El Paso Food Voices
Food shapes cultures and histories, politics and economics, personal relations and geographical landscapes. El Paso Food Voices (EPFV), an open source digital archive, begins by embracing the fact that food—how it is remembered, experienced, and perceived—speaks of people’s migratory patterns, histories, and cultural values that define the culinary flavors of an area. EPFV offers a record of a living history—a kind of “intimate history,” as one participant says. This project gives expression to El Paso, Texas, residents’ gastronomic ruminations. Many participants share the ways in which food goes beyond nourishing the body; their stories speak of the ways that food either nourishes us or starves us socially, culturally, emotionally, and spiritually. In voicing their culinary experiences, people illustrate how they negotiate the politics of consumption by defining the symbolic and emotional value certain foods and food practices hold for them.
There are three intentions that motivate the creation of EPFV. First, to gather and engage with El Paso’s community to record food stories through audio and video. Second, to preserve the community’s diverse culinary knowledge for the benefit of current and future generations interested in learning how ordinary people’s food practices shape food systems that impact the history, culture, politics, economics, natural environment, and health of a region. Third, to share this knowledge with a wide range of audiences, from the general public to food scholars and students. To achieve these intentions, EPFV website includes three unique features: first, a series of food stories and recipes videos, all conducted either in peoples’ homes or work place; second podcast interviews where often both the host and guest are residents of El Paso area, and a blog series, Epicureans, the general public, part articularly my own students, can submit their reflections on their relationship with food.
EPFV traces people’s living-intimate histories expressed through their food practice by the methodology of food voice. This term, coined by nutritionist Annie Hauck-Lawson, refers to how food and culinary practices in and of themselves serve as a powerful, highly charged, and personalized voice that crystalizes the dynamic, creative, symbolic, and highly individualized ways that food serves as a channel of communication. People’s food voice captures the process of negotiating and readjusting culinary practices due to issues of migration, social-economic adaptation, and cultural and natural preservation. In Yolanda Chávez Leyva’s story, she values foods, recipes, and cooking tools that reconnect her to an indigenous ancestral past that she now shares with her grandchildren. Roman Wilcox believes food is about responsibility to people and the environment. Antonio Lopez sees cooking as a gift of time integrally linked to the elements of earth: air, water, fire. Machelle Wood looks at food as something that humanizes the past in the currency of the present. Hugo A. Loera makes chiles rellenos in order to keep his mother’s memory alive. Chef Raúl Gonzalez creates menus that open up people’s palates to welcome the world. EPFV archived food stories challenge us to rethink our relationships with food, to consider what living histories are served on our plates, and how our culinary actions today influence the kinds of living histories future generations will experience.
EPFV stories express cross-cultural connections that define a city’s culinary identity that is made up of a diverse population, a past with roots spreading in multiple directions, and a dynamic and ever-changing present. This approach offers a unique opportunity to explore from the intimacy of people’s kitchens the cross-cultural connections that brought into existence some of the area’s signature dishes and methods of cooking: brisket, chile con queso, and green chile tamales to name but a few. It helps us appreciate why Stöllens (German Christmas bread), Rosca de Reyes (Mexican Three Kings bread), and sweet potato pie are equally integral to the culinary makeup of the area.
As of April 30, 2023, the EPFV website features twenty stories. Each story is presented through its own digital page in order to showcase a person’s living culinary history. As EPFV’s founder, editor, and curator, I’m responsible for the vision and content of the archive, but as with all digital humanities projects, its creation has been a team effort. The technical elements of web design and programming were executed by the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Studios and their student assistants. Each digital page contains (or will contain) 8 elements: (1) an opening quote; (2) a photo; (3) a short biography; (4) the audio recording; (5) short videos produced from the audio/video recording; (6) a video recipe; (7) a scholarly reflection on a food topic central to the story; (8) and a list of food scholarly sources. The Podcast episodes featured in the EPFV website are limited to those where graduate students in my food digital humanities courses are the host.
As the founder of the EPFV, it is also my responsibility to ensure the longevity of and accessibility to the food practices and memories caring El Pasoans’s “ intimate histories” with current and future audiences. Therefore, in addition to the EPFV website open-source archive, the audio recording of the food stories are housed at the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso. All the food story and recipe videos are available through the EPFV YouTube channel. The EPFV podcast, found through a link within the website, can be accessed through Podbean, Spotify, and iTunes. As a digital humanities project, El Paso Food Voices continues to grow and transform without forgetting its mission and motivation: to gather, preserve, and share El Paso residents' food voice to document El Paso’s living history through food practices and memories.
Meredith E. Abarca is a professor of Food Studies and Literature in the Department of English at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her publications include: Voices in the Kitchen (2006); Rethinking Chicana/o Literature Through Food (2013) and Latin@s’ Presence in the Food Industry (2016), and numerous other scholarly articles. She has presented her work at the University of Gastronomical Sciences in Parma, Italy; the University of Technology in Sidney, Australia; the University of Paris-Sorbonne, France; and the University of Oslo, Norway. Her latest food project is El Paso Food Voices, a digital open-source archive, as well as the El Paso Food Voices podcast series.