Commenting on the internet has been referred to as the “trash fire of civilization” by many a lazy comedian. It’s low-hanging fruit because, yeah, internet comments can often lean into the batshit pretty hard. But, you know what? That’s not always the case, certainly not around here. Conversations do happen and oftentimes they can lead to informed and even nuanced sharing about the subject at hand.
We saw that with a recent (and very long) article about the Kooks Burrito food appropriation brouhaha fomenting up in Portland, OR. It’s a risk on the internet to attempt complex discussions about racially/socially/politically charged issues and we were stoked to see people in the food world appreciate the attempt.
Our team has already made our respective cases for and against the very idea of food appropriation. And then our commenters took the mantle and carried that conversation in new directions. Today, we decided to share some of our favorite quotes, to highlight the issue further and give more nuance to the argument of whether food appropriation is a thing and whether the women of Kooks Burritos were participating in it.
Hislocal provided some perspective on the role locality plays and where we draw the line between ‘appreciation’ and ‘appropriation’:
The overlooked part of this story is that these women were selling their burritos 1,100 miles away from the abuelas they stole the recipe from. Unless those abuelas were planning on expanding their business to Portland, these women weren’t doing them any harm. That’s the crucial component to cultural appropriation – it’s harmful to the source culture (even if it’s just making them seem dumb in the public eye, like Chief Wahoo). Even if these women are guilty of stealing a secret recipe and using it to make themselves rich, the people of Portland weren’t going to fly down to Puerto Nuevo on their lunch break and put money in the abuelas’ pockets, so it’s a victimless crime and falls more into the “appreciation” side – especially since the Kooks women are presenting the burritos as a wonderful thing, not “hey everyone, get a load of this stupid food that Mexicans actually eat, what losers!” and putting a big dumb Wahoo-esque cartoon abuela logo on their food truck.
MacGuffin added some contextual gravitas to people of color’s role in society as a whole:
I also believe there’s a gap in the way you may be looking at this from the way Delenda and I do as people of color. I’m not trying to give the internet you-can-never-understand-shut-this-down argument, i like this discussion. I’m just trying to say we may be coming at this from a different perspective. I had the same initial response Delenda did, “par for the course for white people to come, peek in windows, and profit …more white people white people-ing.” I get the feeling that you just see them as young girls making dumb mistakes. But I see two women, smart enough to start an actual business set out with a plan to get something that isn’t theirs. Something that happens in so many places.
Nic Cages T-Rex Skull comes in strong with asking for more clarification on whether or not food can be stolen in the first place:
If they were literally creeping on little old ladies and stealing secret recipes, that’s weird and sounds unethical. Can you really steal a technique, though? It sounds like the Kooks did some share of work to get the tortillas right, so it’s not like they just stole an everlasting gobstopper.
Does this stem from the Kooks peeking? If they saw the ladies’ technique out in the open then worked hard to perfect it themselves, is that still appropriation? Does it only begin when money is involved? Or lack of attribution? Or tone deafness?
As usual, there are more questions than answers. Also as usual, these food posts make me hungry.
Fartakiss notes that inspiration is the point here and where does that then end if we’re not longer allowed to be inspired:
If we had to have everyone else’s permission to be inspired by them, we would be better off just killing ourselves (maybe we are anyways). If you have a product that you aren’t legally able to trademark or patent, then you better have some good ways of protecting your product or accept that it can be reverse-engineered. Toilet waters (did I translate that correctly) can’t be patented, so Parfums de Coeur slangs their knockoffs at Ross and nobody complains about appropriation.
If stealing your secrets is as easy as someone looking through a window that you put there, then what are we even talking about.
orpanisthenewblackmirror sums the whole affair up with a great The Simpsons analogy:
To put in terms Uproxx readers will understand: The Kooks ladies are Moe. The Mexican women are Homer. The tortillas are the “Flaming Homer”.
OhMyBalls added a nice little caveat:
Can the Portland paper with the dog shit headline be Aerosmith?
