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While working on Quinua Queens, the documentary food project I participated in in Ecuador last summer, I learned that consumption of the food many of us associate with the Andes, such as quinua, has decreased significantly over the years. Beginning some decades ago, as processed imports flooded South American markets, traditional diets became increasingly stigmatized. Foods traditionally consumed in the Andes like quinua, potatoes, beans, etc. were seen as “peasant” or “indian” food. Drinking Coca-Cola became a status symbol.
While the work that I did was not in the Andes region, we saw very similar forces at work while documenting food practices in Bahía de Caráquez and other coastal regions of Manabí province. Many of the older women we spoke with lamented the younger generation’s preference for fast food and their seeming amnesia towards the traditional recipes.
Mote + zapallo : the ashes are a key part of the preparation process
Lola serving up some cazuela marinera
Bahía residents, like many people throughout the world, suffer from a growing rate of obesity and diabetes. Sugar seemed to be ever-present in juices prepared at home as well as in the yogurt available in the stores. I was struck when I tried to buy some plain yogurt and found that in a town with abundant fresh milk, the only yogurt I could find was store bought, full of sugar (even thenatural variety), and other processed ingredients such as powdered milk. We observed something similar with butter. One of the luxuries of Bahía is the option to have raw milk from only half an hour away delivered to your house daily. A man on a motorcycle flanked by two large metal canisters drives up every day and you go out with a pot and he’ll pour you some milk. The milk is then boiled and used in soups, sauces, coffee, etc. However, it was very rare to see people using real butter. You could purchase fresh churned butter at the market, and the woman who prepared our meals occasionally made a batch, but Bonella, a margarine made with hydrogenated vegetable oils, was the fat of choice in Bahía.
Beautiful, fresh butter for sale in the market
The anthropologist that I worked with, Pilar, was particularly passionate about this issue. Informed by the Weston-Price Foundation and this book she spoke to everyone she met about what type of fats they cook with: butter or margarine? natural lard or one made of vegetable oils? When she asked people why they preferred Bonella to real butter, most didn’t really seem to know why, but they believed it was better for them and had become accustomed to the taste. Some of the older women, however, could recall more or less when they made the switch--roughly a generation or two ago.
My friend, Pilar
While speaking with a nutritionist about food practices and health concerns in the area, Pilar and Yayita (another researcher for the project and a youth from Bahía) learned about an interesting and unexpected gender dynamic that significantly influences nutrition in the area. Unlike many other areas of the country, boys on the coast are raised to know how to cook. In fact when they grow up, they will most likely be the ones who go to the market and purchase food for the household. There are few men who make their living in the kitchen, but many men will cook for the families on a regular basis. The nutritionist believed that machismo and a deference to men’s choices prevents women from being able to exercise more control over what products their family consumes.
One of the goals of “Quinua Queens” is to document these changes in nutrition and culinary habits, but another is to conserve the wisdom of older members of the community. Put bluntly: we want to document the good and the bad. These men and women still cook according to their family recipes and many raised their children with naturally balanced nutrition and took advantage of traditional healing practices. It’s important that this knowledge is remembered.
Though highly processed foods abound in Bahía, there are also a wealth of fresh, healthy options available throughout the city. Many of these foods are available on the street or in the central market.
Fresh-squeezed carrot and grapefruit juice
Avena- drinkable oatmeal, available all over Bahía with only a few simple ingredients: milk, oats, sugar, vanilla
The coconut man! I visited him regularly to get my fill of coconut water.
This project has been fascinating to participate in and I will share more about what I learned in the coming weeks. I was so lucky to have tagged along as photographer--thanks Alejandra and Pilar for the opportunity!