Birria tacos, feta pasta, and viral quesadilla hacks celebrate white appropriation at the expense of the ingenuity of chefs and cooks of color.
You scroll Instagram and see the same foods over and over again. Birria tacos. Elote. Feta pasta. Quesadilla “hacks.” Popcorn salad. Taco tomatoes. Nachos being made on a counter. Fruit sherbet punch being served from a toilet. Yes, a toilet.
If you’ve been on social media in any capacity, you’ve seen some of these viral dishes saturate your timeline. But why do the videos feel so dismissive of safe and proper cooking techniques? What about respecting ingredients? Why are these dishes being made by someone who isn’t well-versed in the cuisine? More often than not, the entire dish feels like an afterthought; something that someone threw together for the sake of going viral. Viral food trends feel like the equivalent of submitting your essay at 11:59 p.m. because you just had to have something turned in regardless of it being any good or not. The lack of intention behind these foods irks me. BIPOC chefs and cooks like me aren’t able to do things half-assedly and get far in this industry.
For us, to even get our feet in the door of both the food media and restaurant industries, we have to be twice as good as everyone else. Before the content even gets made, we have to push past the gatekeeping, fight to be given equal pay and a livable wage, and struggle to be respected in and out of the kitchen. We have to fight back against cultural appropriation within the culinary world just to be seen and heard. In the age of social media, culinary creators have to not only be a cook and recipe developer; they have to be a brand manager, food photographer and editor, writer, and online customer-facing personality for mainstream food media that is ultimately centered on whiteness. And when we don’t fit into the neat little box of whiteness, it’s harder to make professional strides the way other, often mediocre, food personalities can.
The real reason why I’m exhausted about viral food trends is because they’re centered on whiteness and being palatable to the masses.
Viral food trends intersect with a variety of issues that impact the culinary industry and its workers but are mainly driven by the erasure of BIPOC cooks’ work through cultural appropriation (specifically when white chefs share recipes without giving credit to their origin and background) and industry gatekeeping. Going viral is a quick way to bypass all those gates. It means increased exposure to your work. Exposure means professional opportunities and financial gains from sharing work like cookbook deals and brand partnerships. Influencers and lifestyle bloggers often get cookbook deals and culinary accolades without having spent much time in front of a stove or working in the culinary industry itself.
I’ve found that when many BIPOC people speak out against viral food dishes for their erasure of cultural significance to a particular cuisine or for using incorrect ingredients or methods for traditional foods, our concerns are quickly dismissed by folks who applaud and uphold the outdated norms in this industry. People fawn over the influencer with the largest following instead of exploring food from the lens of the cooks who grew up eating and sharing these dishes. The same influencers who almost never give credit to the people and cultural dishes that inspire them to create (and I use this term very loosely here) the most popular and successful recipes online. Personally, I know a handful of colleagues who have been asked to ghostwrite and develop recipes for cookbooks by social media gurus; the cooks would have to provide all of the labor behind the project without the recognition, accolades, and financial success that comes with it.
I remember sharing my frustration behind the now infamous feta pasta one day on Twitter. As a professional cook, seeing countless videos of a greasy, chalky, and under-seasoned pasta dish truly sent me over the edge. I knew that if I made something like this at my former job, it wouldn’t make it to the pass and it definitely wouldn’t make it to a guest’s table. I wouldn’t even make it for a family meal. I was met with numerous replies about how delicious it was when the original recipe had 11 additional ingredients mixed into it. And that’s the point here: If you have to doctor up a trendy recipe, at that point, you’re no longer making that original recipe. You didn’t make the viral feta pasta, you made something else.
Shared collective trauma shouldn’t be the single driving force behind pushing us into the spotlight
Cooks’ shared frustrations over excessive, trendy foods are often dismissed as being too picky, elitist, or contrarian about things that are trendy, or not wanting someone else to cook our foods. But those aren’t the reasons why I am “complaining.” The real reason why I’m exhausted about viral food trends is because they’re centered on whiteness and being palatable to the masses. The majority of the people who have made viral foods viral are white or white-passing; particularly when it comes to foods and cuisines that originate from other ethnic groups.
The inequities that originate in viral videos are further entrenched by mainstream food media. Trendy foods make their way into mainstream media thanks to how saturated they are on our social media feeds. And at the end of the day, clicks reign supreme. The people behind these viral trends are the ones being ushered into the mainstream food media spotlight, making dishes that food industry folks wouldn’t even dare pass to the window during a busy dinner service.
I personally wouldn’t dream of cooking a significant dish from another culture, calling it my own without any credit to the original cuisine, and then doing it wrong. And that’s where the difference lies: Many BIPOC chefs and cooks aren’t able to go viral and find success from it. We have to toe the line of being in two different worlds at once. Writer Ryan Broderick’s recent newsletter summed it up best: “There’s an entire content economy now built around videos of beautiful white women in bland unfurnished vaguely Californian homes doing repulsive things to food.”
It’s the same thing regardless of the timeline or the feed: A constant flurry of videos with white hands often preparing and cooking non-white foods, white hands plating the food, and a white person (often a woman) smiling and eating on camera. What we don’t see behind the multicultural dishes shared? The brown hands that spice and braise beautiful and indigenous ingredients to make savory and filling curries. The Black hands that create a delicious and culturally significant recipe like soup joumou. The brown hands that introduced corn, tacos, and quesadillas to the entire world.
The erasure of cultural and racial significance for some of these dishes isn’t new. It’s unfortunately been happening for years before last summer’s reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national Black Lives Matter protests. Last year, many mainstream food media outlets shared infographics or solid black squares on their feeds to acknowledge their stand against white supremacy and racism, made big announcements about how they’re going to address the lack of diversity within their own brand and/or professional circles, and pledged to stop cultural appropriation in its tracks. But a year later we’re still seeing the same thing regurgitated in a different format, thanks to viral food trends. And nothing has changed. Most brands and companies will instead take the time to simply disable comments on their social media posts that feature Black and brown creators rather than mediate and address their rabid fanbase from spewing racist vitriol in the comments section.
Shared collective trauma shouldn’t be the single driving force behind pushing us into the spotlight, which was made evident last year. And that same trauma shouldn’t be part of gaining success and notoriety in traditionally white food spaces. Before then, it was common practice for brands and publications to hastily approach us for work during key celebratory months in the year, most notably Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, or the Lunar New Year. And that’s something that mainstream food media still needs to sit with and unpack.
BIPOC food creators shouldn’t have to be well-versed in only one kind of cuisine and be pigeonholed by our nationality or background. We shouldn’t be tokenized as the official voice of a cuisine we grew up with. We need to see a variety of Black and brown hands preparing and cooking all kinds of food online, the same way white food personalities do: Going viral outside of our own communities and embracing all of the professional successes and opportunities that come with it. In the meantime and until that happens, we’ll be in our own little intersectional corners of the internet, creating recipes and cooking without the fanfare of becoming the new, trendy social media darling.