Oberlin, a private college with a $50,000 tuition, has entered once more into this year’s Tedious Campus Culture War Debate. After hearing complaints that its sushi program wasn’t good enough for reasons of racism, the place of learning has issued an apology.
Another article, published by The Review in November, detailed what students said were instances of cultural appropriation carried out by Bon Appétit. The culinary culprits included a soggy, pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwich that tried to pass itself off as a traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwich; a Chinese General Tso’s chicken dish made with steamed instead of fried poultry; and some poorly prepared Japanese sushi.
“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” Tomoyo Joshi, a student from Japan, told the paper. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
As a trillion people on Twitter were quick to point out, there is effectively no such thing as an “authentically Chinese” General Tso’s Chicken, considering that it’s an American Chinese dish, combining America’s brutish lust for fried food with some Chinese-inspired signifiers. And, indeed, considering that all cuisines are the result of thousands of years of international intermingling of ingredients, techniques, and dishes, it’s hard to imagine a food, let alone a cuisine, that isn’t the direct product of “cultural appropriation,” besides perhaps certain roots or berries native to the Afar Depression.
If the problem is actually that the sushi or banh mi are not good enough, the only real answer is “shut up because you’re eating in a cafeteria.”
It is worth noting that campus cafeteria workers are some of the most poorly treated employees at universities, with low pay, meager (if any) benefits, and often an environment hostile to labor organization. Part of the student unrest at Oberlin is about the treatment of these very cafeteria workers, as the school’s paper points out:
While food quality and preparation were major concerns, students also called for better treatment of CDS staff, saying that they wanted “a guaranteed 40 hour work week, benefits for part-time workers, personal days, funding for job training and increased wages.”
Unfortunately that part will probably be lost in the commotion over the entitlement of private school students to world-class omakase preparation. Especially now that, in statements provided to the Times, both the Oberlin administration and Bon Appetit, its food contractor, have apologized for cultural insensitivity (and not, you know, treating cafeteria workers like shit):
Michele Gross, Oberlin’s director of dining services, said in a statement on Monday that “in our efforts to provide a vibrant menu, we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive.”
She added: “We have met with students to discuss their concerns and hope to continue this dialogue.”
On Monday, Bonnie Powell, the communications director for Bon Appétit, said in an email that the company would address student complaints.
“We appreciate the feedback we have received from Oberlin students. Our chefs are working hard to offer culturally sensitive menus that will appeal to the Oberlin community,” Ms. Powell wrote.
Meanwhile, the food at Oberlin actually looks pretty good:
Even if the food were merely fine, bad food is never personal. Mushy chicken hasn’t been prepared as an affront to the eater (unless it deliberately has, which would be a great story). Shitty Chinese food is just shitty food, not a statement of casual indifference to the culinary heritage of an entire civilization.
Like, check out these potato wedges:
They look fine. If I ordered those at an expensive restaurant I’d be kinda confused, but if I’m at a college dining hall I’m like, yeah man, dig in—it’s time to eat some average-to-above-average food before this metabolism slows all the way down. Those potato wedges prepared by people who will never have the same chances in life as you are a good indicator that the sushi is going to be, you know, fine I guess, if you really want dining hall sushi.
Alternatively you can graduate from Oberlin, start your career, and then pay for sushi at a sushi restaurant. But don’t take it personally. Don’t think for a second that anyone involved in the preparation of your bootleg banh mi has it out for you, or that a tuna roll that didn’t materialize out of Jiro Dreams of Sushi is part of some agenda to hurt your feelings.
Life gets so, so much worse than bad sushi when you’re 19, and you’re doing such a shitty job of preparing for it.