Food and History

This vignette on a recent food fair in San Francisco’s Mission District reminded me of the deep connections between food and history.

While I don’t consider myself a “food scholar,” I am a historian of community (Chicano/Latino community to be exact). Part of the challenge–and the fun–of research like that is that sometimes you are combing through the sources to see past the invisible. For example, I knew there were Latinos in the city in the early 20th century, but their small numbers (especially when compared to the ethnic Chinese population) and their diffuse settlement patterns left few traces in the traditional historical record of this “Pacific metropolis.”

One of the breakthroughs for me came with the discovery of a Spanish-language Catholic church, what was called a “national parish.” Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (on Broadway, in present-day Chinatown) was a spiritual, cultural, and physical hub of the dispersed population. It became a space within which they built community. (The full story is in chapter 2.)

This community’s existence was not only visible in the few boxes of remaining documents from the century of Guadalupe’s past, it was also visible in the businesses that I first discovered advertising on the pages of the parish’s weekly bulletin. Doctors, lawyers, and dentists who “habla español”; Spanish-language publishers, printers, and news vendors; and even a Latin dance hall all advertised to the parishioners at Guadalupe.

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And so did markets and restaurants. The City of Mexico, La Novedad, and El Bule de Oro solicited customers with their promises of tamales, meats, candies, and baked goods. One celebrated their “complete assortment of Mexican effects, especially in salsas, chorizos, and all class of spices for making the best tamales” in their ads. Others, like Xochimilco Café and Azteca Grocery Store, reflected the dynamic community in the foods they provided them, culinary reminders of the past as well as their new, hybrid present.

As I wrote in the introduction to the book, food also had a lot to do with my first discovery of the topic:

In the summer of 1994 I arrived in the Bay Area as a graduate student. Having been born and raised (and educated) in Southern California, I initially felt isolated and alone as I made the necessary adjustments to a new environment. Seeking the familiar, I decided to make one of my favorite meals—enchiladas rojas, or red sauce enchiladas. My local grocery store in Berkeley provide most of the ingredients, but I reached a culinary roadblock when it came to finding the dried pasilla and ancho chilies I used to make the sauce, unquestionably the most important ingredient. In my short time in Northern California I had already made a handful of visits to “the city” via the use of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Almost all of those initial trips were to the Castro District, entailing a short walk from the 16th Street Mission District BART station. Walking down 16th for the first time, the assortment of markets with displays of fresh produce and the familiar smells of the streets of a barrio immediately struck me as familiar. On subsequent walks I noticed the small taquerías and panaderías, bars blasting oldies and Vicente Fernandez, and the church—Mission Dolores, the eponym of the district—overflowing with Sunday visitors. And so I ventured to the city once again, to the Mission, with the goal of finding my missing ingredient. I didn’t need to walk more than a quarter of a block from the station before I found a local grocery store selling a selection of dried chilies. As I stood in line it occurred to me that for the first time I didn’t feel out of place in the Bay Area. In the Spanish being spoken around me, in the look of the over-stocked corner grocery, and in the smells of the foods in my hands and on the shelves, I had a profound sense of the familiar if not the familial. While the barrios I knew from my upbringing differed from the one I stood in now, the cultural composition of the Mission allowed me to feel at home, even if only for a moment. At the same time, I recognized a distinct current of difference also flowing through this community. The observable difference within the Mission is as important as the sameness which binds it to other locales in the Chicano/Latino United States. As the impetus to my epiphanic encounter with the neighborhood, food also first illustrated the particularity of this neighborhood’s story to me. The Mexican and Mexican American favorites of my youth—the pan dulces, the dried chiles, oversized burritos—were all in ample supply in the Mission District of the 1990s. However, those Mexican flavors also share gastronomical space with popular items from Nicaragua and El Salvador. By no means a rare event in most Latin American enclaves, the presence of Central (and to some extent South) America in San Francisco is abundant. Restaurants carrying the Central American empanada or pupusa reveal the presence of a large Nicaraguense and Salvadoreño population within the district.

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