Q & A With USC Professor Sarah Portnoy: On Latino Food in L.A
|photo by USC student from Erizo Baja Fish House & Market in Tijuana|
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.
SI: What about female chefs of Latin American descent in L.A.?
Ebony Bailey USC students at Rivera
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.
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