Summer Updates

It is already the end of August. The semester is starting again. The ten days spent is Spain in the early summer feel like an eternity away. The summer evaporated in a busy stream of travel, conferences, training and writing. Yet, this summer is different that others in recent past. It marks several transitions, starting by passing the three-year mark on the tenure track and submitting my first book manuscript for review…

I submitted my book manuscript for review in late June. The book, initially titled, “Eating in Movement,” took about five years to complete. It examines Hispanic Caribbean cuisine and migration in a transnational context. This blog has documented some of this work in progress. Upon submitting the manuscript, I felt a great sense of relief when I received confirmation that the book was out for review.  I now await further work on the next steps and future of this work in the coming months.

Soon after hitting “send” on my book manuscript submission email, I turned to the next task on my list: my first grant for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The seed for the grant was planted last summer. I applied and was accepted to the NIH Programs to Increase Diversity among Individuals Engaged in Health-related Research (PRIDE) Research in Implementation Science for Health Equity (RISE) training hosted by the University of California San Francisco. During the two intense and rewarding weeks of training, I started playing with the idea of designing an intervention to motivate Hispanic Caribbean restaurants to improve cardiovascular health in the community. This idea, while far fetched at first, has since become the seed of my research grant application and, hopefully, the basis for the next step in my research agenda in the coming years.  Since the summer of 2017, I have been advancing this work with the support of this amazing group peer and faculty mentors – seen here at the conclusion of the training this summer 2018:

RISE Fellows and Mentors (Source: Twitter/UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations)

I am now in the final stretch of this long process, with a goal of submitting the application by the end of September.

The project proposed in the grant is a shift in my research agenda, from focusing on individual cultural factors to addressing food environments and policy. Another project that has been key in this shift is my ongoing research examining soda tax policy implementation in Mexico and Chile. This project was funded through the Professional Staff Congress – City University of New York Research Award Program. A year into the project, we can finally see the end of the data collection in sight. The project will then move to analysis and write up through the fall (and most likely beyond). Of course, more on this soon!

I wrapped up the summer with one last conference – the World Universities symposium in Toronto, where I had the chance to present on Hispanic Caribbean migration.

Presenting at WC2 Toronto August 2018 (Thanks to R. Ilieva for the photo)

I did my best to consolidate my book project in 15 minutes. It was a tall order! Yet, the failed attempt resulted in fruitful conversations, comparing immigrant food experiences across global cities. I learned from colleagues in Mexico City, London, and Toronto. We also had the great opportunity to witness discussions around a new national children nutrition program in Canada.

CUNY Professor and community food advocate, Dr. Janet Poppendieck, sharing lessons learned from the US School Lunch Program with Canadian policymakers

I officially start classes tomorrow. My inbox is already populated by student emails and my calendar will soon include more meetings and committee work. There is much to look forward to these coming month: the faith of my first book and grant application, as well as the continued evolution of my research through writing and collaborations. I hope to share more of this work. Stay tuned!


Food fads implications: The case of the Avocado

Avocados seem to be everywhere nowadays. Today, they are eaten at every meal, including breakfast (or brunch). The avocado can now serve as a bowl for your meal or a bun for your BLT. And yes, of course you could also wrap avocado in bacon!

You can do more than just eating the avocado. Its shell can be used as a cup for your latte, as first demonstrated by an Australian coffee shop, which first featured such “creation” as a joke on Instagram.

avocado latte

Melbourne’s Truman Cafe’s Avocado Latte (From: The Telegraph, “‘It’s literally coffee in a piece of rubbish’: Are Avocado lattes the latest hipster coffee trend?”)

The avocado craze has also resulted in an avocado bar (not surprisingly located in Brooklyn!) called the Avocaderia…which actually ran out of avocados on opening day. Topping the “avocado latte” and the Avocaderia, the fruit was also recently featured in the news as a weapon for idiotic, irate bodega customers in New York City! (If interested, you can see the so called “Avocado Assault” here). The list of interesting and over the top uses of avocados can go on. But let’s instead go back to the origins of the fruit, and the potential implications of this avocado trend…

Avocados are native to the Americas – particularly Central Mexico, in Puebla. Fossil evidence suggest humans have been enjoying this fruit since 10,000 BC. The avocado is actually a berry, from the  Lauracea flowering tree family.

