Food politics: Part II

Graphic by | Joan McGuire

The conversation about food has shifted from farm-to-table to identity politics and income inequality.

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The pendulum has swung.

Five years ago, not long after I joined the staff of Oregon Business, I wrote this story about the collapse of Typhoon, the revered Thai chain that was credited with raising the bar for Thai food in Portland. 

The restaurant group, owned by Thai national Bo Kline, was mired in a scandal of worker abuse and mishandling of the E-2 visa program. Many restaurants used the E-2 visa  to bring skilled chefs and cooks into the U.S.

Typhoon’s star fell fell just as Pok Pok’s was rising. And as Chefstable’s Kurt Huffman told me five years ago, the E-2 visa program was already starting to lose value for local restaurateurs.

“The restaurant industry and the level of education and competency around a diversity of ethnic foods have grown so much,” Huffman said.  He pointed to Pok Pok owner Andy Ricker, a “white guy” who can command the kitchen as well as any foreign national.

What a difference a few years makes. 

Today’s cultural appropriation debate, is, precisely, about whether white people should be cooking food from other cultures. 

In one sense, the dining conversation is coming full circle. During the Typhoon era, the consensus was immigrants should oversee restaurants serving ethnic food.

That way of thinking gave way to the age of Pok Pok. Now we’re back to the future, having a debate about who should be cooking, eating, and monetizing, food from other cultures.*

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What’s most remarkable about the cultural appropriation debate is how swiftly the dining conversation has shifted from farm to table concerns — environmental sustainabilty, local sourcing, independent ownership  — to issues of identity politics and income inequality.

Restaurants today are a flashpoint for a number of hot button issues:  minimum wage, equity, immigration. And as the state’s already high profile food sector matures, businesses and industry leaders are going to have to grapple with these issues or risk being appearing out of touch — and possibly losing market share.

Eating, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, has become a political act.


*Oregon Live published a story yesterday about Portland’s sizable Russian community. The article, written by a visiting Russian journalist, included this authorial comment: “If some Portland spots with Russian cuisine, like the hip Southeast Grand Avenue restaurant and vodka bar Kachka, are mostly for Americans who want to try something new, the Foster Road-area shops are run by migrants for migrants.”