Oberlin College - Food Fight

There’s something about this issue which continues to hold my interest. It’s not merely the fact that bahn mi on a ciabatta and steamed General Tso’s sound wrong to my own - generally descriptivist - taste buds. Nor is it jealousy that these kids even have bad sushi by which to be offended - I mean, I’m not sure if in the 80s, campus dining halls even served fish sticks that contained actual fish. Likewise, I can’t chalk it all up to my fundamental support for campus activists pushing the edges of the cultural/political conversations.

I’m guessing, it has more to do with my food geekery. I find myself contemplating notions like, “Where is the line between healthy, multi-cultural melting pot and cultural appropriation? Can the latter actually occur without intent? Does ignorance excuse?”

To that final query, I extend to personal cooking philosophies. “Should one know The Rules before having the right to break them? Before simply deciding to?” And then on to more universal ideas, “If a rule exists in the absence of reason, or based upon a reason that no longer applies,* does it deserve adherence at all?” If I’m neither Jewish nor Hindi, then what possible restrictions should I place upon myself making curry cheeseburgers for my Fourth of July party?

Anyway, anybody else see an interesting catalyst in this?

Links to a report on the issue from the New York Times, and two essays from The Atlantic are below:


Conor Friedersdorf:

Alice Ollstein:

  • The “Months with Rs in them” oyster rule comes to mind. Refrigeration means that we can get fresh, cold water bivalves from all over the place, all year long, reducing the threat of illness, etc.

On one hand, I am glad students these days have wider exposure to food and know what’s good vs bad. On the other hand, its a bit too much to take the complaint beyond the level of ‘hey, your attempts at non-American food suck, please make the food better or we’ll take our business elsewhere’ to ‘cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity’.

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I don’t know what you mean by ‘catalyst’, but I found the Times article interesting and my first reaction is that the students are right, although if I was actually there and heard and saw everything, I might qualify that conclusion a lot or take it back.

It’s possible that a lot of these students come from high schools where they had a whole lot of dumbed-down multiculturalism spoon-fed them in lots of ways. I lived in a town whose high school did this with music, food, sports, other things – and the kids were just too smart not to see through the inauthenticity of one-day-of-eating(singing-playing) the “culture” of another country – with respect of course! Some of the choices were really appalling – like including songs from American movies about other cultures as if they were representative of the culture.

On a somewhat related note, my husband’s college days at an Ivy include a massive protest against the Student Union food offerings. A full student strike, bullhorns, chaining-selves to door or whatever. Near riot. And they were just complaining about the fish sticks, but college students don’t want to eat hateful food.

But I think it would fabulous if college students asked for and got food that was local to wherever the high school or college is located and participated in the development, salvaging, revival, renassaince, creation of a true authentic American cuisine, with regional variations, made with ingredients that thrive in North America’s various regions.

The students complaining were from Vietnam and Japan. I’m not sure how anyone from Japan can complain about cultural appropriation. Ever ordered a burger there?

I can hear the chanting now

What do we want!
Fried chicken
When do we want it!
At lunch time

I see now. For some reason, when I read the the Times article, I thought that while only Asian students had been quoted about the lack of authenticity of the modified recipes, the complaint was taken up by most of the student body.

I don’t have a lot sympathy for students demanding that a college serve them familiar foods from their country, but I can definitely relate to the notion that if foods are being presented as representative, they shouldn’t be travesties of the dish, and that an educational institution has an added responsibility to respect accuracy. I can also see where some presentations wouldn’t just be bad cooking, but an unpleasant reminder of colonialism.

Jaime Oliver not long ago got in trouble for reinterpreting beyond recognition the African dish Jollof rice, which has a lot of symbolic meaning, as much as say Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings or a multi-tiered wedding cake. Oliver became a target of a lot of, I think, justifiable complaints:


Which brings us back to the bigger inquiries, like, Is an authentic, American cuisine possible without ‘cultural appropriation’? How old must a culture be before its cuisine becomes definable? Identifiable? etc.

