilla maker, but four of them.

[In good hands: These immigrants craft the foundations of your favorite restaurant dishes]

Those tortilla makers use only heirloom corn from Mexico. Phillips says 99 percent of it comes directly from Oaxaca. Before he even opened Espita, Phillips made a promise to mezcaleros in Oaxaca never to sell mezcal from corporate distillers. “I want to make sure there is an economic impact on mezcaleros,” he adds.

To my ears, this sounds more like cultural ambassadorship than cultural appropriation. And like it or not, as Francis Lam noted several years ago for the New York Times, U.S.-born chefs and restaurateurs have easier access to the media than their foreign-born counterparts. They have, in other words, the ability to sing the praises of Mexican, Thai, Sichuan or whatever cuisine they love. There is power in that, which should not be dismissed out of hand by those quick to decry cultural appropriation at every turn.

Read more:

The humble power of immigrant restaurants: ‘You can’t hate someone if you like their food’

In good hands: These immigrants craft the foundations of your favorite restaurant dishes

Illegal immigrants help fuel U.S. farms. Does affordable produce depend on them?