Stolen tortillas

Another “cultural appropriation” crisis.

Willamette Week reported ten days ago:

During an impromptu Christmastime road trip last year to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly lost their minds over tortillas.

“In Puerto Nuevo, you can eat $5 lobster on the beach, which they give you with this bucket of tortillas,” Connelly says. “They are handmade flour tortillas that are stretchy and a little buttery, and best of all, unlimited.”

They liked them so much they wanted to sleuth out the recipe.

“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 says. “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.”

They went home to Portland and worked on trying to make something similar.

“On the drive back up to Oregon, we were still completely drooling over how good [the tortillas] were, and we decided we had to have something similar in Portland,” Connelly says. “The day after we returned, I hit the Mexican market and bought ingredients and started testing it out. Every day I started making tortillas before and after work, trying to figure out the process, timing, refrigeration and how all of that works.”

They came up with something they liked, and opened a weekend food truck, and Willamette Week reported on the story…and they promptly closed the food truck.’s Jamilah King responded to the Willamette Week interview with a piece Friday calling out the women for “stealing recipes from Mexico to start a Portland business.”

“The problem, of course, is that it’s unclear whether the Mexican women who handed over their recipes ever got anything in return,” King wrote in the piece that also outlined how others had begun to accuse the women of cultural appropriation. “And now those same recipes are being sold as a delicacy in Portland.”

As opposed to what? As opposed to not being sold as a delicacy in Portland. Why is the second an obvious improvement? The women in Puerto Nuevo weren’t going to move to Portland, so why couldn’t tourists try to replicate their delicious tortillas in Portland so that more people could enjoy them?

There’s this thing in the world called the recipe, and recipes are often shared. They’re also often kept secret and jealously guarded, to be sure, but that doesn’t prevent people from using trial and error to try to replicate them. Broadly speaking, though, cooking techniques are part of human culture and heritage. If you sell food, as the tortillas were sold in Puerto Nuevo, there’s a chance consumers of the food will go home and try to make it themselves; some might even sell it. Is that really stealing, or appropriation?

If an entrepreneur did it and made a hugely profitable product I would say yes, seek out those cooks in Puerto Nuevo and give them a damn good cut. But a little local food truck? Is it really worth bullying them into closing?

“How would you people feel if I went and spied on your family or business recipes and took it somewhere else for my own financial benefit?” Olivia L. from Portland wrote in a Yelp review. “This is stealing.”

If you took it to Venezuela or Belgium? I would probably feel flattered. If you took it down the street from my restaurant, that would be unfair, but thousands of miles away? I would see it as the usual cultural cross-pollination.

Supporters, however, have pointed to how common it is within the culinary world and food industry to take methods and ingredients from other countries and profit off of them.

Fast food places tend to do it badly. Small local places can do it well. I’m not convinced that anyone was harmed in the making of these burritos.

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