Food Mapping in the SOWA Market

By brotgerJuly 20th, 2018in Courses, Food Systems

Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts this month. Today’s post is from Becca Berland.

Food mapping is not something that your typical graduate student does on a daily basis. I’ll admit that I have never even heard of the concept before taking Dr. Karen Metheny’s Anthropology of Food class this summer. But as I’ve learned more about various ethnographic methods of study, I do think that food mapping has the ability to bring something different to the table.

For my food mapping project, I decided to observe and map out a corner of the SOWA Farmer’s Market in the South End of Boston. I’ve been helping man the Plant-Based Provisions (PBP) table this summer, so I used this opportunity to track the footpaths of three different groups of people who visited our stall. I chose to divide the customers I observed the following groups: those who expressed their dietary restrictions, those who had no dietary restrictions (or didn’t express them), and those who stopped at the table but didn’t purchase anything.

Since PBP focuses on vegan, dairy-free, and allergen-free sweet treats, many customers choose to tell us about their dietary restrictions when making friendly conversation. Most are either vegan, lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, or attempting the Whole 30 diet. We also get customers who are looking for a healthier, naturally sweetened option for themselves or their children. Potential customers without dietary restrictions often get excited when they see we are selling puddings and popsicles, but they are turned off by the fact that our treats are vegan. This commonly leads to an unfinished sale. I suspect this is because the word “vegan” has a negative connotation to it when someone isn’t following a vegan diet. I know that I, too, would rather purchase a regular popsicle or pudding than a vegan one because I have a negative view of treats that are simply labeled “vegan.” Vegan means no milk or eggs, which means I’m usually not interested. There is a deeper meaning here to the label “vegan,” and I’d be interested to explore how this turns regular eaters off in future research.

My map of our corner of SOWA, which is not drawn to scale, shows all of the vendors who were set up near us on this Sunday. I struggled to find a way to represent the different segments of customers but decided on using a different color for each one. I used different types of lines to represent each person’s path in order to follow their steps so that I could draw conclusions on my observations. While it might look a bit messy, I tried my hardest to make it so that each footpath could be followed easily with your eyes or finger. This was not something I had considered before this project, but mapping overlapping footpaths so that they are all still visible is not an easy task. In the future, I would try this map again with overlapping layers so that each footpath would be visible on its own or together with the other paths.

This project took mere ethnographic observations and extended them to create a mapping of a food-centric space. Mapping out our section of SOWA allowed me to take another look at the assumptions I had made about certain customers and their patterns. It reiterated to me that food can create cultural and social identities, as well as unwritten rules and segmented groups. While we may not realize it, each and every decision we make in regards to food is a step towards shaping our roles and identities in society.

It’s Time to Let Go of Authenticity

By brotgerJuly 12th, 2018

We conclude our series from our summer Anthropology of Food class with this post from Erika Bartucca.

Since reading the ethnography Eating Korean in America (2015), I have been plagued by the elusive concept of authenticity. Sonia Ryang writes about her experience as a Korean, having been born in Japan and moving to the United States, through a series of gastronomic experiences in America. She continues to question herself and others, trying to figure out what authenticity truly means and if something can really be authentic if it’s prepared outside of its original geographic boundaries.Bartucca image

This reading got me thinking about our obsession over authenticity in a broader sense. Today we have Netflix gastronomists like David Chang and the late Anthony Bourdain taking us on culinary journeys around the world in search of cultural and philosophical meaning through food. They have opened our eyes to the world of possibility, igniting passions for travel and taste in us all. Unfortunately, these shows have also manifested an idolization for the authenticity label. America’s rising millennial foodie culture looks down on others with pity for not having experienced “the real deal.” Claiming authenticity has just become another way to divide people in a world that doesn’t need any more division. Are you really telling me that my taco isn’t authentic just because I got it from a food truck in Boston?Bartucca image 2

Sure there are some people that use the authenticity label to preserve their cultural traditions. It becomes a problem when people try to limit who can prepare and eat certain things in different places. Food is constantly changing – cultural transformations influence the way we prepare our meals all the time. Once upon a time, we were all eating the same things. Globalization, environmental changes, and technological developments have helped us shape our foodways into what they are today. Take any dish far enough back in time and you can start to see claims to “authenticity” break down. Sonia Ryang did this with one of Korea’s favorite foods, kimchi. Chilis weren’t native to Korea but are found in the national staple. Does the presence of chilis exclude kimchi from being considered an authentic Korean dish?bartucca image 3

Whether it’s limiting foods to their national borders or preventing people from making foods outside of their own heritage, our obsessive search for authenticity is having a negative effect on society. It is discrimination under a veil of nationalism.  It discourages creativity and keeps people from enjoying foods just because they taste good. Why can’t I enjoy sushi made by a Mexican man in New York? If it tastes good and he isn’t trying to claim that he invented sushi, who cares? We should be embracing the fact that the globalization of food cultures has the opportunity to bring about cross-cultural awareness and acceptance. Food has the power to transport our minds to other parts of the world; we should let it.

