Category Archives: Modern

A Roti by Any Other Name Would Taste Like Home: Food Culture in the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of the Early 20th Century United States

By Haritha Govind

The South Asian diaspora has made its way throughout many parts of the world –bringing along cuisines, opening restaurants, and familiarizing the world with dishes like naan and lassi. These are immigrant stories that have a strong continuity even today. But what about Indian immigrant stories that were a snapshot in time, creating a unique culinary culture in a community that, unfortunately, did not sustain the same continuity? This post introduces the fleeting Punjabi-Mexican community of the early 20th century in California. It explores how a unique set of socio-political circumstances created an environment for two cultures that unknowingly shared similar food to forge a distinct culinary history.

How did these two communities meet in California? In the mid-19th century, farming families in the Punjab region of India started sending their sons abroad, including to the United States, to help supplement their family incomes. These men were accustomed to physical labor, and many found themselves being hired at mines and farms throughout California and other southwestern states. Meanwhile, many Mexican women from migrant laborer families found themselves working on Californian farms after being displaced by the Mexican Revolution. With the Immigration Act of 1917, Indians and other Asians were restricted from entering the United States, and those who were already in the country could not leave easily. This created a unique situation where Punjabi men found it comforting and legally advantageous to build family units by marrying Mexican women. Interracial marriages were illegal in California at the time, but both communities could circumvent this issue by identifying as “Brown.”

A Punjabi-Mexican American couple, Valentina Alarez and Rullia Singh, posing for their wedding photo in 1917.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
http://www.sikhnet.com/news/punjabi-sikh-mexican-american-community-fading-history

One might assume that, in these Punjabi-Mexican households, the dinner table was awash in fusion food. Afterall, there are many similarities between Punjabi and Mexican cuisine: the use of spices such as cumin and red chili, the practice of eating flatbread or rice with a broiled stew or curry, and the importance of flavor boosters like onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro. Punjabi men found the corn tortilla to be unfamiliar to their palate, but its resemblance to the roti, an Indian whole-wheat flatbread, was not lost on them. Although children in these families had a mixed cultural identity, and their names, such as Kishen Singh, often reflected their unique cultural disposition, food in the home did not see the same hybrid transformation. Mexican wives learned to expertly prepare Punjabi dishes and would feature them at the dinner table, but Mexican foods were never Indianized, or vice versa. The two culinary traditions remained separate and intact in their serving bowls: a dish of butter chicken could sit next to a plate of tamales at the dinner table, for example, but one would be hard-pressed to find a butter chicken tamale.

Cumin seeds
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cumin_Seeds.jpg

In this sense, the Punjabi-Mexican community disrupts the conventional expectation that diasporas naturally create hybridized or creolized cuisine in the home. Why might this be? Within these multiethnic families, the language spoken at home was usually a mix of Spanish and English, as the mothers would teach their children their native language. Punjabi fathers, by contrast, shared their culture, history, and religion but were more intent on their children easily integrating into Californian society, thus sparing them from the racial and cultural discrimination that came with being mixed race. It is in this childrearing phenomenon that the lack of culinary fusion begins to make socio-cultural sense: the mother’s influence on food and culture was dominant in the family. This line of argument is intertwined not only with the role of women in the early 20th century but also with the role of women of color: would creolization have occurred if both men and women immigrated from Punjab to California, or would this hybridized community never have emerged?

Hypothetical questions aside, there was one setting outside the home where fusion cuisine was indeed featured for a short period of time: Punjabi-Mexican-owned restaurants. The Rasul family’s restaurant “El Ranchero” opened in 1954 in Yuba City, frequently advertised in the Appeal Democrat newspaper for its roti quesadilla. This was the main fusion dish on the menu: it had melted cheese, onions, and shredded beef inside a paratha (whole wheat flatbread), and it came served with a chicken curry dipping sauce, as well as salad or rice and beans. The restaurant successfully served the Punjabi-Mexican community for four decades, providing a place where Punjabi men and their families could share a taste of home with each other. This suggests that fusion was more prominent as a business venture than as an element of everyday lifestyle.

