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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 following 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?

check it out

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.

Bittersweet

Looking back, I can’t believe how fast the semester flew by. And it sucks.

When I was making my last schedule of my college career just a few months ago, I had no clue what  “Taco Literacy” meant, or how the class would influence me. I thought to myself, “well this could definitely be interesting”, but I didn’t understand the full scope of what “interesting” would mean… boy am I glad that I gave myself the chance to find out.  Prior to taking this class, my understanding of Mexican food barely reached beyond the likes of Qdoba and Chipotle. Sad to say I know, but I guess because of how I was raised, I just never really got the chance to taste that side of the world. I was excited to experience something new, and develop my understanding of the world around me. 

Even though our class didn’t quite pan out the way we expected, it has taught me (and I’m sure the rest of my peers) so much incredible information – both about Mexican food ways and about our own. I knew I’d get to learn about lots of Mexican foods, but I didn’t realize how much I’d also get to learn about myself – and for that I am so grateful to this class. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed everything in our class, I think a few moments stood out to me more than others. Here are my five most impactful lessons / takeaways / memories from our class (no particular order):

Trying new foods: I really loved when we got to try pulparindo and pan dulce in class (back in the good old days when that was still a thing)  With the pulparindo, I had no clue what to expect, but I really liked trying a new flavor and a new food. Even though I didn’t love the taste, I appreciated being able to begin our class with this experience. It showed me to keep an open mind about our class – because a lot of things would be new to me, and even if I didn’t like them all, they’re still worth trying. I also loved eating the pan dulce – well I have a sweet tooth, so I knew that one would be a score in my book. The pan dulce even reminded me of a Polish dessert I grew up eating, so that was a nice connection I got to make. 

If I click my heels together enough times and say, “there’s no place like the basement of St. John’s Hall” (now THERE is something that I never thought I would say) do you think I could go back to this moment?

Going to South Philly Barbacoa : I know I didn’t even get to try any food – which totally sucked btw – but that was the first time that I had gotten so emotional about Mexican food, the first time that I realized that Mexican food has a meaning to me too (even if I’m not Mexican). I was lucky to get some fun pictures of the outside, and in the very least it was an awesome road trip.

How to Break Someone’s Heart in Four Words:

Assignment 1 : I really enjoyed doing this first assignment because I got to play the role of food critic, going to restaurants and tasting so many foods. Looking back, I think that the restaurant I went to probably wasn’t the best – I think it was a little more Queens than Mexican. But nonetheless, this gave me a better understanding of… how to put it… the “range” of Mexican food? What I mean by this is that, from Qdoba to home-made cooking, we have different levels of “authentic” (this of course applies to all cuisines right?). So maybe now, the next time that I’m craving “Mexican”, instead of going to Chipotle I’ll go for the mom and pop place 

Zooming with Ralat: I have to give Mr. Ralat a shoutout, because our zoom meeting with him was just awesome. You can tell when someone has a passion for something, and it’s really special when you get to witness that passion. Like, yes tacos ARE amazing and they do deserve so much hype!!! I hope that whatever I become “when I grow up”, I love what I do that much. It was really touching to see that, and I think it goes a long way to show that Mexican food is not just some cheap street food that we should overlook – wake up @ everyone else!

Even though this isn’t my pic (shout out to my friend Sam) it’s a great one! I’m sure Ralat would agree – and dig in along with you!

Cooking: I think my favorite aspect of our class was how much I cooked! Before this class, I really did not cook. Maybe some macaroni and gravy or a frozen Trader Joe’s meal, but not really much more than that. Through our class, I’ve learned to get creative in the kitchen and learn through food. Trying to make my own versions of Mexican dishes as well as making my own recipes was a really fun way to connect with the food. You can bet that after this class I’m never going back to that version of Kat – the new and improved makes her own, fresh meals now!

I am so proud, and so grateful, for the journey that I’ve had this semester. Really, for the journey that we’ve all had. My understanding of food is so much deeper thanks to this class – now that it is, I can’t wait to get back out there (once quarantine etc. is all over) and EAT ! 

Making Chili

As I’ve written in a few of my Instagram posts, I have been making my own chili at home. I started making chili a few weeks ago because I got a crockpot, but as I started looking into different recipes and making my own, I wanted to also dig deeper into the history of chili – and learn where it really comes from.

To bean, or not to bean?

Is chili really Mexican?