Avocados are rich in “good fats”. These fatty fruits are also an excellent source of fiber and other nutrients, including B-vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, vitamin E and vitamin C. Because of their high fat content, they can also be satiating, and provide a delicious mouth feel to any meal. Such profile has increase the demand for avocados in recent years, much beyond the usual guac and chips at your favorite Mexican place.


Avocado farms in the mountains of Michoacán (From: Blue Channel 24, “Rising avocado prices fuelling illegal deforestation in Mexico” (includes video)

Much like other recent food fads, such as the craze for sushi and quinoa (see end of post for more information), the increased appetite for avocado does not come without consequence. As noted in a 2016 piece by Associated Press in the New York Post, our avocado obsession translates into deforestation and other social consequences in neighboring Mexico. The high demand for avocados leads to increased production, at the expense of pine forests in Mexico. Avocado production also takes up water resources that previously benefited the flora and fauna of the area. Moreover, beyond production, avocados also take up resources for packaging and transport, including wood, further contributing to the deforestation. Aside from environmental concerns, avocado production is also linked to the drug cartel, as reported in a 2016 article in The Guardian,

It’s a moot point whether the Mexicans who actually grow these on-trend fruits eventually harvest their fair share of the economic benefits. This lucrative trade is increasingly controlled by a drug cartel known as the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). So when you buy a Mexican avocado, a greedy share of revenue may well accrue to criminals.

The same piece further underscores how the issue is not easily resolved by avoiding Mexican avocados. Other producers, such as those in Chile, Peru and Dominican Republic, do not have better or more sustainable practices. As noted in the same article,

The fact of the matter is that we know pitifully little about the environmental and working conditions of faceless people in faraway places who grow fruit for our tables, but I have seen enough of foreign fruit “farms” to suspect the worst. Fields of abysmally low-paid, often migrant workers who toil and live day-in-day-out in a trashed environment amid polluted water courses and pesticides; the latter decaying workers’ fingernails from dipping saplings into chemicals.

Sadly, similar working conditions may also be found in California farms, as well as the environmental effect of the water-loving fruit – that is close to almonds as “top water guzzling crops“.

Living in Puerto Rico, avocados were easy to come by, grown in someone’s backyard, or bought on the side of the road from a local farmer. I did not give a second thought to where the avocado was coming from. They were also tastier (and bigger) than the imported variety I am now buying in New York City. The quick research I present here makes me value every single avocado I eat, and think twice before falling for the silly food fads that are becoming more common each day. In this globalized world, we need to think of our food choices beyond how they benefit our health and taste buds, to think about how they can affect the communities that fulfill our ever increasing demand for these special foods.

Interested in learning more? Here is some more food for thought on how other recent food trends have had unseen social and environmental consequences:

The Joy and Comfort of Fried Food

Fried food, fritura, fritanga, friture, frijituak, fri manje, gefrituud eten… The list goes on. Fried food is enjoyed across the world, across cultures and socioeconomic classes. Eating fried food provides the crunchiness and flavor we innately crave. At the same time, enjoying fried foods can be costly to our health, including risks to heart disease and increasing waistline. The dual value of fried foods, as a source of comfort and illness, make these foods a worthwhile subject of inquiry from an eater’s perspective, as presented in my latest publication, “We like Fried Things”: Negotiating Health and Taste among Hispanic Caribbean Communities in New York City, at the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition.

As described in the article,

the shared Spanish colonial history and insular geography result in similar cuisines that merge Spanish influences with foods from the precolonial indigenous populations and African influences brought from the times of slavery. Traditional diets in this community consist of white rice, beans, and meats (especially pork). Fried foods feature prominently in these cuisines. These include snacks, such as the Cuban croquette, the Puerto Rican alcapurria (deep fried green banana and root crop dough filled with meat or seafood), and the Dominican quipe (deep fried bulgur roll stuffed with ground lamb). Frying is also used to cook meats and side dishes, for example, tostones (fried, mashed green plantains), maduros (ripe, fried plantain slices), and fried yucca.