More recently, Punjabi-Mexican fusion cuisine has become a popular phenomenon in modern food truck culture and among food content creators. Its impetus, however, does not come directly from the Punjabi-Mexican community that existed in the early 20th century but rather from increasing connectivity through travel and social media. The roti taco or quesadilla, which some Indian children are familiar with eating, is one such example of a culinary coincidence across time rather than a direct nod to the Rasul Family and their restaurant menu at El Ranchero. Despite this historical tension between hybridization and preservation, modern culinary fusion has fostered a new interest in exploring multiethnic cuisines of the past to investigate how food and community interacted.

The Embedded Recipe: Vibration Cooking as Literature

By Rhiannon Scharnhorst

“Afro-American cookery is like jazz—a genuine art form that deserves serious scholarship and more than a little space on the bookshelves” (Smart-Grosvenor xviii).

Originally published in 1970, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s cookbook/memoir Vibration Cooking: or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl really began in the coastal waters of South Carolina, where the Gullah Geechee people, descended from West Africans, created their own unique culture, language, and foodways. A self-proclaimed culinary griot, Smart-Grosvenor uses food, and stories about food, to bring people together—an early visionary of the self-stylized food documentarian genre. What her work captures—beyond the literary imagination of an African-American woman in the mid-twentieth century—is the need for serious scholarly attention to recipes as a form of storytelling.

 Vibration Cooking is a series of vignettes about Smart-Grosvenor’s life, but what connects each vignette are the recipes. Integral to the surrounding narrative, the recipes extend, complicate, or connect the stories quite literally—they are often dropped in the middle of a sentence which continues after the recipe concludes (see recipe for Cousin Gussie’s Coconut Custard Pie, Figure 1).

Figure 1.

 

Sometimes recipes are layered on top of one another, like when a story about returning from a hunting trip leads to a recipe for smothered rabbit, which is immediately followed by a recipe for squirrel, then venison, before moving onto “recipes” (but really just humorous statements; Figure 2) for peacocks and pheasant and others, before finally returning us to the hunters.

Figure 2.

 

When I assign Vibration Cooking in an introductory literature class on food at a predominately white institution, students are immediately struck by Smart-Grosvenor’s familiar and engaging tone: she treats her audience like an insider, writing as though we intimately know all the people of her world. Simultaneously, she maintains a critical analysis of race: Smart-Grosvenor doesn’t like being essentialized as a “soul food” writer, as it minimizes the culinary traditions celebrated and embraced by Black people around the world. She loved saltimbocca just as much as collard greens, and she wrote for a similarly global audience. Other critiques of racism are woven throughout Vibration Cooking alongside experiences of shopping and food culture writ large. In one vignette, she writes of a greengrocer where the Black employee always packages the greens but is never allowed to take the customer’s money; in another, she writes how “so-called gore-mays” are just like plantation owners who take credit for what Black folks created or discovered long before it was considered sophisticated.

My first question to students after assigning Vibration Cooking is always: “Did you actually read the recipes?” Almost resoundingly the answer is no. Students skip or skim through them, as though they are simply instructional tidbits sprinkled throughout the text and included just to interrupt the “real” narrative. Discussions about why they skip them range from individual preference (I’m not going to cook anything, so why bother) to a critical disavowal of recipes as literature (they’re just instructional, right?). What students often overlook in these moments are how they perpetuate misogynist and racist stereotypes by refusing to see this domestic aspect of Smart-Grosvenor’s writing as valuable and intentional: Black women in particular use food in creative and ingenious ways to combat racism and oppression, as scholars such as Dr. Williams-Forson suggests in her work on Black food history. What Smart-Grosvenor’s work teaches us through the act of reading it is how much knowledge can be embedded in what, on the surface, might appear trifling.

