I will be the first to tell you I am a complete foodie. There’s almost nothing I won’t try, and with new restaurants and food trucks popping up all over America, there is no shortage of interesting options to try.
However, these dishes are not new at all. These dishes have long been enjoyed by the cultures that invented or discovered them, they existed before they became trendy, and, while outside cultures can appreciate these dishes, they should not be ignorant or exploitative by practicing cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is defined as people from a dominant culture taking elements of culture from a marginalized group without caring about how that affects the marginalized group. Typically, when we talk about cultural appropriation or (debate with people who are sure it’s not a thing—it is, sorry!), we talk about hairstyles and fashion. For example, a magazine that insists a hairstyle worn by people of color is new and trendy after it is adopted by a white pop star. Or a person who wears a culturally significant Native American item of clothing as a fashion statement for the cover of a magazine.
However, cultural appropriation can also exist on your dinner plate. The other day, I noticed that my local meat market, which is owned and mostly patronized by suburban white people, had started selling oxtails. Oxtails are thought to be one of the cheapest parts of the animals, typically bought by Black/African American families who couldn’t afford more expensive cuts of meat. Now, oxtails have become trendy and are therefore sold at a premium. Why is this such a bad thing? Because when a food becomes trendy, the price goes up, and this ultimately puts a bigger strain on food-insecure communities, which are mostly made up of people of color.
Appropriating food allows people of privilege to enjoy parts of another culture without having to think about the real people who suffer as a consequence. In Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine, author Soleil Ho said, “When you divorce a food from its place and time, you can ignore global civil unrest and natural disasters (see: Zagat declaring Pinoy cuisine the “next great Asian food trend” this past fall as deadly floods swept through the Philippines), knowing as you do that the world’s cultural products will always find safe harbor in your precious, precious mouth.”
Being aware of cultural appropriation doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy foods from other cultures, but there is no reason why people from said culture can no longer afford to enjoy their foods because it now costs $40 per plate at some restaurant owned by a crap-ton of hipster dudes in beanies, Buddy Holly glasses and beards. Trend is no excuse to contribute to food deserts, or to deny farmers an opportunity for fair trade. For example, singer Jason Mraz owns a 5-acre grove where he grows and supplies organic avocados to Chipotle restaurants in San Diego county, while that is great for Mraz, it would be more ethical for Chipotle to a receive its avocados through Equal Exchange and their partnership with a small group of avocado farmers in Michoacan, Mexico, which allows the farmers to be paid for their product.
When you patronize white-owned restaurants whose food comes from a separate culture, you allow money to be taken from them, thus making room for the oppression of that culture, and allowing the culture be reduced to a food. You can eat food from as many cultures as you like, but ignoring their origins and significance makes you an unappreciative, appropriative vulture. Don’t use a culture for their food and then support a presidential candidate that wants them out of the country. When you accept the food of a culture, you accept the people and the impact of exploiting that culture has on them.