“Cultural appropriation”: Portland’s latest invented reason for Liberal angst

[W]e really didn’t anticipate that a short and positive review of a weekends-only breakfast burrito pop-up a couple of weeks ago would ignite an international incident—a rage-filled conversation about cultural appropriation that led to opinion pieces in the London Daily Mail and The Washington Post and on Fox News, not to mention on Mexican social media. It was a perfect storm. The photograph that ran with our May 17 review of Kooks depicted two young, middle-class-looking women triumphantly holding burritos up in the air. Our article described how the two women “lost their minds” over handmade flour tortillas on an impromptu getaway to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico. “I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Kooks co-owner Liz Connelly told WW. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”

Sometimes it feels as if there are people in Portland actively looking for things over which they may vent their considerable righteous outrage. Many on the Right side of the ideological spectrum frequently decry “political correctness,” which in many cases is merely about respect, but those on the Left aren’t immune. The latest cause of Portland Liberal angst is difficult to describe as anything but just plain silly.

More than 1,500 comments were posted, with still thousands more on Facebook—some defending, others attacking the Kooks owners, who were derided as white “Beckys” even though one of the two Kooks owners is a quarter Chinese.

“This article is a clear example of how media perpetuates and reinforces racism and white supremacy, brandishing it as ‘fun’ and ‘innovative,'” read one comment. Another demanded that the two women send remunerations back to Mexico for the cultural theft of tortilla recipes. Others defended the women’s right to make burritos.

The scenario is pretty straightforward: Two young women decided to go to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico for some R & R. While there, they fell in love with the fresh handmade tortillas there (Who wouldn’t, right?) They thought it would be cool to learn how to make them. Through trial and error, and despite cultural and language barriers, they finally managed to come up with something they felt confident about.

They came home and started a weekends-only breakfast burrito pop-up food cart…and then the fun began. Initially very well received, the May 17th Willamette Week created a controversy no one could have foreseen.

Suddenly, the term “cultural appropriation” was all the rage. Simply put, it means someone inappropriately profiting off the food of another culture- like a White guy owning a Mexican restaurant, f’rinstance. “Cultural appropriation” became the genesis of yet another of Portland’s “WTF???” moments.

One brave protector of cultural prerogative even created a Google Doc (mercifully, since deleted) which listed numerous restaurants in Portland “guilty” of cultural appropriation. The spreadsheet (which seemed not to have been very carefully checked for accuracy) even listed alternatives which, for lack of a better term, were “culturally appropriate.”

After the review was published, Kristin Goodman, co-founder of feminist workspace Broadspace, circulated what she called a “shit list” of “white-owned, appropriative restaurants.” [Update: As of 11 am on June 7, the document has been deleted or made private.] The list names more than 60 restaurants that serve ethnic cuisine but are owned by a white person.

“White business owners wield economic and ‘cultural capital’ advantages over POC (people of color” business owners, so they are ‘punching down’ by appropriating cuisines from people who are disadvantaged in comparison,” the list says.

The list identifies Pok Pok (Thai), Voodoo Doughnut (religious appropriation) and the Alibi (Polynesian), with suggestions of POC-owned businesses that readers of the list should frequent instead. The Portland Mercury decried the “pattern of appropriation” Kooks represented and linked to the list, calling it a “who’s who of culinary white supremacy.” Nine days later, the Mercury pulled the Kooks story from its website and issued a retraction.

Certainly, no one wants to see any person or culture exploited for personal gain. The restaurant business, though, is nothing if not derivative. Virtually every restaurant concept stems to greater or lesser degrees from other ideas. Chefs often work in many capacities in numerous restaurants all over the country and/or all over the world. Their experience and passion point them in a direction which resonates with them. By the time they feel ready to open their own place, the food generally reflects their experience and passion. A restaurant becomes a canvas upon which they express their unique artistic vision and perspective.

The worst part of this ridiculousness is the way it ended:

[T]he owners of Kooks received so many threats—at least 10 of which were death threats, they told WW— that two days after our review appeared, they closed their business because they felt unsafe.

The problem with the conviction that “cultural appropriation” is a bad/nasty/terrible/evil thing is that it proceeds from the assumption that no one outside a culture could possibly do justice to that culture’s food. Thus, only Italians should own pizza joints, only Mexicans should own taquerias, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. The concept falls apart when you consider chefs like Andy Ricker, owner of Pok Pok. In my (not always so) humble opinion, Pok Pok isn’t just the best and most creative Thai restaurant in Portland. It might just be the best Thai restaurant you’ll encounter outside of Thailand.

