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Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Cultural Appropriation #2: The Jamie Oliver ''Jerk'' Outrage & When Food & Cross-Cultures Clash

By Waiching Liu

First coined by sociologists during the early 1990s, cultural appropriation is, by definition, the ''un-acknowledgement or inappropriation of the adoption of the customs, practices, ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society''. Quite simply put it is when someone adopts, interprets or be it, ''steals something'' from a minority culture that is not his or her own & passing it off and even profiting from it.

Recently, British TV chef Jamie Oliver caused a stir and has been accused of cultural appropriation and without paying respect to its origins and roots of Jamaican culture and cuisine by Labour politician and East London-born Dawn Butler, as his product, Punchy Jerk Rice, which is a take on rice using Carribean ingredients, drew criticism with Butler, whose parents are Jamaican, saying: ''Jerk is not just a word you put before stuff to sell products''. When actually it has none of the following that goes into a jerk marinade/seasoning: scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, soy sauce, ginger and brown sugar. Not to mention it has been noted that jerk seasoning is a dry rub used for meats, fish, poultry only for barbecuing, - and not as a flavouring for rice. Jamie Oliver's version only has garlic, ginger and Jalapenos. Jalapenos itself originated from Mexico.

Yet according to food historians such as Alan Davidson and John Mariani, Jerk is a Spanish word that originates from the Peruvian term ''charqui'', a word for dried strips of meat that is called ''jerky'', as in beef jerky for instance. However, most of them agree Jamaica was settled by the Arawak Indians over 2500 years ago from South America. 

When I first looked on Twitter last Monday and the trending topics for the UK, I saw Jamie Oliver's name mentioned and I thought to myself:, ''what has he done this time?'', after banning turkey Twizzlers and enforcing his healthy eating rules in schools with his ''Feed Me Better'' campaign (which ultimately backfired) and the sugar tax, which had Britons livid. I'm usually not a Jamie Oliver fan and I find his style to be not really to my taste and I avoid watching his programmes. I then saw the Good Morning Britain TV interview with TV chef, Rustie Lee and inventor of Reggae Reggae sauce, Levi Roots online, and their discussion on this topic is one I found interesting. 

But this example of cultural appropriation is one where not everyone is in unison; those who defended Jamie argued that the UK is a multicultural nation and society and that cooking and food is a universal and cross-cultural thing, which isn't a form of cultural appropriation. Whereas critics have criticised him for messing with tradition and for taking something that has its roots in Caribbean cooking and making it less traditional. 

Beyond all of this, however, there are wider issues and implications that wherein lies a deeper meaning, it's not just about putting a modern twist on something that traditional and classic as a dish: has this become a PC-related issue where people take offence to something so easily? Is identity politics becoming a barrier in which it causes so much divide and disassociation amongst people? & should we concentrate on more serious and pressing matters and issues than one that is over a packet of pre-cooked rice?


Like I said this is just one of a few examples of cultural appropriation: the other being the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character in Ghost In A Shell, which prompted accusations of whitewashing. That film, as well as Avatar: The Last Airbender, besides being terrible films themselves, are for me, even more, controversial and guilty of cultural appropriation than what Jamie Oliver has done. You can't, be it I can't compare a packet of rice with some fancy seasoning over something as even more blatant and thoughtless as what Hollywood and the makers of those films have done. Sorry, but I just can't. 


The thing is, cultural appropriation is a tricky thing to get right, without offending that particular minority group: it's about paying respect, a homage to and honouring its roots and culture. It's about an appreciation of something that s/he appreciates and is so different from what is perceived as the norm, but to do it respectfully. Food, in itself, is a cultural experience that is to be shared with everybody. However, the problem is when it gets to a point where it becomes a thing that not only is that taken from that cultural group, it is used to humiliate and ridicule minorities. It is when the dominant group impose their authority and claiming that their way is superior to others and taking elements from a culture with it, as well as drawing upon stereotypes it becomes undesirable and offensive. THAT is when it causes uproar and anger. It's like Chinese food, or be it American Chinese: there are stereotypes about Chinese people eating anything and everything including rats, hamsters or whatever. And yet with Chinese American food, the food that is produced and sold is suited for Westerners and non- traditional Chinese tastes. There are people from China who just aren't keen on General Tso's Chicken, Chop Suey and yet there are also non-Chinese who wouldn't try traditional Chinese cuisine for whatever reasons. Also, I don't have anything against taking a recipe and doing something with it, - just as long as it is tasty, such as fusion food. This jerk rice thing of Jamie Oliver's, is in a way, fusion food almost: taking flavours from the Carribean and putting it on something like rice, which in itself, is a huge staple in Asian cultures as well. Another example would be the Banh Mi sandwich, which is a mashup of American and Vietnamese. 

Yes, the whole furore is one that feels silly, but at the same time, I do understand why Jamaicans would take offence to it, but also it made a change from the usual news that was mainly about politics and stuff I didn't really care for. It was and is so silly, I just saw the funny side to it. I mean, it does have a serious side to it and I can understand the complaints from those, particularly of those of Carribean origin on this. But from a news aspect, it was rather daft too and reading the tweets from users on Twitter, it was entertaining and it also put a smile on my face.

If Jamie Oliver was in Blackface wearing fake dreadlocks and a Jamaican attire going 'yah man!!' on a packet on jerk rice, now that would be a different story altogether and that would have been unacceptable and deemed racist.

But otherwise, we have far more things to worry about, and important things to focus on especially. 

(Image source: Levi Roots.com)

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