[Update, March 25, 2021: This article has been edited to include a quote from Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana.]
Jamaican Curry Rice, General Tso’s Chicken with Rice, Potato Vindaloo—these are some examples of Vassar Dining’s diverse menu options available for the students eating at Vassar, a predominantly white institution. The Gordon Commons staff aims to dismantle a typical white American-centric menu, highlighting different cultures’ cuisine across the globe. Yet the naming of foods such as Halal Chicken Bacon Pizza, Oriental Wild Rice and Oriental Chicken Dumplings reveal Vassar’s tendencies of cultural appropriation and a reflection of the institution’s attitude towards its BIPOC students.
Before examining the issues of appropriation, it is important to examine the process of how foods at Vassar make their way onto the Vassar menu. Stephen Scardina, Resident District Manager for Bon Appetit at Vassar College, explained that menu options do rely on student responses. “We rely on feedback from our students in the different types of cuisine that they would like to see offered in our operations. We also incorporate menu items that our staff recommends based on their cultural backgrounds,” he stated. After this, the Executive and Sous Chefs of Vassar’s kitchens begin research on the recipes. Scardina described this process as more of a science than an art, stating, “We engineer our menus so we can reach a broader spectrum of tastes and personal preferences … Our Executive Chef will always start testing a dish with the authentic recipe for the first tasting. Based on feedback, he will then add his own twist to a menu item and also work with the culinary teams to do the same.” In other words, the food that arrives on Vassar student plates and meal bins must go through a series of taste tests by culinary teams before it’s ready to be served.
This has resulted in dishes inspired by a fusion of cultures, such as Curried Corn Chowder, which Scardina called a “popular vegan soup” from a “Caribbean-Indian influence,” as well as foods that aim to be more sensitive towards different backgrounds, such as the recent incorporation of halal burgers to give Muslim students more protein options. Certainly these are a few of many attempts Vassar Dining has done to accommodate students’ tastes. But in spite of the research done by Vassar’s culinary teams, certain foods have failed in representing cultures accurately.
For example, students have noticed how certain kosher and halal options break the rules of their religious conventions. Oven Roasted Sage Butter Chicken, for instance, seems to go against kosher practices—even though it is not certain if butter was actually used in the cooking. Another is labeling a food with bacon as halal. Huda Rahman ’23, a Muslim American student, recalled: “One problem that came up recently was a pizza with bacon being labeled as halal because the chicken on it was halal. I don’t think they realized that contaminating the chicken made it haram but regardless there were students posting and emailing about it. The chef issued an apology and so far the issue has not come up again.”
Three recent menu options have also had grievous impacts: Oriental Chicken and Rice Soup (served at the Retreat on March 2) Oriental Chicken Dumplings (served at the Retreat on March 15) and Oriental Rice Salad (served at the Deece on March 22) which, according to Scardina, were conceived by the Retreat’s Head Chef and Retail Manager. Speaking of how the names were derived, Scardina said, “Our chefs will often search the internet for new recipes and use the name of the recipe when we menu the item,” though he added, “We will discontinue the use of oriental and other menu description that do not reflect the proper authenticity of the dish.”
This however, does not negate nor address why the word “oriental” has been used three times to describe supposedly Asian-inspired dishes. Speaking of the derogatory nature of these labels, Spencer McGrath ’21, a Chinese American student, said, “I think that my least favorite food is literally anything they label as oriental because it is racist. It’s also a super outdated term rooted in a lot of colonialism and imperialism.”
McGrath also made note of the difference between using oriental in Asian food businesses as opposed to its usage in Vassar’s dining menus. “[Asian businesses that] use oriental in the name [are] a whole different conversation. But there’s no reason [Vassar Dining] should be using this term.”
Delving into the usage of labels, Leslie Lim ’24, who is of a Cambodian Chinese background, expressed her frustration with marketing foods generally as “Asian.” Using fried rice as an example, she stated, “I think that marketing [for fried rice] as just Asian fried rice is really harmful. Because every different culture has different tribes of rice, like Thai fried rice is going to be so much different from what you’ll find in a Chinese household. It’s just really irritating that they package up these fried rice with peas and carrots. And that’s it. And that’s not authentic to what you’re labeling it as—not that there’s any way to label something as Asian and that be authentic.”
