A Food Fight at Oberlin College

Students complain that bánh mìs made from ciabatta and sushi from undercooked rice are evidence of culinary cultural appropriation.

Fred Prouser / Reuters

Last week, students at Oberlin made national headlines for casting complaints about bad dining-hall food––a perennial lament of collegians––as a problematic social-justice failure. Word spread via people who saw their behavior as political correctness run amok. The New York Post gleefully mocked the students “at Lena Dunham’s college.” On social media, many wondered if the controversy was a  parody.

In fact, it is quite real.

The core student grievance, as reported by Clover Lihn Tran at The Oberlin Review: Bon Appétit, the food service vendor, “has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.”

One international student suffered a sando-aggression:

Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam, jumped with excitement at the sight of Vietnamese food on Stevenson Dining Hall’s menu at Orientation this year. Craving Vietnamese comfort food, Nguyen rushed to the food station with high hopes. What she got, however, was a total disappointment. The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish.

Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. “It was ridiculous,” Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

Multiple students were dissatisfied with their landlocked, Midwestern institution’s take on the cuisine of an island nation with Earth’s most sophisticated fishing culture:

Perhaps the pinnacle of what many students believe to be a culturally appropriative sustenance system is Dascomb Dining Hall’s sushi bar. The sushi is anything but authentic for Tomoyo Joshi, a College junior from Japan, who said that the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful. She added that in Japan, sushi is regarded so highly that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it.

“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 said. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

Another student, Yasmine Ramachandra, offered a distinct complaint, saying she was compelled to join the protest “after arriving at Stevenson Dining Hall with other South Asian students on Diwali, a Hindu holiday, and finding the traditional Indian tandoori made with beef, which many Hindi people do not eat for religious reasons.”

Even Red State grants that her grievance is legitimate.

Her grievance aside, the typical response to the controversy from observers across the ideological spectrum is weary, bemused disagreement with the students.

What exactly are they thinking?

In the ongoing debate about the state of academia, Oberlin is properly seen as an outlier, not a reflection of what most campuses are like. This story is hardly all there is to Oberlin––it’s an outlying story about a small number of students plucked by the tabloid most adept at trolling its readers from the stream of campus news. There are dissenters at the school. And students at many campuses often complain about food in overwrought ways.

Still, it’s possible to glean insights from the most absurd events at Oberlin as surely as it’s possible to learn something about America by observing the biggest Black Friday sales, the most over-the-top displays of militarism at professional sporting events, or the most extreme reality televisions show. Every subculture and ideology has its excesses. And Oberlin, where the subculture is unusually influenced by “social justice” activism, can starkly illuminate the particular character of that ideology’s excesses.

One caveat: Although it’s easy to minimize college student complaints about the dining halls––especially since they’re likely much better than what older college graduates ate in the era before sushi bars––the transition from a Japanese or Vietnamese diet to dining-hall food in Ohio would be challenging for a lot of people. At that basic level, I feel empathy for the international students, as well as for American students whose only food options leave them not wanting to eat anything. If I were an Oberlin professor, I’d be quietly amassing spices and recipes to have a few of the homesick students over for whatever they consider comfort food. And a lot of people mocking the students would have a hard time adjusting to the dining-hall cuisine of an Asian country if forced to live abroad there for a year.

But there’s a flip side to my empathy. Many people relate to the complaint, “Gosh, this food is awful––can’t you dining hall people make it better.” Yet Oberlin culture––I feel certain that the international students did not import these modes of expression––re-framed a banal, sympathetic complaint in a way that alienated millions.

Can Oberlin insiders help explain why?

Some find the approach of the Oberlin students off-putting because it strikes them as ultimately cynical. One reader of Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative explained that reaction this way:

Are all college students like this? Of course not. If they were, one shudders to think what they’d make of the Ramen noodle industry. Still. Better, more authentic, more flavorful foods aren’t necessarily bad.

It’s a cause you might support!

But there are no longer complaints or gripes or suggestions. Only outrage. “Hey, putting ketchup on the linguini isn’t really Italian night,” becomes, “You are oppressing me with your white privilege.” Why? Because it works. Saying that to a college administrator is like telling a self conscious girl that she looks fat in her jeans, or telling a young fella that size really does matter and, sorry pal, you don’t measure up.

And threatening to do these things publicly.

If this is a cynical power play on some level, its effectiveness cannot be denied. While being mocked in the national press, the students are getting results at Oberlin:

Following claims of Campus Dining Services appropriating traditional Asian dishes, representatives from the South Asian, Vietnamese and Chinese student associations met with CDS to discuss students’ concerns...

“They took us very seriously and were taking notes the whole time,” said Clover Linh Tran, College sophomore and Vietnamese Student Association co-chair... “They seemed very willing to learn and fix what was offending people.” Tran organized the meeting after coordinating with CDS representatives and inviting fellow students through a Facebook event.

