I consider “cultural appropriation,” as such, to be an untenable charge. That’s not to say that the bad kinds of “cultural appropriation” that people point to are a-okay and that there is nothing to object to. Their often is! I can understand why Chief Wahoo makes many Native Americans mad, to pick one example. But it’s not going to be the “appropriation” that is the problem, but some accompanying aspect. Mockery is perhaps the most obvious example. But cultural appropriation as such simply can’t be bad in a pluralist or multicultural society.

You could make an argument that we ought to consider cultural appropriation in a way similar to trademark violation. We don’t allow people to use Mickey Mouse. Why should we allow them to call themselves the Fighting Sioux? Then you start getting questions about who owns what, which gets pretty messy. Worse still, you have to then assign cultural guardians for who represents the tribes, ethnic groups, and so on. This really ought to be raising some alarm bells with you. So any legal mechanism is going to be off the table, pretty much.

So we’re left with social censure. That’s what we have to do for breaches of multicultural etiquette. And when it comes to social censure, you’re never going to have 100% agreement. How we use other cultures or don’t will always be a bit tricky. But whether we can or not? It’s not clear how that can possibly be a real question in any society that claims any value to pluralism or multiculturalism. “Look but don’t touch” simply isn’t palatable. An argument in favor of multiculturalism is to be exposed to many things, and allowing intermingling of cultures provides even more. If this isn’t a good thing, what do we need those other cultures for anyway?

All of this brings me to recent events in Portland, burrito cart owners were pilloried for the high crime of cultural appropriation. They buckled under the pressure and closed shop. It’s part of a larger movement in Portland to identify and blacklist cultural appropriating restaurants in favor of authentic foreign food establishments. Cultural appropriators are often criticized for being reckless or shallow with the incorporation of other cultures. In this case, the two ladies behind Kook’s Burritos were accused of the opposite: Getting too close to the source material, stealing work product, and bringing it home.

The discussions I’ve seen so far remind me a bit of the Hot Coffee lawsuit verdict, where the critics sound like the defenders of the verdict by assuming that the other side doesn’t understand the real story and that if they did they would see how eminently reasonable the verdict/animosity is. Except that, for many (and by “many” I mean “me”), the additional information doesn’t actually help all that much. Here is the article that touched off the debate:

“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,” Connelly says. “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. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”

Connelly and Wilgus have turned their passion into new weekend spot Kooks Burritos, which has a concept that fits twee Portland: a breakfast burrito pop-up inside the hip Tight Tacos food cart in a Southeast Portland parking lot.

“On the drive back up to Oregon, we were still completely drooling over how good [the tortillas] were, and we decided we had to have something similar in Portland,” Connelly says. “The day after we returned, I hit the Mexican market and bought ingredients and started testing it out. Every day I started making tortillas before and after work, trying to figure out the process, timing, refrigeration and how all of that works.”

Well, she figured it out.

And here is how it was characterized:

“…We were peeking into window of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look,” she said. So let’s recap the story thus far: These two white women went to Mexico, ate tacos, and then decided they would just take what the locals clearly didn’t want to give them. If that wasn’t bad enough, they decided to pack up all their stolen intellectual property and repackage it in one of the few places where such a business could plausibly work: Portland, Oregon.

While describing themselves on their Yelp biography (which has since been edited), Connelly claims to have “a mean tortilla flip” while Wilgus anointed herself as the “director of vibes” and “our little abuelita with recipes from the heart”—even though the recipes were stolen.

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. Now don’t get me wrong: cultural customs are meant to be shared. However, that’s not what happens in this city.

Much of the characterization presented suggests that this is more of an intellectual property dispute than a cultural appropriation dispute… except if you read the rest of it, it clearly isn’t. The “theft” is somewhat incidental. If they had done this in Greece, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation as the story would be received as the humorous story the ladies thought they were telling. The criticisms are very geared towards a specific sin by a very specific kind of culprit. This also has tenability problems, though that’s perhaps a post for another time. We might not be having this exact conversation if white girls hadn’t peeked at non-white cooks, but we’d be having one closer to it. It’s not clear what the original proprietors have lost here, nor is it even clear why they were less than helpful. My guess is that it had less to do with objection to white imperalism and more to do with the fact that ladies who didn’t speak Spanish well were bugging them.

