Hard to Swallow

December 29, 2015

By Staff at The Columbus Dispatch

Protests are back in vogue on college campuses, with students seemingly in competition to one-up each other with long lists of grievances presented to university leaders.

With no draft cards to burn and surrounded by amenities such as new multimillion-dollar fitness centers and student unions, today’s coddled students seem to be getting ever more esoteric in what they take offense at.

Ohio’s own Oberlin College has set the bar high. Recent reports that students have issued a long list of complaints about the school’s food-service offerings being — wait for it — culturally insensitive have grabbed the attention of outlets including the New York Post, The New York Times, Fox News and ABC News.

Among the arguments aired by students of the private liberal-arts college, which charges tuition of about $50,000 per year (not including $6,550 for board): a Vietnamese soup that was judged disrespectful because it contained incorrect ingredients; a Chinese dish (created by Chinese immigrants in America) made with chicken that is steamed rather than fried; and sushi made with undercooked rice that was deemed “appropriative” by one offended student from Japan.

“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,” Japanese student Tomoyo Joshi was quoted as saying by campus newspaper the Oberlin Review.

Who knew that world peace and cultural understanding rested on a melamine plate in the dining-hall line?

Faced with this sensitivity-shaming, Oberlin’s food-service operator, Bon Appetit Management Company, said it might remove items from the menu altogether if it is unable to meet students’ finely calibrated demands for authenticity. So the upshot of the protests might be more bland food on campus.

The Oberlin food kerfuffle caught the public imagination because it’s a comic example of a more serious issue. Free speech is under fire on campuses around the country, in an era where students regularly demand “trigger warnings” of professors for any subjects that could be personally upsetting to them and “safe spaces” from any potential threats to their sensitivities and belief systems. First Amendment restrictions in the name of “speech codes” have become pervasive, encouraged by pressure from the federal government, according to campus free-speech champion Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Then there is the amusing fact that Oberlin students, in some cases at least, are protesting the inauthentic nature of dishes that aren’t themselves authentic ethnic or national cuisine. A complaint about General Tso’s chicken was derided by online commenters, who pointed out that the dish was popularized by Chinese restaurateurs serving the American market. Vietnamese pho soup adapts cuisine elements from the French, who colonized Vietnam from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century.

Here’s a lesson any well-rounded liberal-arts student should learn: People throughout history have borrowed and blended elements from other cultures. This cultural cross-pollination has been an engine of human progress, including good eats.