Words by Nicholas Gill
In the back of mind, especially over the last few years, I thought they would eventually come for me. That the Appropriation Police would find out that a white middle class man of European decent that grew up in suburbs of Ohio, has been actively writing about Latin American cuisine, a place he did not grow up in.
I would blacklisted from writing about tucupi, an ancestral sauce made from the juice squeezed from cassava in the Amazon, because I didn’t have memories of a grandmother making tamales before Christmas. They would lump me in with the Chicago chef Rick Bayless or English food writer Diana Kennedy on their routine Twitter roundups of alleged appropriators. I’ve waited for that alert to appear on my phone, but so far that has yet to happen. Maybe it’s because they have come to the realization that I have spent twenty years doing the work, driving around talking to farmers, fishermen and indigenous cooks hidden away in rural communities where few outsiders care to go. Or maybe it’s just because my work is too niche for them to care about. Still, it makes me wonder.
What exactly is the line between cultural appropriation and culinary appreciation in cuisine? I go over and over in my head what the parameters might be. Should writing or cooking be strictly limited to the culture we were born into? My mind starts to drift, pondering exactly what that means. Should Chinese food only be cooked by the Chinese? If that’s the case, are the boundaries only political or cultural? What if a cook of Japanese descent that was born and raised in Shanghai wanted to make a dish with native ingredients from Xinjiang, a place that would be as foreign to them as it would be to me? Would it change if they had third generation Uyghur blood? If not, what about second generation? Is it lived experience that matters or inherited?
The thought has arisen a few times that maybe I’ll need to stop writing about food in Latin America and instead focus on Ohio where I grew up, though haven’t lived there in decades. Would I need to focus on modern day Ohio, with its genetically modified corn and chain restaurants, or would it be alright to write about and cook the recipes that grew out of the landscape with the Shawnee, Seneca and Lenape, cultures whose influence was long erased, forcibly, from the state long before I was born but is sorely needed?
These are the things that roll around in my head. Of course, they really don’t do anyone much good. Could the borrowing of ideas from one culture to the next really be stopped? And if it could, should it be? It shouldn’t, as we all know. Traveling, learning and being exposed to cultures makes us more understanding of each other. The world is infinitively richer because many of us have been inspired by other ideas and cultures that are not our own. It’s what gave us al pastor tacos and David Bowie.
There are no Appropriation Police, not even in America, despite what you may have heard. Outside of a few academic circles, any real debate of cultural appropriation has been rather limited. It’s mostly something that flares up from time to time when someone wants the benefits of attention on social media. Still, there is bottled up anger coming from a very real place that deserves all our consideration.
The world is, undoubtedly, in the midst of a major transition, a new age of global connectedness, where many of the world’s injustices are coming to light at the same time. It started years ago, but during the pandemic it accelerated at a rate so rapid and uneven that it often leaves many confused. There is rage against inequality, corruption and environmental degradation that has gone unchallenged for far too long and it is bursting out in ways that are often shocking. Food – where it comes from, how it is made, who has enough of it and who profits from it – is a fundamental piece of this issue.
The narratives we create within the culinary world often contribute to this confusion. Even when our intentions are well meaning, the messages often get muddled and twisted. We seem to call every chef that goes to some remote place and brings back the ancestral ingredients that a marginalized culture developed an explorer, while ignoring the ethnic cooks and communities that uses the same ones every day with little to no attention. We insist that an ethnic restaurant be authentic, without allowing them the freedom to cook authentically. We applaud restaurants for their interest in reducing food waste and being more sustainable but look the other way when they endorse the most destructive enterprises in gastronomy.
In recent years, some tired narratives have begun to change. We have succeeded in reframing the debate around where the best ingredients come from, for example. Cooks around the world have realized that the best ingredients are not necessarily expensive, imported ones with marketing budgets. That seasonal foods from our surrounding landscapes have more to offer than ones that have been packed on ice or pumped full of preservatives. We have changed the narrative that ethnic foods from Africa, Asia or Latin America are inferior to European ones. We realize now that heirloom Oaxacan corn is a luxury ingredient that can be as spectacular as an Italian truffle. That the people that produce and work with these ingredients deserve a fair wage, just as much as a Norwegian fisherman does. We accept that a fine dining restaurant can come from anywhere and be great, even if we don’t agree which is the best or what the word best even means. In other words, we have accepted some obvious ideas about food and how the world should work. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much though. There is still a lot of work to be done.
Cultural appreciation does not exist in a box. Are we really appreciating cuisine if we aren’t being honest about the vulnerabilities that surround it and the people whose cultural heritage it remains? I regularly see restaurants that use Amazonian ingredients and claim to care about the rainforest and sustainability that have beef on their menus. Does that mean they appreciate both beef and the rainforest and all should be well? I don’t think it should be that easy. Not anymore. Enthusiasm only gets us so far.
So, where do we go from here? We cannot cure the inequalities of the world by focusing our anger on individual acts when the issues are systemic. Things ingrained into our societies over decades and centuries do not become disentangled by pushing us further into different corners by power hungry politicians and algorithms that profit from outrage.
Things I have written or actions I have taken in the past should make me uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean that I was necessarily wrong then, but it’s an acknowledgment that the culinary world has changed, and big, new questions need to be asked. How can I, and I mean me personally, appreciate cuisine in a way that doesn’t ignore the frustrations of cultures that have been historically marginalized, discriminated against, stolen from and stereotyped?
I first became interested in cuisines that were not my own by following my curiosities and it’s vital to never stop being curious, to not stop seeking out a greater awareness. Not just about how some new ingredient I encounter can taste so delicious, but how it came to be and why it is the way it is. It’s critical to keep asking questions, to open our minds and be part of the larger conversation that is happening.
Like many of the people written about in this issue, we must be open to questioning everything we thought we knew. Many have found themselves questioning the things they had been taught. Finding themselves in lands far from where they were raised, or seeing their home in a new light, they discovered new ways of doing things. It’s how they became better cooks, farmers, winemakers, and humans. It’s how they learned what culinary appreciation truly means. Their courage should be celebrated.
This is a new era of culinary consciousness we are in. We are more connected to each other than we have ever been and while it may seem that we are all so far apart on so many ideas, and that we are arguing about things more than we ever have, what unites us is far greater than what divides us. Cuisine is a living, breathing animal. It’s rarely sitting still. It is constantly transforming its dimensions and adapting to changing conditions. The more we are open to these changes, the more adaptable we are, the more we listen and try to understand each other, the better the world we can help create will be.