Works Cited

Ryang, Sonia. 2015. Eating Korean in America: Gastronomic Ethnography of Authenticity. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

The Power of Food in Supernatural Storytelling

By brotgerJuly 12th, 2018

Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts this month. Today’s post is from Sarah Critchley.

This summer, our Anthropology of Food class has covered seemingly every conceivable way to study how food reflects a culture, but the article that stood out to me was about the supernatural. Alison Krogel’s 2009 article, “Dangerous Repasts: Food and the Supernatural in the Quechua Oral Tradition” shows the effect that food can communicate without even physically eating it. Indeed, the amount of food consumed by the Quechua people covered in this article was negligible, but the characters in the stories they told prepare feasts that kill those who reject them, cast spells against their husbands in a potato dish, and even the characters themselves can become the meal if they are out too late.

Krogel includes a frequently-told story of a girl named Isicha Puytu who leaves her family behind after being tempted by a wealthy landowner. The girl’s family members try one by one to convince her to come home by bringing her gifts of food. After the brother and the father have gone, the mother outdoes herself by making an expensive dish, which the daughter again rudely refuses. The mother curses her, and the girl dies. Krogel notes that parents like to tell this story as a “tool for both entertaining and warning brazen children” (2009, 111). Other tales in the article have specific morals that food serves to heighten: don’t trust a witch even if she is your mother, don’t be mean to your wife, and watch out for travelers that refuse to eat your food – they might be evil spirits who want to eat your baby instead!

Thinking of food and the supernatural in Quechua tradition made me wonder how one could apply the same analysis to other folklore. As Krogel writes, “studying the techniques employed by narrators who weave foodways descriptions into their stories provides Food Studies scholars with a lens through which we might better come to understand a culture’s aesthetic preferences and complex socio-cultural practices and belief systems” (2009, 123-124). The story of Hansel and Gretel came to mind as I was thinking of how food can be a catalyst to teach a moral important to a society. Hansel and Gretel are captivated by the witch’s delicious house, only to find it full of danger within. The tale serves to warn that appearances can belie reality and harkens back to the Quechua’s message to warn “brazen children” with the story of Isicha Puytu. Perhaps more significant, the reason the siblings were in the forest alone was because their mother (or step-mother, according to some versions) locked them out of the house because there wasn’t enough food. When they return, she has died. Her death suggests that deliberately starving one’s own children or family members deserves the ultimate punishment. Though we have less of an oral tradition today in the United States than the Quechua in the Peruvian Andes, comparisons can be made to the role of food in folklore and fairy tales that are meant to be a tool to teach cultural values.

Works cited

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. 2018. “Hansel and Gretel.” Date of access, June 25, 2018. https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm015.html

Krogel, Alison. 2009. “Dangerous Repasts: Food and the Supernatural in the Quechua Oral Tradition.” Food and Foodways 17(2): 104-132.

Hawaiian Luas: A Sacred Feast or a Party in Paradise?

By brotgerJuly 11th, 2018

Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts this month. Today’s post is from Ashley Lopes.

When I think of Hawaiian luaus, I think of men, women, and children dancing, singing, and eating together at one glorious table. I imagine a lavish, tropical feast, accompanied by games, music, and hula. In our Anthropology of Food class, we learn how food can symbolize identity, social values, and cultural transformation. Hawaiian luaus for example, reflect Hawaii’s shift in foodways.

Lopes luaua illustrationToday’s movies, tv shows, and books all portray the luau as a party in paradise. In the article “Luaus, Authenticity and the Anthropology of Food,” however, Kaori O’Connor (2008) reveals that the modern-day conception of Hawaiian luaus is highly romanticized and idealized. Before contact with Western cultures, eating and feasting in Hawaii were linked to religion and sacrality – to feeding the gods and offering sacrificial foods. Men and women of all social classes were regulated by food taboos and restricted from eating the same foods at the same tables. Men oversaw the gathering, fishing, provisioning, and production of food. Women, on the other hand, were not allowed to take part in any of these activities. They had very little freedom in what they could do. During the traditional luau, food was served cold, people sat on the floor, and everything was eaten with hands.

