What Can We Take Away from the Kooks Burritos Controversy?

Posted by Mikayla Toffler
(@Mikayla Toffler)

Controversy erupted in Portland, Oregon following the closing of a small burrito shop known as Kooks Burritos.

Kooks Burritos

The Background

Liz Connelly and Kali Wilgus opened up a burrito cart in their hometown of Portland following a “holiday trip” to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico. The shop fell under fire after receiving coverage from Willamette Week, a Portland news hub for all things local. Connelly discussed the genesis of Kooks in the interview, famously saying, “I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there [in Mexico] in the worst broken Spanish ever.” She admitted to peaking through shops’ back windows after she and partner Wilgus encountered the locals’ reluctance to share many of their food recipes or processes.

Williamette Week’s article incited a massive uproar which was first localized to Portland before quickly spreading across the nation. Those outraged by the shop denounced the owners’ ignorance and thievery, claiming cultural appropriation. Many were troubled by the joking nature with which Connelly spoke when discussing the women she learned from, and the language native to the region. Others demanded the Mexican women get compensation for their time and effort which were coopted into the lucrative business effort. The backlash not only began a national discussion, but also proved strong enough to shut down the shop for good.

Like any good controversy, this debate is anything but one-sided. Claims of cultural appropriation faced pushback with some very valid points: Isn’t food a shared experience? Can’t engaging in recipe-swapping actually foster connection and understanding across cultures? And where do other white-owned non-American-style restaurants fit into this discussion, such as Andy Ricker’s famous Pok Pok? Those skeptical of food’s place in the cultural appropriation debate argued that recipes and food prep can’t possibly be “owned” by one culture and “stolen” by another. And why waste our time on a small burrito shop begun by two well-intentioned white women when there are “bigger and more pressing” issues in the world?

Whether you consider Kooks Burritos the latest microcosm of white supremacy or not, there are a few points to take away from this major discussion:

Cultural Appropriation Comic

Understanding & Respecting

It’s about understanding and respecting a culture before utilizing its practices. Cultural appropriation can be defined as selecting certain favorable aspects of a culture without fully understanding the limitations faced by people with this cultural identity, as it relates to present conditions but also history. Working with this definition, there is one clear way that Ricker’s Pok Pok, for instance, is quite different from Kooks: On Pok Pok’s website, the cuisine is introduced as a “mindful reproduction of the food and food culture of Thailand and Southeast Asia” and cites the “several months each year” that Ricker spent “living, traveling, eating, cooking and studying the food culture in Thailand and neighboring countries.”

Ricker certainly appears to have a full grasp on the culture from which his restaurant’s cuisine originates. Connelly and Wilgus, by contrast, became inspired to open up a burrito shop after a pleasure trip to Mexico (Ahem, do they think they’re the only ones with this lightbulb idea!?!?).

Word Choice Matters

It’s about the narrative. Connelly used markedly demeaning phrases such as “tortilla lady” to refer to the chefs and “worst broken Spanish” to make light of her ignorance toward the native language. The phrases alone are condescending and disrespectful, but also the context in which they were used proves the larger cultural significance that unfortunately appears completely lost on Connelly: the practices of another culture are not a joke.

Opportunity Can Be Elusive

It’s about access and privilege. Connelly and Wilgus had the privilege (read: wealth, status) to visit Mexico on holiday, to spare time experimenting with recipes (this might also include money for groceries and excess food waste), and of course, to kickstart a business and achieve a feature in one of Portland’s hippest publications. How about the many, many small Mexican-owned Mexican food trucks and shops that have existed for all of this country’s history, which already supplied the market with authentic and yummy Mexican cuisine, but which lack the same reachability as Kooks? Connelly and Wilgus utilized their privilege to outsource them.

Cultural appropriation remains controversial, but it’s important to remember the drastic shifts the debate has seen in recent years. Once severely divided, the debate as it relates to dress and accessory has grown ubiquitous. Today some of the most popular music festivals even post anti-appropriation guidelines on their website. Bass Coast Music Festival, for example, banned headdresses back in 2014, arguing that, given that the festival would take place on indigenous land, the don of headdresses by non-indigenous peoples was a sign of disrespect.

Remember the confusion and anger at the first instance of cultural appropriation in the mass media? See how much more widely understood and accepted it’s become today? Cultural appropriation is not limited to clothing. With the progression of time, the exchange of ideas, and the rise of mindfulness, cultural rights to food and food practices, too, is likely to follow the same pattern.

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