A company faces cultural appropriation charges after claiming to have improved and modernized congee, an Asian rice porridge, and its owner, who is white, has called herself “the congee queen.”
For centuries, the dish has been a staple in many Asian cultures and has as many names as it varies by country, but congee most often refers to the Chinese version. Often eaten for breakfast, the dish is prepared by boiling rice in a large amount of water for a long time.
But now Oregon-based The Breakfast Cure is in hot water. The company apologized after facing the backlash on social media and accusations of whitewashing, the exoticism of Asian food and ignoring the dish’s Asian roots.
“It steals our culture but does not honor it,” Chinese-American writer Frankie Huang said.
While other companies have sold variations of congee, much of the controversy hinges on how company owner Karen Taylor claimed to have improved the food.
“I spent a lot of time modernizing it for the Western palette – making a congee that you can eat and find delicious and that doesn’t sound foreign but offers all of the medicinal healing properties of this ancient recipe,” Taylor said in an article on the product’s website titled “How I Discovered the Congee Miracle and Made It Better” which has since been deleted.
In a video interview that was pulled from the site but remains on YouTube, Taylor calls the congee “that kind of weird thing.”
Anita Mannur, professor of English and Asian-American studies at the University of Miami, said Taylor’s comments send a false message that Asian food is better when it is adapted to whiteness.
“What is this white nonsense?” Mannur said. “Why do you think our food always needs improvement? “
When someone says they are improving the food of another culture, Mannur says they are suggesting that the original food is less. She added that saying that an Asian dish needs to be modernized suggests that “Asians are lagging behind the rest of white America, and so apparently it is up to a white woman to save Asian food from Asians.”
She also said calling the congee “weird” made Asian food more exotic.
“When you call the foods weird, you access a whole story of racist stereotypes that what’s white American is normal and normative and everything else is weird or foreign,” she said. “It contributes to how the people behind this food are viewed as strange or alien.”
Taylor called herself the “queen of the congee” and referred to her product as the “gourmet and gourmet” version of the dish in an earlier version of the company’s website. In a video taken from the website, she calls the century-old dish “the new frontier.” Taylor also wrote an article titled “Our Congee Calling,” in which she calls her “personal mission to hear ‘congee’ pronounced as a common colloquial word” and writes that acupuncturists “are the ones who can bring congee … them. people around us.
Mannur said Taylor had positioned herself poorly as a congee pioneer, ignoring her centuries-old history.
Huang pointed out that Breakfast Cure’s website did not originally include comments on anti-Asian hate crime attacks during the pandemic.
“It’s taking advantage of us without defending ourselves,” she said.
In the wake of the backlash, Breakfast Cure updated its website with new language and a new mission statement that recognizes, “Recently, we have failed to support and honor the Asian American community, and for that, we are deeply sorry. “
The company announced on Instagram that it would donate 1% of all sales or 10% of profits, whichever is greater, to Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Taylor told TODAY she was surprised at the backlash because she was “embraced by the Chinese medicine community” when she first launched the product.
Mannur said this statement and others made his apology less sincere.
“Saying that is like saying your best friend is black to counter people calling you out for racism,” Mannur said.
In the interview with TODAY, Taylor said she hoped for “some sort of productive dialogue” but had yet to have such conversations because many of the responses she received were “offensive.”
Huang said the apology did not identify anything specific that Taylor believed he had done wrong.
“This is not a real apology,” Huang said. “There is no self-reflection. It invalidates our anger at what she did by demanding that people treat her the way she wanted to be treated when she didn’t treat us the way we want to be treated.
The Breakfast Cure did not respond to requests for comment.
The controversy surrounding the breakfast cure is far from unknown.
Earlier this year, a Dallas-based company faced backlash for its “modern overhaul” of the classic Chinese game Mahjong. In December 2020, Philli Armitage-Mattin, a white chef, was criticized for using the phrase “Dirty Food Refined” to refer to her Asian dishes. In 2019, Lucky Lee’s restaurant closed after being accused of fueling racist stereotypes about Chinese cuisine in its marketing language.
“I hope we stop seeing this happening over and over again,” Mannur said. “When will we recognize that Asian Americans are not just a cultural resource to be enjoyed?”
Huang said she was fed up with controversies repeating themselves and people not learning in response.
“They don’t suffer any consequences because their target consumers are not angry Asians anyway. There aren’t enough of the consequences, and that’s why it keeps happening, ”she said, adding that white allies should call for responsibility and express their outrage by boycotting companies that fail to comply. not Asian culture.
Huang said a respectful appreciation of Asian culture requires people to recognize the roots of the culture and uplift Asians by doing the work they admire.
“I want people to stop taking ownership of other people’s culture,” she said. “Just have a little more humility and don’t be so quick to crown yourself a master or an expert in something that you haven’t grown up consuming.”
Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.