On food and cultural appropriation

OPINION: Sometimes figuring out if appropriation is happening can be difficult.

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I’m a little sad because one of my favorite restaurants in Brooklyn just closed. It’s heartbreaking when a restaurant you’ve fallen in love with dies, and you can’t get that taste anywhere. The place I’m talking about was called the Gumbo Bros, a small place on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn that could’ve accommodated a maximum of 14 people at once—maybe. They had Mardi Gras beads on the walls, a New Orleans Saints flag and a whole Big Easy vibe and, of course, they had amazing po’boys, gumbo, beignets, and more. 

Eating there took me right back to visiting New Orleans, the home of my favorite American cuisine. I’ve spent so much time eating my way through New Orleans from Dookie Chase to Parkway Bakery to Café Du Monde. I love New Orleans food—it’s decadent, it’s downhome, it’s soulful, it’s unique—it’s everything I want to eat. Food that takes me back to my trips to New Orleans is the food I crave. New Orleans itself is unique and soulful and unlike anywhere else in America—it’s like stepping just outside of this country and into a separate country—a Blackened America. 

New York has a lot of Blackness, too, but the birthplace of hip-hop ain’t the same as the birthplace of jazz. But one thing the Big Apple does have is everything. Well, almost everything. It feels like you can eat almost anything you can imagine—somewhere in N.Y., there’s a restaurant that does that cuisine well. Except for gumbo and po’ boys and all that New Orleans stuff I love. I tried but never could find a place that served great gumbo and po’boys until a few years ago when I found the Gumbo Bros. I was driving by. and I saw the name and I said, I’ll be the judge of that, and a wonderful relationship began. 

When my son started taking computer programming class around the corner, I was in there once a week, eating with my daughter as we waited for my son. But it wasn’t really waiting because we savored that time at Gumbo Bros and being transported back to New Orleans by the food. My son’s computer class went on for months, which meant I was in there so often that I got to know the guy who was always behind the counter. I’m the kind of person who finds a restaurant he loves and orders the same thing every time I go there, so I’d walk in and say hi, and he’d say, “Hi, Toure! You want your regular?” Hell yes. In time, I was such a super regular that the chef would hear my voice and pop his head out of the kitchen and nod hello. He was a cool brother who never really spoke much, but you just could tell he was serious about throwing down in the kitchen. It felt right knowing there was a cool Black man back there making it happen. And then I met the two owners—two youngish guys who were cool and from New Orleans and white.   

When that part of the place got factored in, I started to say is this…cultural appropriation? Or is it some sort of culinary gentrification? Did it mean something that I was paying white men to serve me Black food? Sometimes, I think we as Black folks worry too much about cultural appropriation—there are bigger fish to fry like the wealth gap, mass incarceration, and police violence—but I get it. Our culture is everything to us and the plundering of it can feel like a disrespectful theft and an erasure of us and our ingenuity, creativity and genius. The owners of Gumbo Bros weren’t erasing us. The place was a celebration of New Orleans and the food was authentic—there were no raisins in their potato salad. So, what was happening there? Was it about white men using their opportunities in business to showcase New Orleans cuisine, a culture they loved and came from, or was this another example of white men selling Black culture like the NBA, hip-hop and BET? 

White people don’t need to be racist in order to benefit from white privilege. Eliminating racism shouldn’t really be our goal. It should be eliminating white privilege because even if you’re an ally, you still benefit from whiteness, which contributes to Blackness being a hurdle we have to overcome. One way white people can’t help but benefit from white privilege is the massive racial wealth gap. The median wealth of white families in America is over $188,000 while the median wealth of Black families is less than $25,000. There are a lot of white families that have some money and a lot of Black families that don’t. 

When people want to start a business they generally turn first to their family for initial investments. A lot of white people can turn to their families for help starting something like the Gumbo Bros. A lot of Black people may have the idea, the know-how, the special sauce but not the capital to get it sparked. This is part of why white people can start businesses using our culture and try to grow richer while we get to argue about the crumbs of appropriation. White people can go to family and friends as well as banks and venture capitalists to get capital to start businesses. Black people have a much harder time getting those sorts of opportunities.

That said, the owners of the Gumbo Bros got their chance to run a business and they put their money and their heart into an establishment that would celebrate Black culture. White people loving Black culture isn’t racist. That’s American, and the Gumbo Bros owners gave Black cuisine a chance to shine in the streets of Brooklyn. They used the business opportunities they had to give a platform to Black food, and while it lasted, it tasted great. 

Sometimes policing appropriation is easy—if you see a white model up in Vogue wearing cornrows and upcycled kente cloth, oh hell no, go march on the Conde Nast building. But sometimes figuring out if appropriation is happening or if it’s problematic appropriation is more difficult. Should I have stopped going to Gumbo Bros because the owners were white? Well, I never did. Their food was crazy and it took me back to NOLA. They were trying to create an authentic experience, and it felt like that to me. I’m sad the place is gone.

But in Brooklyn, there are lots of great restaurants, including this place in Williamsburg that has amazing fried chicken, some of the best I’ve ever had. I’m a judge because, I mean, I love fried chicken unapologetically (remind me to tell you about the time I went to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis). Anyway, the chicken at this place in Williamsburg is so good and I was eating it for years. I mean, I was in love with that place’s fried chicken, when I learned that the owner of the place was…a white woman. Black baby Jesus, help me through all the existential crises and moral pretzels that news laid on me. Did I keep eating there? I mean, yes, the fried chicken there is crazy. Did I feel bad about the whole thing? Uh, well, um, not while I was eating the chicken.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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