Munkee brought it home for another layer of context about all the foods we eat:
Look at it this way. How many peoples mothers make spaghetti. Would you say your mother is appropriating Italian culture? Or the fact that the Italians even eat pasta in the first place? Would you accuse them of appropriating Chinese culture? This has been happening for decades across the globe. Each culture takes a bit from other cultures. Why is it now a bad thing?
Verbal Kunt offers a multi-layered response to the situation that appreciates food exchange and still sees the issue the Kooks stumbled into:
In general, I have no problems with “food appropriation”. Expanding one’s horizon when it comes to food is what drives inspiration and innovation. An exchange of ideas benefits all. In this case it seems there was no exchange, though, which is why I think people were angry.
BigBlueBearBalls takes a step back and asks what appropriation even means in a globalized society while also introducing the parallel concern of ethics in business:
If these girls have done anything wrong at all, it’s due to being unethical in a business sense. Cultural appropriation, the way it’s defined by elements of the left, is not actually a thing. No matter what culture you are, you cannot have an expectation that people won’t imitate the cool and good parts of your culture. You don’t have to like it, but you cannot turn it onto some social crime. Because cultural borrowing/stealing/appropriation whatever the hell you want to call it has been a thing throughout the entire history of mankind, and has been one of the chief tools for the betterment of mankind.
Phrederic gets straight to the point and question the validity of authenticity as a concept:
Hate it cause its badly done, hate it because its unethical, but hating something for lacking authenticity is some straight hipster nonsense. I mean, complaining about the authenticity of fucking FLOUR tortillas and burritos is especially ridiculous.
ClaudiaPiraat makes a strong case for how we define food appropriation:
In the end food is something we put in our bodies to not die. They have certain food in certain countries, because they have certain ingredients available. Part of the cultural exchange and globalization is that other countries get these ingredients too and we learn to cook in different ways. Of course there is such a thing as culinary heritage, but I think that is one of the things we as peoples can share with each other. Making and eating food together is such a social glue, that limiting people in what they can cook, can only hurt us as a society. I think people need to stop feeling offended by every little thing and just relax. Just enjoy the damn taco and appreciate the culture that made them possible.
Of course cultural appropriation is a whole other thing, but I just don’t think food is really a part of that. There’s nothing wrong with finding inspiration in other people’s cultures and celebrating said cultures, but the line is drawn when using people’s own culture to put them down (like the use of native American imagery in American football teams, what is up with that?).
Tronner adds a comparative scenario for context that may help some make up their minds on the issue:
It clearly was a stupid comment to brag about it. But had they started a Kook’s Apple Pie cart and made a similar comment about hiding in the kitchen of a bunch of gingham apron wearing elderly women – stealing their precious ratios of nutmeg and cinnamon -everyone would immediately know they were kidding. Perhaps they should have recognized the differences though and had a better PR person. Bragging and bad branding got these ladies in trouble – to accuse them of stealing is hyperbole.
Jesus Shuttlesworth brings it back to privilege and access that POC miss out on:
This seems to be a bigger deal than it should be. I really don’t think a burrito truck opening, closing, or being boycotted is national news.
A lot of people seem to be missing the problem of appropriation. If you want to eat something because it tastes good, go ahead! Appreciation is awesome and leads to cool things like tacos al pastor. Leveraging your economic privileges to gain success with other people’s cuisine isn’t ok, especially when those same people cannot achieve the same level of success.
Gally asks the hardest question of all and throws out a great example:
Where do we draw the line? The famous tacos al pastor exist because Lebanese immigrants brought shawarma to Mexico with them. Do we have to burn the al pastor stands down now?
Lastly, who hasn’t eaten something somewhere and tried to cook it at home via a combo of Google, YouTube, cookbooks, and the Food Network?
Anyways, as Vince said, be nice to people and eat spaghetti tacos.
To the point of where are these lines supposed to be drawn, Zachary Johnston:
It comes down to this, as a Native American should I tell Ed Mitchell to stop doing whole animal pit BBQ because that’s a native cooking appropriation? Fuck no. Mitchell can cook every whole hog he wants whether or not he’s giving part of his profits to the ethnically cleansed natives out in Oklahoma because Buffalo Soldiers aside, he’s a culinary genius.