“Cultural” Appropriation of Cuisines?

Cover photo : the tendency of the Northern States (of México, not el otro lado) to consume their menudo with a bolillo rather than the typical tortilla.

Strap yourself in.

This one rambles a bit. I’m trying to sort something out in my head.

Lalo Alcaraz is an American cartoonist most known for being the author of the comic La Cucaracha, the first nationally syndicated, politically themed Latino daily comic strip. La Cucaracha has become one of the most controversial in the history of American comic strips due to his thought provoking and hysterically self deprecating view of Latino life in the U.S of A. He is also known for his input in the highly irreverent (and also controversial) cartoon Bordertown which focuses on the life of a US border patrol agent living in the town of Mexifornia and his next door neighbour Ernesto, a Mexican immigrant, and his family. Its level of “appropriateness” is about equal to that of South Park. Bordertown is a perfect analogy for the chaos that exists at these in-between places. What does this have to do with food? Patience por favor.

If you have never heard of the cartoon South Park then I am unable to help you.

Now we begin to question food. How does the food of one culture even enter that of another. The first step would be tourism. Whether that be the type of tourism as that of Cortes (1) or the more mundane type of venturing that grows from a curiosity to experience a world other than your own. On these journeys the first foods we come across are those on the street. These memories of these foods are then taken back to the country the traveller came from. They talk about and try to emulate these foods. This might involve the searching for ingredients amongst immigrant communities in your city or the importation of specific ingredients. The more dedicated might even grow ingredients that are not easy to come by. If enough people show interest then it’s not long before these ingredients (or versions modified according to the cultural requirements of that society) start to show up in chain supermarkets as they attempt to profit from the interest. To supermarkets it may be a fad to be profited from but it does have the effect of exposing others to this food and hopefully the culture it evolved from.

  1. the first visit of a land surveyor viewing all that he plans to “develop” (or more correctly the first visit of a thief so he can case the joint before the heist)

Another place this exchange also occurs is at the borderland. At the places in between. I live in a single country. A large rock whose borders are surrounded on all sides by water. Most places are not like this. Most landmasses share more than one country squeezed into the confines of its coastal outline. It is the meeting at the fringes of these countries where each freely bleeds into the other that a form of cultural osmosis occurs and something new, but familiar, is created. Food is a universal language that adapts rapidly to this exchange. Now we walk the streets of the border, sometimes crossing over, and we get something to eat.

Comida Callejera : Street Food

The archetypal street food of the Mexican is the taco (1). Although not always known as a taco the habit of wrapping food in tortillas has no doubt been around as long as tortillas have been in existence. There are varying theories as to the etymology of the word taco ranging from prehispanic (2) to the silver miners of Taxco in the 18th Century (3).

  1. although foods such as tlacoyos, tlayudas, huaraches (in fact anything in the Vitamina T category) are somewhat taco-like in nature. by that I mean the food is enveloped in or sits upon a masa base. A taco is a precooked tortilla and in the case of tlacoyos (and many other dishes) the ingredients are placed in uncooked masa and then cooked on a comal.
  2. The word taco comes from the Nahuatl word ‘tlahco’ which means “half or in the middle”, referring to the way it is formed. https://www.vallartaeats.com/history-of-the-taco/#:~:text=The%20word%20taco%20comes%20from,the%20way%20it%20is%20formed.&text=Delicious%20and%20historic%2C%20the%20taco,and%20gastronomic%20diversity%20of%20Mexico. https://nahuatl.uoregon.edu/content/tlaco
  3. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/where-did-the-taco-come-from-81228162/

The taco as it is known in its homeland is not the taco I grew up with.

The taco as I knew it as a child in Australia.
Old El Paso was the only option available and this hard shelled taco
(along with its strongly cumin flavoured beef mince filling) was considered/believed/understood to be Mexican.

They have branched out a little recently

Mix, a Kor-Mex fast food hole in the wall is in a mall in the city of Perth Western Australia.

Can a culture even understand the food of another culture? Is it racist to think that they can’t? Is it appropriative to adopt that food and roll it into your own culture? How much change can be made to the food before it no longer becomes identifiable to the culture it came from?

Take the taco for instance. A friend who has lived in Australia for well over a decade had his mother visit him from the small rural town she lives in in México. She had heard of McDonalds (I guess there aren’t many places in the World this fast food monolith isn’t known) but she was a little surprised that they were making a taco but not calling it such.

When is a taco not a taco?

Great. Now I’m hungry. OK then, where to find a taco?

