If it weren’t for cultural appropriation, would America have any culture at all?

In Portland, two women opened a food cart business–Kook’s Burritos–selling burritos based on ones that they’d seen and tasted during a trip to Puerto Novo, Mexico. They were frank, telling reporters that they’d hung out watching local vendors prepare tortillas, to see if they could glean the tricks of the trade. Returning stateside, after some trial and error, they came up with a version that they thought matched the original, and opened their business. What quickly ensued was a web-based war of words that lambasted the two Portland women for cultural appropriation–essentially profiting by stealing the knowledge of Mexican chefs. The storm of controversy, and death threats, prompted the women to close their business.

This isn’t an isolated issue: There’s even a controversy over the cultural ownership of Poutine. Quebecois are furious that it’s being rebranded as a “Canadian” dish, because it hails strictly from Quebec. “Poutine is a Québécois creation, not a Canadian one,  and suggesting otherwise ignores that poutine ‘has been used as a form of stigma against a minority group that is still at risk of cultural absorption.'”

The transnational appropriation of food has a long history. Marco Polo is generally credited with stealing the idea of noodles during his visit to China. (And apparently Japanese ramen is another cross cultural noodle appropriation). Thanks to cultural appropriation, some foods have gone from local oddities to global standards in just a generation or two. Prior to World War II, pizza was essentially unknown outside of Naples. Returning GI’s brought it back to the US; and it spread globally (as did America’s faux German “hamburger.”) Why, if we’re concerned about cultural appropriation, isn’t someone insisting that Domino’s and Pizza Hut pay royalties to the Neapolitans? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that most pizza itself is  an amalgam of New World tomatoes and old world ingredients. So apparently, we simultaneously have cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism: stealing pizza from the Neapolitans and foisting it off on the rest of the world.

Other key examples of cultural appropriation and adaptation abound in the food business:

  • Starbucks traces its inspiration to Howard Schultz’s trip to Italy in the early 1980s. He cribbed the cafe’ formula and even the job title “Barista” from Italy’s coffee shops.
  • Oregon’s microbrew industry was led by pioneering firms like Widmer Brewing. Kurt Widmer studied the brewing arts in Germany and based the company’s signature Hefeweizen based on what he learned there. (And now Widmer sells its beers in Europe.)

Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism

The website Uproxx has a summary of the web furor about the purloined burritos and an interesting roundtable conversation by four food journalists. In some respects, the criticisms of cultural appropriation from the foodie press is a bit rich: it’s an industry that consists in no small part of celebrating novelty and fashion, and elevating food heroes (who all borrow heavily from established chefs and cuisines). There’s a lot of back and forth here; to give you a flavor of the conversation, here’s food writer Zach Johnston:

Saying that people can’t cook another culture’s food that they adore and bring that food home to open it up to a wider audience is the same as saying Joe Rogan or Vince Mancini are culturally appropriating Brazilian culture because they practice Jiu Jitsu. Martial Arts — like cooking and eating — is a unifier, not a divider. And we can’t dismiss logistical reality. 70 percent of Americans are white. Cooking is a trainable and malleable endeavor. White people are going to make samosas, tacos, and bratwurst in America. And American food culture is better for it.

Portland’s alt-weekly, Willamette Week has its own forum with local chefs representing a range of ethnic cuisines and backgrounds.  Chef Ahn Luu, who runs a Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant in Portland argues:

If you’re cooking Thai food outside of Thailand—even in Myanmar or China—it’s not gonna be authentic. All food travels around the world, and every culture has their own version. It’s all getting blown way out of proportion, and people are taking it too seriously. It’s food. If it’s good, eat it.

In that vein, Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith is an unabashed advocate of cultural appropriation. He argues that it benefits both the appropriators, and those from whom it is appropriated. The appropriators get access to a wider variety of goods and services, they get beneficial mutations to their own products, and cultural appropriation often triggers technological change. Those from whom the technology was appropriated benefit from broader demand for their products, more jobs for immigrants, and greater cultural empathy.

And without cultural appropriation, it’s possible to get stuck in a very bad equilibrium. According to Paul Krugman, the reason that English food was so bad for so long (and has gotten better in recent decades) was because the country suffered from too little cultural appropriation.  But in recent years, the flood (at least pre-Brexit) of immigrants to the United Kingdom, and the holiday travels of the English exposed them (and their taste buds) to a wider range of choices, and as a result, English food has improved dramatically.

Plus, two women operating a food cart part-time is (forgive us) really small potatoes when it comes to cultural appropriation. Its hard to see how one can get terribly upset with a couple of women imitating the food they saw and tasted on a trip (and tried to faithfully copy) and a giant corporation bastardizing an entire nation’s cuisine (we’re looking at you Taco Bell and Olive Garden).  If this is a problem at all, isn’t the real issue the huge imbalance of power between corporations and solo entrepreneurs? Here’s another example. The Dominguez family based in Hood River, Oregon manufactures an extremely popular brand of tortilla chips called “Juanita’s” (trust us:  they’re excellent), which is distributed in the Pacific Northwest.  A couple of years ago, a entirely new brand started showing up on store shelves in Oregon & Washington:  Josefina’s–with a similar red and green bag. Though it didn’t say so on the packaging, the Josefina’s chips were manufactured by the nation’s largest snack chip company (Lays).

Cities and the Cultural Re-Mix

Arguably, cultural appropriation and remixing is at the heart of what cities do. As Jane Jacobs wrote, cities bring together people with different backgrounds and ideas, and mix them serendipitously in ways that create the “new work” that drives progress. The sheer variety of different and interesting things that are available in cities is one of the chief attractions of urban living. The ever-changing smorgasbord of consumption choices–which borrow ideas from all over the world–are what make cities interesting and dynamic places to live. For those with a taste for variety, it turns out that the cost of living in big cities is actually lower than in other places.

Ultimately, a lot of the argument is over the ownership of ideas. We’re strong believers in a knowledge economy, and the continuous development of new and better ideas (from microchips to drugs to better ways to sew a shirt to better ways to make a cup of coffee) are all things that make us better off and which propel economic growth. That said, who owns and who profits from any particular piece of knowledge is an unsettled and contentious area. For some things we grant very strong legal rights (patents, copyrights) and have private businesses that aggressively exploit their value (drug guy). In other areas, and food is one, its almost impossible to control intellectual property like recipes, and imitation and learning produce widespread spillovers.

One of the good things about knowledge as a factor of production is that it is, as Paul Romer has observed, non-rival. You and I can both make use of the same idea without diminishing its utility to either of us. And, for what its worth, we practice what we preach at City Observatory:  All of our work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-A) license, so anyone is free to copy, republish and reuse our content, subject only to the proviso that they acknowledge our original work.  So please, appropriate away.