Millennials seem to have arrived at the collective agreement that the American Dream is dead. Or, at the very least, it retired with the Baby Boomers. Slowly but surely, cynicism and disillusionment seem to be paralyzing many myths about the United States. But one seems to remain: the myth of the American melting pot.
In Orange County, a famously rich part of Southern California, there definitely appears to be ample evidence supporting the idea. Just a cursory glance reveals that there might be more places to get sushi and ramen than pizza. And most of us think nothing of it. We decide which type of food we want to eat, go to the same old restaurant or fast food location (or get items from these places delivered), and then go on with our lives.
Food is an immense part of how we interact with the world. I will never understand people like my brother-in-law, who claim they would rather just have nutrients inserted into them so they wouldn’t have to bother with food. Food, and access to it, has enormous control over the structure of our days and the insides of our wallets.
On a larger geopolitical scale, ingredients all have their own stories of globalization and economics as imports and exports from various countries. But we often don’t stop to think about food on a larger scale. (We actually don’t even think about food on a much smaller taco-to-mouth scale.)
Where did the taco come from? Taco Bell. It has a shell made out of Doritos, I paid a few dollars for it, and some worker gave it to me a few minutes after I ordered. As a question, asking where the taco came from has the same frustrating quality as a child asking why the sky is blue. It’s some random thing about molecules, but it’s not the type of knowledge that helps pay bills or avoid traffic or do anything important, so there’s no reason to wonder.
Maybe, just maybe, the taco’s origins actually are important. They’re a Mexican food staple transplanted to the mouths of American consumers. In the particular case of Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell, they’re basic tacos created by the employees of a massive not-real-Mexican-food empire started by a not-Mexican guy (Glen Bell, the founder, was from Lynwood, California).
Burritos, pho, fried chicken, sashimi, ramen, tom yum soup, ravioli, tzatziki, xiaolongbao, chai, boba, and countless other foods I can eat in Orange County show that cultures do indeed melt into one another in America, but they do not do so equally.
This becomes especially true when you throw in the three c’s that seem so pervasive in American culture: capitalism, consumerism, and convenience.
If cultural diversity and appreciation are like Jedi knights, then cultural appropriation is the Sith Lord. And, just like most of the original trilogy, the Sith Lords seem to be winning. America has a huge tradition of chefs appropriating the recipes of other cultures and selling them at pricey restaurants. Food journalism and some media outlets seem to have a parallel tradition of just excusing this behavior because good food is good food.
It’s really easy for me to say that those chefs should have paid the people that showed them how to make the foods of their culture (after all, they did provide the functional knowledge base the chef used for profitable food later on). But most of us aren’t dreaming of having Michelin stars next to our names. Most of us are just consumers who like a variety of good food. We can’t make chefs — several of whom have opened restaurants we’ll never eat at — retroactively pay the people who provided their culture as culinary source material. We can’t really stop the cultural appropriation of food — which I define as food specific to a particular culture being taken by someone from another culture and being packaged and sold for profit without any credit to its originators.
So what can we do? As consumers, we can start by recognizing our own politics of convenience. Just as cultural appropriators divorce the culture from the product for profit, we create this imaginary separation between the food and everything it represents.
It’s more convenient to go to Taco Bell or Chipotle for a burrito than it is to critically consider the baggage around the burrito.
No Mexican person (aside from those employed by either corporation) gets some sort of monetary compensation for the quesadillas produced by either chain — and, when it’s stated that way, it sounds ridiculous. But if we went out of our way to find a Mexican restaurant owned by a Mexican family, that’s precisely what would happen.
It would be inconvenient, but then again, the right thing is often inconvenient.
I’ve been to 99 Ranch, which I consider the exact opposite of Taco Bell, a few times. And I’ve gotten lost. Many of the words written on the product itself are in a language I can’t read — and to be honest, I couldn’t even tell you which language it is. I have no connection to East Asian cultures, so I’m pretty clueless at 99 Ranch. I presume that, for someone of East Asian descent, 99 Ranch makes sense the way Whole Foods makes sense to me. 99 Ranch is by East Asians for East Asians, so it requires a functional understanding of the food, the language, and the culture that I, an outsider, just don’t possess. And it would be false of me to claim I did because someone in my past was kind enough to teach me how to make chow mein. It would also be lazy and inconsiderate on my part to satisfy my craving for noodles at Panda Express — which seems as close to real Chinese food as Taco Bell does to real Mexican food.
Instead, it would make more sense to get my tofu, eggplant, and chow mein from the eatery at 99 Ranch. It would be a step out of my comfort zone and into just a sliver of the world from which my meal originated. So I went, bought some Hoisin sauce on a recommendation from an employee and found out that I loved the condiment. I got to experience human interaction, noodles, and the optimism that maybe America (or at least SoCal) could truly be a melting pot if people would just take a minute to see a bit of the culture behind the food.
Shelley Kashyap is a writer who lives in Orange County, California, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Artwork by: Juliet Romano Design.