Everything was going great for Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly. Their new pop-up burrito shop in Portland, Ore., managed to kick up a buzz around town.
With French fries tucked inside the tortillas with eggs, cheese and guacamole, and served with neon-colored salsas, the burritos were Instagram-ready.
The woman called their business Kooks Burritos.
Then on May 16 the Willamette Week ran a story explaining how a trip to Mexico in December inspired them – and things quickly went south.
The story dropped like a bomb, with online critics immediately accusing the women of “stealing” recipes from Mexico and charging them with cultural appropriation.
The fallout grew so loud – defenders of the women cyber-yelling at critics for being too politically correct – that over the last few days the women have closed the shop.
One man on Facebook called this “one of the most embarrassing episodes in Portland history.”
The controversy began with the story the women told of how they took a trip to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico last December and fell in love with the tortillas made there by the locals.
“In Puerto Nuevo, you can eat $5 lobster on the beach, which they give you with this bucket of tortillas,” Connelly told the Week. “They are handmade flour tortillas that are stretchy and a little buttery, and best of all, unlimited.”
They loved the tortillas so much they tried to find out the recipe. From the way they described it, the locals were not eager to share.
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Connelly said.
“They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins.
“They wouldn't tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn't quite that easy.”
The women said they learned how to make their tortillas back home through trial and error.
“The day after we returned, I hit the Mexican market and bought ingredients and started testing it out,” Connelly told the Week. “Every day I started making tortillas before and after work, trying to figure out the process, timing, refrigeration and how all of that works.”
Yet, one Puerto Rican reader who scorched the women in the comments section wrote that her “abuela would be absolutely furious.”
“I have recipes that she wouldn't share with anyone, not even me, that I only inherited when she passed,” she wrote. “These are recipes for dishes that she created just for us, her family, that she learned from those who came before her.
“Appropriation scrubs all of that meaning, all of the importance, all of the history, and all of the story that is attached to these recipes.
“If anyone stole the recipes my grandmother passed down to me, I wouldn't just be furious, I'd feel deeply sad, because they'd be stealing a part of my abuela from me, they'd be stealing the memories I have of her and of her cooking.”
Another newspaper, the Portland Mercury, weighed in too, writing that “Portland has an appropriation problem,”
“This week in white nonsense, two white women ... decided it would be cute to open a food truck after a fateful excursion to Mexico,” wrote the Mercury’s Jagger Blaec.
“There’s really nothing special about opening a Mexican restaurant — it’s probably something that happens everyday. But the owners of Kooks Burritos all but admitted in an interview with Willamette Week that they colonized this style of food when they decided to ‘pick the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever.’”
Blaec wrote that “because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.”
After the story ran people dropped such blistering reviews on the burrito stand’s Yelp page that Yelp began deleting them on Friday and is now monitoring comments.
“This business recently made waves in the news, which often means that people come to this page to post their views on the news,” says a message on the page.
“While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.”
The brouhaha has led to a bit of soul-searching in the food world. Steve Bramucci, a writer and editor at Uproxx, convened a round-table discussion about cultural appropriation for a handful of food writers.
Did the Kooks Burritos owners come off as “flippant? Cocky? Imperialistic? Young?” Bramucci wrote. “How you feel about the attitudes reflected in the article will depend on who and to what degree you bestow the benefit of the doubt.
“And who and to what degree you bestow the benefit of the doubt to will depend on all sorts of factors connected to how you were raised, what culture you were raised in, feelings of marginalization, and your personal take on the notion of food appropriation.”
The thing about culture and race, wrote food writer Vince Mancini, “is that it’s blurry, and always has been. Drawing hard and fast rules about what is and isn’t cultural appropriation necessarily involves drawing hard and fast line between cultures, which makes me uncomfortable.
“It’s easy to tell white people not to paint their faces black and do minstrel humor or not to paint them red to become the racist caricature from their favorite sports team’s mascots ...
“But it becomes a little worrisome when we start trying to figure out which color people are allowed to cook which kind of food.”
Kooks Burritos has deleted its website and Instagram, Twitter and Facebook presence. Media trying to reach them in recent days have been unsuccessful.