Culturally appropriative cuisine and “institutional collusion”

There certainly are offensive ways of stereotyping people or appropriating cultures, regardless of whether or not one intends to be offensive. Blackface is one, as is describing Jewish people as greedy, or Scots as miserly, or “immigrants” as lazy, and so forth.

Other stereotypes cause less offense, for example regarding lawyers as predatory or accountants as boring. Clearly, there’s are difference between these sets of examples, in that ethnic slurs – particularly those directed at marginalised groups – are likely to hurt more.

But something they have in common is that the targets of the stereotype are able (at least in principle) to separate intent from outcome, and also (to some extent) choose to be more aggrieved by the most insensitive stereotypes, and less aggrieved by the more innocuous ones.

We can detect and sometimes assume malice, and on other occasions we can regard an insensitive remark as one made more innocently, and respond proportionally in either sort of situation.

But sometimes, it might be that offense is taken for something that shouldn’t be considered a slight or insult at all. Even if it’s in general true that your culture is routinely denigrated or appropriated, this does not entail that every imperfect reference to it is abusive.

Or to put it another way: Even if it’s true that you’re routinely offended against, it might also be true that you are sometimes unduly offended by something innocuous or that has an innocent out offense where it doesn’t exist.

The example at issue is from students at Oberlin College, Ohio, who recently accused Campus Dining Services (CDS), a meal provider on their campus, of “cultural appropriation” via calories.

Instead of serving Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwiches, students were being sold “a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish”. CDS’s General Tso’s chicken did “not resemble the popular Chinese dish”, and the sushi was “disrespectful” in that it featured “undercooked rice and [a] lack of fresh fish”.

Crisis talks have since been held, during which we are assured that CDS “took [the students] very seriously and were taking notes the whole time”, and that they have pledged to change the “naming process of meals by not associating excessively modified dishes with specific cultures”.

CDS explained that the poor labeling of these meals was due to the fact that they were sourced from online recipes, and this presumably also explains the (more obviously problematic) inclusion of beef in an Indian tandoori that was served on Diwali, a Hindu holiday (as you’d no doubt know, many Hindi people do not eat beef).

Leaving aside the potential offense to religious sensibilities: On the standards being set by the students here, all Italians should be expected to live in a constant state of offense, given what passes for espresso and pizza in most of the world.

Any low-grade restaurant that offers regional cuisine will take short-cuts and make substitutions, while trying to maintain a close enough connection to the source dish that some form of family resemblance is retained.

The problem here is with cheap food and low-grade dining, rather than cultural appropriation – and cheap food and low-grade dining are features you’re almost guaranteed to find in any campus cafeteria.

Of course it’s true that CDS’s sushi isn’t “authentic”, and that in Japan, “sushi is regarded so highly that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it”.

But on the standards set by genuine sushi masters, most commercially available sushi is going to disappoint you – and I’d suggest that we’d usually respond by reminding ourselves that the best and most authentic regional cuisine will be often found in that region, and prepared by experts – meaning that this disappointment is par for the course, rather than an insult.

And then, is it even possible to “appropriate” a culture via badly-prepared instances of dishes that are arguably not even culturally-specific? I’m thinking here of General Tso’s Chicken, which is also identified as problematic by the students.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, “the dish is found neither in Changsha, the capital of Hunan, nor in Xiangyin, the home of General Tso”. And while it seems to be an adaptation of a Hunanese chicken dish, it’s an adaptation that was only created in the 1970s, likely at one of the two New York restaurants that claim credit for it.

Can a poorly-executed version of a modern dish, created in a hybrid Chinese-American culture, really serve as an instance of appropriating Chinese culture? It seems distinctly oversensitive to say that it could.

As is my custom here, I’m trying to draw a subtle distinction, rather than reject the concerns of these students outright. The distinction is in the difference between saying “these dishes are misleadingly labelled – we thought we were going to get X but instead we got Y” or instead saying “you are offending me by appropriating my culture”.

On a related, but lighter and no doubt less controversial note, Times Higher Education have tackled the vital question of how what academics eat (or don’t eat) shapes our identities.

Each meal that fell short of academics’ hopes, Professor Fincher said, had a profound impact on their professional identity.

“The sandwiches they eat or don’t eat are more than a missing meal,” she argued. “They are the distance between the actual academic life and the idealisation of what we would like it to be.”

As in the Oberlin case, I’d have to report that one of the primary reasons I don’t eat on campus is that the cafeteria food is often rather poor. (Incidentally, the coffee would also cause an Italian great distress.)

But I had no idea that this was supposed to be (or, is) invoking an identity crisis for myself and other academics. Or more worrying, that there is evidence of “‘institutional collusion’, in which departments had scheduled meetings directly over lunchtime, leaving staff with no chance to have a proper meal”.

At UCT, we often have meetings over lunchtime. I’ve always thought that this was simply because there are fewer people teaching at that time, so diaries are easier to coordinate. But I’ll now be watching you closely, meeting-schedulers!

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.