These are some of the “Mexican” fast food options available to me in my home town. Most exist within shopping malls. Some such as Zambreros and Guzman y Gomez are stand alones and are widely different in the foods they produce. My daughter used to work at a Zambreros and every time someone spoke highly of the excellent Mexican food at the establishment she quietly educated them otherwise. Zambreros food comes prepacked in large plastic bags that are microwaved and then poured into a bain marie. Sad? Yes. Mexican? Harder to answer.

Yes, with an if? No, with a but?

This place is more Cal-Mex than Tex-Mex
and to much critical acclaim (Lord help me) a Taco Bell was opened – the very first – in my home city in 2021. I have eaten there once and sadly say that McDonalds is a superior option.

Just for point of reference my daughters favourite Mexican food is Gigis molletes. This is a perfect example of “genuine” (whatever that means) Mexican food. It is a comfort food and consists of nothing more than yesterdays refried beans spread on a bread roll, covered in cheese and grilled until toasty. Its not something you’ll find in a restaurant but its definitely something you’ll find in a Mexicans culinary repertoire. Actually its probably something you might find on the menu of a restaurant being ironic (and you’ll probably be charged $18 bucks for it). Fucking hipsters.

Culinary Frankensteinism : Appropriation works both ways.

The Mexicans have absorbed and utilised the street foods of other cultures.

The pizza, originally a street food believed to have evolved from Naples, Italy was brought to the Americas after World War II when returning servicemen who had enjoyed the food while stationed in Italy wanted to enjoy the same food at home. Pizza has now become a staple fast food in America. Mexico has taken the pizza and added its own mexicanidad. Italy can also thank México for the tomato without which the pizza would be a very different dish. Who profited most from this interaction?

Birria Pizza

Birria is a dish from the state of Jalisco. It is a slow cooked dish made usually with goat (or sheep) and is flavoured with a combination of chiles, garlic, cumin, bay leaves, and thyme. Often garnished with onion, cilantro, and lime. It is accompanied with corn tortillas

Al pastor is another dish adopted by México. It evolved from the Lebanese food I know as a doner kebab (1) which was marinated lamb cooked on a vertical spit and served in an unleavened flat bread (and which the Mexicans call tacos arabes – arab tacos). The Mexicans took the concept, used pork (which is a forbidden food in Islamic dietary practises), marinated it in achiote and served it in a corn tortilla.

  1. also gyros (giros), shawarma

Then they turned it into a pizza?

Other traditional dishes/flavours have also found their way into pizza form.

Pizzacoa. Barbacoa pizza from Los Tamales in Tacoma Washington.

Pizzas are in fact great and aside from the Pizza Hut attempts at multiculturalism the Mexicans have of course taken it to the next level.

Pixza was founded by chilango born Alejando Souza after an encounter with a homeless person (called Joe). This encounter inspired him to become an agent of change in the World and he saw a way in which he could do that. Using the fruits of his homeland he created the first Pixza outlet (and social empowerment platform) that gave the world the first blue corn pizza with 100% Mexican ingredients and created a company which exclusively employed people in a profile of social abandonment, giving them a 12-month multidimensional empowerment program. The program is about more than just employment but about transforming lives and the World as a result.

Their dough is made with Mexican blue corn.

100% of the corn Pixza buys comes from micro-farms, supporting the local economy.

For every five slices of pizza sold, a sixth one is automatically donated to someone in need. Giving away pizza is not a handout. Each person who gets a slice of pizza receives a bracelet to keep track of how many Pixza slices they’ve gotten.

After five free slices, they are asked to give back by helping deliver pizza to others in need. After receiving 10 slices of pizza and volunteering twice, participants in the program then go to the next level. From there, participants receive a haircut, shower, shirt, doctor’s visit, and free entry into a course to get them back into society. If all goes well they are offered a job either at Pixza or one of their collaborating partners as an official agent of change.

We are a social empowerment platform that began disguised as a Mexican pizzeria (a pixzeria) and now we are on a journey to become the first 100% ethical restaurant chain in the world.

Their Mission is “the sustainable inclusion of people in a profile of social abandonment”

Who knew pizza could save the World?

and of course…….

The pan de muerto pizza is not made by Pixza (just saying)

Then we come to the Mexicanization of sushi.

Sushi is a traditional Japanese dish of prepared vinegared rice, usually with some sugar and salt, accompanied by a variety of ingredients, such as seafood, often raw, and vegetables. Styles of sushi and its presentation vary widely

Some of the varieties/styles of sushi

Mexicos attempts at sushi have been twofold.

Mexico has a world class Japanese food scene and it has co-opted the cooking style that is sushi and “Mexicanned” it.

I examine the phenomenon of Mexican sushi in more detail in the Post Authentic Mexican Food?

