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“Noodles are tasty”: The Economic Implications Behind Race and Cultural Appropriation In Food Media

Discussing cultural appreciation and appropriation is also about broader questions of who can get a platform to share food — and who profits.

By Frankie Huang

12:49 PM PDT on July 27, 2023

    Illustration by Frankie Huang/The Objective

    This article was produced in collaboration with The Objective. This piece is a part of its series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

    I’m fascinated by @logagm’s TikTok videos.

    The young pink-haired creator has a slim face and large, expressive eyes, which glance seriously into the camera in videos where he makes Korean food from scratch. There’s usually no music, just the sounds of him at work: Napa cabbage leaves tearing, knife striking the chopping block, coarse salt raining thickly from his fingers. Many Koreans have dueted his videos — using a TikTok feature that splits the screen between the original video and a new video with reactions and commentaries — and they typically “ohh” and “ahh” over the way he cooks “just like a Korean ajumma”, using common techniques and ingredients that are commonly found in their own kitchens.

    Why such adulation? His videos are well-edited but don’t really stand out from the pack amongst other popular TikTok food content creators, like @menwiththepot, @abir.sag, and @hwoo.lee, all of whose videos often ooze production value and a signature aesthetic. I speculate what makes him special is not his cooking, but the fact that he’s a white guy who makes authentic Korean food, not some bastardized version that’s underseasoned and inexplicably contains raisins.

    The popular consensus seems to be that @logagm is a “cultural appreciator” who faithfully and meticulously reproduces authentic Korean cooking, rather than a “cultural appropriator” who claims expertise but is just an amateur whose skill is rudimentary at best. But the way people set these two things apart doesn’t always address how similar they are at the fundamental level. The discussion of appreciation and appropriation, however, also ties into broader questions of who can get a platform to share food — and who profits.

    Are all cultural appropriators disrespectful?

    When we think of cultural appropriation in the realm of food, people of color tend to picture a very specific archetype: a white person cheerfully producing poor imitations of dishes we’re all familiar with, making elementary mistakes and inventing “healthy” new takes that make us all collectively cringe. 

    Many people may still remember Karen Taylor, a white woman whose Breakfast Cure business was ridiculed by Asian Americans for her whitewashed congee products featuring blueberries and cinnamon, and her claim of “modernizing and even improving” congee for the Western palate. 

    The Asian American community’s outrage was largely focused on the unauthorized American spin Taylor put on congee and her audacity to deem her concoctions superior to authentic Asian versions. How dare this entitled white lady dub herself “Queen of Congee” when she doesn’t even know how to make it right?

    The phenomenon of white people confidently claiming expertise they clearly lack in an ethnic cuisine is so prevalent that dragging them has become a genre of content of its own, the most famous being Nigel Ng’s popular Uncle Roger skits.

    When we watch Ng’s character shout “FOIYOH” at his computer screen when Gordon Ramsey used too few chilis in papaya salad, or when Jamie Oliver adds scallion to the skillet at the wrong time when making fried rice, we get the impression that cultural appropriation is when unskilled white people represent people of color (POC) or other marginalized cultural practice poorly, deviating from the “superior” authentic practice.

    In the past, I have written about why fixating on authenticity misses the point, that the real issue is white sensibilities being elevated and celebrated in place of POC’s own practices — a demonstration of white supremacy, which allows white people to claim cultural expertise without having achieved it. What I failed to account for is when authenticity is respected, and POC practice is honored by a white creator. What then?

    Are respectful cultural appreciators allies?

    In the summer of 2021, around the same time Karen Taylor was getting dragged across the coals, Filipina Canadian writer Roslyn Talusan found out, painfully, what happens when a white creator who is ostensibly not butchering Asian food is challenged for profiting from it. 

    As with most internet storms, it began with a tweet: “Why did a white woman write a cookbook about dumplings and noodles?” Talusan’s post included a photo of the author Pippa Middlehurst, a bespectacled white woman, and a screenshot of her book Dumplings and Noodles retailing for $35.99.

    What swiftly followed was a surfeit of vitriol from internet users across racial identities. Many were white, but there were also a not-insignificant number of people of color, including fellow Asians, who similarly lambasted Talusan. She was accused of mean-spirited gatekeeping against an expert cook who purportedly devoted fifteen years studying Chinese cooking. (This was later debunked by internet sleuths who learned that the sum of Middlehurst’s formal training amounts to a two-day noodle intensive in Lanzhou, China.) Middlehurst, who has since deleted her Twitter account, publicly reached out to Talusan, expressing hurt that she is being punished for systemic problems she did not create

    In a series of now-deleted tweets, Taiwanese American cookbook author Clarissa Wei also admonished Talusan for “angrily tearing down the accumulated lifetime work of others who have worked just as hard [as Asian cookbook writers].”

