Two interesting food stories drifted across my facebook today.
Literally the first thing I read this morning was the comments on this ‘Healthy Gumbo’ posted by Disney’s Princess and the Frog page.
Now I knew no good could come of this recipe when they started dumping veggies straight into a cold and naked pot. But I was actually shocked when they added kale and quinoa at the end. It was like Sandra Lee wrote the recipe for this ‘gumbo’. They added chili powder to simulate the dark red brown color of a roux. They added crushed bay leaves, which horrified me because bay leaf fragments in food are extremely dangerous*.
* Bay leaves do not soften on cooking, and the sharp fragments can actually lacerate or pierce bits of your digestive tract. This is why recipes usually call for whole bay leaves, and tell you to remove them before serving.
So I went and rummaged up the controversial video, because that’s what I do, and I don’t understand why it’s controversial. It’s a very technical summary of pho, by a chef whose love for the dish shines through a rather technical discussion of it. Its not a discussion of the cultural importance of pho, but it clearly was never meant to be one. Its about the technique of making and eating pho. It was educational. I didn’t know that rice noodles would continue to suck up the liquid, although the lack of broth as I eat a bowl has always been one of my least favorite things about pho.
One thing that especially struck me was when he talked about how people squirting sriracha into the pho before they ever taste it breaks the chef’s heart. This is a universal heartbreak among anyone who loves cooking, to have your labor so callously reseasoned (and over seasoned) is a heartbreak that unites across any cuisine and culture. (I have it every time my dad vigorously salts and peppers my risotto before even taking a bite.)
If we want to really talk about cultural appropriation, lets talk about what Disney did to gumbo. Gumbo has a huge, long, noisy history. I’ve never seen any two cajuns agree about is gumbo ‘done right’. But they all agreed today that this recipe Was Not Gumbo.
The first thing the recipe did was to qualify their version as a ‘healthy’ gumbo and skip the roux. Because regular gumbo is deemed ‘unhealthy’, the style of the dish needs to be fundamentally changed. Then they use an absurd ratio of vegetables, something like 4:1:2 green bell pepper:onion:tomato. (Incidentally, watching the argument between pro-tomato and no-tomato was one of the best parts of the comments. But I’m no-tomato myself.) Where is the celery? Why is the veggie ratio so weirdly off from the modified mirepoix that is the standard base of cajun/creole dishes? Who knows. (Okra is also in there, and there was another complicated debate in the comments about how they used the okra wrong, but I don’t like okra and never use it, so I didn’t pay much attention. However, reliable sources say you don’t just throw raw okra into gumbo.)
Then, because there’s no roux, the gumbo is the wrong color. This is fixed by adding chili powder. I’ll pause a moment for you to all vomit and return. Back? Chili powder is full of cumin and oregano and ground ancho chile. None of which belong anywhere near this cuisine. Crushed bay leaves are added, because why not add a pointy choking hazard to your meal? Whole wheat flour is used to thicken, because again, we have to fix traditional gumbo so that it’s healthier. Chicken stock is added, and it’s cooked for an while much like any vegetable soup.
At this point, I expected them to add chicken. But they added shrimp instead. When I make a seafood gumbo, I use the heads and tails and stuff to make a proper seafood stock. When I use chicken stock, I add chicken. This doesn’t seem like a hard concept, but apparently it is.
Then they threw in a head of kale. And served it with quinoa. I wish I were making this up.
Up to the kale I could forgive this recipe for being naive, the job of some poor ghost recipe writer who didn’t really know better. But kale doesn’t happen by accident. Neither does quinoa. All together, this recipe wants to use gumbo’s cultural associations, but it doesn’t want to actually be gumbo, in all it’s unhealthy glory. It has to be fixed, made healthier and trendier. There is no respect, much less love, for the roots from which it claims to spring. It is a mockery of gumbo. This kind of contempt is real cultural appropriation.
We eat a lot of cajun for a family that’s half Mexican and half muddled German. I don’t pretend any of it is super authentic. But it’s made with love and our best efforts. Love for the style of food, for the people eating the food, for the long generations that stretch back, table to table, to the beginning.