The Problem With Food Appropriation

Photo by Andi Murphy / Yucca tips, barrel cactus flowers and mint are prepared to make an indigenous dish.

Andi Murphy

How indigenous chefs are overcoming food appropriation together

When Indigenous chef Karlos Baca saw that The Herbfarm was “resurrecting” Native food in a dinner called “Land of Totems,” he was puzzled.

“Did indigenous people disappear and stop eating?” he wrote on the high-end restaurant’s Facebook page in May.

Baca (Tewa/Diné/Ute) and other indigenous chefs are tired of being overlooked. They’re also sick of seeing indigenous food appropriated by non-Natives who make a killing doing what indigenous people have done for centuries.

But, “we’re in a time and place where our voices matter,” Baca said on a recent episode of the Toasted Sister Podcast, a show about Native food.

“Land of Totems” is just one of the latest examples of food appropriation. Remember Kooks Burritos in Portland? It was a pop-up restaurant that shut down after the owners told the media they went to Mexico and essentially stole tortilla recipes from the indigenous women there.

The fact that the owners shut down so fast is telling, though. “It shows that we’re in a time and place where the people can speak and silence that kind of behavior,” Baca said.

Maybe food appropriation is starting to make a little bit of sense. If you sneak around and steal, it’s a bad idea. If you brag about it to the press, that’s just silly, said Erica Scott-Pacheco (Lenape), social justice fundraiser and campaign strategist, on the podcast. “I think a lot of people are confused about cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange or appreciation for another culture.”

Appropriation is also claiming to be the savior or expert of culture that isn’t yours. The Herbfarm and their “Land of Totems” dinner could be an example of this. Appropriation is also about making money off of that culture that isn’t yours. It’s about privilege, too.

When people appropriate other cultures, “they just don’t realize they’re doing something wrong because they grew up their whole lives not understanding that there’s sensitivities involved with these cultures and some of these recipes that have been passed down; and techniques that have been passed down for so long,” said Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), chef and owner of The Sioux Chef.

It’s the history of America. Europeans filled their ships with the fruits and vegetables from indigenous people. Today, they own Mexican restaurants and serve “watered-down versions” of indigenous food, Sherman said.

Kooks Burritos “is just one of the latest examples of people going down to Mexico,” said Neftalí Duran (Mixteco), Oaxaca chef. “We don’t have any protections for any culinary creations.”

“At what point do we have to speak up? It’s my responsibility to speak up,” he said.

Chefs of color don’t have the same opportunities as white chefs do. Female chefs of color rarely get any recognition at all when they’re the main ones—since the beginning of time—who nourished every generation and taught everyone how to cook.

“A Mexican abuela (grandmother) wouldn’t have the opportunity, probably, to have access to credit and to be able to open a fine restaurant,” Scott-Pacheco said.

“You have a food system that is racist,” Duran said. “And after that you have many, many, many policies that have excluded people of color.”

In Indian Country, it’s especially difficult to start a restaurant.

In Pine Ridge, where Sherman is from, debilitating poverty still exists, though many other tribal communities are climbing out of it, he said. So now’s the time for indigenous people to pull their cultural and culinary knowledge together and strengthen it.

What indigenous chefs and chefs of color are doing today is something beautiful and tasty and it’s not appropriation. Duran calls it “culinary synergy.” “When people of color, or oppressed cultures come together and make something beautiful, culinaryily that’s a completely different experience, that’s a completely different subject.”

Duran spent time with indigenous chefs, and together they’ve made dishes like rabbit tomales and venison tacos. They bring together their ingredients, histories, cultures and struggles.

On another note, chef Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi), creator and host of “Seasoned with Spirit: A Native Cook’s Journey,” an Emmy-award winning PBS series, says appropriation can’t happen in the world of food.

“In Indian Country, we are extremely generous with our food. There’s always a pot of soup or stew or there’s food to share,”Oden said in a recent episode of Native America Calling. “It just seems, to me, via the trade routes, food has traveled around the world.”

Food is the best way to learn about culture, create understanding and create peace, she said. That’s why she saw no problem in helping famous director, Francis Ford Coppola with his Native-themed restaurant, Werowocomoco, as an adviser.

Food is meant to be shared, she said.

“I can speak to cultural appropriation when it comes to our ceremonies, our regalia, the movies and all of that, but I think food is a little bit different because food is about sharing. Women always shared recipes,” Oden said.

Andi Murphy, Navajo, is the associate producer for Native America Calling, the creator, host and producer of the Toasted Sister Podcast (a podcast about indigenous food), a photographer and foodie.