A burrito cart in Portland unleashed a torrent of debate in the food world.EXPAND
A burrito cart in Portland unleashed a torrent of debate in the food world.
Evie Carpenter

Should White People Cook Mexican Food? Thoughts on the Kooks Burritos Saga

Last month, Portland's Willamette Week ran a 450-word food story about two young women and their new burrito cart — and then all hell broke loose.

The saga of Kooks Burritos, as far as I can tell, begins with owners Liz Connelly and Kali Wilgus taking a road trip to Mexico where they ate lobster burritos on the beach and fell in love with the stretchy, handmade flour tortillas used to wrap them up.

"I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever," Connelly told the Willamette Week. "They wouldn't tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look..."

Connelly and Wilgus returned to Portland with the aim of making tortillas as good as the ones they had eaten in Baja California. And it sounds like they were successful.

Not long after the story about their new pop-up burrito cart went live, the comments section exploded with charges of cultural appropriation. More than 1,500 comments have been posted on the Willamette site since then, and the story has gone viral in food circles around the world. Opinion pieces have popped up in the Washington Post and London's Daily Mail, among others.

Many of those who accuse Kooks Burritos of cultural theft point to one quote in particular — "We were peeking into the windows of every kitchen" — as evidence that the Kooks team was sneaky and cavalier in gaining access to a recipe that did not belong to them.

Amid the growing controversy, Kooks Burritos quietly closed shop, and the Willamette has since reported that Connelly and Wilgus have received death threats.

The basic outlines of this story are not new. White folks entering another culture, becoming enamored of it, and adopting it for their own pleasure, use, or profit (or some combination of all three), remains a popular narrative in food and travel storytelling. It seems curious, though, that Kooks in particular was so forcefully accused of cultural appropriation, when there are plenty more high-profile chefs and businesses "guilty” of the same thing.

Of course, it's not just white folks who adopt aspects of other cultures. So, why does it piss so many people off when it is?

Almost everyone I've polled on this matter, mostly Mexican relatives (including my mother, who regularly makes her own ambrosial flour tortillas from scratch) and Mexican-American friends, do not see what all the fuss is about.

My mother, for one, passes out her family recipes like they’re Halloween candy. It should be obvious, I hope, that one Mexican person’s opinion is not a stand-in for every other Mexican person on the planet. Other people — maybe some of the women in Baja California who rely on tortilla-making for their livelihood — might not feel the same way.

Let me be clear that I am speaking now of the particulars my own experience. There is something genuinely exhausting and confusing about seeing parts of your culture embraced and fetishized — tacos, tequila, handmade flour tortillas, to name a few — while other parts of it are scorned or rejected.

Tortillas from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory.
Tortillas from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory.
Patricia Escarcega

I grew up with a Spanish-speaking mother, and the people who hissed at us to “speak English because we’re in America” at the grocery store were usually the same people with a stack of tortillas in their shopping carts. The ability to compartmentalize culture into tiny, highly consumable bits and pieces — enjoying only what we like about someone’s culture, while choosing not to engage with the rest of it — is not a power we all enjoy. It is a privilege to partake in Mexican culture without having to put up with the extraneous, occasional bullshit of actually being Mexican.

I think this is the sentiment that explains some of the irritation and impatience people have with cases like this one. For some, the owners of Kooks Burritos come off as guileless young entrepreneurs who make tortilla-making sound a little too much like a grand and fun money-making experiment. For some Mexican women, making tortillas is simply work and drudgery; a necessity.

Does that mean that those who dabble in other people's culture should be seen as cultural thieves, or even perpetrators of cutesy, casual white supremacy? Both charges have been lodged against the owners of Kooks Burritos.

I don't think so.

The anguish and opprobrium generated by two non-Mexican women making flour tortillas has been exaggerated. If these two are guilty of anything, it seems more likely that it was of having somewhat bad manners (peeking through windows is considered rude in most parts of the world), and perhaps giving a slightly clumsy interview.

I'm not saying that making tortillas is not a meaningful act. Food is tied up in culture and, it bears repeating the obvious, which is that food culture is radically impure and dynamic, and we would not have some of the most beloved and quintessentially American dishes if not for different cultures brushing up against one and other in weird and wonderful ways.

Mexican cuisine too is a veritable mashup of various traditions, a gloriously diverse and impure cuisine, which is why it's silly that it's so often measured in the vagaries of “authenticity.” If I had a dollar for every lecture I’ve endured on what constitutes true and “authentic” al pastor or carne asada, I would have enough to open many, many burrito carts. It seems reasonable to wonder if this obsession with authenticity is what partly inspired the Kooks owners to talk about how and where they learned to make their tortillas in the first place.

In the past year, I’ve been asked more than once whether I think white people should be allowed to make Mexican food. The question confounds me, because it seems clear to me that anyone can make whatever they damn well please. I care less about who is making my food, and more about whether it nourishes and delights me. It's true that cooking is often bound up in cultural knowledge and tradition, and dishes often work best when prepared by somebody who grew up eating and loving the food they make. But it often takes outsiders, and people who live at the edge of two or more different cultures, to play with traditional forms, and to create novel and delicious dishes.

If there’s an enduring lesson embedded into the Kooks saga, maybe it's the sad realization that even well-meaning enterprises can blow up in your face. To enter someone else’s culture, especially when you stand to profit from it, requires affection and respect, and careful attention to tone. The line between what feels like cultural appropriation and what is really cultural exchange and ambassadorship remains blurry and thin.

The ugliest part of this story, to me, is how quickly a thoughtful debate can devolve into a virtual garbage fire. In these times, we are more quick than ever to turn people into symbols of what's wrong with the world, instead of accepting them for what they probably are: budding entrepreneurs with a serious tortilla obsession.

Amid all the name-calling and accusations, nobody stopped to talk about whether the Kooks burritos were any good — whether they tasted as great as they sounded. I mean, they sounded like pretty good tortillas.

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