Though the exact origins of chili may be unknown, one of the earliest known descriptions of this dish is from San Antonio in 1828 – a man by the name of J.C. Cooper wrote about the food that he observed families eating in the streets. Even though he doesn’t explicitly say the word chili, he describes a stew of meat and peppers, which isn’t entirely off from what chili is as we know it now. By the 1880s, markets set up stands to sell chili, and by the 20th century chili became popular not only in Texas, but throughout the country. So maybe chili isn’t a “Mexican dish”, but rather an American dish with Mexican flavors.

My chili

So whenever I make my chili, I kinda just put whatever I have at home- beans, corn, peas, onion, peppers – I’ll throw it all in there. One thing I think makes chili an American dish is that it’s so adaptable- you can throw the whole kitchen sink together and still make a rockin’ chili. Chili is also a really great dish to make during quarantine because of this reason- no need to run out to the grocery store, because most likely you can find enough ingredients at home to throw together.

Here’s what I made my chili out of this week:

I haven’t been grocery shopping in a while, so I really didn’t have much to work with. But still! When you’re hungry, you can make something delicious out of anything. I made this batch out of black beans, chopped tomatoes, sweet peas, carrots, vegan chorizo, and baked beans. Of all those ingredients, I think I’ve only ever used two – black beans and vegan chorizo- in my chili before. And yet, the amazing thing about chili is that it you can throw random things together and it all works somehow.

I don’t think that any meal is easier than chili – all you do is mix everything into the pot and then set it on LOW for 6-8 hours. No further assistance required. And with minimal effort and a just a bit of time, you can have yourself a whole meal that’s healthy, delicious, and super affordable!

Here’s how mine came out :

“Coca-colonization”

During our discussions with Dr. Gálvez, one term that came up a few times in her studies is the idea of “coca-colonization”. I wanted to go further in depth in order to understand, what exactly does this mean?

The term “coca-colonization” refers to how American styles, traditions, and foods spread throughout the world with the help of American products such as Coca-Cola. If you’ve ever traveled outside the U.S., I’m sure you’ve seen this- Coca-Cola products are distributed to over 200 countries around the world! The way that American products such as Coke have spread around the world is an example of colonization, or the process of change that happens when one culture is introduced to another.

Even though most of us probably associate this term “coca-colonization” to Dr. Gálvez’s research in Mexico, the term was actually first used in France in 1949, when the French Communist Party created this portmanteau– or linguistic blend of words – in opposition to the expansion of Coca-Cola throughout the world. If those guys thought Coca-Cola was a powerful brand back then, I’d love to see the look on their faces at what Coca-Cola is today! I think it’s really interesting that, during World War II and the Cold War, many European countries rejected “coca-colonization” because they saw it a threat to their national identities- coke was a way to Americanize, to colonize, these other countries.

Sounding familiar..?

This is a lot of what Dr. Gálvez’ work is based on- that is, the relationship between the United States and Mexico, how both countries affect one another. Some questions that relate to this include:

  • How to US consumers get their foods? How does this compare with how Mexican consumers get theirs?
  • How has the introduction of American products such as Coke influenced the Mexican market- and diet?
  • How has Mexico been changed by American influences? How has coca-colonization played out in Mexico?

Learning to cook

During this quarantine, I’ve been cooking a lot. Since I can’t go out for food or groceries, I decided to teach myself how to cook delicious meals for myself. I think that teaching myself how to cook now goes hand in hand with our class, because it’s allowing me to develop a deeper understanding of food. I always loved to eat, but until now I never appreciated the food ways that are developed through cooking. By learning new recipes and trying my own, I’m learning about food, myself, and the world around me. I’ve been attempting lots of different foods, including Mexican, Italian, Polish, Thai, and Greek. Here are some of my favorite highlights :

Thai Curry Salmon

I really didn’t know how to photograph this and make it look good (one of my biggest struggles this semester has been trying to get good pictures- I’m so bad at working those angles!!) Regardless of how it might look, this salmon was probably one of the single greatest things I’ve made all quarantine. I made my own Thai curry sauce from scratch from a recipe that I found online – although I modified the recipe to my own style by adding the peppers and shallots. I also cooked the salmon in the curry instead of in a separate pan, which made it really absorb all the flavor of the sauce. I added some steamed brown rice at the bottom to make an an amazing dinner bowl.

I’ve never made my own curry before, but I really loved getting to try it for myself. Making the sauce myself made me appreciate how much goes into the foods that I love to eat so much myself- food is not only delicious, but in many ways it’s also beautiful. Food is an art, and it should be appreciated for everything that goes into it.

“Zucchini Parm”

One of my favorite Italian dishes is eggplant parmesan. So when I had a craving for Italian a few nights ago I made my own version, but again, with my own twist.

