"Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether."
Carter & Cooley is a sandwich shop on 19th Avenue, which is the Heights' version of a small town main street. The sandwich shop has 1920s interior design features, old black & white photos, a hanging menu on a wooden board.
For the last month, they have promoted their special sandwich -- a Vietnamese pork tenderloin sandwich "in honor of the Chinese New Year." From the standpoint of cultural authenticity, this sandwich is an abomination. It is an attempt at cultural appropriation that fails, miserably. But it tastes pretty good.
Let's start with the bread. The key to a proper Vietnamese Bánh Mì sandwich is fresh French bread. See my February 6, 2006 post. The C&C sandwich, however, uses bread that resembles a hoagie roll. Then they grill it in a sandwich press, much like a Cubano sandwich.
The meat is also un-Vietnamese. Vietnamese pork Bánh Mì uses small flavorful bits of roasted marinated pork. I am never sure what part of the pig is used, but I suspect they use most of it. In contrast, the C&C sandwich uses only pork tenderloin -- the least fatty part of the pig with the least pork flavor. Admittedly, I like cooking with pork tenderloin because it is healthy, easy to cook, and soaks up other flavors. But this pork, which comes in thick lean slices, is nothing like Vietnamese pork.
The biggest difference may be the sauce. Vietnamese Bánh Mì shops flavor their sandwiches with fermented fish sauce, either in the marinade for the pork, or the carrot relish, or just as a sauce on the sandwich. The C&C sandwich uses a sweet, vinegary sauce that more closely resembles a Chinese sweet and sour sauce. Then, they add a lot of spicy pepper. The sauce has a strong flavor and a big kick, but tastes nothing like Vietnamese flavorings.
The C&C sandwich comes with shredded carrots and cucumber. On the side, they serve a tiny potato salad that is about 1/2 potato and 1/2 mayo. Or you can get potato chips. The sandwich costs $7.50. Most Bánh Mì sandwiches sell for less than $3.00
How did C&C create this "Vietnamese sandwich"? I suspect that someone read a brief description of Bánh Mì and tried to recreate one using ingredients bought in an American supermarket. Yet they had no idea what they were doing. This sandwich is no more Vietnamese than it is Cuban or Chinese. It is to Vietnamese food what a Taco Bell enchirito is to real Mexican food, what supermarket vegetarian "sushi" is to real sushi.
Perhaps, more than anything else, this sandwich is American. It is true fusion food.
If you want real Vietnamese food in the Heights, you have to go to The Vietnam Restaurant, just down the street. But if you want a quirky, strongly flavored sandwich that is a mish-mash of cultures, go to Carter & Cooley before their "Chinese New Year" special ends.