White woman making 'improved' congee apologizes

·5 min read

Breakfast Cure, an Oregon-based company run by a white woman, Karen Taylor, has apologized after being accused by Asian Americans of culturally appropriating congee, a traditional Asian rice porridge.

The company, which sells pre-packaged meals it had referred to as congee, issued the apology in a statement on its website this week after it was criticized by many across social media for exoticizing the comfort food and trying to reframe the already-popular dish. It had previously claimed to have altered congee to fit “your modern palate” and “improve” a dish that’s been beloved by Asian cultures for centuries.

“Recently, we fell short of supporting and honoring the Asian American community and for that, we are deeply sorry,” the statement said. “We take full responsibility for any language on our website or in our marketing and have taken immediate steps to remedy that and educate ourselves, revising our mission to not just creating delicious breakfast meals, but becoming a better ally for the AAPI community.”

Asian Americans had taken issue with several aspects of the company, including how the staff did not appear to include employees of Asian descent and how Taylor, an acupuncturist and self-proclaimed “Queen of Congee,” had written a now-edited post titled, “How I discovered the miracle of congee and improved it.”

Congee remains a staple for Asians, with different versions cooked by nearly every country across the continent. The word congee itself has Tamil roots. It’s largely regarded as a comfort food, and in the Chinese tradition, it’s often served at dim sum with flavors like thousand-year-old-egg and pork, or duck. Taylor’s version includes flavors like apple cinnamon and uses ingredients like oat groat.

In its statement, Breakfast Cure, founded in 2017, referred to its meal packs as “Oregon porridge,” rather than congee as it had previously been calling them. It also said that its products, which include ingredients and flavors that bear little resemblance to the original dish, was “inspired” by traditional rice congee, “an incredible, healing dish with references dating back to 1,000 BC.”

While some references to congee have been scrubbed from its website, the company, which operates out of Eugene but ships nationwide, has continued its sales. The descriptions of many items also remain unchanged, like "Mango and Sticky Rice: hydration, hydration, hydration for our entire congee nation," and a masala chai spice flavor they claim "is the quintessential modern congee," leading to further criticism and debate on social media.

Nadia Kim, a professor of sociology, Asian and Asian American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, told NBC Asian America that the statement felt insufficient given Breakfast Cure’s “bastardization” and “whitewashing” of congee, and the way it has profited off such behavior

“Why does she not give more credit to the Asian immigrant and Asian community, for her being able to come up with this recipe and make profit off of it? That would have been a more instructive and insightful statement,” Kim said. “Not only does it feel very performative, as in performative allyship, but it actually doesn't feel like allyship at all, to some extent.”

Kim said that many Asian immigrants and those in the diaspora are shamed for their food, so Asian cuisine cannot be extricated from politics or discussions around racism.

Kim also pointed out that Breakfast Cure’s success comes as Asian American businesses and restaurants suffered significantly during the pandemic, in part because of anti-Asian racism.

“Chinese businesses and restaurants and Asian eateries — why are they shutting down right now? People are losing their lifelines because other people think our places of coming together to eat, our food, is dirty and disgusting,” Kim said.

Breakfast Cure said in its statement that it donates a portion of its sales to Asian American organizations.

Congee has long been a dish for commoners that is often eaten in times of need because it requires only a few ingredients. By contrast, Breakfast Cure’s slow-cook meal packs cost $14.95 per pack. Kim said that Taylor's profiting off of congee, particularly as a white woman, erases the humble nature of the dish.

“She's essentially making a large amount of money, or could potentially make a large amount of money, based on taking common people's Asian food,” Kim said. “She is claiming that congee is not good on its own, and she as a white woman has found a way to make congee much, much better, meaning that it serves a white people's palate.”

Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the Nutrition and Food Studies department at New York University, said it’s not surprising that non-Asians would be interested in East Asian cuisine, given the region's economic rise and increasing cultural influence. The problem comes when white people are the ones who profit from this culture and sell a “kind of a white women's version of porridge and then naming it congee because they want a cool, exotic name.”

“And when that happens, often outsiders come in, and they, in their minds, upgrade the cuisine,” Ray said.

The sharp backlash, which erupted on social media last week, toward Breakfast Cure is also, in some ways, “a symptom of strengthening of subordinate groups,” Ray said.

“When people are complaining about cultural appropriation, they're complaining about the integrity of their communities and their cultures, and other people coming in and developing notions of intimacy but not with consent.”

Ray added that it’s important to provide solutions for those who want to enjoy and make food cross culturally.

“Cultural ownership is a complicated question of where do you draw the boundary between appropriation and appreciation,” Ray said.

For Kim, the answer lies in integrating more Asian and Asian Americans into the business rather than simply changing the dish’s name to “Oregon porridge,” which she said fails to properly give credit for the food’s ethnic inspiration.

“When you do that, you don't say things like ‘I'm reforming or improving or modernizing congee,’ because you're actually working with a community that doesn't see it that way,” Kim said.

She added, “They have seen their own cuisine as full of health properties and nurturing and as a way to find identity in a place where they're experiencing racism and exclusion.”

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