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A Question of Taste
From sauteed grasshoppers to fusion food, USC Dornsife scholars use taste as a passport to explore diverse cultures, histories and identities.
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Sporting miniature chef’s hats and blindfolds, my 4-year-old son and a dozen other under-fives at his Paris public preschool gathered excitedly around a long table covered with a cheerful red-and-white checked tablecloth. They were observing “La Semaine du Gout,” an annual week-long celebration of that most French of senses: taste. Set before them were different foods representing the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory. The game was to sample each — without peeking — and correctly identify its taste.
This national awakening of the senses through the education of the palette is a perfect example of the importance French culture places on taste. Nor is it a one-off exercise. This emphasis on the cultivation of taste continues throughout a French child’s education. Each weekday, 7 million public school children receive a four-course, subsidized lunch that would be the envy of most adults worldwide.
Each meal features a different cheese course with a typical starter of artichoke hearts, lentil or beet salad. Main courses might include roast chicken with green beans or salmon lasagna with organic spinach while dessert is typically a healthy serving of fresh fruit. The foods many Americans associate with classic kids’ fare — pizza, hamburgers and fish sticks — are served in French schools once a month at most. Thus, an entire nation grows up with an appreciation for healthy food and a palette trained to enjoy a wide variety of sophisticated flavors.
A PASSPORT TO DIVERSITY
More than 5,000 miles away in Los Angeles, USC Dornsifeis taking the concept of taste as a teaching tool considerably further. Michael Petitti, associate professor (teaching) of writing in the Thematic Optionprogram, is one of several USC Dornsife scholars who use taste as a passport to explore multiple cultures — all without leaving L.A.
His Maymester course “From Pueblo to Postmates” is inspired by the work of the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer renowned for his culinary explorations of the L.A. area and the historical unpacking through food of its past and the myriad diasporas that call it home.
The course provides insights into L.A.’s ethnic and cultural diversity, how that’s expressed through taste, and how the city intersects and comes together through its culinary creativity.
“You can map the history of L.A. through food,” says Petitti. “We spend a lot of time in Boyle Heights, now a predominantly Latino area but which, like much of East L.A. during the early to mid-20th century, used to be a Jewish neighborhood with numerous Kosher restaurants and food stores.”
Petitti broadens his students’ palettes by taking them to “El Mercadito de Los Angeles,” a Latino market where they taste “nopales” salsa with cactus and “chicharron” burrito — crispy, crunchy pork rinds cooked in a fiery chili sauce made with cactus and wrapped in a tortilla. They also try dried salsa garnished with pumpkin seeds and chili flakes and sample a new fusion of Lebanese and Mexican cuisine that serves up falafel made with chorizo.
In the San Gabriel Valley — a Japanese and Mexican enclave for much of the early to mid-20th century and now inhabited by a Chinese immigrant diaspora — Petitti takes his students to eat authentic dim sum.
In South L.A., students explore the prolific Mexican American and Latino food scene, eating fresh tamales and visiting a working farm in Compton — a city that was once L.A.’s agrarian heart.
Guest speakers, such as Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, also provide expert insider views on the evolution of different areas of L.A.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of this class is that many native Angelenos have taken it and say it opened their eyes to the city, its history, neighborhoods, cuisine, and how others live and experience it. Students discover new insights into the complexity and richness of L.A. through our readings, visits, and guest speakers, as well as their ethnographic interviews and final research projects. That nuanced, epiphanic experience of L.A. is the goal of the course,” Petitti says.
A RICH STEW
Another USC Dornsife scholar using taste as a lens to understand the city’s complexities is Sarah Portnoy, professor (teaching) of Spanish, who has been teaching Latino food culture for 12 years. Her courses put students in touch with their senses while increasing their Spanish vocabulary and widening their knowledge and experience of Latino culture.
Portnoy agrees with Gold’s description of L.A. as “a rich mosaic.”
“The wealth of Mexican cuisine here is unparalleled in the United States,” she says. “We have the largest population of Koreans anywhere outside of Seoul. We have Salvadorean, Guatemalan, Pakistani, Filipino and Japanese communities — among many others.”
This rich stew of overlapping cultures has provided the perfect springboard for the creation of fusion food, led by pioneers like Roy Choi, founder of the legendary Kogi food trucks, renowned for their Korean Mexican combos.
To sample the vast array of flavors found in the city’s Latino communities, Portnoy takes her students to visit restaurants and to meet chefs and street vendors.
She encourages students to establish a sense of place and history as she prompts them to describe the tastes they encounter.
