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Battle Creek Enquirer
The Taste Of Tradition: Latino Cuisine, Spurred By Immigrants, Makes Inroads In Battle Creek
March 17, 2003
Soul food is defined in Webster's New World dictionary as "items of food popular originally in the South, among blacks, such as chitterlings, ham hocks, yams, corm bread and collard greens." But the words may best represent the love, dedication, heart and soul of those who prepare and enjoy them - regardless of the ethnicity of the person.
On March 10, the Battle Creek Enquirer began a tour of foods of our community by exploring Japanese food. Today, we will nibble on the culture of foods from those of Latino descent. The tradition of food, how it has been altered or changed through the years and the health advantages and risks will be examined. This three-part series will conclude March 24 with an exploration of foods of the African Americans in our community.
It could begin at night and end the next day; but the waiting would be well worth it. At least six people, young and old, would pitch in the assembly line doing everything from dipping corn husks to spreading masa harina (corn meal) along the husks before adding the finishing touches. Just prior to the lid being placed on the large round kettle-type pot, which could contain nearly 100 tamales, a wet towel is laid on top of the final layer in order to keep the tamales moist. After about three hours, hot, fresh tamales would melt in the mouth of those who sat down to a holiday meal.
"If you wanted to eat them, you had to help out," laughed Anthony Torres as he remembers his abuelita (grandmother) and her family-famous technique of making tamales.
As a nino (little boy) growing up in Los Angeles, Christmas, Easter, Cinco de Mayo or September 16 (Mexican Independence Day) would be remembered most by his grandmother's making of tamales. Although she made all of the traditional Mexican dishes, which are fattening, Torres remembers her being "as thin as a rail." She lived to be 93 years old.
Today, the not-so-slim Torres, does not witness the long process of making tamales and other traditional Mexican dishes. He does, however, continue to eat them as he frequents such "real" Mexican restaurants as Nina's Taqueria on Capital Avenue. To him, it's the closest to home-cooking he can find.
As the Latino population of Battle Creek continues to rise, those like Torres crave the need for traditional foods and other reminders of their homeland. The rise in ownership of stores and restaurants that cater to this culture is indicative to the population increase.
The last U.S. Census results estimate that the Spanish-speaking population in Calhoun County is growing, mirroring a national trend. From 1990 to 1998 in Calhoun County, the Hispanic population grew by 30 percent, from 2,583 to 3,364.
Other less formal indicators that the local Hispanic population is on the rise include Spanish-speaking church services attended by hundreds of people; a popular, new basic-Spanish class for city employees; a growing number of students taking English-as-a-second-language classes and new businesses owned by Hispanics.
That population explosion is what led Carmen Vargas to open La Mexicana Market on Emmett Street in Battle Creek. It is one of two in the city which caters to Latinos. She and her family already own a Mexican market in Kalamazoo, which shops for its foods weekly in Chicago. They decided it was time to venture to Battle Creek two years ago.
"People want food they know and taste more like they are used to than what is in the grocery stores," Vargas said. The store stocks Mexican sausage, sour cream, French bread, corn tortillas, pan dulce (sweet bread) and El Milagros (tostadas). While most of the food is geared toward Mexicans, the majority of Latinos in Battle Creek, Colombian Efrain Merchan said he enjoys being able to purchase Naranja Postobon (orange Colombia soda).
"They not only sell foods, but cowboy boots, videos, detergents, and phone cards. We (Latinos) come here to buy phone cards to call (Latin American) countries we can't buy anywhere else," said Merchan, board director of the Latin American Council. "We also come here to wire money home to our families."
Merchan said the atmosphere at La Mexicana Market is comfortable for many Latinos as they purchase items familiar to their home country in a language they are familiar with.
"These things you can't buy at Felpausch," he said.
Merchan said those from Honduras, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries are now living in Battle Creek. Their common bond, however, is the Spanish language and Catholic religion, although not all Latinos are Catholic. While it is good to have stores which cater to the Latino, Merchan and Torres are working to bridge the gap between the cultures by introducing various community resources.
One of those is the Food Bank of South Central Michigan in which Torres is an intern. As he completes his degree in social work, he attempts to be an instrumental link between the Latino and American-speaking communities. He and Merchan, along with the Battle Creek Public Schools, recently hosted a food distribution in which mostly Latinos, came outfor the 50 pound boxes of food.
