Columns, Opinion

SARNA: Does food appropriation exist?

An interesting question was raised in one of my classes this week: what is the typical American food? I hate to say that I reach for the stereotypical answer of burgers and fries. A bunch of other kids had responses that mostly roamed around the safe neighborhood of pizzas, shakes and apple pies. According to a piece published Monday by Providence Monthly, the “it” American food is the taco — a seemingly Mexican dish.

“If American cuisine is simply the absorption and interpretation of foodways from all over the world, then all ethnic foods that become popular in this country are pretty much American food waiting to happen,” reads the article. “Some may allege cultural appropriation, and food snobs will probably scoff at a lack of ‘authenticity,’ but a delicious idea refuses to be contained by a single nation or culture.”

The piece talks about how American food, despite being a hodgepodge of all the cuisines around the world, never claims false ownership over the foods that the layman comes to associate with America.

This article got me thinking of food appropriations around the world, and about how sometimes it’s not all hunky dory when another country decides to call your food its own. For instance, from “hummus” and “falafel” to “baba ganoush” and “labneh,” Israel has been found guilty of slapping its trademark on foods that are anything but Israeli in origin. The list goes on to include several Turkish and Egyptian delicacies as well, heightening Israel’s ignorance and an almost blunt disregard for others’ traditions and cultures.

The people of Israel are mainly Jewish immigrants who have come from all over the world throughout the past 120 years. This makes one wonder then: how is Israel able to proudly flaunt a colorful and flavorful palate of traditional cuisines? For a state made up of fragments of different worlds and cultures, almost like a small melting pot, how can Israel promote any food as traditionally Israeli?

A lot has been debated and assumed about the reasons behind Israel’s unfortunate cultural theft.

It is established and widely accepted that Israel’s population is mainly migrant, thus ruling out the possibility of there being a long-standing, traditionally “Israeli” culture native to the entire population. Imagine living the life of an immigrant. Having to travel from place to place limits the opportunities to create history or tradition in the community. This not only causes problems of disunity among the peoples, but can also take away the sense of belonging from the generations that will come to live in these settler states. These migrants don’t have anything to call their own except the land they now live on.

This is when the desire for tradition and the desperate need to create a bond seep in. The question looms, however, is the lack of unique local heritage, or a lack of generations of traditions and culture, a significant enough reason to mislabel someone else’s? If you take another culture with the noble thought of forwarding it as your own, is it okay to remove their label and put yours on it instead?

It is pretty evident that the people of the Middle East are not pleased with Israel’s gimmick. The president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists slapped a lawsuit on Israel in 2008 for infringement of food copyright laws. According to a Sept. 2014 CNN article, the Lebanese government’s rage against Israelis was due to commercializing Lebanese appetizers known as “mezze” under the label of Israeli foods in Western stores. They feel wronged to such an extent that they have petitioned to classify hummus as uniquely Lebanese in order to prevent being taken advantage of in the future.

Despite empathizing with Israel’s needs for appropriating Middle Eastern food, I fail to understand or sympathize with the method they are using to achieve their goals. The United States serves as the best paradigm of a nation that is made up of an amalgamation of different food cultures, yet it still manages to respect and recognize the origins of these foods and promote them in their true form and spirit. The streets of America are home to almost every cuisine known to man, but you don’t see Lady Liberty calling Italian or Mexican food American. Then why, I ask, is this patenting necessary for Israel?

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  1. This article is utterly ridiculous. It is a thinly-veiled attack on Israel and Israeli society in the guise of a conversation about food. I find the entire argument surrounding cultural appropriation concerning something as mundane and shared as food to be laughable, but I will not engage with the ostensible thesis of this editorial, because I believe its true purpose is a not-so-subtle assault on Israel. Using whatever means possible, no matter how underhanded or inconsequential, to slam Israel, this article is propaganda. It is a polemic that uses the buzzwords of the left to single-out a society against which the author seems to bear a personal grudge. I see poor journalism and harmful prejudice in equal helpings here.

  2. “This is when the desire for tradition and the desperate need to create a bond seep in. The question looms, however, is the lack of unique local heritage, or a lack of generations of traditions and culture, a significant enough reason to mislabel someone else’s?”

    Excuse me, did you just claim that Jews have no heritage or tradition and culture? And blamed it on our nomadic history? This is disgusting. Maybe you should do some research on Jewish history and where Israeli culture comes from.

    • Thank you Riv. I agree that this article is disgusting. The author of this article has no respect for Jewish culture or society as it exists today in Israel. I am saddened that there are people here on campus who believe such things, and that they feel the need to publicly denounce Israel and its people in such a forum. The fact that this op-ed was chosen for the print edition also shocks and saddens me. This article and the bias behind it are despicable.