Community Council Addresses Cultural Appropriation in Dining Hall Menus

By Sabine Poux, Arts & Sciences Editor

The Community Council has unanimously called for the College to reassess and change the names of dining menu items that may be deemed offensive.

The recommendation, sponsored by Charles Rainey ’19 and passed on April 25, outlines a plan that will foster collaboration between Dining Services and cultural organizations to address “the issue of ethnic dish names and their problematic appropriation of various identities.”

Students and alumni of color have vocalized their concerns about these names to Rainey since he came to the College, and he decided that a recommendation would be an effective way to bring these voices to light.

“I’m a sophomore and I’ve been hearing concerns about dining hall names since I got here on campus,” Rainey said, “and the spirit of the bill was more to include those concerns in the decision making process when naming ethnic dishes.”

Cultural organizations will play a major part in facilitating these conversations.

“What the recommendation called for is to have Dining Services spend the semester going over the names with the Chief Diversity Officer and with any cultural organizations that are willing,” said Travis Wayne Sanderson ’19, co-chair of community council.

Sanderson emphasized that these talks will involve members of cultural organizations because Community Council wants to insure that the suggestions coming through are valuable and contribute to conversations about diversity in a meaningful way.

“[The recommendation] affects specific students,” he said, “and those students should have a form by which to express that, and that’s the main intention.”

However, Sanderson and Rainey both noted that they only want to involve willing cultural organizations, as to not place additional burden on organizations that already have their hands full.

“Having been involved with cultural orgs, I know how important it is to not give additional responsibilities to orgs who already do so much for our community and are doing more as the school continues to diversify and their membership grows,” Rainey said.

The administration also wants to stress that members of the College community are welcome at any time to approach Executive Director of Food Service Operations Dan Detora with their concerns.

“We are happy, and I know Dan Detora is happy, to speak with any student or group of students who have suggestions about either names of menu items or the way menu items are prepared,” said Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer Bill Burger.

One of the main concerns the recommendation expresses is that certain dishes’ names reflect cultural generalizations, and that naming a dish after a continent disregards the variety of perspectives and cultures that are represented within that continent. According to the recommendation, this is inconsistent with the College’s value of diversity and inclusivity.

“Certain offensive names include the frequent appearance of ‘African Peanut Soup’ and ‘Asian Snap Pea Salad,’ among others,” the recommendation stated. “These menu item names minimize the importance of other cultures and civilizations of the world that are not Western, lumping them together into one category. This signals a lack of attentiveness to the diversity of certain identities not traditionally represented in our community.”

Rainey added that consideration for authenticity is important and can also help students learn about the cultural context behind their meals.

“If you’re going to dive into a culture, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for you to know a little bit more about where it’s from and what it’s about,” he said. “And any way in which I can help make the campus more inclusive in that regard, I’m gonna do.”

Middlebury’s move toward a more thoughtful food-naming process is not the first of its kind — students at Oberlin expressed similar concerns last year and underwent conversations to address these issues.

“I’ve heard about these requests happening at other institutions, so this was not new, I think, to anyone in the administration,” said Burger. “I think that in this country, where a lot of cuisines and traditions around food come together, there’s been a lot of amalgamation, and a lot of Americanization of different ethnic and regional and national cuisines, and I don’t think that Middlebury is a particular offender about this, but we probably reflect the kind of national composition of the blending of cultures and cuisines and how some of these things may be less authentic than they might otherwise be.”

Sanderson sent out a student-wide email about the recommendation on the date of its passing. One sarcastically disapproving response he received came from a student who had recently transferred from the College, and has since gained national recognition in an article published to the Barstool Sports website, titled, “Middlebury Got Rid Of Some ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Food Items And A Student Gave A Quality Email Burn Back.”

Sanderson did not seem bothered by the “Email Burn” or the article that followed.

“I just think that it’s another iteration of a major problem in conversation about cultural appropriation,” Sanderson said. “Since last year with the Oberlin instance of the same sort of thing happening, it’s become this major strawman to attack on the right, and it’s viewed often as just being ‘not important, so why are we wasting time on this,’ and I mean there’s a valid conversation there, but I think that honestly the article was just unnecessary.”

Rainey is proud of the progress Community Council is able to make on issues that matter. He encourages students to come to Community Council meetings — which take place every Tuesday from 4:30-6 in Axinn 220 — if they have concerns they want to address. Rainey looks forward to the conversations that are to come.

“I think it’s a necessary recommendation and I’m proud that we passed it, however I’m ready to move on to bigger fish to fry,” he said.