“I ask them to find out the story behind the restaurant and then to describe the neighborhood, what the place looks like and the diners, before talking about the dish, the colors, the key ingredients, the aromas and what they evoke. Then I ask them to find a metaphor for their experience,” she says.
Portnoy extends this learning experience to her three-week Maymester course in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, she invites students to taste and describe such unfamiliar items as crunchy “chicatanas” (ants), smoky mezcal and spicy salsas made from a variety of local chilies.
FOOD, IDENTITY AND PLACE
Portnoy’s scholarship focuses on food-centered life histories. Her work was rewarded this year with a more than half million-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, shared with her teaching partner, to make a documentary series that explores culture and cuisine on both sides of the Mexico border. Abuelitas (Grandmothers) on the Borderland will be filmed in L.A. and three other U.S. cities, as well as the grandmothers’ Mexican towns of origin. Her partner in the project is Amara Aguilar, professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
“I asked each of the abuelitas ‘What does this dish represent to you?’ They all responded, ‘Amor’ (love).”
Earlier in 2022, Portnoy curated the museum exhibition “Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories,” which showcased the role traditional dishes played in the lives of 10 Mexican and Mexican American grandmothers living in L.A. and how they passed their culinary knowledge on to their children and grandchildren.
Comprising oral histories, kitchen artifacts and recipes, the exhibition also featured a documentary produced by Portnoy and filmed by USC Dornsife alumni about the grandmothers’ relationships with food, identity and place.
“Food-centered life histories have the capacity to portray the voices and perspectives of women who have traditionally been ignored or marginalized,” says Portnoy. “This project aims to amplify the voices of a group of indigenous “mestiza” (of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent), Mexican American and Afro Mexican grandmothers who have cooked, preserved, and passed on Mexican food culture, while creating communities and cultures that are unique to Southern California.”
THE TASTE OF LOVE
Portnoy says the project aims to capture not only traditional recipes, but how food is woven through the fabric of the women’s lives. Many of their stories are deeply moving, such as that of Maria Elena who recounts spending long hours selling tamales from a cart in Watts in South L.A. so she could feed her five young children.
Another abuelita, Merced, is filmed preparing “mole poblano” from her Mexican home state of Pueblo. Merced has not been able to return to Mexico to see her children and parents for more than 20 years, but she says the taste of this thick, savory chocolate and chili sauce connects her to them — and particularly to her mother.
“Merced can no longer touch her mother,” Portnoy says, “but still feels viscerally connected to her by this dish she taught her to make as a child.”
The documentary delivers an emotional punch: Food connects generations through tastes, recipes and traditions, but most importantly it is an act of love. “I asked each of the abuelitas ‘What does this dish represent to you?'” Portnoy says. “They all responded, ‘Amor’ (love).”
TASTING THE PAST
So, taste can connect us to our family, our history and our homeland. But it can also serve as a passport that enables us to travel through time.
A prime example is Petitti’s favorite L.A. restaurant, The Musso and Frank Grill. Dripping in history, the legendary dining room was the storied haunt of literary heavyweights William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hollywood greats Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.
But what Petitti loves most about the place is that it still serves throwbacks to high-end cuisine of the past such as liver and onions, avocado cocktail and jellied consomme.
“You can go there and eat the kind of meal that Fitzgerald might have eaten. You can actually taste the past, which I think is absolutely fascinating,” Petitti says.
A trip to Tito’s Tacos for what is now — especially in L.A. — an outmoded version of a taco with its hard shell, ground beef, sliced or shredded cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce, offers another path to explore the past.
“We tend to look down our noses at this classic American taco because now we want a homemade tortilla with what we now consider ‘authentic’ ingredients, probably served from a food truck,” Petitti says. But, he argues, it’s important to understand that this taco was created in the early-to-mid 20th century because Mexican immigrants to Southern California didn’t have easy access to the ingredients they would have had in their homeland.
“Again, it’s a passport to understanding a time and history and the ways that tastes adapt to circumstances,” Petitti says.
BUGS — THE FOOD OF THE FUTURE?
If taste can transport us into the past, it can also project us into the future. Petitti thinks our culinary future will be based around alternative proteins, such as the “chapulines” — grasshoppers fried with chili and garlic and garnished with lime — that he takes his students to sample at “La Princesita” market in East L.A.
“They seem like a novelty item to many people, but they also could represent the future of food,” he says.
“They (insects) seem like a novelty item to many people, but they also could represent the future of food.”