One of the interesting findings was the different levels of importance of fried foods as perceived by these informants. While Puerto Ricans consistently recognized the salience of this cooking method in their traditional cuisine, Cubans and Dominicans underscored the prevalence of other cooking methods, such as boiling and sauteing. When asked to reflect about the importance of fried foods, it was explained through the deliciousness of these foods, cost considerations, as well as their emotive value – the latter exemplified in this quote,

When you eat a good alcapurria, you start thinking about the times when it was prepared in your home, in Puerto Rico, and that is what you miss.

The consumption of these foods was also situated in local neighborhoods, where cuchifritos, Dominican bakeries and street vendors provide ready access to these foods.


Cuchifritos in Spanish Harlem (Photo credit: Sofrito Magazine,


Dominican bakery in the Lower East Side, featuring a small sample of fried foods.


Fried food stand at community celebration in the Bronx.

These New York City formal and informal establishments seek to recreate the food outlets back home in the Caribbean, including the beach side fried food heaven of Piñones, in Puerto Rico,


A view of Piñones (Photo credit: Puerto Rico Revealed,

and the fritura stands in Dominican Republic,


Fritura stand in Dominican Republic (Photo credit: El Arte de La Gorda,

The article is the result of my ongoing inquiries into Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. It is available for download through this link (limited to the first 50 downloads). I invite you to read it and send me your thoughts, either through comments below, or through my contact form.

Eating History in New Orleans

I started this post almost a month ago, in an airplane, on my way to New Orleans. The trip was one last vacation before the start of the spring semester. However, as a food scholar, a trip to a city like New Orleans will inevitably become work related.

New Orleans is famous for its restaurants. Restaurants and chefs play an important role in the city’s cultural production and reproduction.  As noted by Anthropologist (and New Orleans resident), David Berris, the place of restaurants in the city’s foodscape is different from other cities. The city has

a long standing food culture, a cuisine, built from local products, that is regularly produced in homes and restaurants and frequently discussed around local tables and in the local media. (Berris 2007: 153).

New Orleans cuisine is often described as Creole and Cajun. Just like my cocina criolla, Creole cuisine results from the blending of different influences, including  those of early Native inhabitants, the colonizers (Spanish and French) and the people that came after, including the African slaves. Cajun, on the other hand,  is one from the French speaking Acadian people, who arrived in Louisiana after being deported by the British from Canada. Like Creole cuisine, it results from the use of local ingredients and simple food preparations. For more on these distinctions, see this Chicago Tribune article.

A long weekend in New Orleans is not enough to digest the foodscape of the city, but I tried. As a tourist, taking a first bite at the city, I stayed at the French Quarter. Mostly skipping Bourbon St. at night, the Quarter offered walking access to historic culinary sites, such as Napoleon House. The landmark has been open for almost two centuries, named after the legend that the building was built as the home of Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile. History was consumed through their signature (Italian) muffuletta, a round sandwich built with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss cheese, provolone and an olive salad. This view of the kitchen shows the muffuletta in progress,


The Kitchen at Napoleon House

I also tried the boudin sausage, which turned out to be a be a bloodless morcilla, the blood sausage consumed in Spain and many of its old colonies, like Puerto Rico.  Continuing to make culinary comparisons, I also tried the  “New Orleans Favorites”, red beans and rice and the Jambalaya, reminding me of the closeness between my cocina criolla and New Orleans Creole cuisine.

nola-pimmsThese foods were downed with a Pimm’s Cup, a drink that

made its mark at the Napoleon House bar in the late 1940s amongst the bon viveur set. Unique to its maker, it is a gin based aperitif mixed with fresh lemonade, 7 up, and a sliver of cucumber that would be a refreshing cocktail that cools you off during heated summer days in New Orleans. –  Napoleon House.

