Bad taste of PC foodies

Cultural appropriation in cooking is wonderful, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Eating In

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

‘We’re auditing our existing recipes to address appropriation and tokenization.” So a “Director of Research” at a food mag, oddly called Bon Appétit, tells us: surely the organ’s French name is cultural theft and gross misrepresentation by an unappetising American publication.

Prudent cooks no longer mix curries of diverse provenance, as scullery “celebrity” Alison Rudman recently did, to near-universal obloquy: that’s “culinary injustice”. Don’t go easy on the chilli or use African chocolate in your mole poblano: you may be accused of “ethnic erasure”.

When ideas from different cultures are imperfectly absorbed, new ideas ensue

If you’re white, don’t share a recipe for collard greens with a black reader: that’s two colours too many. Excuse me while I go black in the face. Much drivel afflicts our world: misplaced vengeance on dead white philanthropists, ignorant vandalism against old-fashioned street furniture, racism masquerading as anti-racism, abuse of the gender lexicon, pandemic-generated panic and pandemonium, self-righteous censorship in subversion of common sense. But is any woke wickedness as joyless or tasteless as a politically correct recipe?

Cultural appropriation is good. When ideas from different cultures are imperfectly absorbed, new ideas ensue. Exchange promotes change. I detest empires, but, in deference to truth, praise them as culturally creative arenas in which new ways of life, thought, art, language, worship, work, government and food take shape, as people swap and circulate biota, behaviour and brilliance.

Some of the resulting dishes are deplorable. I could live happily in a world without chop suey, chilli con carne, or coronation chicken. I’m not going to try a recipe described in Eater magazine as “huevos Kathmandu that paired green chutney and spiced chickpeas with fried eggs”.

Tex-mex cuisine is Montezuma’s most effective revenge. Rijstafel conquered the Netherlands more thoroughly than the Dutch ever subjected the East, and now rivals the drearier Hutspot as Holland’s national dish. Yet Dutch food still lags behind grandes cuisines.

Vindaloo is the epitome of culinary appropriation: a Bengali dish with ingredients from the Americas — potatoes and chillies — and a corruption of a Portuguese name: vinho d’alho, or garlic wine. It has become so British that “Vindaloo nah-nah” was the chorus of a chant popular among English football fans at a World Cup tournament (perhaps they confused it with Waterloo). I still dislike it.

Curries would be historical curiosities if Indians hadn’t appropriated chillies from Mexico

Usually, however, culturally exchanged foods produce admirable dishes. Chocolate, tomato and avocado are among the few English words derived from Nahuatl. The Aztecs never used the items they designate in pain au chocolat, or tricolore, or avocado toast. But the responsible cultural appropriators deserve praise, not blame.

Satay would be unthinkable if Malays hadn’t incorporated peanuts that Portuguese pinched from Brazil. The basics of cajun cuisine reached Louisiana with “Acadian” migrants from French Canada — but cultural appropriation made it what it is today. Black chefs in the same region would be at a loss without African-born yams.

Curries would be historical curiosities if Indians hadn’t appropriated chillies from Mexico. Is Sichuanese cuisine imaginable without American peppers or sweet potatoes. Tempura would be unavailable if Japanese chefs hadn’t annexed and improved Portuguese techniques of frying. Culinary historians bicker over whether Jewish or Italian immigrants developed fish and chips. But almost everyone agrees that the British could never have done it on their own.

The lesson of food extends to other reviled but flattering forms of cultural imitation. If I donned blackface, it wouldn’t lampoon black people but soi-disant white “coon” performers from Al Jolson to Elvis Presley, who loved black music and wanted to share and diffuse it.

When I dress as a mariachi for a Halloween party, it’s because I wish I could play the trumpet like Miguel Martínez or sing Jalisco like Jorge Negrete.

When Puccini borrowed Zuni rhythms for La fanciulla del West or Dvorak purloined what I suppose what one must no longer call Negro spirituals for his symphony From the New World, they were paying tribute.

When English érudits naturalised French words or pukka sahibs raided Hobson-Jobson they enhanced their own language without impoverishing others’. You can admire the elephant on a Belgian chocolate wrapper without thinking well of Leopold II. My wife does the Eightsome reel while properly respecting Scotland.

The “Cuban” sandwich originated among inventive Cubans in Florida. For this culturally offensive indulgence, use three kinds of pork: a juicy slice of braised loin or shoulder, a fat rasher of crispy bacon, and a tranche of boiled ham (cured, for true culinary mestizaje, in the English manner). Slather, while they’re hot, with mayonnaise enlivened with bits of chopped, dried jalapeños.

It helps, I think, to marinade the peppers in sherry vinegar and lime juice with a dollop of unrefined sugar. Intersperse slivers of pickled gherkin, avocado and tomatoes — brandywine, say, or chocolate-stripe. Serve between slices of toasted sourdough well irrigated with olive oil. You may incur the hatred of politically correct purity-police. But I bet you’ll like the sandwich.

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