I started by making my own sauce- I mean, gravy. I’m not Italian, so I don’t have a secret recipe handed down from my nonna, but I don’t like to cook with the jarred stuff. The key to my gravy is that I simmer the tomatoes with roasted garlic, red wine, and some spices (including a pinch of sugar) for about an hour and a half. Allowing the sauce to cook for so long releases so much flavor!

Since I only had zucchini the other night, I modified eggplant parm into “zucchini parm”. I bread my zucchini medallions in egg and breadcrumbs, then seared them on a pan with olive oil. After searing them on both sides for a few minutes – maybe 4-5 on each side- I popped them in the oven at 375 to soften them up a bit. I eyeballed the time, but I’d say they were ready after about 15 minutes in the oven. I don’t really love when eggplant parmesan has a lot of cheese in it so I sprinkled my version with just a little bit of the dry parmesan mix from Trader Joe’s to finish off my dish.

Greek Asparagus

I’ve been really enjoying new recipes for vegetables. I grew up eating TONS of veggies- my mom is a dietician and both of my parents are immigrants so you know they weren’t letting me have any kid cuisines or anything fun like that – but eating so many veggies gets boring eventually. When I found this recipe, I knew I wanted to try it myself, and of course with my own twist.

For the most part, I stuck to this recipe. I never made infused olive oil before, so that was really cool to learn. The only thing I changed about this recipe was that I used grated parmesan instead of feta. Gotta do what you gotta do during these times. Still, it was so delicious- and showed me that Greek food and culture don’t have to be all that “Greek to me”!

Polish Kasza

Kasza manna is the Polish word for semolina porridge, which if you don’t know is basically like a warm breakfast cereal. This is something that I grew up eating all the time- for breakfast, for supper, or just as a snack- because it’s such a versatile and quick meal. This porridge is really easy to make- it’s made by mixing semolina flour with warm milk or water (although I recommend milk for more substance). Even if you don’t love the semolina- honestly it doesn’t pack a ton of flavor- you can oomf it up however you like. I enjoy mine with some fresh fruits, chia seeds, and honey. It’s a really filling meal that’s especially great for a cold day.

Let’s talk chilaquiles

So I realized while looking over my blog that in everything I’ve covered this semester, one thing I haven’t talked about yet is chilaquiles. So move over tacos, burritos, enchiladas – it’s time to talk chilaquiles.

What are chilaquiles?

The tradition of making chilaquiles has existed since the time of the Aztecs, and to this day chilaquiles are a very common meal in Mexican cuisine. Derived from the ancient Nahuatl word meaning “chilis and greens”, chilaquiles, in their essence, are made from fried tortilla pieces that are covered with chili salsa and simmered. Doing so allows the tortillas to soften and absorb all the flavors of the salsa. This dish is often made from leftover tortillas and salsas – talk about an awesome way to make the most out of food! My life motto is waste not, want not, so I’m a big fan of any dish that repurposes foods into something new and delicious, especially one that is a brunch staple.

Chilaquiles are often mixed with things like beef, chicken, eggs, and queso to add flavor and dimension to the dish. The chilaquiles that you eat will vary depending on where you are, as with many of the dishes that we’ve studied this semester – for example, the chilaquiles in Mexico City are simmered in green tomatillo sauce. On the other hand, in Central Mexico, the tortillas are not simmered; instead the salsa is poured over the tortillas right before being served to keep them from getting too soft.

Two popular versions of chilaquiles are verdes and rojas. The green sauce, or verdes, is milder and tangier, as it’s made from tomatillos that are either roasted, boiled, or used raw. A red sauce, or rojas, is made from a tomato base that is mixed with different dried chilies – such as pastillas, guajillos, or chiles de árbol – to give it flavor.

I unfortunately don’t have the ingredients to make my own chilaquiles, but I found this awesome recipe that I’ll definitely be trying once I can get the ingredients and a kitchen to cook them in :

I’m really bummed that coronavirus is hindering me from trying my own chilaquiles right now, but you bet that as soon as it’s over I’ll be hitting plenty of restaurants to catch up for all this lost time – and lost food 🤤

Taco Chronicles

As I wrote in one of my recent Instagram posts, there’s a new culinary docuseries on Netflix called Taco Chronicles.

Unfortunately, I really haven’t been able to experience Mexican food as much as I had hoped I would- as much as I’ve tried to get creative and make some things out of what I have, I definitely miss eating and experiencing other people’s food. Since all of this craziness started happening, I haven’t been eating outside food or going grocery shopping that much. Because of all the consequences of coronavirus, including not being able to meet in person, I’ve been trying to learn about the class in other ways that I can- including through shows like Taco Chronicles.

