The catch-22 facing a burrito shop in Portland

As the New York Post recently reported, a burrito shop in Portland, Oregon, was forced to close after being accused of cultural appropriation. Kooks Burritos, owned by Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly, shuttered only a week after being featured in the local publication Willamette Week.

This article in the Portland Mercury gives some cause for concern, and if nothing else, highlights exactly why the phrase “intellecual property” should be avoided. Quoting the Mercury article:

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.

One of the Facebook posts quoted in the New York Post article says it a bit differently:

How many of the people grumbling about these tortilla ladies just had lunch at Chipotle? When salsa outsells ketchup and Taco Bell serves two billion customers a year, policing imperialism by a couple of millennial taco stand owners seems to miss the point.

Ironically, the Portland women didn’t even learn the secret of their flakey flour tortillas from the Mexican women they met on vacation, who were understandably protective of their methods. One of the Portland women reverse-engineered her own tortilla recipe in her spare time.

The recipe is just as important as the method, and in fact, given the similarity to making pizza dough, could eventually have been stumbled across as well.

If we’re going to start shutting down restaurants in the name of cultural appropriation, there’s not going to be much left. Even so-called “American” cuisine has been inspired heavily from other cultures. Pizza was a meat-free dish as origially conceived and made by Italians; it’s no big surprise some hate us Americans because the first thing most of us do to pizza is put pepperoni on it.

Where the hell do we draw the line? Does Mexican food have to be watered down and screwed up to the point of Taco Bell to be acceptable? (For the record, I consider Taco Bell its own thing, I don’t call it Mexican food. The exception is I do tag Taco Bell locations as cuisine=mexican on OpenStreetMap, only because that’s the community-accepted norm, and the name tells the rest of the story.) Do the likes of Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Little Caesar’s get a free pass or are they just as guilty of cultural appropriation of pizza as Kooks Burritos? How about Chipotle and Taco Cabana?

It’s not like Americans are the only ones to “borrow” food preparation techniques from other cultures. There’s a Greek style of pizza as well. The sandwich is British in origin, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that given the prevalence of Subway, Quizno’s, and Blimpie throughout the US. Even the Wikipedia page linked previously shows the French “appropriating” the British sandwich (and sandwiches were a rather large section of the menu when I dined at La Madeline, a nominally French cuisine restaurant here in the US).

What it comes down to is something I was introduced to during a conversation on IRC called “identity politics”. I’m not the only one to find it absurd that activists would want a burrito shop closed down simply because it’s run by white women. Now, full disclosure here, I look just Latino enough that I probably wouldn’t get the outrage Kali and Liz did, at least until they realized my last name was anything but Hispanic. (It’s odd because I sure as hell don’t look Irish, either.) I have made no secret of the fact I identify as white/Caucasian. However, this isn’t about race or national origin to me. It’s a simple question of right and wrong. Note also that on Reddit, the Mexico subreddit takes much the same stance that I do, based on what I could gather from automatic transations.

Also, as you may have guessed from many of my previous entries, I lean left (liberal) and I realize the protest movement which shut down Kooks Burritos is also a left-wing establishment. This is one case where I believe that the left wing gets it wrong, and dare I say it, forcing a small business like Kooks Burritos to shut down is un-American (at least, according to the American values I was taught). The fact they are not railing against the likes of Chipotle and Taco Bell in the same breath speaks volumes to this effect.

I could see cause for legitimate outrage if Kali and Liz had set up shop in Mexico, just down the road where they had been thusly “inspired” by the local cuisine. I do think what they did blurs the moral and ethical lines a bit, but at the same time I’m not sure just what the alternative was for these women. Are the people who publicly expressed the outrage leading to the Kooks Burritos shutdown really expecting Kali and Liz to say something like “forget it, we’ll just make hamburgers”? (I’d say hot dogs, but I’m not sure if the same protest movement is going to require one to be of sufficient German origin. That, even though the hot dog as we serve it in the US has taken on its own uniquely American character. Whether or not the restaurants in the US have pulled a “Taco Bell” with the original German frankfurter is a matter for debate, I guess.)

I hope the women behind Kooks Burritos have a change of heart by the time I visit Portland, though I admit that appears unlikely right now. It’s really a shame I will probably never get to taste for myself and really get to the bottom of this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a Chipotle bowl calling my name…