While eating is a big part of a New Orleans visit, so is drinking. The city is home to many classic cocktails, like the sazerac, first concocted by a local apothecary in 1838 and is said to be the first cocktail in the United States. Another New Orleans creation is the Vieux Carré, a drink named after the earlier name of the French Quarter, the “old square”. This drink was first mixed in the 1930s at the Hotel Monteleone, where I enjoyed by first, at the Carousel Bar,


And yes, I also had other classics in the New Orleans tourist menu: Beignets and several gumbos,


Gumbo and Beignets from Cafe Beignet

as well as the local Gulf fish, my favorite of all I ate, pictured below:


Louisiana Gulf Fish Amandine (This photo of Meauxbar Bistro is courtesy of TripAdvisor)

As a caribeña, my cultural upbringing and food is the result of creolization, just like that in New Orleans. Because of this historical link, the city felt familar, a welcomed home-like respite from New York City. A weekend was certainly not enough to eat many of the city classics, including the po’boys and alligator meat. At the same time, this short experience allowed me to see a different way to experience, celebrate and sell the result of mixing different cultures in a pot, providing a new, comparative lens to approach my ongoing work with cocinas criollas in the Caribbean.

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Acknowledgement: This culinary adventure was shared with some amazing travel companions. A special thanks to fellow traveler, B. Betancourt, for helping us navigate and taste the Old Quarter.

Reference and further reading: Berris, D. and D. Sutton (2007). “Authentic Creole: Tourism, Style and Calamity in New Orleans Restaurants”. The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of where we eat. D. Berris and D. Sutton. New York, Berg: 151-166.


Mac n’ Cheese: Comfort & convenience in a box

The year was 1937. Kraft Company boxed one of the tastiest and simplest dishes: Macaroni and Cheese. I grew up with the blue Kraft box in the kitchen. As an extremely picky eater, it was one of the few foods I would enjoy, forgoing pork, arroz con gandules, pasteles and other Puerto Rican traditional dishes I have since incorporated into my eating repertoire. Lately, I have been thinking about this early childhood memory, as I engage migration and dietary acculturation in my ongoing research. On days I work from home, I sometimes  find myself going back to this childhood staple. I sit at my computer, eating this dish while writing about dietary transitions and global preferences for processed foods.

MacCheese_JeffersonThe original macaroni and cheese dates back to the late 13th century. An early recipe was found in the cookbook, Liber de Coquina. The dish, de lasanis, consisted of lasagna sheets, cut into squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese and dried spices (See Latin version and a modern day interpretation here). Centuries later, the dish arrived to the United States thanks to Thomas Jefferson after a trip to Italy. The story goes that Jefferson brought back a pasta machine, serving the pasta with cheese during an 1800s state dinner. Scholars at Monticello documented Jefferson’s recipe here. As noted by this group and others, most likely Jefferson was not the first to make macaroni and cheese in the United States, but he helped disseminate the dish  during his time in office.

Kraft Mac and Cheese was a product of the Great Depression, as a meal that could “serve four for 19 cents”, ready in 9 minutes:


Such wonderful concoction would not have been possible without key innovations. James L. Kraft patented processed cheese technology in 1916. Heated and melted regular cheese is mixed with emulsifying fats, preventing the otherwise perishable food from spoiling. This technology gave us Velveeta, and, later on, the bright orange powder in Kraft Mac n’ Cheese – thanks to “spray-drying” technology. Invented in 1872 by Samuel Percy, the technology allowed for the “prevention of the destructive chemical change [by] bringing fluid into a state of minute division” (Cited here). Liquid, such as melted cheese, is sprayed and blasted with hot air, leaving solid, dry particles. Aside from powdered cheese, the technology gave way to powder eggs and milk, feeding the army and the population at large (See more here).

Nowadays, the simple Mac n’ Cheese have been re-taken by chefs in high-end restaurants. The technologies that allowed for these innovations are viewed in negative light, tied to processed (“fake”) foods, as seen in this blog excerpt below,

Sadly, and far more commonly, processed cheese powder in a box has become a household staple; a replacement in war times, for the authentic comfort of the original. This can be blamed on Kraft Foods, whom first packaged it in 1937, and represents the dissolved culture of food, due to mass homogenization and factory processing that began (and forgot to end), during the 30’s and 40’s. (Source: here)

While it is hard to deny our disconnection from food and cooking, there is a role for these products in today’s society. Food innovations maligned today, such as “TV dinners”, frozen foods, and canned and boxed meals, allowed many women to care for their families, while also being able to enter the workforce. Still today, they are allies for working parents, as well as those of us working from home in need of a quick lunch. These were not everyday foods, but they may serve as a lifeline when hunger and time fail to coincide.

