Holiday

This Columbus Day, a Call to Stop Columbusing

October 10, 2016

Happy Columbus Day, I guess. Just kidding.

Columbus Day is a holiday that is objectively bad and incorrect for reasons other people have written about already. The holiday effectively functions as an observance of indigenous people's pain and trauma. Hm...doesn't sound great to me!

Our awareness of this has crept into our cultural vernacular, particularly when it comes to food. I'm talking about "Columbusing," that rather unbecoming trend of writers in food and lifestyle media coming upon an imagined Other's food for the first time and using language that suggests they've 'discovered' it themselves for the benefit of the rest of the world. (Columbusing has become common verbiage popularized by the 2014 College Humor video above.)

Shop the Story

And still, the egregiousness continues. Let's take a look at what this past month alone has wrought:

  • Early last month, Bon Appetit published a video entitled “Pho Is the New Ramen” (ah!) with the caption, “PSA: How to Eat Pho" (ahh!), featuring an expressly non-Vietnamese chef instructing readers on how to eat a food that Vietnamese people have eaten for centuries. And I'm pretty sure they've eaten it the 'right' way. They issued two updates.
  • "Ice Cream Ramen Is the Latest Instagram Dessert Trend" declared Cosmopolitan, reassuring us that "...it's not actually as weird as it sounds!" Only later in the piece does writer Danielle Tullo swoop in with a confirmation that "[t]he noodles are actually kanten, a traditional Japanese jelly noodle that’s made from algae."
  • Disney came out with a video for "Tiana's Healthy Gumbo," a bastardization of a beloved regional dish that deigned to have kale in it. The reaction was swift and furious from those in New Orleans and outside it, and Disney ended up removing the video.

I don't eat fish very matcha but you've got me hooked 😭😂🎣#taiyakinyc

A photo posted by Samantha Wong (@xsamantharosee) on

  • Gothamist was supremely weirded out by Japanese taiyaki, the dessert and delicacy that involves red bean paste squeezed in between two fish-shaped waffles.
  • Refinery29 chalked ube, a Filipino sweet yam, to just some pretty little purple thing that sounds 'unappetizing' even though it's formed the base of a great number of dishes in the Philippines, ones people have eaten for years.

Sigh. Anyway, all I'm saying is that Columbusing is bad and we shouldn't do it. And by "we," I really mean it. If we screw this up, tell us. It seems that 2016, food and lifestyle media has reached a precipice in which we're coming to agree that, yes, Columbusing is not good. (Just look to the furor generated by Bon Appetit's pho crime.)

We want to be held to the same standards that we're holding others to. When journalists enter this industry, they make a pact to hold themselves to a certain standard of rigor and respect for their readers. In short, let's not Columbus. I would like to do away with this genre. Now please observe Indigenous People's Day.

Any examples of 'Columbusing' you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments!

35 Comments

Samara March 25, 2017
I'm late to this party, but still wanted to say how lovely it was to read this article! If we could all just be a little more conscientious, humble, respectful, and thankful for the amazing food diversity brings to the table, the world would be a much nicer and tastier place <3
 
Morgan October 13, 2016
Thank you for this article! I read Food52 daily because I appreciate the mix of recipes and thoughtful food writing.
 
E October 11, 2016
And to the commentators who have a problem with this piece : there's a difference between cooking other culture's cuisines and making it your own, and calling another culture's cuisine "new!" "current IT cuisine!" "weird!" "disgusting!" "a fad!" - entire cultures have eaten these foods for centuries, if not millennia, and it is pretty hurtful to be told that your ethnicity's cuisine is "weird" or that a food that is indicative of your background is "gross." Even being positive about it by saying "oh it wasn't as weird as I imagined!" or "that was surprisingly good!" insults millions of people who eat these dishes as part of their daily diet.
 
E October 11, 2016
I never comment here (although I'm an avid food52 addict) but as a fellow South Asian (Bengali too!) - American : THANK YOU FOR THIS! I'm so grateful that you were able to put into words some of my thoughts. And ALL my fellow friends from other nationalities feel the same way as well, about the Columbusing of our cultures and cuisines :) I have been absolutely loving your articles. They are incredibly written and engaging. I hope the comments of this piece don't deter you from writing about topics like this one. You are a breath of fresh air, Mayukh.
 
shannon October 11, 2016
I would love it if you would give some examples of the *right* way to discuss food which comes from (or is inspired by) another culture from one's own. This makes me feel like I should avoid the topic completely. Not sure what that even leaves me to cook. This article could really benefit from some constructive criticism instead of just vitriol. I agree with some of the general points being made but it doesn't offer a helpful way forward IMO.
 