The show is only six episodes, so it’s easy to watch. I really like that it’s in Spanish because I think it’s more genuine when the people who create the food can express it in their own language, from their own hearts. Plus, it’s a great way for me to work on my Spanish skills (and study for my Spanish final coming up soon! 😆) Each episode is named for a style of preparation, which I think is really cool. If you “don’t have the time” to watch the whole show – which is a weak argument these days IMO – you can learn the basics from the titles of each episode:

  • 1. Al pastor: the word “pastor” means “shepherd” in Spanish. This style of preparation involves marinating the meat – typically pork, though it can be modified with different meats such as chicken or carne asada – in a combination of chilies, spices, and pineapple, and then grilling it over a spit. It is a variation on lamb shawarma, which Lebanese immigrants brought to Mexico during the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • 2. Carnitas: this style of slow cooked pulled pork is super versatile and simple. The key to this style of meat is that it’s cooked long and low in order to really bring out the natural flavors of the meat. I’ve been vegetarian/vegan for about 7 years, so I would personally pass on these tacos, but I could imagine that people who enjoy tender, flavorful meat would enjoy a taco con carnitas.
  • 3. Canasta: literally meaning “basket” taco, this style gets its name because it’s often sold in the streets of Mexico in baskets. It’s commonly eaten as a morning breakfast, and vendors can be distinguished by their cloth-covered canastas, or baskets, with which they ride. The key to making this type of taco is that it is placed in a lined basked after being cooked, which allows it to steam- this makes the taco soft and moist. The basket can be lined with parchment paper, aluminum foil, plastic, or towels.
  • 4. Asada: carne asada literally means “grilled meat” in Spanish; it’s a dish made of a grilled meat that’s usually skirt steak, sirloin steak, tenderloin steak, or rib steak. This type of preparation involves marinating the meat before cooking it on a grill. It is often chopped to fit more easily in tacos.
  • 5. Barbacoa: Beef barbacoa is known as a traditional meal in Mexico. But what makes it so special? It’s the perfect, balanced combination of bold spices and chilies with tender, juicy meat. This style of taco is really great if you want a flavorful, mouth watering bite with a kick – and it’s the perfect dish to make at home in a crock pot if you want to try yourself.
  • 6. Guisado: the article that I read put it, this is “the Mexican version of a one-pot meal … anything simple, slow-cooked, and stewy—whether made with chicken, seafood, pork, beef, or vegetables—is basically a guisado.” A word, concept, and style, guisado relates to cooking stew-style; guiso means stew. A taco guisado will be packed with lots of incredible, homey flavors.

The six styles that I described are just a few of the many, many ways that Mexican foods can be prepared and shared. I don’t know if this show, or any show, could ever do justice to all the foods and describe every single one, but maybe Taco Chronicles can come out with a second season to enlighten us even more – that, or just make us even more hungry!😅

Impromptu Margarita Night

I’ve had a box of frozen melon in the back of my freezer for a little while now – I felt bad throwing it out, and I figured I could freeze it and make something of it at a later time. While I was out shopping for my mom this weekend, I picked up some passion fruit juice. Passion fruit is my all-time favorite fruit, and as soon as I got it I thought of the perfect drink to make out of the frozen melon: frozen margaritas.

Even though there are several different theories as to how the drink originated, the margarita, or daisy in Spanish, is often seen as a “Mexican” drink – perhaps because it blends two staples to Mexican cuisine, tequila and fresh lime. It’s so refreshing and easy to make, and with cinco de mayo right around the corner, now’s the perfect time to try out a new margarita recipe 🙂

Of course I made sure to support small businesses by going to the local liquor store for my tequila and orange liqueur. I opted for el Espolón tequila. There was no particular reason that I went for this specific one to be honest, but I had tried the repòsado of this tequila maker before, so I figured it was a safe choice.

How the margaritas came out

I loosely made my margarita from a recipe that I found online, but I made it with my own twist. I used the same measurements for the passion fruit, tequila, and lime, but instead of simple syrup and ice I used triple sec and the frozen melon.

The passion fruit juice is definitely the inspiration behind this and the star flavor. I love passion fruit so much, I always want to try new ways to enjoy it!

I have to say, this recipe was a stroke of genius. The frozen melon gives it a little more thickness, so it’s a bit more like a slushee than a frozen ice- I actually like that because I hate when my drinks get watery. The melon also adds a touch of sweetness, which goes nicely with the passion fruit. I also salted the rim of my glass, which gave an added flavor to the drink. Maybe freezing random fruits isn’t such a bad idea after all!

