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Q & A With USC Professor Sarah Portnoy: On Latino Food in L.A

Sarah Portnoy at Guisados with co-owner Armando de la Torre and students
Sarah Portnoy at Guisados with co-owner Armando de la Torre and students

We all eat for pleasure. Some of us also eat in pursuit of academic knowledge. "Food studies" is a burgeoning field where scholars consider food a potent tool for illuminating a vast range of topics and issues. Among L.A. colleges and universities, you'll find classes on "Animal Ethics," "Restaurant Culture," "Food Politics," and "Science and Food," among others. One emphasizes L.A.'s Latino community -- professor Sarah Portnoy's "The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles" at the University of Southern California. As a class in USC Dornsife's Spanish department, students spend ample time developing language skills. (Such as writing blogs in Spanish.) But the culinary twist means they also examine issues related to history, immigration, and cultural values. We spoke with Portnoy, a Houston native, over margaritas at Yxta Cocina Mexicana to hear her take on L.A.'s diverse and fascinating Latino food scene.

For more academic discussion, join Portnoy and other food experts at USC's Doheny Memorial Library tomorrow, Friday, March 1 at 11 a.m. for a panel discussion entitled "Just Food and Fair Food: A Multidisciplinary Exploration." Admission is free. The panel will be followed by a "fair food bazaar," and lunch courtesy of Mama's Hot Tamales and Homegirl Café.

chicken neck tacos at Santa Rita Jalisco
chicken neck tacos at Santa Rita Jalisco
D. Solomon

Squid Ink: In 2002, food historians Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton wrote, "Given the unbearable lightness of eating these days ... it is not surprising that it takes some effort to see food as a subject worthy of serious scrutiny." Has that attitude in academia changed?

Sarah Portnoy: Food has become more accepted in academia as interest from popular culture has exploded. People doing it 10, 15 years ago had a hard time justifying its existence. A food studies conference at NYU last summer was hugely popular and attracted people from so many disciplines. Some are asking: Should there be a single theoretical approach for food studies? The consensus is no -- it's multidisciplinary. The beauty of it is that it's brought together people from so many different fields. You can incorporate philosophy, history, women's studies, gender studies, whatever.

SI: Your course takes a cultural slant. Why is food an appropriate lens for exploring Hispanic and Latino culture? (The terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" are often used interchangeably according to personal preference. Most agree that "Hispanic" refers to people of Spanish lineage -- nearly all of Latin America, with the exception of Brazil. Mainstream U.S. media prefers "Latino," an abbreviation of latinoamericano, meaning all people living here of Latin American descent.)

SP: You could use something else. Music, poetry or visual arts, for example. My background is studying the Hispanic ballad tradition. But food is very accessible. You can experience the textures, flavors and smells. With music, you may not understand the values that a song represents, or the dialect of the lyrics. Food is just another lens, but accessible to undergraduates in a way that Don Quixote isn't.

SI: The course emphasizes the food of Los Angeles. Why is this location significant?

SP: L.A. has the second biggest Mexican population outside of Mexico City. Jonathan Gold has said Southern California could represent a region of Mexico in itself. There are Mexican populations in "x" other cities, but the numbers and regional representations here far outweigh anywhere else. Plus, there are so many people of different Latino heritages that you can have your own study abroad experience in L.A.

SI: What's your own ethnic background?

SP: I am Ashkenazi Jew. My family on my father's side immigrated from Russia in the 1920s (after the Communists took over) to Cuba. So, that's my Latin connection. My great-uncle was Fidel's stomach doctor. I grew up exposed to Cuban music and culture and lived in Seville, Spain for a few years during and after college, where I took graduate classes and got hooked on Hispanic folklore when I did fieldwork collecting ballads with medieval roots in Andalusia.

SI: How does your expertise in Hispanic ballad tradition relate to food studies?