Most of the foods are mainstream items, however, the Food Bank is attempting to get more items geared toward the Latino population. Items such as rice, beans, canned tomatoes and tortillas as becoming more available to prepare traditional Spanish dishes.
With the food, information on resources like the Red Cross and local Spanish-speaking churches were also provided to those in need.
A need to help Latinos eat more healthy versions of their traditional meals has also led to a new relationship with Priscilla Barnes, director of Minority Health Partnership Regional Health Alliance.
In 1998, about 1.2 million of the 30 million Latino-Americans had been diagnosed with diabetes and another 675,000 had undiagnosed diabetes according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Middle-aged and older Latino Americans are more likely to have diabetes than younger adults, with 25 percent to 30 percent of those age 50 or older having diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes.
"Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, are all rising among minorities," said Barnes. "We are focusing locally on how to control Type 2 diabetes which is managed by controlling weight and carefully regulating the foods we eat; especially fats and foods high in carbohydrates."
With emigration to the United States, major changes have occurred in Mexican-Americans' diets, according to a study on cultural eating done by Ohio State University.
The study showed how the increased consumption in foods not traditionally a big part of the Mexican diet had begun to affect their health. Healthy changes included an increase in milk, vegetables and fruits, while a negative factor came into play with a decline in the consumption of traditional fruit-based beverages and the purchase of inexpensive sources of carbohydrates such as beans and rice.
Barnes said cookbooks on how to substitute fatty foods for those more healthy in traditional recipes is a mission of theirs. The challenge, however, is providing information in Spanish.
The need to connect to more local resources to the Latino community is what the Latin American Council is attempting to do as it applies for non-profit status. Approval would make it the only Latino nonprofit in the city and possibly the county.
In the meantime, food is something Torres, who also has diabetes, said is a common bond between all people. By working together on health issues, other aspects of life in an English-speaking culture will fall into place. That's what he noticed while growing up in Los Angeles. Before moving to Michigan about 1995 (fed up with the riots, earthquakes and recession in the city) he said food culture is something that crosses all racial lines.
"In Los Angeles I would see black people come to Mexican restaurants and love the food, and I would see Mexicans go into a hamburger place and say it was the good. Every (culture) has some to share. The blending of food cultures breaks down a lot of barriers."
His family has lived in the area that is now the United States for more than 300 years. He said many of them lived in Austin, Texas, before 1836 when it became U.S. territory. While many of the old ways of making foods has been lost throughout the generations, the memories of them will never die.
"Every generation that has come here from other countries has acclimated so well," said Torres. "The habits and tastes of the new culture are often shared with the old; but at the same time, people tend to hold on to their traditions, morals and values. It's food that helps us remember where we came from."
Tips on cooking healthy
Baking foods as opposed to frying them
Using canola, corn, olive or safflower oil as opposed to lard or shortening
Switch to skim or 1% milk and dairy products
Do not purchase pre-prepared foods with sauces or gravies.
For more information regarding "Healthy Eating, Latino Style," contact Spanish Speaking Information Center, 810-239-4417. To receive a free "Healthy Eating, Latino Style," cookbook, call Priscilla Barnes, director, Minority Health Partnership Regional Health Alliance at 962-5992 ext.13.
Heatlh quiz answers
Question One: Two to 2.5 percent of adults suffer from true food allergies of any kind. The most common cause of allergic food reactions for adults are peanuts, shellfish, tree nuts and fish. For children: milk, eggs, peanuts, soy beans, tree nuts, wheat, fish and shellfish.
Question Two: False. Canned or frozen produce is generally processed at their peak and may contain more nutrients than fresh produce. However, canned or frozen items have added sugar or salt.
For more information regarding this quiz or other health information, visit the Center for Disease Control Web site at: www.cdc.gov.
Although there are a variety of Latinos living in Battle Creek (including Columbian, Puerto Rican and Guatemalan) Mexicans are the majority of the local Latino population. Popular foods of their culture include these dishes you won't find at Taco Bell.
For more information about these foods or recipes, visit www.vivanewmexico.com.