Cultural appropriation is hard to swallow

What do you call a black woman playing a white man in a Shakespeare drama? Progress, a blow for racial and gender equality.

Pukka dish, Jamie, But you’re nicked, sunshine, djamean?

What do you call an English chef cooking curry? Cultural appropriation, a whisker removed from racism.

If you think I’m putting you on, you’ve forgotten an essential feature of modernity. Everything about it is progressive, evidently including its madness.

Apparently, only someone native to the cuisine can produce recipes for it without giving offence. Anyone else, such as Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey, must learn how to negotiate the dire woke straits.

Ramsey can’t string two words together without effing and blinding in his TV show. That, however, doesn’t offend anybody. It’s his new Mayfair restaurant that leaves a bad taste in every woke mouth.

The restaurant is described as an “authentic Asian eating house” even though – brace yourself – it doesn’t employ a single authentic Asian cook. That’s cultural appropriation with a capital C, or rather, this being a Ramsey eatery, with a capital F.

I’d suggest that it’s easier for a British chef to whip up an authentic Asian dish than it is for a black actress to ham up an authentic Hamlet. But, being an inveterate cultural appropriator, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Gordon should follow the lead of his colleague Jamie and hire what the latter tags as “teams of cultural appropriation specialists.” I wonder how often this job description comes up when a little boy is asked what he wants to be when he grows up.

“Well, we don’t want to offend anyone,” Jamie explains. Specifically, he had to discontinue his popular Empire chicken, even though it’s a “bloody good recipe”. The dish is seasoned with turmeric, cumin, coriander and garam masala, and Jamie with his mockney accent demonstrably comes from none of the places known for such spices.

Raymond Blanc is another chef sensitive to the problem. That’s why he seeks advice from natives before cooking any ethnic dish. “It is for us professionals to do that in a manner that is not offensive,” he says.

These chefs speak from experience. Many of their colleagues have found themselves in the soup when offering dishes out of sync with their nativity. Customers get offended, which these days has to mean they seek legal recourse.

I know I sound like a broken record when talking about the madness of modernity, but I can’t find any other explanation. You mean, say, a Tuscan gets mortally offended when the ribolita he orders in a London restaurant isn’t quite like Mama used to make it? And then he reports the chef for cultural appropriation?

I’d say that chap should be served not by chefs but by the men in white coats, but then we’ve already established that no one cares about what I think. Modernity moves on with the inexorable momentum typical of natural forces, and no old reactionary can slow it down.

I remember eating in New York’s Russian Tea Room, only to find that none of its dishes even remotely resembled anything authentically Russian. Yet that was a cause for mirth, not offence.

Nor have I ever been able to get an authentic Tex-Mex meal in either New York or especially London. In both places they use rump steak rather than skirt to make fajitas, which is about as authentic as a young black actress playing King Lear.

And the bagels you get in London aren’t even close to the real NY thing. (Yes, I know one could get real bagels in Bethnal Green, but who wants to schlepp all the way to the East End?)

Should I be calling my solicitor to seek restitution for the multiple traumas I’ve experienced? And what about those poor Pakistanis who find out that so many of their supposedly native dishes actually originate from Birmingham? I weep thinking of the mental anguish they experience every time they order a Balti.

People often ask me if I enjoy cooking. The honest answer is that I cook not because I like to but because, being married to an English woman, I have to. And having done that for 35 years, I’ve become reasonably competent in the kitchen.

Now I shudder to think how many offences I’ve caused over this time. For, in spite of ever having lived in only four countries, Russia, US, Britain and France, I’ve also cooked dishes from Italy (different provinces), Spain (ditto), China (ditto), Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, Georgia, Uzbekistan, the West Indies, Peru, Mexico – and I’m sure I’ve left a few out.

That must make me a serial offender, although I’ve never claimed either professional expertise or pristine authenticity. Should I hire a ‘cultural appropriation specialist’ or, alternatively, instruct a lawyer?

One wonders what modernity will throw up next. No use trying to second-guess it – nobody’s imagination is that good.

6 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation is hard to swallow”

  1. “The restaurant is described as an ‘authentic Asian eating house’ even though – brace yourself – it doesn’t employ a single authentic Asian cook. ”

    Mc Donald’s throughout the world where ever they have a restaurant merely adapts their “American food” to the local taste and cultural mores. No beef hamburger in Delhi but lamb allowed.

    As for: “a black woman playing a white man in a Shakespeare drama” I can remember seeing Olivier in blackface playing Othello and thinking how stupid he appeared. But the black woman is an ACTRESS playing a ROLE, isn’t she?

  2. This rule does not apply to Russians, because Russians are white. (If only someone had told the Nazis!)

    All this talk of culinary carnage is making me feel rather peckish. ‘Hunger Breaks’ does an excellent breakfast in a tin, a delight free of any unsavoury ethnic connotations.

  3. After reading this and thinking about it for just a minute, I feel so guilty about my Sunday morning. I will be paralyzed with fear and unable to act at all going forward. So many actions taken and items used that morning are appropriations – and many more, too, if I cared to reflect more than one minute.

    I awoke to my digital alarm clock. Various such clocks were invented in Germany (am I safe there, with my mother’s maiden name of Streifel?), England (at odds, I suppose with my Welsh surname?), and the U.S. I took a shower (owed to the Englishman William Feetham, or the Romans with their system of aqueducts?), got dressed (offending who knows how many cultures, perhaps the worst was my silk tie, offending 1.4 billion Chinese), drove my vehicle (made by a South Korean company) down paved streets (a Belgian) with traffic signals to a Roman Catholic church. Now, who gets credit for the Church and the church? The Romans? Italians? Jews? The Poles who actually constructed the building? Although I do remember reading that the founder did expect his followers to “teach ye all nations”, so perhaps that did not offend?

    However, on arriving home I made “french toast” – obviously an egregious act – for my wife (of Mexican birth) and children. I have started letters of apology to various governments and populations.

    I’m sure others can conjure longer and funnier lists.

    1. At one time not so long ago the tallest basketball player was a Chinese man and the best rap “singer” was a white guy.


  4. I was once a lodger in an Indian Muslim home. I asked the Landlord if the food we ate in the various restaurants we went to in the East End of London was as good as it was in Delhi. He said it was better. The meat was better, he said,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.