On the globalization of food and privilege in the kitchen

On Eater.com this week, Navneet Alang wrote this required-reading article and says: “We are living in the age of the global pantry, when a succession of food media-approved, often white figures have made an array of international ingredients approachable and even desirable to the North American mainstream — the same mainstream that, a decade ago, would have labeled these foods as obscure at best and off-putting at worst. This phenomenon is why you now see dukkah on avocado toast, kimchi in grain bowls, and sambal served with fried Brussels sprouts. It’s a kind of polyglot internationalism presented under the New American umbrella, with the techniques and raw materials of non-Western cuisines used to wake up the staid, predictable flavors of familiar Americana.”

This article (and the recent food blogger drama, which was as much about “selling out” as much as it was about who, ethnically, gets to be famous/make money off their persona after years of women of color being in the kitchen while white women upfront get to reap the benefits) has got me thinking a lot about who gets to share what message and evangelize publicly which ingredients. 

Who benefits and profits from the globalization of cuisine?

I’ve posted about this before on Instagram, when I shared a photo & recipe for a matcha custard pie, because I’m well-aware of how much of a white girl I am and that matcha is nowhere near my heritage & family roots. Is it an authentic love of the ingredient? Yes. Is it cultural appropriation? Yes. It is privileged? Yes. 

The first half of my train of thought here concerns the usage of ingredients in everyday home cooking that aren’t mined from one’s specific cultural heritage, without consideration for what has come before the moment in time that person adds kimchi to their fried rice.

I truly love matcha. But, I am not Japanese. I get to pontificate on my love of matcha and people hear me and don’t think I’m weird. (Maybe they do.) But that in and of itself is a privilege.

The acknowledgment of identity and the recognition of privilege is more paramount than ever. The ingredient not of one’s heritage has to be respected for being distinct, the mic has to be passed, and the directing of one’s audience to makers and providers of that heritage who stand to gain financially is essential. 

In general, when people talk about “white privilege,” it doesn’t mean white people are bad, it just means white people have it easier. It means white folks’ skin tone, how they dress, how they exist in the world, doesn’t make their lives harder. 

White American food privilege doesn’t mean your making a recipe that has kimchi, tahini, fish sauce, or za’atar is bad or you can’t do it anymore, it means you get to enjoy the flavors without having to think about the hard times they’re associated with, or bear the brunt of their colonialist legacy. 

White American food privilege means you don’t have childhood trauma of people saying your lunch was gross, or memories friends coming over and remarking that your house smelled weird. It means you didn’t hear stories of your ancestors working for pennies to separate saffron threads, while the person up top made bank from their work. 

It also means White American food media people have an easier time selling these ingredients as “cool” than people of color do. It means that your skin tone, how you dress, what you eat, makes it easier for you to establish these ingredients as essential. 

The second half of my train of thought is not just who gets to cook with international ingredients, but who gets to profit off of international ingredients. 

Restaurants like Joey with their globalized menus, taking recipes and ingredients from around the world, and making them palatable to a mall-strolling audience, are an example. It’s not that the food sucks; the food tastes good!!! But it’s also incredibly sanitized, and the folks whose heritage shared the ingredient with the world aren’t making money from it. 

It also has to do with unconscious bias, who we trust, and who has connections and how these people in these positions monetize that value chain. Francis Lam wrote in The New York Times several years ago that there are reasons why White American chefs with no ethnic heritage of x cuisine succeed in evangelizing that food, when immigrants or people with that heritage/expertise themselves have less success: “An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention — even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school or is quick with a witty quote.”

We also prefer to learn about “exotic” things from telegenic, articulate, white men. Even though publications like Eater and the new food team at the LA Times are publishing essential, important stories about restauranteurs of color, undocumented folks, and other marginalized people in the food business during this time, they don’t have the platform that Tony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold had. The message is disseminated but doesn’t reverberate as broadly.

The enduring trust and faith from the masses that a white guy has the right to deliver a message still pervades, and thus the ability to make money off of traditions not theirs, continues. 

Food has an incredibly colonialist legacy. This we know from the British empire’s expansion into India for tea and spices; from the Spanish empire’s expansion into the New World and the Columbian exchange that occurred. Getting curious about, and not shying away from, why food is complicated and the food we, even quite earnestly, like to eat, doesn’t mean you can’t eat dukkah anymore, it means you just need to not brush it off as insignificant. 

So what is there to do? If you’re enjoying a kimchi fried rice bowl, take a minute to google the history of kimchi and the work that Korean women have done for ages to preserve an ingredient in the harshest of climates and terrains. 

If someone says to you that they’re not okay with something you cooked or promoted, listen to them, believe them and stop doing it. 

If you’re in the position of being a public speaker or making money off of talking/writing about food, pass the mic, literally and metaphorically, to people who have more direct expertise and heritage to the tradition you’re referencing. 

My resolution is that if I make a recipe using an “international” ingredient, I’ll cite more about the history of that ingredient, point to makers and providers of that heritage who stand to gain financially from it, and direct folks to other food people of that heritage who are doing better and more interesting work than I with that ingredient. 

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What I’m reading: Definitely still thinking about this Eater article, clearly!

What I’m cooking: Still eating rhubarb. I made a mustard-rhubarb chutney today that I’ll put on top of a grilled pork chop for dinner. 

Something I love: I’m really into these flaxseed crackers right now. They look like bird food but have enough fiber to clean out your house and are really good with brie.