That most of the students skip the recipes upon the first read tells me something about our relationship to food and identity, particularly as Smart-Grosvenor obviously intends for them to be read. Even when directly embedded into the story, readers still don’t stop and fully listen to the Black woman speaking. Some people ignore her expertise and knowledge in light of preconceived ideas about what makes a narrative whole. Upon a second reading, students realize the recipes contain more than instructions—they are moments of humor, and history, and, perhaps most importantly, integral to the understanding of the narrative. What Smart-Grosvenor does through her writing is create an active, participatory work of literature that requires a reader to recognize meaning-making as an embodied experience: if we really want to know how to cook, learn, or be human, we must respect the intentionality behind others’— and our own—narratives. We have to unpack what identities we claim through our own food choices. Without deep, mindful engagement with the whole text, we miss out on all the good stuff.

Looking at recipes as narrative highlights the performance embedded in all texts; just as a moving picture captures the physical embodiment of the individual on film, recipes capture the entangled embodiment of people, place, and food. Recent feminist scholarship has determined that recipes are valuable artifacts of literary history (as the very existence of the Recipes Project alone demonstrates). Recipes are always embedded in a culture and time; they capture a moment rich in historical meaning and detail, particularly of those whose narratives have often been excluded from white European canonical spaces. Smart-Grosvenor’s work in Vibration Cooking is just one such example of a Black literary tradition rich with possibility.

 


Dr. Rhiannon Scharnhorst is a Lecturer in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University and an affiliate with the Kenan Institute for Ethics What Now? network. Her current research explores the complex negotiation, construction, and contestation of authenticity through a food studies curriculum in the writing classroom. When not writing, she is throwing pottery on the wheel in her backyard.

Transpacific Kitchens: The Makings of the Diasporic Kusinera

By GJ Sevillano

“Through my family’s many moves to many different cities, I began to connect the dots of my life. Every single dot I connected was a pot…that form[s] a picture of my life, my family, my calling, and my home.”

-Malou Perez-Nievera, Connecting the Pots: Charting Stories and Filipino Recipes to Find Home

“This peek into the cooking pots and lifestyle of some families makes one realize how much culinary wealth hides, grows, and brings pleasure in Philippine homes, where in truth our mother cuisine develops.” 

-Doreen G. Fernandez, “Mother Cuisine” in Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture

 

While elusive, the embodied culinary performances of self-actualization—the private moments and movements in which the cook slices, stirs, and spices her meals to her satisfaction—are palimpsestically constructed in recipes. Recipes serve as a key genre in which historical subjects have constructed versions and visions of themselves that have exceeded the bounds of normative archives and their print cultures—the “undigested” figures that symbolize everyday forms of cultural resilience.[i] Thus, it is important as we expand our understanding of recipes beyond a mere set of culinary instructions, we must also expand our understanding of the figures that “dance” alongside us as we cook through the culinary repertoires of past, present, and future.[ii]

A selection of female-authored Filipino and Filipino American cookbooks. Photo taken by author.

 

 In the opening narrative to her co-authored cookbook with Ligaya Mishan titled Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora, Angela Dimayuga states that writing recipes and creating the cookbook was a “form of coming home.”[iii] Rather than a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, Filipinx perhaps can be more accurately called a coming-of-home narrative. Home not only in the sense of where she resides, but a coming-of-home within the Filipino diaspora in northern California, within the kitchen, within herself. This literary device, of grappling with different senses of home and homeland, is a key genre used by diasporic Asian writers. From the refugee narrative to the transnational adoptee narrative, Asian migrants have dealt with issues of home in their writing for some time. Similarly, Dimayuga uses the cookbook as a literary site to showcase herself “as a complete person.”[iv] For Dimayuga, her recipes inform not only the foodways she inhabits, but also the person she has found home in—a diasporic kusinera (chef).

