In A Tortilla is Like Life, her book about the cultural importance of food in the southern Colorado Hispanic community of Antonito, Carole Counihan gives us an intriguing glimpse into the foodways and lifeways of a region and a culture, focusing on women's stories of the traditional diet, food work, and cooking they have done. In this email conversation (conducted on March 13, 2010), Carole answers Susan Albert's questions about her work as an anthropologist, a food historian, and a collector of women's stories. She also tells us how these stories have changed her, and the storytellers themselves.
Read Susan's review of A Tortilla is Like Life for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 03/25/2010
"The past is interesting if you sit down and listen to people, and you tell something and I tell something and she tells something. It tickled me how here my life has already passed, and when we talk about it, one little thing brings out another one." —Helen Ruybal, telling her food stories to Carole Counihan
You have based your study on "food-centered" life histories. Please tell us a little about this term: what it means, why such life histories are important, and what they can tell us about a community or a culture that other life histories cannot.
Food centered life histories are semi-structured interviews that investigate beliefs and behaviors surrounding the production, distribution, preparation and consumption of food. Topics include meals, favorite recipes, gardening, food preservation, meanings and memories surrounding food, food work in the family, child and infant-feeding, food rituals, and so on. Food-centered life histories provide a lens into individuals. lives and into the overall culture. They are useful because they uncover memories and emotions as well as more objective descriptions of material culture such as crops planted, meal contents, family division of food labor, and so on. Food-centered life histories are particularly meaningful for women because of women's long identification with and responsibility for food provisioning. Sometimes women will be uncomfortable talking about topics that they feel they are not experts about, but they almost always feel comfortable speaking about food and do so with authority.
You based your work in the small (population 872) Hispanic community of Antonito, in southern Colorado. Why did you choose that particular place? What is significant about it? What could you learn there that you couldn't learn elsewhere?
The choice of Antonito came about as a convergence of several forces. For starters, my husband, Jim Taggart, and I are both cultural anthropologists and we wanted to find a community where we could both do fieldwork. For anthropologists, knowing the language of the people you are working with is crucial. My husband had worked for years in Mexico and Spain in Spanish and the indigenous language of the Nahuat Indians of Mexico. I had worked for years in Sardinia and Florence, Italy, in Italian. So we needed to find a place to do ethnographic fieldwork where we both knew the language. In Antonito, the first language of people was Spanish until the 1930s and 1940s when English became increasingly prevalent; today everyone speaks English and it is the only language that many people know. So we chose Antonito because Jim could use his Spanish and I could conduct interviews in English.
Further, when we first came to Antonito, our sons Ben and Will were aged 8 and 5, and we wanted a community where they would fit in. Antonito was great for them; they both played Little League baseball in the summers and made many friends through it, as did we. But besides being a good place for us as a family, Antonito has a fascinating history that made it an exciting place to work. It was founded by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1881 in an area that had belonged to Native Americans (primarily the Ute) until Mexicanos came north from northern New Mexico and settled the area in the 1850s. Thus Antonito has deep roots in the Upper Rio Grande region and the Hispanic culture that has been important there since the 16th century. In the 1930s and 1940s a folklorist named Juan B. Rael had collected many folktales in the Antonito area and thus provided a rich historical background on the culture of the region, but there had been no ethnographic studies of the area, so there was plenty of work for us to do. My husband has studied oral narratives in Spain and Mexico and thus was very interested in collecting stories in Antonito. When he met native José Inez (Joe) Taylor, they inaugurated a collaboration that resulted in their book Alex and the Hobo: A Chicano Life and Story (University of Texas Press, 2003). Jim worked mainly with men and I interviewed mostly women, and thus we forged a good collaboration that resulted in a picture of both men's and women's visions of contemporary rural southern Colorado Hispanic culture.
Do you think that the food in this Hispanic community has a more powerful social and symbolic significance than food in similarly-sized Anglo communities elsewhere in the United States? Do you think that might be true about the significance of food in other ethnic communities?
I think food everywhere has powerful social and symbolic significance, whether people are consciously aware of it or not. Mexicano communities have a long tradition of food sharing and commensality which draws attention to food's significance, but even in the absence of habits of commensality, food carries rich and important meanings.
You suggest that food is one of the means by which women in Antonito develop a sense of "agency"—of personal power and authority within the family and the community. Do you think that telling and sharing stories about food helps to express and perhaps to expand women's power?
Yes, absolutely. By telling stories about food, women recognize their own huge contribution to family and cultural survival and communicate their importance to others. Since many people take women's food work for granted, telling stories about it brings it from the background to the foreground and opens the way for an appreciation of women's contribution that is so often missing. I cite the title of a book by the Latina Feminist Group (2001) to express the power of stories: "telling to live." By telling their stories, women inscribe their voices, perspectives, and experiences into the written record so they become part of history.
On p. 90 of A Tortilla is Like Life, you describe the recent changes that have taken place in Antonito as a "decline of the traditional food production system" that has "reverberated throughout people's daily lives, changing their relationships to food, to each other, and to the homeland." This same kind of thing is happening across the U.S. as industrial agriculture has come to dominate our food production. Do you think there are ways that story could be used to help reenergize and/or recreate food traditions? How might that happen?
Yes, stories can certainly help revitalize food traditions. For example, stories of older women about all the wild foods they used to gather and eat or use for healing can inspire younger people to collect these same plants. Stories about the incredible diversity of foods grown even in the cold and dry climate of Antonito can inspire people again to create gardens and preserve their own foods. Stories about rituals of food sharing as a means of insuring community survival can counter the individualistic ideology typical of contemporary society. Stories about the land they farmed and used for hunting and gathering can reinforce Mexicanos' rights to the land.
You interviewed nineteen women for this study. Did you find that telling and sharing their stories with you changed them in any significant ways? Did their stories change you? Do you think that the readers of your work might be changed—and if so, how?
One of the women I interviewed spoke about how doing the interviews made her realize that she had lived a meaningful and important life—this realization changed her self-concept. Another women I interviewed told me a few days ago that she is working on writing her own book, something that might not have happened had she not found her voice in doing interviews and seeing her words in print in my book. Doing the interviews changed me in that I learned so much about women's strength, vision, and ability to survive in spite of many social and economic challenges. I hope that my readers will be changed in having their stereotypes about Hispanic women challenged, in understanding the importance of women's taken-for-granted food work, and in seeing the potential of food for opening up memories of the past.
You spent eight summers working with the women of Antonito. Now that this project is finished, what kind of writing are you doing now?
I am beginning a new research project on food activism—efforts by people to promote social justice by changing the food system. I am studying food activism in the Italian chapters of the international Slow Food Movement, a movement started in Italy in 1986 to promote "good, clean, and fair" food. I have been collecting stories from activists who volunteer to work with Slow Food in several different regions of Italy and hope to go back and study one or two chapters in detail. I'm just starting this project so haven't written much yet, but soon, soon!