You’ve stumbled upon one of my favorite foods for thought, but, perhaps, we’ll save broader consideration of what, if anything, is American cuisine for another time. Then again, maybe it is so thoroughly intertwined with the subjects arising from the Oberlin dust up that it’s a necessary antecedent.

Sorry if the question in my opinion caused confusion, “catalyst” was merely an abridgement of “catalyst for conversation”.

Dinner’d be good too. Maybe, throughout the afternoon? Actually, it’d be really cool if we could swing by after parties for a few pieces… . .


I would start with things that grow in North America. I would revive some pre-colonial ideas about food and recipes, and also revive historic regional recipes, but would not exclude the food of immigrants made with locally grown foods.

I don’t mean this as snarky or insulting, but Americans are more confused about nation and national identity and ethnicity than most cultures – and that is saying a lot. Americans do not view themselves as an ethnic group – yet they view Italians as an ethnic group even though Italy is a younger nation that is more culturally fragmented and linguistically diverse than the US. What may be a political majority of Amercians obviously do not happily view America as a nation of immigrants either. Regional differences among Americans are either denied or understood without reference to history.

So even though regional differences in American cuisine are one of things people recognize as indicating that there might be an American history that began before “the greatest generation” and produced an American ethnicity after 200+ years – or at least a distinct analyzable American culture, not an unrelated large group of individuals – I don’t know how long it will be before Americans start viewing their nation as a nation like any other – with a people, a history, a food, a language. I keep hearing people screaming it’s “exceptional” and if you try to contradict them, they make noises like it would be ok to shoot you. And if you tell them, fine, you’re a nation of immigrants and always will be, you can practically hear the safety catch coming off the trigger.

Thanks for your reflections, though, I’m afraid, they primarily raise more questions for me. For example, when you state:

I’m left wondering, why this matters since the US, almost anything can be grown. If indigenous ingredients are the focus of this, do other cultures need to excise things like potatoes and tomatoes from what is included in their national cuisines?

Likewise, “pre-colonial ideas about food and recipes” and “historic regional recipes” are more often than not “cultural appropriations” in their own right. I mean, much of colonial American cooking is British in origin, other Continental influences can be discerned as well. What would be a good example of something truly “American”? I hate to think we have to impose restrictions to pre-Columbian diets.

To me, this is the crucial element. Tacos, pizza, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, etc. are American foods in this sense - as I think they should be. But, I’m OK with variations of a dish being equally a part of more than one “national cuisine”. Like, for example, curry or , for lack of a better term, the dumpling-family.

See, to my view, this near-schizophrenic, multi-personality characteristic of Americans is the starting point for American cuisine. As a nation, our primary contributions to world cuisine have been in the preservation, production, and packaging of foods. It seems to make a certain kind of sense that our “national dishes” should be re-interpretations of things that exist, and/or were created, off our shores. . . .

Anyway, I’ll stop the rambling for a while, but I do continue to find this subject fascinating.

There are many things growing on the planet that the United States does not have the soil and climate to produce naturally, or harvest from the sea, rivers, etc. I wouldn’t say that indigenous produce is the focus, but reviving pre-colonial foods – especially those edged outs by imports, --strikes me as a dietary, environmental plus, provided these things are not now susceptible to new disease, etc.

I don’t know which or what “other cultures” you are referring to

Doesn’t have to be. Will be if white Europeans are unable to lose the mental framework that they are the center of the universe and only intelligent actors on the planet.

Mozzerella di bufala is not an American food and I doubt it could be produced successfully anywhere in America. People living in Maine cannot grow banana leaves to make tamales. I’m not proposing a political project. I’m proposing people reconsider what food is, what it is for, where it comes from, where they (people) come from and now live, and what kind of an environment they are embedded in.

I really don’t care if dough made with local grain, local water, salt, oil etc, is used to make a oven baked disc covered with local products that is inspired by the pizza of Southern Italy and everybody calls pizza. What is really destructive is importing bufala di mozzarella as entertainment for affluent Americans. It’s unhealthy in a multiplicity of ways.

[Adding for your amusement: When they first dug up Pompeii more than 2 centuries ago, they discovered discarded giraffe bones. There are no Italian giraffes. Wealthy locals had taken to eating African giraffes as a status item. Not implying they were punished for it with a volcanic eruption, just passing the history along as something to ponder.]