The figure of the diasporic kusinera represents the ideals of the modern Philippine kitchen. Caught in the double binds of Spanish and American postcolonialism; cultural preservation and culinary innovation; belonging and unbelonging; and subjecthood and abjecthood, the diasporic kusinera represents the complexities in which Filipina womanhood is constructed in and beyond the sites of the culinary. Recipes like Vanessa Lorenzo’s “Navy Beans with Chorizo and Tomato Chutney (Habichuelas),” Nicole Ponseca’s “Banana Ketchup Ribs,” and Abi Balingit’s “Adobo Chocolate Chip Cookies” index the culinary creativity of the diasporic kusinera that takes seriously the everyday realities of postcolonial life.[v]

As Denise Cruz argues, “Figures of transpacific Filipinas are still a means of negotiating shifts produced by geopolitical transitions, now manifested not in formal empire of occupation, but in the dynamics of neocolonialism and the global marketplace.”[vi] Important to expanding Philippines’ foodways are cookbooks that recenter minoritized experiences of the culinary realm.[vii] Leland Tabares notes how “misfit professionals” use the narrative device of “coming-to-career narratives” to underscore the ways in which chefs of color, female chefs, and queer chefs utilize the genre of the cookbook to challenge normative notions of culinary professionalism.[viii] Building from this, I argue that the cooking, feeding, and eating Filipina embodied in these cookbooks and recipes materializes the ontoepistemological tensions of the quotidian Philippine diaspora. In other words, Philippine tastemakers must grapple with the afterlives and aftertastes of colonial histories that continue to stricture contemporary diasporic life.

In her genre bending cookbook-cum-autobiography-cum-poetry-collection titled Asian Girl in a Southern World: This is Not Your Mother’s Cookbook, Dalena H. Benavente, narrates the struggles of growing up Filipina in Obion County, Tennessee, one of the least Asian-populated places in the U.S. Benavente states, “It’s not enough to tell the stories. You can’t just read about it, hear about it or imagine it. You can’t because it’s just too much. In order to truly understand these stories that I have to tell, you have to eat them.”[ix] She continues, “I hope my noodles make you laugh, my cake makes you want to hug someone you love, and I hope my sangria makes you want to fight for what you believe in.”[x] For Benavente, the normative literary form of narrative is incomplete without taste. To translate her experience as a diasporic kusinera is incomplete without her recipes and her readers cooking alongside her. The consumption of her autobiography can only be corroborated by the embodied experience of following her recipes, cooking her food, and eating the flavors of her transpacific kitchen.

Benavente ends her cookbook where a lot of other Philippine and Filipino-American cookbooks begin, with a recipe for kinilaw, or as she names her dish, a ceviche of jalapeno peppers, prawn and peach. Kinilaw is a dish “cooked” with acid thought to be one of the longest standing pre-colonization culinary traditions native to the Philippines. Benavente’s version differs slightly in her preference to pre-cook the shrimp before she adds it to the lime juice, onion, jalapeno, and peaches. The blend of these seemingly unrelated surf and turf ingredients formulates the essence of her Filipina-American subjecthood. She states, “It’s the marriage of the prawn and peaches together in one place, much like your feet standing on unfamiliar ground but knowing that there is something about the proximity that seems so right.”[xi]

To cook the recipes and eat the foods of transpacific Philippine kitchens means to directly engage with the kusineras that grapple with the complexities of diasporic life. To taste her cuisine one must simultaneously confront the material realities of postcolonial haunting, global capitalism, and everyday cultural resilience.

 

Notes

[i] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

[ii] Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2009): 67-94.

[iii] Angela Dimayuga and Ligaya Mishan, Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora (New York: Abrams, 2021), 10).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] For recipes see: Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, ed., The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from around the Globe (Chicago: Surrey Books, 2018), 122-129; Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad, I Am Filipino: And This is How We Cook (New York: Artisan, 2018), 316-319; Abi Balingit, Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed (New York: Harvest An Imprint of William Morrow, 2023), 143-145.

[vi] Denise Cruz, Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 234.

[vii] Francheska Go, “The Next Generation of Filipino Food,” Food Philippines, https://foodphilippines.com/story/the-next-generation-of-filipino-food/#:~:text=Making%20waves%20in%20the%20global,dishes%20like%20adobo%20and%20sinigang.

