I ate without culturally appropriating for a day and it made me miserable
Even ham sandwiches were forbidden
Girl’s star Lena Dunham recently came out in support of students at her former university who are protesting against the sale of sushi in its dining halls, calling it “cultural appropriation”. Students at the Oberlin College are accusing the canteen of “uninformed representation of cultural dishes.”
Hearing about this one lunchtime as I munched on my supermarket bought falafel wrap, I freaked out. Surely I was also complicit in this “gross manipulation of traditional recipes”, as students protesting call it? So I tried spending a day eating without culturally appropriating, in order to see if it was possible in an age where you can dine at an Italian in Doncaster and grab a cheese burger in Paris, where do you draw the line? And more importantly, whether it mattered anyway.
I woke up groggy, craving a sharp hit of caffeine. In the kitchen I was reaching straight for the kettle and Nescafe Gold as usual, when I panicked. Coffee beans come from countries on the equator in bean form. This brown powder in a jar on an Ikea kitchen top in England couldn’t be any further away from a faithful representation of it.
Instead, I poured myself a large mug of Yorkshire tea and was happily sipping it when my flatmate pointed out that despite the deceptive “Yorkshire” title, Tea can only be grown in tropical climates. She hadn’t seen any rainforests in York, she added.
Panicking that I’d already failed my challenge and it wasn’t even 8am, I grabbed a bottle of Highland spring water and a bowl of bran flakes and milk. Aside from the coffee, this pretty much resembled my usual breakfast. Not culturally appropriating wasn’t so hard it seemed.
On the way to work I began having second thoughts about the bran flakes as they contained banana chips and coconut flakes which were definitely not English. Also, I was concerned Nicola Sturgeon would dispute that someone English passing off drinking Scottish water wasn’t cultural appropriation. Like we’re all British right?
Meanwhile, I was dreading the clock hitting midday. I couldn’t indulge in my favourite chilli cheese chicken burrito from the nearby Mexican for obvious reasons. I deliberated having a salad from Pret. One with tuna caught my eye but then I realised it was branded “Niçois” and there was no way the guy with the American accent behind the till was from French. If I bought it, I would certainly be at risk of encouraging the uniformed representation of cultural dishes.
Tired and dangerously craving Pizza from the Italian takeaway across the road I darted into Tesco. Only after I was inside and checking out the refrigerated aisle did I realise this was a huge mistake. What about the chickpea dhal wrap? Or the sushi packs (that don’t contain raw fish)? Even the ham sandwich prepared in a factory in Essex was at risk of being contaminated with French mustard.
Eventually I settled on a Cornish pasty. It said “Best of British” on the packaging which sealed the deal. I ate it with some Marmite. I also hate Marmite, which made finding out that a German scientist actually invented it even worse. If even Marmite wasn’t truly English, was there any hope in finding any food not slightly influenced by another culture. The pasty was edible but I couldn’t stop craving something less beige. I even had to decline the free donuts because whoever baked them in London couldn’t possibly hope to represent such an American classic faithfully.
Without my three o’clock coffee, the afternoon trudged on painfully slowly. I considered buying a diet coke, justifying it by convincing myself that it was impossible to culturally appropriate something that was so international anyway. On the way home I passed curry shops and was craving a Tikka Masala, but deep down I knew there wasn’t a more “gross manipulation of traditional recipes” than a dish invented by pouring Tomato soup into curry.
Instead, I found that my flatmate had bought me a frozen fish pie. I put it in the oven and 45 minutes later I was chewing through something of which the main ingredient was “Partially Reconstituted Dried Potato (44%). For a moment I was concerned that potatoes were more part of Irish culture than English but this was soon seemed trivial compared to my discovery that the main fish was “Alaska Pollock”. What would the people of North America say about this disrespectful replication of their cultural dish in the frozen food section of a Sainsbury’s local?
I spent the rest of the evening glaring over at my flatmate who was eating Spaghetti Bolognese. Not only had I failed, having eaten Caribbean fruits during breakfast, a spread invented in Germany for lunch and North American fish for dinner, I also felt really unsatisfied. The lack of coffee had made me a tired, irritable mess.
The day came to a close with me clutching a bottle of London dry gin with a beefeater on it in one hand and a glass of elderflower cordial in the other. Did trying to eat without culturally appropriating for a day make me a better person? Sorry Lena Dunham, it certainly did not.