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What is cultural appropriation?

“You can go about it as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation”

On the first day of class our professor began the conversation with the question, “what is cultural appropriation?”. Even though most of us probably are not actively thinking about this in our day to day lives, it is definitely something that affects all of us- especially living in New York City, which is exposed to so many different peoples and ideas that it is one of the most diverse places in the world. Regardless of where you live, it is important to open the conversation about cultural appropriation and how to avoid racial stereotyping and misconception.

Our conversation about cultural appropriation made me think of my recent visit to LA, more specifically to Olvera Street. This famous Mexican Marketplace was established by Mexican immigrants in the 1930s as a way to preserve their culture, customs, and art. At a glance it feels like an authentically genuine market, brimming with what look like traditional pottery, textiles, and calaveras, or skulls. However, as you look closer and reveal the Lakers-themed sombreros, “Kiss Me I’m Mexican” ponchos, and I ❤ LA postcards, you wonder whether they’re as authentic as you think or whether they’re just there to make a buck off appropriating a culture. As Gustavo Arellano says in his book, Taco USA, this “tourist attraction influenced Mexican restaurants for decades by catering almost exclusively to Americans”. Can Olvera St. then be a true representation of Mexican culture if its primary goal is to cater to American tourists?

As the video shows, cultural appropriation becomes a problem when we take parts of a culture without first understanding the significance of those elements. Is it a travesty for people to branch out and experience other cultures? I’d say absolutely not- in fact, being able to do so is something truly incredible. However, before doing so, it is so imperative to learn about that culture and make sure not to stereotype it. Whether you’re strolling down Olvera St. or grubbing in Corona, it is important to know what is true to a culture and what is a false trap into capitalism.

Snack with me

In a recent post, I highlighted Trader Joe’s new seasoning blend, “Everything but the Elote”. Sure enough, I went out and got a bottle of it to try it out myself. First of all, for only $2.49, this blend is super affordable. As a broke college student, I’m always looking for new ways to prepare cheap, flavorful food. This product is awesome to keep on hand for any easy snack or meal. It’s really versatile, so it’s great for many things such as mixing con queso in a quesadilla or sprinkled on top of your morning eggs. While I was at Trader Joe’s, I also picked up the Mexican roasted corn and taco sauce. I love having frozen fruits and veggies on hand for easy meals, and the Mexican corn has been one of my favorites for a while. I haven’t seen the taco sauce before, so I picked that up too to try something new. These three ingredients make a great base for so many flavorful, cheap, easy meals.

After a full day of classes, I rarely feel like cooking a big meal or having to worry about dishes. One of my go-to meals when I’m hungry are quesadillas, and these three new ingredients are a great way to jazz up a classic. The key to a quality quesadilla is the tortilla, and lucky for me I still had a pack of the tortillas from Tijuana that I’ve mentioned a few times. I never would’ve thought I’d have such an opinion on tortillas, but they’re what make the quesadilla so good. The tortilla is the star of the show!

I like to make my quesadillas on my George Forman because it’s really quick and pretty effortless.

This picture doesn’t really do the quesadilla justice, but it was so much better with the elote seasoning and corn. I put the taco sauce on the side for dipping, and it was the perfect compliment to the quesadilla. I think this will definitely become a favorite snack of mine.

South Philly Barbacoa

That’s the official trailer of chef David Chang’s Netflix series, Ugly Delicious. A few weeks ago, Dr. Alvarez showed us a clip of this show that featured South Philly Barbacoa, a small, local eatery in Philly. I’d been meaning to make a trip down to Philly anyway, so when I learned that this restaurant was not far from where I was going I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and do both. President’s Day was the perfect opportunity to take a day trip, so after rush hour that morning my roommate and I hopped in the car and headed south.

