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Food, Authenticity, Cultural Appropriation

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I know we need another discussion of the relationship between food and authenticity like we need another post about Hillary or Bernie, Which One Will Save America and Which One is Horrible? But I could not help being typically annoyed by Conor Friedersdorf’s post on collard greens and Twitter. Basically, Whole Foods tweeted out a recipe on collard greens that included cooking them in peanuts. A number of African-Americans called Whole Foods out on this, saying that the grocery store was cooking collards in an inauthnetic manner and was engaging in cultural appropriation. Friedersdorf found it necessary to devote an entire column to defending the corporation and tsk-tsking reporters for not doing research on this very important matter.

Pretty dumb all around. Yet perhaps worth a bit of commentary.

First, given that Whole Foods barely serves people of color at all and certainly avoids poor communities like the plague, the company deserves to take some shots. Usually, the only non-white people in Whole Foods is those happy looking Salvadoran coffee farmers in pictures hanging from the ceiling. This is a corporation dedicating to providing good food to rich people who can actually afford it, all while making sure employees don’t have a union. Whole Foods is happy to package traditional foods to white people (and often ripping them off for that food) without even mentioning where these food traditions come from. That is indeed cultural appropriation and given that whites have been appropriating black culture since slavery without giving credit, it’s hardly outrageous that some African-Americans would lob this accusation. It’s justified. If Whole Foods actually cared about serving communities of color, maybe it would have a defense. As is, the company sees the traditions of communities of color around the world as little more than a place to generate ideas that can be sold to rich whites.

That said, people can cook collard greens any dang way they want. While a well-brewed pot of collard greens is pretty fantastic (and allow to highly recommend the collards at Gladys Kitchen in Americus, Georgia, as well as the amazing fried chicken and desserts, where I ate last week), let’s face it, greens boiled to nothing is not usually the greatest way to prepare them. If they are good with peanuts, even if black people don’t eat them that way, I guess that’s OK.

As for shaming journalists and their research, I’d probably be more sympathetic to this if it wasn’t coming from someone with an ego the size of Friedersdorf. That a white male libertarian finds it necessary to defend a corporation hardly impressed me either. But really, a journalist who pretty much made his name on the internet complaining about internet journalism is eye-rolling.

In any case, traditional foods can always be changed and improved upon. There’s not a single “authentic” way to cook anything. There are better and worse ways to cook them. There are traditional ways that are not per se good or bad. This doesn’t mean we can’t reject and mock bad ideas, say, tomato ketchup or, god forbid, the tacos I saw but very much did not eat in a western Pennsylvania bar last week that consisted of ground beef, sauerkraut, and 1000 Island dressing. But obviously there’s nothing wrong with figuring out what would be really awesome in tacos that one would never see in Mexico (Korean tacos!). Or figuring out what would taste way better than canned mushrooms and canned olives on pizza.* It’s the same with cooking greens. However, it would also be nice if Whole Foods didn’t act like this beneficent wonderful corporation providing the secret to good food for people when African-Americans (and some whites of course!) in fact have known about these greens for hundreds of years. There’s plenty of reason for grousing all around. Probably not enough for an Atlantic column though. For a LGM post, well, it’s not like we have standards.

*I confess to deviating from the official LGM line that pineapple is a bad pizza topping. I like it.

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