While we drank beer out of can, as an homage to Jenny’s mom who does this while she cooks, I poured my heart out to Jenny. She listened attentively as I took over the session, selfishly forgetting that the reason I was there was to talk about her comfort food. It took me back to moments in my mother’s kitchen when I would sit next to the chair by the stove and talk about everything with her. I felt embarrassed for making the conversation about me. What was it about this session that triggered that? After some reflection I realized that Jenny’s ravioli with pesto and salad gave me the same comfort that Jenny spoke so dearly about in relation to this meal.
My father and I would walk to Bangkok Market every week, the local Asian market in our neighborhood. As you entered, the scent of seafood and spices, bitter and thick, would tickle your nostrils and seep into your psyche. As we passed the golden shrine with smoky incense, we would go through the aisles looking for ingredients and colorful products to consume.
Growing up, Saturday mornings consisted of going to about three different grocery stores with my parents to do the shopping for the week. I remember hating it and never understanding why my mom couldn’t just get everything at one grocery store. As an adult I get it. I have five main places where I shop depending what my menu for the week looks like. I learned from my mother that different grocery stores will be better, in quality and price, for different produce. I oscillate between bourgeois grocery stores, where if I had my older light skinned nephew with me they would think I’m the nanny and where Coldplay blasts loudly, and stores that make you feel like you’re in a whole other country, where Merengue blasts and older women discuss their ailments with whoever will or will not listen, and where you get a taste of East European and Middle Eastern specialties. I grew up going more to the latter stores and have picked up my moms skill of choosing produce and easily making meaningful conversation with whoever is in front or behind me in line. One thing that I’ve noticed is that you can have more meaningful conversation at smaller grocery stores than bigger ones. People are more willing to talk and the conversation can easily become exciting, steering away from small talk. I’d rather listen to a woman tell me how worried she is about her son than discuss the weather.
I have to admit that I am privileged for being able to choose where I want to shop. I can afford to shop where my parents were never able to and never even knew of. It saddens me that fresh healthy food seems to come with class. Being observant, because nosy is such a strong word, I notice what people buy everywhere I go and I can honestly say that there is an inequality that stems from education and distribution of food. It’s nothing new. You’ve all heard it and know this. The snacks people buy at Villalobos for their children are different than the snacks people buy at 365 for their children. Children shouldn’t be eating Hot Cheetos and drinking soda for breakfast. Healthy and clean food should be affordable and available to everyone. It shouldn’t be a privilege, but we live in a world that has divided us into the ones who know about healthy foods and can afford it and the ones who don’t and can’t.
We unfortunately seem to be unable to escape gentrification which means there is a merging of these worlds. It’s happening everywhere in Los Angeles. So there will be many of you, who chose to leave your comfort, living in the neighborhoods and shopping at the grocery store where the child will be drinking soda for breakfast. I ask for you not to judge but to understand that that child drinking soda is rooted in our societies choice on how to distribute education and food and in the hardships that this society has bestowed onto families. Yes it is easy to say that now a days learning about healthy choices is simple but when you don’t know that there are choices how do you learn? When you work 12 hours a day and need to feed your kids, when do you have time to research? When you see four bunches of cilantro for $1 and then you see one bunch of organic cilantro for $1.79, and you need to feed a family of five on one salary, which will you pick? Remember that if we have a choice and if we have knowledge we are privileged and instead of using that privilege to judge let’s use it to be understanding. By understanding we begin to expand rather than contract. It’s through expanding that we begin to build a community. We have to ask ourselves how can we make privilege the norm? We all deserve it.
If you wander deep into the throat of downtown, you will find streets and alleys lined with people and clothing and of course food. People making a living, existing, and alive. Sounds and scents encompass you, bathing you in a cloud of energy.
At 7am the steam is rising and the tacos are sizzling. In between racks of clothing and long tables of shoes and socks, you will find ladies and their children, teenage daughters and adult sons, cooking up special dishes to feed those who have come out before the sun rises and the traffic begins.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my Guatemalan roots. Why is it that I haven’t immersed myself in the traditional food of my culture? Is it because it’s a complex history? I don’t come from a family that can trace their roots. This is a sad reality of a conquered race. I also didn’t grow up in Guatemala. I grew up in Los Angeles with the Guatemalan culture. I’m first generation here and this alone is a struggle because I’ve never fully been from there and I’ve never fully been from here. When I traveled to Spain I was told my last name was Catalan. So what really are my roots? I think this question is the reason that I’ve never immersed myself in fully learning about Guatemalan culture. Because my roots are unclear I search for culture, I search for food, I search for music and I search for what makes me feel more at peace and comforted and my reality is that my comfort doesn’t fully come from Guatemalan culture. It should because that’s what I grew up with but then there’s a void that’s too strong for me to ignore. When I was little girl I would pack my favorite toys and move around the house with my blankets from room to room, corner to corner and build tents where I felt I wanted to stay. I was always looking for the perfect place to play and be comfortable. My parents would call me a wandering gypsy. This is still how I feel with culture. However, Guatemalan traditions and gastronomy are what my parents passed down to me. When I go to Guatemala I don’t even have to speak and everyone knows I’m from there. So it is a big part of me. This is the culture I know, this is my culture and I need to embrace it more.
A few months ago my brother began building a food truck for my nephews. The eight year old, Ivan, “loooves” food and asked his dad to build them a food truck. My brother had never built anything like this before so with the help of friends and YouTube he began the project. After weeks of work the grand opening was yesterday.
Recipe for torta
Green, red, orange peppers diced
Served with steamed white rice
“Up to an hour ago I always thought this was ‘torta,’” Christine was telling us, “but my sister told me that it’s the stuff that goes in torta. I’m still going to be calling it torta because that’s what I’ve been calling it since I was little. “
“Torta” was one of the first things that Christine learned to cook. She lived off of this dish for a whole semester in college, making big batches and freezing it for her future self. After moving out of the dorms her mom was afraid of Christine’s frozen pizza diet and one summer when Christine was home from school her mom decided to teach her this basic dish. Since then, Christine has cooked it for roommates, friends and her fiancé. “It’s my ‘I try to impress people’ dish. “