The Corner

Culture

Making a Meal out of Everything

That the doctrine of ‘cultural appropriation’ can be used to enforce a kind of intellectual apartheid is hardly new news.  And nor too is the way that finding offense in, well, just about everything, can be used as a device to assert some sort of moral authority or, at least, bring a little excitement to lives that may otherwise lack it.

This brings me to the latest campus horror, the food on offer at Oberlin College, the place that did such a good job of educating Lena Dunham. It’s a horror very different from the one that I remember from my own university dining experiences back in the old country way back when…

Here’s an extract from the Oberlin Review:

Perhaps the pinnacle of what many students believe to be a culturally appropriative sustenance system is Dascomb Dining Hall’s sushi bar. The sushi is anything but authentic for Tomoyo Joshi, a College junior from Japan, who said that the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful. She added that in Japan, sushi is regarded so highly that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it.  “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” Joshi said. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

“Appropriative” : a nonsense adjective, for a largely (and in this case totally) nonsensical notion, complete with the interesting notion that people of incorrect “heritage” should tread very carefully before they dare to attempt cooking a dish from elsewhere.

And:

Mai Miyagaki, a College junior from Japan, added that a meeting between Bon Appétit employees and international students could help alleviate tensions.

“Tensions”.

We’re talking about a meal here, being served at a very expensive college (I’d say ‘elite’, but…) to students able to study there from abroad.

How does the phrase go?

Ah yes, “check your privilege”.

Here and there, there are signs of common sense:

Still, some students are not convinced that Bon Appétit’s menu qualifies as cultural appropriation. Arala Tian Yoon Teh, a College sophomore from Malaysia, said the dining service’s food selections are a reflection of cultural collision, not cultural appropriation. She added that she thought Bon Appétit was inspired by Asian cuisine and just made dishes with the available ingredients.

Well, yes.

And ‘cultural collision’ can be a very good thing, creative and all that (although I will say that some of these meals sound like collisions I would rather avoid).

Speaking of cultural collision, I also noted this:

Prudence Hiu-Ying, a College sophomore from China, cited an instance when Stevenson was serving General Tso’s chicken, but the product did not resemble the popular Chinese dish. Instead of deep-fried chicken with ginger-garlic soy sauce, the chicken was steamed with a substitute sauce, which Hiu-Ying described as “so weird that I didn’t even try.”

That doesn’t sound very adventurous, and the description of that chicken dish (which, full disclosure, I cannot stand) as “Chinese” is dangerously ‘appropriative’ itself. General Tso’s outraged poultry is a Chinese-American dish invented in New York in the 1970s.

Wikipedia:

[O]ne claim is that the recipe was invented by Taiwan-based Hunan cuisine chef Peng Chang-kuei who had been an apprentice of Cao Jingchen’s, a famous early 20th-century Chinese chef.  Peng was the Nationalist government banquets’ chef and fled with Chiang Kai-shek’s forces to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. There, he continued his career as official chef until 1973, when he moved to New York to open a restaurant. That was where Peng Jia started inventing new dishes and modifying traditional ones; one new dish, General Tso’s chicken, was originally prepared without sugar, and subsequently altered to suit the tastes of “non-Hunanese people”.

The popularity of the dish has now led to it being “adopted” by local Hunanese chefs and food writers, perhaps as an acknowledgment of the dish’s unique status, upon which the international reputation of Hunanese cuisine was largely based.

“Adopted” or, in Oberlinspeak, “appropriated”….

Ironically, when Peng Jia opened a restaurant in Hunan in the 1990s introducing General Tso’s chicken, the restaurant closed without success and the locals found the dish too sweet.

Oh yes, one other thing:

Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam, jumped with excitement at the sight of Vietnamese food on Stevenson Dining Hall’s menu at Orientation this year. Craving Vietnamese comfort food, Nguyen rushed to the food station with high hopes. What she got, however, was a total disappointment. The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw.

“Instead of a crispy baguette”….

Baguette?

Hmmm…

Back to Wikipedia (my emphasis added):

Bánh mì is a Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread. The word is derived from bánh and mì (wheat, also spelt mì in northern Vietnam). Bread, or more specifically the baguette, was introduced by the French during its colonial period. The bread most commonly found in Vietnam is a single-serving baguette….

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