Despite the fact that it was a holiday, we were able to get to and from Philly with virtually no traffic. After a short two hour ride, we pulled up to the area of 9th St. The first thing that I noticed when I got out of the car was how narrow the street is, lined with dozens of similar mom and pop style eateries. As we strolled towards SPB, my senses were overwhelmed with the smells of so many delicious foods, spices, and flavors. By this point I was HUNGRY and ready to eat, as I’m sure you can imagine. Two hours of sitting in a car thinking of that perfect first bite sure will get your appetite going. I was practically drooling as I walked up to the doors, when I saw this:

Let me say, this hurt my heart. I was so excited to try some real, delicious food! I’ve never heard of a whole restaurant shutting down for the day because they ran out of food, but I think it goes to show how genuine this small eatery really is- it’s practically like eating at abuela’s house. I’m super bummed that I missed out on tasting their food, but luckily it’s not too far, so you can bet your money that I’ll make it back there soon. My advice is, if you plan on visiting, get there early because they really do sell out quickly!

Everything but the Elote Seasoning?

People are going crazy for the new Trader Joe’s seasoning “Everything but the Elote”, a Mexican spin on their “Everything but the Bagel” blend

For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, Trader Joe’s has a really popular (in my opinion it’s overhyped without reason) spice blend called “Everything But the Bagel”, a seasoning blend of sea salt, onion, garlic, and sesame. Since that blend has been such a hit, this week Trader Joe’s released a new spice blend called “Everything but the Elote”. This new seasoning blend is made of salt, chile pepper, cheese, chipotle, and cumin and it’s inspired by elote, a seasoned corn that is often referred to as “Mexican Street corn”. This word elote comes from the Nahuatl elotitutl, meaning tender cob. Traditional elote is made by roasting corn over an open fire, then seasoning it with cojita cheese, mayo, lime, chipotle, chile pepper, salt, and cumin. I don’t know about you, but my mouth is watering just looking at these amazing elotes.

Even though the product name suggests that all you need to add is the elote, it’s so versatile that it can be used for so much more than just corn. Here are just a few ideas for other ways to use the seasoning:

  • Popcorn
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Queso
  • Roasted nuts
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Roasted veggies
  • Mac and cheese
  • Nachos
  • Fries
  • Hummus

As much as I do hate to say it sometimes, I am a pretty big fan of Trader Joe’s. I’ll have to grab a bottle of “Everything but the Elote” the next time that I go to see if it really lives up to all of the hype. I guess I’ll have to see if I like it, or if I like it elote!

Reaction to Chapter 5 of Taco USA

How did Americans become experts at writing cookbooks on Mexican food?

The title of this chapter stood out to me as soon as I read it because it’s critical food for thought to our class. How did Americans become experts on Mexican food (or claim to be experts anyway) and who gave them that right to do so? Is it cultural appropriation for American chefs to pursue Mexican cuisine, or can it be cultural appreciation?

When I read the chapter title, I asked myself the question in terms of my own culture and what I know. I was raised in a very Polish home to two Polish immigrants, so I know a thing or two about Polish food and culture because, well, I live it first-hand. It makes sense that if I wanted to make my own pierogi, I’d ask my grandmother for her recipe that she’s been using for sixty plus years, not someone who isn’t Polish. So why then do we revere chefs like Rick Bayless, who were taught by school and not by generations of tradition. Why do we value the “expertise” of a white man over

This made me think of a restaurant that I went to a couple weeks ago. Even though the name of the restaurant was supposedly Polish, most of the staff were not Polish, and the menu featured dishes like feta-stuffed pierogi that were definitely not Polish. Feta isn’t even Polish!! It made me upset to think of people assuming that this is authentic food just because they don’t know any better.

And so, as I reflect on my own culture and what it means to me, I think about this with the perspective of Mexican food. My goal throughout this class is to look beyond the Americanized Mexican foods that overwhelm our understanding of this culture and to look deeper- to support the small, mom and pop restaurants, the places with heart and with passion and with history. To understand what makes real Mexican food, and to pursue delicious food.

