I came across a rather silly, surprisingly stupid article from NPR yesterday. Surprising because regardless of leaning NPR is more often than not known for intelligent content. Still we must try to imagine all experts as if they are mammals, and in this NPR helps us out. The piece in question (at once answering a common question on the existence of stupid questions) asked: “When is it OK to profit from cooking other cultures food.”
I hope you see what I mean, but I guess I’ll spare a moment to elaborate. My short answer is (and will likely always be): Whenever you can. Profit, by its very nature is all the proof one needs that what one is vending is sought after by others. It is more than having some people willing to pay you for a thing, it is having enough of them to pay you so that at the end you have excess. But the idea that food culture can be divided along some form of national boarders is as absurd as claiming that one language can not appropriate the sounds of another language for its own use. Forget for a moment there is no such thing as race (apart from human race) and that boarders on maps and through cultures don’t exist or are at very best massive, convoluted, fuzzy, grey, and porous lines. Rather lets assume it was determined that all Chiles were the cultural cache of Mexico from whence they were first cultivated. Certainly Southern food would not be what it is okay, to say nothing of Indian, Thai, Italian, Spanish, African…need I go on?
The problem is one of trying to copyright ideas. Tastes and the recipes that make them are ideas, nothing more, and nothing less. Ideas can only exist in minds, write an idea down and it is no longer an idea, it is indecipherable scratching until there is a mind to comprehend, even then it is at best a road map to the idea, but not the idea itself (as any cook trying to follow any recipe, well knows). I can no more copyright your mind than I can copyright a stone (with some the similarity is appropriate). If you want to keep an idea from being copied you must keep it secret. Once that genie is out of the bottle there is no putting it back in.
Once you share a food with another, you have given your secret away. The only barrier to that person remembering the tastes or trying to duplicate your food, is their own imagination, competence and time investment. There is nothing you can do to stop them, nor should you. Cuisine, like language, is meant to be shared. My brother once “invented-a-language” that only he knew. Do you know what he really did? he started talking gibberish. Language is of no value unless it is shared, same is true of cuisine. Cuisine for one is at best fuel (itself not a bad thing). Also, like language, cuisine is in constant flux. Externally by the complete variability of every ingredient, and from within by every new cook who picks up a pan and every adventurous eater who tries a new dish. There are no real or respectable boundaries on who can play in the vast sandbox of culinary creativity.
I do not mean to say that everyone is equally capable of any cuisine, though I believe that anyone who wants to invest the energy and time could be. The question was not who should be allowed to cook a cultures food, but rather who should profit. Believe me, one can only profit by cooking a food well enough that many will want to eat it. Rick Bayless is probably the worlds most famous Mexican cuisine Chef, not because he is Mexican, but rather because he has invested his life work into knowing more about making that cuisine and sharing it than anyone else. Thank you Gringo Rick, keep up the good work.