Instagram posts from Half Baked Harvest, Tieghan Gerard’s food blog, are seen in this composite image. (Screen shots via Instagram)
Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest blog faced light criticism from the New York Times after a reporter visited the food influencer’s hilltop studio in Silverthorne, Colorado. The story flirted with some of the important questions being asked about Gerard’s hugely popular work, but failed to provide the answers America’s diverse culinary community needs at this juncture in history: What is food culture? What are food traditions? And what is the big deal with cultural appropriation?
For some, food traditions mean eating chili over pasta, Cincinnati-style with multiple topping options, especially on cold winter days. For others, it means making tamales during the holidays to share with family and friends. Either way, those food traditions bring memories of time spent with loved ones, of lands we left behind, and regardless of how far away we might be they bring us a comforting sense of belonging.
Food traditions don’t happen in a vacuum. In many instances, they are the result of regional adaptations of available agricultural products, seasonal changes, and the preservation techniques used to survive during low-production months. Products like miso or soy sauce, traditional balsamic vinegar, or dried chilis have all been shaped by human creativity around the world. The European Union calls this the “cultural diversity and authenticity of agri-environmental conditions.” The EU uses these techniques or know-how as the base for its Geographical Indication scheme, a set of regulations created in 1992 to protect the name of European products that come from specific regions and follow a particular traditional production process. Thus, sparkling wine made outside the French region of Champagne cannot be called champagne, or a bleu cheese produced in Vermont cannot be called roquefort.
Food traditions are also the result of food mobility. Take the tomato, a fruit (yes, a fruit) indigenous to the Americas taken by Europeans in the 1600s during the Columbian Exchange and widely adopted in the Mediterranean countries where it easily adapted to the climate. It became the backbone of southern-Italian foodways where it sustained entire communities during the winter months, alongside pasta and bitter greens. Then during the mass migration between 1880-1924 when more than four million Italians migrated to the U.S., the tomato traveled back to the Americas and became ubiquitous in Italian-American cuisine.
Food traditions are also the result of war and colonization, and Bánh Mì is one clear example. In the 19th century, the French invaded Vietnam and brought with them the baguette, a quintessential French staple, to their homes where Vietnamese people had become servants. The Vietnamese took the bread of their oppressor and turned it into Báhn Mì, a sandwich (not a rice bowl) with a variety of fillings, the most known version being stuffed with páté, sliced pork, butter, pickled vegetables, and cilantro.
These historical and geographical facts were an afterthought when I went to culinary school more than two decades ago. We were indoctrinated in the French (and European) food superiority following the Kitchen Brigade system and becoming classically trained chefs, which somehow gave us power over food, anyone’s food. In the two-year program, we had one three-month course called “International Cuisine” that covered the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this is how many cooking schools and hospitality departments still operate, pumping out poorly educated, classically-trained students who join the world with a myopic view of the complexity of food cultures and traditions.
Despite that, I have seen a slow but encouraging change toward more diversity of voices in the food world. More and more restaurants owned by other-than-white-male chefs have gained popularity and some have even been celebrated by such institutions like the James Beard Foundation and the Michelin Guide. And, fortunately, the uncontested norms of chefs, especially famous ones, liberally using the names of traditional dishes without their true essence while profiting from them is ending.
This is something Jamie Oliver learned all too well when he tried to sell his Punchy Jerk Rice packaged food product in 2018 getting wide criticism for not properly representing the dish’s flavor. Another famous chef, Gordon Ramsey, received major backlash for lumping cuisines under one single umbrella when he opened his restaurant Lucky Cat in 2019. The restaurant’s tagline at the time, “an authentic Asian Eating House,” drew criticism as one writer said it felt, “Japanese? Chinese? It’s all Asian, who cares.”
Food media has been an extension of the famous white chef syndrome, glorifying their behavior and taking liberties over other food cultures. And even though food writing has diversified, with more outlets showcasing regional food stories full of rich human and environmental connections, the vast majority still use resources and time to highlight the same kind of voice.
