Monday, February 9, 2009

Some Perspectives on Food

Over the past five years I have had the privilege to travel to Mexico, El Salvador, and Ecuador. The time I spent in each of these places provided me with some interesting perspectives on food. Generally these examples are just small differences from what I have become accustomed to in the United States, but what is interesting to me is what they reveal.

Although only loosely related, I would like to begin by responding to the introduction to World Hunger: Twelve Myths. In the introduction, the authors pose the question: “What, would it mean to think of hunger in terms of universal human emotions, feelings that all of us have experienced at some time in our lives?” They respond to this question that the four primary emotional responses to hunger are “anguish, grief, humiliation, and fear.” Although I have had little experience with extreme hunger, I have been in close contact with some cases of poverty, and upon reading this, I was immediately reminded of the time I spent in El Salvador.

In February of 2007, I traveled to El Salvador with a small group to assist in the building of a home for a family living in a rural region of the country. The family that we were building the house for had been residing in the home of another similarly impoverished family, but the house they were residing in was nowhere near the size necessary for the number of inhabitants. We were providing the second family with a home of their own, but since the families were so close, it was to be built right next to the other house. Due to this condition, we had the privilege of working alongside the beneficiaries of our work, and getting to know them. The one thing that struck me the hardest, and stood out to me the most was the extreme generosity we experienced while we worked.

Returning to the emotions put forward by the authors of World Hunger, I would propose that generosity could potentially be added to this list. From my experience in El Salvador, I am convinced that it is those with the least to give that are willing to give the most. Each day while we worked, the family that we were building for did their best to offer us every luxury that they could provide. Obviously it could be argued that this was simply due to their want to repay us for home we were providing, but I am convinced that it is something more than this. Hardship breeds a kind of selflessness that is truly admirable, and I believe that despite the fact that these people clearly had very little to give, if we had allowed it, they would have given everything they had. Their homes had no running water, in fact they had to walk quite a distance to retrieve water, but they were constantly offering it to us. During meals as well, they would offer us large amounts of their meager portions; though we always turned down these offers, you could tell that despite the hardship it would have brought upon them to give up the food they truly wanted to give it.

From here I would like to continue on to Mexico. During the summer of 2005, I spent three weeks with a family in a relatively poor region of Mexico City. Once again, while I was there, I was consistently offered anything and everything that there was to offer, though conditions were much better, it was still clear that they treated their visitors as royalty. Now, though, I would like to begin discussing some of the food and cultural differences that I came into contact with.

The household that I was staying in consisted of three generations of a rather large family, but it was the job of the grandmother, the eldest member of the family, to feed her family. Conchita, as she is called, spent almost the entire day everyday with food. In the morning, before I was ever up, she would make her first trip of the day to the market to pick up some of the food she would need for the day. Breakfast, though, was rarely a fresh meal, much to my dismay, it was frequently the leftover fried chicken or “steak” from the night before. The ingredients that she had gone to the market for were generally fresh produce that would go into the day’s batch of salsa verde (green sauce), or something that needed longer to cook. But, she frequently made another trip to the market, before the day was over.

There were a number of occasions that I accompanied her on this trip to the market, and I must say that I had never seen anything quite like it. Markets in Mexico City are an incredible thing. I have never tasted fruit so sweet, or seen any food as fresh as the food I saw in the markets in Mexico City. What stands out the most in my memory is the pineapple; pineapple in Mexico tastes like candy, and it is a darker yellow, delicious. Probably the most interesting aspect of the market, though, is the meat. Going to the market in many senses is similar to going to a grocery store, but when it comes to meat, you aren’t picking up prepackaged portions of preprocessed meat. Pork stands out in my mind, because of the different buckets that you would find at the stalls of those selling pork. There were different buckets for different body parts, the most interesting of course being the bucket of ears, snouts, and tongues. But another interesting side to this is pork rind, which is quite literally fried pork skin. This is Mexico’s potato chip, they love it. I must say that I never had any that tasted all that good, but it’s one of their favorite snacks, though they don’t have many.

