Discussing food mediation through the lens of a burrito stand in Portland

Illustrations by Marcus Parker

Food and identity are inextricably linked. This is both cliché and absolutely true. It is not surprising then that people get angry when others appropriate the foods that they identify with culturally. If you don’t believe me take a look at the Kitchen Sister’s wonderful series Hidden Kitchen: War & Peace & Food. But what exactly is appropriation? Is using an ingredient from outside your own culture an act of respect or aggression? Put simply, is it okay for me to use Szechuan bean paste when I make dinner? (I’m not Chinese.) What if I use it in an inauthentic way? (I’m quite fond of putting it in tomato sauce.) Would it be okay for me to open a Szechuan restaurant? Where is the line between culinary borrowing and theft?

All these questions were brought to the fore this month by an incident in Oregon. Late last year two women from Portland, Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly took a vacation to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico. (Although it came out later that one of the women is a quarter Chinese, both are white-presenting.) They fell in love with flour tortillas and decided to learn how to make them. After asking local tortilla makers for tips, they went back to Portland, perfected their recipe and opened Kooks Burritos, a food cart pop-up specializing in Southern California-style breakfast burritos. In mid-May, as their business took off, they gave an interview to Willamette Week — and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Here is the interview’s most controversial paragraph:

“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Connelly says. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”

Soon Wilgus and Connelly were being accused of stealing the recipe and even received death threats. A few days later Kooks closed.

There is already a voluminous debate about Kooks raging on the internet. I don’t want to rehash that here. Suffice it to say, I took “we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen” figuratively. I doubt there was a criminal theft. And as several observers have noted, there is more than a hint of sexism in these rebukes. Why are these women any more deserving of censure than the legions of white men selling tacos?

That said, this case raises some important questions about the link between food migration, diffusion and power. Of course, foodstuffs have always moved long distances. Those that think food globalization is a recent phenomenon need only be reminded of another absolutely true cliché — the tomato is a New World crop, not native to Italy. Likewise, chilies are New World in origin. Coffee is an Old World product. But we in the U.S. don’t think of coffee as borrowed, nor does a Korean cook using a hot pepper. Foods move and over time are assimilated into their new locality. When they become commonplace they are no longer thought of as foreign. On the other hand, food movement and diffusion has often been linked to morally reprehensible relationships. Sugar could not have trickled down to all classes of Europeans without both imperialism and the slave trade; our desire for inexpensive coffee beans produces an economy that exploits farmers in the global south. Successful or not, this is precisely the problem the Fair Trade movement is trying to rectify.

Like foodstuffs, dishes have always moved around the world, and have been adapted in, and adopted by, their new home countries: Think of pizza in the United States, for example. But this does not always mean that we like a new dish the first time we encounter it. Our ability to accept a new food is linked to our impressions of the people who are already eating it. Samuel Morse, the American inventor of the telegraph traveled to Naples, Italy in the first half of the 19th century, when pizza was still considered the food of poor Neapolitans. In Carol Helstosky’s Pizza: A Global History, Morse is quoted as describing pizza as “a species of most nauseating cake…it altogether looks like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer.” Often, to be liked, new foods must be introduced by mediators, people we trust, who are “like us.” For example, American soldiers returning from Italy with a newfound taste for pizza.

Food mediators also serve another function. They shield us from seeing those harmed by exploitative food economies. We prefer not to think about the modern slavery rings that produce tomatoes in Florida and Mexico, the workers exposed to dangerous pesticides picking strawberries in California, those injured in meat processing plants in Iowa, to say nothing of low wages and substandard housing. To my mind, this is the most serious issue raised by Kooks. Two middle class, white-presenting women selling tortillas allows us to believe, even if just for a moment, that our foodscapes are equitable. This is surely a delusion. Our desire for cheap food has created an unethical system. But Wilgus and Connelly are just scapegoats for the abuses of the industry; in truth we are all guilty.

The online critique of Kooks has ignored mediation and instead focused on appropriation. I’m not sure I buy it. Yes, these are relatively empowered white-presenting women, who were able to take advantage of their position and access to resources to open a food cart more easily than a less privileged immigrant from Mexico. But let’s be real, they are not Taco Bell. As far as I can tell, they also never claimed to have invented anything. They certainly aren’t the first gringos to make Mexican-ish food on the west coast.

So what exactly is culinary appropriation? And how is it different from culinary diffusion? I’d say appropriation requires harm, or insult. Maybe the Kooks duo did not do enough research into the history of Mexican cuisine? Perhaps they were not sufficiently culturally aware? Maybe they were just quoted out of context? I really don’t know. But instead of pointing fingers at them, let’s take a look in the mirror. If we value a diverse culinary scene, let’s do more to support restaurants owned by people of color. If we want to build a fairer food system, let’s spend a bit more on our tomatoes and berries and support businesses that treat farmworkers well. This will take money and effort. And sometimes we’ll fail. But it’s just too easy to type nasty words about a Portland burrito stand.

Ari Ariel teaches history and international studies at the University of Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 223.

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