See, to me that’s too prescriptivist a view. A pizza doesn’t need Mozzerella di bufala to be a pizza. A tamale wrapped in corn husk is still a tamale. Those versions may not be “authentic”, but nothing really is; “authenticity” being so enigmatic a principle to contain as to render it almost useless.

In fact, I could argue that rejection of the concept of “authenticity” is the crux of “American cuisine”.

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Adding one more thought:

Some of the confusion around “cultural appropriation” clears up I think when people remember what happened with the success of peformers of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis for repackaging the music of poor African Americans for a white audience. Anthony Bourdain and Jaime Oliver are Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The are repacking the food of the world’s loser in globalisation and imperialism as a fun thing to do on a Saturday night. Nobody would honor these foods if the people who actually made them and ate them every day were given televison shows to talk about them. They don’t look like the kind of people we find glamorous and autoritative and masculine.

So a whole lot a shakin’ goin’ on to rethink the sheer immaturity of all this would be helpful I think.

Anthony Bourdain doesn’t cook. He travels and highlights local food and chefs. I don’t think that experiencing other cultures is immature.

Yes, I already said that. So why is mozzerella di bufala being air-shipped from Campania to Chicago? Also, just like tortilla means one thing to you and somethng else to a Spaniard, just because you call something pizza doesn’t mean an Italian has to accept that, and an Italian would be right to tell you that many dishes Americans are calling Italian pizza are not Italian at all.

I was actually standing at a bus stop 30 minutes after I wrote about tamales made in banana leaves and suddenly realized I was possibly wrong. Corn husks. But sometimes banana leaves! However, the point is: Why demand dishes in Maine cooked in banana leaves (or whatever other tropical food that comes to mind.)

Peope who talk about “authenticity” are trying to communicate something that is very difficult. A lot of what is said gets rejected instantaneously, and turns into a nomenclature issue. I’m not capable of getting into the argument on that level.

That said, I do not agree that [quote=“MZ, post:13, topic:2833”]
that rejection of the concept of “authenticity” is the crux of “American cuisine”.

Again, I don’t mean to make this sound aggravatingly insulting to anybody, but if I may state, being an American, my observation: there is not that much thought put into this. Almost no Americans think there is an American cuisine. They don’t have the concept “cuisine.” or “kitchen”. You, MZ, think about it, and there are some writers, academics and chefs who do to, but you are all thinking about in the absence of any informed broad dialogue about it that includes enough Americans to make in meaningful. So nobody can identify a “crux.”

There is American regional cuisine that people do recognize as created in America. Otherwise, “American cuisine” or “American far” is a kind of catch-all that people opening restaurants advertise to indicate a mainly meat focused menu, salads, without distracting reminders of specific cuisines of other nationalities.

For a reason. He used to, and no one would eat his bad food. But fine. Anthony Bourdain is Dick Clark.

[Edited to add here, preemptively, that I do know the long history of barter, food traveling globally through seed, trade, rise of civilazations, etc. We are living at a different moment that deserves questioning everything – and I am glad people raise all questions. I’m not trying to write or re-write “the Food Rules.” I’m not interested in “food rules”. }

Atlantic update. A chef comments:


I’m not sure I want to go back and re-read all the initial articles, but I couldn’t remember while reading “the cook’s” point of view in your link whether the Oberlin cafeteria made a special point of having a “Vietnam menu” or “day” which featured Bahn Mi, or whether on some occasions, Bahn Mi was on the menu alongside hamburgers, BLT’s and chicken salad.

If it’s the former, the cook missed the point If it’s the latter, it’s true the students don’t understand the needs of the kitchen, but it’s still no excuse for the kitchen to appropriate the name of another country’s dish to slap onto some concoction invented by the staff to use up ingredients – to what end? Bahn Mi sounds more trendy than Pork on a Bun?

I’m afraid the cook totally turned me off the last 3rd of the article, asking for pity and sounding like some bitter mother whose kids had complained about a flop dinner made from food out of cans. People don’t want to eat swill. I’m glad they push back against it.