Food and Festivals

Dia de Muertos is an interesting phenomena in itself. It has been halloweened and, like salsa overtook ketchup as Americas preferred condiment in the 1990’s, this fiesta will soon overtake the current aberrant Samhain festivities.

Mexicans however will pan de muerto (1) the crap out of everything.

  1. Pan de muerto, is a type of pan dulce (sweet bread) traditionally baked in Mexico during the weeks leading up to the Día de los Muertos, which is celebrated from November 1st to November 2nd.

There is even a pan de muerto beer.

Nothing is safe from the pumpkin spice.

Restaurant Food

Chef Rick Bayless has been getting smashed for this kind of appropriation for some time now.

Ricks “Mexican” food.

It certainly has Mexican roots but it is not what I would term Mexican food. A specific, and very artistic incarnation of mexicana no doubt and one lovingly created in an artists mind but Mexican?

Gentrification?

Appropriation?

You decide.

Other Mexican chefs such as Aarón Sánchez (son of Zarela Martínez who is quite well known for bringing regional Mexican food to New York in 1987 through her restaurant Zarela) and Enrique Olvera (of Pujol in the CDMX) speak out against Ricks cooking being appropriative. Enrique is of the opinion that all food in one way or another is appropriated from somewhere (1). Enrique himself has also been accused of cultural appropriation (and the gentrification of Mexican food) by including various regional Mexican dishes on his menu. Rick has been indirectly supported by Enrique by his views on appropriation and directly supported by Aarón and Zarela whose understanding of his food is that he is championing and showcasing the very best that México has to offer. Rick, and another champion of Mexican cuisine Diana Kennedy (2) have been awarded the Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca for “important work in promoting and disseminating one of the most internationally recognized cultural expressions of our country , such as national gastronomy in general and haute Mexican cuisine in particular”

  1. For instance – where would Italy’s cuisine be without the tomato? Listen to the Lost in Mexico Podcast for an interview with Enrique regarding this. https://www.listennotes.com/es/podcasts/lost-in-mexico/cultural-appropriation-Ab2PJl0-hWE/
  2. Rick received his in 2012 and Diana, who oddly enough has not faced the same level of vitriol as Rick has when it comes to the same subject, received hers in 1981.
  3. the Order of the Aztec Eagle
The Order of the Aztec Eagle
Photo By Alexeinikolayevichromanov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Ricks food……

…….and the dishes that inspired them

Aguachile

Aguachile is a raw marinated seafood dish that is said to originate in the western Mexican state of Sinaloa. It is often compared to ceviche (another marinated raw seafood dish) but, while most ceviche recipes let the seafood sit in the citrus so that it “cooks,” aguachile is served as soon as it’s made.

Manchamanteles (literally, “tablecloth stainer”) in Mexican cuisine, is a type of (sweet) mole (one that doesn’t contain chocolate). A typical recipe for manchamanteles contains turkey, chorizo, pork, pineapple, apple, banana, chiles, almonds, cinnamon, lard, and tomatoes. I’ve never seen it as a dessert before.

By MX – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Calabaza en Tacha, or Candied Pumpkin, is a traditional Mexican recipe of calabaza (a type of winter squash) cooked in brown sugar cane syrup.

It is said that this recipe dates back to pre-Hispanic times in Mexico, when the native Tarascans living in the northwestern state of Michoacán sweetened pumpkins with honey. Now, in Mexico, Calabaza en Tacha is prepared especially for the Day of the Dead

How they’re doing it in the U.K.

Wahaca restaurant in London was started by 2005 Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. The restaurant was named (phonetically) as Wahaca as she believed Oaxaca would be too much to handle for the average British gringo. Gentrification? or education? I think she sorely underestimated the intellect of her patrons and has missed an important opportunity to both inform and educate.

A selection of Thomasina’s comida callejera. I think that her food wanders farther from the path than Ricks does. Many of its elements are drawn from Mexican cuisine but this food is more “fusion” than that of Ricks which is much closer to the source material but is expressed in the haute cuisine (1) style of cookery characterized by the meticulous preparation and careful presentation of food (and which is usually sold at a high price).

  1. Haute cuisine (French: [ot kɥizin]; lit. ‘high cooking’) or grande cuisine is the cuisine of “high-level” establishments, gourmet restaurants and luxury hotels. Haute cuisine, also called grande cuisine, is the classic cuisine of France as it evolved from its beginnings in the 16th century to its fullest flowering in the lavish banquets of the 19th century.
  1. Hispi cabbage (not a take on the word Hispanic as I first thought). Pointed, hispi, hearted, sweetheart cabbage or Chinese cabbage as it is sometimes known is a type of green cabbage with green leaves and a pointed head. The leaves are more open than those of a green cabbage and they have a softer texture and sweeter taste.

