Spectator USA

Skip to Content

Life

The case for cultural appropriation in food

Russian cuisine borrows from other cultures and doesn’t look back

April 19, 2019

9:18 AM

19 April 2019

9:18 AM

The best Russian restaurant in New York suffered a tragic fire last week. Tatiana, on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, is not only a staple in the Russian-Jewish community of New York but a model of multicultural dining that should be a lesson to all critics of culinary culture mixing.

My favorite Tatiana dishes are the kani salad (Japanese), Khachapuri (Georgian) and pelmeni (finally, actually, Russian). They do it all and do it so well, even though all these dishes make this highly regarded Russian restaurant not all that Russian.

Tatiana’s namesake owner, Tatiana Varzar, isn’t exactly Russian either. She’s from Odessa, in Ukraine, and she’s Jewish, which, in the USSR, was an entirely separate category altogether. But in America, our community of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, from Ukraine, from Belarus, from Latvia, just shorthands ourselves to ‘Russians’ and no one has an existential crisis about it.

For the record, Tatiana has a lot of stellar, real, Russian dishes. Pickled herring, caviar, borscht, black bread and a lot of vodka, you can have a serious Russian meal there. But Tatiana has managed to perfect dishes from other cultures too. What’s wrong with that?

Tatiana, most importantly, is completely authentic. This is what Russian cuisine is. It borrows from other cuisines and doesn’t look back. Throughout my childhood, Russian restaurants in America really just meant French restaurants with a side of vareniki. As more Soviet immigrants arrived in the Big Apple, their zest for assimilation meant that Russian restaurants adapted all kinds of food to fit the Russian standard. They took community favorites and added them to menus all over Brooklyn. It works remarkably well.

Cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to food, is good. It’s what we should want in our big, crazy melting pot.

It’s so boring to argue over whether food is exactly the way it’s been made for centuries or whether the chef has blood pure enough to make it. What do the culture police win at the end of it? The same food made the same way until the end of time?

Or is it really just about finding a way to berate white people?

Last week a new Chinese food restaurant in New York City called ‘Lucky Lee’s’ was the subject of a ‘cultural appropriation’ brouhaha because its owners aren’t Chinese. And a few days ago, Gordon Ramsay’s new ‘Asian eating house,’ Lucky Cat in London, got slammed for its lack of authenticity.

Yet nobody seems to care that many sushi restaurants are owned by Chinese people or that nearly all the Indian restaurants in New York are owned by Bangladeshis. There was no uproar when ‘Korean tacos’ became a thing. No, ‘cultural appropriation’ is only used as a cudgel by progressives with an agenda. It gets old.

So do the apologies and self-flagellation from the offenders. A few days ago a coffee company in Wisconsin announced it would change its name. Kickapoo Coffee had named itself after the Kickapoo River Valley in Wisconsin where it was founded 14 years ago. It turns out that Kickapoo is also the name of several Native American tribes. The company apologized for using the name. The best part was that, of course, the tribes had never even heard of the coffee company.

According to Daily Coffee News, ‘The company said it reached out to each of the three Kickapoo tribes in the United States to apologize for using the name. In today’s announcement, the company said none of the tribes were aware of the name usage, and that the company itself had not previously been aware of the existence of the tribes.’

Lucky for us all, Tatiana is already rebuilding. And it will continue to lead the way in perfecting multi-ethnic cuisine with nary a pureness worry. We should all take its example.


Sign up to receive a weekly summary of the best of Spectator USA


Show comments
Close