April 22, 2024


World's finest Food

Restaurateurs discuss criticism of Hot Crispy Oil and culinary appropriation

When John Trimble launched Hot Crispy Oil last year, he did not anticipate the condiment would make a splash in all the ways it did.

After the Times Union published a story in July on Hot Crispy Oil and Trimble’s turn from closing La Serre, his family’s 43-year-old French restaurant in downtown Albany, to starting a condiment business, sales for Hot Crispy Oil soared. The blend of oil with spices and hot peppers has sold 50,000 jars since its launch last summer.

Criticism that Trimble, a white man, was stealing ideas from Chinese culture rose, too. A letter to the editor that appeared in the Times Union said Trimble’s product, and the way he described it, appropriated a traditional Chinese chile oil by taking the idea and commercializing it for profit without crediting the Asian culture that the oil derives from.

Attacks on Hot Crispy Oil were rampant on social media as well, with many Facebook users claiming Trimble was “stealing” from Chinese culture. On Instagram, parodies of Trimble’s apologies to those aggrieved by the language he used when differentiating his product from Chinese chile oils were shared dozens of times.

“I’m of the strong belief that nothing is created in a vacuum,” Trimble said in a recent phone interview. While Asian chile oils and chili crisps gained popularity in food media in recent years, there are versions of hot peppers steeped in oil made across the globe, many of which Trimble tasted in his travels and informed his recipe for Hot Crispy Oil. “I’m operating a business in America, I’m an American, and Hot Crispy Oil is a result of that,” he said.

Trimble’s attempts to explain the origins of Hot Crispy Oil and engage with his critics did little to lessen the cries that he was engaged in cultural appropriation in food, and none of his detractors were willing to converse with him privately. Similarly, none of the online critics would be interviewed for this story.

“Appropriation” has grown in usage as people become more aware of the links between a food, its culture and who makes and promotes it. Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of elements of a culture or identity by members of another culture or identity without permission. The term is typically applied to white people taking ideas (in this case, cuisines and recipes) from a minority or marginalized group and using the ideas for profit.

“There is no distinct line where you cross from appropriation to appreciation,” said Jinah Kim, owner of Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen in Troy, where her family makes food based on their Korean heritage. “There isn’t a single factor that determines appropriation,” she said, adding the caveat that regardless of how it is determined, the people of the disadvantaged or minority community making the claim need to be heard and respected for their feelings to keep appropriation from mirroring colonialism or white supremacy.

Travon Jackson, executive director of the African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region in Albany, places a more firm boundary around appropriation. “Appropriation happens when there is money to be made and tailoring to a group you don’t belong to,” he said.

He qualifies that definition as economic appropriation of a culture, which is seen across clothing, art, music, dance and food. Jackson used the example of fried chicken. It is not unique to the story of the American South, he said, as it can be found in cuisines around the world. “I think the key to that is everybody likes fried chicken. In and of itself, fried chicken is not racial,” Jackson said.

However, the context given to the story of fried chicken is what becomes contentious and can draw ire. Fried chicken was consumed by both white slaveholders and enslaved Black people in America, but the reason why those distinct groups ate fried chicken contemporaneously is different.

“Just because the food was the same does not mean the circumstances were the same,” Jackson said, noting that fried chicken was served to white people in an act of servitude to their whiteness, while enslaved people consumed the food because it was born of ingredients, time and resources made available to them when they had little agency to form their own cuisines.

That history does not exclude white customers from being able to enjoy fried chicken, but doing so avoids falling under appropriation only when the historical context of why the food exists is exhibited, according to Jackson.

“White people presenting soul food as a celebratory culture and shared dining experience is a signifier of the oppression of the people who made it,” Jackson said. Naming the food is important, because “’soul’ is a moniker we use for Black culture in this country,” he said. For a white restaurant to call its offerings “soul food” removes the food from its context of struggle, disenfranchisement and oppression, Jackson said.

Trimble, Kim and Jackson were participants in a Times Union virtual panel that discussed how appropriation infiltrates the local food scene. Other panelists were Aneesa Waheed, chef-owner of Tara Kitchen restaurants in Guilderland, Schenectady and Troy; Eric Li, co-founder of the three local Kuma Ani restaurants, with one forthcoming in Troy; Jude Jerome, former executive chef at the University at Albany and owner of Range Caribbean Fusion food truck, based in Brunswick; and Dale Davidson, owner of Umana Restaurant & Wine Bar in Albany. The panel discussion may be viewed below. 

At Umana, Davidson expresses her Guyanese heritage with her menu. She offers dishes with roots in the African, Chinese and Indian culture because those nationalities populate Guyana, and their foods are collectively shared across Guyanese culture. “These are the foods of that experience,” she said of her menu. While she is Afro-Guyanese, she said, she is able to serve the foods of India and China without appropriation because she makes the historical context clear.

“People ask questions about the food being genuine or authentic, but that’s when I can insert myself and explain the history of the food,” Davidson said.

Li draws a clear line around appropriation, saying, “It’s as simple as letting another race or culture describe or explain something from your culture.” Li is Chinese but owns Japanese-focused restaurants. He said he believes that it is acceptable for any group to make and sell a cuisine as long as the origin of the food is explained.

For people to like your food, Li said, you have to cater to their tastes and find ways to market the food beyond the culture it hails from. He used the example of a California roll in sushi restaurants. An American creation of rice wrapped around crab, cucumber and avocado, the California roll helped popularize sushi in America. Most sushi restaurants in the Capital Region are not owned by Japanese descendants, but that does not make the food inauthentic, because it reflects true Japanese technique and origin, Li said. “The definition of the food is more important than who is making it, but people are so concerned with authenticity they forget that food is creative, as well,” he said.

Jerome expanded on Li’s ideas, saying that there needs to be passion behind food for it to avoid appropriation, and sometimes white ambassadors for a cuisine help it become mainstream and more profitable for the culture it originates from. Jerome, who is Haitian, makes food from other Caribbean cultures. Some customers are dubious that he can create “true” Caribbean cuisine, he said, but because he has learned the history, cultural context and techniques of the food, he earns the approval of his customers from those cultures.

“It never occurred to me I might be doing something inappropriate,” said Waheed, an Indian woman who has found wide success making Moroccan food. Waheed is a frequent traveler to Morocco and has taught herself the nuances of the country’s food. Ultimately, she said, her only measure of success in showing appreciation comes from community feedback. “How do people from Moroccan culture feel about what I am doing?” she said. The ignorance of some members of the public who believe Indian and Moroccan food are similar — India and Morocco are 5,000 miles apart and on different continents — can be problematic to her mission, she said, but it also allows her to introduce Moroccan ingredients and recipes to a new audience, bridging the gaps between eating and understanding.

Jackson said that informed customers are usually what create profit for companies, but in the case of food, blithely enjoying a meal without attention paid to the context in which the food exists is a “dirty trick” perpetuated by restaurants that uphold notions of appropriation. Appreciation for the story of food and acceptance of the people who create it are part and parcel in being a “good eater” when enjoying food from outside your native culture, according to Jackson.

Kim argued that as long as minorities are seen as “other” and non-American, their food will never fully integrate in its true form into the American recipe book. Unless it does, the question of who food belongs to and who is allowed to make, sell and eat it will be as necessary to our dining experiences as the food itself. 

Watch the entire panel

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. www.foxonfood.com @DeannaNFox