So where does the modern luau come in? Why have Hawaiian food taboos been forgotten? When American missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they took it upon themselves to “civilize” and change the foundational principles of Hawaiian society. Missionary wives taught Hawaiian women how to cook refined, Western-style food. Tourist promoters used postcards to publicize Hawaiian luaus as lavish (but civilized) feasts that catered to Euro-Americans and Asian immigrant groups. The luau menu began to offer multi-cultural dishes – a fusion of macaroni and potato salad, fried rice, sushi, and barbeque steak. O’Connor argues that luaus continue to be an obligatory part of the Hawaiian tourist experience because they transport the eater to an exotic, purist realm. She makes an interesting point that authenticity is relative and ever-changing. Over the course of Hawaii’s history, the traditional luau has been molded and reinvented into a mashup of different cultures, food practices, and flavors.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Kaori. 2008. “The Hawaiian Luau: Food as Tradition, Transgression, Transformation and Travel. Food, Culture, and Society 11(2): 149-172.

Simple Sustainability in an Unsustainable World

By brotgerJuly 10th, 2018

The next in our series of posts from Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) is from Shannon Fitzgerald.

In Everyone Eats, author E.N. Anderson (2014) urges conservation, sustainability, and efficiency to feed the world. This prompted me to reevaluate my life. How am I practicing sustainability and conservation? How am I respecting the planet, so that others can enjoy it and eat? A strong believer that something is better than nothing, and that a little can go a long way, here are three ways that I am working on sustainability:Fitzgerald 1

1. Planting/growing food

Living in an apartment in Boston can make this a little difficult because of limited space, limited sunlight, and limited outdoor access. As much as I would love to have a flourishing garden with a variety of fruits and vegetables, I have had to adapt this dream to my current living situation. Herbs are easy to care for, and do not require much space. My rosemary plant sits in a small pot on my windowsill. Not only does it add decoration and fresh life to my room, but it also provides me with flavor for my meals. Sharing fresh-grown herbs and vegetables with my friends is another way that I keep my food local; in exchange for rosemary and a home cooked meal, I am provided with off-the-vine tomatoes and basil.

2. Reduce, reuse, recycle

Reduce, reuse, recycle is a common mantra that most have heard since early childhood, but it isn’t always implemented. I reduce waste by buying fresh foods with limited to no packaging, and try my hardest to buy only what is needed and use it all to limit food waste. Reuse is a simple, easy step. Drinking from a refillable water bottle, taking my lunch to work in reusable containers, and bringing utensils from home allows me to not only limit unnecessary waste but also reuse all of these. It saves money, time, and the environment. In cases where reducing and reusing aren’t possible, recycling and composting are great ways to help the environment. I recently attended a composting workshop at the Boston Public Market, which explained how composting works and the different forms such as vermicomposting (composting with worms). If home composting is not a viable option, there are some companies in Boston that provide compost bins and schedule pick-ups for them as well.

3. Buying in season (locally)

What is better than a tasty, well-cooked meal? A tasty, well-cooked meal made with local, in-season ingredients! Not only does buying seasonal fruits and vegetables save money, but it also tastes fresher and supports local farmers. Contributing to the local economy not only assists farmers, but also the planet through lessened waste of resources. Local food is being used, and hopefully as the local movement becomes more popular, less energy and fuel will be wasted in transporting exported goods. To be honest, this does not always work out, judging by the amount of pizza I’ve eaten recently! It’s an ongoing process for me and one that I am hoping to get better at.

Photo courtesy of: http://eatseasonably.co.uk/what-to-eat-now/calendar/
Photo courtesy of: http://eatseasonably.co.uk/what-to-eat-now/calendar/

Any shift to a more sustainable lifestyle helps, and does not need to involve a complete overhaul. As always, I can and am working on doing more, but these three ways that I have adapted my habits were all simple, and they make me feel like I’m part of the solution instead of the problem.


Commensality at the Lunch Table

By brotgerJuly 9th, 2018

The next in our series of posts from Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) is from Gastronomy student Meghan Russell.

