The latest dust-up surrounds the cultural appropriation of ethnic food. Today’s example comes from a video by Bon Appetit magazine in which a non-Asian chef discusses how best to eat the Vietnamese noodle soup dish pho.1
The controversy stems from the fact that chef in the video, Tyler Akin, is white and white people are not allowed to “whitesplain” anything from cultures other than their own.
Much of the anger centered around the choice of a white person to authoritatively speak about an Asian food. As the chef shared his personal insights, he never mentioned his fondness for the soup, his personal connections to it. That omission was an editorial mistake. Treating pho as merely a fashionable food negated its rich role in Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and now, American culture.
Must every essay and recipe and quick video include a long preamble as to the importance of the dish to a particular culture? Or is the goal simply to force people to eat only food from their own culture?
Two points: First, this is the fracturing of America. We are not a melting pot or even a patchwork quilt anymore. We are an archipelago of race and culture islands constantly at war with one another, with the main enemy being the big white European island in the middle. We are a nation divided, not because of the divisions of the past, but because of the demagogues of the present who use the division to create power for themselves.
Second, cultural appropriation is baloney. Every culture appropriates. Culture doesn’t spring up from nowhere. It assimilates elements from every culture it encounters to grow and evolve. Even in the pho controversy, the critics admit that pho originated in at least two other cultures: French and Chinese.
Yes, it was the French who made beef scraps available, and yes, many of the initial pho cooks were Chinese, but the noodle soup was created in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people made the best of their circumstances and turned the situation into something of their own.
That is cultural appropriation right there. But there’s nothing wrong with it because the Vietnamese took something, modified it, and made it their own.
This current tempest may be about a bowl of soup, but it has its roots in a dangerous trend.