MacCheese_1975 Ad

Food companies, like Kraft,  have done well capitalizing on our need and desire for convenience. Food marketing has convinced many of us that we do not have to spend too much time in the kitchen, if any at all. At the same time, attaching a negative moral value to consuming these foods disregard real time and income scarcities families face today. After all, we all have to negotiate  between health, convenience, and taste (among other things), at least three times a day.

The meanings of fast food consumption

The golden arches, Colonel Sanders…The meaning of these fast food icons has been changing since they first appeared about five decades ago. In the beginning, fast foods (or quick-service restaurants) were linked with modernization – as these establishments are tied, through their convenient drive-through windows, to the popularization of the car. Nowadays, eating from these restaurants increasingly carry a stigma tied to obesity and low-income communities. Still, globally, this is not always the case. “Fast food” companies are now transnational, gaining the hearts, palates and increasing waistlines worldwide.



San Salvador

A main road in San Salvador.

In Latin America, fast foods chains have spread quickly, even making adjustments to the local palate and food customs. A visit to any Latin American city will reveal that fast foods are now part of the local foodscapes, not only in main cities, but increasingly in peri-urban areas, making these establishments accessible for all.

While the foodscapes are becoming more and more homogeneous, the meanings attached to the consumption of these foods have yet to change. Eating a burger underneath the golden arches or a fried chicken from the Colonel has a special meaning. For many in these developing economies, being able to afford these foods is a sign of status. Foods that in the US are regarded as time-saving, convenience foods are transformed into “special occasion meals”. I have encountered working in Central America. Anecdotes recounted stories of people selling their hens (the free roaming, happy chickens we pay so much money to eat in the US) to buy a fried chicken meal at a popular Guatemalan transnational chain.

As noted by a Mexico-based chef and slow-food enthusiast, “Fast food is regarded in Mexico as a sign of status, not as much with the wealthy as with the middle class” (see more here). Moreover, the fast food experience in different in these contexts, as seen in the excerpt below:

“In Guatemala, one may find “fancy” or higher-end restaurants in typically touristic areas such as Antigua or Lake Atitlán, but for the average Guatemalan, a high-end restaurant worth visiting would be one like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, or even Taco Bell. There is a certain prestige that these restaurants possess for being American and, moreover, their treatment of customers is much the same as that of formal, higher-end restaurants in the United States. One waits in line to be seated, and then has a server come and take their order and cater to their needs throughout their stay. They also deliver. The meals’ presentation is still very much the same, however: pizza in a box, or the typical McDonald’s or Taco Bell food tray. It is the customer experience and treatment that is different.” – William Ramirez, “Segregated Communities, Segregated Litter“, CLACS Blog, 07/15/15.

Stories like this point to the prevailing view of fast foods as “aspirational”. This translates, at times inevitably, to the high consumption of these foods when increasing income or changing geographies allow. The accounts from my fieldwork in El Salvador attests to this, as well as informal conversations with immigrants coming to the US from similar communities. When people migrate to the US, the ready access to these foods is a welcomed novelty – at more accessible prices.

The different meanings of fast food, and how these translate to eating patterns among individual living in transitioning communities, including immigrant US populations, is an important often overlooked issue for nutrition and public health interventions. Observations like these should motivate us to take a look at migration histories and their influence in eating and health behaviors, moving beyond “acculturation” to a more holistic and interdisciplinary view of food choices and eating patterns.

Changing diets and a call to action

Diets are changing, and a recently published study in The Lancet Global Health journal describes how. Moving beyond measures of food availability and industry-derived reports on food imports and exports, the Global Burden of Diseases Nutrition and Chronic Diseases Expert Group provides us with a first of its kind systematic dietary assessment to characterize global dietary patterns using 325 surveys encompassing 187 countries covering almost 4.5 billion adults.

