Rachel Laudan

Other People’s Food: Owning Food

“We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.  Our fame, our children, the work of our hands, may be as dear to us as our bodies, and arouse the same feelings and the same acts of reprisal if attacked.”

William James,  Principles of Psychology (1890)

Although William James was writing a hundred years ago, his words capture the outrage that people express when they believe that their food has been appropriated.

As an example, consider the question “Who Owns Southern Food?” (where “food” refers to the cuisine of the American South) and the fervor with which it is addressed, as in the articles here and here.

Yet “Who Owns Southern Food?” might seem an odd question if you haven’t been following American food politics. What’s owning got to do with food? You might own a dairy farm, perhaps, or a pantry full of groceries, but a whole cuisine? What’s going on? A whole lot, it turns out.

Property (along with power and memory or heritage) recurs time and again in the articles coming fast and furious about appropriation.

Property, power, and memory are issues that have been on my intellectual to-do list for ages, so now’s the perfect time to try to get a bit clearer about them.  It turns out that my earlier optimism that I could develop answers that satisfied me, even if no one else, in just three or four blog posts was totally overblown.

Just on property, I’m drafting four posts: “Owning Land and Bodies;” “Owning Knowledge;” “Owning Things Made in a Certain Place;” and “Owning Culture.”

There’s no avoiding the legal literature.  Laws are not everything about ownership, as William James makes clear, but they are where practices are tested, established, and changed.

Ownership is central to all the cultural appropriation debates not just the debate about culinary appropriation in the American South. The kind of ownership at stake, however, depends on the particular group and its history.

For convenience, I am going to classify the groups protesting culinary appropriation into four rough categories.

Indigenous peoples worldwide. They tend to be most concerned about ownership of land, and about how their history and culture (cultural property) are represented (or branded).

Peoples in former white colonies, particularly those who were lower in the social scale in those colonies. Migrants, often from those colonies, now in wealthy countries. These two groups also tend to be vexed by how their cultural property (cuisine) is treated. They are not so concerned about ownership of land.

African Americans, whose long history of deprivation of ownership of body, land, intellectual, and cultural property, followed by promises, all too often broken, of access, bring that entire record to many aspects of food, including cultural property (cuisine), intellectual property (trademarks and copyright) and land.

This, the preceding posts, and the ones to follow are works in progress and subject to correction as I learn more.


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11 thoughts on “Other People’s Food: Owning Food

  1. waltzingaustralia

    I look forward to reading your ideas as they develop. One question that the debate raises for me is “exactly when does it become owned?” For example, most Southern cuisine came over from England — fried chicken, chitterlings, collard greens, salt pork, Chess pie. A few elements got added in the New World, either by Native Americans (primarily maize/corn) or by enslaved Africans, who prepared these dishes in plantation kitchens and added okra and black-eyed peas to the mix. So how do we define who owns the foods? The people who introduced the ingredients and dishes? People who added elements? People who cooked the food? And what is owned? Obviously not ingredients. I think you’re right when you say this is going to be difficult to discuss—especially since there are so many thousands of years of “precedent” on the side of sharing.

  2. Erica Peters

    Looking forward to hearing more about those categories of peeved people. I’m curious whether you see the Vietnamese-American outrage over the “appropriation of pho” as fitting into the “migrants from a former white colony” category. The French controlled Vietnam, but didn’t settle there in large numbers, so I’m not sure if you see it operating the same way as, say, Mexico.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Erica, these are incredibly rough categories. Agreed, Vietnam was not a settlement colony. And the whole of Latin America fits awkwardly into the later pattern of European colonization. And I haven’t mentioned class. Many of the complaints about the appropriation of Mexican food, to take one example, rest on the assumption that Mexicans are poor and brown when often what is being served is the food of the middle class. Anything that suggests a slightly more complex situation that white versus people of color seems useful, I hope.

      1. Erica Peters

        Yes, and in particular I love essays which open up respectful conversations about history, class and migration — as opposed to making rigid pronouncements about who “owns” a dish.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Let’s hope this is helpful and productive. I know I’ve learned a lot doing the reading.

  3. Linda Makris

    Good luck Rachel,
    Hope you get a lot of feedback, and you definitely will for obvious reasons. Are you going to include examples or keep discussions general? Such as are moussaka and baklava Greek or Turkish? These dishes found all over Balkans and near East. Hope you will be able to trace some historical origins, including linguistic roots. You have set yourself a daunting task. Kudos to you! Linda M.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Linda, I will give specific examples though whether I will get into, say, the Ottoman and Japanese empires I am not sure. I have to prevent this becoming totally unwieldy.

  4. ganna

    Dont forget the ‘protected designation of origin’ we have in the EU. Adult politicians can get pretty hot and territorial over the name of, say, a kind of cheese. I had to translate several of these Regulations and had trouble deciding whether to laugh or to cry.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      They’re about third in line. A big new trend that I have quite a few qualms about.

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