If you read popular newspapers or magazines, you may have seen that the American lunch hour is being threatened. More and more Americans are working through their lunch hour, skipping it altogether, or eating at their desk as they continue to work. One place where lunchtime is still alive and well, however, is in the school cafeteria.  While I won’t be speaking to the cafeteria per se, I will be examining elementary school lunch-time as experienced during a class field trip to an area farm.  I work as a Farm Educator at this farm and therefore have the opportunity to observe many students interact as they each lunch at their end of their field trip.

Diagram of the lunch area at the farm
Diagram of the lunch area at the farm

Field trips offer an interesting look into school lunches because there is no hot lunch option provided by the school. Everyone is eating something brought from home. This creates immediate differences between each of the students that can be broken down and analyzed at various levels. For one, each student brings his or her lunch in its own unique receptacle. While the classic brown paper bag is still a popular option, the simple plastic lunch box with a pop culture icon on the front is gone. These have been replaced by a variety of nylon and zip-up options in a variety of sizes and colors, often with matching water bottles. Some students have individual compartments built into their lunch box to separate out their items, while others have individual plastic containers that hold the various pieces of their lunch within. In addition to these fancy, sustainable, and eco-friendly options some students also use a simple plastic grocery bag or a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.

Within these various lunch receptacles are a wide range of food items. Some students still bring the classic sandwich with a bag of chips and a piece of hand fruit. The old stand-by of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, however, has been replaced by sunbutter and jelly or a lunch meat sandwich to accommodate for allergies. Some students have expensive berries, organic squeeze poaches, and Lunchables. Others have ethnic items representative of the immigrant status of the parents, the student, or both – a bag of sushi, a noodle dish with chop sticks, or a Vietnamese sweet cake.

In addition, a student’s choice of seat for lunch impacts his or her lunch experience. This particular area consists of multiple picnic tables placed around a square of wooden benches. If a student decides to sit on the bench, she must either hold her lunch on her lap or place it down next to her. This orients her lunch experience. Will she engage in one-on-one conversation with the student sitting next to her, who may have also placed her lunch down on the bench so that they are facing each other in a mini-conversation? Will she face forward in silence? Or will she try to yell across the open space to someone on the other bench? Sitting at one of the picnic tables creates larger conversations involving the upwards of eight or ten students that can fit at the table.

Among all these differences, the students are all hungry, and it is lunchtime. After being split up in groups all morning for their field trip, the students are happy to be back together. Watching them eat lunch, there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of differences between what they are eating for lunch or what their lunch came in. Each is engaged in his or her own experience yet they are also all eating lunch together. To engage in commensality, it doesn’t matter what any one individual is eating. What matters is the socialization that is occurring, the sharing of space and time.

Explore the Art and Craft of Japanese Culinary Tools

By brotgerJuly 8th, 2018

We continue with our series of posts from Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) .fuller craft 1

The Fuller Craft Museum in Brocton, MA, is currently exhibiting Objects of Use and Beauty: Design and Craft in Japanese Culinary Tools. The exhibition has been curated by Debra Samuels and Merry White. Ms. Samuels is a cookbook author, food and travel writer and cooking teacher. Dr. White is a professor of Anthropology at Boston University.

Tea ceremony box
Tea ceremony box

For thousands of years, the Japanese have combined the art and craft of food preparation with focus and continual pursuit of perfection – kodawari. The refined culinary tools on display reflect the careful consideration that has been put into every aspect of their function and form. Made from wood, metal, clay and other materials, each of these objects are perfectly designed for their designated tasks. They are also exquisitely beautiful. The exhibition brings them to life with video recordings of the craftsmen making these objects, and chefs using them in food preparation. The exhibition is highly recommended for anyone interested in Japanese culture and craftsmanship, especially in the culinary world.

Various graters made from metal, wood, ceramic and shark skin
Various graters made from metal, wood, ceramic and shark skin

The exhibition runs through October 28, 2018. The Fuller Craft Museum is set in an idyllic wooded location next to a lotus pond. Located three miles off Route 24, it is also accessible by public transportation. The Museum is open from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students and free from 5pm to 9pm on Thursdays. JJ’s Caffe is a great brunch spot located about a 5 minute drive from the museum.

Food samples
Food samples

Fika: Taking a Break in Sweden

By brotgerJuly 7th, 2018

Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts this month. Today’s post is from Norma Tentori.

