Every year, British website Health Food gives out awards for the best “healthy products” of the year, ranging from the best freezer meals to low-calorie desserts. But this year, the best snack category is stirring up some controversy. Wild Garlic Purely Plantain Crisps was named “best crisp” of the year, which the site called “savoury sensations.” The problem is plantain chips aren’t exactly new. Fried plantains or bananas are found all over West Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia, and South America, and people are calling the company (which was founded by two white people) another example of cultural appropriation.
Writer and artist Samuel Williams tweeted about the awards, pointing out the ridiculousness of the idea that fried plantains are some sort of innovation, and that Purely Plantain was using the hashtag #plantainrevolution on their Instagram, as if they were single handedly bringing the fruit to the rest of the world. Williams declined to comment for this story, but balked at the fact that “a 75g bag costs £1.99.”
Some white people just won an award at the vegan awards 2019 in the best vegan snack category for their new innovative snack idea. It’s called... plantain crisps.— Samuel Williams (@OgaSamuel) September 26, 2019
There are wipipo on IG who are staking claims to a #PlaintainRevolution b/c they “came up with the idea” for Plantain Chips. Yes, they are getting throughly roasted. They have also been featured in Vogue and are winning vegan awards for their “innovative discovery” pic.twitter.com/KfMyiX8hHj— Leslie Mac (@LeslieMac) September 27, 2019
The chips weren’t the only snack product to take a longtime staple of a non-white culture and turn them into a neatly packaged snack (Moorish Pea Humous won for Best Dip). But Purely Plantain, which posted about their win on Instagram, is getting slammed with comments accusing them of “Columbusing” plantain chips, and profiting off marginalized cultures’ staple cuisines.
The vitriol is fueled by a previous Instagram post of theirs, in which they say a trip to South America “sparked an idea” that would become Purely Plantain. “Just because you guys finally discovered plantain doesn’t mean us diasporic folks think it’s new,” wrote one commenter. “There’s literally an entire population that grew up eating 25 cent bags of these.” Food editor Alexis Adeji also commented, “Whilst we as Africans or Caribbeans don’t own plantain, it is something that is most certainly been imbedded [sic] in our food culture and to not be given credit or even be acknowledged during your inspiration to start this not so ‘revolutionary’ brand is quite frankly insulting.”
It’s not like the Health Food awards are the ultimate word in healthy snacks—though they’ve been running for 11 years, companies have to submit themselves for consideration. Chef Wunmi Etti, owner of Angry Black Kitchen, said she had never heard of the awards before today. But she tweeted that the product was “neo-colonialism at its finest.” In an interview over Twitter DM, she said her frustration is two pronged: the “gentrification of foods” that lead to inflation of prices of things that are staples to non-white communities, and the lack of acknowledgment that there were any forerunners. “Repacking and selling our native foods to the white market is insulting,” she said, “because it insinuates they will only buy from their own people, which is inherently oppressive.”
People love to counter arguments about cultural appropriation by throwing their hands up (“oh so I’m just not allowed to do anything??”) and accusing marginalized people of wanting total cultural segregation. But as Adeji wrote, nobody “owns” plantain chips. Of course, two white people are allowed to enjoy the taste of fried plantains, to add different flavors, and even to market them to others who may be unfamiliar with them. But the frustration comes from, yet again, watching as white people, who could have been buying these foods for decades, are just now won over because it’s made by other white people. It’s food sites assuming readers don’t know what pho is. It’s the sadness of watching everyone jump to make a “spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric” (which, to its credit, acknowledges its culinary influences) instead of the chana dal your family has been eating forever. It’s watching banana prices stay low because of their increased popularity in Europe and North America, while banana and plantain farmers are chronically underpaid. And it’s the constant centering of the white perspective, assuming any non-white cuisine needs to be “introduced” and repackaged to have value.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to buy pre-packaged plantain chips, or with not knowing they were a thing until you saw them in pastel packaging in a health food store. There’s a first time for everything. But what any accusation of cultural appropriation or “Columbusing” is really about is wanting marginalized cultures to be given credit, and money, for the things they’ve created, and for any cross-cultural exchange to be done in good faith. It’s about asking the world to consider who has been doing the work, and who just slaps different packaging on it to make it cool. To paraphrase: cite, don’t bite. Or really, cite, then bite.
Update: September 30, 2019, 12:35 a.m.: Stefania Pellegrino, Co-Founder and CEO of Purely Plantain, provided Eater with the following statement:
“We started making plantain chips because we wanted to make a healthier alternative to potato crisps. We fell in love with them while travelling in Ecuador in 2016. We don’t claim to have invented plantain chips in any way - we just want more people to eat them, as we know how delicious they are. And we buy from local Ecuadorian farmers which means supporting them too.”