Good cheese makes a good quesadilla

As I was looking through my blog, I realized that one food that I haven’t really touched on yet is the quesadilla. As much as I love learning about all of the foods that we’ve been discussing, I think that I’ve shied away from including quesadillas in my research because of the association to “your basic quesadilla” .

I have one word for this sorry excuse of a “meal” – disgust!

As tragic as our basic quesadillas are, real quesadillas deserve more hype. Literally meaning, “cheesy little thing”, quesadillas are a staple in every Mexican home and fonda, or mom-and-pop shop. However, Mexican quesadillas are pretty different from American quesadillas: whereas American quesadillas are little more than a flour tortilla and a very generous amount of cheese (which is usually highly processed), Mexican quesadillas are typically made from a corn tortilla and a small amount of cheese. Another difference is that in America, we usually pair our quesadillas with a hefty serving of sour cream, and, if we’re feeling “fancy”, some salsa- which is probably out of a jar. A true Mexican quesadilla, on the other hand, will be served with a good salsa and guacamole on the side.

What kind of cheese goes into a Mexican quesadilla?

Good cheese makes a good quesadilla. A good Mexican quesadilla may be made of Oaxaca, asadero, manchego, or Chihuahua cheese. However, unlike our American quesadillas, a Mexican quesadilla is never made with cheddar.

Just as there are countless different ways to make tacos or burritos or enchiladas, quesadillas also come in all different forms and flavors. Here’s a recipe that I found for one how to make authentic Mexican quesadillas:

What is the “NAFTA Diet”?

Earlier last week, our Zoom meeting was joined by Professor Alyshia Gálvez, author of the book we are studying, “Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico”. In our conversation, we talked a lot about Professor Gálvez’s research and what she has found studying populations. But before getting into her research, it’s important to understand the history and the importance behind the concepts that she discusses.

What is NAFTA?

NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, is an agreement that was signed between Canada, Mexico, and the United States in January of 1994. As the world’s largest free trade agreement, the purpose of NAFTA was to determine tariffs and duties between these three countries as well as remove trade barriers between them.

In 2018, the original NAFTA deal was renegotiated and named the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Though this new deal has not been brought into force yet (Canada just ratified it on March 13 of this year), it has already been signed by President Trump with the hope of lowering the trade deficit between the US and Mexico.

So what does NAFTA have to do with diet?

As the title of Professor Gálvez’s book suggests, there is a close relationship between NAFTA and food. But what does this mean? According to Dr. Gálvez, diet is one area that took a huge hit because of the NAFTA Agreement because it changed the landscape of Mexico with industrialization. Instead of reaching for fresh produce as they once had, people in Mexico were now choosing the processed foods because they are cheaper and more immediate than fresh produce. This change in diet trends has caused a spike in diabetes rates in Mexico over the past thirty years- this is a huge part of Dr. Gálvez’s research that she looks at.

Even though we might think that the NAFTA agreement and diet have nothing to do with us, there is something we can do; as consumers we can be more aware of what businesses we support, about what practices we encourage, and we can demand better conditions for all parties in the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Coronavirus on the food supply

After today’s discussion post about berry farmers, I was curious to do some more research into the injustices of the farming industry. After typing in “Driscoll berries” into Google search, I came across an article in the Los Angeles Times about the coronavirus and the tragic effects that it is having on farmers and their work.

As we’ve discussed in many of our earlier conversations, farmers are among the most abused and under valued workers- from the exposure to different chemicals and onerous labor to poor working conditions and unjustly low wages, farmers are not treated even nearly as well as they should. The farmers tolerate the worst of the worst for the benefit of the big dogs that dump the profits into their own pockets- they thrive while those who work the hardest get the least. What a paradox it is that those who work the hardest to feed us struggle to feed their very own families. And now, as the coronavirus wrecks havoc across the world, it’s making farmers’ work even harder. The farmers have no choice but to continue working, despite the dangers and risks of getting sick, because they can’t afford not to. What’s worse, many of these employers are not updating their workers about the virus or providing any additional protective gear or hand-washing stations. Without legal documentation, let alone any health insurance or other protection, this leaves thousands upon thousands of people with their hands tied and with no way out.

As easy as it is for us to think that this issue is removed from us, that we have no say in this, we do have a say. As consumers, it is important for us to be aware of where our products are coming from. We should fight for our produce to be more ethically sourced, for conditions to be better for workers across the board, and for the consumer-producer relationship to be more transparent and fair. I know this is easier said than done, but each of us does have the power to change this. Be mindful, be smart, and in the meantime I hope that until this all passes, everyone may remain safe and healthy.

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