A Food Historian Steps Into the Minefield of Cultural Appropriation

Food Historian on Cultural Appropriation

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GUEST AUTHOR: Rachel Laudan | Food historian and author of the prizewinning Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History  | www.rachellaudan.com| @rachellaudan

This essay previously appeared in two separate posts on the author’s blog. It appears here by permission of the author.

Cultural Appropriation and Other People’s Food: Preliminary Thoughts

No one but a fool, particularly a white upper middle class fool, would plunge into the debate swirling around culinary cultural appropriation . I’m that fool.

Like many people, I’ve been trying to get my head straight about culinary appropriation.

Culinary appropriation is not a distant issue to me. My first food book on the cuisines of Hawaii nearly didn’t get published because the publisher, the University of Hawaii Press, thought that a “mainland haole (white person)” author like me publishing on the foods of the Islands would provoke a political uproar. The uproar never happened. The episode did, however, mean that I was never in the slightest doubt that dealing with the foods of other peoples could be political dynamite.

Lunch Wagon - Honolulu
Lunch Wagon at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Now, to be clear. Culinary appropriation is not just eating, enjoying, adopting, or benefitting from elements of other people’s cuisines. That’s gone on throughout history.  Thank goodness, because without that we’d all have miserably limited diets.

No, the core elements of culinary appropriation are three.

  1. A transfer of knowledge of food (raw material, ingredient, dish, or whole cuisine) from one group to another group or individual.
  2. A sharp difference in power such that the obtaining group can exploit the food knowledge in a way that the original group could not. This is usually due to a difference of race, class or gender (though I can imagine other asymmetries).
  3. Hence recognition and money accruing to the obtaining group (or individual) without acknowledgement or reward to those who generated the food knowledge.

As a white upper middle class person and citizen of two of the most powerful empires of the twentieth century, I can appropriate the cuisine of others.  But by the above definition, if others chose to write about or offer for sale my cuisine (English, so I am not in fear and trembling that it will happen), that is not appropriation.

The great advantage of the term appropriation (which has been around much longer in music, literature, and the arts than in food) is that it suggests theft, it creates shock, it makes people examine their behavior in a new way.

The consequences (or perhaps disadvantages, depending on your perspective) are two.

First, that since it’s often not defined precisely, it leads the kind of shouting matches that have occurred on social media in the past few weeks.

Second, that this leads to antagonism and defensiveness from which it’s hard to recover.

As a result, I’ve bracketed “culinary appropriation” for the time being in favor of “dealing with other people’s food.” (I’d also love to introduce a little humor, or at least irony, because humor can both lighten and enlighten moral competitions that verge on the priggish. Unfortunately, humor is not my strong point so there won’t be much.)

Dealing with other people’s food is something every individual, every society has to decide how to handle. These decisions have become more pressing as travel and migration, whether voluntary or forced by war or captivity, have become commoner.

Apropos is  favorite quote of mine from the distinguished historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown.

“How to draw on a great past without smothering change. How to change without losing one’s roots. Above all, what to do with the stranger in one’s midst—with men excluded in a traditionally aristocratic society, with thoughts denied expression by a traditional culture, with needs not articulated in conventional religion, with the utter foreigner from across the frontier.  These are the problems which every civilized society has to face.”


Other People’s Food: No Thank You!

These are tricky issues. To reiterate, this is a personal attempt to put my thoughts in order about issues that have arisen ever since I first started writing about food nearly thirty years ago.

It’s easy to assume that right-minded people have always assumed other people’s food to be delicious and thus to be explored with respect. That’s just not so. It’s taken a long time to reach this historical point.

So to get some distance on contemporary issues, I want to establish the long historical base line. For most of history, most people hesitated or outright avoided other people’s food. Why? What were the exceptions? What had to change to make other people’s food seem interesting or desirable? Which of these attitudes still lurks today?

Cultural appropriation? - Chinese courtesans trying a western meal
Chinese courtesans trying a western meal. By Wu Youru (d. 1893) one of China’s leading newspaper editors and illustrators.

The Historical Norm: Shunning Other People’s Food

“Other people’s food? No thank you,” was, and often still is, the norm in dealing with other people’s food.