More to the point, if they’d simply stolen the recipes, it wouldn’t have been nearly as hard as it evidently was to get it right. And the end product of all of this is people in Portland got to enjoy good food and no longer get to enjoy that food.

People are, of course, free to boycott any establishment they wish for whatever reason. The Kook ladies are not victims of some First Amendment violation or political persecution. To the extent that they are victims, it is in service to an ideal nobody should really want. My objection is not in their methods (though I’m definitely more hip to “Check out these actual minority-owned restaurants restaurants” than yelling “Unclean” and “Cultural Imperalism”, but the rationale for deployment in this particular case. Portland is very white. It would be a shame if their food options were unnecessarily demographically limited.


Category: Kitchen

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

13 Responses to Flour Tortillas Are Very White

  1. Steve Casburn says:

    I live and work in Portland, and my favorite food cart is a burrito cart run by a Mexican woman whose burritos are beyond delicious. My favorite lunch spot is a restaurant run by a Mexican family who make life-giving carnitas. Portland continues to enjoy good food, and if we end up needing more burritos and carnitas, then let’s welcome Mexican immigrants to provide them.

    • trumwill says:

      I don’t especially see it as either-or, or White People Taking Immigrant Jobs.

      Influencing my views here may be my experiences in Deseret, which had a surprisingly great food culture. Some of it was immigrants (especially Mexican), but a whole lot of it was the Mormon combination of missionary work and industriousness. They’d do their mission in some foreign country, enjoy the food, and when they got back would reproduce it. The notion that Mocum ought to just wait for a Chilean immigrant to move in strikes me as a lose-lose proposition. Or that if a city has an Approved Restaurant over here that there’s no reason for this other one over here to exist.

      • Steve Casburn says:

        I don’t see it so much as “White People Taking Immigrant Jobs” as I see it as “White Americans want Mexican food, but they don’t want Mexican people.”

        That’s the undercurrent driving this spasm of anger.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Which strikes me as “a certain mob is angry about X, these two women have just enough markers to draw the ire of the mob, regardless of any actual guilt with regard to X, thus the mob acts.”

          Yep, that always leads to just & Noble outcomes.

        • Steve Casburn says:

          If this sort of undercurrent is left unresolved, the inevitable result will be spasms of anger, any of which can be waved away as injust and ignoble.

          After you’ve finished waving the spasm away, though, the undercurrent remains.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Quite true.

    • Burt Likko says:

      If it’s not okay for a white lady to make her own tortillas and stuffs them with carne asada, and sells it for a profit from a truck, why is it entirely okay when a Korean guy buys a tortilla and stuffs it with bulgogi and sells it for a profit from a truck? For that matter, why is one restaurant venture of two white women making Mexican food celebrated while another is driven out of the market for “cultural appropriation”?

      I’m having difficulty explaining what happened to Ms. Kook though a lens other than that some left-wing local columnist went on an irrational crusade against them for reasons as yet unclear. Perhaps you can point out a fact or an argument that leads to a more palatable interpretation.

      • Brandon Berg says:

        why is it entirely okay when a Korean guy buys a tortilla and stuffs it with bulgogi and sells it for a profit from a truck?

        Because in the fevered imagination of PJWs, racism is something white people do to not-white people. I’m not making this up. This is a position widely accepted and asserted on the far left.

        • KenB says:

          I would consider that a mainstream left view now — most of the college students & young adults I know subscribe to it, and they’re not “far left” in any other context (I mean, they’re not Marxists or something like that).

          The term “racism” is ridiculously overloaded, and in this context they move back and forth between the “structural racism” and “personal racism” meanings as it suits them.

  2. Michael Cain says:

    Corned beef is Irish and is good. Flour tortillas are Mexican, and are good. Call it cultural appropriation if you will, but you can have my corned beef on a flour tortilla roll-up when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    I agree with you Will, this is all quite silly. And let’s be honest, this will contribute to the idea that SJWs and things like Cultural Appropriation are leftist moralizing similar to Moral Majority antics back in the 80’s. I.E. This hurts way more than it helps.

  4. Jaybird says:

    Have you ever seen a picture of the founder of Chipotle (or the founders of Qdoba)?

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