The BBC presents more complaints about inappropriate presentation of ethnic foods, which are now seen as “microaggressions.” Some of the transgressions that led to outrage, many catalogued by Filipino-American Celeste Noche on her podcast The Racist Sandwich, deal largely with food photography. (The bullet point prose is taken from the BBC):
- “Whether it’s taking photos of dishes with chopsticks sticking straight up into rice or noodles (which can be seen as offensive in some Asian cultures)”, [Noche] says, “or dramatisation in the props used to style ethnic foods (why are Asian dishes so often styled on bamboo mats or banana leaves with chopsticks?)”.
- Noche added that established food blogs like that of Andrew Zimmern also fed into stereotypes. “(His) recipe for Filipino short ribs is styled with chopsticks even though Filipinos traditionally eat with spoons and forks or their hands”.
I remember a foreign student who went to a local greasy spoon with one of my friends, who saw that student stymied by the hamburger he ordered. The student removed the two buns and ate them separately, then ate the burger with a knife and fork. Should Americans be outraged by that? Is that a microaggression—or racism? No; it’s simple ignorance, not a microaggression.
- Similarly the food site Bon Appetit received some criticism for publishing a video last year about noodles claiming “Pho is the new Ramen.” Several commenters attacked the video for the “simplification of Asian culture” as “pho is from Vietnam and ramen from Japan”. The video was fronted by a white American chef who spoke on the ‘correct way to eat pho”. After a little more than 24 hours on the website Bon Appetit removed the video altogether, both from their Facebook and YouTube channels, and apologised for any offence they may have caused.
I don’t think the phrase “pho is the new Ramen” is even a sign of ignorance; it could mean only that pho, as an Asian noodle dish, is displacing ramen as the noodle dish favored by Americans dining out.
- Pembroke College of Cambridge university said they were taking complaints from ethnic minority students about their menu “seriously”.”Dear Pembroke catering staff, stop mixing mango and beef and calling it ‘Jamaican stew’,” a student posted on the college’s Facebook page. “I’m actually half Jamaican, pls show me where in the Caribbean they mix fruit and meat.”Another complained about a “Tunisian rice” recipe which, well, doesn’t exist in Tunisia.The college said they would be “going through the dishes on the menu to see if any are ones that are not very well named”.
Re Caribbean food, I was under the impression that plantains are part of many Caribberan meals, though usually served on the side. But a minute’s investigation turned up a Jamaican dish, ackee and saltfish, that’s made with fish and a fruit.
My sympathy for these beefs (pun intended) is limited. I can see (barely) some justification for some complaints if the dishes are presented as being truly authentic, but most of these “microaggressions” are based on either a desire to create fusion food inspired by a culture or, as in the case of chopsticks sticking up vertically, either a mistake or a photograph enhancement.
But look at the way American food is presented overseas; sometimes it’s barely recognizable, as with the “cornflex” served with hot milk on some menus in Nepal. And don’t talk to me about Nepalese “lasagna” (it’s still great after a hard day of trekking). But so what? French toast isn’t French, General Tso’s chicken isn’t even Chinese (neither is chop suey, an American bastardization of a regional Chinese dish, debased for American tastes), and what passes for a “baguette” in America would make the French recoil. But food, like music, almost begs to be fused with the products of other ethnicities, and if in so doing it loses its “authenticity,” is that racism? If American food is spiced up in other countries to cater to local tastes, is that a microaggression? (This is the case, for instance, in some of the “vegetable patties” you get on trains in India; a spiced up version of British food.) You can’t say that only minorities have a right to complain about that, because British or American food in other countries is a “minority food.”
As I said, food can sometimes be a vehicle for a lack of cultural sensitivity: I can imagine, for instance, Westerners asking overseas visitors ignorant questions about their cuisine. But some of that comes from pure ignorance, not racism.
One gets the feeling that these kvetching students are simply looking for something to complain about, something that gives them victim credit.