Cultural Poachers — Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Poachers — Cultural Appropriation

My Thoughts on Cultural Poachers

Texas Mexican food has been appropriated by commercial cultural poachers to the detriment of community health. I use the term, “cultural poachers,” to describe people who pretend to represent the best of a cuisine but cannot ever do so because their actions divorce the cuisine from its culture. A cuisine divorced from culture has no legs.

High salt, high sugar, high fat and trans fats destroy the health benefits of traditional foods. The result is rampant obesity and the resulting adverse outcomes, including diabetes 2, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Deadly is an apt description of culinary cultural appropriation, and sinister when it hides behind the pretense of culinary auteurism.

Three measures can be used to discern what is an auteur endeavor, the cook’s rightful artistic exploration, and what is simply brash and harmful poaching. The three involve taking a wholistic view of cooking, to understand that all cooking has the power to affect social relationships, with political and economic consequences. The three measures are voice, agency and money.

Does the entry into another culture’s cuisine diminish or silence the voice of the original creators of that tradition? Especially in the case of indigenous Texas Mexican food, the food created and enjoyed by Mexican American families, the history is one of erasure and oppression. It’s been only the resistance and resilience of women cooks that have kept alive and brilliant the “comida casera,” the home cooking in Mexican American kitchens of South Texas and Northeastern Mexico. It is to be recognized as indigenous, Native American cooking that developed over hundreds of years, resisting and prevailing over conquest and colonization.

Over time the indigenous people and their cuisine became “Mexican,” their native roots erased from history texts, in popular discourse and by official state decree. In 1837 the Standing Committee on Indian Affairs of the Republic of Texas, in its report to President Sam Houston, declared that the Karankawa, Lipan and Tonkawa indigenous Texas people were to be considered “as part of the Mexican nation and no longer to be considered as a different People.” So the Texas Native Americans suddenly became Mexicans. It is cultural poaching when one enters another’s cultural sphere and the result is erasing their voice.

Destroying or silencing voices of the original creative cooks also harms the cuisine itself and our enjoyment of it. One example is how we understand and use chile peppers in cooking. Poachers of Mexican cuisine have defined chiles according to the amount of capsaicin in the seeds and membranes. There’s even a Scoville scale that assigns a number to each type of chile, so one can select properly the type of chile needed for cooking. But that ignores the real way that chiles work in the cuisine.

The original voices of Mexican cooking will explain that chiles are used for taste, color, aroma and texture. Heat “es lo de menos,” that’s a lesser consideration after complexity, depth of flavor and appearance. Whose voices are you silencing? That’s a good measure to determine poaching.

Agency is another consideration. As opposed to collaboration, poaching into another’s cuisine minimizes, even erases agency, the creative and intellectual ability of original artists. Indigenous Texas Mexican women created the dish we now call “chili.” They are the agents. But the credit is most often given to Texas cowboys with stories and legends that aggrandize them. Food poachers have erased the agency of indigenous women.

Cultural Poachers: Mexican pecan candy made by white people only

The third measure is money. Texas native peoples were dispossessed of their lands. Their thriving markets and economies of trade and travel were destroyed. Spaniards were the first to invade, then the French and later the Anglo immigrants landing on the eastern shores and migrating westward. Over the course of three hundred years the indigenous Mexican American community was deprived of capital and it is working capital that underpins the restaurant industry.

Cultural poachers who have access to capital grab the best of Texas Mexican dishes and turn them into a business that quickly overtakes the traditional small family-owned Mexican restaurants that suffer the vestiges of historical capital deprivation. When taking another culture’s recipes and overtaking their market, food poachers cause economic harm. Not only that, but by doctoring traditional dishes with the more appealing and addictive ingredients of high fats and sugars, money-making becomes deadly.

Voice, agency and money are three measures that are always operating in the food industry, and the Mexican American community of Texas has been fighting with some success in a playing field that is historically stacked against them. Cultural poachers need to get beyond their “auteur” argument, that chefs have the right to artistic freedom and therefore can act desultorily, any way they wish. That is not an artistic vision.

There is an overriding value and vision that all artists must face: Can you have beauty without justice?

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4 thoughts on “Cultural Poachers — Cultural Appropriation”

  • Daniel, Hi.
    I will not answer your questions here because they’ve been answered by others over the past 100 years. You have not read what I suggested that you read because if you had, you whould hold clear answers to your questions and your quest for who you are in relation to the first people of Texas, and how to understand that you are a new-comer. To begin to face the difficult reality of the consequence of history. So, if you will please read my first book, especially the bibliography which includes historians, archaeologist and food anthropologists, you will be able to see where all of these ideas come from. But I will not be your instructor, that belongs to you as an adult. And if you are not willing to learn, then don’t comment on my site.
    I will not reply to you anymore because there are so many other places availables to you where you can inquire and learn, if you honestly want to.
    Everything you’ve written in your comment has been answered time and time again. If you are honest about learning who you are, your identity on this land, I ask you to take the time to read my book and especially the authors in the bibliography. My book is a peer-reviewed book, which means that the University publishes it only after it has made certain, verified, that what I write has been vetted by academic, bona-fide recognized scholars and researchers. So, I wish you the best, but I will not reply to your opinions, which are, in the main, uninformed.

  • I’ve read the article you wrote, but it still doesn’t answer my question. How can all this food be considered native to Texas if the Texas natives had other diets? There is hardly any evidence the natives of Texas were eating mole or tamales. If people were eating such dishes it’s because it arrived after European contact. Many of the dishes you present is actually Mestizo food created in Colonial Mexico, not Pre-Hispanic. My other problem is calling the Karankawas or Comanches Mexicans. Why are they Mexicans? Simply because the Anglos called them that? By calling them Mexicans it erases their truE culture, customs and traditions. They themselves never accepted such labels, which is the reason why they were at war with Mexico. Have you read Manuel Payno’s texts about the “Barbarian” attacks on Mexico and Mexicans?

    Now I understand your a Chicano, I’m not, and as a Chicano you have your political beliefs about immigration and “we were here first” and all that, but I don’t know, it just seems wrong to call the Natives of that region Mexicans.

    Saludos desde México.

  • Hi, Daniel.
    Everything that you’ve said about the indigenous peoples of Texas is false. If you’d like to read more about their history, I recommend you start with a short essay that’s in Atlas Obscura titled, “Long Before Tex-Mex, a 15,000-Year-Old Cuisine Left Its Mark.” Then read the first two chapters of “Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage In Recipes” where you will find who the indigenous peoples were, how they lived, what they actually ate and how their cuisine developed into today’s Texas Mexican food, the first food of Texas.

  • Can this food be considered indigenous to Texas or even indigenous at all? Are Chicanos indigenous to Texas? Can the indigenous people of Texas be considered Mexican? Are Chicanos and Mexicans the same?

    Much of the food you show is actually Mexican food not indigenous to Texas. The Native American population of Texas had a very different diet. The indigenous people of Texas never considered themselves Mexicans, if fact they were at war with Mexico for much of the 19th century. For example the Comanches had Mexican slaves.

    I read a book that describes the life of the Spanish speaking people’s of Tejas in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The y lived in poverty, surrounded by indigenous people who actually controlled much of the resources. The Natives consumed much of the game, like deer, Buffalo.

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