Los Angeles’ food culture is widely known for trendy instagramable food dishes such like $10 rainbow grilled cheeses and sushi burritos. What isn’t widely regarded is the impact of the hottest new food trends and the cultural appropriation associated with the gentrification of food. When food is gentrified, not only does it become unaffordable, but also culturally inaccessible.
Scrolling through today’s various social media feeds, it’s impossible not to come by amateur foodies and pictures of their breakfast kale smoothies and imported coconut water. In LA and other major cities, not all gentrification is prevalent within the housing crisis and the vanishing of historic neighborhoods.
This idea of food gentrification was recently brought to my attention when I found myself reading about its impact on hunger in relation to how traditional dishes from various cultures have become cast into mainstream media.
Food gentrification is used to describe a new phenomenon of traditionally affordable staple ingredients becoming rediscovered by mainstream media and chefs to create a hot new food commodity. This type of gentrification makes it difficult for people in low income communities who survive off of these culturally standard ingredients to afford them.
Black feminist, Mikki Kendall for The Grio, elaborates on how each new trend in food or health fad comes at the expense of another marginalized community. Prices of kale and quinoa rise with their popularity and many of these foods are not easily replaceable or attainable by the communities where these foods are considered staple ingredients.
The problems of food gentrification and the appropriation of food merge when traditional dishes get “rediscovered” and rebranded as the next trendy new fad. They are made palatable for the broader majority while those cultural communities can no longer afford to sustain their own traditions.
As an Asian American, I found it odd that the foods I was once made fun of for eating, and the foods that my mother packed me for lunch, were being charged an upwards of $20 in trendy restaurants. It was ironic when they were posted as new and exciting “food adventures” on Instagram by the very same classmates who reacted with wrinkled noses to my food. I would be made self conscious to the point where I would have ask my mother for $2 to buy lunch at school instead.
Those classmates are also very same people who rolled their eyes when I grew older and brought up the rich history of my culture or laughed when I spoke my language when I ordered food in Korean restaurants.
What is cultural appropriation and what kind of relation does it have to the gentrification of food? The short definition would be when people of a dominant culture adopt attractive pieces of a culture belonging to a group of people they have once systematically oppressed.
People can love a specific cuisine, but also reduce others who belong to said cultures to hurtful stereotypes that are associated with their foods. People can say they love halal, but stay oblivious to the issues that matter to people who practice Islam or to what is going on in the middle east.
For example, what people don’t know about their plates of spam fried rice, asian fusion banh mi or their expensive coconut water is that all of these foods have a rich history behind them.
You find spam and lunch meats integrated in various Asian dishes like Korean kimchi fried rice and hot pots/stews, because they were introduced by American soldiers during the hardships of the Korean war. Much of Asian cuisine is symbolic. The banh mi was introduced when the French colonized Vietnam, and coconut water is a staple heavily integrated into the Jamaican diet which rose to popularity when Spanish began to colonize the Caribbean.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t enjoy the foods of different cultures? No, it isn’t a crime if you like eating dimsum or falafel or any other foods that are associated with cuisine of cultures that you aren’t a part of.
These cultural “foodie” adventures become appropriated when the majority claims to know a culture based on a dish that has been gentrified and rediscovered.
Exposure to different cultures and learning about their traditions are all good things that help us show empathy and cultivate diversity among people of all races and religious affiliations.
It’s when important aspects of culture like food are repurposed for a systematic majority and the communities whose traditions align with their foods are forced to replace them.
Not all gentrification is about housing, and not all cultural appropriation is about who you choose to dress up as on Halloween.