Michele Gross, director of CDS; Eric Pecherkiewicz, campus registered dietitian; and John Klancar, Bon Appétit director of operations, were all in attendance.

The less-cynical explanation is that these students really do feel culturally disrespected by low-wage dining hall staff making do with sub-optimal ingredients.

Even observers who presume the earnestness of the students have taken aim at the substance of their beliefs, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with radically tweaking dishes from different culinary traditions––and it’s particularly incoherent to complain about “appropriative” treatments of items like the bánh mi sandwich (one half expects them to protest the colonialism of the baguette rather than its absence) or General Tsao’s Chicken that are themselves inseparable from cultural collisions. The dining hall is serving cheap imitations of East Asian dishes because all college campuses serve cheap imitations of all dishes––they’re trying to feed students as cheaply as possible, and authentic bánh mis, never mind sushi, would cost much more. And, of course, East Asian students are hardly alone in being served inauthentic versions of foods they grew up eating. As the grandson of two French Cajuns, I can assure aggrieved Oberlin students that the “gumbo” and “jambalaya” I was sometimes served for campus meals was in no way authentic! (Nor was the spaghetti carbonara, nor the Danishes, nor the beef goulash.)

The avowed position of these students strikes some observers as so wrongheaded that they prefer to believe that the young people don’t really believe what they’re saying.

“I am more sympathetic to campus activists’ concerns than most people here, but the ‘cultural appropriation’ business feels me with blind fury,” another reader at Rod Dreher’s blog wrote. “Mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth is what America does, and in my view, it is the encapsulation of what is best about this country … to crap on the one thing that makes America one of the few successful multicultural countries in the world on the basis of half-understood theories is beyond infuriating.The best spin I could put on this is that these people are basically using the language of appropriation to push for better food service, but I am afraid they are serious.”

So how about it, Oberlin insiders?

The majority of you aren’t participating in this activist effort. Help outsiders to understand what’s really going on. Should these students be understood as having an understandable desire for higher-quality food—who can blame them for urging the powers that be to feed them better?—and opportunistically co-opting the language of social justice to get their way? Or are they framing their complaints in terms of cultural appropriation and “problematic” affronts to enlightened behavior because they really believe that’s what is going on?

Neither option seems quite right to me. Maybe there’s another that I’m missing. Oberlin is full of intelligent people. I’d love to read your emails to conor@theatlantic.com.

If there is, in fact, some opportunism to the way these students are framing their complaints, does it suggest that Oberlin would do well to better guard against the exploitation of its frequently admirable efforts to be inclusive? Or if students really believe that they are the victims of “problematic” behavior, is social-justice ideology causing them to conclude that they face more antagonism than is in fact the case?

I suppose my questions telegraph my perspective. At the very least, these students would be well served by more exposure to different ways of thinking, if only so that they can understand why so many outsiders perceive them to be the privileged jerks of this particular story. As an Oberlin alum commented in the student newspaper, “I worked in multiple dining halls and was friendly with many of the staff there, and out of everyone I met, maybe two of them had been out of the country before. One of them even told me that she had never seen or heard of a chickpea before she started working there. Before students start labeling the lack of authenticity of their food as ‘cultural appropriation,’ maybe they should take a step back and think about the likely differences between themselves and the people who are preparing it.”

Freddie de Boer put it more pointedly:

These critiques may be harsh, but are not grounded in antagonism toward the students. Were I an Oberlin administrator, I’d diligently inquire into any complaints about poor food quality and negotiate for the best fare possible, given cost constraints, even if students expressed their dissatisfaction in an off-putting manner.

But I like to think I’d call them on their nonsense, too.

It seems to me that staff and administrators at Oberlin ill-serve these students insofar as they accommodate behavior of this sort without offering any critique in response. After all, beyond allowing them to persist in their highly dubious and wildly unpopular beliefs, they’re training students to air grievances in a way that will be counterproductive—and thus serve them ill—everywhere except college campuses. As de Boer wrote, “I'm a college educator. It's the only job I ever wanted. It's my job to take college activists seriously. And this reflects bigger problems … life is full of political injustice, but also full of just sucky and disappointing shit, and you need to know the difference … I have this crazy hang up: I care about student activists so much, I pay attention to whether their tactics can actually win or not.”

I understand why some observers are inclined to defend young people when they become objects of ridicule in the New York Post. I certainly oppose demonizing these students. But constructive criticism is not only legitimate, it is salutary. It confronts students who’ve been acculturated into a seductive ideology with the diversity of thought they need to refine their ideas. From the outside, Oberlin seems unable to provide dissent in anything like the quality and quantity needed to prepare these young people for the enormous complexity of life in a diverse society, where few defer to claims just because they are expressed in the language of social justice.

Is that how it looks from the inside, too?