Cultural appropriation of food, questions

This was posted on my facebook wall, and is shared here with permission (thanks Joe and Linda!) and I’d like some help answering. Feel free to comment!

“TL;DR – Cultural Appropriation of food.
Hey Tiffany! Linda and I were talking this morning about cultural appropriation as she was wondering where it intersects with cultural foods. A Korean market and Japanese market have opened near to where we live so has helped instigate these thoughts. We couldn’t quite figure out all the nuances and I know posting on your wall often creates the liveliest of debates. Here are some things I was considering:

1) Cultural food is big-commerce in the western world (and anywhere people immigrate, it seems). Many immigrants and even Settler Canadians (thanks for the term, Tiffany) have opened restaurants to serve their cultural foods. However, this trend is arguably helped by challenges to find job or careers in old (white) boys clubs and other high-paying careers that are tied with power in the community. So is eating at these establishments helping those immigrants be successful in a unbalanced system OR is it needlessly supporting that unbalanced system, or both?

2) In the same vein, it may certainly be cultural appropriation if I went to a Japanese restaurant owned and operated by people who are not Japanese. I often favour Japanese owned establishments, but usually the choice is framed as the food will be better, or more authentic, if the owners are Japanese. Either way, it’s rare that I take time to really get to know the owners which might make frequenting the establishments more acceptable as being part of a larger community.

3) Then there is the whole food bastardizations (like Ginger Beef) which are Westernization of cultural food made more “appealing” to the Western palate. And walking that line are the ‘fusion’ cuisines that one could argue is paying homage or taking inspiration from international cuisines, but still irks me when, say, Wendy’s or Earl’s has a Thai chicken wrap.

4) On a more personal level, there is home cooking. Linda and I like to try our hand as making sushi at home. We do it because we like sushi and we tend to buy sushi-grade fish from Asian markets. It doesn’t feel problematic – but being privileged white people, perhaps we can’t see it.

Overall, I see it as a complex issue but I don’t see much discussion about it. I wonder if its due to food we eat not often being considered a social statement? Also, North American culture has access through immigration and shipping networks to such a wide variety of foods and it’s often painted as a great thing and I don’t recall seeing it framed as one of the huge privileges that our society enjoys.

When I try to think of ways to make a similar case like Halloween style cultural appropriation, I imagine the scenario where someone makes culturally significant foods (foods used in cultural rituals). And even worse if they served them at their Western wedding or birthday party. I see that as the worst case, but there is so much grey between that and having a rice course with dinner.

I would love to hear some thoughts on this, especially from people with immigrant relatives who might be closer to this then myself as a third generation Canadian mutt of various European descent and no particular ties to a culture outside of Canadian.”

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