If the Personal is Political, Then So is Food



Earlier this year, Mike Jozwik, the owner of Mushroom Mike LLC, discovered a method to consistently cultivate a corn fungus called Ustilago maydis after five years of experimentation. “Mushroom Mike” sees himself as a fungus expert, and is the mainstay edible mushroom supplier to most high-end restaurants from Milwaukee to Chicago to Madison. He’s in the process of creating a new business, which he is calling WiscoHuit LLC, specifically to sell U. maydis to restaurants and individuals.

But Jozwik is far from the first person to discover U. maydis cultivation on this continent. The Indigenous peoples of central Mexico have been cultivating and consuming U. maydis since, food historians theorize, before Europeans ever arrived on the American continent. They call it “huitlacoche,” and it’s seen as a popular delicacy in Mexico, with over 400 to 500 tons of it sold in Mexico City annually. However, in the U.S., it’s called “corn smut” and seen as a destructive blight on corn crops, akin to a mold, that renders the underlying corn unsellable. As a result, it is relegated to harvests of fringe, seemingly “underground” farmers and restauranteurs. Because, as Jozwik points out, most genetically modified strains of corn have been developed to be resistant to corn smut, it can be difficult and unreliable to grow as a commercial crop, although it occurs naturally in Mexican corn fields during the rainy season.

Rick Bayless, of Frontera salsa and restaurant fame, has been rebranding huitlacoche in the United States as a key ingredient in haute Mexican cuisine. In fact, a nonprofit led by Bayless gave Jozwik two separate grants of $12,000 to figure out a reliable method for cultivating huitlacoche in the U.S. ­­In other words, Jozwik was paid $24,000 to fit the square peg of huitlacoche cultivation—previously thought of as making corn crops worthless because of how we value and eat corn—into the round hole of America’s agricultural tradition. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with non-Hispanic individuals eating Mexican delicacies. On the one hand, both Bayless and Jozwik are making Mexican culture and cuisine accessible in the U.S., where huitlacoche was previously difficult to reliably obtain. But on the other hand, both Bayless and Jozwik are white, and Jozwik, while commenting on how fascinating he finds the process for cultivating huitlacoche, never credits the origins of huitlacoche in his interview. But does that matter?  

What Does Cultural Appropriation Have to Do with Food?

America is undergoing a cultural reckoning regarding how we view race and racial dynamics. At the same time, we and the rest of the world have also been enduring a pandemic, sequestered away from our favorite restaurants and into our kitchens. As people search for new things to cook and eat, the discussion of when cultural appreciation becomes cultural appropriation comes into play. Tensions between the two have become especially high, as seen when white cult cookbook author Alison Roman came under fire for criticizing Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo in an interview. The following backlash included commentary on the juxtaposition of Roman’s own self-acknowledged lack of “culture” with her tendency to use “exotic” or international ingredients in her recipes.

At the core of cultural appropriation is a disrespect and devaluation of another culture and its people. It’s theft that does not even acknowledge where the appropriated artifact came from or to whom it rightfully belongs. People of color, their labor, and the food that is the product of their labor are undervalued, undermined, and set aside. Set aside, that is, until they are judged—by white chefs, food critics, and consumers—to be haute cuisine, and suddenly worthy of our time and money. The controversy surrounding Alison Roman was notable because it highlighted this concern about who “gets” to cook which cuisines, and how that determines the food’s value.

Many immigrants from other countries, especially non-English-speaking countries, feel that going into food-related industries is one of the best available options they have in order to reliably support themselves. As of April 2020, about 2.1 million immigrants in the United States alone work in jobs related to food supply. But not all immigrants are treated equally. One must only look at the status of Chinese food in America: consistently underpriced and relegated to stereotypes of MSG-laden, cheap takeout, while food offered by immigrants from France, Italy, and Japan have typically been more readily accepted as exemplars of fine dining. Experts in food studies have theorized that the economic value of the ethnic food we eat is based on how we perceive its original country’s prestige and wealth. We can see this most recently reflected in escalated attacks on Chinese-Americans as a result of Trump’s statements blaming China for the pandemic, and a corresponding closure of Chinese restaurants.  

Food is a crucial part of life, and for some communities, divorcing food and culture can have dire, even fatal, consequences. For centuries, huitlacoche was cultivated by Indigenous and Native American communities. Indigenous peoples have long been struggling to assert food sovereignty, to return to traditional foodways and methods of cultivation, and generally take control of their food supply, which has historically lacked nutritious options. It’s worth noting that what necessitates this kind of multi-generational healing is the colonization of Native American land and continued subjugation of peoples of the First Nations. Especially now, during the pandemic, food has been even more scarce than usual on reservations. With these larger efforts in mind, some could find it concerning to see that a white chef known for widespread commercialization of ethnic foods is funding the cultivation of traditionally Indigenous foodstuffs while Native American communities continue to struggle with food scarcity.

What Can We Do About It?

