Apple Custard Pie | About “Ethnic” Recipe Titles…

apple custard pie (1)

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 (3)

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.

Recipe submitted to Virtual Vegan Linky Potluck.

In solidarity, Ali.

8 thoughts on “Apple Custard Pie | About “Ethnic” Recipe Titles…

  1. TJ says:

    But isn’t the reverse similarly problematic? I assume that since your focus seems to be on bloggers rather than professional chefs/cookbook authors, you don’t have the same concerns with cultural appropriation where the cook has researched a cuisine and spent time with it (Rick Bayless comes to mind as an obvious example, having devoted his professional career to his interpretations of Mexican cuisine, including living in Mexico for six years at the start of his career). But if a Rick Bayless isn’t problematic, it seems like you’re simply judging the authenticity of a dish – authenticity that you admit you don’t have the knowledge/familiarity/capacity to assess – and labeling appropriation accordingly.

    Moreover, at least names referencing cultural inspirations, even if it’s arguably a bad or superficial execution, aren’t erasing the subjected culture. As imperfect as many so-called empanadas are, at least they’re not called Hot Pockets.

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Hey, TJ! I really appreciate your complication of my thoughts. Good stuff to think further about.

      I actually don’t think I’m completely comfortable with celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, especially because he’s making immense profits off of a cuisine that a people has lived with for centuries. I’m not as concerned with the authenticity of a dish as I am with the positionality of the person who cooked it.

      As for your point about erasing a subjecting culture, that’s definitely something I don’t seek to do. Now I’m wondering how to avoid doing so without also appropriating it. Will think further and would love to hear your thoughts about what that would look like.

  2. FoodFeud says:

    Awesome post, and I definitely agree with yr reasoning behind not naming yr food with ethnic titles any longer. It has always rubbed me the wrong way, which is not to say I haven’t done it.
    I’ve found that food bloggers (myself included) often over-categorize – recipes for St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, our late grandmother’s birthday, the 4th of July. These holidays give us reasons to make food to blog about it, and kind of push holidays that don’t necessarily mean much to us otherwise. “When it suits us,” as you put it. How many times have you read, “Well, I’m not Irish but here are my top 10 green foods for the month of march”? I think part of our appropriation maybe stems from that, or the Pinterest search wordification, for lack of a better way to say it. We are so detached from the histories of the countries, to say nothing of the actual food from the country itself.
    As you say, it’s not necessarily from a malicious place, but perhaps a misinformed one. It’s not a bad thing to want to be more open to Indian food, or even Indian culture but to latch on to one single aspect is dangerous and we need to educate ourselves better first.
    Thanks for talking about this. I’ll try my best to also no longer tag recipes with ethnic names.

  3. Ellie says:

    As always, a very thought provoking post Ali! In my opinion, when food bloggers or recipe creators in general add an ethnic flare to a recipe title they are attempting to honor that community and recognize the significance they have. In addition to using the words “Asian inspired” or “Mexican style” there is another tendency to separate the different parts of “white” American culture by using the words “Southern-style” in fried chicken or baked bean dishes most famously associated with that latitude. By doing this I certainly do not think food bloggers believe this sector of American society is “less-so” than themselves.
    When looking at recipes, I will be more conscious of how they are titles, but will continue to see these ethnic names as a way to pay respect to that amazing flavors from different parts of the globe.
    Cheers! 🙂
    I loved that podcast recommendation by the way!

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Hey, Ellie! Thanks for the comment. I guess I’m most concerned with what I feel like is a sort of hypocrisy of wanting to honor a culture but still being complicit in a society and individual entrenched worldview that subjugates black and brown bodies. I would much rather folks take an active stance against white supremacy than “honor” another culture by posting a recipe inspired by its cuisine.

      Glad you like the podcast!

  4. N says:

    As a person of European descent, I am trying to work through all of this. I have seen concerns pop up with more frequency about ethnic names of foods on blogs and in cookbooks and honestly I haven’t really been able to understand the problem. FoodFeud likening it to when people post dishes revolving around holidays they do not understand or really participate in was a helpful analogy.

    I agree with Ellie that I have always viewed it as “giving credit where credit is due”, I feel like my ignoring the source of a dish is an attempt at cultural erasure. The only thing that does give me pause about this attitude is my observation that most bloggers/food people do not in turn call European and American (with the exception of southern food) food European-this or American-that. For example, we rarely say American cheeseburger (vegan of course) or Italian inspired spaghetti. By not being consistent with the American and European food, I think we are engaging in the creation of “other” and the centralization/normalization of white culture which can lead to white supremacist thoughts and actions. What is your opinion, Ali? If we are consistent in giving credit to the sources of food whether they are from a culture of color or not- would that then help alleviate concerns of appropriation and injustice?

    This is where I get confused though- I don’t think sharing in other cultures and their food, music etc. is a bad thing. I think multiculturalism is a beautiful wonderful thing and I wouldn’t want to discourage people from going bellydancing or eating at an Indian restaurant or making Mexican inspired food. I think these things create cross cultural understanding and enjoyment. I think it would be dangerous if people of European ancestry only ate European food (or if we want to be even more specific, if Poles only ate/made Polish inspired food and the English only ate/made English inspired food)…but I don’t think that is really your suggestion. I think the fear is that people of European descent borrow/participate in/or profit from another culture when it is convenient for them and the issue is that they are not (we ASSUME) actively doing anything to achieve greater social that correct?

    But then I wonder how a person of European descent who wants to be an ally can do so without further colonizing and hurting people of color. For example, with the food desert issue- low income people of color are the ones primarily affected from my understanding- what can/should you do without overstepping your bounds? I assume it’s not ok to step back and let people organize themselves and figure it out when you could use your privilege to further justice…but how do you do that without being the “WHITE knight”?

    Lots to think about…love your blog…love this post…


    • Ali Seiter says:

      Thank you for your super thought-provoking comment and kind words, N. I think my main concern is with the tendency of white bloggers to simply name a recipe with a cultural reference, quickly acknowledge that culture, or assume that a dish fits into that culture just because it uses certain ingredients. I’d highly prefer if bloggers took the time to investigate how that dish could possibly fit into that cuisine, if a version of that dish already comes from that cuisine (and tell us about its history, noting their positionality in trying to understand it), and how they and other white people might be perpetuating/have perpetuated throughout history the marginalization of the culture that inspired that dish. That speaks more to a cultivation of multicultural competence than simply “giving (quick) credit.”

      As for your question about how to help, I think it’s important to allow folks at the frontline of struggles to lead them, rather than assuming that (as always) us white folks should be the ones at the head of movements (and everything else). I think the important thing is to listen to where and how systemically oppressed peoples want solidarity, and act accordingly.

      Thank you so much again. I really hope you keep commenting with your thoughts–I found them to really helpfully complicate my own.

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