Appropriation rears its ugly head in the food industry

As all trends do, trendy foods come and go. At the heart of it all, I suppose this cycle is justified. Scientists find magical health properties in some obscure food and suddenly everyone is all over it. However, this culture of instagramming the newest fads to death and “discovering” old cultural foods is nothing but detrimental to society.

In his book “The Tastemakers”, Toronto-based food writer David Sax tries to unveil where food trends come from, how they develop and how they ultimately die. He comes to the conclusion that all food trends can be categorized as either agricultural, cultural, chef-driven or health-driven.

He also concludes that an overwhelming majority of trends are actually well-orchestrated marketing ploys, such as when the pork industry hyped up bacon to sell unpopular pork parts.

In an interview with Bon Appetit, Sax noted that “the 21st-century food media is an unprecedented food creature in its breadth and its scope and its speed.” By this, he means our media-crazy culture that exists has contributed greatly to, and in part driven, the fast spread and capitalization of so-called trendy foods.

This is problematic.

Not necessarily the fact that trends develop per say, but how much is invested into creating new trends. The desire to create new trends has expanded, and thus the amount of effort put in by the food industry and influential celebrities to appear unique and quirky while discovering new foods is astronomical.

I’m using the term “discover” very lightly here. An overwhelming majority of food trends are not really discovered. Rather, they are seen and exploited by mainstream culture. This is where the problem starts.

In an opinion piece titled “How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food – then make it trendy”, Ruth Tam wrote, “The Cantonese foods of my childhood have reappeared in trendy restaurants that fill their menus with perfectly plated fine-dining versions of our traditional cuisine. [The] trend has reduced staples of our culture into fleeting fetishes.”

Tam sites the example of bone broth, which the “Today” show proclaimed to be the trend of the year in 2015. This was due to the food being “discovered” as a new and innovative part of the paleo diet. Panera Bread now serves bone broth alongside New York street vendors that serve the soup in cups.

This “discovery” has been hailed as almost a miracle. As if every single meat-eating culture hadn’t already discovered how to extract nutrition from bones. Barely anyone has mentioned the Asian roots of this food. Barely anyone has also mentioned the fact that when people who brought the food to American, such as Tam, cooked bone broth, it was mocked.

Mainstream culture saw it. Mainstream culture stole it. Mainstream media reported it as a discovery.

Unfortunately, Tam’s experiences are not isolated, and the appropriation of cultural foods extends into nearly all ethnic food groups.

On Dec. 29, 2015, Yahoo published a list of 16 food trends that would “take 2016 by storm”.

Surprise! The list is largely comprised of cultural foods.

Poke, a Hawaiian raw fish salad tops the list. Ube, otherwise known as Filipino purple yam, also makes the list.

“Filipino cuisine is hot right now,” reads the article.

Yes, Filipino cuisine is hot right now, but it is also serving as a cheap means for American “foodies” to feel worldly.

Another noticeable trend is simply called “Fermented Everything”.

“The funky, earthy flavors of fermentation will be big this year, as people pile kimchi on just about everything,” it reads. The article also doesn’t fail to mention that “the juicing guru behind L.A.’s popular Moon Juice has said that sauerkraut is sexy”.

Second to last on the list is “Exotic Condiments”.

The article opens this section by appealing to the reader with a familiar phrase: “Out with the mustard, ketchup, and mayo and in with the spicy, funky sauces of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.”

Hooray! Finally, these weird and ethnic condiments can have a turn at the cool kids table! They’ve now been legitimized by mainstream American culture!

And in case you’re curious, “Korean gochujang (fermented chili paste) is going to be huge in 2016, as well as Indonesian sambal oelek, and Chinese black bean sauce”.

This blatant appropriation is condemned by Tam, who calls such “trends” a “stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisine to reap profit.”

In the making of “The Tastemakers”, Sax talked to Kara Nielson, a trendologist who spends her days developing “innovative product solutions to the food business.”

“I’m seeing South American beyond just Peruvian,” Nielson said.

Let me rephrase that for you: “I’m seeing that we can exploit this culture more.”

I realize that I may be coming off as overly sensitive and obsessed with being politically correct. Let me clarify.

There is no issue with eating and appreciating food that’s not from your native culture. There’s also no issue with the spread of cultural ideas. The problem is this: our culture of cycling through food trends and our obsession with “discovering” new food has hijacked portions of ethnic cultures without recognizing their backgrounds. Socialites feel as though minority groups now owe them for legitimizing cultural foods that were once considered outlandish.

Tam mentions that this appropriation stings especially because these foods were “scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here.”

Moving on, there’s the second part of the problem. When food innovations are actually innovated, they tend to be wasteful.

Take Whole Foods for example. The store has recently come under fire for its ridiculous products and wasteful packaging. Example A: asparagus water, literally three stalks of asparagus soaked in water, for $6.00. Example B: pre-peeled oranges packaged in plastic sold by the pound as bulk food.

Yes, these are new. No one’s ever done this before. However, no one’s ever done it before because it’s wasteful and ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the way Sax sees it, Whole Foods is a pioneer when it comes to food trends.

When discussing Cathy Strange, head cheese and specialty product purchaser of Whole Foods, Sax wrote, “When Strange makes a pick, a trend begins its move into the big time, and her choices resonate so deeply in the industry that they not only shape the way other retailers buy food but also the way food is made, packaged, and sold. As Anna Wintour is to clothing, Strange is to gouda.”

However, a simple look at Strange’s company will demonstrate the lack of influence they deserve.

Sax’s unified theory on food trends is simple: the most successful food trends reflect what’s going on in society at a given time.

Unfortunately, what’s going on right now in society is cultural appropriation and exorbitant wastefulness.

And so this has become the food industry. Obsessed with bringing new ideas to the table, yet unable to come up with good ones.  Culturally insensitive, wasteful, and overly commercialized.