Once upon a time, two women from Portland, OR went on a road trip to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico. While there, they gorged themselves on the small village’s famous lobster burritos wrapped in handmade flour tortillas. They liked these tortillas so much that they studied them — seemingly without implicit permission or by paying one of the local “abuelitas” as a guide. Months later, they unlocked the recipe for making these tortillas through trial and error and started a breakfast burrito pop up inside of a preexisting taco cart.
The response to Kook’s San Diego-style, potato-infused gut bombs was overwhelmingly positive. Then an interview ran in one of Portland’s two independent newspapers, Willamette Week, in which the two young women came off as… flippant? Cocky? Imperialistic? Young? How you feel about the attitudes reflected in the article will depend on who and to what degree you bestow the benefit of the doubt. And who and to what degree you bestow the benefit of the doubt to will depend on all sorts of factors connected to how you were raised, what culture you were raised in, feelings of marginalization, and your personal take on the notion of food appropriation.
Here’s the quote that launched a thousand negative Yelp reviews:
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Connelly says. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”
The comments on the piece blew up. People were angry, then other people got angry at the angry people, and the conversation showed signs of slipping out of control. It didn’t though; not quite. Amidst the occasional name calling and overly-authoritative statements, there was some genuine insight.
Consider this salvo:
Sooooooo, let me get this straight. Are you all suggesting that Andy Ricker close Pok Pok? Should John Gorham close Toro Bravo? What about Expatriate? Should we force Kyle to stop serving Laotian tacos? Are you going to try and convince me you’ve never stood in line at Por Que No? Um, Bollywood Theater anyone? If learning how to make a food from another culture and selling it is now considered cultural appropriation, then why not take this issue up with the successful PDX businesses that have been doing this at a much larger scale for years, and stop harassing these two women struggling to start a small business. THX.
And this sharp response:
Gabeh Lissette Gutierrez:
“Learning how to make food from another culture”-implies some sort of collaboration. This article makes it clear they were given the basic recipe and when the cooks did not want to share more, these women then went further and purposely looked through the windows of their establishments to steal the rest of the technique. I doubt you’ve ever been to Puerto Nuevo, but my family took me there every summer up into my teens. Its honestly the smallest cluster of businesses, just outside of Rosarito, with each restaurant usually being family owned with a unique family guarded recipe of their tortillas. It doesn’t matter if this stupid pop up will ultimately hurt the businesses in Puerto Nuevo, its the complete lack of respect and sense of entitlement they went about stealing the recipes when they were purposely not given the complete technique.
There are interesting thoughts percolating there and interesting ideas to contemplate. A day later, a headline from Mic.com brought the story to a national audience:
Then Portland’s other independent weekly, The Portland Mercury, wrote a piece called “This Week In Appropriation Kooks Burritos and Willamette Week.” The conversation went viral. Kook’s Yelp reviews fell off a cliff, the young owners went into hiding, and the cart shuttered. Plans for expansion were scuttled.
As the story broadened, it became clear that this is a conversation that both the food world and the city of Portland needed to have. A group of activists created a list of alternatives to restaurants deemed appropriative, and food media came under scrutiny. Kooks Burritos — named for surfers who venture into waters too heavy for them to handle (which seems all too fitting now) — started a conversation that is worthy and important.
In light of all of this, and feeling troubled by how shallow these discussions often remain, I asked food writers Zach Johnston, Delenda Joseph, and Vince Mancini to discuss the issue (with me) in a round table format. It’s easy for the media to shirk these stories and keep the surface level and we want to do the exact opposite.
If you’d like to share your own take, your thoughts and insight are valued.
ZACH’S MAIN COURSE
I’ve talked about cultural appropriation before. It 100 percent exists and happens all the fucking time. Using Hollywood-inspired iconography of American Indians for sports teams is probably one of the more egregious examples. But even that has its exceptions. Cleveland adopted its team name based on Louis Sockalexis, a Native American player from Penobscot Indian Reservation. It was a worthy honorific until the Cleveland Indians pissed away all that goodwill with an insanely racist mascot that persists to this day. I’m telling this story for context. The best intentions can lead to really shitty outcomes.
Now I have to turn that lens on myself. I’ve traveled to 64 countries so far. One of the biggest reasons I travel was to explore and absorb food culture. I don’t leave a country until I’ve talked to a chef and a bartender at least once. I soak up recipes and techniques everywhere I go. I can make a killer naan and chapati because of six weeks of roadside breakfasts in Penang. My momo skills are on point due to hanging out with a Nepali refugee in Darjeeling. I pride myself on being able to make authentic and delicious plates of carbonara or bolognese just like they do in Rome and Bologna.
Food is the greatest binder of people. I’ve worked in kitchens under chefs I didn’t share more than 50 words with, but we were still able to communicate through food. That’s magical. So for me, the idea that me making bolognese or momos is cultural appropriation or somehow equates to grotesque American Indian iconography is madness. But, then that’s me talking. I know people try to make someone else’s food and mangle it. I’ve had to eat shitty pho made by a German. That’s where things get muddied, my intentions are not everyone else’s. And I don’t want to be the one who honors Sockalexis only to see that honor turn to horror. Which is to say, I’m conflicted.