Of course, I’m White…so how in the Hell would I know??

Here’s the problem, though: Ricker is also as White as the driven snow. The “cultural appropriation” police, many of whom I suspect have long frequented Pok Pok, should be outraged at his exploitation of Thai street food…right?

Except that Ricker spent years in Thailand (on breaks from being a house painter) studying the cuisine and immersing himself in the culture. When he first opened Pok Pok, he wanted to create something as close as he possibly could to the street food he ate in Thailand. Having never been to Thailand, I can’t speak to whether or not he was successful…but it’s some damned fine food. His success speaks for itself.

Food is like any other art in that respect: Be diligent, be authentic, make quality food…and they will come.

Then there’s Nick Zukin, a Portland chef who’s the owner of Mi Mero Mole, a restaurant specializing in Mexico City-style street food. Zukin is astonishing well-versed in virtually all things related to Mexican food…despite his obvious “handicap”- he’s White. Mi Mero Mole may well serve the best Mexican food in Portland. Zukin has also helped to educate Portlanders about a surprisingly diverse and varied cuisine. “Mexican food” is more than just tacos and burritos, and Zukin’s worked hard to bring that as authentically as possible to Portland.

“Cultural appropriation” is pure, unadulterated horse shit. The argument that only a Mexican can do justice to Mexican food, or a Thai to Thai food, doesn’t hold water. What SHOULD be important is that those who do attempt to present the cuisine of a culture they’re not native to do so with care and respect. If it’s purely for profit, it’s going to be reflected in the food…but if someone does their due diligence and they have a passion for it, why not? After all, shouldn’t it be about the food…and not an artificial cultural expectation which makes no sense?

Food, like music, truly is derivative. Every chef, unless they grew up in a vacuum, is the product of their passions, influences, and experience. As a musician, I’m drawing to certain musical styles, most related to my 10-year self-imposed exile in Texas. That’s what I’m passionate about. I’m not a native Texan, but I have a deep and abiding respect and passionate for the music made there. To say I shouldn’t be trying to play music written by Pat Green or Robert Earl Keen is ridiculous…unless you’re referring to my relative lack of chops on the guitar.

The art of creating food develops in a similar fashion. People discover what they love through experience. They learn what they excel and, and what brings them joy. That Nick Zukin isn’t Mexican shouldn’t mean he has no right to open a restaurant specializing in Mexican food. If the food is honest, authentic, and good, it will survive…and people like Zukin who make a living cooking live by that mantra.

Here’s another perspective to consider: When you begin feeling sorry for Mexicans having their cuisine ripped off by White, you may want to remember Mexicans have been doing the same things for half of forever:

What these culture warriors who proclaim to defend Mexicans don’t realize is that we’re talking about the food industry, one of the most rapacious businesses ever created. It’s the human condition at its most Darwinian, where EVERYONE rips EVERYONE off. The only limit to an entrepreneur’s chicanery isn’t resources, race, or class status, but how fast can you rip someone off, how smart you can be to spot trends years before anyone else, and how much money you can make before you have to rip off another idea again.

And no one rips off food like Mexicans.

The Mexican restaurant world is a delicious defense of cultural appropriation—that’s what the culinary manifestation of mestizaje is, ain’t it? The Spaniards didn’t know how to make corn tortillas in the North, so they decided to make them from flour. Mexicans didn’t care much for Spanish dessert breads, so we ripped off most pan dulces from the French (not to mention waltzes and mariachi). We didn’t care much for wine, so embraced the beers that German, Czech and Polish immigrants brought to Mexico. And what is al pastor if not Mexicans taking shawerma from Lebanese, adding pork, and making it something as quintessentially Mexicans as a corrupt PRI?

(A few of Portland’s chefs sat down and had an extended conversation about “cultural appropriation,” which makes for an interesting and enlightening read.)

Those obsessing over “cultural appropriation” impress me as knowing next to nothing about food or the restaurant business. It’s just another way for know-nothings to impose their narrow agenda on those actually trying to DO something positive and creative. The idea that a weekend pop-up breakfast burrito food cart should result in death threats and international outrage is absurd.

Those who can, cook. Those who can’t…well, they either become restaurant critics or obsessed with silly, pointless concepts like “cultural appropriation.”

Man, I can’t wait to see what they next big source of artificial outrage will be….

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