So I have a dinner party coming up and I told people I was going to prepare some pork gyoza. A girl in the group chat freaked out and texted me in a separate thread, “Are you sure you wanna make gyoza? That’s kinda cultural appropriation.” In my head I’m thinking, “what? did she just call me racist for trying to make food from a culture that’s not mine? Isn’t that the direct opposite of racist? Embracing cultures and peoples and cuisines that aren’t yours?” I was flabbergasted. So what, as a straight, white American man I’m relegated to making cheeseburgers and meatloaf for everyone?
It’s absolutely not racist to cook other culture’s food. We should be able to make whatever we want, so much as it is authentic and respectful to the traditional culture. And sure, as a straight white guy in America, who am I to be going around claiming what’s racist and what isn’t? What’s cultural appropriation and what isn’t? However, I can certainly confirm it’s racist when you bastardize these culture’s foods to suit your own bland tastes.
A few weeks back, I made a chicken, apricot & date tajine (Moroccan/Algerian recipe) for a dinner party. It had lots of spices, ingredients and combinations I wasn’t used to cooking or eating. And, as you probably could’ve guessed, I have no direct ancestral ties to North Africa.
Did I make it as amazing and superb as probably some Moroccan who grew up on this stuff and knows the ins and outs of cumin and cous cous? No. Did I try my very best to make the recipe as intended and did everyone love it, and were potentially introduced to something they might not have considered eating before? Yes. It’s about bringing the world together through food, not segregating us apart.
I’ll give you another example- as a New Yorker, I hate hate hate when people put anything other than the standard toppings on a slice of pizza. (And don’t even get me started on the fierce dilenation that is the difference between a traditional Neapolitan pizza and a New York slice). Pineapple? Are you serious? Olives, artichokes, spinach, anchovies?!?! Just eat the pizza the way God intended! Cheese or pepperoni. You are bastardizing the beauty that is the New York slice. Meanwhile, as an Italian-American would I go as far as to make the claim that Domino’s is racist towards Italians? No, but I’m pretty damn close. However, as an Italian-American, Chef Boyardee makes me want to vomit. Canned ravioli? The food at an Italian prisoner of War camp in World War II was probably better. Chef Boyardee can’t possibly call themselves, “Italian food.” It’s a complete and utter bastardization of the cuisine.
Now, it’s one thing to “fusion” a food between cultures to create new creations (say I wanted to make empanadas for everybody, and one of the fillings I made was a crispy Asian pork belly, that’d be cool and unique, and respectful to both cultures). Amazing food creations can happen when people are open and excited to think outside the box and try new things. One of my favorite take out places is this place called Falafel Taco, fusion Mexican-Israeli cuisine. it’s nuts, but would’ve never come to be had the one Mexican owner and one Israeli owner not decided to fuuuuse these cuisines together. And boy, are we all glad they did.
But it’s totally another thing to take a culture’s food and absolutely bastardize it for the sake of making it “appealing” to a broader, more “commercial” audience- (like all the white people who don’t embrace spice at your dinner party). Like the “whitewashing” of ethnic foods. I personally find those places offensive. The absolute worst is when people go to a Thai place, claiming they’re “cultured” and then order a dish without like half the ingredients. Can we just not be afraid of trying new things and embracing other people’s cultures through food? I promise you, if I cook dim sum, it’s not because I’m trying to culturally appropriate, I’m trying to culturally appreciate.