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.”