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Immigrants’ Traveling Foods: Counterpointing Immigrants’ Culinary Traditions in New York City

Grape Leaves
Picture displaying a Greek interviewee preparing dolmathakia, a traditional recipe based on stuffed grape leaves with rice and herbs

 

By Anahí Viladrich, Queens College & The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Natalie Milbrodt, Queens Memory Program

More than 8.5 million people live in New York City (NYC), with over one-third of them being foreign-born.[1] The varied origin of immigrants in NYC—who represent almost all Latin American countries as well as a myriad of European, Asian and African nations—speaks to the city’s rich culinary tapestry of aromas, flavors and tastes that are displayed, rhythmically and in counterpoint, throughout the city’s five boroughs. From annual weekend fairs and ethnic festivals to the ubiquitous food trucks and restaurants, NYC’s foreign born populations reinvent their “identities” by developing fusion foods—as per combining Mexicans’ corn tortillas with Pakistanis’ curries.

The purpose of this article is to document a community-based ethnographic research project focused on studying immigrants’ culinary practices in the borough of Queens. Immigrants’ traditional staples have become an indelible part of the city’s symbolic (and material) culture by merging a cornucopia of smells, shapes and tastes. We purposively illustrated how immigrants’ identities achieve new meanings in a global milieu where their ethnic culinary traditions are merged with each other.

Event_Sarah Howard
Debut and celebration of the exhibit, sponsored by the Citi Center for Culture, which took place in the Spring 2014. Dr. Viladrich is the second person from the left of the image, and Ms. Milbrodt is the first one from the right.

 

With funding from the CUNY Diversity Projects Development Fund, we chose Queens as the site for our research project, as nearly one-half of residents in this borough are foreign-born.[2] One of our main research questions was: How are traditional foods sustained and/or transformed and how do immigrants’ culinary cultures evolve in a global city? What social occasions, such as festivals and holidays, bring these culinary traditions alive?

A related goal of this project was to provide opportunities for undergraduate students to utilize oral history—a method aimed at collecting, analyzing, and interpreting the past through participants’ voices and personal experiences—for the purpose of documenting the ethnic eating traditions of diverse immigrant communities in Queens. Between 2013 and 2014, Professor Anahí Viladrich (Queens College & the Graduate Center, CUNY) and Natalie Milbrodt (Director, Queens Memory Program) trained a total of twenty-nine students in oral history and ethnographic methods, including in-depth interviewing, non-obtrusive procedures, participant observation and recording techniques (i.e., creating and archiving audiovisual materials). These tools offered a unique experiential learning opportunity for students who gained hands-on practice in diverse research methods and became junior oral history researchers.

As part of their class projects, students engaged their families—as well as members of their local communities—who then became prime sources of information about immigrant culinary traditions. This project allowed immigrants (mostly residents of Queens) to experience their own “telling” by retracing their culinary practices, along with the ethnic celebrations they have maintained, modified, and passed down in their communities through time. The study results yielded interviews with individuals from different immigrant groups. Nineteen of our study participants were born in El Salvador, Cyprus, Poland, Germany, Greece, Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, Italy, Colombia, Kosovo, Trinidad, Haiti, Guyana and Ecuador. The other ten participants were born in the United States, including Puerto Rico, as well as from the Dominican Republic and Europe. Jewish, Hindu, and Catholic traditions relating to food were also discussed in some of the interviews.

The content of the interviews highlight the importance of participants’ traditional foods as a vehicle for conveying the emotional and ethnic attachment to their countries of origin, while recreating a larger sense of community—and belonging— through the consumption of foods from other ethnic groups. Study participants also pointed out the importance of eating familiar foods as a catalyst for strengthening their feelings of comradeship with their peers during ethnic celebrations and national or religious holidays.

Exhibit Viladrich
One of the panels on display featuring the Exhibit “Embracing Nostalgia”: Retracing Queens’ Culinary Traditions Through Immigrants’ Voices, which took place at Court Square building (Long Island City, New York City) in the Spring, 2014

Giving back to the community

In the spring of 2014, the project hosted a multi-media exhibit on immigrants’ food practices and gastronomic traditions. The event was conceived as an interactive installation in which study participants, from more than a dozen countries, were able to share their views and provide feedback to researchers and community members. The exhibit included both a virtual display (i.e., computerized access to interviews) and a physical installation of students’ research findings. The Citi Center for Culture graciously donated a public gallery space located in the Court Square building (Long Island City), as well as printing and mounting services. At this venue, our interviewees’ rich voices were heard by conveying personal interpretations of their cultural, national, and religious legacies concerning their eating and food practices. The central location of this exhibit was conducive for attendance by a large number of residents from Queens and other boroughs, bringing together hundreds of community members, along with project participants, faculty and students from Queens College.

As of today, this project is still taking place at the Oral History Archives of Queens College. Students’ interviews are now part of a public record located in the Queens College Library Department of Special Collections and Archives, and are being stored in a special digital gallery: https://goo.gl/NXWcvU

This gallery can be easily accessed by scholars and students, as well as anyone from the general public who is interested in learning about the thriving diversity of NYC. Ultimately, this project created a model of experiential learning based on community-based research opportunities, which allows underrepresented voices to travel into the public realm, beyond academic and archival research audiences.

For educators interested in learning more about the materials and methods that Viladrich and Milbrodt used in the classroom, please visit https://goo.gl/8TYX4c

[1] http://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.page

[2] https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/nyc-population/nny2013/nny_2013.pdf

 

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