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When Writing About Other Cultures’ Food Gets Real “Yiiiikes!” Real Fast

Food is good. It is so good, you guys. We should all be exploring and tasting and experiencing as much food as we’re able to, because is good.

Food is also personal. It connects to us to culture, to history, to our own roots and those of others. Food is the result of trade and migration, disasters and famine come and gone, wars fought and lost, celebration and mourning, class and custom. Food is never just food and good food writing understands that.


Credit: Source Image via Flickr Creative Commons / Pete Zarria

This is why it’s so disappointing to see food writing forget that food is personal. Take this NYC restaurant review, which opens with a bang:

Eating Chinese food in this city is generally an exercise in extremism. You can get gross and roll around Chinatown or Flushing. You can go big and have yourself an out of body spice experience at Mission Chinese or Han Dynasty. Or you can overload on delivery, which prevents anything productive from happening the day after.

A general rule of thumb that’s always worked for me is remembering that, when writing about a given cuisine, it’s best to avoid proclaiming that the neighborhoods where that cuisine is made, appreciated, and enjoyed are places to “get gross.” Just a lil’ tip!

The review goes on to note that the restaurant is run by “a pair of non-Chinese Chinese food enthusiasts who wanted to share their passion for Chinese flavors with the world” and stresses the restaurant’s approachability and cleanliness. As Noah Cho writes on Medium, it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that this review’s intended audience is not people who are already familiar with Chinese food (like, say, a lot of Chinese people):

Truly, no one before them has ever decided to “share their passions for Chinese flavors with the world” except for, you know, Chinese people, who have been cooking watered down versions of Chinese cuisine precisely so douchebags like yourself feel comfortable. But it isn’t enough! Too bad all that ASIANNESS got in the way of you feeling “clean.” Cool story, bro.

This pervasive trend of writing about culturally-specific food with no active participation from that culture — and, in fact, a sense of disdain for and distance from it — is also on display in a recently re-promoted Bon Appétit article on what to eat in Cuba (timely now given President Obama’s March visit to the island). And, again, it kicks things off with class and grace:

If you’ve always wondered what Cuba was like beyond cigars and vintage cars, start packing: It’s time to witness a country at a moment of pivotal change. Havana is a party, no doubt, but it’s also a confusing place for Cubans and tourists alike. Cubans have a saying, No es fácil: It’s not easy. It applies to everything—food especially—in a place where cab drivers make more than doctors, and where a meal in a home restaurant can easily cost a month’s state salary. It’s a tricky city to break into, but with a little planning, it can change your life.

Credit: Adult Swim / The Dating Buffet

LOL, YIKES. I could go through a line-by-line diatribe on why this paragraph is the written equivalent of strolling, uninvited, into someone else’s home and taking a sh*t in his refrigerator, but you can figure it out for yourself.

So, context matters. Food is tied to culture, and culture doesn’t exist in a void. When food writing discusses food in a way that willfully divorces it from its culture and context, by using coded language about “cleanliness” or extolling exoticness as this nebulous goal in and of itself, it is a means of keeping a giant swath of people out of the conversation, whether deliberately or through a sort of mindless neglect.

NPR’s The Salt recently delved into the topic of appropriation when it comes to food. Who, they wondered, ultimately ends up profiting and being listened to when it comes to evangelizing food from cultures other than one’s own?

 For some nonwhite Americans, the idea of eating ‘ethnic cuisine’ (and there’s a whole other debate about that term) not cooked by someone of that ethnicity can feel like a form of cultural theft. Where does inspiration end? When is riffing off someone’s cuisine an homage, and when does it feel like a form of co-opting? And then there’s the question of money: If you’re financially benefiting from selling the cuisine of others, is that always wrong?

Their prime example is Rick Bayless, a gringo whose career is predicated on his appreciation for and mastery of Mexican food and cooking techniques. The difference, once again, is context (and it’s a context that, based on Bayless’ own interpretation of the critiques against him, he might not fully appreciate).

Food can and does belong to anyone. We are free to try it and make it and love it across different cultures. Cooking techniques and ingredients are passed on from culture to culture; fusion is ultimately inevitable. The idea of appropriation, specifically, comes from the attempt to take ownership of a culture other than one’s own, thereby shutting out people from that culture who made it possible for you to experience and enjoy this food in the first place. The issue is one of giving credit, of heralding local chefs and home cooks whose mastery of cuisine of worthy of attention. Bayless had to learn about Mexican food from someone. Many someones. Where are they? Where are their  books and restaurants? Where are their cooking shows, their line of kitchen equipment on sale now at your local Williams Sonoma? If they were talented and masterful enough to inspire Rick Bayless, why has Bayless not introduced them to us, so that we might learn from them as well? Pass the mic, along with the elotes.

It is vital, then, to give proper credit, to usher new people into a food experience while grounding it firmly in the context and culture in which it was created, and including its inventors in the conversation, rather than leaving them out of it. This holds true whether the conversation happens to take the form of a restaurant review (and subsequent aside about soy sauce fermenting in a “Chinese field”), a guide to food in a country where food rationing exists, or numerous cook books about a country’s “vibrant flavors.”

Put simply: Devotion stripped of context isn’t so much devotion as it is fetishization and appreciation without credit isn’t so much appreciation as it is appropriation.

