Rewriting the Menu: Distinguishing Culinary Appropriation and Culinary Appreciation

Anna Lee ’24

Opinions Editor

When I’m feeling down or sick, a generous bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup is really all I need. Filled with pockets of spicy oil, chunks of braised beef shank, elastic flour noodles, and tender bok choy, it is the ultimate comfort food on an off-day. So when I saw the noodle bar – the newest installation at the College of the Holy Cross’s dining hall (Kimball), I was intrigued. Needless to say, I did not get even an essence of Taiwan, or perhaps of all of Asia, in that soup. 

The noodle bar boasts an impressive assembly line of assorted vegetables, meat, and rice. But among these assortments are baby corn, an Americanized coleslaw of sorts, and an interesting concoction of broths. While some of the ingredients are undoubtedly as authentic as traditional recipes go, some of the ingredients have not so much as graced the inside of an Asian restaurant. What made me rightfully upset about the noodle bar, stir fry station, or other “international-inspired” foods in Holy Cross’s dining options is that many of these foods are altered to make the food more “palatable” to the majority. 

For many people growing up in culturally diverse households, bringing traditional foods to school wasn’t always met with neutrality or harmless intrigue. In an NBC article, Mei Fong recalls how her son did not finish his oxtail stew at lunch after his friends called it “stinky” (Fong). Though many of these experiences lend themselves to lessons in resilience and acceptance of identity, it seems that some institutions, including Holy Cross, are doing this same sort of mockery in a different way. When traditional foods aren’t tasty, too pungent, or “stinky,” and therefore need to be “fixed,” it can rightfully unearth anger and pain. 

Tampering with food can not only be perceived as a personal attack, but a political one as well. According to one BBC article, a lot of criticism around culturally appropriating food comes from strong senses of identity politics and ownership. New York University professor Krishnendu Ray points out: “‘There is a tendency to ‘ghettoise’ Chinese, Mexican, and Indian American chefs into cooking their ‘own food’, whereas white chefs tend to find it easier to cross boundaries’, and are seen as ‘artistic’ when they do.” (Cheung) So when food – sometimes one of the few or last senses of identity that many people have – is appropriated by chefs with a limited understanding of it, it makes sense why food is such a sensitive topic. 

This is not to say that modifying traditional recipes is a bad thing. After all, many staples across international or domestic cuisines were created through experimentation. However, it is one thing to experiment with a food and recognize it as something different, versus altering it and advertising it as the same thing. As explained in a Spoon University article “The Fine Line Between Culinary Appropriation and Appreciation”: “You can and should add your own twist to a dish, but recognize its differences from the traditional version.” (Long) The article also states not to “claim it as your own for money.” So it makes sense why many students of East Asian heritage, for example, aren’t necessarily rushing to the noodle bar for capturing authentic flavors, and why other students feel advertising potato and cheese pockets as “empanadas” doesn’t really pay homage to the real thing. 

This misunderstanding of the food in Holy Cross dining areas can be remedied by hiring chefs with more diverse backgrounds. Whether this is through experience with international cuisine or domestic cuisine in different areas of the U.S., dining services could highly benefit from consulting with chefs with more understanding of those areas. Food in Kimball can be good if it resembles something Americanized or undoubtedly “New England” cuisine. But much like chefs from New York or Chicago get into spits over the best kind of pizza, each recipe is understandably a result of its context and can lead to criticism when it’s rivaled by another version. For Holy Cross, there is still a long way to go when it comes to realizing that majority-white chefs cannot accurately capture the menu of ethnic foods it tries to produce. The food isn’t necessarily bad – but it is not close to the traditional food many students from diverse backgrounds have grown up with. 

To conclude, Holy Cross dining services needs to understand the difference between culinary appropriation versus culinary appreciation. Food can be altered or changed according to contextual differences, but recognizing that the food is not the traditional thing is integral when respecting the culture it comes from. In order to understand this difference, Holy Cross dining services might consider hiring chefs from more diverse backgrounds, renaming their dishes to a more politically correct version, or consulting with students from those backgrounds to see if their approach crosses the line.

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