Markets make for an extremely different lifestyle than we are accustomed to in the United States. Conchita generally made two trips to the market a day, not the once-a-week shopping grocery stores have made possible for us. Besides the produce market and the meat market, though, I have fond memories of the bakeries. You’d find a little hole-in-the-wall type bakery on every block, but the bread that came from these shops was incredible. Then of course, there are the tortillerias, which are little shops that just make tortillas, a staple in any Mexican’s diet, made fresh daily. Fresh squeezed orange juice was also one of the things I really enjoyed.

The final two things I would mention in regards to Mexico are both related to chicken. About halfway through my time there I was with Conchita on one of her market trips, when she informed me that we were going to the polleria (chicken shop). This seemed reasonable since we ate chicken just about every day that I was there, but what I found when we got there was not what I had anticipated. The polleria didn’t have any refrigeration, the chicken was just all sitting out or hanging up around the shop. After the initial shock, I realized that the chicken was so fresh, that they hadn’t deemed it necessary. When we got home, though, what surprised me was that Conchita just threw the chicken on the counter next to the refrigerator where it sat until dinner. The final memory took place the night before I left to return home. In honor of our departure, Conchita informed us that she was going up on the roof to kill one of her chickens for our dinner. This was supposed to be a great honor, because she only kept a few chickens, but it didn’t excite me much at the time. Needless to say, we had that chicken for dinner that night.

The time I spent in Ecuador was shorter, and I had less contact with the people and cultures of the country, but two things stood out to me while I was there. I stayed in a hostel while I was there, and so I ate out a lot. Going out to eat in Ecuador is a much more social event than in the United States, which is interesting to me, because eating out is probably the most social that meals get for most Americans. My clue to this is how much time you spend at a restaurant. Service is considerably slower, but this is not inefficiency, this is cultural. Also, you could sit at your table for hours upon finishing your meal, and your waiter isn’t going to bring you the check until you ask for it. Restaurants in Ecuador are in no rush to kick you out, and it’s not rude to stay and talk long after you’ve finished eating. The second thing I noticed, was just how cheap food was. Ecuador uses the US dollar as its currency, so it was easy to relate prices. My best example is that a dinner for two at a relatively fancy restaurant consisting of a steak dinner with potatoes and vegetables, and sushi entrĂ©e, both of rather large portions, along with a generous tip cost me less than $20.00.

Although these are just some of many stories I could tell and examples I could give, they compose a pretty good summary of the different perspectives on food I have encountered outside of the United States. I invite similar stories or perspectives from other cultures and locations, since food is so deeply related to culture and society throughout the world.


  1. Thank you for sharing these fascinating and illuminating experiences with us. Did you see any evidence that these food traditions were changing or adapting to global markets? When I was in Mexico, I found that McDonalds and packaged junk food (chips, cookies, etc) were everywhere. And white bread was popular, even though tortillas were less expensive and more culturally familiar.

  2. I definitely was aware in all three locales, but especially in Mexico City of some changes and adaptations in response to the global market, and especially in relation to the United States. One of the greatest examples is in the small convenience stores that are present everywhere. These small shops sell basically nothing more than packaged and processed goods, similar, if not worse than convenience stores common in the U.S.

    One thing that I find interesting is that those convenience stores, for the most part, were gated off, or there was some sort of physical barrier. This was always uncomfortable for me, because you have to ask for what you want, and pay through a small window. In relation to our previous class and discussion of the history of the grocery store/supermarket as described by Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved, this maybe is merely just an older model of store, though I would assume that there is a strong impetus for this model to remain due to shoplifting and crime. I hadn't thought of this, but there's an interesting difference there.

    One other thing, in reaction to your comment on junk food, is that though the culture is shifting, it has not abandoned tradition altogether, and from my experience at least, there is still significantly less snacking than in the U.S. One event that I remember was going to a movie theater in Mexico City. The theater was very similar to any I have been in in the United States, if anything, it was nicer than many. At the time, I was missing snack foods, and I was having trouble simply eating three meals a day with nothing in between. The family I was staying with had trouble understanding this, and certainly couldn't understand how I was so thin. So, though I don't really even like popcorn, we got two giant buckets of popcorn, and my friend and I, both from the U.S. devoured them before the movie had even started, while members of my friend's family, all Mexican, watched in amazement and disbelief. They often stated that we helped them to understand why Americans are so fat.