On the street where I grew up there was an old man who was sweet, friendly… and racist. This was the 1980s: every street had one. Always draped in an overcoat, even when it was tarmac-meltingly hot, he’d march back from the corner shop each morning, tabloid tucked under arm, looking to ensnare one of us in chat. About the weather. The football. ‘Coloureds.’ One time, I was walking back from the Chinese takeaway when he appeared. Spotting the takeaway’s distinctive white bags, he cried out cheerily: ‘You don’t wanna be eating that muck! Can’t your mum make a roast?!’
His blather burst out of my memory banks recently when I was reading about Lena Dunham, Girls star, feminist and fan of the unflattering nude scene. On hearing that students at her alma mater, Oberlin in Ohio, were demanding that the college canteen stop serving sushi because it’s ‘cultural appropriation’ for white brats to make and eat such fare, Dunham declared: ‘Right on.’ People used to say ‘right on’ about sticking it to the pigs or smashing capitalism — now they say it about snatching sashimi from a hungry white college kid.
Where had I heard this before? This idea that it’s ‘problematic’ (isn’t everything now) for white people to eat Asian food? And it hit me. The old duffer. He and Dunham might come from polar opposite moral universes — he from a beat-up street in north London, she from an achingly middle-class bit of Brooklyn — but both had somehow happened upon a samey idea about white folks and Asian food. This is the thing about the obsession with ‘cultural appropriation’: it rehabilitates in PC lingo foul old ideas about racial purity. It makes respectable what that old man used to say: that the races should stick to their own cultures.
Not content with getting Native American head-dress banned at music festivals, stopping students from wearing sombreros, and telling off Beyoncé for writhing about in a sari, warriors against cultural appropriation have trained their demented gaze on food. In February, Pembroke College, Cambridge, came under fire for serving ‘culturally insensitive’ food, including a mango and beef jerky dish that was called ‘Jamaican stew’ and a Tunisian rice dish that wasn’t properly Tunisian. Imagine going out for a meal with these moaners. You’d top yourself before the night was out.
The hipster fad for barbecue food is getting it in its fat neck, too. You think tucking into a stack of sticky baby ribs in places like the Blues Kitchen in Camden is a bit of fun? You’re wrong, as usual. ‘Barbecue is a form of cultural power’, says a writer for the Guardian (where else). It’s a tradition of ‘enslaved Africans’ and you insult those people when you peel the pork off a pig belly in some Hackney hangout. Eating, like everything else, is racism. Even tea is under attack. It’s a ‘boring, beige relic of our colonial past’, says Joel Golby, a writer for Vice, the bible of Shoreditch bores. You can’t even have a cuppa without being induced to feel colonial guilt. Every sip should remind you of Amritsar. Mea cuppa.
In Israel a couple of years ago I had the pleasure of being cooked for by the legendary Shalom Kadosh. No one cooks fish like this man. But he’s most famous, or infamous, for his falafel, which he once had the gall to call ‘Israeli cuisine’. It’s actually more Palestinian. A group of Palestinian chefs said Kadosh had launched a ‘flagrant Israeli attack on our culture’.
Having eaten his falafel, all I can say is that if this is cultural appropriation, I want more of it. And that’s the point: cultural appropriation is a good thing. A brilliant thing. It’s the human thing. The politically correct want to box us all off according to skin colour, gender identity, cultural heritage. But the deeper human instinct is to mix things up. Pop, art, literature and, strikingly, food are all the better when they borrow from other cultures; having nicked tricks and fused styles to create hybrid ideas and dishes we all gleefully tuck into. Like that old bloke from my street, the guardians of racial correctness want us all to stay in our cultural lanes. ‘Can’t your mum make a roast?’ Ignore them. Break out. Eat what you like. Wear what you like. The idea that there is ‘white culture’ and ‘black culture’ is infinitely more offensive than beardy hipsters baking Cajun cornbread.