The Truth about Avocados

Are Mexican avocados the world’s next conflict commodity?

Every time I eat avocado, I can’t help but think of this question. As much as I love avocado and the many delicious ways to eat it, I don’t love knowing the truth of what really lies underneath the skin of this “green gold”.

As the largest producer of avocados in the world, Mexico has become a hotbed for cartels and gangs, who now fight over dominance over the local avocado trade. This is a huge problem because the local avocado farmers are not strong enough to stand up to these cartels, and they are extorted through threats of kidnapping, rape, and gruesome violence. While doing my research I even discovered that cartels reportedly collected over $154 million in avocado profits between 2009-2013!

Now I know what you might be thinking- if the avocado industry is being controlled by cartels, why not boycott the avocados and cut the cartels off? The problem is that cutting off business for the Mexican farmers is even worse because this punishes them even more. So then, is there a solution? How do we continue to support local farmers without giving in to bandits and thieves? I don’t think it’s an answer that can be determined easily, but I think it’s definitely one worth contemplating.

Biting in to Pulparindo

Do you know pulparindo? If you’re like me and you’ve never heard of this Mexican treat before, then you may be a bit confused by it the first time you unwrap it. Even though it’s considered a candy, it’s probably unlike most that you or I are used to. Pulparindo is made from tamarind pulp and mixed with salt, sugar, and chili pepper. The result is a dark brown paste that has a consistency similar to fruit leather. However, unlike fruit leather, pulparindo has a very strong scent and flavor – that’s the chili pepper. The intense flavors of the chili might take you by surprise initially, especially since candy usually isn’t spicy; but once you get past that initial chili flavor, the tamarind flavors leave a really mellow aftertaste that lingers in your mouth.

For me personally, the savory flavors really throw me off. I wouldn’t say that I hate pulparindo, but I can’t get myself to enjoy a candy that is spicy. It’s good for a bite or two, but I don’t think I could see myself reaching for more than that. I think because I have more of a sweet tooth, I prefer candy that is actually sweet.

So maybe I’m not the biggest fan of pulparindo, but at least by trying it I can become more familiar with new flavor profiles. I probably won’t be biting into any more pulparindo for a while, but I am intrigued to try more tamarind products now and see if I might like some of those more 🙂

Aquí en Bella Puebla

“I want not only to make you desire Mexican food, but also to understand it, to appreciate it further” Gustavo Arellano

I’ll be honest: the first thing on my list of things to do after a long day of class and work usually isn’t a drive to Jackson Heights. But get together a few friends and make food involved and I’ll drive just about anywhere, any time of the day. The first stop from our list of places that I chose to test out is Aqui en Bella Puebla. Luckily, since we didn’t go until after rush hour, it was only an easy 20 minute ride away.

As soon as you walk in, there’s a huge board with a menu printed on it that’s hard to miss. I unfortunately do not speak or read a whole lot of Spanish (although I am taking Spanish for the first time ever this semester so maybe I’ll finally learn a thing or two)  – so to keep it simple I went for a quesadilla and rice with beans. 

After a short wait we got our food, and it definitely did not disappoint. Working all day definitely builds an appetite, but being able to satisfy that hunger with food that is actually tasty makes eating so much more enjoyable. The food here is clearly made to order, from fresh, delicious ingredients. Usually when I think of quesadillas, I think of flat, bland cakes oozing with unnaturally orange cheese. These quesadillas were nothing like that; they were comforting, delicate, delicious, and so fresh I may as well have been eating them directly out of the chef’s palm. And for only a couple extra dollars, the arroz con frijoles made my meal complete and perfectly satisfying.

Do I wish I tried something a bit more exciting, yes, for sure. But did I cop out and go for the easy dish because it was the only thing I could say without embarrassing myself or completely butchering the language and culture, also yes. As I explore more places throughout the semester, I hope to push the boundaries of my comfort zone and learn to try the new things. 

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