Addressing the Asian label, McGrath said, “It’s a bit different if it’s coming from something like the Asian Students Alliance, which is obviously not food, but certain groups that are trying to bring together different ethnic groups of Asian people across campus. But I think with [the label of “Asian”] food, it comes off as very disrespectful because it does, especially from PW (predominantly white) eyes, [come] off as lumping Asians together. And it perpetuates this idea of the monolith of Asia, which is ridiculous, because Asia’s landmass is huge.” They added, “The idea of authenticity can be a dangerous one, because I think there’s a lot of gatekeeping in the Asian and Asian American communities. But I think that authenticity [for these communities] is either what you grew up with and what it’s derived from: your heritage culture.”
To label dishes to Vassar students as “oriental,” both Lim and McGrath stressed, is not just an insensitive error, but a reflection of Vassar’s biases against Asian-identifying students in their academia. “When we label things, even food items, as Asian, it always refers back to East Asia,” Lim said. “And that perpetuates like the erasure of not only Southeast Asians, but South Asians, and it’s really problematic. And I think that just comes to show itself like in food, and especially even rooted in our like Asian Studies Department, or our Asian American Studies department that that’s not really real, where we only come to focus on certain groups and certain ideologies.”
Yet it shouldn’t have to be the responsibility of BIPOC students to address these issues. Lim called upon white students to also hold Vassar accountable. “If you’re a white person encountering these microaggressions, you need to be the one to make a fuss,” she said. “As Asian American or Asian students here, we’re expected to have the emotional labor and organize and do these things to make ourselves feel comfortable here. But if you take the stance and do tangible things like emailing or calling, then you’ll be able to help mobilize.” She continued, “And I think that’s so much more important than posting like an infographic on your Instagram. Because these are the things that we’re actively thinking about a lot of the time. We don’t get to stop thinking about, oh, how does our race or ethnicity play into our role here on campus.”
Drawing on Lim’s words, McGrath made sure to note how Vassar administration has continually failed Asian and Asian American students, in spite of President Elizabeth Bradley’s claims of solidarity with the Asian American community. “There’s a reason that communities on this campus are still so divided by race,” McGrath said. “And it’s very frustrating because [when] administrators see our faces, they see faces of other BIPOC minorities. And they just think we’re an irritation. They won’t listen to us, especially students who are involved with VASAM, which I think has caused PB to literally go, ‘all Asian faces: bad.’ [Because of the administration’s view on VASAM], they’re less likely to listen to us [when they see an Asian face] because they already see us as complainers making problems for them.”
Importantly, criticism shouldn’t be directed at the Gordon Commons and Retreat workers who prepare the food, but rather the higher-ups who are in control of dining at Vassar. “Their labor is already being taken advantage of,” McGrath said. “But there are other ways that either administration [can handle these issues]. There could be people who could come in and show them how to make these recipes. Or they could actually hire more people of color [for Vassar Dining].”
Of this idea, Rahman said, “I do not think it should be up to the students to have to provide recipes to the dining staff but if a certain community’s food is prepared in a way that does not seem culturally appropriate, someone should speak up and let them know. A big point is to assume ignorance not malice, I doubt anyone is purposely cooking the dish wrong and the dining staff would be open to criticism.” Still she emphasized that staff should put more effort into their research on dishes, as well as differentiating what is exactly being served versus its label on the dining menu.
Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana responded to the concerns about certain items on Vassar’s menu:
“As the senior officer in charge of Campus Dining, I want to apologize to our students and especially to members of our Asian American communities for the problematic labeling of some of the food options in our dining facilities. Terminology and labels are saturated with complex histories and meanings that can shift across space, time and among different groups. It is clear that recent labels in dining, that were once used in the past to refer to particular products and foods, failed to consider these complexities and shifts. As a result, we have hurt valued members of our community. I am sorry that this happened. We are grateful to the VSA for bringing this matter to our attention. We have corrected the use of the offensive language and it will not appear again. Bon Appetit has also re-trained relevant dining staff on the proper preparation of halal food selections. We have also spent the last month working with the Vassar Muslim Students Association in collaboration with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices to prepare for a successful Ramadan. I remain thankful to our students for their continued engagement on these matters as we continue to strive to create the campus community to which we all aspire.”
The most important conclusion to draw from Vassar’s controversial menus is that it is not a new problem, but rather a reminder that the institution was not built with nonwhite students in mind—a reminder that is ever so prevalent in the minds of BIPOC students and merely glossed over by the white students who make up most of Vassar’s campus. Even if Vassar removes “Oriental Chicken with Rice” from their menus or does a better job at listening to students’ demands, its failures toward BIPOC students must not be completely forgotten.