SP: I studied ballads that were passed down generation to generation dating back to medieval Spain when Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted. Then I looked at how these ballads traveled with the conquest to Latin America, how they adapted and transformed. Why did they survive? Why did they still resonate with people hundreds of years later? The ballads offer one lens at how traditions evolve. So I was interested in exploring other ways that traditions evolve as a result of migration. Food seemed like a fascinating lens. Driving through L.A., I'd see pupuserias and Oaxacan restaurants and panaderias everywhere. Or visit East L.A. and see a microcosm of Mexico, but a little different. I'd think, how does it work?

SI: Are you doing academic research or writing on Latino cuisine?

SP: I'm writing the entry on authenticity for a food studies encyclopedia by Ken Albala, author of Three World Cuisines: Italian, Mexican, Chinese. Hopefully as my food studies career progresses, I'll publish a book. I keep thinking it would be great to make a college level textbook on Latino culture and food.

tortilla presses for sale at Olvera St.
tortilla presses for sale at Olvera St.
D. Solomon

SI: Why is authenticity important to study? The concept is so slippery, and it's been so fiercely debated, especially in Mexican food circles.

SP: Discussing authenticity is a way to bring food studies out of the kitchen. It's a tool for eliciting discussion, asking questions. For example: In what way is El Cholo authentic or inauthentic? Authentic what? We're not trying to reach an answer necessarily; we're just using the question to explore different aspects. Asking what's authentic makes us aware of national, regional and cultural differences. It lets us discuss migration, identity and cultural values. Hopefully, we don't end up trying to make authentic seem better than non-authentic, we just explore the meaning of each one individually.

SI: Mexican food has a long history in L.A., including El Cholo (open since 1927) and Olvera St. (created in 1930). What did you learn about this history in developing and teaching the course?

SP: It's more than what first meets the eye. Olvera St. is a Mexican Disneyland created by an Anglo in the 1920s, but at the same time it preserves something of Mexican culture, even if it was artificially created. It still attracts the Mexican community for major holidays like Dia de los Muertos and El Grito on the 16th of September. There is some beauty in that, and value, in its function as a symbol. And it does have some of the oldest Mexican restaurants in the city, like Cielito Lindo.

SI: Olvera St. has been described as an example of "whitewashing" -- Mexican culture as imagined and expressed by Anglos. What's your take on that?

SP: The "whitewashing" of Mexican culture, which USC history professor William Deverell wrote a book about [Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past], went on through the '50s, '60s, '70s, probably even the '80s. Does it still go on today in Los Angeles with new restaurants? Minimally. Depending on the location and clientele, the emphasis today is either on home-style, regional cuisine, like a taquería serving locals, or something cutting edge meant for a non-Latino or mixed population. Fusion, like Kogi. A hipster taqueria like Mas Malo. Nobody's opening Del Taco or El Torito. Those places are winding down their existence, it looks like, at least in Southern California. There's a growing interest among the younger generations in exploring the culinary "other."

SI: Like the array of snacks from taco trucks and street carts. Taco trucks are legal, but street vendors have faced hurdles. Might the growing awareness and appreciation for street food change that?

SP: I'm part of the L.A. Food Policy Council network, and we've been working for the past year to legalize street food, meaning people selling fruit, or tamales, for example -- that whole black market. There are ten thousand street vendors. We might as well tax them and have the health department monitor them. They benefit because they don't have to run when they see the police. The city benefits because it doesn't have to have cops issuing tickets. There's no reason street food shouldn't be legal in Los Angeles -- it's legal in New York, San Francisco, and other big cities.

photo by USC student from Erizo Baja Fish House & Market in Tijuana
photo by USC student from Erizo Baja Fish House & Market in Tijuana

SI: What kind of food did students learn about in your class?

SP: One of our highlights was a taco tour in East L.A. and Boyle Heights. We went to places that students may never have known about, like Santa Rita Jalisco for chicken neck tacos. The owner, from Jalisco, had discovered them in Tijuana on his way to the U.S. We also visited Mariscos Jalisco and talked to chef-owner Raul Ortega about how he got started selling tacos as a kid in San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco. We ended at Guisados, a place that the trendier, hipster food culture has embraced. On the other extreme, we went to Rivera, where we got exposed to the haute cuisine of Latin culture from its Moorish roots in medieval Iberia up to Baja beach culture. The class also visited Tijuana.

