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Liang '19: Dining halls, food and cultural appropriation

Last year, Oberlin College students cried foul at what they called the “rampant cultural appropriation” of their campus dining services. Their proof? A soggy, wet pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw that was labeled banh mi. Disgusting.


Thankfully, our banh mi served at Andrews is a little bit better, though I doubt that any native Vietnamese person would associate Andrews food with their heritage. I was surprised, nevertheless, to learn that the same company that caters Oberlin’s food, Bon Appétit Management Company, is the one that Brown Dining Services recently contracted with this year to “make dining services more sustainable and enticing.”


Bon Appétit bills itself as an “onsite restaurant company known for its culinary expertise and commitment to socially responsible practices.” In reality, this means that the company’s offerings vary dramatically depending on the funds and facilities available from each of its clients. For example, I’ve eaten amazing catered food from Bon Appétit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and companies with lauded cuisine (like Google) also use this same management company. Bon Appétit’s website writes that it serves a large clientele of colleges and organizations, including the University of Pennsylvania.


This brings me back to good old Brown. Everyone, Brown Dining Services really does try. Some of my fondest memories of the Ratty include Southern cooking night or Italian night — themed dinners with pretty good food and a real nod to the culture that comes with it. But I also shudder when I see beef enchiladas served in a wet meat sauce that I’m 99 percent sure was billed as tacos the week before. And Dining Services uses the same sauce in different menu items in order to call them ‘Asian’ or ‘tropical.’ The meat that goes into a banh mi here should not be sold a la carte as Thai BBQ chicken. That’s wrong.


But while I think it’s valid to ask the school not to call its meager attempts at ethnic food ‘authentic,’ a school doesn’t need to execute food perfectly in order to serve it. What is the point of cuisine that can only be ‘authentically’ made or consumed by people who have lived their whole lives experiencing it? Chefs like Anthony Bourdain hate the word ‘authentic’ because it presupposes that food is only meant for a certain subset of people. Food should be for everyone. If it tastes good and is appreciated, what is the problem?


The important distinction to make here is that the ethnic food that Brown and Bon Appétit serve is not what most people associate with their own cultures. And that’s fine. Sometimes I love Panda Express, but I know that the fried Kung Pao Chicken is not something my extended family would serve back in China. Though, you could argue that Chinese-American food in itself has a rich and vibrant history that should also be appreciated. Some people call my food cheap and bland as shit. But you know what? We make that kind of Chinese-American food because that’s the only shit you’ll buy. You want an authentic, expensive, Asian dining experience? Try Chengdu Taste.


Places that actually deserve the wrath of my fellow people of color are those that attempt to standardize our food into their preconstructed narratives. This includes places like the Thayer Street restaurant Shanghai, which for some reason bills itself as “the authentic best Asian dining experience” but then inappropriately pushes a wide range of inaccurate cultural aesthetics like the dreaded Chinese takeout box.


Brown has gotten better at making this distinction. I’ve seen a subtle change in the signage around Andrews, with the words “Asian-inspired” or “fusion” appearing in front of signs for bibimpap or curry. The workers at Brown don’t all have the capital or the time to learn food preparation at its traditional, native roots, as some of the Oberlin protestors argued they should. There is nothing inherently wrong with serving Cajun pasta (tasty) or beef lo mein (not so tasty), as long as both students and administrators respect the roots from which these dishes come.


If people have complaints about the dining here, it should be about the outdated infrastructure or the lack of fresh produce. It really does no good to get mad about signage or labels when people should know that college meals are often not representative of traditional ethnic cuisine. A California roll here is still sushi, even if the rice is mashed into a kind of white paste and the avocado is almost never used in old-school Japanese cuisine. I can still be Chinese and eat the Ratty’s chop suey without disgracing my homeland.


But you, dear reader, are responsible for eating with your eyes open. Having socially responsible practices in food systems requires dedication from both those who eat and those who serve. Don’t claim to love Mexican food after you finish eating your Chipotle burrito. Delicious or not, food has a history, and recognizing cuisine for the nuanced phenomenon that it is gets us all one step closer to the table.


Mark Liang ’19 is stockpiling Ramen in his room and can be reached at mark_liang@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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