Cultural appropriation in food

By Phylisa Wisdom
Beyonce's Lemonade.

Across industries, human rights enthusiasts are called overly sensitive when we point out cultural appropriation. In the world of food it’s no different.

Simmering just below the seemingly innocuous surface of cultural appropriation in food is an often-ignored human rights issue. Overlooking it can lead to human rights abuses and perpetuate racism and negative stereotypes, usually to the benefit of wealthy white people. In the food world – both academic and popular – this debate quietly rages on, but it hasn’t led to significant change in circumstances for some farmers, restaurant workers, chefs, and other producers.

Broadly, cultural appropriation is the borrowing of some element of a culture by a member of another culture. At its most egregious, and most common, members of more powerful or majority groups appropriate culture from minority oppressed groups.

Here is what we know to be true about cultural appropriation of food: the people with various privileges (race, class, educational, and/or established networks) get to decide what’s trendy or in demand, and then food lovers either hope economic benefits will trickle down to those who have been eking out a living on the same thing for decades, or we turn a blind eye. In many cases, those who do have a history in an appropriated cuisine or practice are not compensated for their labour or ideas.

It is easy to enjoy native ingredients at high-end restaurants like Vue du Monde and Billy Kwong, while also shirking responsibility for improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.

In Australia, bush tucker and native ingredients are currently on trend in some of the country’s most well regarded restaurants. Ingredients like wattle seed and quandong, which white Australians previously found too bitter and unappealing, are now on menus all over the country.

At MAD Sydney – a food conference hosted in April by the inimitable Rene Redzepi of Noma fame – attendees took home small samples of bush tucker. White Australian chef Peter Gilmore was one of the first to use these ingredients at his restaurant Quay, and once he did white diners paid attention. But the Indigenous communities and farmers who have been producing and living off of these ingredients for centuries are not in culture-making magazines or books.

In the realm of food, it is common to accept the parts of a culture that those with the cultural capital and power over influence find palatable and reject the people who brought it in their memories and suitcases. It is easy to enjoy native ingredients at high-end restaurants like Vue du Monde and Billy Kwong, while also shirking responsibility for improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. Likewise, people who enjoy a late night kebab may also harbour subtly or overtly racist ideas about Middle Eastern immigrants.

A kebab shop called Biggie Smalls in Melbourne’s trendy Collingwood doesn’t overtly rub salt in open wounds. Although conceptually confusing, naming a kebab shop after a famed rapper is not explicitly racist. But a fried chicken shop in Brunswick is more aggressive in its borrowing of southern Black tropes, and then appropriating them to create offensive imagery.

Fried and Tasty (F.A.T.) has come under fire for its name and a photoshopped image of late rapper Biggie Smalls holding a fried chicken drumstick. The restaurant had also covered its walls with images of white people holding guns, though they have since been taken down in response to a media firestorm. This flippant attitude towards the danger of being Black in America harms people. Violent, racist imagery used as decoration in a food establishment suggests that we are or should be desensitised to it. Equally appallingly, non-Black people use this imagery to profit off the bodies and identities of Black folks.

In her Black Power anthem Formation, Beyonce proudly proclaims that she has hot sauce in her bag (“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”). Many of us might want to be just like Beyonce, because nothing sounds more edgy than always having your own hot sauce to hand. But Mikki Kendall’s Eater essay on the subject reveals that carrying hot sauce in one’s bag is a specific homage to southern Blackness. Southern African Americans carried hot sauce in their bags because although they could buy food from restaurants serving white people, they were often forced to take it outside. That historical struggle belongs to African Americans alone.

As long as African Americans are far more likely to be shot by police, to take one obvious illustration of institutionalised racism, it is not okay for white Australians or anybody else outside of that community to use rappers and fried chicken as a cute food trope. Hopefully someday such images won’t be loaded, but that day has not yet come.

When people cook and sell their own cultures’ foods to a diverse audience, they shape the narrative that surrounds the culinary experience. Tamil Feasts, run out of CERES Environmental Park in Melbourne, is doing cultural appreciation and solidarity well. According to their website:

Serving up traditional Sri Lankan fare prepared by Tamil men currently seeking asylum in Australia, these twice-weekly feasts create a context in which the cooks are able to share the food heritage of their Sri Lankan homeland with the wider community.

The middle ground that exists between racist, appropriative restaurants and progressive social enterprises is huge; most restaurants in the world fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. If F.A.T. in Melbourne is an extreme, so is Tamil Feasts. A restaurant does not need to have an explicitly stated mission like Tamil Feasts to avoid damaging, painful cultural appropriation. But if more restaurants serve as a platform for disenfranchised people to make a living off their life’s work and cultural histories, the higher the bar will be set.

Borrowing and sharing food traditions is not inherently bad. In fact, unique culinary ecosystems rely on it. What would Melbourne be without espresso-based drinks, for example? All it takes is conscious respect for the originators of our various cuisines.