Piling on with “warnings” about Black and diaspora dishes is a playful act of protection — one that inserts Black voices in the center of culinary conversation
If the responses to a recently published recipe for jollof rice in the New York Times are to be believed, the paper of record is putting its readers in imminent danger. “Be careful. Studies show that Jollof rice can reduce the size of a penis by as much as 2 inches per bowl,” said writer Michael Harriot on Twitter. The ensuing Twitter thread contained warnings of comas, impotence, and “gastroenteritis for consumers specifically of European descent.” The message was clear: Don’t eat jollof rice.
The same phenomenon has popped up in response to a variety of Black and diaspora dishes and ingredients getting mainstream attention. In response to a tweet promoting a New York magazine story on where to get Trinidadian roti, people posted that the dish is actually grainy and disgusting, and will give you tapeworms. When videos of people making cups of Café Bustelo in their home kitchens started going viral on TikTok, folks warned it would “kill your plants” and send your grandmother to the hospital.
One of my team members just asked if we “heard about how oxtail isn’t good for you” and I have to say bravo to Twitter. Y’all are very good at this.
— AT (@primediscussion) January 23, 2023
These responses — largely from Black people whose cultures originated these recipes and ingredients — weaponize a hypothetical white person’s feelings about “foreign” cuisines for something like protection. Facetiously warning outsiders off a culture’s traditional dish ideally keeps the trendsetters at bay and from “slapping a premium price on it,” ensuring their cultural touch points remain theirs. But just like enjoying the dishes themselves, piling on becomes its own way of playfully participating in community. Says one participant, historian Dominique Jean-Louis, “We’re also finding each other and finding (funny!) ways to have the conversation of how much we want to be watched.”
One of the first instances of this reaction came in response to an Insider Food story on January 7 about the rising popularity of oxtail. Twitter user @Pnut_Malika wrote, “My cousin who lives in Trinidad wont eat oxtail. His friend had some and became impotent. His testicals were swollen. He was weeks away from getting married and his fiance called off the wedding.” This is, of course, a copypasta of an anecdote Nicki Minaj shared about what happened to her surely totally real cousin’s friend when he got the COVID-19 vaccine. In citing Minaj in regard to the oxtail, the absurdity was the point, and soon the responses piled on, shifting from Minaj’s wording to a general hyperbole about the dangers that awaited oxtail eaters (hair loss, bad credit score, death).
But there was also, perhaps, a hope that at least a few people would take the faux warnings seriously and be scared off. As Insider wrote in that story, oxtail, a staple in a variety of West Indian, West African, and Asian cuisines, “used to be considered a poor man’s cut of meat, but now it can sell for up to $10 a pound.” The general popularity of ingredients traditional to diaspora cooking can have a direct impact on people who have been cooking with them for generations.
Jean-Louis, who recently tweeted that drinking Café Bustelo will cause you to receive more robocalls, “just heard it was surging in popularity and got worried.” Jean-Louis grew up with Café Bustelo; it was what her father made on the weekends, and offered to guests before they had to drive home. She also remembers what it was like to have to drive a few towns over from her predominantly white hometown of Jackson, New Jersey, to buy ingredients like Café Bustelo at Central American groceries. “[For] these things that you couldn’t imagine certain occasions or parts of the day without, the idea of sudden scarcity is really upsetting,” she says. “I know I’d be upset if an ingredient I used for something else was suddenly flying off shelves.”
On some level, a white person making Café Bustelo wrong or cooking the world’s saddest jollof rice has no bearing on the cultures that lay claim to these foods. The real stuff still exists. But the “sudden scarcity” Jean-Louis speaks of is a threat, and has become supercharged by TikTok. Now the fear isn’t just higher prices, but being able to find the ingredient at all, and thus participate in one’s culture. The baked feta pasta dish originated by Finnish blogger Jenni Häyrinen that went viral in 2021 did cause more stores to stock feta, but also briefly caused a feta shortage. Time reports TikTok is currently causing a run on tinned fish. And after white influencers began using Mielle hair oil, many Black users complained they could no longer find the natural hair product, and that when they did, it wasn’t the same. “Black women have legitimate reasons to side eye white folks ‘discovering’ Mielle hair oil,” wrote professor Uju Anya on Twitter. “When brands BW single-handedly kept afloat start chasing white money, they raise prices, change formulas, and erase BW from their image.”
In many of these examples, though, the narrative isn’t so straightforward as a white person co-opting someone else’s culture for their own gain. The New York Times jollof rice recipe was written by Yewande Komolafe, a Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based chef. Most of the early videos on TikTok of Café Bustelo were made by Cuban Americans sharing family recipes. And the New York magazine article from Underground Gourmet columnist Tammie Teclemariam just encouraged readers to visit longstanding roti shops in heavily Caribbean neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, which are all owned by members of those communities.
“I can relate because when I was growing up, despite having a hundred Ethiopian restaurants, the Washington Post never actually took Ethiopian food seriously,” says Teclemariam. Newfound attention feels suspicious. But it seems most people weren’t reacting to the actual article, but the idea of mainstream media turning its gaze toward their community, like the eye of Sauron, “when it’s actually a thing New York magazine should be talking about! If you’re going to talk about the food here.”
Teclemariam says she was slightly surprised to see her article get the “don’t eat this” treatment. “I think the only backlash I anticipated was people saying that roti is from places other than Trinidad,” she says. “I appreciate the creativity, and also the desire to protect your food. But I think in 2023 it’s not fulfilling the same purpose that it might have in 2013, before literally every food was codified on YouTube and TikTok.” She also worried the owners of the establishments she featured, who aren’t so online that they would know it’s all in fun, might be confused or hurt by posters warning people off of their food.
But even if a Nigerian chef is the one teaching people to make jollof rice, or they’re learning how to make cafecito from an abuelo on TikTok, you never know who is watching, and what they will do with that information. All it takes is one person with a large following talking about this great recipe they “discovered” on their For You page, and it becomes theirs. Even if they do try to give credit, many people may continue associating something like Mielle hair oil with a white woman’s face.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the goal of this gatekeeping tactic is to scare people away from buying, cooking, and experiencing cuisine that is not “theirs,” which most people understand is not actually a good way to live. It’s a joke. But also, it isn’t. “It’s toxic love,” says Teclemariam. “They love it so much they don’t want to share in any capacity, so they have to ruin its reputation.”
Wanting to scare people away from your culture’s cuisine is a matter of people acting out of hurt, even if they are also acting in humor. These culinary traditions are hard-fought in Black and immigrant communities, in a country where these groups face both outright violence and the insidious pressure to assimilate. Racism and capital have made culture and history not a matter of experience, but one of ownership. That makes the priority for gatekeepers of a kind seeing white people on TikTok telling everyone to try roti protection instead of sharing.
Jean-Louis is hopeful there are ways to both share one’s culture and center its originators. “I think culture dies if we don’t transmit it, but it also dies if who the ‘we’ is doesn’t matter,” she says. By joking, members of these communities get to assert themselves as the center of the culinary conversation, and ensure that nothing about them is done without them.
The problem, and also benefit, of the internet is that no one person or group can control how information is disseminated. Who gets to be the arbiter of Café Bustelo (besides the J.M. Smucker Company)? So until Black, immigrant, Indigenous, and diaspora communities can trust the people and institutions that have historically belittled and taken from them, some very online people will continue to check those institutions. No one will become impotent. But maybe some people will spend an extra minute thinking about the cultures they’re engaging with as they line up for roti.