At Bella Dumond’s family brewery, City Steam in Hartford, the menu is based on “traditional American pub fare.” There are the classics, like burgers, ribs and chicken wings. But the menu is also rooted in fusion. There are instances of Mexican influence, for example: a baja quesadilla burger and an entire section dedicated to “street tacos.” Any restaurant owned by white Americans serving street tacos and “Korean Beef Lettuce Wraps,” places itself within a broader debate, that of cultural appropriation in the food industry. Restaurants like City Steam also raise questions as to the very nature of American food. Dumond is uniquely suited to answer these questions and explain the inclusion of foods like street tacos at an American restaurant. Dumond is the daughter of Jay and Lisa Dumond who have been involved in the food industry their entire lives, owning 27 restaurants in the past and currently owning two. She recently worked at Farm Fresh, a Rhode Island non-profit which aims to increase access to local foods. For her, American food is simply “immigrant food.” She argues that to have an American-style restaurant which excludes these foods as a means of strictly following a socially constructed definition would, in fact, be more problematic than including them. Dumond’s analysis, as well as the literature on cultural appropriation in the food industry, point to an American food that is rooted in an often problematic fusion. Defining American food truthfully, then, requires an acknowledgement that it necessarily borrows from older and more developed culinary traditions and that it often fosters a culture in which the power structures involved in the process are ignored.
American food, at least as it is presented on American menus, is largely rooted in fusion. At first glance, an “American restaurant” like City Steam serving vegetable dumpling appetizers and carne asada tacos seems paradoxical. Dumond’s other family restaurant, Blue Plate Kitchen in West Hartford, offers similar fusion offerings: “Irish nachos,” “Argentinian steak,” and a falafel burger. But restaurants many people consider American serve American renditions on international and ethnic foods all the time. T.G.I. Fridays serves a “dragon-glaze salmon” with “fresh mango pico de gallo” and jasmine rice. Applebee’s also offers “grilled chicken wonton tacos” and a “Thai shrimp salad.”[ii] City Steam, Applebee’s and T.G.I. Fridays all serve French onion soup.
Both of Dumond’s family restaurants have a consistent presentation of American food, one that, like other American restaurants, relies on fusion and non-American cultural traditions. To Dumond, this makes sense. She considers American food basically “evolutionary.” She argues that the most obvious indicator of American food is that it is adapted from a different culture: “Whether or not that is cultural appropriation, it is still a key part of what American food is.” She imagines a sandwich to be the ultimate American food, only because it so versatile. One can nod to Italian communities with a meatball sub, Jewish communities with a pastrami on rye and Vietnamese communities with a Banh Mi. It is the ultimate food in that it is so open to interpretation and cultural variation. For her, it is the essence of a truly “American” food item.
One can see how what Dumond calls the “gradual adaptation” of immigrant food can serve to build bridges and foster inclusivity. In Chicago, for example, the cuisine of Southern African American migrants became a means of promoting “integration” and “acceptance of migrants not as backwards, unclean, and in need of modernization” but as “brothers and sisters.”[iii] The Chicago case deals with food being used to transcend boundaries within an ethnic community, but there are parallels between the Chicago case and what Dumond describes. Including Latinx foods at restaurants that are ostensibly American means that the cuisines of disparate cultures, those which influence and color American culture, are American too. They are not less than American cuisine, reserved for a specific immigrant class, or considered backwards or unsophisticated. Dumond argues that “what makes American special is cultural differences and food is a big part of that.” With this in mind, American restaurants should, in fact, create dishes inspired by Latinx, Asian, and African culinary traditions because those traditions have a place in the United States.
Thus, while a definition of American food should be inclusive of all American ethnic groups, the issue of cultural appropriation must be considered. As Michael Twitty points out, cultural appropriation and “cultural diffusion,” are two different things.[iv] When Twitty speaks of cultural appropriation and the “exploitation, abuse, [and] theft” which it entails, it is difficult to include Dumond’s family restaurants in that definition. Dumond’s mother, who studied in France, certainly did not travel to Mexico to write down the family recipes of Mexican women and use them as her own, as women in Portland did.[v] But in other ways, there is some gray area, which Dumond readily admits. Twitty argues that “culinary justice” means that “the cuisine of a people” is used as “a source of cultural power that they have an inherent right to.”[vi] At Blue Plate and City Steam, it is unlikely that the Latinx and Asian influences on the menu are considered a source of cultural power or something that inherently belongs to anyone. That might be a problem of appropriation, as Dumond concedes, but it also seems to be the nature of American food. As Friedersdorf argues in his article about Oberlin College’s debates on cultural appropriation: “Mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth is what America does.”[vii] Dumond seemingly agrees with this viewpoint, that this kind of fusion, diffusion, and even appropriation, is, at its core, “the encapsulation of what is best” about the United States.[viii]
Dumond also rightfully emphasizes the ways in which consumers, chefs and restauranteurs can acknowledge the appropriative nature of the food they consume and be more mindful about the “power structures” that undergird this kind of exploitation. For Dumond, this means eating vegetarian for environmental reasons, buying locally, and paying workers a fair wage. She values traceability and the way food consumption can help local communities, and claims her parents do too. She also thinks it important to acknowledge the inauthenticity of so much of the food we make and buy. For example, she makes a “version of stir fry” often at home, but the problem arises when we label stir fries authentically Chinese or Thai when they are not: “I am probably not going to have the ingredients to make a legitimate one.”
Defining American food is complicated and requires careful consideration of the relevant power dynamics. It is certainly clear that the nature of American cuisine is relatively, often wrongfully, appropriative. Fusion can be disrespectful. And a broad definition of American food can be used to justify the “robbing” of marginalized cultures’ culinary jewels.[ix] At the same time, denying Latinx, Asian, and African cuisines a place at the American table ignores that these communities have populated the United States since its inception and have defined what food in the United States actually is and what Americans actually eat. A definition of American food must therefore be inclusive of these immigrants. But it must also be respectful of immigrant traditions. It must acknowledge power structures and discourage exploitation. While American cuisine should be open, broad, and inclusive, it should also honor the cultural traditions it borrows from, rather than exploit them.
Image Credit: Elsie Hui, “Applebee’s – Chicken Wonton Tacos.” http://www.elsiehui.com/food/lunch-food/applebees-calgary-alberta/
[iii] Tracey Poe, “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915-1947,” American Studies International, 37:3 (1999): 26.
[iv] Tom Perkins, “Michael Twitty Explains the Cultural Appropriation of Food and Culinary Justice,” Detroit Metro Times, April 17, 2017, 2.
[v] Carolina Moreno, “Portland Burrito Cart Closes after Owners are Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” Huffington Post, May 25, 2017.
[vi] Perkins, “Michael Twitty Explains the Cultural Appropriation of Food and Culinary Justice,” 2.
[vii] Conor Friedersdorf, “Food Fight at Oberlin College,” The Atlantic, December 21, 2015, 6.
[ix] Perkins, “Michael Twitty Explains the Cultural Appropriation of Food and Culinary Justice,” 2.