Maybe Salon was just consciously closing out 2016 as it began the year: a parody of its former self. But a few days ago, it actually ran an article denouncing Rob Schneider's version of paella as an awful act of cultural appropriation. Seriously.
The trouble began when the SNL, Deuce Bigalow, and Real Rob actor tweeted out this image of a meal he was making:
We just put the Paella in the oven!! Que rico!! pic.twitter.com/skUit0zucG
— Rob Schneider (@RobSchneider) December 25, 2016
Among Schneider's unspeakable crimes are that traditional paella is cooked in a special pan, doesn't include "massive raw lobster tails," and never has chorizo in it.
Salon's Mireia Triguero Roura notes that "Spaniards were outraged" and that Rob Schneider (!) was for a while a trending Twitter item in Spain. And even as she notes that "no two [Spanish] towns can fully agree on what exactly you need to put in a paella," she writes,
It is hard to talk about cultural appropriation in food….at the heart of Spaniards' battle to keep chorizo out of paellas around the world is the sense of protecting a sacred identity….Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor of food studies, argues in "The Ethnic Restaurateur" that white chefs have more freedom to play with other people's food than chefs of color do, which creates an inherent inequality in the field. To that, I would add that in a world where most people turn to the Internet to find recipes — and English is the de facto lingua franca of the online world — English-speaking chefs not only have more freedom to play around, but they also have the power to ultimately transform traditional dishes from other countries, without so much as an acknowledgement.
As the article's sub-headline wraps up the meaning of the piece, "When celebrities—and celeb chefs like Jamie Oliver—render Spain's beloved dish unrecognizable, our culture suffers."
At the risk of going full Tonto, you gotta ask, "Who's we, kemo sabe?" Admittedly, I write from a position of white privilege. Though none of my Irish or Italian grandparents, who each emigrated to the United States in the mid-1910s, were considered fully white or American as they passed through Ellis Island, I grew up in a post-Godfather America where even Italian gangsters were considered fully in The American Grain (to use the title to William Carlos Williams' 1925 masterpiece about the fluidity and open-endedness of American identity). But seriously, are you fucking kidding me?
Now, I happen to like Rob Schneider more than most eggheads (his comic turn in Seinfeld alone vaults him to demigod status) and I like paella a lot too (though I have no idea how "authentic" any of the types I've eaten here and in Spain really were). But we need to reframe this discussion unless we want to waste our entire lives endlessly scolding one another for this or that thought/hate crime. As the linguist John McWhorter has written, charging someone with cultural appopriation "has morphed into a handy way of being offended by something that should be taken as a compliment." That certainly seems to be the case here, unless Schneider is secretly part of an arch conspiracy to destroy Spanish cuisine and assimilate into some Hollywood borg of bland liberal whiteness.
There's another point that is typically overlooked in such discussions, which is simply this: All "culture" is based on appropriation. Yes, some people are more mindful than others and more serious or more playful in rummaging through source materials. And who among us doesn't look back at our initial attempts at cooking an "authentic" meal or writing an "authentic" song or story and laugh at our younger and less-sophisticated selves? Every time I hear ELP or Yes play classical music, I laugh at the to-my-mind sad attempts by great musicians to show that they are not just rock stars but classically trained. Sometimes our attempt at imitation leads to a deep study of the original sources and other times it leads to something totally different. Think of how Bob Dylan has assimilated and transmuted countless musical and literary traditions into something that is vastly influential and yet totally idiosyncratic; think of how what we consider yoga was essentially created by a Russian emigre who took it to mid-century American living rooms. This much I know for sure: Whatever constituted, say, Italian American or Irish American identity in 1915 is almost unrecognizable to me, and even less so to my kids, who are even more of an admixture shot through with world culture that was almost completely unavailable to me growing up in 1970s' America. My mother, who grew up speaking Italian and whose parents never learned English despite living in America for 60-plus years, wasn't overly troubled by Chef Boyardee's inedible canned ravioli (half of my childhood, we called it Tuesday dinner).
In 2015, Reason contributor Cathy Young (who escaped the Soviet Union as a child), wrote about cultural appropriation thus:
Appropriation is not a crime. It's a way to breathe new life into culture. Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences—and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.
Attempts to police cultural appropriation as a form of racism or oppression not only fail in practical terms, they are profoundly misguided,especially in an American context. They are also increasingly a way to smack down less-enlightened, less-rich, and less-privileged people, as when Oberlin students protested the inauthenticity of ethnic cuisine prepared by workers who almost certainly will never have the money or opportunity to attend such a place for education (Triguero Roura cites this incident positively in her Salon piece). In the United States, punishment for the sin of cultural appropriation is generally not particularly harsh. Schneider endured some Twitter abuse and pledged publicly to try again and do better (celebrity chef Jose Andres even tweeted that he'd even "bring the Paella pan." But as Charles Paul Freund reminded readers in 2002, autocrats with the power to imprison and torture are often exceptionally worried about cultural appopriation:
Cambodia's prime minister ordered tanks to raze the country's karaoke parlors. Last fall, Iran announced a new campaign against Western pop music and other "signs and symbols of depravity." And only last summer, the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan—just a few hundred miles north of Afghanistan—began a crackdown on dangerous "bohemian" lifestyles. The authorities went after a number of familiar outsiders—gays, religious dissidents—but even Westerners were surprised to learn that one targeted group was "Tolkienists." It turns out that there are Kazakh Hobbit wannabes who like to dress up in character costume and re-enact scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. For their trouble, they were being subjected to sustained water torture.
History is nothing if not a pageant of folly where the powerful dictate the terms under which "authentic" cultural and national identities are practiced; the Taliban famously banned men's haircuts fashioned after Leonardo DiCaprio's in Titanic and nail salons for women. Rock music was banned in the Soviet Union and Cuba as the apotheosis of Western decadence even as Beatles records were being burned in the South.
Tin-eared and uncharitable policers of cultural appopriation won't prevail any more than Soviet commisars managed to keep jazz and rock at bay or holier-than-thou puritans managed to keep their kids religious in 17th-century New England. But they can make the 21st century a little bit more dreary and constipated than it needs to be. Which is a damned, dirty shame.
Reason TV's Lexy Garcia recently interviewed Roy Choi, the LA-based chef credited with creating a food-truck revolution by popularizing a Korean-Mexican taco. Take a listen to what he says not just about attacks on cultural appropriation but also the ways in which the powers-that-be want to stop innovative ways of selling food.