No one but a fool, particularly a white upper middle class fool, would plunge into the debate swirling around culinary appropriation. I’m that fool.*

Like many people, I’ve been trying to get my head straight about culinary appropriation.

Culinary appropriation is not a distant issue to me. My first food book on the cuisines of Hawaii nearly didn’t get published because the publisher, the University of Hawaii Press, thought that a “mainland haole (white person)” author like me publishing on the foods of the Islands would provoke a political uproar. The uproar never happened. The episode did, however, mean that I was never in the slightest doubt that dealing with the foods of other peoples could be political dynamite.

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Edit. This is one of a series of posts on attitudes to other people’s foods, arranged in rough historical order. I anticipate about five or six in all. Although this is a hot topic, the posts won’t be coming thick and fast, in part because I have other things I want to blog about, more important because I need time to think and read before sounding off.

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Now, to be clear. Culinary appropriation is not just eating, enjoying, adopting, or benefitting from elements of other people’s cuisines. That’s gone on throughout history.  Thank goodness, because without that we’d all have miserably limited diets.

No, the core elements of culinary appropriation are three.

  1. A transfer of knowledge of food (raw material, ingredient, dish, or whole cuisine) from one group to another group or individual.
  2. A sharp difference in power such that the obtaining group can exploit the food knowledge in a way that the original group could not. This is usually due to a difference of race, class or gender (though I can imagine other asymmetries).
  3. Hence recognition and money accruing to the obtaining group (or individual) without acknowledgement or reward to those who generated the food knowledge.

As a white upper middle class person and citizen of two of the most powerful empires of the twentieth century, I can appropriate the cuisine of others.  But by the above definition, if others chose to write about or offer for sale my cuisine (English, so I am not in fear and trembling that it will happen), that is not appropriation.

The great advantage of the term appropriation (which has been around much longer in music, literature, and the arts than in food) is that it suggests theft, it creates shock, it makes people examine their behavior in a new way.

The consequences (or perhaps disadvantages, depending on your perspective) are two.

First, that since it’s often not defined precisely, it leads the kind of shouting matches that have occurred on social media in the past few weeks.

Second, that this leads to antagonism and defensiveness from which it’s hard to recover.

As a result, I’ve bracketed “culinary appropriation” for the time being in favor of “dealing with other people’s food.” (I’d also love to introduce a little humor, or at least irony, because humor can both lighten and enlighten moral competitions that verge on the priggish. Unfortunately, humor is not my strong point so there won’t be much.)

Dealing with other people’s food is something every individual, every society has to decide how to handle. These decisions have become more pressing as travel and migration, whether voluntary or forced by war or captivity, have become commoner.  I’ll be looking at how these decisions have been re-worked over time because I am, after all a historian.  So expect several posts.

In the meantime, I’ll end with a favorite quote of mine from the distinguished historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown.

“How to draw on a great past without smothering change. How to change without losing one’s roots. Above all, what to do with the stranger in one’s midst—with men excluded in a traditionally aristocratic society, with thoughts denied expression by a traditional culture, with needs not articulated in conventional religion, with the utter foreigner from across the frontier.  These are the problems which every civilized society has to face.”
As usual, comments and corrections welcome.

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*This is the second time in two weeks that I am doing so, the first being in on the BBC World Service program The Food Chain in a discussion called Hands Off My Food. The other participants were Michael Twitty, author of the forthcoming, The Cooking Gene, Clarissa Wei journalist and author of a Munchies article “On the Struggles of Writing about Chinese Food as a Chinese Person,” and Alex Stupak, chef and founder of the Empellon chain of Mexican restaurants. Unlike some of the debates about culinary appropriation I’ve seen on social media, this was both civil and wide-ranging, thanks to generous participants and Emily Thomas’s fine moderation.

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