Call it the Case of the Culturally Appropriative Burrito.
Just one week after Kooks Burritos in Portland, Ore., was featured in a profile for local publication Willamette Week, the pop-up Mexican food cart has closed down amid accusations that they ripped off their recipes.
Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly, the two white women who started Kooks earlier this year, have been accused of stealing their techniques from the “tortilla ladies” of Puerto Nuevo, Mexico — because Connelly told Willamette Week that they gathered their recipes and tortilla-making processes during a holiday road-trip to the Baja California village.
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” she told the site. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins.”
In the profile, which first ran May 16, Connelly also claimed that, when the Mexican cooks wouldn’t give up their trade secrets, she and Wilgus “were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look.”
Connelly then said she used a trial-and-error process to recreate a tortilla with the same flavor and texture after returning to Portland. She and Wilgus then opened their weekend pop-up inside a taco truck on SE Cesar Estrada Chavez Boulevard, and began serving their Mexican-style tortillas filled with California-inspired ingredients.
Sounds enterprising, doesn't it? Putting your own spin on an ethnic favorite–kind of like the "Korean burrito" that's all the hipster rage right now: stuffing a flour tortilla with beef, rice, kimchi, and Sriracha.
But those young women forgot that they were living in Portlandia–or actually that they were living under the all-seeing Eye of Sauron in the Land of the Social Justice Police, ever attuned to adding chapters to the victimological narrative. Comes now Jagger Blaec, blogging for the Portland Mercury:
Week after week people of color in Portland bear witness to the hijacking of their cultures, and an identifiable pattern of appropriation has been created. Several of the most successful businesses in this town have been birthed as a result of curious white people going to a foreign country, or an international venture, and poaching as many trade secrets, customs, recipes as possible, and then coming back to Portland to claim it as their own and score a tidy profit….
Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.
Soon enough Wilgus and Connelly were being accused of "white supremacy" on Twitter and flooded with nasty reviews on Yelp: "I love Portland, but I don’t love people who steal recipes and cooking methods without compensating for them." (Yelp has since cleaned up the Kooks page.)
It’s unclear if Connelly or Wilgus have any plans to reopen Kooks in the near future, but as of now, Willamette Week reports that their burrito shop remains closed.
Well! Making a flour tortilla is hardly a "trade secret." The ingredients are simple–wheat flour, water, and lard–and every Mexican cookbook offers a recipe, not to mention the Internet. And I might point out that the Mexicans themselves "appropriated" the flour tortilla from the Spanish, since wheat isn't indigenous to Mexico–nor are the pigs that produce the lard. They did exactly what Wilgus and Connelly did with their California-esque burritos: adapted a tasty foreign foodstuff (wheat bread) to their own cooking style (tortillas).
But if you're the Social Justice Police and can spin a narrative of "hijacking" a culture and "underlying racism" in order to drive someone out of business, who cares about logic and history?