[viii] Leland Tabares, “Misfit Professionals: Asian American Chefs and Restaurateurs in the Twenty-First Century,” Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Summer 2021): 103-132.

[ix] Dalena H. Benavente, Asian Girl in a Southern World: This is Not Your Mother’s Cookbook (Self-Pub., Dalena H. Benavente, 2016), Introduction.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 232-233.

 


GJ Sevillano (he/him) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at George Washington University. He received his M.A. in American Studies from George Washington University in 2021 and A.B. in Politics and Certificate in American Studies from Princeton University in 2019. He was born and raised in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles, CA where his academic curiosity and passion for Filipinx food was cultivated. His writing has been published in Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Ampersand: An American Studies Journal, and Alon: Journal for Filipinx American and Diasporic Studies.

Oppenheimer and the RP

By Joshua Schlachet

It may not surprise you to hear that The Recipes Project is light on nuclear arms. Given the exploratory style and generative levity with which so many of our contributors approach our shared themes of food, magic, art, and medicine, the weightiness of weapons of mass destruction, the inner pathos of their “father,” and recipes for radioactive isotopes are nowhere to be found. (Gravity, after all, was a topic for a different Christopher Nolan film.)

Yet the spirit of experimentation, the enormity of collective endeavor, and the destructive consequences of creation without humanity can all be found throughout our pages past. And a profound trust in the process, in taking a leap of faith that the farfetched—even the impossible—could be achieved with sufficient inquisitiveness and dedication to the procedure, runs through so much of what we do at the RP. What is a recipe if not a leap of faith? To begin with raw, even primordial ingredients and trust in a method to transform them into something perhaps unimaginable (whether a delicious pie or a fission reaction) cuts to the heart of what a recipe is and does.

These too are personified in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which undoubtedly contributed to famed director Christopher Nolan’s choice of Oppehheimer as his first ever foray into the biopic genre. As the principal figure in the Manhattan Project and in the construction of the first atomic bomb, what began as a career of scientific exploration evolved into an existence plagued by the destructive power that his endeavors unlocked. Oppenheimer’s life of contradictions would be forever tied to the terrible weapon he and his team developed and to the wartime state that produced and used it.

Throughout the pages of the RP, our contributors have probed the relationship between war and recipes in a variety of contexts. In some posts, recipes had the potential to win wars, whether by provisioning the troops, encouraging thrift on the homefront, or buying domestic goods. Here are but a few to sample:

Other contributors have taken a creative approach to the study of recipes and weapons, both top secret and otherwise. We need not dig too far back into the archive to find Madison Clyburn’s piece It Roars and Breathes Fire on the making of ‘terrifying’ dragons for waging war and for spectacle. Aileen Das’ Removing Arrowheads in Antiquity and the Middle Ages explores recipes as a means to heal the wounds of war in the ancient world. For a far more lighthearted (though still very much political) take on ‘secret’ weapons of a very different sort, check out Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ The CIA’s “Secret” Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe.

Yet to historians of Japan like me, the atomic bomb means something quite different. As I watched Oppenheimer in the theater, I couldn’t help but think of who got left out—of the silenced voices of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is clear that the film agrees with Gary Oldman, playing President Harry Truman, when he tells Oppenheimer that “Hiroshima isn’t about you.” Whether or not we agree with this sentiment, it is worth remembering that some of our contributors have used the lens of recipes and food to center Japanese voices and experiences. Here are two highlights from Nathan Hopson’s series on food culture in wartime Japan:

Finally, as an auteur filmmaker, Nolan is a master of time. To bend and, at times, even overcome it, is a hallmark of his filmic style. While Oppenheimer’s narrative jumped from era to era, traversing decades in seconds, Tillmann Taape’s 2017 RP post ‘Thus It Prevails Against Time’ reminds us that recipes have sought to cheat time (and decay) since at least the sixteenth century. How and why did an early modern maker of medicines prevail over time without the modern tools of nonlinear storytelling or IMAX cameras? Take the time to read and see.