It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Contemporary food lovers (particularly millennials and Generation X), have the most educated palates of any previous generation. They are exposed to a wide spectrum of international flavors. To many young people, eating is an experience rather than just an act of consumerism. They celebrate global flavors sold from food trucks, enjoy discovering novel dishes, and gravitate toward foreign recipes from meal-kit services that deliver to their front doors.
Nevertheless, publishers and television producers remain reticent to add Latin American cuisines to their lists of book titles or shooting schedules. Apparently, you are not interested in learning how to make easy, quick, and delicious foods from countries like Argentina, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Ecuador. To that, I ask: really?
This knowledge gap about Latin American foodways is not without consequence, nor is it the result of mere happenstance. Unlike most baby-boomers who couldn't tell a risotto and rösti apart, young people today can differentiate between a bowl of pho and one of tom-yum. In fact, most modern food lovers know not to characterize all Asian culinary creations as simply "Chinese food" or to group all European dishes under the title of "European food." This nuance, however, hasn't translated to Pan-Latin cuisines.
A sort of cultural wall exists when it comes to North Americans understanding and appreciating Pan-Latin cuisines, and it's proven to be generally insurmountable up even until today. This, to a large extent, can be attributed to the fact that we live in a society that divides us by race. The idea of containing every single Latin American nationality within one racial group has made it all the more easy to blur the lines between these distinctive communities.
Since 1990, Latin Americans within the U.S. have been required to check a box on the U.S. Census form — "Latino" — that cancels each of our personal races, ancestries, and culinary cultures. Every time we mark checks in that box, the cultural wall that keeps our specific identities out of the mainstream understanding gets higher. But as much as the establishment may want us to be straightjacketed into a category of sameness, Latinos do not belong to one single race.
Additional insult to injury comes courtesy of a popular cultural practice that groups all Latinx peoples under one nationality (i.e., Mexican), thereby negating each and every one of the other cultures that percolate through the American continents. Imagine if the same had been done to Europeans! If, in the name of expediency, all people of European descent were made to check a box that said "Italians" or "Polish" —oh, the unrest this would have caused! And yet this is exactly what has been done to Latin Americans.
The U.S. Census, and our broader cultural practices and understandings of our Pan-Latin neighbors, continues to perpetuate an unjust arrangement in which one nationality seems to define the other twenty, thus dooming them to obscurity.
In this new century, the Latinx community within the United States is still thought of as belonging to only one nationality, one political affiliation, and one culinary dogma. Perhaps politicians would do best to recognize that clumping us together doesn't cancel the fact that we don't all vote in a block, or the fact that we don't gravitate towards a two-party system. (Nor do we tend to feel party loyalty and thus we often vote more on issues rather than on ideology.) Until they do, Latinx electorates will continue to surprise political pundits and candidates eager to get their votes.
As a food writer, however, what I am interested in is what this ignorance of Latinx peoples and cultures means in terms of their foodways. Latinos are already the largest minority group in the United States; by 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts Latinx will double their numbers and become the majority. This will be the largest ethnic shift in the country since World War II.
What does this have to do with foodways? Everything. This means that in less than half a century, many of your neighbors will eat food from countries south of the border. This will change the way most people will shop, what ingredients they'll buy and what kinds of recipes they'll be searching for in cookbooks.
The diversity of our cultures, social practices and foodways can be confusing even to all Latinx desperately trying to find a common voice within this country—something that has eluded us, given the multiplicity of cultures that we represent. Although most of us speak Spanish — not everyone does — it's not the same Spanish.
I illustrate this when talking about ingredients, which take on different names depending on where you are from. An avocado, which is known as "aguacate" in Mesoamerica, becomes a "palta" once it crosses over into South American territory. The same applies for the words chileand yuca, which become ají and cassava, respectively (same language; different words).
Even words that are spelled and pronounced exactly the same can have different meanings: a tortilla may refer to a flatbread in Mesoamerica, but in South American countries, it describes an omelet. If our words, histories, geographical locations, and cultural nuances are so diverse, why is it that people are so surprised to discover that our culinary foodways are also just as varied?
Latin American food is like a large house. The front door is Mexican cuisine, and it welcomes cooks with familiar dishes: moles, tamales, tacos, etc. Yes, Mexican food is great. I love it too. I really do, and I cook it often. However, open the door, and ah…! There are twenty additional kitchens inside that house. Each one is different from the rest, and each one is as delicious as the next.
Each historical geopolitical shift in the world has revolutionized the way we eat. The globalization of Pan-Latin foodways started when the Old World descended into the Americas, and ingredients from one side of the globe were introduced to the other. That exchange ran both ways, of course. Think here of Italy without tomatoes, Ireland without potatoes, and Switzerland without chocolate.