SI: Tijuana's food scene is booming, both on the street and in chic restaurants. What did you do there, and what is exciting to you about Tijuana's food scene?

SP: Bill Esparza [blogger at Street Gourmet L.A. and a self-described "reverse coyote"] was our guide. We toured the Mercado Hidalgo produce market, sampled local restaurants at the Baja Culinary Fest, and visited Erizo Baja Fish House & Market from chef Javier Plascencia, who's at the helm of Tijuana's food scene. Tijuana is reinventing itself. It's nice to see that people like Anthony Bourdain and Bill Esparza have discovered its little jewels. The place that made the first Caesar salad, and Washmobile sandwiches, for instance. And the amazing quality and variety of seafood found in the whole Baja region. I had the most amazing seafood that I had never had before, and may never find in the U.S.

SI: What did you want students to take from the experience?

SP: Along with experiencing the culinary culture, it's nice for students to see that Mexico isn't all drug violence. Tijuana is a city of two million people. It's not a little tiny place. It's a huge metropolis. There are very wealthy people, and very poor people. You're going to find a bit of everything. I'd love students to come back with friends and say "Hey, Tijuana's safe, and it's really cool."

SI: Any thoughts on the future of Latino food in L.A.?

SP: Why is it that the Mary Sue Milikens and Susan Fenigers and Rick Baylesses are bringing Latino cuisine to the non-Latino culture? It's typically the non-Latinos, with the exception of a couple of names. Hopefully that will change as our country becomes 40 percent Latino over the next 50 years. And as the children of recent immigrants get a college education, and become savvier about marketing. That's what's lacking in the community, for now.

USC students at Rivera
USC students at Rivera

SI: What about female chefs of Latin American descent in L.A.?

SP: The women chefs opening restaurants are largely middle class people who could have gone to college, or went to college and then went to culinary school. It's not the same as the Latino immigrant class that's coming here. Most recent immigrants have a lot more obstacles to education, to literacy, to the skills to succeed in business beyond opening a mom and pop place. And the upper class immigrant women have a different mentality. They're not doing their own cooking -- they have a muchacha living in the house to do that. Latino culture is very traditional in terms of gender roles. If you think about most of the Latino chefs who are known, they're men. Probably 95 percent. Or, think of every time you go to a restaurant -- who's doing the cooking? Latinos, but they're all men.

SI: At the USC event on Friday, you and others will discuss "just and fair food ... the ready availability of fresh, wholesome, equitably produced, affordable food to all people, regardless of income or place of residence and especially in urban areas populated by people of color with low incomes." Why was this topic selected?

SP: It's a hot button issue that's seeping into our culture. Young people are increasingly aware of these issues, and as an academic institution, we have to embrace it.

SI: What can we expect at the event?

SP: There will be an hour-long panel moderated by Paula Daniels from the L.A. Food Policy Council. It'll be with Oren Hesterman, an activist who's been working on food policy for 25 years, LaVonna Lewis, a USC public policy expert, Luz Calvo, a Cal State East Bay professor whose expertise is indigenous cuisine, Robert Gottlieb, an Urban and Environmental Policy professor from Occidental College, and me. Then there will be a fair with various just food organizations, with lunch catered by Mamas Hot Tamales and Homegirl Café.

SI: How do food access issues apply to L.A.'s Latino community?

SP: Diabetes is an enormous epidemic for genetic, socioeconomic, and educational reasons. So kids are getting cheetos and soda for breakfast on the way to school. Maybe because their parents work two jobs, maybe because it's cheaper than fresh fruit, or because they don't have the education to know that it's not the most nutritious breakfast. The diabetes rates spike between the first and second generation of immigrants, between the first country and here, because of the change in diet. Many come from areas where they're living off beans, rice and vegetables that they've grown. Here, all of the sudden they're living off whatever's at the local market. If we don't do something preventative we're going to pay for it on the other end.

Daina Beth Solomon audited Sarah Portnoy's "The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles" course in the fall of 2012.


Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Reach the author at dainabeth@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @dainabethcita.


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