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What We Talk About When We Talk About Food

Oberlin College students incensed over cultural appropriation, hegemony in cafeteria food

Complaining about cafeteria food is a decades-old college tradition, dating back to a not-so-distant past when university dining halls served up bland and uninspiring fare three times a day. In this new wave of collegiate activism, some students at Ohio's Oberlin College have updated the critique of cafeteria cuisine to fit the moment, The New York Times has noticed.

A week ago, for example, members of the black student union protested outside the Afrikan Heritage House to criticize the cooking in the Lord/Saunders dining hall inside. Among the complaints: The dining hall should serve fried chicken every Sunday (when it does, it uses "only antibiotic-free chicken"), and not cook with so much cream. "Black American food doesn't have much cream in it," says a petition being passed around by black students, according to The Oberlin Review student newspaper.

In November, Asian students met with Campus Dining Services to discuss complaints about culturally insensitive meals being prepared and served by the food service company hired by Oberlin, Bon Appétit Management Co. Some of the gripes sound reasonable, like serving tandoori beef on the Hindu holiday Diwali (many Hindi don't eat beef for religious reasons; "It's really not okay to do that to a religious dish," freshman Yasmine Ramachandra told The Oberlin Review). Other complaints — like the pulled-pork sandwich on ciabatta bread being passed off as the baguette-enfolding Vietnamese sandwich banh mi, and the General Tso's chicken made with steamed (not fried) chicken and "weird" sauce — were met with rolled eyes.

The charge of cultural appropriation, or one culture poaching the cultural or artistic heritage of another, was leveled most directly by Japanese student Tomoyo Joshi, who was unimpressed with the sushi bar at Dascomb Dining Hall. "When you're cooking a country's dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you're also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture," Joshi told The Oberlin Review. "So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it, and serve it as 'authentic,' it is appropriative." Campus Dining Services and Bon Appétit both said they will try to be more sensitive in the future.

"General Tso's chicken aside," The New York Times notes, "students on campus appear to be struggling with deeper racial and cultural rifts."