Food Gentrification: A Recipe for Disaster


What is food gentrification and appropriation in society?

This past week I took a deep dive into incredulous adaptations of staple cultural recipes that were quite embarrassing. In recent years, “Food Findings” have become an influencer trend on TikTok and consists of mainly white people somehow uncovering new creative recipes that aren’t their own. This made me think a lot about culture, cultural appropriation and gentrification.

Culture is passed down through many routes with foundations in oral history, scriptures, art and food. Food is a great facet to maintain and protect culture over time because it is passed down in the home and through traditions. Certain dishes signify different cultural identities, and food can trace one back to the kitchens of their ancestors. It helps keep stories alive. This is why if you’re going to publicly create a dish that is not part of your own culture, you should have consideration, respect and regard for those who’s culture it is. 

For instance, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and racism left Black people in the Americas at the bottom of the food chain. Slaves had to make do with the little they had or else their families would starve, and through struggle and innovation, the inspirations for modern popular meals were created today. Soul food is a product of American slaves in the South using the meager rations they were left with and cooking traditions that they brought from Africa. This food exemplified Black marginalization in the U.S. as white people in the past found it to be unhealthy and of lower class. Today everyone and their mothers want to eat, cook and post their soul food (or other cultural staples)-many know that it’s trendy but nothing about the history, struggle or community behind it and that is appropriation. 

Food appropriation can take many forms-like influencers cooking traditional cuisines outside of their background or restaurants with white managers, waiters and hosts but a full kitchen staff of color. In a country rich with a variety of cultures and ethnicities, I believe it’s okay to explore outside your own norms, and that we should learn about and explore all cultures in America-and the world in general-but it has to be with respect and consideration. Otherwise, food appropriation could lead us down the rabbit hole of food gentrification.

Being a resident in a big city, you are bound to see some form of gentrification somewhere. It’s a common occurrence where developers go into lower income neighborhoods and install new “trendy” spots that can capitalize off pieces of the neighborhood’s culture to draw a richer-and in most cases whiter-crowd, which pushes out the original communities that made up the area. With new development initiatives and groups of people entering the neighborhood, rent hikes often make places unaffordable for the area’s original residents. 

What most people don’t know is that gentrification usually starts with food. 

In an Urban Food Policy Forum panel at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, speaker Joshua Sbicca said himself that we cannot discuss gentrification without considering food. 

“Food is not only symbolic of gentrification, but is a material contributor,” he said while introducing an over five-year study on gentrification in major cities. “Quite literally new food spaces like a cafe, health food store or a community orchard can help to give a neighborhood buzz, which boosters and developers can then leverage to change the community. Food businesses are typically the first to open in gentrifying neighborhoods.”

Due to racial marginalization, in the past many different BIPOC cultural food staples have been looked down upon as being gross, weird or unhealthy by the mainstream hipster, elite or your average white guy we’ll call “Mark.” 

Nowadays, these same types of hipsters and elites feel so “open minded” – in a modern day Christopher Columbus sense – that they’ll “discover” these dishes they would’ve never touched five years ago, and will try to recreate, improve and share these recipes in the most inauthentic way possible. For many people of color, this can feel like a slap in the face-this constant cycle of patronization. Now your average white guy Mark decides he wants to open a whitewashed vegan Jamaican restaurant in Brooklyn where he brings all his average friends, and now you have Williamsburg. 

While it’s okay to move to different neighborhoods and reimagine public spaces, we can’t just casually forget to invest in and be aware of the people that are already there and have been there. Gentrification may look pretty but there’s no flavor and there’s no history. 

If you really want to explore the true nature of food outside of your own cultural norms, look towards the people of whom the culture actually belongs to. Go to an authentic Black-owned Jamaican restaurant and support the business, or purchase a soul food cookbook by a Black person that educates you on the cultural traditions before taking matters into your own hands. There is always something to learn from somebody else.

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