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Bad Dining Hall Food Becomes Racial Grievance

Walter Russell Mead

The horror of “cultural appropriation” has struck Oberlin, where dining hall staff have apparently offended the sensibilities of students by mixing various types of ethnic food. The New York Post reports:

Students at an ultra-liberal Ohio college are in an uproar over the fried chicken, sushi and Vietnamese sandwiches served in the school cafeterias, complaining the dishes are “insensitive” and “culturally inappropriate.”

Gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College — alma mater of Lena Dunham — are filling the school newspaper with complaints and demanding meetings with campus dining officials and even the college president.

General Tso’s chicken was made with steamed chicken instead of fried — which is not authentically Chinese, and simply “weird,” one student bellyached in the Oberlin Review.

Others were up in arms over banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches served with coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables, and on ciabatta bread, rather than the traditional French baguette.

Doing horrible things to foreign dishes is an authentic and time-honored American tradition. My Aunt Anne, now sadly gone on, had a cookbook from the Charleston Junior League of the 1930s. Its recipe for spaghetti called for a pound of noodles, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, and a one pound block of American cheese, cut into one inch cubes. The recipe: Boil the noodles until soft, heat the ketchup in a saucepan, add the cheese cubes, and stir until melted. Then, drain the noodles, pour the sauce, and serve.

That this was an terrible recipe, there is no doubt. But was it terrible because it is somehow immoral to borrow or “appropriate” the culinary products of another culture? Surely, the problem with the Junior League recipe was that it didn’t appropriate enough from Italy.

Actually, that seems to be the problem with Oberlin’s Banh Mi sandwich as well. Students are complaining that the sandwich, among other defects, was made of ciabatta bread instead of a nice baguette. That this is an atrocity, I am willing to concede—but it doesn’t seem particularly sinister. In any case, I’m wondering why French students aren’t protesting Vietnam’s totally inappropriate and racist appropriation of the baguette.

The point, of course, is that cultures, cuisines, and, yes, people of different races and ethnicities mix. That is what humans do, and they don’t always do it in accordance with the detailed rules of the avant-garde campus left. Amazingly, in trying to adapt the cuisine of one culture to another, people often go for weird compromises and invent dishes, some good and some bad, that didn’t exist in the “cuisine of origin.” If it’s a good dish, that’s a good thing—and if it’s a bad dish, well, it’s not necessarily a racial crisis.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing about young people on college campuses getting carried away with imaginary grievances. There are times when the students deserve to be mocked for their callow stupidity, especially when protest turns into bullying and efforts to silence opposing points of view. Society has to defend itself against this kind of youthful idiocy in order to preserve its freedom. But not every campus protest is an assault on the foundations of liberal order. Young people have been hot-headed and impulsive for a very long time, and if you can’t work yourself into a nice and foolish frenzy in college, what’s the point of being 19 years old?

So: A Merry Christmas or, if they prefer, a Happy Holidays to all the kids at Oberlin and the other hothouses of cultural grievance and identity politics. You’ll all be in the real world soon enough when you have to deal with life on life’s terms. Until then, enjoy the ride—and try to learn a few things (and try a few new dishes) along the way. Some knowledge and perspective just might come in handy down the road.

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