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Culinary Colonialism

By AUSTIN KAHN

There is nothing more celebrated at Middlebury College than a student-led business venture. Middlebury dedicates an enormous amount of its financial and human resources to entrepreneurship. This meticulously animated video perfectly demonstrates the way our school tries to attract prospective students with its focus on business. About two years ago, Middlebury lauded the emergence of another one of these student-led entrepreneurship projects: Fiasco (then, Late Night Fiasco).

It’s hard to miss the blatant cultural appropriation that characterized this project. In “J-term Gourmet,” another well produced video on Middlebury College’s official Vimeo account, the business’ founder discusses the inspiration and history of Late Night Fiasco — “an after-hours kitchen” serving “globally-influenced street foods”— as he and a friend (also a cis white man) roll up to the Middlebury Food Co-Op in a Subaru SUV where they source their ingredients for an array of dishes “inspired” by cultures from around the world. Since its inception, Fiasco’s menu has included items such as butternut squash pupusas, kimchi pork fried rice burritos, steamed pork buns, grilled avocado tacos, sweet potato tacos and cochinita pibil tacos.

To cite a very relevant article written by Rachel Kuo at Everyday Feminism, “One of the questions that both chefs and diners should ask themselves is, who is laboring and profiting? Where are these recipes from? Who is this cuisine profiting off, but not supporting – a group that is historically and currently oppressed?”

I should not and cannot claim that all students who identify with Salvadoran culture, for example, were similarly outraged at seeing pupusas on Fiasco’s menu (corrected from initial spelling: “papusas”), or that folks who identify with Mexican and/or Korean culture viewed Fiasco’s “kimchi pork fried rice burritos” with similar disdain. What I can attest to, however, is that Fiasco’s culinary colonialism is not at all exceptional. It represents a widespread phenomenon that is particularly visible in many gentrifying cities across the U.S. Monied white people, and particularly white men, have been emerging as pioneers in an increasingly inaccessible industry of gourmet eateries which liberally take culinary traditions from cultures around the world, the territories of which have been colonized or at least occupied by European and/or U.S. powers over the course of history. Similar to the process of colonialism that extracted labor and raw materials from occupied territories, culinary colonialism is largely driven by men. It seems important to emphasize how this problem is gendered because cooking has been consistently devalued over the course of human history when women have been relegated to domestic work. (Of course most domestic work today is still undervalued and made invisible). I would argue that this fusion food is also being grossly overvalued, in part because cis white men are in the kitchen, which, to a white supremacist patriarchal society, seems really exceptional.

Again, I want to return to Rachel Kuo: “Enjoying food from another culture is perfectly fine. But, food is appropriated when people from the dominant culture — in the case of the U.S., white folks — start to fetishize or commercialize it, and when they hoard access to that particular food. When a dominant culture reduces another community to its cuisine, subsumes histories and stories into menu items — when people think culture can seemingly be understood with a bite of food, that’s where it gets problematic.”

The issue of culinary colonialism takes on even more meaning in the context of Middlebury College, an institution which has largely served the interests of white people and of capitalism since its foundation. Most of Middlebury’s student body is white and wealthy. Maybe Fiasco and its success on our campus foreshadows the ways we (particularly white people with class privilege) go out into the “real world” to become gentrifiers. Throughout my time here, I have seen friends and peers leave this campus to settle in cities across the country, which have become sites of displacement on a massive scale for working class people of color.

I think we, particularly people like me who will be leaving this institution with white privilege and class privilege in addition to a powerful diploma, need to be asking ourselves some critical and difficult questions about life after Midd: Is my presence and my money contributing to the displacement of city residents? How can I see myself as an agent in a process that seems much bigger than myself and the decisions I make? Does my comfort come at the expense of other people’s safety? How can I support working POC’s struggle to resist gentrification without stepping on the toes of those most directly impacted?

This article originally appeared on Beyond the Green.

1 Comment

One Response to “Culinary Colonialism”

  1. The Alumni on October 16th, 2017 5:21 am

    The author of this piece must be super fun at parties. It is this kind of inane idiocy and the worldview that allows it to seen as insight that is embarrassing. The academy needs an enema. This column author needs some friends.

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