Ancient Greeks looked down on the way Scythians ate, Byzantines thought the food of Gaul coarse, Western Europeans described the garum (fish sauce) of Byzantium as like piss, as the Persians were later to describe the beer of the Western Europe, Jesuits in China in the seventeenth century hated tofu, while Spanish in the New World had no use for corn tortillas. The French gastronome, Curnonsky in the 1930s, dismissed American food as only slightly less barbaric than German. In the 1960s, I listened to Igbo teenagers describe Yoruba food as inedibly hot, Yoruba teenagers retort that Igbo food had no taste.

The Underlying Rationale for Shunning Other People’s Food

Fundamental beliefs about the health of the human body, about human nature, as well as about religion, I suggest, underpinned the widespread wariness of the food of others.

Consider health. Physicians across the Old World advised that the healthiest food for an individual was the food where they had been born and raised. The further away you went, the more likely you were to get sick.

There was something to this. In the mid nineteenth century, European armies began keeping records of the non-combat deaths of their troops overseas. This confirmed their hunch that soldiers–young presumably fit men–died much more frequently in the tropics than they did in their home countries. In Europe deaths per thousand were 10, in Bengal 70,  in Sierra Leone 480.1

At the time, no one knew why.  Many of the deaths were from gastrointestinal diseases, though, so it was natural to suspect the foreign food and water.

Or consider, your very nature. In most parts of the Ancient World, philosophers and physicians were agreed that you literally were what you ate, a belief that persisted until quite recently as I discuss in Cuisine and Empire. And what people were and what people ate were both arranged in a hierarchy.

At the bottom were animals who ate raw food. Eat raw vegetables like an animal, and you would become animalistic.  Eat milk and cheese but no grains like a barbarian and you would become barbaric. Eat lesser grains and you would become a country bumpkin.

Moving up, you came to the powerful, who depending on whether their power derived from war, religion, or politics, would eat appropriately. Eat lots of meat and you would become a warrior. Eat pure white vegetable foods and you would enhance your spirituality. Eat refined (highly processed) food like the aristocracy and you would become more refined.

Now experimenting with your very nature, even if it held out the promise of improvement, was not something to be undertaken lightly.  Think of some modern surgical procedures that promise just this. If experimenting meant trying foods that might bring about degeneration, then it was to be avoided.

(Doubtless prejudice played a role too, then as now. So did regular human behavior, kids trying to figure out where they fit in the world, travelers fearful of making fools of themselves, or too tired to take on yet another novelty, the poor too sensible to risk what little they had on food that they might not like.  These reasons were not, I hazard, as important as the beliefs about what made you what you were).

The Exception: The Global Network of the Foods of the Powerful

If the powerful, whether their power was political, military, spiritual or cultural, had dealings with others of equal or greater rank, then foods might be exchanged or emulated. Rank, rather than race or ethnicity, shaped people’s eating habits.

Alexander the Great seized on Persian cuisine, the Mongols adopted much of Persian and Chinese cuisine.

When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they had every intention of continuing to eat wheat bread, the food that made them what they were, as Rebecca Earle has explored in marvelous detail.2</> They, like the English, Dutch, and French who followed, did everything they could to get wheat, planting it where it flourished, importing it where it did not, like New Orleans as Nick Foreman of the University of Florida is investigating.3</> Only when absolutely necessary, as in New England, the American South, or parts of Brazil, did they risk eating indigenous maize or cassava.

In the early nineteenth century, African merchants on the Gold Coast entertained American sea captains with soup, meat, desserts served on silver dishes and wine to accompany them.4</> Later in the nineteenth century, Japanese, Indian, and Mexican nobility served high French cuisine.

In food, as in the arts, therefore, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery (thanks to John Whiting for pointing this out). Reinforced by the fact that every empire has always had to rely on local elites to help rule, cuisines of the elites became interconnected over vast distances.

Meanwhile, the food of most people, that is poor rural people, was ignored or disdained.

The Exception: The Global Network of the Foods of the Powerful

All this matters for several reasons.

First, this world view was to be crucial to global attempts to impose food on others at the end of the nineteenth century.

Second, dismantling and replacing this world view led to other problems with the food of others.

Third, the past casts a long shadow. Remember the phrase “Real men don’t eat quiche.”

1. Philip Curtin, Death by Migration (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 8. The exceptions to this rule were remote islands.
2. Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
3. Paper presented at the American Historical Association, 2017.
4. James D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Brill, 2012), 135-6.

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