bowl of congee
Image by Suwit Rattiwan via Shutterstock (1889891191)

White Oregon Business Owner Faces Backlash for Culturally Appropriating Congee, an Asian Rice Porridge

Karen Taylor, owner of the Eugene, Oregon-based “Breakfast Cure” and self-proclaimed “Queen of Congee,” has apologized after receiving social media backlash from the AAPI community, accusing her of culturally appropriating an Asian rice porridge called congee.

Kimmy Yam of NBC News reported that many Asian Americans on Twitter took umbrage over Taylor’s language; in the now-edited mission statement on the company website, Taylor said she spent a lot of time “modernizing it for the Western pallet [sic]” and “improved” the congee by producing a pre-packaged meal set that didn’t “seem foreign.” Many in the AAPI community pointed out that her verbiage conformed to similar codified language many cultural appropriators habitually employ when trying to profit off a cultural product that does not belong to them.

“Congee remains a staple for Asians, with different versions cooked by nearly every country across the continent,” Yam reported. “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,” Yam added.

Yam also points out that congee is considered a humble dish for “commoners” because it requires so few ingredients and is often eaten in times of need. Breakfast Cure’s slow-cook meal packs, on the other hand, cost $14.95 per pack.

In a subsequent apology statement, Breakfast Cure began referring to their products as “Oregon Porridge.”

“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.”

Nadia Kim, professor of sociology, Asian and Asian American studies at Loyola Marymount University, said the company’s apology was insufficient, especially considering the brazen bastardization and egregious whitewashing.

“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 a profit off of it? That would have been a more instructive and insightful statement,” Kim told NBC Asian America. “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 told Yam that the success of Taylor’s business comes at a time when “Asian immigrants and those in the diaspora are shamed for their food.” Furthermore, Kim said Taylor is profiting off Asian cuisine when Asian American businesses and restaurants are still dealing with pandemic-related losses and anti-Asian racism.

Krishnendu Ray, chair of the Nutrition and Food Studies department at New York University, echoed Kim’s sentiments, telling Yam that the problem with Taylor and cultural appropriators like her is that they create a white version of a cultural product but preserve the original name as a cultural signifier because they want it to sound “cool” and “exotic.”

“When that happens, often outsiders come in, and they, in their minds, upgrade the cuisine,” 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.”

While Ray admits that the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is blurry, Kim believes simply changing the dish name to “Oregon porridge” isn’t the answer either — if anything, it contributes additional erasure of the dish’s ethnic origins.

For what it’s worth, Breakfast Cure has pledged to donate part of its proceeds to Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

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