Food Justice and Cultural Appropriation: How do Place and Nostalgia Fit?

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of postings by students in a graduate seminar on food justice at the University of New Orleans. You can read more about the class and find the syllabus here. The class is part of a new PhD program in Justice Studies at UNO.

María M. Pabón
UNO Food Justice
Loyola College of Law

Stuffed chayote…or mirliton. Shutterstock/rodrigobark
Arroz con habichuelas, Shutterstock/Mario De Moya F

Inspired by the awesome readings of my PhD course in Food Justice, I have been thinking lately about who “owns” a particular cuisine, or even who can speak for a specific culinary culture. As a Puerto Rican islander who has lived in New Orleans for the past ten years, I am often reminded of the importance of how much our daily nourishment gives us a feeling of comfort, of nostalgia, and especially of being close to what feels like home. Walking around the Crescent City and seeing the banana trees is reminiscent of my island, as are the red beans and rice –arroz con habichuelas, anyone? The food in my adopted city, some of it is even the same, our P.R. chayotes are called mirlitons here in NOLA, and are both used often in Puerto Rican and New Orleanian cuisine as the pictures of Puerto Rican arroz con habichuelas and stuffed chayotes show.

I have incredible admiration for the cuisine of my adult hometown, in part because so much of it, whether Creole or Cajun, makes me nostaligic for what I ate growing up in Puerto Rico. As we know, nostalgia has a place in the reproduction of culture that the field of food studies examines (Kelting 2015). Both the Puerto Rican food and New Orleanian cuisine I have experienced have been truly genuine, cooked by Puerto Ricans and New Orleanians using traditional methods and ingredients. Thus, my ability to experience nostalgia through the food I have tasted both in my island home and my adopted home has come in part from its authenticity.

These authentic food experiences have been congruent with those described in Ignacio Sánchez Prado’s 2020 article entitled Rick Bayless and the Imagination of ‘Authentic’ Mexican Food . In this article Sánchez Prado argues that ‘the cultural relevance of food and gastronomical culture lies in being a theme that fosters the study of various important questions related to race, social economy, class, gender and identity, as well as the devices that sustain hegemonic notions of the national and performative practices of selfhood”(2020:570). So, food in P.R. and NOLA have had cultural relevance to me in relation to my identity and selfhood. From the Caribbean food I grew up enjoying as a child to learning to eat po’ boys, crawfish, king cakes, and other New Orleans delicacies, I have learned about the cultures of these unique places.  

What about the part of me that knew other cultures in the past? Is there some place for which I can feel some nostalgia but do not really include in my reminiscences about food?

I do not remember much but know from photographs my early years as a child in Japan.  What I do not know much about is the food of my birthplace, Naha, Okinawa.  I am a military brat, daughter of two Puerto Ricans stationed at Kadena Air Force base. I was born there and lived there as a baby, and I have always been fascinated by all things Japanese. I thought I would try and get a sense of the place from eating Japanese food in my adopted city, as I do not recall eating any Japanese food in Puerto Rico as a girl. I have tried Japanese food in other places, just not ones that I call home: P.R. or NOLA.

So, a series of questions came to my mind recently as I had dinner at Fuji Sushi Bar, a local Japanese restaurant near the Louis Armstrong International Airport. Fuji’s owner is from Malaysia. Having a non-Japanese owner of a Japanese restaurant was a first to me; I had not realized that this was even possible. So these were my questions. Was this restaurant engaging cultural appropriation? Who owns authentic Japanese cuisine? How can a Malaysian chef evoke a sense of Japanese nostalgia in his restaurant in the U.S.?

The food  and service were quite good at Fuji Sushi but after my meal questions lingered. I did feel at home in the restaurant overall, even though it was not a nostalgic place for me.  Fortunately, shortly after this experience I was able to read Farrer and Wang’s 2020 piece, Who owns a cuisine? The grassroots politics of Japanese food in Europe, in which I learned how common it is for non-Japanese chefs to own Japanese restaurants. In fact, it is a worldwide phenomenon. In this article, the authors narrate how a Japanese manager regards this fusion culinary scene as a form of cultural appropriation, commenting “Why do they have to call this ‘Japanese sushi?’…They should call it Vietnamese sushi, or something else” (Farrar and Wang 2020:9). So, although for some Japanese like this manager, there is most definitely a correct answer, to me, it is not as clear. There are no real right or wrong answers in my view and the questions continue to this day.

All I know for sure is that I will continue exploring how food, nostalgia, place, and cultural appropriation fit together like so many pieces in a puzzle in the food justice world. And of course, I will continue having memorable, perhaps nostalgic meals, here in New Orleans. Who knows, maybe a fellow Latin American may even open a Puerto Rican restaurant in this foodie town? Will it be authentic? Will it be nostalgic for me?

Sources Cited:

Farrer, James and Chuanfei Wang. 2020. Who owns a cuisine? The grassroots politics of Japanese food in Europe. Asian Anthropology. 20(1):12-29.

Kelting, Lily. 2016. The Entanglement of Nostalgia and Utopia in Contemporary Southern Food Cookbooks. Food, Culture & Society. 19(2):361-387.

Sánchez Prado, Ignacio M. 2020. Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless and the Imagination of ‘Authentic’ Mexican Food. Bulletin of Spanish Studies. 97(4): 567-592.

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