    In the weeks and months that followed, those who continued to ridicule Talusan for her tweet rallied around succinct and seemingly innocuous messaging: “Noodles and dumplings are tasty.” 

    They placed the universal human love for good food at the center of their argument. 

    Why can’t food lovers cook whatever they like to eat? Is it racist for non-Italians to run pizza shops? Is it OK for white people to make ethnic food? 

    They want to know exactly how their enjoyment for food from outside of their culture hurts anyone. 

    If anything, doesn’t this bring different people in a fractured world together?

    I think the saccharine sentiment of manifesting world peace through the collective love of delicious food deserves more scrutiny than it invites. For one thing, we live in a capitalistic society where food costs money, and we all need to make a living to be able to afford the nice food from different cultures that we want to eat. For chefs and food content creators, food is not just a joy — it’s how they make their livelihood. 

    As these conversations happen in tandem offline, we must contend with the unequal systems that determine who has better access to opportunities and advantages to support themselves and build wealth using their knowledge and skills. 

    It should go without saying that race plays a huge factor in all of this, but to state the unspoken: Being white means having systemic advantages people of color can only dream of. Not everyone with the skills to make delicious food will advance their career on merit alone.

    Who gets to make ethnic food? Who gets to profit?

    It would be ridiculous to claim that people can’t cook whatever they want, and people criticizing cultural appropriation rarely make this point. But perhaps a better starting point is to question who gets to profit off of ethnic cuisines.

    Quincy Surasmith, host of the podcast Asian Americana, compares the way we treat food content to how we protect intellectual property.

    “In this country, you can protect a specific piece of written work, composed work, visual work, but no one can protect a culinary tradition.” 

    This creates a free-for-all situation where anyone who can manage to make money off of a type of cuisine may do so. We’d like to think that whoever makes the best food rises to the top, but there’s ample data suggesting that white people in the US have a much better chance compared to POC for things like accessing small business loans to start a restaurant or getting a ethnic cookbook publishing deal

    These unequal conditions heavily factor into how someone like Andy Ricker became the face of Thai cuisine in the West, and how Fuchsia Dunlop became the English-language authority on Sichuan cuisine.

    Do I think Ricker and Dunlop are untalented hacks? Not for a moment. 

    With regard to Dunlop especially, her attention to authenticity in her recipes goes unchallenged, a quality valued by market trends. A growing number of white food creators are incentivized to attain expertise as “authentic” ethnic food makers, to meet the needs of white consumers who are becoming increasingly articulate in their interest for ethnic cuisine. Many of them, like Pippa Middlehurst or @logagm, center their food creator identity on their life-long love for the ethnic cuisine of their focus, and they win the approval of POC for being respectful of ethnic cuisine rather than trying to change and improve it, as Karen Taylor did with congee.

    At the end of the day, respecting and practicing authentic ethnic culinary arts may put a smile on the faces of POC. But materially, this branding benefits white food creators as they grow their businesses. @logagm has 2.7 million TikTok followers, enough to land lucrative brand sponsorships, attract TV deals, publishing opportunities, or investment in any Korean cooking business endeavor he may pursue in the future. While he cooks just like a Korean ajumma, a Korean ajumma making japchae on TikTok would likely not get the number of views — and the business opportunities they may help secure — he does.

    “When a white chef profits off of the cultural capital of someone else’s culture, they should surrender some of that capital,” Adrian De Leon, assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California, told me in a phone call. 

    We accept that when white food creators take the time to seriously study ethnic cooking, they are “paying their dues,” but what if white food creators literally paid their dues with money? Or hired and mentored POC to thrive in the industry? Or used their industry influence to lift up POC food creators from the same tradition? Or involved themselves in working with the communities that taught them how to make the delicious food making them rich?

    This is not to say there’s a quota of good deeds white creators can meet to neutralize systemic racism that benefits them, to achieve “appropriation negative” status, to “sinlessly” profit off of making ethnic food. The hard pill to swallow is that at the end of the day, there’s no ethical consumption or production under capitalism.

    De Leon jokes, “If you love Asian people, you can leave us alone.”

    Maybe the epitome of respecting ethnic culinary practice is not to do it with perfect authenticity, but to not do it at all — a logical extreme we could never demand of anyone.

    Cultural appropriation, a deceptively simple concept, is not centered on respecting tradition, or reproducing authenticity, or loving noodles and dumplings. At least for diaspora folks living as minorities in the West, it is about surviving in a battleground for — as crass as it sounds — who gets to profit off of our ancestors’ culture as much as the next white creator who is respectful — or not.

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