Category Archives: comida

Black in Latin America

With a little break in the school year, I finally sat down and watched all of Henry Louis Gates’ Black in Latin America PBS series this weekend. There are four 50-minute episodes, and each is worth your time. Luckily, they are all free to view on show’s website.

There are quite a few aha moments to be had in the series. For instance, I had no idea that Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for 22 years in the mid-19th century (episode 1)—an event that really began the shaping of Dominicans’ conception of “blackness,” as well as their feelings towards Haitians. I also learned about the racially charged character Negro Mama (episode 4)—a bumbling blackface thief played by comedian Jorge Benavides on Peruvian TV.

There is also quite a bit in the series about food, which meant that I was constantly hungry while watching it. At one point, Gates is having a discussion with a Mexican historian about fufu (episode 4), which is a popular savory dish in the Caribbean that has its roots in the cuisine of West Africa. Their discussion made me think of an entertaining episode of Internets Celebrities from a couple of weeks back about mofongo (just another word for the same dish) in Corona, Queens, NYC.

Gates himself seems most taken with the country of Brazil (episode 3), which has over 75 million people of African descent and was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. Personally, I was  most interested in the complicated path of racial identity in Cuba (episode 2). But I got a ton out of each and every episode. Check it out!

The ups and downs of a bittersweet and lonely harvest

Yesterday I made my way down to the Missouri History Museum in order to take in the exhibit Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964/Cosecha Amarga Cosecha Dulce: El Programa Bracero 1942-1962 and a special screening of the film Harvest of Loneliness. I’d had the date circled for weeks on my calendar because I was ecstatic that the museum had put together a program about such an important but not-well-known part of American history.

The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that brought millions of Mexican agricultural laborers into the United States in order to do field work for US companies. Initially this meant harvesting sugar beets in California, but eventually it meant just about any backbreaking job that food producers wanted done for as little pay as possible. During World War II, there was also a parallel railroad bracero program that provided Mexican labor for train track maintenance.

Braceros were supposed to receive decent wages, healthcare, and housing. In reality, most got ripped off and were forced to live in squalor and labor under dangerous conditions. Employers essentially had their way with them. They’d pay them whatever they wanted and made them sleep on planks, work in the burning summer temperatures of the US Southwest with no breaks or water, and would dump them back across the border if they got sick or died. In 1959 alone, at the height of the program, almost 450,000 Mexicans were brought to work in United States through the program.

Bittersweet Harvest (on display in St. Louis until July 31) brings together pieces from oral histories from former bracero workers and historic images from the time. The braceros’ experiences are culled from the Bracero History Archive, which is a truly awesome collection of oral histories, artifacts, and resources related to the Bracero Program. However, (*SIGH*) the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum isn’t very good. And my experience with the show even started out on a sour note because I couldn’t find it at first. When I asked an attendant at the information desk where it was, the person didn’t even know what I was talking about until I pointed to a reference to the show on a handbill. “Oh, that. It’s through there…all the way in the back.” And in the back it was. Located in a small gallery that’s connected to a room richly filled with artifacts from the World’s Fair (related to the braceros how?), fifteen banners with short quotes and a couple images each surround the walls of the room. And that’s it. No listening station. No objects. No books. No videos. For a brief moment I even thought to myself, “My goodness, they haven’t finished putting the show up yet.” You see, the exhibit is a traveling show put together with the help of the Smithsonian, and for that reason I was expecting more…much more. Below, for example, is what part of the show looked like when it was at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

But there was one huge saving grace to my day out at the museum…and that was the screening of Harvest of Loneliness. The film was made by Vivian Price and Gilbert Gonzalez and uses a combination of archival footage and recent interviews with former braceros to deftly tell the story of what the program was like—from the worker selection process in Mexico to the effect on Mexican families to the conditions in the field and the reactions of organized labor in the US to the program. The film is not apolitical, however. It clearly makes the argument that the Bracero Program was a lose-lose situation: both Mexican and US workers suffered because of it. It also argues that the Bracero Program institutionalized the exploitation of agriculture workers in the US and the naive expectations of Mexican migrants, which was only made worse by NAFTA—a formula that has led us to our current immigration situation. This point of view was reinforced after the screening by co-director Gonzalez during a Skype-based Q & A (Gonzalez is a Chicano Latino Studies Professor at UC Irvine). The following is the trailer for the film.

There was one disappointing thing about the movie though. Including me, there were only about eight museum patrons there—along with a handful of museum workers. Ugh, St. Louis! Seriously? We can’t even get a couple of dozen people out to see a free movie at the history museum? No wonder they didn’t feel the need to jazz up the exhibit.

