Food for thought


It is time to put that hamburger down and take the Latino diet
and its impact on US tastebuds seriously


Latino Food Culture
Zilkia Janer
2008, Greenwood Press
156 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

EVER HEARD of the saying “You are what you eat”? It may be favoured by old women with aprons in steamy kitchens, but its relevance becomes painfully clear when you abandon your homeland for pastures – and flavours – new.

Literary references harking back to such nostalgic cravings are featured in many books: think of Tita in Like Water for Chocolate, who expresses her repressed feelings through what she cooks, managing to poison a whole crowd of people after her tears fall on her lover’s wedding banquet. Or even Oscar Wao’s brief life and the importance he attributes to a pocketful of pastelitos.

In exile, or simply in the distance, food can even be more consoling than sex, and as well as being a basic need, remains a flag, something that makes you different from the rest, or even something you can use to make a point (remember those idiots who renamed French fries as Freedom fries?).

Realising that the study of food is a serious academic task, and aware of her very own Puerto Rican background, Zilkia Janer tell us what many of us already know but have failed to admit.

Food and unity

Janer has embarked on the task of exploring the history and development of Latin American cuisine in the US: the most used ingredients, health and nutrition, who cooks what, how the foods are served, the structure and daily rituals surrounding meal times, how obtaining and distributing the main foodstuffs has evolved as an industry, and the influences upon food of religion, country and and race.

Her point of departure is a song by Lilo González from Washington, in which he calls for Latin American unity through the language of food. The result is a book as appetizing as anything on a plate.

But beware, if you are a reader who expects a cookery book in which the main ingredients are recipes and colourful pictures, you may not find this quite to your satisfaction.

If you are looking for a book that you can read in one day, this is not it, unless you decide to skip the history and follow one of the recipes featured.

But if you are interested in the politics of food and its evolution in the US, Latino Food Culture is highly recommended.

Readers of Latin American origin who are not aware of what’s cooking in other Hispanic homes will definitely find this intriguing.

The more general reader will note that the 2000 US census indicated that (legal) Latinos, comprising Hispanic and Portuguese speakers from most countries of Latin America, constituted 12.5 per cent of the population.

While the book points out that there were Latinos living in the US before it came into existence as we know it – many in the south-west descended from indigenous peoples living in those lands before the arrival of the Europeans – it also identifies the other contributing factors to the increase in the Hispanic population: documented and undocumented immigrants, refugees and exiles since the 1848 Mexican American War, the Spanish American War of 1898, the Mexican Revolution, the US intervention in Latin America during the Cold War years, the violence and displacements provoked by civil wars in Central American from the 1970s to the 1990s, and today even the “war on drugs”.

Even when Americans have adopted a taste for some of the exotic and “ethnic” dishes of these communities, they have also excelled at adapting some of the recipes to their palate (think of the 1960s and the emerging taco fast-food chains).

The question remains, then, why hasn’t the country embraced the culture and traditions of these various groups with the same gusto, and why does the public still perceive traditional “Latino” food as unhealthy, based on the number of cases of diabetes and hypertension among Latin American people?

Janer points out that since Latin American traditional diets did not cause such problems in the past – we might think of Steinbeck’s family of Mexican peasants in Tortilla Flat who grow sick after their everyday staples are removed – the reason behind the increase of diet-related disease observed among urban Latin Americans is better explained by socio-economic factors, such as the modernization of food production and the disadvantaged conditions faced even now by these groups.

She also explores the importance of chefs such as Diana Kennedy (who in the 1970s invited the public to move away from Tex-Mex food versions of Mexican dishes and, instead, to sample the real McCoy) or Daisy Martínez and Ingrid Hoffman, who today host Latin American cookery shows.

Latino Food Culture includes many representative recipes from Mexico to Patagonia, suitable for every occasion. Even the most ungifted cooks may want to try these and impress their friends. All the dishes featured were planned with accessible ingredients in mind, and the results are simply mouth-watering.

Janer teaches Latin American and Latino literature and culture at Hofstra University and is also the author of Puerto Rican Nation-Building Literature: Impossible Romance (2005). She has published a number of articles on Latin American and South Asian culinary cultures.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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