Aside from providing an excellent picture of diets worldwide, what I particularly liked about the study was the authors’ move beyond more traditional analyses to looking foods and nutrients in healthy and unhealthy patterns, separately. Healthy items were: Whole grains, fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes, milk, fiber, polyunsaturated fat, seafood omega-3, plant omega-3 and calcium. Unhealthy items were: sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, salturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol and sodium. Both sets of items were derived from scientifically established relationships between food/nutrient and health.

This approach resulted in both good and (mostly) bad news:

“Compared with low-income countries, high-income countries had higher healthy dietary pattern scores, but substantially lower unhealthy dietary pattern scores. Consumption of healthier foods and nutrients has modestly increased during the past two decades; however, consumption of unhealthy foods and nutrients has increased to a greater extent. Improvements in healthier foods were seen in high-income and middle income countries; by contrast, no improvements were seen in the poorest regions.”

The significance of these findings are that, as the authors point out, “although caloric deficits and disease burdens other than those of NCDs must not be overlooked in some low-income countries, the trends in dietary patterns we note show the urgent need to focus on improvement of diet quality among poor populations worldwide. Left unaddressed, undernutrition and deficiency diseases will be rapidly eclipsed in these populations by obesity and [non-communicable diseases, as is already occurring in India, China, and other middle-income nations.”

And this, for me, is the main takeaway of this article – the need to start moving quickly to address the growing burden of malnutrition in low and middle income countries. Yet – the task at hand is not an easy one. Governments with already low resources to address food and nutrition problems will need to devise a two pronged approach to promote and encourage the consumption of healthy foods, while at the same time devising policies that diminish the consumption of unhealthy items. It is in this second task that the difficulties lie, as they may go against market investments and interests that promote the consumption of the calorie dense, ultra-processed foods driving the widening of waistlines worldwide. These efforts need to move beyond medical, reductionist and individual-centered approaches to nutrition problems, and start encompassing the wider context in which food choices are made, including businesses, agriculture, and development policies, to name a few. It also calls for encompassing the influence of global and transnational policies, and how these affect food access and availability, food preferences and ultimately food consumption worldwide.


Original article: Fumiaki Imamura, Renata Micha, Shahab Khatibzadeh, Saman Fahimi, Peilin Shi, John Powles, Dariush Mozaffarian. Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: a systematic assessment. The Lancet Global Health, 2015; 3 (3): e132 DOI: 10.1016/S2214-109X(14)70381-X

Puerto Rican Hopes to Create Island’s 1st Hub of Eco-Friendly Food

Very interesting and necessary initiative in Puerto Rico. Thanks, Repeating Islands, for underscoring the work of the Departamento de la Comida!

Repeating Islands


What started four years ago as a meeting place for small farmers and consumers looking for local products is fast becoming the first hub of environmentally friendly eats in Puerto Rico, an island that imports more than 80 percent of its food–Hispanically Speaking News reports.
“It’s something that society is crying out for. A lot of us normal people are tired of going to the supermarket and buying fruit and vegetables that don’t taste of anything. We want to eat better without damaging the environment or promoting price wars that hurt farmers,” Tara Rodriguez, the Puerto Rican leader of the project, told Efe.
After seven years in New York, where she studied architecture, the 30-year-old entrepreneur returned to Puerto Rico and four years ago established this organic farmers market and mini-grocery called the Departamento de la Comida (Department of Food).
“Ecological agriculture is simply the kind that doesn’t rely…

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The sugar that ails, the sugar that heals

Last week the Federal Drug Administration unveiled plans to revamp the nutritional label. Among the proposed changes, the label will now include “added sugars” differentiating from the sugar naturally occurring in foods. 

In recent years, the nutrition and public health community in the US and other developed countries have started to advocate against excessive sugar consumption. Added sugars have been linked to obesity, cancers and other health conditions as seen in this 60 Minutes report. As a result, attempts to regulate sugary drinks for example Bloombergs’ and possibly De Blasio’s big soda ban in New York City has gained public support, and Mexico succeeded in passing a soda tax that took effect this January.