 

 

tentori sweden 1During discussions and readings in Anthropology of Food, the class delved into many different human cultures and their social traditions that surround food. A topic I found especially interesting was how cultures can have such distinctly different rituals and traditions around a certain food item. In this instance I am talking about coffee. These discussions caused me to reminisce and reflect on a recent trip overseas to Sweden when a new word that was deeply embedded in both coffee and tradition was introduced to me: fika.

Coffee in Swedish translates to “kaffe,” but pairing coffee with something to eat is defined as “fika” – both a noun and a verb. It is a part of Sweden’s tradition that many engage in at least once daily.

During my time this past summer in Gothenburg, it seemed as if every map and brochure defined the Haga neighborhood as the ultimate place to engage in fika. Haga is also one of the oldest and most popular districts in Gothenburg.tentori sweden 2

A cobblestone pedestrian street threaded through the neighborhood lined with wooden houses, plenty of shops and, most important, a cafe on seemingly every corner. Signage proved we had reached the correct destination as it stated “Haga: cosy shopping & fika.”

After receiving a recommendation from a local shop owner, we decided to have our first fika break after shopping at Cafe Husaren. The cafe is most famous for its hagabullen rolls. Hagabullen is most similar to a cinnamon roll, and the ones at Cafe Husaren are known specifically for their size and distinct flavor, most similarly compared in size to a small pizza as they barely fit on a dinner plate and are certainly a ‘meal’ to be shared.

Cafe Husaren is a Swedish cafe that also offers prepared foods and, most important for our fika break, coffee. The hagabullen are warm from the oven, and a cinnamon and clove scent wafts through the air as soon as you walk through the entrance. They have no icing compared to our traditional expectation of cinnamon rolls, but are instead dotted with pearl sugar which gives the roll an extra punch of sweetness.

tentori sweden 3As we attempted to get through the pizza-sized hagabullen and drank our coffees on one of the cafe’s outdoor tables, we enjoyed watching the people who walked through the city and completely disconnecting ourselves from the otherwise busy parts of the city.

For Swedish social engagements, fika is the ultimate food custom as it represents their love and passion for coffee. Fika symbolizes tradition. The comfort of fika therefore does not simply lie in the warm cup of coffee and baked treat you are eating, but in the emotional connection that is tied to slowing down and truly taking a break. Asking to grab a coffee with someone in English does not carry the same meaning as asking someone to fika. Fika does not exist for the purpose of having a snack or an afternoon caffeine pick-me-up, but rather exists to appreciate slow living, spending time with others and simply taking a break. The coffee and food that come along with it are a bonus.

Whether we choose to engage in fika on our own or with others, we can all take a little bit of inspiration from this Swedish tradition by making our daily coffee break a designated time to slow down, relax or socialize with others.

Works cited

Brones, Anna, and Johanna Kindvall. 2015. Fika: the Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats. Ten Speed Press.

Commensality at the Lunch Table

By brotgerJuly 6th, 2018in Academics, Courses

We continue with our series from our summer class, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641), with this post from Meghan Russel. 

If you read popular newspapers or magazines, you may have seen that the American lunch hour is being threatened. More and more Americans are working through their lunch hour, skipping it altogether, or eating at their desk as they continue to work. One place where lunchtime is still alive and well, however, is in the school cafeteria.  While I won’t be speaking to the cafeteria per se, I will be examining elementary school lunch-time as experienced during a class field trip to an area farm.  I work as a Farm Educator at this farm and therefore have the opportunity to observe many students interact as they each lunch at their end of their field trip.

Field trips offer an interesting look into school lunches because there is no hot lunch option provided by the school. Everyone is eating something brought from home. This creates immediate differences between each of the students that can be broken down and analyzed at various levels. For one, each student brings his or her lunch in its own unique receptacle. While the classic brown paper bag is still a popular option, the simple plastic lunch box with a pop culture icon on the front is gone. These have been replaced by a variety of nylon and zip-up options in a variety of sizes and colors, often with matching water bottles. Some students have individual compartments built into their lunch box to separate out their items, while others have individual plastic containers that hold the various pieces of their lunch within. In addition to these fancy, sustainable, and eco-friendly options some students also use a simple plastic grocery bag or a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.

