Clueless U.S. College Students Protest “Cultural Appropriation of Food Recipes”
By Nate Thayer
December 22, 2015
American colleges are apparently on the brink of revolution at one of the most expensive (and snootiest colleges) in the country.
Students at Oberlin College (tuition $50,000) are holding protests over alleged “cultural imperialism” of foreign dishes because they don’t like how they taste and demanding the firing of the “international corporation”, Bon Appétit, that makes the food in the college cafeteria.
The complaint? The dishes are not authentic and therefore disrespectful of the cultures of their country of origin, according to a November 6, 2015 article in The Oberlin Review headlined “CDS Appropriates Asian Dishes, Students Say.”
Two dishes were highlighted by the oppressed student body: the Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich and the Chinese General Tso’s Chicken.
The problem? The Banh Mi sandwich is a food legacy of French Colonialism and General Tso’s Chicken does not exist in China; it is an American concocted dish.
Diep Nguyen, a first-year student from Vietnam, complained “the traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish,” according to the Oberlin Review student paper. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” protested Nguyen.
The food service management company “has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines” which the Oberlin Review added “uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students” who have “expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.”
We will get back to the Banh Mi sandwich in a moment.
The other dish on the college menu cited as disrespecting foreign people’s and cultures was General Tso’s Chicken.
One second-year student from China “cited an instance when Stevenson was serving General Tso’s chicken, but the product did not resemble the popular Chinese dish. Instead of deep-fried chicken with ginger-garlic soy sauce, the chicken was steamed with a substitute sauce, which Prudence Hiu-Ying described as “so weird that I didn’t even try.”
Whoa! Dear Prudence: Just where in China did you partake in the “popular Chinese dish” General Tso’s Chicken?
“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” added another Asian student. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
Richard Tran, a Vietnamese-American College senior, “suggested that Bon Appétit look into the history and original recipes of the foods they are trying to make.”
Excellent idea, Richard. Let us do that.
THE BANH MI SANDWICH
For starters, the Banh Mi sandwich is an imported legacy of the French Colonization of Vietnam, and was “culturally appropriated” by the Vietnamese from the French. The fact that it is a baguette bread dish should pretty much put to rest any argument about its actual origins. But even today’s incarnation is a combination of French (baguette, pâté, jalapeño, and mayonnaise) with Vietnamese (cilantro, cucumber, hot chile pepper, fish sauce, pickled carrots and daikon) ingredients.
Bread is not native to Viet Nam. After the French colonized Indochina in the mid 19th century, bread was a substitute eaten by the poor for those who couldn’t afford rice. There is a Vietnamese adage: “Poor guy, he has to eat bread for dinner” (instead of rice).
In fact the direct translation of the Vietnamese words “Banh mi Tay” is “Sandwich on French Bread.” When the influx of Vietnamese refugees arrived in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon to the communist North, shops opened up with English signage offering “French Sandwiches”
According to the Washington Post “‘Before 1954, when the French pulled out, we called them French sandwiches,’ says caterer Germaine Swanson, 72, a Hanoi native who from 1978 to 1998 operated the beloved Germaine’s restaurant in Washington, D.C. ‘But only rich people could afford French bread spread with imported butter, pate and ham. After the French left we started to add Asian ingredients to it, spices and herbs like cilantro, to make it taste better.’ To replace the costly imported cornichons, the Vietnamese created the radish and carrot pickle.”
In Louisiana, the Banh Mi is called the “Vietnamese po-boy” and recently, the Vietnamese owned New Orleans sandwich shop Banh Mi Sao Mai entered its Banh Mi in a competition at the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival and won an award. In Philadelphia, the home of the ubiquitous “Philly Cheese Steak”, the Banh Mi has incorporated aspects of the “Philly Hoagie.”
The London website, Vietnamesekitchen.co.uk, has a whole history on the origins of the Banh Mi: “The Banh Mi Baguette was introduced to Vietnam in the late 19th century by its French colonial rulers. Initially crafted in Saigon, it resembled a traditional, minimalistic Parisian sandwich, consisting of just butter, ham or pâté. Known to locals as ‘Banh Tay’, the sandwich was sold in expensive bakeries and delis and was the preserve of affluent Vietnamese people and those who had chosen to embrace French rule. Consequently, it was often too pricey for the general populace.
“After French rule ceased in the 1954, the Vietnamese started to include their own ingredients, condiments and garnishments. Butter was replaced with a kind of mayonnaise, while pickled vegetables and fresh chillies were added to enhance the flavour. Thinly cut pork, chicken and beef were preferred to ham and spicier condiments were also added such as pickled vegetables. The emergence of street vendors also heralded the reintroduction of the Banh Mi as a staple food for the masses – many vendors chose to combine Eastern and Western influences such as the use of canned French butter, fresh mayonnaise, cucumber and pickles.”
So the Banh Mi Baguette has come a long way since its humble inception. Although it retains certain French influences, the minimalist ingredients and fillings favoured by our Gaelic cousins have been enhanced by Far-eastern infusion. The result is a sandwich that successfully marries Western colonial influences with Oriental dynamism.”
So that should pretty much put to bed the issue of “cultural appropriation” of indigenous Vietnamese cuisine as manifested in the objectionable Oberlin College sandwich which has students in a tizzy.
So there is that.
