A guest post by Nandita Godbole
Recipe writers and content creators frequently struggle to understand cultural appropriation. To some, cultural appropriation challenges the old ways of doing things. Others wonder why food writers lose their jobs over it. They question why it is important. Is it?
Here’s my understanding of cultural appropriation and how to avoid it as a food writer:
1. First of all, what is cultural appropriation?
Wikipedia describes cultural appropriation as “The adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.” For me, it also means profiting from another culture without compensating them adequately.
In the food space, cultural appropriation shows up in products, as repackaged ingredients, in cookbooks, and in recipes. The most problematic scenarios emerge when people outside the culture use an item for their own profit. Cultural appropriation can create an elitist environment and approach to world cuisines. It assumes that the cultural legacies of under-represented or historically marginalized cultures and people are available for profit.
2. How does it start, and how does it go horribly wrong?
Most civic-minded adults do not intentionally seek to harm or misrepresent another persons’ culture or cuisine. But sometimes, writers channel the innocent appreciation of other cultures into a commodity that only benefits themselves. Such commodification typically eliminates all mentions of the origins of that food culture. It also eliminates the communities who consume the foods every day. And it ignores the place of that food in the culinary history of that culture, or mentions all of it in passing.
One famous instance occurred when two American women tried to pass off classic Mexican recipes as their own to start a business. Jaime Olivers’ interpretation of jerk rice proved problematic because of who made it versus the dish’s origins. People also objected to the ingredients of the dish as prepared by Jamaicans versus what he prepared for his audience. Oliver’s glaringly incomplete knowledge of the dish insulted Jamaicans, who consume jerk dishes every day. While Oliver tried to highlight his creativity, his “inspiration” was poised to profit from a historically underrepresented community that often is undervalued and underpaid.
In each case, none of the individuals or companies had any direct ethnic or cultural ties to the commodity they promoted under their own brand name.
In this Eater piece, Navneet Alang discuss the aftermath of the Alison Roman controversy. Alang notes that most successful folks are successful because they have worked very hard. But, despite their best intentions, the thrill of success can sometimes trigger cultural appropriation. When successful people do not recognize the inequities in the business, or become part of perpetuating inequities, they are part of the problem.
3. Can people cook dishes from another culture?
Yes. We can cook anything we like. But if we are teaching someone else (in the family or for commerce) there are ways to do it respectfully:
- When cooking for yourself or your family, learn about that culture’s foods
- If you must promote another culture’s dish for commerce, include several ways your audience can learn more about that cuisine and dish from a different source or expert from that cuisine
- Social media posts are particularly notorious for blurring the lines. Making a dish for fun is one thing. If you do not include information about your inspiration for the dish, it risks being called out as cultural appropriation.
4. How to cook from, write about, or teach someone else a dish from your own heritage.
This topic deals with at least three issues: ownership, lived experience, and communication, all negotiated through access to resources and the guidance of a teacher. When you are writing about your heritage, you are often navigating a grey area.
Regardless of your proximity to a culture, when writing or developing a recipe for a blog, a cookbook, or an article, treat it as a research paper. Identify all your sources and inspirations, especially if the dish is heavily inspired by something or someone other than yourself. Include how you are connected to the dish. If family or friends taught you a dish, include them in the headnote. Readers want to know how our experiences fit into the story of that dish.
Here’s another thing to consider: What makes you an expert to write about it? If it relies on access to the editor’s desk, share the spotlight those who know the topic better than you.
No one is born with all the knowledge, or can fully claim to being an expert. Yet, we all have our place in telling the story of a dish. While we teach those who come after us, there are more who came before who taught us.
Reflect the interchangeable roles of teacher and student. If you felt inspired by the work of a fellow writer or a published author, recognize that that work that came before your own. Even small but meaningful gestures can show respect.
No matter the platform or medium of audience engagement, if you show someone how to make a dish, you take on the role of a teacher. A good teacher encourages thoughtful inquiry and encourages students to be respectful of the food and culture they learn about.
Writers must continually inspire mutual respect. A cuisine or its people are never a curiosity, a theme, or an invitation to commodify. A cuisine tells the story of humans living, thriving, and nourishing other humans. Good writers, like good journalists, tell the complete human stories in the best way they can, because those stories will always matter more than the byline.
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Nandita Godbole is an Atlanta-based, Indian origin, indie author of many cookbooks, including her latest, “Seven Pots of Tea: an Ayurvedic approach to sips and nosh.” Her work has appeared on Healthline, Forbes, NBC-Asian America, CNN, BBC-Futures, Thrillist, Epicurious. As @currycravings on social media, she shares simple ways to make classic Indian recipes. She also talks about chai and the bounty of her unruly garden.
( Photo courtesy of Julian Hochgesang-Huep on Unsplash.)