In 2016, the magazine Bon Appétit, specialized in recipes and restaurant reviews, released a video about a Vietnamese inspired venue that created a scandal on social media. Since the so-called #PhoGate incident, ink flew intensively about the alleged food cultural appropriation, arguing the misuse of food codes from a specific culture by another cultural group (often economically dominant). The criticisms have nevertheless tended to give a really blurred definition of what they meant by cultural appropriation, or even made it sound like a straight-forward interdiction for non-indigenous people to cook or enjoy the culinary heritage of one particular tradition. That hostility to cultural transfers goes against cultural dynamics, which can hardly develop isolated, especially in our always more globalized world. It is then interesting to know what we mean by “cultural appropriation”, and thus how it may (and if it needs to) be avoided.
Written by: Caroline Capdepon
At the origins of cultural communication: colonialism
Most first cultural contact involving food took place in contexts of exploration and colonialism. Dietler defined colonialism as the “practices of control deployed in interactions between societies linked in asymmetrical relations of power and the processes of social and cultural transformation resulting” (Dietler 2007, p220). So, colonialism can be understood as an asymmetrical form of domination between cultures, from which results sociocultural changes for all cultural groups involved. In this process of cultural exchanges, exogenous objects such as food have been involved in dynamic proceedings of cultural evolution: notably in “the selective domestication (or “indigenization”) of formerly foreign goods, practices, and tastes and the rejection of others” (Dietler 2007, p224).
The adoption and imposition of specific products and dishes due to asymmetrical relations between cultures have participated in modifying cultural habits and in shaping current food traditions. Some cuisines even testify of a series of cultural contacts between dominant and dominated cultures: for example, curry has been recognized as local cuisine in at least four countries across centuries. Curry takes his roots in India, although the vindaloo was created based on the Portuguese vinha d’alhos during European explorations of the 16th century; it was then adapted to the taste of British people during colonial times, and became so popular that Japan made its very own adaptation under Meiji era (Collingham 2006, p59, p251). Food is thus an element that evidences historical cultural communication.
Time as a catalyzer of naturalization
Nowadays, many foods have “become “indigenized” to the point that they come to be considered a fundamental marker of local ethnic cuisine” (Dietler 2007, p223). Through the process of indigenization, some aliments have become historical markers, before being slowly naturalized until their initial context of exchange got lost. Some culinary items such as rice or eggplant have known a very long journey and ended up being produced and consumed worldwide, losing their original “meanings and practices” (Dietler 2007, p229). This lack of traceability also induces a loss of identity construction, that needs to be retraced to understand local evolutions and their implication in global cultural dynamics, and to realize how the role of time has erased some cultural contacts from our memories.
In his analysis of Yucatecan gastronomy, Ayora-Diaz gives to Dietler’s indigenization the name of “territorialization” (Ayora-Diaz 2012, p57), that is to say a local adoption and routinization of specific products. He affirms that the process of naturalization builds up a “culinary ‘tradition’” that generates local identity and “draws boundaries between group members and outsiders” (Ayora-Diaz 2012, p60). So, drawing the map of culinary traditions with their specificities takes part in defining current cultural identities, but alone is not enough to get the uniqueness of each culture if we consider that several cultural groups naturalized similar products, within different contexts. Moreover, ignoring the construction of culinary identities, often born from the asymmetrical relations evoked before, may lead to the naturalization and maintenance of the unequal relations themselves. That is what has been denounced as cultural appropriation in the last years.
The perks of consciousness in cultural appreciation
According to these criticisms, positive cultural exchanges are still not plentiful, and obviously it is hard to reach enlightened and respectful exchanges. Colonialism and its naturalized practices have let asymmetrical relations and circulation of cultural features strongly anchored in our current societies. But the demonization of cultural selective appropriation does not acknowledge it as an inevitable process that “happens everywhere and continuously, given that societies have never existed in a state of isolation”, and that it is not “unique to colonial situations” (Dietler 2007, p225).
Rogers defined a conceptual framework in which cultural appropriation is nothing but the “active process” of adopting others’ cultural elements. This process can happen “in various ways, under a variety of conditions, and with varying functions and outcomes” (Rogers 2006). In this scheme, cultural appropriation can appear as cultural dominance or exploitation, in which a dominant culture imposes or takes elements from a subordinated culture, but also cultural exchange, in which the transmission of cultural elements is “reciprocal” (Rogers 2006) in the sense that it is made voluntarily and with full recognition given to the culture from where the elements come.
The problem of food cultural appropriation would then be less in the act of taking itself than in the fact of denying the historical transformations that resulted in current traditions and cultural boundaries. Conversely, by being conscious of historical processes and acknowledging cultural transfers, it is possible to avoid falling in the defensive reflex of cultural belonging currently dominant. Cultural appropriation would thus take a more ideal form of cultural appreciation, and allow to maintain cultural communication through food or other cultural features without blurring cultural identities.
About the author
Caroline Capdepon completed her B.A. in Art History at the School of the Louvre. She then moved towards the M.A World Heritage Studies of BTU, Cottbus, in Germany, to open up her horizons. This allowed her to deepen her passion for cultural diversity and intangible cultural heritage, which she studies and celebrates in her kitchen and cities’ explorations.
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- Ayora-Diaz, S. I. “Gastronomic Inventions and the Aesthetics of Regional Food: The Naturalization of Yucatecan Taste”, Etnofoor, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012. Accessible by https://www.researchgate.net/
- Collingham, L. Curry : a tale of cooks and conquerors, New-York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Accessible by books.google.fr
- Dietler, M. “Culinary Encounters: Food, Identity, and Colonialism” The Archaeology of Food and Identity, edited by Kathryn Twiss, no. 34, Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ, 2007. Accessible by academia.edu
- Rogers, R. “From cultural exchange to transculturation: A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation”, Communication Theory, vol. 16, no. 4, 2006. Accessible by https://www.semanticscholar.org/