In this largely white community of vegan and/or healthy-food bloggers (of course, there are plenty of bloggers of color and I don’t mean to erase them, but in my experience most of my fellow food bloggers are white, including myself), I see many recipe titles that reference different cultures and their cuisines: “Tiki Tempeh,” “Asian-Style Greens,” “Moroccan Chickpea Soup,” just to name a couple. And I’m troubled by them. Though I’m confident that those in this community hold the best intentions in creating and naming their recipes, I can’t help but feel that these “ethnic” recipes titles reflect a larger phenomenon of cultural appropriation.
To illustrate the forms cultural appropriation can cake and its implications, I’d like to quote at length from antiracist organizer Paul Kivel‘s book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice:
“It is difficult for white people to become multiculturally competent. Wherever we look, we see ourselves — our language, values, images and history. We have learned how great European-based US culture is. … We have been trained to think that other cultures are less literate, less civilized, less efficient, less practical. It is impossible to make a good-faith effort to respect and learn about other cultures when we hold a core assumption that they are inferior to ours. … US culture has drawn from many different cultural traditions. We have valued them enough to appropriate their strengths and achievements. … One way we retain our assumptions of white superiority while increasing our cultural competency is to split off the culture from the people who live it. White people have appropriated music, art, spiritual practices and stories from other cultures while killing or excluding the people who created them. … There is also the danger that we will use our knowledge of another culture to feel superior to the people whose culture it is. Even if we know a lot about the holidays, music or beliefs of another culture, we still have a lot to learn from the people who live it” (285-286).
As a couple examples of the white exploitation of other cultures whose practices we have incorporated into US white culture, think of the Native American peoples whom we all but obliterated in the name of stealing their land, while today we wear moccasins and clothing with “Native” patterns because. Or perhaps some of us have become connoisseurs of jazz while remaining complicit in the systemic suppression of full Black participation in society. Often, we tend to think we’re “cool” for wearing trendy clothes or listening to certain types of music, contributing to our internalized sense of superiority to peoples of different cultures: we become “cultured” by perpetuating the mindset that we are entitled to aspects of other cultures, which has historically resulted in the very real exploitation of the peoples of such cultures.
In the case of titling recipes with “ethnic” references, I think this subtle sense of superiority comes through when we judge it acceptable to call something “Thai” or “African” or “Spanish,” or to name a dish “sushi” or “mofongo,” without having an understanding of those cultures or dishes. Just because a food is cooked with corn and chili powder doesn’t mean it’s Mexican, nor does mashing eggplant with tahini necessarily constitute baba ghanoush, and our readiness to apply these titles to our recipes strikes me as yet another way we casually acknowledge other cultures while not actually taking the time to reflect upon the ways we harmfully treat the peoples who identify with them. In regard to recipe titles that specifically reference broad groups of people like “Asian” and “African,” these generalizing terms fail to recognize the vast diversity of cultures and cuisines within them – a failure that happens quite often, considering our propensity to think of Africa as a country.
I do hope that white folks won’t stop cooking dishes or publishing recipes inspired by the cuisines of other cultures, since I think that seeking out unfamiliar forms of eating can contribute to our fostering of the “cultural competence” that Paul Kivel describes as “the ability to understand another culture well enough to be able to communicate and work with people from that culture,” and to accept them as potential leaders rather than non-agential members of our society (284). To me, publishing recipes inspired by the cuisines of other cultures has different implications than explicitly titling those recipes as the particular dishes or cultures from which they’re drawn. For example, calling rice and veggies wrapped in seaweed “nori rolls” instead of “sushi” can signal that even though you’ve used ingredients commonly featured in a certain cuisine, you’re not purporting to be familiar enough with that cuisine to have created something that can really be called “Ethiopian” or “injera,” and are by extension recognizing that you are not in a place to take from this culture as if it were your own.
Another aspect of this continuation of multicultural cooking that I would call absolutely necessary is a commitment to examining how we contribute to the systemic oppression of other cultures in our daily lives, and how we can challenge ourselves to act and think differently. This everyday change may involve not asking Black people if you can touch their hair (and then often proceeding to do so even without their permission), working to place people of color in positions of leadership in an organization with which you’re involved, intervening when someone tells a racist joke, or not getting defensive when people of color talk about instances in which they’ve been discriminated against.
I’m certainly not saying that by pressing “publish” on a recipe that makes cultural references, white food bloggers are consciously thinking how superior they are to the peoples of the culture they’re referencing. I am, however, suggesting that such an act is indicative of unrecognized participation in an historic legacy of valuing other cultures only when it suits us, and either actively or passively subjugating them the rest of the time. And I’ve done it, too! Heck, I’ve published recipes for “Thai Coconut-Baked Tofu” and “Moo Shoo Veggies with Mung Bean Crepes” (the names of which I’ve since altered). But I intend to do so no longer, and instead continue to analyze my internalized beliefs of white superiority and the ways in which I manifest them.
So now, because I have no adequate transition, please enjoy this pie. It’s a yogurt-based version of this ice cream pie from Hannah Kaminsky with a crust adapted from a recipe in Fran Costigan’s new book Vegan Chocolate. It’s yummy. And it uses apples, which are all the rage around this time of year.
Apple Custard Pie
Makes one 9″ pie.
1 cup whole wheat pastry or light spelt flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup rolled oats, ground into a fine powder in your blender, food processor, or spice grinder
1/4 cup melted coconut oil or olive oil
1/4 cup maple syrup or agave nectar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp almond or hazelnut extract
1 lb apples (about 3 medium), cored and cubed
1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1 24-oz container non-dairy yogurt, plain or vanilla
2 tbsp agar flakes or 1 1/2 tsp agar powder
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
First, make the crust: in a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, salt, and ground oats. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the oil, syrup/nectar, and extracts. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and stir well to form a moist dough. Spoon the dough into the center of a 9″ springform pan and press to form an even layer on the bottom of the pan. Refrigerate for 15 minutes, then place the pan in the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 350°F. Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the edges of the crust are slightly darker than golden-brown. Refrigerate until completely cool before filling.
Make the filling: in the bowl of a food processor, combine the cubed apples, lemon juice, yogurt, and agar. Run the machine for about 3 minutes to ensure a super smooth filling. Pour the puree into a medium-sized saucepan, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes, whisking often. Once the crust has completely cooled, pour the puree over the crust into the springform pan and let cool to room temperature to ensure that the agar sets properly. Once cooled, transfer the pie to the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour. Serve with additional apple slices fanned over the top and drizzled with maple syrup, if desired.
In solidarity, Ali.