Individual Exceptionalism, The Myth of Gatekeeping, and Self-Imposed Barriers of Progress
TL;DR: Gatekeeping is an illogical, fear-mongering, scapegoat-esqe phrase that discourages creators from attempting cuisine of another culture or even attempting to be a better blogger. The outright refusal of bloggers to change their recipe development tenets is fostering a watered down, sterile, and toxic environment where food is bastardized and homogeneous.
For some background context (skip down a paragraph if you've heard this before on my IG stories): in early July, I read through a recipe of someone I follow (of which I will not link to) for a Vietnamese-inspired "Banh Mi Burger" and its apparent lack of actual Vietnamese inspiration. Approximately zero of the ingredients had anything to do with Southeast Asia, and seemed to instead be loosely tied to a general Asian inspiration (at best, as if adding ginger and garlic to an item immediately makes it Asian). I have witnessed several bastardizations of Asian cuisine over the years, especially as it has risen in popularity in social spaces in general. I left an educational critique of how the dish could be better, encouraged her to explore options, or at least inform the comment was deleted and I was met with a retort from the blogger that her recipe was indeed representative of Vietnamese fusion and that she would not be editing her recipe. To myself and countless others in my social sphere, this is wholly unacceptable behavior from any blogger that makes food content, much less for one that financially profits from one's content.
When blogging is intrinsically tied to your income (or arguably your self worth if you do it for the likes on social media), you may begin treating your feed and content cycle as you would a job, maybe a job that is your dream career. You pump out content to set yourself apart from the pack, as social media would dictate, you attempt to innovate, inspire others, have your ego stroked. This predominantly happens at the intermediate level of food blogging and recipe development, where you publish your recipes online but have not expanded into print media (yet). You desire to extract the maximum profit for the least amount of work possible. However, in doing so, you compromise the integrity of your blog and recipes by being lax in research, development of, procurement of ingredients, and an overall education from your reader base. Any threat of that cushioned, relaxed atmosphere is an attack on you and your brand, so naturally when someone asks you to do better, you see this as an affront to your personal self. Thus, there is a natural resistance to change, to be better, and to be more inclusive in food media, and this stems directly from toxic individualism and the designed systems of social media to highlight and incentivize egocentricity (having little or no regard for interests, beliefs, or attitudes other than one's own).
The strawman argument often placed at one's feet when confronted with tiptoeing into another culture's food "Someone will *always* find something wrong with what I made! I'm just not even going to try so I don't offend." Or in other words, bloggers fear the concept of being gatekept out of a certain community, because of X different reasons. False. I am deriving this from purely anecdotal evidence talking with my friends, but I have received nothing but support for cooking foods from their shared culture. People (ideally the friends that you share the dish with) get excited when you make some of their favorite dishes - similarly anecdotally, recall how excited *you* are when someone makes *your* recipe for a weeknight dinner. Ignore the petulance of that statement, but are you letting your own stubbornness or unwillingness to learn get in the way of you experiencing food outside your normal rotation? Perfection as it applies to a dish is also highly overrated and illogically unattainable, as I stated in my last blog post, that objective markers of food do not exist. A fear of being critiqued by a small minority of an already misrepresented small minority is a) shifting the blame for your own shortcomings onto someone else and b) oddly selfish and skittish that one person can dictate to you what food you cannot make. Yes, this *is* deeply ironic as you read a singular blog post by a white guy on how to make responsible content, thanks for noticing.
"They just don't want me to mess up their food..." Correct. After generations of white American society bastardizing their food and culture (see: vilification of Chinese American restaurants, etc), how would people in a culture NOT be upset? When presented with a "guilt" or hesitation about cooking another culture's food many "...obviously missed the point on what [I was] talking about...or what it means for people of other culture (especially minorities to see food of their heritage portrayed as such" (Wendy @theciaofandiary on Instagram). In reality, we are all guilty of content that could use some work, and it may even come from a place of ignorance or no cognizance, but look at the response a creator has to becoming more informed...a genuine reaction should be obviously respectful, introspective, and lack excuses. "How can *I* make this food better or be more faithful to its origins?", "I'm sorry that I missed the mark, I will do better next time", are things you should hear. I know for a fact, that many bloggers plan out their content weeks or months in advance, so there is little excuse to rush through a project.
I did not begin cooking a large share of dishes spanning all of Asia to pander to a certain audience, or to try to dethrone individuals from their already held authoritative positions on the subject. I do not use my position to seem 'novel' or 'unique' being "that one white guy that cooks a bunch of Asian food" (or at least I attempt to make this not my online persona, any Cas Nai Nai jokes aside). None of my actions online, Instagram posts, countless hours of research poring over odd-corner of the internet blogs, or developed recipes are meant as a political move to monetarily capitalize on bringing these foods to the West or making them accessible for a traditionally American palate. I am similarly not here to tell you to not cook a dish; humans have free will (arguably maybe: see every piece of postmodern philosophy of the 21st century). I am here to hold you to the same standard I hold myself when I develop a recipe from my own or someone else's culture. Even when I am transcribing a dominantly Sichuan Chinese dish, it is not mine, I am not claiming it as mine, I am simply as described before, the transcriber, a borrower of knowledge, technique, and my own learned experience from consuming good content on social media. For every critique or even helpful tip you may have received from a person of color, I can show you the hundreds of messages and responses from people extremely proud of my work. This is not to be a signal of me braggadociously stating how good my content is.
