JP McMahon: ‘We are all guilty of cultural appropriation with food’

Food has always followed people, and this is perhaps its beauty

 Jamie Oliver: There is no absolute law of food. It knows no boundaries. We cannot stop food travelling.

Jamie Oliver: There is no absolute law of food. It knows no boundaries. We cannot stop food travelling.

 

At what point does culinary appreciation become culinary appropriation? Where do we draw the line? Is it fair to borrow another’ food culture for one’s own ends? Or does this happen anyway? Does food respect those imaginary national borders that we have erected to protect our tribe?

The recent debate over Jamie Oliver’s new “punchy jerk rice” would seem to say that the jury is still out over this issue. But that is not to say that it isn’t a deeply contentious and vexing topic.

Food is always emotional.

One the one side, we have accusations of racism and neo-colonialism. Oliver takes Jamaican food culture and profits from it. This premise is based on the idea of exploitation, that his jerk rice had nothing to do with the “real” one. But is there a real one? According to who? Authenticity is a golden calf.

On the other side, we have assertions that culinary influence knows no borders, and everyone has the right to use food how they see fit. This idea chimes neatly with the ways in which our food (and the idea of it) travels fast now, and we can, through social media and the internet, pretty much reinterpret any food culture, or combine two existing food cultures, for our own ends. Is this how food democracy should be? Shouldn’t a Jamaican person be the only one who can speak about or cook “real” jerk?

Which position is right?

Neither, in fact. Or both. There is no absolute law of food. It knows no boundaries. We cannot stop food travelling. Of course, we can want food to have a border. We can desire that a certain way of cooking (jerk in this case) is owned by a certain people, from a specific time and place, but that is not the case.

Food has always followed people, and this is perhaps its beauty. We can constantly reinterpret food and make it anew. Food is like language. It is shaped by the speaker. Of course, ways of speaking are particular to different regions, but when those people migrate, their way of speaking travels with them and changes, producing something new. Such is the case with food. How often have you have corned beef on St Patrick’s Day? Never. And yet it’s feted across the US as the quintessential Irish meal on March 17th. Is this cultural appropriation by displaced Irish Americans or is it simply a way in which we use food to project our desire for a homeland?

I say all this, because the recent events of “jerkgate” have made me think about my own position. I am an Irish man who owns a Spanish restaurant. What gives me the right to cook Spanish food? When we first opened Cava Bodega in 2008, I was constantly asked several questions, such as 1) how long did I live in Spain? 2) Where did I learn to cook Spanish food? 3) How many Spanish chefs did I have in my kitchen?

I have never lived in Spain, though I have travelled there often in the last 20 years, and I learned about Spanish food mostly from reading. Regarding Spanish cooks – and we have had many through the doors in Cava – when we opened first we had none. All our chefs were Polish or Irish. So, what gave me the right? Was I exploiting Spanish cuisine for my own economic ends? Or was I trying to use a food culture to spread a way of thinking about food (sharing in particular) to make Irish food better? I would hope that people would agree with me that it was the latter, but not everyone saw it this way. I was constantly criticised for trying to be something I was not. But are we not what we make of ourselves?

The same could be said about Aniar, which we opened in 2011: we drew on a Nordic model to inspire us to look afresh at own landscape. Does this mean it is more Irish than what has been going on in the country for the past 500 years? No, of course not. Irish food knows no boundaries either and I have struggled with its definition, particularly regarding our use of spice (which we don’t use in Aniar) over the last 800 years. Did we appropriate these spices from other cultures to augment our own? Are they Irish?

Food is a commodity and its circulates around the world. Ginger originates in India and yet plays a part in Irish cuisine. As do tarragon, cucumber, and coriander. All originated in India. Yet why do we accept cucumber and not coriander? Is this due to its taste? Its colour? At the moment I am writing a cookbook on 10,000 years of Irish food and I struggle with the definition: what makes something Irish?

The same can be said of other countries. Take basil. With what country do you associate basil? Italy, of course. But basil comes from India, were it has been cultivated for 5,000 years. It was brought to Europe, via the spice routes, and became a popular food stuff in the Middle Ages. Though we associate basil pesto with Italy, the reality is much more complicated. It is a method of preserving herbs in oil, that is common to many cultures.

Cultural and culinary appropriation has always existed. It is not a new phenomenon. Sometimes food travels of its own accord. Like the first wild plants that came to Ireland. Other times, people transport it to other regions (such as ginger and basil). More so now, we borrow food ideas to make new brands, to offer people a “taste” of somewhere else. The latter is the case when it comes to Oliver’s jerk rice.

When it comes to brands, other cultures are there for the picking. This does not make it right. However, we need to accept that we cannot control how food moves. We may want to, in the same way we want to control our borders and restrict entry to those we do not deem fit to enter.

But in the absence of any absolute, we need to accept that our idea of food is not the only one. Food will always inspire, and it should always bring us together. If you don’t like Oliver’s rice, don’t buy it. Though I am sure there is another product in your press or fridge that espouses those values that you accuse Oliver’s rice of. Do you ever use Uncle Ben’s rice? This is the reality of food.

We are all guilty of culinary appropriation, because that is the natural order of food. We should worry more about how many people have food to eat, rather than what culture the food comes from.

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