Food misappropriation is a rampant issue in the United States. There’s a sense that anyone is entitled to open a restaurant, food truck, or fast casual from any indigenous culture of the Americas if they think they can make money. This is (more often than not) done with little to no consideration of the indigenous culture they’re taking from. And a prime example of this has arisen over the last couple days when Zach Friedlander (and his Chicago-based fast-casual Aloha Poke Co.) came under fire for threatening to sue Native Hawaiians for using the word “Aloha” in their own poke business names.
In case you don’t know, poke is a Hawaiian dish that has its roots in the seafaring Polynesian cultures of the Pacific. Traditionally, poke was made from the leftovers of fatty tuna or octopus and then tossed with sea salt, candlenut, seaweed, and limu (algae). Around the 1970s, the dish was heavily retconned by the Japanese with rice, ginger, soy, sesame, green onions, and other ingredients getting added to the simple mix of cubed tuna or octopus. Around five years ago, mainland Americans started craving the simple dish, and suddenly, there were poke bowl bars popping up from San Francisco to Savannah. Unfortunately, the whole “leftover parts of the tuna” got lost in translation and this is creating a whole hornet’s nest of environmental problems. But that’s another story.
Zach Friedlander’s story is part and parcel of the centuries-old American Dream. Friedlander decided to jump on the poke bowl craze after his real estate buddy returned from a weekend trip to Hawaii, where he had sampled the delicacy. Said buddy floated Friedlander the cash to open up a poke shop even though, as admitted by Friedlander, he had no idea what it was. Now they’re all rich and issuing cease and desists with the threat of lawsuits to anyone who uses the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” because it might risk, in Friedland’s words, “its brand.”
Here’s the thing: It’s one thing to open up a food establishment from someone else’s culture with zero connective tissue or even caring about that culture. It’s another thing to sue the people from that culture to stop them from using their own words. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, “attorneys from Aloha Poke Co. have sent multiple cease and desist letters to sushi bowl joints across the country that have the word ‘aloha’ in their name.” This tactic is working. A restaurant in Washington State was forced to change their poke bowl restaurant name to ‘Fairhaven Poke‘ from ‘Aloha Poke Fairhaven.’ And they’re not the only ones that were targeted.