Pizza, pasta, bratwurst, matzo ball soup, General Tso’s chicken, sushi, burritos: Many foods commonly eaten in the United States are appropriated from other cultures. After all, Europeans didn’t just steal a continent from Native Americans — they also stole popcorn. And what is a truly “American” food, anyway? The Twinkie?
But at a liberal arts college in Ohio known for its academic exclusivity, dining halls and one food service company are getting called out for faux versions of other nations’ cuisines. According to an article published last month in the Oberlin Review, which covers goings-on at Oberlin College, the fight began, in part, over what was called a banh mi sandwich, but seemed little like the Vietnamese delight.
“Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw,” the Review reported. Diep Nguyen, a first-year student from Vietnam, complained: “It was ridiculous … How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”
At a college fraught with racial tension — including, in recent memory, racist graffiti, students allegedly wearing Klu Klux Klan robes, and the blog Oberlin Microaggressions — these were fighting words. Even sushi, also available on campus, wasn’t safe from being criticized as part of a “culturally appropriative sustenance system,” as the Review put it.
“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” Tomoyo Joshi, a junior from Japan, said. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.” The Review added that Joshi thought “the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful.”
The school’s campus dining services blamed the alleged appropriation on a desire for variety.
“Hopefully, if you dined with us … there would be one thing in every meal that you would want to eat,” Michile Gross, director of business operations and dining services, said. She added: “It’s important to us that students feel comfortable when they are here.”
At Oberlin, meanwhile, it appears progressive politics are already on the radar of those dishing up the grub that keeps angry students energized.
“The dining halls at Oberlin College do more than feed students, faculty, and staff,” according to the school’s website. “Through progressive procurement policies, including an extensive Farm-to-Fork program, sustainable seafood principles, animal proteins free of human-therapeutic growth hormones and antibiotics, socially aligned coffee choices and cage-free eggs, Oberlin College and Bon Appétit Management Company provide nutritious meals that invest in nearby farms, dairies, ranches and aquaculture operations, preserve the bounty of our oceans, lakes and fields so they can feed future generations, and provide sufficient incomes to food producers so they can live with dignity.”
Bon Appetit also puts itself forward as the dining-hall supplier even a vegetarian socialist could love.
“Our food is cooked from scratch, including sauces, stocks, and soups. (Salsa, too!),” the company’s website reads. “A pioneer in environmentally sound sourcing policies, we’ve developed programs addressing local purchasing, overuse of antibiotics, sustainable seafood, the food–climate change connection, humanely raised meat and eggs, and farmworkers’ rights. We’re grateful to have been recognized by many leading foundations, nonprofits, and industry associations for our work.”
Indeed, in 2013, the company was promoting locally-grown food at Oberlin.
“I wanted to create a restaurant company with great chefs and great food,” chief executive and co-founder Fedele Bauccio said earlier this year, “and I wanted to do that in a socially and environmentally responsible manner for the health of our guest.”
Yet good intentions often lead astray. Cultural appropriation, according to some, doesn’t just happen when Kylie Jenner wears cornrows. It may happen when a white dude opens up an “Asian-inspired” restaurant.
“What is ‘Asian inspired’ or ‘Asian-fusion?’” Rachel Kuo wrote at Everyday Feminism last month. “I have a sinking suspicion it’s not like when my mom made me sushi with cucumbers, lunch meat, and eggs growing up. Or toast with mayonnaise and pork sung. People used to make fun of the food I eat, and now suddenly, stuff like spam fried rice is selling at a hip new restaurant for $16.” Kuo added: “It’s frustrating when my culture gets consumed and appropriated as both trend and tourism.”
Bon Appetit was not immediately available for comment.
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