Within these various lunch receptacles are a wide range of food items. Some students still bring the classic sandwich with a bag of chips and a piece of hand fruit. The old stand-by of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, however, has been replaced by sunbutter and jelly or a lunch meat sandwich to accommodate for allergies. Some students have expensive berries, organic squeeze poaches, and Lunchables. Others have ethnic items representative of the immigrant status of the parents, the student, or both – a bag of sushi, a noodle dish with chop sticks, or a Vietnamese sweet cake.

Diagram of the lunch area at the farm
Diagram of the lunch area at the farm

In addition, a student’s choice of seat for lunch impacts his or her lunch experience. This particular area consists of multiple picnic tables placed around a square of wooden benches. If a student decides to sit on the bench, she must either hold her lunch on her lap or place it down next to her. This orients her lunch experience. Will she engage in one-on-one conversation with the student sitting next to her, who may have also placed her lunch down on the bench so that they are facing each other in a mini-conversation? Will she face forward in silence? Or will she try to yell across the open space to someone on the other bench? Sitting at one of the picnic tables creates larger conversations involving the upwards of eight or ten students that can fit at the table.

Among all these differences, the students are all hungry, and it is lunchtime. After being split up in groups all morning for their field trip, the students are happy to be back together. Watching them eat lunch, there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of differences between what they are eating for lunch or what their lunch came in. Each is engaged in his or her own experience yet they are also all eating lunch together. To engage in commensality, it doesn’t matter what any one individual is eating. What matters is the socialization that is occurring, the sharing of space and time.

Recreating the Taste of Mexico in a Crowded Cambridge Kitchen

By brotgerJuly 5th, 2018

Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts this month. Today’s post is from Sam Dolph.tamales Dolph blog post

In April, my partner and I decided to  finally take the frozen banana leaves out of our freezer—purchased many months before —and to dedicate a whole day to making “authentic” Mexican tamales. Having moved to the U.S. three years ago, my partner, who is from Mexico, is very understandably unsatisfied with the Mexican food here in Boston. Anywhere that puts rice inside of a burrito is a mockery of her cuisine, not leaving many options available. Thus, her cravings for Mexican food—tacos, chilaquiles, mole—are only truly satisfied when she makes the dishes herself. So, knowing the labor-intensive process that lay ahead, we made a list of the ingredients we needed and set out to recreate one of her most beloved meals.

Making the tamales was not as easy as finding the ingredients, which we secured at Market Basket and La Internacional Foods, a small Latin American market, both in Somerville. In addition to the banana leaves, we needed achiote paste, salsa ingredients, chicken, and masa dough. After purchasing all of the ingredients, we came home and immediately blended up the salsa ingredients, which we threw into the slow cooker with the chicken and achiote paste. Next, we made the masa dough, which just meant adding the right amount of water, lime juice, and salt to the flour. Despite following a recipe, our proportions were off so we ended up having to add more of everything until we reached the desired consistency.

We then prepared the banana leaves, which was the most difficult part of the process. Banana leaves must be cleaned well before cooking, but they are so delicate that one must clean them very slowly and carefully. We soaked them in water and then softly scrubbed each leaf with a sponge before laying them to air dry. Afterwards, we had to gently rub each leaf with a paper towel to ensure total dryness. We then had to carefully cut the damaged edges of the leaf and then snip them further so they were the correct size. Because the leaves are so fragile, all cuts must be made slowly and deliberately or the entire leaf could be ruined (which we did, multiple times). Needless to say, the banana leaf process lasted the entire four hours.

Finally, it was time to put the tamales together. We first had to warm the clean banana leaves straight on the burner so they could soften, and then we added a layer of masa dough, followed by a layer of the slow cooked chicken, which was then covered by another layer of masa dough. We carefully wrapped the rest of the banana leaves around the chicken-filled dough, and tied each tamale together with a thin string of banana leaf we had cut from the ends of the bigger leaves. We then piled all the tamales into a steamer basket and steamed them for one hour. Altogether, the cooking process lasted around 6 hours. By the time we pulled the tamales out of the steamer, we were starving, cranky, and tired.

Could we have just bought a package of frozen tamales from Trader Joe’s instead, which would’ve taken 30 minutes at most? Maybe. But this wouldn’t have truly satisfied my partner’s craving for Mexican food. The 6-hour process of making tamales meant connecting with her culture as a whole, rather than simply eating it. Filling our bellies with tamales was an added bonus (they were, obviously, delicious), but this entire process was more of an exercise in finding home through food and affirming her Mexican identity in a new setting, than it was about simply eating tamales.