All of those ingredients were native to the Americas. On the other hand, Europeans brought rice, citrus, chicken, livestock, and other ingredients that have become crucial to our contemporary culinary landscape. When the ingredients and cooking techniques of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East met those found in the Americas, it was effectively a gastronomic tsunami.
At that moment in history, an organic fusion of flavors began to take place—not the kind carefully orchestrated by restaurant chefs, but one that has naturally evolved from the mixing and matching of ingredients within the kitchens of everyday cooks like you and me. That was the start of globalizing foodways.
But the intermixing of peoples and culinary practices didn't end with conquest and the colonial struggles after. After the giant European empires had collapsed, the Old World struggled to feed its people. By this time, swaths of land in the so-called New World stood uninhabited, most of their original peoples having been killed off by European settlement and germs.
Smallpox alone, brought over by conquerors, killed millions; slavery and exploitation took care of the rest. The newly formed and now-independent republics in the Americas were desperate for people who could come and work the land, and they began to offer visas and parcels of land to new immigrants who were willing to come to make the Americas and work. People came from all over the world.
The émigrés gravitated to different parts of the new Latin America. Italians and the British went to Argentina; Asian immigrants from the Philippines, China and Japan settled in Mexico as well as throughout Central America, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil; Lebanese immigrants went to Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico; Eastern Europeans made it to Chile and Uruguay; so did the Germans after World War II. And throughout the 19th century, many Jewish families moved throughout Latin America, but especially to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. All of these immigrants brought with them culinary traditions, techniques, and ingredients that were quickly adapted and adopted by those people already living in the Americas.
At the base of each Latin American cuisine, however, the remnants of their individual native heritages also remained intact — the flavors and customs of Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, Olmecs, Toltecs, Taínos, Quechuas, and myriad other indigenous ancestries had left their culinary imprint.
Through all of Latin America too runs an indelible vein of African culinary heritage, brought by the enslaved peoples and which has become an instrumental force in the New World's gastronomic heartbeat. And of course, there are also remnants of Spanish cuisine, even now, centuries after the conquista.
Pan-Latin cuisines are rich, complex and varied. In order to truly bridge and to understand the huge differences between each Latinx culinary culture, there needs to be a medium to educate the public. When was the last time you saw a cooking show based on Pan-Latin flavors? Have you ever? When you go to your local bookstores, how many cookbooks can you find on various Latin American cuisines? (They probably only take half a shelf, while other foreign cuisines take several.)
Publishers and television executives seem to believe that the public has no desire to learn anything about Latin American foodways — past the food of Mexico. Just ask the many Latinx cookbook authors and food writers how hard it is to get published in an environment in where there is a resistance to publish cookbooks on Pan-Latin food.
Ask them how hard it is to enlighten the public on the culinary multiplicity of the people who will soon become a majority in the United States, when publishers only want books on Mexican food. Then ask Latinx food personalities how many times they've been asked to lighten the color of their hair or "lose their accents" if they want to be on television.
Cultural segregation continues to represent Latinx communities as only one-faceted. To believe that there is no room left for twenty culinary foodways of the Pan-Latin region because we've already discovered tacos is akin to someone saying that, given the great popularity of Chinese cookbooks, there was no room (or need) for books on any other Asian cuisine. The loss would have been so great to cooks who have loved discovering each and every one of those cuisines.
It is hard for me to imagine a world without the succulence of Latin soups such as locros, tapados, sancochos, caldos, sopas; or a culinary landscape without Argentinian rolled cakes (piononos), Peruvian stir-fries (saltados), Guatemalan stews (Pepianes), and Chilean apple cakes (kuchens). Who gets to decide which culinary foodways deserve to be preserved and expanded, and which ones should just disappear? And on what basis?
In an era of inclusivity and with the unavoidable rise of Latinx peoples in the U.S., not offering cooks access to a true diversity of culinary knowledge only further props up the privileged groups and continues to marginalize new arrivals. Culinary knowledge is power; it destroys stereotypes, opens borders and brings down walls.
Like I've always said: food is the catalyst that brings people together. All of Latin America's 21 cuisines exist precisely because they've welcomed inclusivity. It's the food of your neighbors (if not now, in the very near future) and a great launching point from which to build bridges.
What gets me is that the same proponents of social equality have walled out the uniqueness of all of these different culinary identities—that elites are precluding this rainbow of Latin American diversity from being shared and celebrated. These are the people who run the publishing houses and the television networks, many of them who promote ideals about the common good and economic equality, who begrudge the corporate world its zeal for profit, while they themselves are too afraid to back new material because they think it poses a risk to their bottom lines.
I have placed great hope in the older Gen. X'ers and millennials. It's up to them to demand the crumbling of these cultural walls by supporting the authors, producers, and chefs who are trying to salvage and promote the spectrum of Pan-Latin foodways.