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When Kermit the Frog found El Sleezo Cafe, a stereotypically Mexican joint in 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” he nervously muttered, “Foreign food … but a man’s gotta eat.” Never mind that the house special turned out to be frog’s legs — such a scene today would go straight to the cutting-room floor and the creators exiled to Cancelville.
Once upon a time, it was permissible to make light-hearted fun of cuisines that were unfamiliar or exotic to film audiences.
But in today’s unforgiving and witless world of Indigenous-Cuisine Purity, good-natured jokes are strictly verboten. Worse, just about any dish not from Western Europe that isn’t cooked by a native-born chef is either a fake version of the cuisine or a wicked ripoff of it — or both.
Tinkering with a country’s traditional way of making noodles is equated with cultural annihilation. Borrowing another nation’s kitchen traditions is the same as colonial pillaging and profiteering.
Am I exaggerating? Hah!
The death last week of cookbook writer Diana Kennedy at age 99, regarded as the world’s most knowledgeable expert on Mexican cooking, put the issue squarely on the table. “She never reckoned with her authority over Mexican cuisine as a white British woman,” The New York Times asserted, as if Kennedy had strip-mined the country’s farmland on orders from the Queen. The Los Angeles Times, too, noted that frequent charges of “cultural appropriation” leveled at Kennedy had left her with a tainted legacy.
So if a non-Mexican celebrates that nation’s culinary bounty more lovingly than anyone else, it is grounds to excommunicate her from the respectable world of gastronomic appreciation?
The “cultural roots of Latino foods are being scrubbed away on TikTok,” food writer Angela L. Pagan fumed on thetakeout.com on July 28. The social media site “needs to stop messing” with “Latinx” dishes, such as esquites, she says, which should only ever be called by its rightful name and not described as anything else.
“On TikTok — as well as just about every recipe blog on the planet — [esquites] is promoted as ‘Mexican street corn salad,’” Pagan complains. “Yes, the dish itself is a street food from Mexico, but it does have a name and did not need a new, blander one … We don’t call spaghetti ‘Italian sauce noodles,’ so why rename this traditional piece of Mexican cuisine?”
That’s right. Why call the dish something else — even if that helps people understand and appreciate what it actually is.
Meanwhile, Korean-born cooks who were adopted into American homes are taking heat “from other Korean Americans that their cooking isn’t Korean enough,” The New York Times reported on July 31. You don’t use much kimchi? Then don’t call it Korean!
But the outrage is selective. Nobody got worked up, for example, about Midwestern American chef Michael White piloting Marea’s Italian kitchen. Or Chicago-born Daniel Rose running the show at all-French Le Coucou.
The ire is reserved for supposed “exploiters” of Third World food cultures by evil, rapacious Westerners.
Fear of being vilified for such “sins” prompted famed British chef Jamie Oliver to hire “cultural appropriation specialists” to bless his menus, he revealed earlier this year.
Oliver had taken a beating because his “punchy jerk rice” didn’t include all the traditional Jamaican jerk marinade ingredients. As he told the Sunday Times of London’s Culture magazine, “Your immediate reaction is to be defensive and say, ‘For the love of God, really?’ And then you go, ‘Well, we don’t want to offend anyone.’ ”
Not everyone’s cowed. Eric Ripert, chef of the three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin, drew a few gripes on Instagram in January because his pho interpretation wasn’t an exact replica of the Vietnamese noodle dish. Ripert wisely held his tongue on what Eater.com termed a “backlash.” He knew, as Oliver didn’t, that defending oneself only incites further madness.
There are a few other signs of sanity. Touré, a writer for black-American news site The Grio, decided, after some soul-searching, that the white owners of Brooklyn’s Gumbo Brothers (which had a black chef) were not racist for operating a place that specialized in a historically African-American dish.
Toure said that he loved Gumbo Brothers and lamented its recent closing.
“They weren’t erasing us,” he wrote. “The food was authentic. White people loving black culture isn’t racist.”
Neither is anyone who merely loves a cuisine that isn’t his or her own, even if it provides them with a modest living.