Hispi cabbage

Cultural Appropriation?

Mountain Mike’s Pizza is a chain of pizzerias mainly along the West Coast of the United States, primarily in Northern California.
American Wheat Beer (agave nectar wheat ale) 6.3% ABV

Greenbush Brewery is a microbrewery located in Sawyer, Michigan is making 400 Divine Rabbits (a reference to the Centzontotochin – see Posts Mayahuel and the Cenzton Totochtin. and Pulque Curado : Sangre de Conejo (Rabbits Blood for more information on these conejo borrachos)

It is not just food that has a problem with appropriation.

This book was widely attacked for its portrayal of México and Mexicanidad (after being widely praised and even finding a place in Oprahs book club)(1). There was a major fuss over conchas (2) which were supplied to the heroine of the book by the main antagonist, a drug lord. I found this to be somewhat amusing as the conchas were considered too “peasant” and a drug lord would have been more discerning. It is interesting however that conchas are often mentioned (on some of the social media platforms that I follow) as being a comfort food of fond reminiscence and one regularly sought after when not available. The hatred directed toward this particular author took on a life of its own and some of her detractors leapt on the bandwagon to attack this woman after admitting that they had not even read the book.(3)

  1. Oprah Winfrey is an American talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and philanthropist. She is best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, broadcast from Chicago, which was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history and ran in national syndication for 25 years. She was the richest African American of the 20th century, was once the world’s only Black billionaire and has been called the greatest Black philanthropist in U.S. history.
  2. a type of pan dulce or sweet bread
  3. https://player.fm/series/bitter-brown-femmes/episode-thirty-five-gatekeeping-on-mango-street. I started listening to this podcast after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida in 2016. This was a deliberate and heinous attack driven by a hatred of LGBTQ people. The podcast itself was informative but distressing. I quickly stopped listening to episodes of this podcast as I found that, although it is addressing issues that affect many people, one of the speakers is driven by hate (although she does like to joke that she is being sarcastic or ironic when spouting this hatred). It was remarks of the nature that when a white woman is raped by a black man then society (particularly white society) is at blame and the very reason for the attack. I also have a similar problem with Charles (Chuck) Swindoll, an evangelical Christian pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher, who much like the BBF speaks of relevant issues but in some of his sermonising there is an undercurrent of hypocrisy that leads us farther from peace rather than towards it.

Cocina mexicana is not alone in being “appropriated”

Australian Chinese food – The Chiko Roll

An Australian savoury snack invented by Frank McEncroe
Inspired by the Chinese spring roll and first sold in 1951

Marks & Spencer’s new wrap branded ‘abomination’ by outraged chefs.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/marks–spencers-new-wrap-13928510

Chef Maunika Gowardhanm, author of Indian Kitchen, shared a snap of the wrap on Twitter , saying: “Thanks but I like my biryani with rice in a bowl not a wrap. Seriously M&S!?”

She added: “Just to put it in perspective, in India firstly there is no such thing as a veg biryani. Most places will serve mutton or chicken or even fish. It’s wrong on many levels when people will assume this is what a biryani looks like! Biryani needs rice, isn’t stuffed in bread and doesn’t include lettuce.”

The chicken tikka masala burrito however has not received the same level of disdain.

Where do we stand with these?

Its not just America (US of A) and other “Western” countries that like to appropriate the crap out of things. Look at Russia (excuse my ignorance if Russia is considered western)

And then of course there’s this…….

When a person with a specific ancestry uses a term typically considered to be racist (in another country) to describe a foodstuff typically considered to be that of anothers culture. Where do we fall?

Appropriation?

Racism?

Tongue in cheek humour?

Owner Johnny Wong told a local newspaper that he was Chinese and born in Malaysia, but declined to comment on whether he thought the burger name normalised racism. A petition to change the burger’s name was started three years ago by Lisa Chappell and attracted 299 signatures at the time.
(November 2021)

When did Frida become a Disney princess?

Para todo mal mezcal……..

Is genuine harm caused by those accused of perpetrating this kind of appropriation?

Are these types of accusations merely virtue signalling by the “woke”?

References.

  • Cummins, Jeanine (2020) American Dirt : Flatiron Books : ISBN 978-1250209764
  • Lost in Mexico Podcast : Cultural Appropriation & Mexican Food (Pt. 1: Who Owns Mexican Food?) : https://www.listennotes.com/es/podcasts/lost-in-mexico/cultural-appropriation-Ab2PJl0-hWE/
  • Pilcher, J. M. (1998). Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the making of Mexican identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Pilcher, Jeffrey M. (2012). Planet taco: a global history of Mexican food. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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