Betsey October 12, 2016
"I just decided to try pho for the first time. It was amazing!!! Why have I waited so long to try this amazing dish?!?" How's that?
 
shannon October 12, 2016
So we just shouldn't mention the fact that it's Vietnamese...?
 
Betsey October 12, 2016
I guess I don't know why you would HAVE to mention that it's Vietnamese, but go ahead. Saying "I just tried Vietnamese pho" seems redundant, but do what you want.
 
Gabe W. October 11, 2016
This is completely ridiculous - discussing an ethnic dish or a twist on that dish is not in any way even remotely offensive to the culture from which that dish originated.<br />I just saw a recipe for a traditional Russian dessert on an American blog and I was super excited that Americans were going to get to read about it and try it out. In what universe would I take offense??<br />This political correctness to the Nth degree is just bonkers. We're all people, we all love food, we're sharing it and we don't need to preface it with a works cited list or a white man's burden apology - we should all eat, drink and be merry together. Come on Food52, you're so much better than this nonsense.
 
Fredrik B. October 11, 2016
The Fake-Mayukh Sen sure does feel strongly about protecting white people from website articles.<br />Doing God's work, son.
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. October 11, 2016
Heh. The faker's been dealt with accordingly and his/her comments are gone now—thanks for reading, Frederik.
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. October 11, 2016
Thanks for reading, everyone—just a heads up that there's someone posting under my name (without an avatar) who is NOT me, the actual author of this piece!
 
Izzy S. October 11, 2016
For those of you who are obviously completely missing the point: American, not even explicitly white chefs, taking on culinary ideas from foreign countries as their own novel idea while failing to address the source. Stop feeling so personally attacked when someone points out something that is wrong, rather take a moment to reflect on the actual message
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. October 11, 2016
Thanks, Izzy :)
 
Sean October 11, 2016
Somehow I have missed, on all my pizza boxes over the years, the disclaimer that the tomato is not indigenous to Europe and credit goes to the New World for marina.
 
michelle October 11, 2016
There is absolutely nothing wrong with adding your own riff on cuisines outside your home country. Calling it "appropriation" is ridiculous, and an unfortunate way of viewing the world. I feel sorry for people like the author and his supporters (friends?) in this comments section who ridicule rather than celebrate food experimentation. Isn't that the point of diversity? Diversifying the elements of culture? Unfortunately, you're so steeped in political correctness that you can't see your own discriminatory tendencies.
 
Yo S. October 11, 2016
I'm with you Izzy. I guess people who have never been on the side of being the object of "exotic" simply cannot, in their limited capacity, understand. <br />BTW I only know the author Mayukh from this post. I just think his article is JUST. Coming from a point of view of someone from a culture outside the US (BTW I am a US citizen so don't give me your "go back to your country" riff).
 
michelle October 11, 2016
You're making grand assumptions about the other commenters in this thread. How do you know my background? My mother happens to be from Iraq. Your own close-mindedness is showing.
 
Izzy S. October 11, 2016
This is why I love Food52, thank you for this!!
 
Yo S. October 10, 2016
Thank you Mayukh!!
 
Cara October 10, 2016
Thank you for writing this! All of the comments I've seen on here are super negative, but this is such an important message.
 
Rosa October 10, 2016
We are surrounded by politics every where we turn. We are reminded that one way or another of thinking is wrong for whatever reason. I come to Food52 for the food and sharing food with a community....not for more politics. If this will be the focus of Food52, I will go elsewhere.
 
MrsMehitabel October 10, 2016
I definitely agree, Rosa. This isn't the Food52 content I've come to love. This has been such a wonderful cooking website, and what caused it to become my One and Only for a season was the total lack of other subject matter. It seemed like so many huge gorgeously-lit photos of mussels in a patina-ed copper gratin dish for so little advertising or politics. Nicholas Day's column and Jenni's column ventured into being about Life, but with a strong anchor of food. Even the comments were polite, supportive, non-judgmental, and about food!<br /><br />Now.... did Food52 hire a politics writer?? This feels like subject-matter FOMO. Not every website needs a politics writer. Honestly this doesn't make me feel inspired to cook and share discoveries. It makes me feel pre-judged.
 
mmurray October 11, 2016
I agree with you both and with Sean. This article is ridiculous. Sean, absurd is an understatement. Bon Appetit's pho "crime"?? Seriously? Every once in a while I feel like this site lets its writers completely go off on what seems like an unsupervised tangent to drive home a political (and often factually inaccurate) point of view, and where "serious food writing" has come to mean political navel-gazing food writing, which on some level is as disappointing as is Bon Appetit's increasingly constant need to keep trying to up its "cool" factor, yet which has "food" writers who are unable to distinguish the correct use of "macaroons" from "macarons" The sheer sloppiness, laziness and/or ignorance or politically agenda-driven food writing and editing is hugely disappointing and unfortunately on the rise. Laurie Colwin, Ruth Reichl and Gourmet you are sorely missed.
 
