Food fight at Oberlin College: Is bad Asian food 'cultural appropriation'?

The liberal arts school in Ohio found itself defending some cafeteria culinary options for students this fall.

Tony Dejak/AP/File
This 2013 file photo shows a student riding a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

When Oberlin College's dining hall tried to add Asian cuisine to its menu, many students viewed the results not just uninspired, but culturally appropriative. 

“How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” asked first-year student Diep Nguyen to Oberlin's student newspaper, regarding a pulled-pork-and-coleslaw-on-ciabatta affair that was attempting to pass itself off as a Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich. 

According to The Oberlin Review, Ms. Nguyen is far from alone in her complaints about the college's food service vendor, Bon Appétit Management Company, which has shown "a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines."

Perhaps most egregiously, during the Hindu festival of Diwali, the dining hall offered tandoori beef, a dish containing a meat that many Hindus avoid for religious reasons.

But Asian students aren't the only ones complaining. Earlier this month members of Oberlin’s Black student union blocked the entrance to the dining hall at the college's Afrikan Heritage House to protest what they saw as Bon Appétit's failure to offer more traditional dishes, including fried chicken and food less loaded with cream.

“Black American food doesn’t have much cream in it,” noted one student protester. 

Gripes about college food are probably as old as academia itself. But the protests at Oberlin, by linking the menu offerings to a larger debate about white cultural dominance at American colleges, add a new dimension to a perennial grievance.

“We appreciate the feedback we have received from Oberlin students,” writes Bonnie Powell, director of communications for Bon Appétit Management Company in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. “Our chefs are working hard to offer culturally sensitive menus that will appeal to the Oberlin community.”

Michele Gross, director of dining services at Oberlin released a statement: “In our efforts to provide a vibrant menu we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive. We are committed to making sure these missteps don't happen in the future. We have met with students to discuss their concerns and hope to continue this dialogue.”

Still, when you're trying to feed 3,000 people, there's only so much that you can do.

“School cafeterias aren't built for finesse, however, and apart from eliminating religious faux pas like tandoori beef on a Hindu holiday, they're not likely to become models of culinary refinement or diplomacy, writes Susan Scafidi, cultural acquisition expert and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University in New York, in an email.  

What's more, especially when it comes to food, it's not always clear who is appropriating whom.

Take Bon Appétit attempt at General Tso's chicken, which, according to The Oberlin Review was not deep fried and served with a garlic-ginger soy sauce, but steamed with a with a sauce that Prudence Hiu-Ying, a sophomore from China, described as “so weird that I didn’t even try.”

Ms. Hiu-Ying's chicken may indeed have tasted awful, but was it really appropriating Chinese culture? As NPR points out, General Tso's chicken is was actually actually invented in New York City by a Hunanese chef who wanted to cater to the American palate.

The issue here, says New York restaurateur Jehangir Mehta, is not so much about appropriation as it is about chefs exercising better judgment in the ways they try and prepare cultural dishes while trying to please all the people all the time.

“So long as the interpretation tastes good, I feel it's nice to borrow thoughts. If one is 'stealing' an idea and not executing it well it can be unnerving,” Mehta says.

Ms. Scafidi writes, “Sharing recipes with friends is as American as Grandma's apple pie, so it's a natural extension of our culture of culinary copying to attempt the national dishes of newer neighbors as well."

“Mass-produced cafeteria food simply isn't the ideal version of anyone's cuisine,” Scafidi adds. “Pizza day in grade school may be popular, but those cheesy rectangles can't rival an artisanal pie straight out of a wood-burning oven imported brick by brick from Naples. Colleges that try to make a diverse range of students feel welcome in the dining hall may be well-intentioned, but in the end are doomed to fall short of Mom's home cooking.”  

On Twitter Fredrik de Boer, a lecturer at Purdue University on writing assessment, applied linguistics, and higher education policy, urged Oberlin students to pick more suitable targets for their protests.

“I think that there are many worthwhile actions undertaken by student activists every day, including by students at Oberlin, but that by expending political energy to complaining about bad cafeteria food, these students have made a bad strategic mistake, and have participated in their own marginalization,” Mr. de Boer writes in an email interview. “In politics, strategy matters, framing matters, and these students have to learn to be far more careful about where they spend their political capital if they want to create enduring change.”

Scafidi concludes, “Generations upon generations have complained about cafeteria food. Current students who reframe this perennial culinary discontent in the language of cultural appropriation risk being dismissed as the flavor of the month – and potentially losing an otherwise sympathetic audience.”

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