The <i>Washington Post</i> Just Corrected a Joke

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The Washington Post Company headquarters in Washington, March 30, 2012 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Let that sink in.

Earlier this month, Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a column headlined, “You can’t make me eat these foods,” about his distaste for various cuisines, products, and spices — Old Bay, balsamic vinegar, anchovies, sweet pickles, and so on. (Listen, when you have weekly deadlines, you do what you must.) Weingarten wrote his column, as humorists often do, in a self-deprecating tone, casting himself as a troglodytic contrarian.

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One of the cuisines Weingarten mocked was Indian food — praising the subcontinent for its glorious contributions to the world but joking about his distaste for curry.

He described the food as “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice” and joked that whether one likes it comes down to whether one likes curry: “If you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like Indian food.”

Now, my experience tells me that Indian food features a quite diverse array of ingredients and spices — “curry powder” is the rather generic, western term for a spice mix approximating Indian flavors — and it’s delicious. So, as I read the piece on the back page of Sunday’s Washington Post magazine, I silently disagreed — taste is subjective, after all — and moved on with my life.

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You could perhaps understand someone writing an email or tweet pushing back and defending the honor of Indian food. But the backlash to this innocuous 125 words took the form of the laziest of all modern critiques: an inane accusation of racism.

Leading the charge was reality-show hostess — and newly self-proclaimed spokesperson for all Indian people on Earth — Padma Lakshmi, who responded, “on behalf of 1.3 billion people, kindly f**k off.” She wondered whether this was “the type of colonizer ‘hot take’” the Post wanted to publish; one “sardonically characterizing curry as ‘one spice’ and that all of India’s cuisine is based on it?”

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First of all, it’s exceedingly unlikely that every Indian enjoys the cuisine of their native land. I’m Jewish and would rather eat black pudding than a pickled herring. Much of American Jewish cuisine is garbage, and you’re not an anti-Semite for pointing out the obvious. It is also highly unlikely that most Indian Americans, a successful and confident minority, would be mortally offended by a joke about curry.

But aside from all that, who talks like this? I don’t know Weingarten personally, but his Wikipedia page informs me that he grew up in the Bronx, a son of an accountant and a schoolteacher. The only thing he’s “colonizing” is a Washington suburb. Is Lakshmi under the impression that the Weingartens of the Bronx were descendants of a British viceroy? Or is she accusing the Weingartens of the Bronx of colonizing the United States proper, where she also lives? Or is it simply that every white American is a colonizer by historical default? Seems to me that kind of broad-brush rhetoric is far more offensive than mocking a spice blend.

The most concerning part of the incident, though, was that the Post issued a correction at the top of the column, lest anyone be led astray about curry:

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Indian cuisine is based on one spice, curry, and that Indian food is made up only of curries, types of stew. In fact, India’s vastly diverse cuisines use many spice blends and include many other types of dishes. The article has been corrected.

With apologies to Weingarten, the clarification is far funnier — though inadvertently — than his original piece. The Post’s editors corrected a joke.

Weingarten also offered a contrite tweet, noting that “column was about what a whining infantile ignorant d—head I am. I should have named a single Indian dish, not the whole cuisine, & I do see how that broad-brush was insulting. Apologies. (Also, yes, curries are spice blends, not spices.)” Dear Lord. How is he supposed to write a humor column without using hyperbole or mocking a target?

Of course, as Tim Carney points out, in 2011, Weingarten called gun owners “bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches.” It’s a dumb generalization that would never be corrected, nor should it. Writers, especially humorous ones, rely on caricatures and generalizations all the time. If it’s acceptable to taunt tens of millions of peaceful gun owners, it should be okay to diss chana masala. Americans shouldn’t segregate into mockable and non-mockable factions. But if outlets keep surrendering to humorless scolds like Padma Lakshmi, that’s our mind-numbing future.

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