General Tso’s Chicken
But the stealing of Vietnamese cuisine pales to objections to Chinese student complaints about disrespecting the “Chinese popular dish” General Tso’s chicken because, well, there is no such thing as General Tso’s chicken in China. It is, in fact, an American creation of Chinese food concocted in New York City designed to appeal to the American palate.
“If you think about it, what makes General Tso’s chicken so successful is what makes Chicken McNuggets and sweet and sour sauce so successful. Americans love things which are sweet, fried and chicken,” wrote one food blogger.
There has been much research in recent years trying to track down General Tso and his chicken and the riddle appears to have been solved.
General Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠, 1812–1885), or Tso Tsung-t’ang was a Qing Dynasty general from Hunan, who suppressed the 1862–1877 Dungan Revolt. But General Tso’s Chicken does not exist on any menu in Changsha, the capital of Hunan, nor in Xiangyin, the home of General Tso. Reporters who have interviewed General Tso’s descendants in Xiangyin say that they have never heard of General Tso’s Chicken.
The excellent documentary “In Search of General Tso’s Chicken”, which was a prize winner at the Tribeca Film Festival recently, traced the origin of the dish to Taiwan-based Hunan chef Peng Chang-kuei a.k.a. Peng Jia (Chinese: 彭長貴; pinyin: Péng Chánggùi), Peng was the Chef for the Taiwanese Nationalist government who fled with Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War.
According to the New York Times, Peng Chang-kuei was born in 1919 “into a poverty-stricken household in the Hunanese capital, Changsha. Peng was the apprentice to Cao Jingchen, one of the most outstanding cooks of his generation. By the end of World War II, Peng was in charge of Nationalist government banquets.” When Chaing Kai Sheck fled Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949 to Taiwan, Chef Peng fled with them. “When I met Peng Chang-kuei, a tall, dignified man in his 80s, during a visit to Taipei in 2004, he could no longer remember exactly when he first cooked General Tso’s chicken, although he says it was sometime in the 1950s,” according to the New York Times reporter. “’Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty’,” he said.
In 1973, Peng moved to New York and opened a restaurant where he invented the new dish now known as General Tso’s chicken. Originally it was made without sugar, but the recipe was changed to appeal to the local U.S. palate.
But when Peng tried to open a restaurant in General Tso’s native Hunan in the 1990s serving General Tso’s chicken, the restaurant soon closed because, according to Chef Peng, “the locals found the dish too sweet.”
At the U. S. Naval Academy, the General Tso’s chicken is on the menu, but under the name “Admiral Tso’s Chicken”.
Outside the U.S., there is one restaurant that features General Tso’s chicken; the Taiwanese restaurant of Peng Chang-kuei. But the recipe of the Taiwanese establishment and that in thousands of U.S. restaurants where the dish is ubiquitous are very different. In Taiwan, General Tso’s chicken is not sweet, the chicken includes the skin, and there is a much stronger inclusion of soy sauce.
In 1973, Peng went to New York where Hunanese food was unknown, and Peng opened a restaurant on East 44th street, near the United Nations. Chef Peng credits Henry Kissinger for popularizing the dish. “Kissinger visited us every time he was in New York and we became great friends. It was he who brought Hunanese food to public notice.”
“The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” he said. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.”
By 1990, Peng sold his New York restaurant and returned to Taipei, leaving in his wake the American dish General Tso’s chicken now available off any rural highway in every nook and cranny of America.
One irony is that, after General Tso’s chicken gained international popularity outside of China, famous chefs from Hunan began to lay claim to its Hunanese origins “and when they began to travel abroad to give cooking demonstrations, it seems quite likely that their overseas audiences would have expected them to produce that famous “Hunanese” recipe. Perhaps it would have seemed senseless to refuse to acknowledge a dish upon which the international reputation of Hunanese cuisine was largely based. Maybe it would have been embarrassing to admit that the dish was a product of the exiled Nationalist society of Taiwan. Whatever their motivations, they began to include General Tso’s chicken in publications about Hunanese cooking,” writes the New York Times.
As for the 18-21 year-old clueless knuckleheads at Oberlin College, they can be forgiven for being, well, 18-21 year-olds.
I cringe at remembering my own embarrassing Stalinist approach, steeped in equal parts ignorance and absolute conviction that I had the issues of our time all figured out if everyone would just shut up and listen to me, regarding most everything at that age. We won’t get into the family holidays I detracted from by insisting that “Independent, Socialist Albania under Enver Hoxha was a model” for the political organization of the rest of the world.
Oberlin students were at it again last week. On December 12, according to the Oberlin Review, residents of the Afrikan Heritage House, were blocking the entrances to the cafeteria demanding that Fried Chicken be on the menu 7 days a week.
A petition signed by 500 students offered “recommendations on how to properly prepare food and reduce the amount of cream used in dishes because ‘Black American food doesn’t have much cream in it.’”
“We students are concerned about our safety,” said Gloria Lewis, College sophomore. “And so beyond that, it’s about having a safe space. So it’s not just the dining hall. It’s everything. It’s the posts on Yik Yak. It’s the micro-aggressions.” Beyond the concerns of Afrikan Heritage House, Lewis said that she would like to see more oppression training held by faculty and staff on campus.”
No mention of objections to the cultural imperialism represented by General Tso’s Chicken, thank God.