Sean October 11, 2016
Ugh. As an aside, the Macaro(o)n thing is a huge peeve of mine, glad you brought it up. Anyway, yes. This whole argument is chasing after shadows. The culinary world is a uniquely silly place to whine about "appropriation", because the entire enterprise is built on it. Cf. the cuisines of: Vietman, the Philippines, Singapore, North Africa, Britain, and of course the US, just to name a few.
 
michelle October 11, 2016
The real grievance people have with this article is all the sighing the author does throughout as he laments the "egregious" stupidity of us westerners over our knowledge of "Other" food. Only the author of this ignorant article had the gall to label world food as "Other" food, not the writers of Bon Appetit or Refinery 29. Would you require people in small villages around the world to correctly identify every food by its "proper" designation? This article does nothing but to shame people into what exactly? Being more intelligent eaters? And then what? Please re-examine your life's purpose.
 
Sean October 11, 2016
It reminds one of this classic from The Onion<br /><br />http://www.theonion.com/blogpost/i-appreciate-the-muppets-on-a-much-deeper-level-th-16208
 
Sean October 10, 2016
This is absurd to the point of self-parody. As just one example: the pho that Vietnamese people "have eaten for centuries" in fact originated in the 1900s, and the now-standard use of beef over pork or chicken owes itself to French colonialism. I assume the author reserves equal scorn for how the Vietnamese "Columbused" this European staple.
 
michelle October 10, 2016
Unfortunately, Food52 has taken to promoting drivel in the form of this and other articles. Makes me lose my appetite for cooking and this website.
 
Natalie R. October 10, 2016
I can see the one example, but it's rather innocent ("centuries" could become "generations" and would carry the same weight. Anything my great grandparents did that we still do is personal enough to me!). The idea of bringing in someone from a culture to be the authority of that culture is sound, in my opinion. The article isn't trying to correct our understanding of pho - it's pointing out that it isn't "the new ramen." Yes, there is a mistake, but focusing on that doesn't really help the issue. I wouldn't say that the Vietnamese Columnbused anything European - they built off of it. It's if they took a French beef soup, changed it for their culture, and THEN insisted (perhaps to the French themselves) that the soup made them an authority on French beef soup that I would call it Columbusing. Perhaps my understanding is wrong, though. If it is, please correct me.
 
Gabe W. October 11, 2016
The point here is that we don't need this weird obligation to make everything serious and full of apology. When someone writes "pho is the new ramen" they obviously mean that there are more and more pho places opening up and more and more people interested in cooking it/eating it, it's become as trendy as ramen.<br />There is absolutely no reason to demand that "pho is the new ramen", a simple phrase with a clear and lighthearted meaning, be turned into "Pho is a dish originating from Vietnam, where it may or may not have originally been inspired by French cuisine, and you could say that here in the US pho is the new ramen! don't get upset, I only mean that it seems to be getting very popular in America, almost as popular as ramen, which is a similar dish from Japan, the origin of noodles is disputed, but I love all minorities and cultures and I recognize that these dishes are unique to those cultures and I did not mean to hurt anyone's feelings!!!!"<br />Let's not turn food into politics, let's use our common sense.
 
Sean October 11, 2016
I guess my point is, as others have noted above, is that "appropriation" is such a perverse reading of the motives behind any of the articles the author cites. Really? Do you think that the editors of Bon Apetit, while clacking away at their keyboards, were thinking "MUAHAHAHA! Vietnamese have been eating this for millenia but it is *I* who shall receive all the glory!" ? Of course not. Rather, they were writing about a food trend (in the US) they were excited about and one that is legitimately unfamiliar to many of their readers. To wit: I myself did not have pho for the first time until a few years ago. What's more, the person who introduced it to me and taught me how to eat it was Jewish! Horrors!
 
Gabe W. October 11, 2016
I'm so relieved to read reasonable opinions on this silliness.<br />I am very thankful to all of the cultures throughout history that have ever made donuts in all their many special variations. I have no moral obligation to think about them every time I make a batch of doughnuts. And I can be proud of my creation, and this doesn't rob the various cultures of anything.
 
Natalie R. October 11, 2016
Those replies are all good points. I didn't mean to imply that we should feel guilty, and I'm sorry for how I worded it. I was mainly thinking back to the times when I spoke confidently about another person's culture without first checking primary sources, which is foolish, but not a crime. But I didn't think that anyone was trying to steal the idea, and I hope it didn't come across that way. I think there is a certain level of pride in thinking that you discovered something, even when you didn't, and that can come through when you're sharing it. It's not malicious, it's just human.
 
Azora Z. October 10, 2016
Yes!!