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Thought leader: Cultural appropriation in food

Last week, we published a news snippet about the upcoming opening of a restaurant that we have now removed. While the name of the restaurant bothered us, we didn’t know then about the deep history of hurt and sexual harassment that comes with the phrase. We were blind to the hurt that it has caused and unwittingly perpetuated the hurt. This incident has opened our eyes to many more of these issues.

Even without understanding the derogatory roots of the phrase, we should’ve spotted and called out the inherent racial slur. That we did nothing is worrying on many levels. It is something we’re continuing to have conversations about; conversations we hope to also have with our readers, food-writers and chefs in the future. 

In the meantime, and in the spirit of educating ourselves and drawing on the expertise of our fellow journalists, we asked Eat Out restaurant critic Ishay Govender-Ypma (@IshayGovender) to share her thoughts on the issue, and some of the most pervasive ways it continues to shape the food world.

Are we STILL having this conversation in 2017?

In the last two years, the food world has had to confront many uncomfortable global truths. At its core, food is political. Our broken social and economic systems are built on patriarchy. Sexism and harassment have thrived in the kitchens unfettered (consider Atlanta chef John Besh of late), and we (certainly the West) have operated restaurants with the marginalised slogging in the back as cleaners, line cooks or wait staff, and the more privileged (read: white folks), donning the chef’s hats or front of house positions. The cultural appropriation of food has been an issue tearing up social media streams and birthing numerous op-eds of late.

As with all issues pertaining to appropriation we mustn’t lose sight of three vitals: context, the rights of the marginalised (as well as their right to voice concern/objection) and a status quo that’s, to be mild, rotten. Consider these examples that consumed headlines for weeks: two white American women from Portland who stole recipes from Mexican grandmothers they spied on while on holiday and opened a burrito cart back home (closed due to protest), and the controversial video by Bon Appetit (taken down since with apology) of a non-Asian chef demonstrating an unconventional way of eating Vietnamese pho as the ideal way to do it. The magazine tried to punt pho as the new ramen – so to compound the complex issues attached to the concept of appropriation, the desire to be on-trend, relevant and capture ‘clickable’ links have added to the mess.

South Africa has its own issues with cultural appropriation in spades. Our history and lack of transformation in the food and wine world combine to provide the perfect environment for inequality, racism, misogyny and appropriation to thrive. The facts in brief: a 91% majority of people of colour, 80% of whom are Black, with no adequate representation as restaurant owners, wine makers, head chefs, creative consultants and food magazine editors and writers.

Naturally, we must acknowledge the people of colour who have been trailblazing tirelessly in the industry – the likes of Dorah Sithole, Cass Abrahams, activist Zayaan Khan, and an emerging generation of new voices in food television, food and wine. They deserve our support.

Enter: Misohawni. Phonetics for “Me So Horny”. Taiwanese South African copywriter Ming-Cheau Lin sent a tweet about the new Melville restaurant that went viral overnight. In it, she called out the racist slur embedded in the name and pleaded with the owners, who were punting a mish-mash of Asian and Polynesian food from ramen to poke, to reconsider it, and shared how she has been sexually harassed numerous times by white men using the phrase. An international community of Asians and allies shared the tweet in protest, and harrowing accounts of violence, racism and harassment they’ve experienced by men using the phrase.

“Me So Horny” is associated with Vietnamese prostitutes desperate during the Vietnam/American War. In the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket, a prostitute uses the phrase, and is counter-offered a lesser fee by a soldier who calls her a derogatory name. So, as far as rational, considerate thought processes go, its use is cruel, racist and any association to humor, or wit falls away. After all, context is vital. And there’s nothing funny about misogyny.

Called out by the likes of Mashable and Vice Munchies, the owners took a day to respond and spent it furiously re-designing their beloved logo, with a PR-standard apology issued, spinning what they formerly called a pun as a ‘mishap’. You can imagine how that went down. It’s worth your time to note that this pair own a club called Toy Toy, essentially appropriating a significant Southern African protest march or “dance”, the toyi toyi. The toyi toyi is never performed at the drop of a gumboot at say, a Black wedding reception or dance party.

Thando Ndabezitha, copywriter and Eat Out reviewer says that the food of “other” cultures (historically like Chinese, Mexican and numerous indigenous Black cultures) have long been considered to be strange, inferior and backwards compared to European cuisine. “Until [that is] it becomes cool, trendy and hip to take certain aspects of marginalised cultures to appropriate them to the dominant culture. This is the most disingenuous way of trying to show appreciation,” she says. The lack of reflection about what she calls the “crass commercialisation of ‘otherness’” is damaging, particularly when those foods are prepared as poor estimations of the original versions, sold at high prices and no credit is given to the source.

There’s a lot to learn from this blatant appropriation for current and future restaurant owners and it presents an ideal opportunity to evolve past our staid ways of doing business in this country. There have been concerns thrown around about people simply lacking a sense of humour, taking things “too far” and cries of ‘reverse racism’. Firstly, we need to educate ourselves – the work has been done and the resources are free. There is no such thing as reverse racism, understand white privilege, and why there are boundaries to what you can take and pass off as your own – i.e people aren’t being oversensitive, you simply don’t know enough. History has shown that the food prepared by slaves, be it in the American South or the Western Cape has shaped our palates but much of the recipes and stories published for profit have been done so by white writers. These profits, even if recipes were taken with “consent” (for how can your servant ever consent?) are based on a legacy of appropriation.

Recently Wolgat chef and owner Kobus van der Merwe shared a thoughtful Instagram post about reconsidering how he uses the foods and recipes of the marginalised. He mentioned always crediting ideas and recipes and his discomfort with punting Cape Malay foods as his own and the daily practise of navigating the food scene with respect and sensitivity. One asks how the Cape Malay curries are often typecast as “sweet”, “mild” or fruity. Yes, raisins may appear in some rice dishes occasionally, but the curries in Cape Malay homes are never sweet or studded with fruit. Traditionally, authors recounting the Cape Malay story have always been white and the food was tempered for their palates. Historian Gabeba Baderoon in Regarding Muslims says that it boils down to the visibility of the Cape Malay cuisine but the invisibility of the people themselves.

Our work, to change how we protect our food cultures and give visibility where it is due, has only just begun.

Would you like to join the conversation? Contact us at info@eatout.co.za with the subject line ‘Joining the conversation’.

Featured photo credit: Flickr user Sutr.

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