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September 20 2016

Food Mag Accused of "Cultural Appropriation" for Showing a White Male Eating Pho

Charlotte Allen

No mo' pho fo' yo', mo-fo!

The foodie-favorite magazine Bon Appetit featured a Sept. 6 article titled "PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho."

Having dined on the cheap and tasty Vietnamese dish featuring spicy beef broth plus chunks of steak, noodles, and all kinds of fresh veggies, I'd always thought that the trick to eating pho was to have a spoon in your hand plus a napkin on your lap in case of spills. I recall that once you've drained the liiquid, you attack the solids with chopsticks.

Apparently, however,  the consumption of pho is an art form, so the online article included a video featuring Tyler Atkin, the chef at Stock, a restaurant in Philadelphia specializing in Southeast Asian cuisine.

But as you can guess, "Atkin" isn't a Vietnamese surname, and Atkin doesn't really look Vietnamese, either.

And so it was that pho became his foe.

Yes, cultural appropriation! According to the Huffington Post:

The internet took particular exception to the outlet’s use of a white chef as an authority on the subject. Many also criticized the magazine’s touting of pho as a food trend.

The Huffpo article included a tweet by one Jamie Khoo:

I guess whites built the Great Wall, and they invented Pho too...

Mmm, the Great Wall isn't in Vietnam. But i guess all Asians look alike to you, Mr. Khoo.

Then the HuffPo consulted the Cultural Appropriation Experts:

Dr. Bich-Ngoc Turner, lecturer of Vietnamese language and literature at the University of Washington, explained that Bon Appétit’s write-up and video, (which you can still watch here), is problematic right from the title.

The title sounds very authoritative and over-confident ... Food is very much related to race, identity, and cultural pride,” Turner explained to The Huffington Post. “So when you present ethnic food this way by a white man, you offend the Vietnamese community and deprive them of their own right to be authentic and maintain their identity.”...

Another aspect of the piece that’s been stirring the pot is Bon Appétit’s mention of the dish making its “list of the coolest restaurant trends for 2016.” Andrea Nguyen, a Vietnamese chef and cookbook author, noted that by doing so, a crucial aspect of the dish is erased.

Treating pho as merely a fashionable food negated its rich role in Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and now, American culture,” Nguyen wrote in a piece for NPR.

Beyond that, when American chefs make ethnic cuisines, they not only profit off of the food, but they are also not subject to the prejudices immigrants face when creating the same foods, Ruth Tam wrote in the Washington Post last year. 

“This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as ‘authentic’ on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here,” Tam stated.

And as the HuffPo pointed out, Bon Appetit heaped appropriation insult upon appropriation injury:

The outlet not only labeled pho as a trend, but also called it “the new ramen,” in its video.

The "new ramen"! That hurts!

Then Bon Appetit promptly did what our fearless media, so proud ot their ability to speak truth to power and afflict the comfortable, does when confronted with thin-skinned social justice warriors: It issued an abject apology:

On Tuesday, we posted a video about Vietnamese pho that emanated from our September magazine Best New Restaurants Issue—we liked the food at this restaurant and wanted to give it some love. But if you were to have watched the video (which has since been taken down), you never would have known the origin of the idea or why we chose the new restaurant we did. Instead, when we titled the video, we relied on a tired journalism trope, "so-and-so-is-the-new-so-and-so!," comparing it to ramen, the Japanese noodle soup it has nothing in common with. And then, to make matters worse, we layered on the title of “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho”, a riff on the tired Internet motif of “You're doing it wrong!” But who are we to tell you you're doing something wrong? A fact made abundantly clear in all the comments the video elicited.

Moreover, we misrepresented the chef (who is not Vietnamese), by putting him out there as a pho authority, something he never claimed to be. Instead, he's someone who was kind enough to give us a day of his time so we could film a video in his small, independently owned restaurant, opening himself up to an avalanche of criticism. He is not the one to blame—that’s on us for not doing our diligence as writers, editors, and video producers.

Finally, the video sparked a debate on the issue of cultural appropriation in food, a topic that has deservedly received ample discussion lately. And it's a topic that we editors at BA will discuss in coming weeks, figuring out what role a mainstream food brand like ours should play in regards to it.

Next cultural-appropriation outrage: Papa John's pizza. You can't tell me that founder John Schnatter is Italian! What kind of Italian name is "Schnatter"?

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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