In this day and age, everyone has heard of political correctness. It’s defined as the act of avoiding certain behavior or language that could insult or exclude discriminated groups of people. An example of being politically correct, or "PC", would be when the city of Berkeley changed the language in their municipal code to only use gender-neutral terms. A category of political incorrectness is cultural appropriation—defined as the inappropriate adoption of a minority culture by people of a different culture. The cultural appropriation of foods is defined as culinary appropriation, a common phenomenon in America.

There are clear reasons why one should avoid cultural appropriation. Oftentimes it trivializes a history of violent oppression, for example dressing up in ‘blackface’ for Halloween. It could also pander to a racist stereotype, like the portrayal of subservient Asian women in film. Or it allows privileged people to exploit an oppressed race financially or culturally, as seen by whitewashing in Hollywood. Generally speaking, cultural appropriation prioritizes the entertainment or enjoyment of privileged people at the expense of a marginalized population. 

Of course, there is a lot of controversy regarding political correctness and cultural appropriation, largely revolving around freedom of expression and determining what is appropriate or not. Is it okay for non-black celebrities to wear cornrows or dreadlocks? Is it acceptable to say the n-word while singing a song? Should the Washington Redskins football team change its name

People often talk about what cultural appropriation looks like in art, fashion, and sports, but rarely do we discuss how it manifests in food. The line between appropriation and appreciation is particularly thin when it comes to cultural foods, and this article hopes to draw a clearer line between the two.

 Attitudes Towards New Cuisines

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Exploring other culinary cultures through eating or cooking is, in most cases, a sign of culinary appreciation. Of course, it is acceptable to eat pasta if you aren’t Italian, or make pho if you aren’t Vietnamese. As long as a person is open-minded to different cuisines, it’s completely justifiable and beneficial for someone to try unfamiliar foods. Oftentimes this can lead to the creation of incredible fusion dishes like the ‘sushiritto’ and Korean barbecue rice burger

However, it is critical to be mindful of how we react to different cuisines. It’s okay to have a preference between cuisines, but not okay to automatically wrinkle your nose at an unfamiliar dish. "Lunchbox racism" is an example of when culinary distaste becomes politically unacceptable. The term comes from a common scenario where children of immigrants bring their home-cooked lunches to school and are faced by a chorus of “your lunch smells bad” and “that looks disgusting” from their peers. ‘Lunchbox racism’ may seem like something that only occurs in primary schools, but it also can occur when adults travel abroad and react in horror at local food that they are offered. This is not to say that picky eaters are politically incorrect by any means. The difference between being a picky eater versus ‘lunchbox racism’ is that the latter makes people feel ashamed about their culinary culture, and that is unacceptable. 

On the other hand, appreciating a traditional meal by turning it into a food trend could also be seen as a trivialization of a culture. Writer Shin Yin Kohr explains how food adventurers turn food cultures into medals of their worldliness in her comic ‘Just Eat It’: “Eat, but don’t expect a gold star for your gastronomical bravery. Eat, but don’t pretend that the food lends you cultural insight into our ‘exotic’ ways. Eat, but recognize that we’ve been eating too, and what is our sustenance isn’t your adventure story. Just – eat.” 

Bad or Inauthentic Food

Maggie Gallagher

People can often be offended by poorly-made cultural dishes, but is it culinary appropriation? As mentioned before, it is acceptable for people of one culture to experiment with another culture’s cuisine, and to cook it poorly by accident is understandable. However, there can be much more controversy if the dish is inauthentic and misrepresents the cuisine.

A major debate regarding food authenticity is whether Americanized Chinese food is considered culinary appropriation. Based on the criticism that Americanized Chinese food frequently receives from Chinese people for inaccurately reflecting the cuisine, it could be considered as an ‘inappropriate adoption of a minority culture’. A significant issue with the redesigned cuisine is that it creates many misconceptions about Chinese food. Representing an ancient culinary culture with takeout boxes, fortune cookies, and rice drowning in soy sauce is simply inaccurate. The frequent mispronunciation of dishes like "chow mein" and renaming of other dishes like "orange chicken" or "Kung Pao chicken" could also be considered an offensive mischaracterization of traditional Chinese delicacies. As a counter-argument, one could claim that Americanized Chinese food has evolved into a separate cuisine, intending to represent a new Chinese-American immigrant culture rather than traditional Chinese culture. Perhaps if Americanized Chinese food actively relabelled themselves as such, then it would be less controversial.

Culture for Profit

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While people may be offended by culinary appropriation, few will actively condemn the act and demand change. However, there are a few cases where culinary appropriation has caused public retaliation, most of which involve the monetary exploitation of a traditional cultural recipe by someone of a different culture.

A controversial example of this is a case in Portland, where two non-Hispanic women traveled to Mexico, learned to make burritos from reluctant locals, and then opened a food truck. They were accused of starting a business based on stolen recipes and eventually had to shut down their food truck. Cultural cuisines are meant to be shared, but profiting from and taking credit for the cooking techniques of marginalized cultures is inappropriate. There is no such thing as copyright for recipes, so there is only a subjective moral line between respectfully adapting a recipe and stealing it. 

To Conclude

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Katie Kasperson

What everyone should always consider is that food is a part of people’s identities and should be treated with respect. You don’t have to love a dish, but you also don’t need to disrespect it along with the culture it belongs to. You can and should add your own twist to a dish, but recognize its differences from the traditional version. You can definitely recreate other people’s cultural recipes, but don’t claim it as your own for money. Don’t appropriate food, appreciate it.