When a person asks if eating a food outside of their culture is cultural appropriation, it’s usually a disingenuous question meant to be a “gotcha” for so-called social justice warriors, code for people of color who are fed up with white people massively profiting off of cultural traditions they have no connection to or respect for.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eating and enjoying foods of other people’s cultures.
A recent example of this is the case of Kook’s Burritos in Portland, Oregon. The booming business of a pop-up breakfast burrito cart was started by Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly, who—by their own admission in this article by Willamette Week—took the recipes from locals of Puerto Nuevo, Mexico during a road trip.
They detail “peeking into the windows” of kitchens, since none of the “tortilla ladies” they asked would tell them what they wanted to know about technique.
“In Puerto Nuevo, you can eat $5 lobster on the beach, which they give you with this bucket of tortillas,” Connelly says. “They are handmade flour tortillas that are stretchy and a little buttery, and best of all, unlimited.”
Connelly and Wilgus were so enamored with the tortillas, they tried to uncover the recipe.
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Connelly says. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”
The article sparked outrage, and Kook’s Burritos closed down.
The truth is, there are countless establishments like Kook’s Burritos throughout the United States. I think Wilgus and Connelly’s proud admission that they pilfered the recipes from Mexican locals is the key ingredient here when it comes to why people were so outraged.
Their tone is so blissfully unaware that they have committed theft, it’s easy to see that they most likely never even considered the ethics of what they were doing.
Mexican cuisine is loved in this country, but devalued. Mexican people, in Wilgus and Connelly’s world, are simply resources to (and then barriers from) obtaining something to profit from. Wilgus and Connelly took these recipes and techniques without permission, and set up shop in the U.S. The people these recipes and techniques originate from did not see a penny from Wilgus and Connelly’s brief but successful burrito venture.
Somehow, many people didn’t and still don’t understand why many were angered by this. Many people still don’t understand that power dynamics are an unfortunate reality of this world.
The response to Kook’s San Diego-style, potato-infused gut bombs was overwhelmingly positive. Then an interview ran in one of Portland’s two independent newspapers, Willamette Week, in which the two young women came off as… flippant? Cocky? Imperialistic? Young? How you feel about the attitudes reflected in the article will depend on who and to what degree you bestow the benefit of the doubt. And who and to what degree you bestow the benefit of the doubt to will depend on all sorts of factors connected to how you were raised, what culture you were raised in, feelings of marginalization, and your personal take on the notion of food appropriation.
As a Mexican-American who has noticed the way people speak of and treat Mexicans, I think it was appropriate for Kook’s Burritos to shut its doors. But this doesn’t really do much (except for the fleeting satisfaction of a racist not being able to prosper.)
These kinds of situations are only reflective of the real problem, a symptom of the illness. Until we address how white supremacy is the foundation of this country, we can’t truly heal or move forward.