Dr. Dawg

Burritos [updated]

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I thought that I was reading satire, forgetting for a moment that, in 2017, satire is dead.

Two white women from Portland, Oregon, ventured down to Mexico and, while they were there, decided they wanted to learn how to make the perfect tortilla—like the ones they’d been scarfing down for days. So they asked around. Their Spanish was “broken,” and no doubt there was a lot of confusion, but they nailed the ingredients, and tried to get a sense of technique across the language barrier. With what in less fraught contexts would be immediately recognizable as youthful exuberance and hyperbole, they wrote about sneaking around and peering in through the windows of local kitchens. Whatever. They learned the art of tortilla-making.

They returned to Portland and started up a food truck, which evolved into a pop-up shop. They stuffed their tortillas with “California-inspired” ingredients. And then something hit the fan, and it wasn’t refried beans.

“Cultural appropriation,” shouted the Usual Suspects, and the battle was on. It was a short battle. The identitarians shut the two-person business down. Victory!

Some time ago I recall having a chance thought that food would be the next frontier for the silo-progressives, but that was just dark fantasizing, a reductio ad absurdum, and so I put it from my mind. In today’s Left ideological landscape, though, it was probably foreseeable. When the political economy of cultural artefacts and practices is factored in, we can be assured that the latter—be it costumes, painting, yoga, music or food—will become political actors in and of themselves. (Actor-Network Theory, anyone?)

A cigar is sometimes just a cigar, said Sigmund Freud (never), but in the instant case we might ask if a burrito isn’t sometimes just a burrito. Well, all right, let’s not rush to judgement in either direction. Here’s a little sic et non to chew on.

The women didn’t pay anything for their information. They simply went down south and colonized local women, plundered them of their knowledge, and fled up north to make a bundle. What they did stood as nothing less than a metaphor: it was the history of Latin America, its peoples bled to a fare-thee-well by Spain back in the day, and then by the US. Raw materials flowing ceaselessly out. The indigenous people, and the transplanted peasantry, ruthlessly exploited and cruelly oppressed, knowing nothing but poverty, torture and mass slaughter. It’s all there in Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Or just about anywhere else you look for information on the subject, actually. Still happening, too. Check out Hillary Clinton’s Honduras, or the current attempted destabilization of Venezuela.

Or…maybe women just asked other women for a recipe.

There are already Mexican food joints in Portland. Run by Hispanic people. Why not patronize them, instead of these white interlopers?

Or…who says those other entrepreneurs were losing any business at all? A market is not zero-sum.

This was “stolen intellectual property.”

Or…is culture really “property?”

And so the battle raged:

“Now that you all boldly and pretty fucking unapologetically stole the basis of these women’s livelihoods, you can make their exact same product so other white ppl don’t have to be inconvenienced of dealing with a pesky brown middle woman getting in their way. Great job.”

“White chefs can do what these two horrid women did: vacation somewhere and ‘get inspired’ and appropriate an entire culture’s cuisine and claim it as their own.”

An “entire culture’s cuisine?” A tortilla?

Some indignant folks even put out a list of “White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland.” Now, it’s true that white people have made good money off world cuisines, while ethnic chefs have traditionally been expected to cook the food of their own ethnicity, and their businesses tend to be lower on the corporate ladder. There’s already a literature on food vending and racism. But that seems to be changing now. I live in a city where the best pizzas seem to come from Lebanese-owned businesses or franchises. Where fusion cooking is all the rage. Where the staff of one of my favourite Japanese restaurants, other than the sushi chefs, seems to be almost exclusively east Asian. I see a lot of culinary intermingling and borrowing, but that’s not appropriation, or (a term I prefer because it cuts these debates down to size) misappropriation.

The author of the article referenced in my lede, by the way, can’t seem to tell a tortilla from a burrito, or a burrito from a taco. Could that be because she isn’t Hispanic? Nemmind. Whatever those women were selling, it was a capital offence, business-wise. (Why couldn’t they sell white food instead? Whatever that is, and I challenge anyone to define it.) Anyway, let’s be clear: a burrito is not a tortilla. Sometimes it really isn’t even a burrito. Everybody sells those things now, and stuffs all manner of ingredients into them. Why pick on a couple of food-truck women who actually took the trouble to learn how to make a decent wrap for one?

We really need to step back, and we probably should have a long time ago. Was all this cultural warfare really worth it? What lessons were learned? I shudder to think. This can be said with some certainty, however: no one was actually hurt in the making of those burritos, other than, finally, the young women who were making them. Portland ethnic restaurants lost nothing. The abuelitas in Mexico who have apparently perfected the tortilla lost nothing. When it comes to food, the love you take is equal to the love you make. But some folks just had to enact a charivari of virtue-signalling outrage.

We might ask: if the alleged “theft” of Mexican cuisine is really at issue, why settle for shutting down a two-woman business? If folks want to strike a blow against “cultural appropriation,” AND take on the 1%, where are the El Monterey and Old El Paso boycotts? Why not go trash their local Taco Bells? That would at least rise above bad political micro-theatre. For in fact there is something disturbingly fake about this cheap bullying exercise—and perhaps that’s the worst part of this whole sorry affair.

UPDATE: Alerted by constant reader forgottobuytinfoil, I found that the link in my lede no longer points to the delicious article that gave rise to my post, but to the following:

A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR (5/31/17) Dear readers: Due to new information that has recently come to light, we have taken down our blog post, “This Week in Appropriation: Kooks Burritos and Willamette Week.” It was not factually supported, and we regret the original publication of this story.—eds.

Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine, allowing me to replace the link.

This erasure is, in any case, mysterious enough. There was indeed a substantial controversy (see the humongous comment thread under the original article in Willamette Week that sparked it) and much of the same content, by another writer, continues to appear elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Willamette Week followed up with this opinion piece. I’m not spoiling it here, but suffice it to say that it may be a real-life rejoinder, in more than one sense, to the recent film Get Out.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on June 1, 2017 7:22 AM.

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