Mi chanchito : Art museum patron is sucker for adorable pig

So I was down in Forest Park yesterday to check out Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea at the St. Louis Art Museum, and it was great. The show includes dozens of pieces of Mayan art related to the sea, rain, animals, and the gods that have never been shown in the United States before.

There are crocodile sculptures, funerary statues, duck-head vases, a pelican head…frankly it was a bit overwhelming because almost every piece has a rich mythic backstory and is executed with fine and complicated detailing. The whole time I was mesmerized by geometric configurations, stories of gods emerging from sharks, the idea of a cosmic turtle, and just how lovely a bloodletting ritual could be. Honestly, I need to go back to take it all in more fully. But I’m running out of time because the show is only in St. Louis until May 8…and then the world ends in 2012.

But it wasn’t until I hit the show’s gift shop that I became a true sucker. Usually I fly right past all the goodies laid out to tempt museum goers, but not this time. Delicately placed on a pedestal at the front of the store was a basket of adorable three-legged ceramic pigs from Chile called chanchitos. The name comes from the diminutive of chancho, which is a word in parts of Latin America for “pig” (both the four-legged version and the guy who your mother always warned you about). Normally the word chanchito refers to a piggy bank, but the chanchitos at the art museum were ceramic art obejects made in Pomaire, Chile that are exchanged between family and friends as good luck symbols. I was smitten and had to have one. And personally, I don’t think there is a luckier or more attractive swine than the one my wife and I picked out of that sales basket. (Though this Facebook page would take issue with us.)

Chanchito con sus nuevos amigos

Bringing our chanchito home made me do a little more investigation into Pomaire. The village is about 60 km west of Santiago and is home to some really amazing potters and pottery studios. It is also famous for its almost two-pound empanadas. My goodness, it’s almost lunch time and I’m ready to book a flight to Chile right now! (Here’s a great blog about the cuisine of the village and how to cure any cooking vessels you might buy there on a future trip.)

(Five-minute video en español on pottery arts in Pomaire).

Parroquia Santa Cecilia “Mexican Fish Fry”

I finally got off my rear and did something last night that I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of years now: attend the famous “Mexican Fish Fry” at St. Cecilia’s Church (Parroquia Santa Cecilia) in South St. Louis City. And I made it just in time…it was the last one of the year!

In the last few years St. Louis has been catching up with all the other urban centers in the United States by attracting a large influx of hispanic and latino immigrants. This new population has centered its spiritual life around St. Cecilia’s Church, a once dying parish that is now thriving again because of this new membership. So a couple of years ago the church decided to revive its defunct Friday Lenten fish fry…only with a Mexican twist. Yes, you can get fried fish, shrimp, and the like…but the menu also features handmade chiles rellenos, tostadas, and quesadillas with a side of rice and beans. There are also Latin American dancers, a trio of Mexican musicians, and lots of Cerveza Tecate.

I had heard that the wait for food could be long—and they weren’t kidding! Exactly two hours and seventeen minutes passed between the moment my friends and I first got into line and the time two fresh-faced school children set our plates down in front of us. But no worries…there are plenty of chips and salsa, tamales, and beer stands, as well as aural and visual delights, to savor while slowly snaking through the school’s gym to place your dinner order.

Quesadilla frita, tostada, refried beans, and rice.

A lot of love and preparation for the event clearly came from the Latino community—Spanish menus were plastered to the walls and adornments of Mexican and Latin American culture were everywhere. However, gringos easily outnumbered Latinos at the event by at least a 10 to 1 margin. I hope that’s a sign that my little city is growing up and finally embracing diversity…but I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to practice my language skills with anyone or anything other than the menu and deciphering the romantic lyrics of the singers.

El Ramadán : Arabic words in Spanish

If you’ve spent any amount of time studying Spanish, you probably know that a lot of Spanish words actually come from Arabic…and I mean a lot. It’s estimated that perhaps as much as 8% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin. That puts it right up there with English as either the second or third largest linguistic contributor to Spanish next to Latin. So with Ramadan–the Islamic holiday of fasting and purification–having started this week, I had the brilliant idea to put together a list of Spanish words from Arabic that I particularly like. (I just discovered that Wikipedia is putting together a much more exhaustive list here.)

