Christopher Kimball Wants to be a ‘Woke’ Chef, Claims Ethnic Food is Colonialist

Bow-tied chef, Christopher Kimball, the founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and the popular public television show America’s Food Kitchen, has started a new venture, Milk Street—a magazine, cooking school, and a television and radio show rivaling what he’s accomplished in the past. The New York Times called him “an intellectual and business powerhouse of American recipes.” It’s true, Mr. Kimball is impressive; he is admired and emulated by home cooks all across America. Which is why I was taken aback by his ‘About’ page on the site, which asserts that “ethnic food is dead.” He writes:

There is no “ethnic” cooking. It’s a myth. It’s just dinner or lunch served somewhere else in the world… Ethnic food is dead; it smacks of the sin of colonialism. This is a culinary—not cultural—exchange.

There are two corrupt ideas at work here: one, that ethnic food is dead; two, that colonialism is or was inherently evil and has no redeeming qualities.

Ethnic food will live for as long as ethnic identities live, and it should. The culinary is embedded in the cultural; it is a product of its surroundings and the creativity and ethos of the peoples living within that physical sphere. Identity is a complex system, as I’ve said before. It is made up of the ties the self has to what generated it, and to whom and what it is related. I, Luma, was created and born into a family, a household, a religion, a culture, a language, and a state. I was a girl, born in Baghdad, Iraq, to two Christian parents, and my first language was Arabic. Milk—in the form of breast milk or formula—may have been what I, and every baby was fed, and in that respect it is universal. But the very next food I tasted was shaped by the culinary practices, which are cultural by nature, of my heritage.

“Ethnic food” is not an insult, it is a phrase which honors the beautiful heterogeneity of the peoples of our world. This is why a chef like Jamie Oliver can travel around the world humbly and joyfully learning the cuisine and the cultures which gave rise to the cookery of different ethnic groups. As part of his Food Escapes series, Oliver tries making some of the dishes he learned, and sometimes he adds his own twist or a slightly different ingredient. This experimentation and innovation is fine, and it has its place in culinary art. But one thing Oliver does not do is erase distinctions, which is precisely what Christopher Kimball’s assertion does. Kimball wants to erase cultural and culinary identities at a time when people all over the world are fighting, and sometimes killing others, to retain them. Kimball’s Milk Street wants to water down every ethnic dish to milk, to try to make it universal. Who is the true colonialist here?

And that brings me to the next corruption—the idea that colonialism is inherently sinful and brought nothing but evil to the countries in which it existed. Does anyone want to ask the many Indians living in England right now if it they have benefited from their colonial history? As I mentioned above, I am an immigrant from Iraq, a country which at one time was a British colony. The Iraqi Christian subculture is deeply grateful for that period of time. Colonial reality can be good or evil; the acquisition of land as a result of war, or the economic influence due to trade on its own is not always and everywhere bad. This is not the place for an apology of colonialism, nor is it my intention to claim that the killing and conquering of peoples is good; it is not. But Kimball conflates the aggressive destruction and control of one political power over another with the civilizing influence that one people can have on another.

It is thanks to colonialism that, for a while, Christian Iraqis enjoyed equal protection under the law in Iraq—this was due to the British helping the Muslim government in Iraq create a Constitution which treats all people equally. Here’s a taste of the language of that document:

There shall be no differentiation in the rights of Iraqis before the law, whatever differences may exist in language, race or creed.

And although after defeating the Ottoman Empire the British did not give the Christian Assyrians in Northern Iraq a self-governing province where Christians could be safe from Muslim rule, they did help bring Iraq into the modern world, and they did create a space where Christians could flourish in a way they could not have previously.

I appreciate what Christopher Kimball has accomplished in the past, and if he wants to translate a Thai recipe which I can try at home, that would be wonderful and I may attempt to make it. But let him not preach to me that my ethnic food is a myth and that it’s a result of colonialism. If he wants his new venture to succeed, he may want to choose a different approach to judging the food of others.

Image: By MelissaBaldino (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • SamHamilton

    I like Kimball, but I have no idea what he means when he says that ethnic food is dead or that it smacks of colonialism. Ethnic food is simply the food that people of other ethnicities eat. So to ethnic Germans, Italian food is ethnic. But Italian food in Italy is not ethnic, but German food would be. I’m not sure what the problem with this is.

    • SheRa

      I don’t think there is a problem. Just a perceived one on Kimball’s part. I know colonialism wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but to say ethnic food is dead and colonialism is to blame? Trying to connect dots that don’t connect.

      Plus with all of these foodie movements, I think there is more of a spotlight on ethnic foods and “pure” ethnic flavors, even as the world takes and adapts these cuisines. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone out with friends who want “authentic” this and “real” that. There is still a demand. Kimball is reaching.

  • SheRa

    Yes, food is food, but everything is ethnic through different lenses. I think one of the wonderful things about this world is that you can spin a cuisine and make it your own with the addition of other influences (i.e. your own culture or something as simple as not having the right ingredients available at your grocer), but that does not mean that ethnic foods are dead. I can appreciate Tex-Mex just the same as I appreciate authentic Mexican. Tex-Mex doesn’t destroy the culinary identity of the Mexican people, it can be used as a doorway to their cuisine.

    In my opinion, colonialism can’t stop someone from making a dish from their great great great great grandmother’s recipe. Christopher Kimball is trying to make this into something bigger than it is. If he wants to have a discussion about colonialism from a drawback and benefit perspective, that’s a different story. But since he does food, he wants to tie his messaging back to food. I don’t find it relevant in this case. I am trying to think of one culture that completely lost their culinary identity due to colonialism…if someone can think of any, please let me know. I’m not claiming they don’t exist, I just can’t think of any off the top of my head.

  • SutureSelf

    “Christopher Kimball, [is] the founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and the popular public television show America’s Food Kitchen…”

    That would be America’s Test Kitchen.