No Soup For You

Can you even culturally appropriate broth?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Arc Digital

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I live in Toronto, which is about to undergo a second lockdown. We’re entering the half-year period when it’s too cold to comfortably go outside. Everyone’s a little on edge — or if not, would be forgiven if they were. Which is the most generous possible interpretation of L’Affaire Bone Broth.

I was sleepily browsing a local-news blog when I happened across a story that seemed of another, simpler, time: “New Toronto clothing store ditches broth bar after cultural appropriation complaints.” What jumped out at me first was, new clothing store, really, are those still happening? But then there was the complaint itself, which will take a moment to parse.

An athleisure store opened, called Permission, that evidently seeks a target audience more enlightened than your basic-in-all-senses Lululemon shopper: “We aim to marry the idea of performance activewear with street-style for the resilient, mindful, and real womxn.” OK. “The activewear industry always felt off (hi, underrepresentation and skewed ideals) — so we’re building something that feels good to us, to you, and our community.” Woke wellness. Fine.

So, Permission hosted a pop-up from Ripe Nutrition, another woman-owned small business in the wellness but empowering realm. (Side note: you must read Leigh Stein’s new novel Self Care, satirizing that very world.) It was selling a bunch of foodstuffs probably very of-the-moment in Los Angeles a few years ago and more recently arrived in Toronto, something where chicken stock has been rebranded as the new cold-pressed juice. I don’t know. Also a hot sauce called “hot phó you,” a play on words that is not entirely new, and can be found, among other places, on a Vietnamese-American’s sticker design on Etsy.

Evelyn Kwong, an editor at The Toronto Star, but tweeting in an all-opinions-her-own capacity, had some thoughts.

a white owned trendy spot on ossington is selling bone broth across from golden turtle pho. also sexualizing ‘jerk’ sauce and pho hot sauce and making ‘superfood dumplings’ for profit? y’all im sick

Further down the thread, Kwong noted that she had been shamed for her Chinese school lunches as a child, and that she was put off by the rebranding of Asian and other non-white cuisines as wellness. That strikes me as understandable, on both counts, and it’s clear how the two would be related.

Where it got less fair-enough is when the Twitter thread swung over to demanding change from these businesses. Kwong posted, mission-accomplished-style, a message she’d received from Permission, that due to her tweets they were “immediately ending the partnership,” followed up with a tweet about how she had “not heard from the ripe.nutrition people,” as though they owed her, personally, what, exactly? In any case, the nutrition entrepreneur has come through with a very Instagram apology.

It’s one of those things that would have been an eye-roll-inducing but otherwise whatever controversy, were it not for These Difficult Times. Was this an inherent punch-up, given that the cultural appropriators were white ladies, and their critic, a person of color (well, by some definitions)? Should someone with a staff position at a major newspaper be blithely trying to cut off the income of small players in the restaurant industry, during a pandemic? Kwong had a caveat about this in the thread, about how she was “not tryna knock small businesses but,” where, I mean, this is exactly what she was doing.

I could sympathize with Kwong when she ugh’d the trend of white-but-not-only people declaring the traditional foods of other cultures superfoods. It is annoying that the mainstream food movement segued from an ingredient-purity obsession circa 2010, which de facto excluded everything not produced by white men in lumberjack outfits, to whatever the thing now is, where “ethnic” cuisines are spun as helping make/keep white women slim — sorry, “healthy.” But something happens between an ugh and a request that actual individual people stop trying to “profit” (as in, in a case like this, make ends meet) from anything anyone deems problematic, however far-fetched the reasons.

And, not to be too cynical, but was this even a business that was going to last more than five minutes, with or without Kwong’s intervention? I’ve been going to the same Vietnamese restaurant (in Chinatown, so a couple neighborhoods over) since visiting Toronto for the first time, more than five years ago. That’s still there and thank goodness. Would a broth bar slash athleisure store have such staying power?

Ossington from Dundas to Queen is one of those urban areas that, though tiny, is about a million different things to different people, and thus difficult to sum up. It’s a cool, north Brooklyn-like area, with cutting edge independent fashion and design stores, hip but high-end restaurants (including French), and coffee shops. It’s also bordered by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a location that’s been “a mental health facility for over 160 years, since the opening of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in 1850.” If you walk up and down Ossington, there’s a chic set with ample disposable income, and also a not-insignificant population of people visibly suffering from severe mental illness. When I think of liberal guilt Ossington might inspire, it’s that juxtaposition more than anything. But moving on.

The Ossington strip also a Toronto area that blends into others, with a complex history of immigration waves (the north part of the strip is in Little Portugal) and, more recently, skyrocketing housing prices. While not one of the city’s major Vietnamese neighborhoods, Ossington is the home of some Vietnamese restaurants. As Kwong points out in the thread, one of those is across the street from leggings and broth emporium. Do these relate? And who’s even going outside or spending money anyway? If you can stay home, you’re doing that, and making your own food of whichever culture, it’s not like anyone outside your household knows.

Things are forever Causing Controversy, the cycles endless and blurring into one another. Sia, evidently very famous, has drawn “backlash” as per trending articles. The musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which does not have a trans protagonist as per its creator (or per me, someone who’s seen the movie many times), has made it to The Guardian for … not casting a trans actor in the lead role in some production in Australia. A woman with viral tweets about white women buying anti-racist books and then voting for Trump has turned the sentiment into a published article, one with zero examples of any specific woman having done these two things. Teams form, with the loudest and least nuanced voices winning the day.

But back to broth: As with all such episodes, it becomes impossible to make any sort of point, from any side, without things ramping up into attempts at (sorry but how else to put it?) cancellation. Someone will do something genuinely vile and worthy of criticism, like insisting a broth pop-up bar account for its sins during a pandemic, only to find themselves the recipient of a still-worse pile-on. This will often lead to the original call-out maker insisting that their detractors are terrible people, which will be true and wrong and also not entirely fair as an argument, given that the whole thing may have begun with legitimate and even necessary criticisms.

Of course, of course, no one should be sending racist screeds to Kwong (or anyone!), and it is (I know, As A Jewish Woman Online) scary to find yourself on the receiving end of that sort of thing. The problem is, it’s also wrong to try to get a business shut down for culturally appropriating broth. That doesn’t suddenly become OK because some people online (and offline!) are awful. The existence of racists doesn’t, in some roundabout way, vindicate any and all accusations of racism, including this one that simply does not make sense.

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