Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Latino food in the Lehigh Valley

I arrived to the Lehigh Valley from England in 2008. The Latino food scene comparing to where I used to live (Oxford, Manchester and Colchester) was great. Of course, it is not surprising since the number of Latin Americans who live in the United States is huge comparing to those living in the United Kingdom. However, after a short honeymoon I realized that most Latino restaurants served more or less the same: rice, beans and meat. These staples are central to the cuisines of the region, but Latin American food cannot be limited to them.

I grew up in Mexico City, as a result I am more familiar with that cuisine. The most striking feature of most Mexican restaurants is that their menu is fairly similar, with burritos, enchiladas, meat, rice and beans featured as their main entrees. It may be worth to say that burritos were new to me. Burritos as they are served in the U.S. are a creation of the Tex-Mex cuisine. In northern Mexico they do eat burritos, but they are closer to a taco. You stuff one ingredient into a wheat tortilla rather than adding rice, beans, meat, cheese and lettuce into a humongous wheat taco making it very difficult to eat and digest. The next surprising thing was the lack of vegetarian or fish meals, when traditional Mexican food is greatly based on meatless dishes. Traditionally in Mexico only the well-off ate meat every day. Most people had meat only once a week or for special occasions. Moreover the indigenous and peasant diet is based on vegetables, out of necessity of course. Considering that most migrants from Mexico come from the countryside it is puzzling to realize that they are not preparing what they ate back home.

There are various reasons to explain this. The most evident is that these restaurants are catering to an American or Americanized palate, to diners who expect to eat burritos or rice and beans. Therefore, it is financially risky to come up with a more original menu in which traditional meals, including fish and vegetarian options, are served. However, I also think that some restaurant owners, or Latinos, think that meat should be served in a decent restaurant. Vegetarian food is associated with poverty, thus if you are able to afford eating out you have to eat meat. I think that the Valley might be ready for a less-Americanized food scene, or at least that is what I would like to think. But in the meantime, we should take a moment to reflect about the meaning of traditional diets, people’s aspirations and expectations, and the role of consumers. Just some food for thought.

– Dr. Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez, Moravian College

2 Comments

  1. When I was 17, I spent three months in Mexico with my older sister and my father. We drove from Pennsylvania down the gulf coast and across the mountains to Mexico City. Close to the US border we picked up two hitchhikers, young men who had been trying to gain legal entry to the US and had been turned away. We drove them back to Mexico City where they were from. The mother of one of the hitchhikers was so grateful we had brought her son home safe that she invited us to a big family meal. My sister and I were vegetarians. My father was concerned that this thankful mother had spent her weekly food budget on this meal and reminded us to show our appreciation. At her home for the meal that night, I ate fish for the first time in years. For the rest of the stay, it was easy to be a vegetarian in Mexico.

    • Sandra Aguilar

      April 22, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      Dear Sophia,
      Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. The aim of this project is to facilitate conversations about food and thus build connections across different communities.

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