The story is different further south. In countries like Guatemala and El Salvador sugar is a source of vitamins in particular Vitamin A. In Guatemala, sugar has been fortified with Vitamin A since 1975 successfully decreasing Vitamin A deficiencies (VAD) in the country. Similar results have been found in El Salvador since the fortification program started in 1994.

VAD is one of the most common global micro nutrient deficiencies. It leads to blindness, disability, and other health concerns. Fortification, or the addition of a nutrient or group of nutrients to a food that does not contain it naturally, has been an effective public health intervention to decrease micro nutrient deficiencies worldwide. One key aspect to the success of these interventions is the choice of the “food vehicle.” Such food has to be accessible and widely consumed by the population, the production has to be centralized, and its flavor and characteristics should not change when the micro nutrient is added.

Sugar definitely fits these characteristics in Central America as a vehicle for vitamin A, and the fortification program in the region is considered a success and a model for other developing countries. Yet, how can one food be a source of health in one context and a source of illness in another?

Like salt, sugar has had a changing role in our history. Thousands of years ago, sugar was a quick, coveted, pleasurable source of energy and cure for ailments. It then became a driving force for conquest and for the shameful historical period of slave trade, with repercussions still felt today, bringing prosperity to some and tragedy to others. Sugar keeps bringing contradictions nowadays: providing vitamins and health to some, and obesity and illness to others. Are these truly two different groups of people? How long can sugar fortification go on in light of worldwide increases in obesity and its related health conditions, especially among the poor?

Cecina: Salt, meat and changing times

Salt as well as meat, is one of the many things we are told to consume “in moderation”, or to avoid altogether given health, ethical or environmental concerns. However, salt has been an important part of human history serving as one of the world’s main commodities. Salt accentuates the flavor and texture of foods. Its mineral components preserve food as it inhibits microbial growth by drawing moisture out of the food. The name “salt” (or sal, in Spanish) is linked to Salus, the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. Furthermore, salario, the Spanish term for wage, comes from the use of salt as a method of payment for soldiers. Nutritionally, salt provides sodium and chloride, two of the essential minerals for many body functions. If iodated, it keeps our thyroids happy by providing the essential mineral for its functioning.

The marriage of salt and meat has given us delicious results including: jamón Serrano, ibérico, prosciutto, and carne cecina. Cecina can simply be defined as salted meat. It is also called tasajo or, in Puerto Rico, carne vieja (old meat).The type of meat used and the process varies depending on where you are.  In Cuba, tasajo is said to be traditionally prepared with horsemeat. A similar case is seen in Spain. In Puerto Rico, carne vieja is made out from dried, salted meat. Like bacalao (salted cod fish), tasajo should rest in water overnight before preparing, to remove the excess salt.

Personally, I have not tried Puerto Rican tasajo yet. It is not common in the Puerto Rican tables nowadays. I did tried the Mexican cecina, sliced beef cured with salt, left marinating for 3-4 days resulting in delicious, tender and flavorful tacos, as these:

Tacos de Cecina
Sembrado Restaurant (NYC)

Cecina was brought to Latin America and the Caribbean from Spain, from the northern region of León. However, the tradition of salting and airing meat for preservation was already present in the Americas, using the traditional animal protein sources of the time, such as deer, rabbit, and others (See: C. Lavin). These traditions continue today, as I witnessed during a stroll along an urban town in Chalatenango, El Salvador:

Meat drying outside
San Ignacio, Dept. Chalatenango, El Salvador

The salting meats allowed for a more secure and constant access to animal protein. Throughout history, access to meat has been a symbol of status. In some context, cecina or other types of dried or cured meats, may be a food of the poor, or those lacking access to fresh meat or the technology to preserve it. As access to more modern preservations techniques became available, people may opt for fresher meats, and leave tasajo behind. However, the staying power of these foods goes beyond the material function they play. Now, in contexts with refrigeration and better transportation systems, such as NYC, cecina is valued for its flavor. Its purpose is to be enjoyed by choice and not by necessity.


Thanks to C. Espada, for the topic suggestion.