This summer, I had the privilege of working for a summer program in the South Bronx with a group of the most dynamic and fun people I’ve ever met. In the stretch of our 9.5-hour work day, our only time away from the kids was a 50-minute lunch break.

That break was usually filled with funny stories from our mornings and complaints about the heat, but the one consistent topic was the chopped cheese sandwich.

What is a chopped cheese?

burrito, egg, cheese, bacon
Tess Citron

For those who don't know, a chopped cheese (and no, it's not the same as shredded cheese) consists of chopped hamburger meat grilled with cheese on a roll or hero with mayo, ketchup, lettuce and tomato.

It's found primarily in NYC delis in Harlem and the Bronx, rarely listed on a sandwich board but almost invariably available if you know to ask for it. As a Philadelphian, I wasn’t familiar with the sandwich before my summer in the Bronx. When I asked one of my co-workers what he was eating, it spurred a conversation that went far beyond the sandwich's contents. 

The sandwich itself is deliciously cheesy, greasy and satisfying. Its primetime of consumption knows no bounds: from lunch to a late-night drunchie, you truly cannot go wrong. It has historically been a favorite in the neighborhood, enjoyed by everyone from construction workers to hip-hop stars (even getting shout-outs in a few songs).

In the midst of our conversation about the sandwich, my friend brought up a video of a white news anchor reporting on the chopped cheese as an affordable “hidden gem” that viewers just "had to try."

I realized that I'd seen this video (something like this one) about a year before, along with some backlash from one young resident of the Bronx criticizing the anchor for acting as if she “discovered” a longtime staple of a neighborhood in which she, and most of her viewers, did not live. 

Cultural appropriation at its finest

A photo posted by Andres Venegas (@nycfinish) on

This news segment, which to some upper-middle class white viewers may seem harmless and even “fun” in a sense, embodies the trend of cultural appropriation, recently picking up steam in areas like Harlem and the Bronx.

The main issue with the news segment is that the chopped cheese is not $3 because it’s “a steal” that has been tucked away in neighborhood delis, but because that’s what the residents of these neighborhoods often can afford to pay for a sandwich. It's not wildly cheap, but rather, it's exactly the price these people might expect.

To me and many of my coworkers, the news clip represents an ignorant claim by mainstream media neglecting the long cultural history of the sandwich it lightly refers to as a "hidden gem." 

So what's the big deal?

A photo posted by Jenn (@jenzerleigh) on

We’ve seen similar aspects of cultural appropriation through the lens of neighborhood gentrification: poorer urban areas being developed for the wealthy, causing housing prices to rise, and forcing out those residents who can no longer afford to live there.

The media exposure (including these "gourmet chopped cheese" recreations) may easily cause demand of the sandwich to rise and, in turn, the price. Simply put, this may eventually prevent those who've grown up on the sandwich from being able to purchase it at all. 

This is what we, as a generation of foodies, need to be aware of. In some ways, the foodie-ism that’s emerged in the last few years is in the larger context of making a spectacle out of different cultures' foods.

When you're tasting a new food, the key thing to remember is that it is new to you, and not to the people from whom it originated. In other words, it's great to get excited about experiencing new dishes in new places, but it's also crucial to consider the culture, people and overall context that gave way to what you’re eating.