For about a year or so I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about racism and cultural appropriation in the digital food media industry. It’s a controversial topic – one that I can see both sides of.
That being said, I do have a strong opinion on the matter, especially when it comes to the concept of “cooking other people’s food.”
There is a notion that influencers, media, or people of authority should not cook and share food that is not their own. For example, as a brown woman of Caribbean decent, I’m apparently not supposed to cook and blog about Japanese cuisine, or Indian cuisine, or German cuisine… you get the idea. The claim is by doing so, as a person who is not from that culture, you are appropriating someone else’s culture and being disrespectful and racist and so on.
Of course, I personally think that’s complete nonsense. Food is a universal language that connects us on a level that is more powerful than language or politics or religion. Fear and discrimination arise out of lack of understanding, or the willingness to understand, people who are different than us. So what better way to explore other people and cultures than by exploring their cuisine?
This is not to say that mistakes can’t be made. Do I think that broccoli cooked in a nonstick pan with a bit of peanut oil should be called a stir fry? No, not really. Sometimes it may be better to call a dish “pan fried broccoli” because that’s what it is.
But on the other hand, I’m sure there’s more than one way to make that dish. So who’s to say what is “authentic” and what is not?
In the same way that I don’t care who people are sleeping with, or what religion someone follows (if any), I really could not care less about what someone cooks in their kitchen. If you’re favourite dinner is baked salmon, basted in a miso glaze, topped with ghost peppers and a touch of Za’atar, good for you. There’s probably someone else out there who will love that too.
Maybe I’m being unreasonable… but I truly disagree that cooking, playing with, or being inspired by other cuisines is wrong.
I guess it depends on the context. If I bought a cookbook on classic Japanese cuisine, or I was watching a cooking show on the same topic, my expectation would be for the material to be culturally accurate. Conversely, If I was reading someone’s blog, or watching a video on YouTube, I’d expect a recipe that they had created which reflects their personal tastes.
Magazines are a bit of a grey area for me, as they can be educational but are often more focused on entertainment. I don’t expect too much cultural accuracy from publications like Bon Appetit – although I agree that the whole pho video fiasco was totally cringe-worthy.
So what’s got my back up today, if this has been going on for so long? Well, this article set me off today.
There are some points that I agree with, such as “don’t call something gross or weird because it’s unusual to you.” Which really, is just basic manners. While I will be the first to tell you if I tried something and I hated it, I’m not going to point to someone else eating it and say, “eww that’s so gross!”
We’re not in a high-school cafeteria.
I laughed when I read the author’s complaint that “most dinner tables aren’t strewn with random vegetables and little bowls of turmeric.” No kidding!
No one sits on their bed, in knee-high socks and a perfectly pressed white dress shirt, eating unicorn cupcakes and bowls of fruit, whilst surrounded with all their wordly possessions. But I don’t see anyone writing articles complaining about those Instagram photos.
But what really annoyed me was this idea that people who are styling food with the wrong utensils, or are sharing recipes that are outside of their heritage, are being racist. That perspective is extreme, but maybe that’s what the author was going for. Clickbait, anyone?
While ignorance may not be a great excuse for making a mistake in your food styling or photography, calling these mistakes racism is a stretch. Of course it doesn’t hurt to (and you probably should) do a bit of research before you create your content. It would prevent you from making a mistake that might offend someone. It’s a best practice, for sure.
The concept of asking people’s permission before photographing them (or at least, photographing their face), is also common sense. And we all know not to ever photograph someone else’s child without permission, right?
But I must disagree with this particular statement: “don’t treat other cultures as if they exist for you to explore.”
If we cannot explore other cultures, how can we ever hope to understand and appreciate them?
Just some food for thought.
Images in this post are stock images from Death to the Stock Photo.