Food has always been an important part of my upbringing. When my brother and I were younger, eating out or ordering in food was a luxury reserved only for special events, celebrations or holidays. My mom cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner, and my dad would do all the grocery shopping. Looking back on this while living on campus and on my own, we did not value our home cooked meals enough. My brother and I were always pining after the Mcdonalds and Subways that all our friends and classmates ate. The reasons for my parents’ decision to not order in or go out for fast food frequently, was based on the way they were raised in Colombia. For them food holds a deeper more familial tie than in the United States. While food is a basic need, it is much more than that, it is a binding agent for families to come together. Another reason was the way that in Colombia food is a lot more natural and unprocessed than it is in the United States, my parents wanted us to grow up eating freshly cooked food rather than unhealthy preservatives and flavoring that fast food is splattered in.
A little back story on my parents, they immigrated to this country with me as a baby from Colombia in the year 2000, at the age of 29 and 30. They left Colombia looking for a better life, due to the political unrest that was prevalent throughout the country. Professor Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in his Journal article titled “Una reflexión en torno a Colombia, 1999-2002: ¿negociación para la paz o proceso para la guerra?”, describes Colombia as having one of the most tragic political conflicts in the post cold war era.
“De los conflictos más virulentos, el colombiano era el más longevo, uno de los más trágicos, el de mayor complejidad en el continente y de los más sobresalientes en el plano mundial. Los datos, para 1999, no podan ser más elocuentes. Durante la década de los noventa, la violencia política en Colombia se expresa en casi diez muertos por dia.”
I wanted to learn more about the ways that my parents used food to keep their traditions and grow bonds with family and new found friends. My very lovely and patient mom Claudia, let me interview her for a bit, to get some answers.
As I spoke to her, I learned a lot about her favorite Colombian dishes, and what sets apart colombian food to her, from the food of other cultures. When I was talking to her we spoke in our native spanish language, I am going to try my best to translate her words, but you can see her untranslated Spanish interview in the video at the bottom.
(Claudia) “Colombian food has something that is very particular, it is that it is a mix of flavors, and spices. We use sweet flavors such as manogs, and acidic flavors such as limes…my favorite plate is our bandeja tipica which is made up of, beans, rice, ground meat, avocado, and sweet plantains.”
In our home we always have at least one of the ingredients of the bandeja paisa on a daily basis, whether it be rice, beans or avocado. These ingredients are such a staple in our household. This was something that ties us to Colombian culture, when my brother and I first went to Colombia after living in New York for the first time, we embraced the food wholeheartedly. Even though we grew up in New York, eating Colombian food at home and speaking the language made us feel Colombian. We felt like we were experiencing the culture while inside our apartment building in Queens, New York. Fabio Parasecoli, President of the Association for the Study of Food and Society at New York University summarized this feeling in his article, “Food, Identity, and Cultural Reproduction in Immigrant Communities.”
“I soon realized some of the dishes served had the same names as those I used to eat back home, but they looked and tasted different. Moreover, the way they were served was new to me: most dishes came to the table at the same time, and there was no trace of the sequence of appetizers (antipasti), primi, secondi, side dishes (contorni), and desserts that structures big, festive meals in Italy. However, the interactions around the table, the body language, the sounds, were reminiscent of many of the family occasions that took place in Italy. Somehow, I was at home away from home.”
This “home away from home” is the way that my parents made our apartment feel, by integrating all the food and traditions of our home country. I asked my mom how she tried to preserve these traditions and she answered that it was all about creating familial bonds around food, the same way she had growing up. It was about inviting all our cousins over and cooking with them, and the memories that get formed in that time. Even though we have a very small family in New York, I always remember coming together around food. We would gather and participate in cooking amongst all of us. Starting from scratch. It’s a long day in which all our food is prepared but then we can share all these amazing traditional dishes all together.” My mom would go to farms when she was younger and cook outside with family and friends and while we couldn’t do that in our small one bedroom apartment my parents would set up bbq’s in Flushing Meadow Park to make us feel the way they did growing up.
For my mom these moments of family coming together to cook and share in our cultural identity are her favorite in the Christmas holiday season. As Catholics my parents celebrate something called novena, which is” an ancient devotion that consists of 9 days of prayers” in preparation for the birth of Jesus. While my parents are not very religious, they brought this tradition with them because it brings family together, it’s the sharing of plates and gathering in each other’s homes. The prayers lasted about 15minutes yet the preparation of the food could last all day.
“For the novena, we gather all together as a family and pray, and this is an opportunity for us to gather us a family and we do that through food.each day we meet in a different home and at each home we make different specialties. From empanadas to natilla. We brought this story here and we continue to do so because it brings us happiness and memories of our homeland…it’s hard to get the same products as in Colombia but we try our best.” This is something we still do to this day, and my favorite thing to make is bunuellos, they are small fried cheese balls and they take a long time to make but theres something about eating it after all the hard work with family that makes it worth it.
