Fall is here and Halloween just more than a month away, which means we’re less than a month away from the self-righteous reminders to parents that they dare not let their children dress up as American Indians or any culturally diverse Disney character (although it remains to be seen how an American child dressing up as an islander princess is any less appropriate than an American corporation raking in dollars from her movie).
The damning umbrella of “cultural appropriation” has been stretched out and slapped on so much that any substantial meaning it had is far gone. There are plenty of ways to point out the logical holes in the automatic cries of “cultural appropriation!” that surface anytime a child dons a sombrero, but the best defense against the “cultural appropriation” shamefest might just be in your kitchen.
The Great American Melting Potluck
I was standing in a hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant adjacent to a gas station, waiting on two servings of mandu, when it struck my American mind what a marvelous luxury I was partaking in. My casual jaunt to get takeout would have blown the minds of my ancestors centuries ago. How did people not get tired of eating the foods that were native to their regions? was my simplistic consternation while my food was in the fryer.
Of course, as traders and colonists canvassed the globe, they increased the international foods market, bringing spices and other ingredients to and from ports around the world. The injustices that accompanied colonialism notwithstanding, the practice brought about more cultural fusion, culinary and otherwise, than the ancestors of colonists and their foreign trading partners could have fathomed.
But the flavors at our disposal today far outpace the varieties of the colonial era. It’s not only possible, but hardly noteworthy, to eat crepes for breakfast, curry for lunch, and lasagna for dinner. Not only can you make them all in your home, you can likely run to a nearby restaurant and have them made for you.
Few would argue with the fact that the American melting pot of food is a good thing. Who doesn’t enjoy the diversity of cuisines available to the modern palate?
The Culture Police Want Us to Stop Sharing
But if you apply the phobia of the “cultural appropriation” shamers, all of that variety becomes the fruit of the poisonous tree. Cultural appropriation, we’re told, is “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.”
To avoid the adoption of other cultural tastes, practices, and ideas would make the great American culinary potluck impossible, not to mention the social experiment of American diversity overall. If they stand by their broad definitions, the cultural appropriation police would have us exist in separate subdivisions of Italian Americans, Cuban Americans, Chinese Americans, French Americans, etc. Not only is such narcissism impossible, no one in his right mind would want it.
Of course, these people would say there is a “right” way to “appreciate” other cultures without “appropriating” them. It’s fine if you have permission, or make a point to show that you understand the culture you’re enjoying.
But who am I supposed to get permission from before I make enchiladas? (Or, for that matter, before picking out a Halloween costume?) And what does “understanding” an entire culture even mean? If I’m choosing to cook or eat food from a particular culture, it’s safe to assume I’m recognizing its value and appreciating it. They used to say that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
The Beauty of Synthesis
To be fair, there’s a difference between enjoying an authentic Japanese dish and annexing parts of it to your own palate. But neither is necessarily wrong. A red flag for the cultural appropriation police is the involvement of cultural elements without preserving their original form. But it’s impossible for human beings anywhere on the planet to interact without this happening to some degree or another.
What we think of as “Italian food” or “Chinese food” or “Mexican food” today, of course, most likely isn’t the same thing people in Italy and China and Mexico ate centuries ago. Does the fact that, rather than preserving it perfectly, the American melting pot has further developed some of these cuisines mean that we’ve misused them?
Of course not. It’s not all perfectly authentic and in its original form, but that doesn’t mean the “Americanized” versions have rudely disregarded their roots. Instead, we’ve created synthesis — with the delicious results of everything from egg rolls with the ingredients you might find in a burrito, to tacos or pizza with fillings and toppings that the Mexicans and Italians who first created them probably never knew existed.
The United States is brimming with examples of the art, success, and increased quality of life that creative interactions between cultures can produce. Food is just one example we can all gather around. If that’s cultural appropriation, I hope American ingenuity keeps it coming.
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