Much like the rising idea of American Exceptionalism, where our toxic past has led us to believe we, as Americans, can do no wrong, and are thus immune to criticism, there is an overarching sentiment of what I am calling Individualistic Exceptionalism in food blogging. Bloggers a) are wholly unprepared to receive criticism, b) may not realize that their baseline level of effort is insufficient in many aspects, c) are simply not incentivized to do better or speak up against poor representation d) are performing a 21st Century equivalent of Manifest Destiny, where dishes are claimed by the author, with no regard to its origins. If you might have guessed, these aspects apply directly to food blogging. Whether that be from "giving a recipe the ol' college try", a sense that one is congratulated for the bare minimum effort pervades online spaces and food bloggers - you might imagine that this is a toxic mentality because it fosters little to no drive to champion good practices in blogging. Putting forth the same effort in a recipe of your own culture does not equate to that same effort in representing a dish that is NOT yours. Similar to how a critique or concern about the systems in place is often seen as the complete denouncement of the parent object, collectively, bloggers see criticism as personal attacks - I have noticed this from the outright refusal (from some) to learn from mistakes or even really accept criticism from any source.
One telling example of criticisms being taken as attack, an excerpt from a conversation I had a few weeks ago with @mealsbymalek on Instagram: upon sharing the case of misrepresentation, I was able to have an open dialogue with him, and he brought up good counterpoints, and even points that needed some clarification or expansion upon. "This was a really good discussion...It's nice to be able to talk and disagree without getting defensive". The points he brought up were completely valid, and in his own words, he felt refreshed that I didn't completely shut him down, that "upped my faith in mankind a little bit more today." This is a base reaction that should be present in us as content creators, and yet...the surrounding context of the previous sentiment would lead us to believe the opposite is true.
Collectively, nothing has been learned from now almost two months of campaigns on social media to be a better ally (you know the performative activism pieces for starters, but is also not limited to those pink and green pastel-background squares with "3 steps to anti-racism"), to support diverse creators, and to produce more enlightening, thoughtful content. Allyship and germane actions of anti-racism fall on deaf ears and lazy hands for some, or in some cases has missed all impact for those who want to turn a blind eye to injustices, as it would negatively affect their personal brand or bottom line. Those who are hesitant to change explicitly benefit off the systems in place that condone bastardization in the first place. The alarm bells of the obvious parallels to white privilege should be ringing in your head. Meaningful change of the system and its empowered bad actors is uncomfortable for those in positions of perceived power. We must progress food media beyond its current stale iterations, styles, and behaviors that plague it: "It's not good to be comfortable and stay in status quo" - Wendy @theciaofandiary on Instagram. Complacency breeds a lack of creativity and a narrow mind. But as mentioned above, there is no real incentive to do so because it requires effort: "It's more work to do what [I'm] saying they should do, so why change if it works for them[?]...You need to do you so they can continue what they [are doing]" - Candy from Soupbelly (@soupbelly_atl on Instagram).
As for a solution or a handily accessible bulleted list of items for making sure you are representing a culture correctly? There are plenty. They do, however, require effort. Effort that will pay you dividends, but it is our responsibility to do our due diligence.
I) If you are making content from a culture that is not your own, and have questions, concerns, or are worried it may not correctly represent that culture: talk to your followers, friends, and colleagues about it. This is by far the easiest barrier to entry. You should be exposing yourself and making friends with a diverse following, anyway, so earn your humility badge and talk to them about a recipe you're working on. Their voices should be heard, or at the very least your platform should highlight their viewpoint(s).
II) Ensure that you are careful about wording related to "authentic". Be prepared to learn that your notions of that food item may be skewed from a limited exposure to that dish. This is also solved by talking to other creators. If you are using the term "authentic", I expect a cookbook from you soon, as I know it can take months, years, and/or lifetimes of intense practice and ingrained exposure to fully master singular techniques. Some argue that individuals from outside a culture (namely white people) cannot place a badge of authenticity on a dish, but I have not made up my mind on this, it seems to lack nuance and is too restrictive. Maybe let's talk about this point in the future.
III) Realize that your recipe can and will have shortcuts and compromises based on your availability "I call them 'my version'...it should be clearly stated what you have concocted is not meant to be authentic, but a quick fix for your personal solution". - Priya from TheGheeSpot (@mistressghee on Instagram). Some days, I cannot find select ingredients for a dish I am trying to make. If it is critical, I will not make the dish until I have the ingredients, or will go back to the internet to research alternatives. Nobody is out to say that your soy sauce should be home-brewed from soybeans you grew yourself, or that the deeply umami shrimp paste of Thailand or Malaysia need to be made yourself. Sometimes, you can't find a garnish, and this is fine; as I have stated multiple times, recognize the origins, offer alternatives.
IV) Acknowledge the danger in classifying your dish as an "interpretation". The term "interpretation" itself has been overused, and has lost a lot of its meaning, but this is not to say that interpretation is inherently bad. Food is a fluid concept throughout cultures sharing and mixing, as people traverse tracts of land or as ideas change. Tom Yum Soup from Thailand is not a monolithic, unwavering concept. Flavors can and will change as you travel around the planet. "interpretation is always welcome as long as the original recipe is respected...[it] is inevitable, like you said, because of migration, what the land can offer, etc" - Wendy @theciaofandiary on Instagram.
V) Explicitly cite sources of inspiration or technique. I will be the first to admit that I need to be better about this, and I really have no excuse; you likely keep a detailed journal for recipe development or even a bullet journal for your day-to-day existence, why not keep a rolling tally of citations for posts, articles, and recipes you find inspiring?
For you as the creator/blogger, you certainly have no contractual obligation to make conscious changes in your feed and content, because I am not your social media manager nor do I have authority over your artistic intent. However, you do have a moral responsibility and duty to do so under progressive 21st Century ideals; I honestly cannot see a defense for this reprehensible behavior where bloggers steal from, manipulate dishes from, and misrepresent other cultures. This cultural litmus test, however, is easy to pass if you put in effort just above the bare minimum. Now, go make some delicious food.
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I'm Clark (AKA Cas).