The exact linguistical nooks and crannies of how these words became part of the Spanish language is above my pay grade. But generally speaking, most of them came into common use because of the conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711 AD by the Moors and the hundreds of years of scientific, artistic, and general cultural influence Islam had in Spain because of it. Anyone who has been to Córdoba, for instance, knows what I’m talking about.

la zanahoria : carrot :: la naranja : orange
el aceite : oil ::  el arroz : rice
el azúcar : sugar :: el zumo : juice (peninsular Spanish)
la toronja : grapefruit :: el limón : lemon
la espinaca : spinach :: el café : coffee
la calabaza : pumpkin :: la albóndiga : meatball

la álgebra : algebra :: el cero : zero
la jirafa : giraffe :: el alcatraz : pelican
la almohada : pillow :: el algodón : cotton
el ajedrez : chess

el almacén : store :: el jarabe : syrup
el alcalde : mayor :: el baño : bathroom
el asesino : assassin :: la tarea : task

ojalá : I hope that… :: almorzar : to have lunch

Edimburgo Part IV : ¿maíz escocés?

One of the more interesting day trips you can take from Edinburgh is to the quaint little village of Roslin. All you need is £1.20 to catch the #15 bus from the city center, and then just sit back and enjoy the 35-minute ride.

If you squint and make that 2 look more like a 1, this could be the number 15 bus!

But you won’t be the only tourist in Roslin. The village has seen an astounding increase in visitor traffic since 2003 when a little old book you’ve probably never heard of came out … The Da Vinci Code. I think they may have even made a film version of it starring some no-name actor and with some washed-up former child star as the director. But apparently a couple of people have heard of it, because they’re coming by the thousands to see Rosslyn Chapel, which plays a crucial role in Dan Brown’s thriller and which happens to be located in a green space next to the village of Roslin’s graveyard.

Now whether you believe all the hype about the Templars and buried esoteric treasures or not, Rosslyn Chapel is a beautiful 15th-century structure with amazing stone carvings and is really worth a visit. Vices and virtues are on display, vines grow out of the mouths of little men, dragons surround pillars, and the devil even makes an appearance as a fallen angel. There also just might be some carvings along an arch of … corn?

Some folks posit that those chunky things with crowns and little beady things running up and down them are supposed to represent the stuff. But if that’s the case, then there is a mystery going on with this chapel that has nothing to do with any grail.

El maíz, as we all know, is a wonderful domestic grass that was cultivated by the Mayans and Aztecs throughout large parts of what is now Mexico well before any Europeans arrived in the area and shook up the place. It now stands as one of the most important grains in practically every culture in the Americas and is used in cuisines throughout the world. Heck, thanks to high fructose syrup and big agra, it now forms the bulk of the American diet. Oh, and I love the stuff! Not just because I’m a native Hoosier, but because it just plain tastes good.

The problem is that Europeans had—in theory—never seen, tasted, or heard of the stuff when the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel were made. So if those really are images of corn at the chapel … WTF??? (As the kids would say.)

A revolutionary drink

I met some friends for drinks last night at the Royale in el sur de la ciudad de San Luis (South St. Louis City). The place is known for its unusual cocktails, and there was one that immediately caught my eye: the Soulard Sling. One of the ingredients in this drink is Angostura bitters, a liquor which has an interesting place in Latin American history.

Angostura was developed by a German doctor named Johann Siegert in the early 1820s while he was living in Venezuela. He had moved to that country to help famed South American liberator Simón Bolívar fight against the Spanish crown and establish his Gran Colombia state. Bolívar was a creole from an aristocratic family, and he discovered the power of racism and oppression during a visit to Spain in his young adulthood. During that trip, he was stripped of his goods and put in jail basically for being a creole with nice stuff. In that one act, Spain had created their own worst enemy. Bolívar would help liberate five different South American countries, and he is still celebrated today in South America as the key to independence on the continent.

During Bolívar’s revolutionary days, Johann Siegert served as his Surgeon General at a military hospital in the city of Angostura, Venezuela—hence the name of the bitters. (By the way, the city of Angostura is now known as Ciudad Bolívar.) He was trying to develop a medicinal potion to use with his patients when he came up with a recipe for aromatic bitters instead. Shortly thereafter, he began exporting the stuff. And by 1850, Angostura was popular enough that Siegert resigned his military post to dedicate his time solely to manufacturing and selling his creation. Its production is still overseen by the Siegert family today.

Dr. Johann Siegert

As for the Soulard Sling, like Bolívar’s passion for South American independence and liberty, it was strong stuff. But like his dream for a unified South America, the drink fell apart for me by the end. Too much bitters is not a good thing.