Another way L.A. is exhibiting cutting edge practices around food, he says, is its leading role in popularizing sustainability and plant-based foods.
“I think what L.A. does in terms of food is so innovative,” Petitti says. “Look at Choi — born in South Korea but raised in L.A., he’s ostensibly a native son who takes Korean food and infuses it into L.A.’s most iconic and celebrated food item, the taco. That kind of innovation, and the fact that it’s affordable, represent L.A.’s approach to taste. It’s truly outstanding.”
THE BIOLOGY OF FOOD
Speaking on Zoom from his home office, Grayson Jaggers, associate professor (teaching) of biological sciences, points out the four large, black ceramic crocks proudly displayed on his bedroom mantelpiece. They contain the fermenting miso his students made last semester during his course “The Biology of Food.”
In addition to exploring microbiology through the process of fermentation, his students learn about different concepts of genetics, the nature of mutation, evolution and how that relates to the production of genetically modified organisms.
One of Jaggers’ goals is to give his students — the majority of whom are not science majors — a broader appreciation for biology.
“The main thing I want students to get out of laboratory exercises like these is to try out new things and not be afraid of them,” he says.
HOW TASTE WORKS
Jaggers points out that two elements are key to our perception of food: taste, of course, but also aroma. They are, he stresses, two very different things.
Taste is detected by receptors on our tongue that can detect certain chemicals, such as sugar and salt, which we perceive as sweet and salty tastes. Sour tastes originate in acids within the food. Umami (savory) taste, comes from glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein. Bitter tastes, engendered by a wider range of molecules, signal to us that something is potentially toxic. This is why we inherently don’t like bitter foods, although bitterness can be an acquired taste.
“But if you say that something tastes sweet, that doesn’t tell you about the flavor, which might be chocolate or vanilla,” Jaggers says. “Flavor comes from aroma, while the sweet taste comes from sugar.”
Aroma in flavor is highly complex. Chocolate, for example, contains around 600 different molecules that work together to provide its flavor.
Volatile flavor molecules within food can also be released into the air, enabling us to smell dill or mint, for instance, without tasting it. Once we chew these herbs, what we taste is a more intense version of what we were smelling.
“Those same molecules that we were smelling are now being released into an area about the size of a postage stamp located in our nasal cavity,” Jaggers says. “Some 10 million different receptors in this area bind to those molecules, sending signals to the brain about flavor characteristics of that particular food.”
So, how do we learn to recognize and identify flavors? Conveniently, that area connects to a region called the limbic system near the forefront of our brain associated with olfaction and long-term memory.
Not surprising then that the taste of madeleines –small French sponge cakes — unleashed such a torrent of childhood reminiscences for Marcel Proust in his seminal novel, In Search of Lost Time.
Karen Tongson’s first question to students in her “Gender, Sexuality and Food Cultures” Maymester class is to identify and discuss their “Proustian moment” — that one taste that stands out in their life story.
Her own Proustian moment, she says, is the Kentucky Fried Chicken she tried for the first time in Honolulu after moving there from the Philippines with her family at age 4.
“I remember being blown away by how delicious it was, but I also remember the melancholy I felt because it made me realize I was very far from home.”
Tongson, chair and professor of gender and sexuality studies and professor of English, and American studies and ethnicity, also uses L.A. as a laboratory to teach about subjects that we can look at through the lens of food and taste — including gender and identity.
She argues that taste is how we formulate our sense of self. “Taste extends across every realm of aesthetic experience,” she says. “So much of who we are and how we define ourselves is routed through our experience of taste, whether it’s food or how food aligns with our relationship to other aspects of our culture.”
Tongson notes that the first way we’re often introduced to each other — even before we may understand each other’s language or culture — is through each other’s food.
Through food, she says, we also discover similarities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Angelenos, for example, share an affinity for food on skewers. “If you work your way through Historic Filipino Town and down Temple towards Alvarado and into MacArthur Park, you’ll find all sorts of foods being grilled on open fires and on skewers,” she says. “So, even if food is at first an encounter with the other, it eventually becomes an encounter with ourselves, as we come to find these shared and intersecting ways that we experience and taste life.”
Tongson says this is why taste is so important and so pleasurable to us — because it’s a gateway to our identity, a way of understanding ourselves in relation to the world.
“To taste is to have this profound and deeply tactile multisensory encounter,” she says. “The concept of taste also affirms who we are and how we’re perceived. It can be the gateway to a rich exploration of not only our personal histories, but of the places we live and the people who surround us.”
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