In Defense of Culturally Appropriating Food

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Lena Dunham needs you to pay attention to her.

Despite making headlines in February after the debut of season six of her HBO ratings-bomb Girls, and again making news after revealing her fascinating theory that violent crime in America is directly associated with the handguns present in the latest installment of the Jason Bourne franchise (who knew?), Dunham didn’t feel satisfied.

Even mean girl Gwyneth Paltrow’s invitation to join her A-list group of besties by donating clothes to her charity clothing drive failed to make Dunham feel noticed (Dunham reportedly donated a $250 beer stained maroon shirt, a dirty pair of white shorts, and some overpriced and scuffed Manolo Blahnik flats).

What then, other than a cry for attention, can explain Dunham’s decision to suddenly support the entitled and very delicate snowflakes at her alma mater Oberlin College, who last year raised Cain with the college’s insensitive, minimum-wage earning cafeteria workers for failing to provide them with authentic ethnic cuisine? If you need a reminder about this latest millennial outrage, Oberlin Review student reporter Clover Linh Tran first reported on the crisis last year (trigger warning: inauthentic food discussed):

Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam, jumped with excitement at the sight of Vietnamese food on Stevenson Dining Hall’s menu at Orientation this year. Craving Vietnamese comfort food, Nguyen rushed to the food station with high hopes. What she got, however, was a total disappointment.

The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw.

“It was ridiculous,” Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

The horror of culturally appropriated food reads like so many other human rights stories, right? I mean, the crux of the problem Yazidi women have with their ISIS kidnappers and rapists is that the food being served isn’t authentic to their culture. If only ISIS had a handle on what real Kurdish food tastes like.

Putting aside the smallness of the Oberlin students’ and Dunham’s latest cause, perhaps the most amusing part about the outrage at the ersatz Banh Mi sandwich is that this Vietnamese staple is itself the product of cultural appropriation. (Yeah, chew on that reality for a minute.)

The Banh Mi wouldn’t be around if the Vietnamese hadn’t “appropriated” French food culture (okay, okay, calm down, I know. . . The Vietnamese wouldn’t have appropriated French food if the French hadn’t invaded their country. . . I get it).

You see, the French colonization of Indochina in the mid 19th century changed Vietnamese food culture and traditions in a significant way. French bread—specifically the baguette—became a staple in Vietnamese diets, and soon the Vietnamese were combining French staples (bread, pate, roast pork) with Asian ingredients (cilantro, pickled daikon radish, hot chili peppers) to create a sandwich quite different from the ones served in Paris. Indeed, the Banh Mi is a far cry from the jambon beurre or the croque monsieur. But thank goodness the Vietnamese practiced a little cultural appropriation, right?

The same is true for Ethiopians. Go into any Ethiopian restaurant and, oddly, you’ll find Italian pasta dishes listed alongside the more traditional Ethiopian stews and meats. Pasta wasn’t traditional fare in Ethiopia until the Italians colonized the country in 1935. Like Vietnam, the Ethiopians absorbed some of Italy’s food traditions. I’ve had an Ethiopian version of spaghetti here in the United States, and while it’s delicious, it’s hardly authentic Italian. Are the Ethiopians insensitive to Italians when they produce their version of Italy’s food?

Here in America, new immigrants have often altered their traditional recipes to please American palates, and they’ve even altered American food to taste more like home (Cincinnati chili is a good example). That’s what makes America food culture so rich and varied. “Cultural appropriation” used to be called “appreciation for other cultures.” Yet now, according to Dunham, it’s not politically correct to explore the world’s great cuisines.

Oberlin College will likely cave to Dunham’s PC pressure, but this won’t necessarily mean offering more “authentic” food.  They might just opt to give students  a selection of bland, nondescript American food choices to avoid controversy altogether. And in a decade or so, the pendulum will swing again and Oberlin students (aided perhaps by another whiney actress) will complain about the lack of diversity on the cafeteria’s menu.

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  • Unmutual One

    I thought pate was evil. Only if you’re white?

  • valjean

    I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the early ’80s, double-majoring in Math and Engineering. The overwhelming majority of my classmates were Asian, a large percentage from Vietnam. I got to know many of them, nearly all the children of “boat people” who fled the Communists who overran their country in the ’70s. Their English skills were often severely wanting, yet I’ve never — before or since — known a group so unbelievably hard-working and patriotic. (And never, ever bet with them on pool — for any stakes.)

    Now their children whine about inauthentic sandwiches. I can only marvel at the contrast.