My mother mentioned not being able to find the same ingredients and products here that she had access to in Colombia. This is a sentiment I’m sure a lot of different immigrants feel, yet we are lucky that New York is such a melting pot of cultures that we can find some of the flavors we are used to. Yet there are some flavors that cannot be found here, such as the natural flavor of fruits. My mom’s favorite fruit is pineapple, yet she claims that the flavor is not the same, the pineapple she grew up with was very sweet rather than the bitter taste she finds it to have here. There is also a lack of the array of fruits that she would consume growing up.
Even though we did not have access to all the same foods our parents did, my parents prided themselves with giving my brother and I the cleanest food they could, and that included no takeout or fast food. My brother and I would beg our parents for Mcdonalds, and to go out to restaurants because we thought it would help us fit in, and my mom continued to make her iconic arroz con pollo and avocado salad. This sentiment of longing for fast food reminds me of the argument that Professor Galvez explored in her book, Eating Nafta. Glaves describes ultra processed foods as being “marketed to appeal to ideas about modern and cosmopolitan lifestyles, and priced and sold in ways that preempt and dislocate other kinds of consumption” (Galvez 12). My parents knew that the restaurants that they could afford were not the healthiest because highly saturated foods are sold as lower prices than healthy food. And they knew about the ‘hyperpalatable” and “ultra processed” food that places such as McDonalds provided. My mom cooked three meals a day everyday because she wanted us to grow up with the clean eating that her and my dad did, and she knew the restaurants that offered this kind of food was out of their price range.
In order for my parents to make us all our traditional meals they had to rely on supermarkets that catered to our food and Colombian restaurants that they could go buy soups or something to add on to our dinners. I remember once when I was younger walking into a Whole Foods type of supermarket and being flabbergasted that I could not find an arepa. Arepas were such an everyday meal in our home, I was shocked that it was not the same in every home. Through finding these different hubs of Columbian markets my parents were able to expand their community while also feeling at home. It reminded me of a passage from the book Planet Taco. Author Gustavo Arellano stated “wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it’s people, food, language, or rituals even centuries removed from the original mestizo source, it remains Mexican” (Arellano 9). Asking my mom about her experience in these supermarkets she shared in Arellano’s sentiment that it created a mini Colombia for her.
“My experience in a Colombian restaurant has been very good. The best thing is that the owners understand us. The decorations and the plates make me not miss home. The attention and service is the same as in Colombia [such as the friendly tone in their voice, and their expressions, slangs and sayings]… I think that you identify a lot with people from the same culture.” Going into a Colombian supermarket or restaurants to buy some rice or a dessert, brings about a feeling of home. The way that they are decorated, the friendly demeanor of the staff, the way that they speak and the way that it created a fabricated sense of home is the same way that Arellano feels about “people, food, language” making a place remain Mexican. While I was doing research for this paper, I saw that the conversation on Colombian food and foodways was very limited. However I came across this amazing article from Eater that breaks down and explains a plethora of Colombian snacks and dishes. I have tagged it, if anyone is interested in learning more about Colombian food. In the article there is a large focus on fruits sold at outdoor markets and street food, and I think this summarizes Colombian food and identity very well. Colombians are very close people that enjoy conversing and sharing food, these small areas of food exchange are places where personal connections can be made with people.
During this interview I learned a lot about history, food, Colombia and my mom. It really opened my eyes to all the ways that my parents worked hard to give us the same things and more than they had when they were younger. It is not easy for immigrant families to bring the same traditions they have growing up into a new country where the resources and way of living differ so greatly. I’m thankful my family was able to do this with food being the center of our connection to each other and our culture.
If you are interested in trying some Colombian food around Queens my mom and I made a list of some of our favorites!
For typical Colombian dishes:
-Pollos Mario (specifically the Astoria location)
-La Choza del Gordo
-Mis Tierras Colombianas
-La Pequña Colombia
For Baked Goods
-El Buen Sabor
-La Antioquena Bakery
For Desserts/ snacks
-El Palacio de los Cholados
-La Perrada de Chalo
Arellano, Gustavo. Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Scribner, 2013.
“CONSUMING PRACTICES: Foodways.” The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco, by Barbara L. Voss, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2008, pp. 233–251. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp52b.15. Accessed 9 May 2020.
Graesch, Anthony P., et al. “A Cross-Cultural Study of Colonialism and Indigenous Foodways in Western North America.” Across a Great Divide: Continuity and Change in Native North American Societies, 1400-1900, edited by Laura L. Scheiber and Mark D. Mitchell, University of Arizona Press, 2010, pp. 212–238. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16xwbn1.14. Accessed 9 May 2020.
Gálvez Alyshia. Eating NAFTA Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico. University of California Press, 2018.
Parasecoli, Fabio. “Food, Identity, and Cultural Reproduction in Immigrant Communities.” Social Research, vol. 81, no. 2, 2014, pp. 415–439. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26549625. Accessed 9 May 2020.
Tokatlian, Juan Gabriel. “Una Reflexión En Torno a Colombia, 1999-2002: ¿Negociación Para La Paz o Proceso Para La Guerra?” Foro Internacional, vol. 44, no. 4 (178), 2004, pp. 635–655. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27738674. Accessed 8 May 2020.