Food bloggers enter this dynamic with a sense of entitlement to write and speak about food without the care of misrepresenting the culture and people behind the food. Half Baked Harvest is a great example. A tour through the website lands you in the Cuisines tab where Asian cuisine is represented by recipes like Sheet Pan Hawaiian Pepperoni Pizza, and Baked Chipotle Salmon Sushi cups, alongside the controversial 25-minute Bánh Mì rice bowls. Do any of these really represent any cuisine in Asia?
But cultural misrepresentation isn’t the only issue with how this website catalogs recipes. There’s also an overall lack of geographical understanding of regions and the foods that come from different parts of the world. Under the Indian Cuisine tab, there are a few ‘Persian’ dishes like Crispy Persian Rice (Tahdig) with Spiced Golden Chickpeas and variations of Shawarma like Cauliflower Shawarma with Green Tahini and Fried Halloumi. Let’s start with some basic history and geography. Persia is modern-day Iran. Shawarma, spit-roasted layers of lamb, beef, or other meat self-bathing in meat juices and spices, is a food celebrated in Turkey and other countries previously part of the Ottoman Empire. And Halloumi cheese originated in Cyprus. None of these are in India. So it doesn’t just misrepresent the rich culinary history and regional foods of India, it waters down the complexity of flavors from all these different regions.
Unfortunately, this reductive approach toward ‘ethnic’ cuisines has gone on for far too long, and one of the most misrepresented is Mexican cuisine. In February 2020, before the pandemic struck, I had the fortune to travel to Puebla, Mexico, to report on the Terra Madre Indígena Pueblos de América while I was working for Slow Food International. At this gathering of young indigenous leaders from Latin American countries, I met representatives from different regions of Mexico. From forested areas where more than 500 mushroom varieties make part of the cuisine to the differences between the language and food traditions between the Aztec culture of central Mexico and the strong roots of the Mayan culture in Chiapas and the Yucatan peninsula. Yet, here in the U.S. any tortilla loaded with cheese and cream gets labeled Mexican Cuisine, dismissing the biodiversity of flavors and century-old traditions that enrich Mexican foodways.
What’s most frightening is that 5.4 million Instagram followers, 700,000 email subscribers, two million cookbook readers, plus many more on other platforms, are learning from Half Baked Harvest and other similar food influencers. And though there have been many requests from people whose cultures are being poorly portrayed, the website continues to misinform its consumers. Perhaps rearranging the repetitive list of mediocre recipes on the website by ingredient and refraining from marketing them as part of some of the most dynamic cuisines in the world might be a way to continue selling books and other products while staying away from cultural appropriation criticism.
Cultural appropriation is baked into everyday life in the U.S. It is a bigger issue than a blogger appropriating other food cultures but rather the result of how we have built our society. And just like racism, it is so evident it has become transparent. New immigrants are expected to assimilate into U.S. culture while white folks take their food and cultural tokens for profit.
Food media is part of the problem. Making the conversation about a blogger’s private life humanizes the perpetrator while dehumanizing the concern of cultural exploitation of the people behind the food. It trivializes real-life systemic social issues by putting the focus on pitiful gossip that perpetuates consumerism, supporting capitalist tropes of image and status, and diverting attention away from much-needed systemic change to address inequalities and the continued oppression that erodes the lines of respect and appreciation.
The trope of the U.S. being a “melting pot brought up by comments on the NYT article is often used when those in power want to silence the conversation of equity and respect for all in the pot. The trope is a filter for the white folk who demand with such entitlement that no one should complain, for at least they are cooking our food.
Paula Thomas is a Colombian-born and Denver-based food anthropologist, cook, and writer. She earned a master’s degree in Gastronomy: World Food Cultures and Mobility from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, and is part of the James Beard Foundation Legacy Network.
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