Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Tag: Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez

What is the meaning of the American dream in terms of food?

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As part of Food in the Public Square we have conducted two cooking workshops and one open forum. In terms of Latinos we have had participants coming from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, and Mexico. Only one out of 12 participants in our cooking workshops has been a man, which made us reflect about gender dynamics in the household. Traditionally women have been responsible for provisioning, cooking and cleaning. This is the case in most Latin American households. But how feasible is it to do so when women work outside their home? Do they just accept their double shift or do they try to modify this practice?

Based on the conversations we have had we see how that dynamic has changed. Women in their seventies who grew up in Latin America recalled that children, particularly older daughters, were expected to do housework. Growing up in big families, where there were more than six children, allowed mothers to divide tasks and therefore share the workload. Women in their fifties who live far away from their family mentioned how in the United States it is harder to keep the same structure. Their families are less numerous and women have to engage in paid work. Nevertheless, their husbands expect them to cook every day and to be in charge of housework. This is not always possible, so they had to rely on leftovers, prepare simple meals or buy processed or ready-made meals. However, some younger Latinos mention that they are trying to engage the whole family in cooking, which helps reduce the workload but also teaches children how to cook and reinforces family unity.

Achieving the American dream is not easy. The ideal of keeping a house clean and tidy and cook so the family can eat dinner together results a challenge. Moreover, in some cases dinner has to satisfy every palate, which in the United States is expected to be different. Children do not eat grown-up food, teenagers might be vegetarian or vegan, and the husband wants traditional dishes from their country of origin. Canned and processed food become part of daily life, and in some instances buying fast food allows families to eat on a reduced budget. Most first generation women face that paradox, should they work more hours to earn more money or spend that time cooking, cleaning and looking after their children instead. In most cases the need is bigger, so women end up working for money. Still the predicament of spending more or less time cooking is present, and it always come at a price. In a capitalist society in which time is money, we need to reconsider the value of cooking elaborate meals or growing our own food. Is this a privilege or a necessity?

Dr. Sandra Aguilar, Moravian College

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