Food Writing

World Building and the Ethical Practices of Recipe Development

“What are flavours without stories? What are recipes without histories?” 

Lorraine Chuen

“We owe it to each other to love and insist on meaningful revision until the day we die.” 

Kiese Laymon

I landed on your site, the one where you proudly proclaim to bring ‘culture to my kitchen’. Culture stands in for ‘others’ and ‘other places’ because we (white folks) ignore the culture of power and privilege that already lives all around and in us. Or maybe ‘culture’ is just a stand in for properly seasoned and spiced food….

Or, perhaps it was the site that promised me I could travel around the world without ever leaving my kitchen. I know that kind of tourism and the harms it causes, even under the guise of ‘helping’. There’s also the one that promises culinary exchange without the culture, devoid of the tricky business of ‘belonging,’ because, after all, isn’t it really just about the food and how it tastes? Culture complicates things (as do questions of power and history and…) and so many of us just want it ‘easy’, or is it ‘accessible’…? Or, is it that these questions implicate as well as complicate? I have so many questions.

I read your recipes: the one called ‘flaky bread’ that’s actually a paratha; the ‘Israeli hummus’; the stew; the many, many recipes lifted from only god (and you) know where without attribution or care or connection. Or, maybe you expect me to believe that you inherently know all about the cuisines from all around the world, that they were divined to you in a dream, or that you creatively, through your own culinary skill and prowess, dreamt up a recipe for chana masala without realizing there were millions of people around the world already making their version of it. But, it’s not just you; there are so many out there doing what you’re doing.

I see you copying and pasting and calling it a blog post, reformatting it in a ‘cheerful way’. I see the creative renamings, hoping that, maybe if you just call it something different, someone won’t notice. I see you change one or two small ingredients, maybe tweak a measurement, and believe that now the recipe is all yours. I see your dreams and what you’re building, splayed out in recipe format.

And, I also see how your peers clap for you and think you’re so edgy, so innovative, so fresh. I see how the other white folk line up for hours to get you to sign their book. How you always find backers for that new project. How the award givers call out your name, time and again. 

I see how you erase others’ culture, and even your own at times (because who wants to admit that their culture is really just one of power and violence?). I see you slip in and out, taking what you want, leaving what you want, but guided always by what you want.

And, it makes me sad. Moreso, it makes me angry.

Let me try to explain and resolve my anger here, to make it productive for you and I.

I believe that what we need more of in this world is people who care about building and maintaining good relationships. Yes, that sounds a little like ‘love conquers all’ which is mostly just a bullshit slogan designed to ignore the crushing systemic violences that make true love a daring mission. But, I mean what I said in the sense that we all are embedded and woven into a complex web of relationships, and we have a decision to make and remake: will we build and maintain good relationships, or bad ones? Relationality is at the core of who we are.

And, food is one of the many relationships we have and hold. Food is, also, never just about food; it is, itself, embedded in a whole host of relationships – to people, cultures, places, ingredients, producers, sellers, eaters, land, etc… 

What is your relationship to the food? What is your relationship to the people who have made that food before? To the people who produce the ingredients? To the people who have sat around countless tables to eat it, who harbor its memory deep in their cultural and personal memory banks, who have adapted it as they moved and changed and also sought new tastes, who used it to survive, who willed it to survive with them despite all the odds? Do you know what your relationships are to all of this?

Roxana Hadadi recently wrote:

“Do I really need to know about North African culture before using harissa?” Yeah, dude, maybe you should! Your lack of an attention span should not excuse cultural erasure! 

And, really, learning about the ingredients, where they come from, their history and forms of belonging and usage, should really just be the beginning if you are out there trying to craft a recipe from them. Kathryn Pauline (Cardamom & Tea) has a generous write up and flow-chart on attribution in recipe development and, to be honest, it’s the bare minimum that should be required. Recipe development is entering into a relationship, one that requires care. It requires caring enough to learn about the ingredients, to learn about the methods, to learn about the histories, to learn about the people who have been making it. You can’t have the food without the people who have nurtured it and been nurtured by it. You have to be interested in learning, in building. And, building takes time. It takes care.

Why does this all matter?

Citation and acknowledgement is to enter into relationships with care; it shows you value those relationships. Citation is a kinship practice: who have you learned from, who are the branches you have grown off of and wouldn’t be here without? Citation honors those who have come before. It is an offering: to begin a relationship with humility and a thirst to learn, rather than positioning oneself as an authority. It’s a chance to listen before you speak. 

Citation is also about politics. Sara Ahmed writes that citation is a screening process, a “rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” Who do we want to lift up, whose worlds do we want to advance? And, if citation is also a screening process, a form of gatekeeping, who do we want to open the gate to and who is the gate being closed to? Who you cite matters.

In cooking terms, think of citation as a sieve or a colander. Who and what is constantly being strained out in favor of certain ideas and people and places?

Sara Ahmed sums it all up for me in this: “Citation is world creation. What world are we creating?”

It’s not just about recipe creation. It’s about world creation. It’s about the worlds that we want to inhabit, the worlds that allow everybody to live and even thrive. And, as Octavia Butler taught me in her writing: new worlds are necessary and possible.

For me, being an ethical recipe developer springs from wanting to be an ethical person and wanting to live in an ethical world. I want a world where food is celebrated alongside the cultures, places, and people who have nurtured it, savored it, saved it, shared it, and made it what it is and can be. I want a world that embraces the joy of food but also the politics, pain, and place of food, to sum up a recent argument made by Alicia Kennedy.

Being an ethical recipe developer requires understanding that a recipe is not just a recipe and food is not just food. Recipes are an accounting of a relationship, a photograph of a place and moment, a map for others to follow, and an intimate attempt at connection and kinship. They are a relational strand. Recipes have only been written down in recent human history, but the reason they were written was to share them with others. To learn from others. To connect with others through food, at the table. What does your connection look like?

I didn’t want this to be a checklist of how to make an ethical recipe; good relationships can’t be distilled into checklists. And, I don’t want to become or sound like an authority on this – this is something that I am still very much learning how to practice. But, like any practice, you have to start somewhere. And I hope, as the opening quote intimates, to continue this practice: to continue to learn and love and revise my relationship to food, to recipes, and to one another. I owe this to myself, and to each of you.

Lead photo: Kashmiri noon chai and naan khatai. You can read more about why I made it here.

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