Credit: Source Image via Flickr Creative Commons / kendrahw

And if you take just one thing away from all this today, please let it be this:

Christ on a (artisan-crafted, chipotle-kissed) cracker.

READ: Latinos Love Arroz y Frijoles, But Not Every Dish Is The Same

Can people appropriate food? Do y’all trust Rick Bayless to understand the innate appeal of a gansito eaten over the sink at 3 a.m.? Tell us in the comments.

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Mexico City Could Soon Change Its Name To Better Embrace Its Indigenous Identity

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Mexico City Could Soon Change Its Name To Better Embrace Its Indigenous Identity

Mexico City is the oldest surviving capital city in all of the Americas. It also is one of only two that actually served as capitals of their Indigenous communities – the other being Quito, Ecuador. But much of that incredible history is washed over in history books, tourism advertisements, and the everyday hustle and bustle of a city of 21 million people.

Recently, city residents voted on a non-binding resolution that could see the city’s name changed back to it’s pre-Hispanic origin to help shine a light on its rich Indigenous history.

Mexico City could soon be renamed in honor of its pre-Hispanic identity.

A recent poll shows that 54% of chilangos (as residents of Mexico City are called) are in favor of changing the city’s official name from Ciudad de México to México-Tenochtitlán. In contrast, 42% of respondents said they didn’t support a name change while 4% said they they didn’t know.

Conducted earlier this month as Mexico City gears up to mark the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec empire capital with a series of cultural events, the poll also asked respondents if they identified more as Mexicas, as Aztec people were also known, Spanish or mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish blood).

Mestizo was the most popular response, with 55% of respondents saying they identified as such while 37% saw themselves more as Mexicas. Only 4% identified as Spaniards and the same percentage said they didn’t know with whom they identified most.

The poll also touched on the city’s history.

The ancient city of Tenochtitlán.

The same poll also asked people if they thought that the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán by Spanish conquistadoresshould be commemorated or forgotten, 80% chose the former option while just 16% opted for the latter.

Three-quarters of respondents said they preferred areas of the the capital where colonial-era architecture predominates, such as the historic center, while 24% said that they favored zones with modern architecture.

There are also numerous examples of pre-Hispanic architecture in Mexico City including the Templo Mayor, Tlatelolco and Cuicuilco archaeological sites.

Tenochtitlán was one of the world’s most advanced cities when the Spanish arrived.

Tenochtitlán, which means “place where prickly pears abound” in Náhuatl, was founded by the Mexica people in 1325 on an island located on Lake Texcoco. The legend goes that they decided to build a city on the island because they saw the omen they were seeking: an eagle devouring a snake while perched on a nopal.

At its peak, it was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. It subsequently became a cabecera of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlán are in the historic center of the Mexican capital. The World Heritage Site of Xochimilco contains what remains of the geography (water, boats, floating gardens) of the Mexica capital.

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Mexico Plunges 23 Places On The World Happiness Report As The Country Struggles To Bounce Back

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Mexico Plunges 23 Places On The World Happiness Report As The Country Struggles To Bounce Back

When it comes to international happiness rankings, Mexico has long done well in many measurements. In fact, in 2019, Mexico placed number 23 beating out every other Latin American country except for Costa Rica. But in 2020, things looks a lot different as the country slipped 23 spots on the list. What does this mean for Mexico and its residents? 

Mexico slips 23 spots on the World Happiness Report thanks to a variety of compelling factors.

Mexico plummeted 23 places to the 46th happiest nation in the world, according to the 2020 happiness rankings in the latest edition of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. The coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on Mexicans’ happiness in 2020, the new report indicates.

“Covid-19 has shaken, taken, and reshaped lives everywhere,” the report noted, and that is especially true in Mexico, where almost 200,000 people have lost their lives to the disease and millions lost their jobs last year as the economy recorded its worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Based on results of the Gallup World Poll as well as an analysis of data related to the happiness impacts of Covid-19, Mexico’s score on the World Happiness Report index was 5.96, an 8% slump compared to its average score between 2017 and 2019 when its average ranking was 23rd.

The only nations that dropped more than Mexico – the worst country to be in during the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Bloomberg news agency – were El Salvador, the Philippines and Benin.

Mexico has struggled especially hard against the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Since the pandemic started, Mexico has fared far worse than many other countries across Latin America. Today, there are reports that Mexico has been undercounting and underreporting both the number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths. Given this reality, the country is 2nd worst in the world when it comes to number of suspected deaths, with more than 200,000 people dead. 

Could the happiness level have an impact on this year’s elections?

Given that Mexico’s decline in the rankings appears related to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic here, one might assume that the popularity of the federal government – which has been widely condemned for its management of the crisis from both a health and economic perspective – would take a hit.

But a poll published earlier this month found that 55.9% of respondents approved of President López Obrador’s management of the pandemic and 44% indicated that they would vote for the ruling Morena party if the election for federal deputies were held the day they were polled.

Support for Morena, which apparently got a shot in the arm from the national vaccination program even as it proceeded slowly, was more than four times higher than that for the two main opposition parties, the PAN and the PRI.

Still, Mexico’s slide in the happiness rankings could give López Obrador – who has claimed that ordinary Mexicans are happier with him in office – pause for thought.

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