On Cultural Appropriation

The Yelp page for Kooks Burritos in Portland, Oregon, appears to be dealing with a wave of opinionated folks who haven’t bothered to actually try the food. The monitoring process at Yelp tries to ferret out reviews that aren’t based on the experience of eating at their pop-up food truck. As of this moment, they have settled on a respectable 4.5 stars, but there are several posts remaining that seem to reference recent news stories.

I haven’t tried the food either. The place is closed as of this writing. The reason given in various news accounts is the backlash from a Willamette Week article profiling their establishment. The article included accounts from the proprietors about how they learned some tricks from tortilla ladies on a trip to Mexico. They picked up basic recipes along with superficial and observable techniques from their interactions. These observations apparently included peeking into windows to get new insights.

For some reason, this came across to many readers as a confession of some sort of theft. If it wasn’t the theft of intellectual property (recipes), it was the theft of cultural artifacts and repurposing them to make a buck. Needless to say, the comment section of the Willamette Week went haywire. People took to Yelp as well and Kooks became famous enough to shut down. Some of the scorn seemed to be connected to the fact that these women are white, while the people they learned things from are brown.

I’m going to go out on a limb for you, though. I don’t think this was really about race. Well, it is, but only obliquely. The WW readers were outraged, but I am not sure that they, themselves fully understood why. The upshot: “This seems wrong.” The most concise characterization of why it seemed wrong, invoked the words “cultural appropriation.” This is, apparently, what they were angry at.

Incidentally, cultural appropriation isn’t illegal. Disaffected suburban teenagers appropriate rap culture in their parent’s car as the cruise by the strip malls. Clothing designers do it, music producers, ad agencies. bloggers… it happens every day.

Restaurants in America, especially chains, are breeding grounds for it. Seriously, “Yo quiero Taco Bell?” Qdoba? Chipotle? The are supposed to represent Mexican cuisine. However, the atmosphere of these places consists of a meaningless melange of artifacts that no more reflect real, Mexican culture than Chuck-E-Cheese reflects Sicily.

So why the outrage against these two women? Did people judge these individuals to have obtained their knowledge unethically? Perhaps, but I don’t see it as the whole reason. I think part of the answer lies in a vague sense of lost authenticity. Something about their perception of Kooks changed when people read the story.

Let’s assume that anyone who is upset by cultural appropriation would never eat at a Chevy’s. Let’s say, instead, that you eat at a little hole-in-the-wall place you know called Pablo’s. You’ve been eating there for years now and you know Pablo. He barely speaks English, but he makes the best Tamales! He says his recipes were his grandmother’s, only he doesn’t use lard so much.

Now, suppose you forget they are closed, and show up there on a Sunday (Domingo Cerrado). As you drive up, you see Pablo walking a well-dressed white guy in his 50’s out to a BMW. As they walk, Pablo is speaking perfect English and you overhear him discussing franchise opportunities and saying something about “keeping it real in the dining room.”

It has been a charade. Where are you going to eat now? How do you feel about the last 20 times you went there?

Kooks Burritos didn’t pretend to be Pablo’s. In this way, they weren’t trying to be an “authentic” Mexican food truck. They did tell WW a small secret about the way they learned some of their techniques though. Suddenly, real, brown-skinned Mexican women involved who learned their skills the hard way from their abuelas. it seemed unacceptable that these white American women were doing this for a living. It was unforgivable.

By the time we eat something in a restaurant, we don’t know very much about where the recipe came from. Was it a test kitchen in Niskayuna, NY, or was it a 100 year old family heirloom that was lost when a pie cabinet was sold at a garage sale? Usually, we don’t know.  I might suggest that we don’t want to know. We want to believe our narratives and enjoy our lunch.

Look how annoyed a customer gets when she first learns that there is no “Ancient Chinese Secret.” It was something she could buy at the grocery store all along. This commercial ran for a long time when I was a kid. It’s horrifying, enjoy.

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