Radio Readers BookByte: Control the Food - Control the Culture

Nov 6, 2017

At what point does an appreciation for a specific culture's food become cultural appropriation -- or does it?
Credit Wikimedia Commons

There’s a certain possessiveness with art, even if we did not create it ourselves.  People love to be the “discoverer” of greatness.  I have this possessiveness toward books.  When I read an incredibly powerful book, I am torn between my desire to share the greatness with others so that we may talk and revel in the wonder of it together, and my desire to keep it to myself.  A part of me wants to own it and hoard it.  I realize this is completely irrational. 

Obviously, if I am reading something that is published, others have already “discovered” it and more will follow.  So when I run across something profound, I typically succumb, after a short period of savoring, to the sharing urge.  I console myself with the knowledge that I can always be the first in my book club or family to crow about it, and there’s a particular pride, completely unfounded, associated with that as well.  It’s kind of an “I knew him before he was famous” sort of feeling. 

There’s a bit of this within cultures as well.  “This is our food.”  “This isn’t real Mexican, Italian, German, Mongolian, etc. food.”  We saw this very strongly in the story, “The Soup.”  Mrs. Janie Powell Joseph is making fish soup, which she assures the professor “white people do not like.”  It’s almost as if she doesn’t want him to like it.  She is torn between desolation and pride that she is the last speaker of the language, the end of the old people. 

There’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation on social and mainstream media in the past few years.  One of the most difficult questions about this for me to grasp is, “When does a genuine admiration and a desire to emulate become appropriation?”   I understand how it certainly isn’t right to take only the portions of what I like about the culture and discard or mock the rest.  I realize those of privilege should not steal ethnic recipes and profit from them at the expense of their originators.  Yet, we Americans love the foods of many cultures, and we pride ourselves in the diversity of our menus. 

Pundits in the world of food politics (yes, that’s a real thing) haven’t yet decided when a culture begins to “own” a food, or even if it ever does.  And food, like any custom, evolves as supply ebbs and flows, as people migrate, as families intermarry, as the world continues to globalize.  Although I wish we could all just celebrate the rich amalgamation that these shifts create in our recipe books, I’m finding that it isn’t that simple.

Mark Kurlansky’s “The Soup” digs right into this topic.  Anthropologists like the one in the story are trained to be culturally sensitive, and yet no matter how lofty the intentions, they can still step into murky areas when it comes to “using” other people’s recipes.  As I mentioned in my last discussion on Edible Stories, the sharing of food is an important way to build unity.  So if we all bicker and snipe about food appropriation, we will be giving up some of the deep satisfying pleasure that comes from watching people eat “our” food and that feeling of acceptance we get when eating theirs.

The idea of cultural appropriation is extremely complex.  Perhaps the best we can do is continue to dialogue and read books like Edible Stories, always hoping to add new ingredients to enrich our lives.

I’m Valerie Brown-Kuchera for the Radio Readers’ Book Club.  This is our 2017 Fall Read – Food and Story.