In 2014, the European Union created a Commission in order to regulate protected agricultural products and foodstuffs. Farmers apply for registration of their products, similar to a patent application, and the Commission investigates and determines whether or not the product is unique and high-quality enough to meet their standards. Once products attain this protection, their branding cannot be imitated or misused throughout the EU, and, if they have a “specific link to the place they are made,” they are registered with Protected Geographic Indication status (“GI”). Foodstuffs with the strongest link to their place of origin are registered as Protected Designation of Origin (“PDOs”). Other registrations include recognition of products made using a special traditional method, or in a place known for being particularly inhospitable to agricultural development. In the EU, GIs are considered intellectual property for purposes of trade policies and treaties.  These trade policies acknowledge that “These signs [the GIs] can acquire a high reputation and commercial value, and, for these reasons, may be exposed to misappropriation, misuse and counterfeiting. This is why it is generally recognised that these signs need to be protected.” Under the Madrid Agreement, goods bearing a false or deceptive indication of source—attempting to infringe upon these GIs, which are predicated on the honesty of the branding—will be prevented from entering any of the member countries.

The French have an even more specialized version of the GI classification system, which is based in a specific body called the National Institute of Origin and Quality (“INAO”) that oversees food and drinks deemed culturally important. In French, PDO status is called l’appellation d’origine protégèe or l’appellation d’origine contrôlée (« AO » or « AOC »). Both systems and the delineated regions modeled after this geographic protectionism have been called appellation systems and appellations, respectively, as a result. In order to achieve legal protection in the French appellation system, the product must be of a recognized superior quality specifically resulting from the conditions and methods of its production, which set it apart. After the producers’ application for such protection passes the INAO’s standards, the INAO protects its brand and the demarcation of production areas, as well as oversees all stages of production in order to make sure the product maintains the level of “recognized superior quality” that necessitates the brand protection.

PDO or AO status is based on the concept of terroir, which is the idea that where something comes from reflects in the taste of the product, and in fact is what makes the product unique from other similar products made elsewhere. In other words, there is something distinctive about the product that is so emblematic of where it comes from that it is deemed culturally representative of that region. For example, in the EU, it is actually illegal to brand wine not from the Champagne region of France as champagne, as set by the INAO in 1908. Applying the concept of terroir, this is because the unique taste of champagne can only come from sparkling wine made under specific conditions in the Champagne region of France; nothing else can be called champagne if it does not fit into those standards. Proponents of appellation systems claim, “The AOC system’s insistence on these two elements—the strong collective organization of producers and a clear link between terroir and quality—are what offer the potential for a system that can benefit producers, consumers, and the environment…this system valorizes people, place, and taste.”

The only part of the appellation system that has made it to the United States has been in the wine industry. The Federal Alcohol Administration Act allows the Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (“TTB”) to set regulations on the labeling and advertising of wine. Part of these TTB regulations include the designations of American Viticultural Areas (“AVAs”), which are the American equivalent of these appellations. In order for a wine to be designated as being from an AVA, the TTB mandates that 75% of the grapes used in that wine be from that particular AVA.  However, while the TTB follows the same concept as the INAO in terms of geographic-based labeling, it doesn’t set any winemaking standards for individual AVAs. Its regulations are primarily centered around the geographic accuracy of AVA marks on wine brands, and have nothing to do with the unique characteristics of the wine. Courts have also been reluctant to state that conformity with TTB regulations is indicative of anything special about the wine’s quality. So, as one agricultural historian theorizes, while European farmers feel as though their reputations are linked to the terroir of their product, American farmers are not encouraged into that same level of involvement with food policy.

Would a commission more like the INAO truly work in the US, and would it address this concern about culturally appropriated foodstuffs? One problem is the way that the American agricultural market works: part of the reason why the TTB does not mandate any special method or standard for the making of wines in AVAs is to allow wineries to experiment with methods and grape blends. The American market is structured so that consumers, and not the standards of a government agency, dictate the value of a wine; ironically, we have a more laissez-faire attitude than the French. Another theory is that the American industrial agricultural system, like Jozwik and Bayless were aiming for, requires large, centralized, and consistent harvests, and thus didn’t have room for more regional variety for many years. This theory also posits that the rise of farmers markets and the “buy local” movement is the trend back towards that “mom and pop operation” tradition.

Another problem with expanding the appellation system in America is our very different history and food culture, and part of that is because of our proud “melting pot” identity. If we were to use INAO-like protections of Indigenous foodstuffs like huitlacoche, would that prevent other, non-Indigenous communities from cultivating it completely? Is that even what we want? Would that, for example, prevent things like fusion cuisine or other forms of experimentation with methods of cooking and cultivation? Expanding the appellation system could, in its enforcement, potentially be an extreme and ill-fitting solution to the much bigger problem of how we minimize the disparity between valuing a food and valuing the people who make it. In order to begin reconciling that gap, we would have to recenter food culture around the true purpose of food: to bring communities together.

About the Author: Victoria Pan is a 2L JD/LLM student at Cornell Law School and serves as the president of the Briggs Society of International Law. She is also currently a member of the International Human Rights Clinic. This past summer, she worked at JusticeMatters, a firm partnering with non-profit organizations in North Carolina to provide immigration services to survivors of human trafficking and other violent crimes. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Belmont University. 

Suggested Citation: Victoria Pan, If the Personal is Political, Then So is Food, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y: The Issue Spotter (Feb. 12, 2021), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/if-the-personal-is-political-then-so-is-food/.

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