Poor old Jamie Oliver. He has unwittingly made the mistake of launching a new quick-cooking product titled Punchy Jerk Rice. If he had only called it Quick-Cooking Jamie Rice no one would have accused him of the newly invented sin of cultural appropriation. But according to his adversaries, Jamie does not have the right to produce a dish associated with Caribbean culture.
Campaigners against cultural appropriation love to display their outrage. No sooner did Labour MP for Brent Central Dawn Butler hear about Oliver’s new concoction than she tweeted that his rice is “not OK” and that his “appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop!!!”
Welcome to a world where any self-righteous and sanctimonious person can take to social media to lecture the world about what they are and what they are not allowed to cook.
There are literally tens of thousands of Dawn Butlers dictating to us what is “OK”.
In recent years food has become a battleground where the obsession with ethnicity, race and culture is played out. What is at stake is who gets to decide who is permitted to cook a dish associated with another culture. The main target of the food police is what they call cultural appropriation, which in practice means “hands off taking too much of an interest in my culture”.
Jamie Oliver should have known that he would be the target of the zealots who drive the anti-cultural appropriation crusade. Earlier this month it was the turn of Marks & Spencer.
A group of Indian food writers displayed great anger at M&S for daring to produce a product labelled as Bengali Turmeric Curry Kit.
Typically critics of M&S’s supposed act of cultural appropriation accused the company of disrespecting their culture, causing pain and offence. The accusation of cultural appropriation is always accompanied by an alarmist rhetoric of unrestrained outrage.So Indian food writer Mallika Basu, the author of Masala Indian Cooking For Modern Living, declared that the guilty curry kits were “at best upsetting and at worst offensive and callous”.
Basu’s tweets about offensive curry kits provided an opportunity for her followers to reveal their own horror stories of food dishes that were culturally appropriated by outrageous foreigners. Sejal Sukhadwala, an Indian food writer, directed her ire at Tesco’s Gujarati Curry Paste. She claimed that “there’s no such thing, nobody in Gujarat uses a curry paste”.
Of course everyone is entitled to criticise companies for producing food that tastes bad or whose ingredients and flavours have little to do with the cuisine it claims to represent.
For example a few years ago it was reported that Italian chef Antonio Carluccio was surprised by the way that restaurants in Britain were cooking spaghetti bolognese. He stated that Brits were ruining spaghetti bolognese because they insisted in cooking it with herbs. Carluccio accused British restaurants of bad taste and of disrespecting Italian culture.
Unfortunately critics of Oliver’s infamous jerk rice or M&S’s Bengali Turmeric Curry Kit are not really interested in the question of quality. Their objective is to signal outrage at those who dare venture into their cultural kitchen. Their accusation of cultural appropriation is another way of insisting that they own the patent on their ethnic or national dishes.
Worse still the charge of cultural appropriation signals the claim that an entire ethnic group has been disrespected if not actually victimised by it. Basu’s rhetoric, alluding to feeling upset by M&S’s supposed “offensive and callous” product, turns the act of eating into a site of cultural conflict.
So who invented the dreary and self-serving concept of cultural appropriation? In the 1980s cultural appropriation was an obscure term used by a small group of academics to condemn what they perceived as the plundering and exploitation of colonised societies.Since the turn of the century the crusade against cultural appropriation has served as a vehicle through which campus devotees of identity politics can express their outrage and sense of victimisation.
In the current era accusations of cultural appropriation on campuses are made so casually that they touch on the most trivial aspects of life. The weaponisation of food in the culture war on campuses first broke out at Oberlin College, Ohio, in 2015. Suddenly angry students discovered that the food they were served in the dining hall was disrespectful of their identity.
Until recently students habitually complained about the poor quality of the food on their plates. Now such complaints were communicated through the language of identity politics. At Oberlin they claimed that fried chicken, Vietnamese sandwiches, sushi and General Tso’s chicken were cooked in a disrespectful and culturally inappropriate manner.
Commenting on the poorly cooked rice and the absence of fresh fish in the sushi rolls, Tomoyo Joshi, an undergraduate from Japan, declared it was disrespectful to her culture.
The new fashionable obsession with cultural appropriation soon made its way to British universities. So last year students at Pembroke College, Cambridge, kicked up a fuss about them being served exotic dishes cooked with inauthentic ingredients by disrespectful catering staff. Pembroke students went to great lengths to specify the target of their complaints.
They castigated the caterers for the way they cooked Jamaican stew, Chinese chicken, oriental beef stew, Indian fish pie and African stew with sweet potato. One indignant student commented on social media: “Dear Pembroke catering staff, stop mixing mango and beef and calling it Jamaican stew, it’s rude.”
Another student piled in with the objection about a dish composed of “cauliflower, date and tofu tagine with Tunisian rice and coriander yogurt”. She claimed that “sorry but what is this? We don’t eat these things in Tunisia”.
In typical gutless fashion Pembroke College decided to take its moaning students far too seriously and agreed to review its dinner menu.
Many readers will draw the conclusion that there is little point in worrying about students bickering over what they eat.
However when cultural crusaders strike moral poses about the consumption of curries, kebabs and samosas it is only a matter of time before they will begin to demand the right to police other dimensions of our daily life.
Campaigns against people’s “culturally insensitive” hair-style, clothes and accents serves as testimony to the unrestrained ambitions of this movement.
The campaign against cultural appropriation is divisive and intrusive. If it triumphs it will force us into segregated ethnic ghettos.
Contrary to the claims of this campaign, history shows that cultural appropriation has brought tremendous benefits to humanity. The appropriation of culture is not a zero-sum game.
Unlike physical wealth and various forms of material possession, a culture and its practices can not be reduced to things that are lost when someone else uses them. The adoption and embrace of particular cultural practices does not deprive anyone else of the ability to use them.
Even cooking so-called inauthentic food has its benefits. Chicken tikka masala was invented in Glasgow in the 1970s by the Ali family to cater for the palate of the Scots. Thankfully this restaurant owner had no problems with appropriating and mixing bits of different culture. May cultural appropriation live on and flourish!
Published in SUNDAY EXPRESS