‘Wokies’ simmer a little too much on culinary appropriation
In case you don’t have too much free time, it’s the growing rage on social media.
It refers to someone from a “dominant culture” taking cuisine from “another culture” and giving it a twist that reflects “their culture”.
It is most of the time a “white” individual taking a dish from a so-called “minority” population and appropriating it.
Think Taco Bell.
With all due respect to Yummy Brands, this is not my idea of Mexican food, although there are some that would be different.
Having grown up in a small, ethnically diverse town – at least at the time – where more than a third of the population had Hispanic ancestry and most were second or third generation Americans who spoke better English than I did – I had homemade tamales on Friday nights for almost 7 years.
They were made from scratch by Sophia Ruiz.
Believe me, Nalleys canned tamales were pure rubbish by comparison. They had nothing to do with the real thing.
Sophia was an immigrant from Mexico who worked with my mother. His son and my brother were best friends.
From time to time, she would offer us homemade enchiladas. Do not mistake yourself. His tamales were great but his enchiladas were amazing.
Yet Sophia—along with myself and others—couldn’t wait for the May Placer County Holy Ghost Celebration or Christmas.
That’s when our neighbor Elsie Silva was concocting her take on enchiladas with a distinct Portuguese twist.
They were much spicier and oilier. And despite what that combination can do to you, they were so good you could eat them the next day as cold as they came out of the fridge.
In today’s waking world, such an interpretation of a Mexican dish is met with indignant outrage on social media platforms like TikTok.
Assuming that Elsie, if she were alive, would still have the sensibility of a devout Catholic immigrant from the Azores with hard-working ethnicity who loved America and its simmering stew of ethnicities and cultures, I doubt she would waste a lot of time with TikTok and the like.
She was too busy taking care of her family, helping immigrants from Spain and Portugal learn English, and making sure those who needed it didn’t miss out.
Elsie would donate the shirt from his back to help struggling neighborhood families who ran the gamut from those who fled Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl, immigrants from Mexico and a couple – he was a low-paid blue-collar worker and his seriously ill wife – struggling to raise four boys.
She was thrilled when neighbors joined in the traditional Portuguese celebrations. Elsie was also proud when others incorporated bits of her native cuisine.
It was hardly light Portuguese, but it was adaptations that she inspired.
I also admit the high waking crime of culinary appropriation.
There was a time — a good ten years — when I used tortillas like bread.
I went through a few dozen flour tortillas—store bought, of course—a week.
I used them to wrap slices of cheese. I dipped them in soup. I ate them plain. I covered them with butter. And I coated them in ketchup and rolled them up to eat.
I make no apologies.
It’s because I’m proud to live where I live in California, which is arguably the most diverse state in the most diverse nation that mankind has ever known.
I have no qualms about being in a state where 39% of the population identifies as Latino, followed by 35% white, 15% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 5% black and 1% Native American or Alaska Native.
I can savor so much of the world in terms of culture and cuisine without wandering far from California.
One could also add that California – when it comes to food – is the undisputed leader in cultural appropriation.
Virtually all of the more than 400 vegetables, fruits, and nuts grown here were brought to California from other crops. The same goes for livestock like dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep.
We are so good at appropriating that we are the world’s leading producer of a number of crops from other cultures, including the almond that heralded parts of present-day West Asia and China. not the original 13 colonies.
If instead of mixing we stayed true to our “primary” cultural roots, my diet today would be heavy in fatty meat products and for all intents and purposes devoid of fruits, vegetables and nuts. This assumes that my ancestral tree is correct and that my roots are deep in Scottish culture.
My diet is the exact opposite and then some. I don’t eat any type of meat. As for fruits, vegetables and nuts, they represent 40% of the calories I consume in a day.
All the rage around kitchen appropriation is much ado about nothing.
Archaeologists, for example, have focused on domesticated rice and its use in cuisine originating in China in the Yangtze River Basin.
Does this mean that the rice served to us in a Mexican restaurant is a blatant culinary appropriation that the owners and cooks should be ashamed of and apologize for serving?
And speaking of culinary appropriation, does that mean that a Mexican restaurant I ate at on Clement Street in San Francisco in the 1980s where the cook was Chinese, the owner Italian, and the waitress an immigrant from the Philippines would today be the target of crimes against other cultures?
For the record, Taco Bell was arguably a cut above the Clement Street restaurant in terms of food taste.
But what could be more American than the eclectic group of people who run this Mexican restaurant?
America – at its best – is a massive melting pot.
It’s a stew that we keep adding starting with the base water and adding ingredients from around the world.
The dish we call the United States of America is made by weaving cultures together. The more weave we encounter, be it customs, faith, values and cuisine, the stronger the fabric becomes.
As for the social media rage over culinary appropriation, we clearly have too much free time.