The Ethics of Ethnic Cuisine, by Way of Brooklyn

(Image: Kate Glicksberg, Smorgasburg)

As Brooklyn curls around itself at the epicenter of hip culture, its art and music scenes well-established, its gravitational pull has attracted people and attitudes alike from the littlest borough. Brooklyn food culture has long since acquired the prestige of foodie Manhattan, even as it leans away from Manhattan’s Eurocentric tastes toward less typically foodie-approved cuisines: Mexican, Caribbean, American Southern, African-American soul food, and even pizza, but not the dollar slice kind. Brooklyn’s affinity for ethnic cuisine has run aground on its brand of artisanal chic, and it’s worth asking whether neo-ethnic foodies are reverent pilgrims or marauding bands of Columbusing jerks.

From kombucha to kimchi to Montana’s Trail House to chicken and waffles, ethnic-inspired cuisine and fusion is everywhere, suffused with Brooklyn-Made Artisanal Cool. This wash of Brooklynness is another layer of fusion, calling into question the ethical implications of so much cultural reimagining, repackaged in Instagram-filtered hues for the new Franklin Avenue.

An article in the New York Daily News yesterday highlighted the resurgence of the “humble tortilla” in New York City’s foodscape, listing a handful of restaurants and chefs who are focusing on improving this Mexican staple for East Coasters. This is a familiar goal: Bringing x food to the New York masses! But it often ignores that x food has probably been here for a very long time, and in excellent shape—though perhaps not in any neighborhood booming with luxury condos.

New York City, a “majority minority” city, contains ethnic multitudes, many of them in distinct enclaves with grocery stores and restaurants selling ingredients little-known or -used in other parts of the city. This is what makes the culinary landscape of New York City, particularly Brooklyn, so vast and exciting, and so worth arguing over. (Forget pizza—try a bagel in any other U.S. city and tell me it compares even a little.) Who among us has never made a pilgrimage to Crown Heights or Chinatown or Astoria for the “best fill-in-the-blank in the city”?

The act of pilgrimage—even from one borough to another—seems to me an essential element of the patchwork landscape of this city’s cuisine. The best cannoli in the universe is not on every corner, nor is an incredible Jamaican meat patty, or homemade chorizo. These foods exist here, and often you have to go looking for them. This reverence for “authentic” ethnic cuisine is potentially problematic, at least in terms of its tendency to reduce cultural identity and expression to menu items, but its virtue is that those who go looking for “real” or “authentic” ethnic cuisine in its peculiar, far-flung enclaves approach what they find there as the supreme iteration, something that needn’t be improved upon.

On the one hand, it’s exactly this patchwork that inspires fusion and nontraditional culinary experiments, at once paying tribute to and jumping off from traditional dishes of any culture or nation. But where do we draw a line between playful reinvention and appropriation by the Brooklyn Artisanal Complex?

The opening of Montana’s Trail House inspired at least one cry of “morally hazardous” cuisine, claiming the restaurant’s Appalachian aesthetic was offensive to impoverished “mountain people”—a claim based on a somewhat offensive notion of the region he claimed to defend (not least “mountain people”). Other domestic-ethnic eateries—Seersucker (followed by Wilma Jean)—have not inspired the same level of ire.

As with any question of cultural appropriation, the root of the issue is who is doing the appropriating, and from whom. It seems to matter, doesn’t it? In the case of the Daily News‘s darling taquerias, it’s hard to say. At least one restaurant’s owner hails from Monterrey, Mexico, while another appears to be California-grown. But even if all of them were from Indiana, would it preclude them from endeavoring to make the greatest tortilla New York has ever seen?

The identity politics of cuisine intersect numerous spheres of consideration, from national identity to classism. In contemporary Brooklyn (filling up with steel and glass), which wants to be worldly and epicurean without having to ride the train any farther out, the ethnic up-do is an ideal middle ground. The foodie version of any ethnic staple is considered as good or better than the original by virtue of its being reimagined by hip people who get food. As though for centuries there were something missing, but what? (The answer is almost always aïoli.)

The supposed cultural breadth of neo-ethnic artisanal cuisine belies its self-importance as not only being “inspired by” x food, or culture, but indeed improving upon it. But there is a fundamental difference between a Chipotle or a Calexico and a bodega selling tostadas and tamales, isn’t there? The strangest and most egregious fallacy perpetrated by ethnic Brooklyn fusion is the notion that an equally (if not more) incredible version of the same dish did not already exist before it showed up in a brand-conscious truck, or at Smorgasburg. It did; it was only a little deeper in, a little beyond the realm of the foodies.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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