115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Immigrants, Hierarchies, and Identities: Food Cultures in 19th Century Latin America

Lee Skinner, Claremont McKenna College

As Latin American elites strove to emulate the example of modernity and progress coming from Europe and North America, writers used food culture and customs to propagate the ideals of modernity alongside, and sometimes contradictory to, their notions of national identity. 


As 19th century Latin America increasingly opened its national borders to free trade, there were two significant impacts on the ways in which people ate and thought about what and how they were eating.  European immigrants opened restaurants, and local merchants began importing food and wine.  At the same time, many Latin American leaders fervently adhered to the ideology of modernity, which held sway over much of the continent in the 19th century and which was associated with progress, scientific discourse, secularism, and liberal ideologies.  Furthermore, modernity was typically perceived as emanating from the metropolitan centers of Europe and the United States, places that were held up as models for the nascent Latin American nations.  To be modern was highly desirable, and to be modern was to emulate the political systems and indeed, the very cultures of Europe and the United States.  Contemporary works of fiction and non-fiction sought to help promulgate and shape certain attitudes about modernity, progress, and national identity through highly motivated representations of food and eating.   

After the Wars of Independence concluded in the 1820s, the new Latin American nations began opening their borders to immigrants, especially those from Europe.  Cities attracted the majority of immigrants; 35% of the population of the city of Buenos Aires was foreign-born as of 1855, while more than half of all residents of Montevideo were foreigners in 1869 (Sánchez-Albornoz, 126).  Cities also housed the burgeoning middle class, which had the leisure time and disposable cash necessary to dine in restaurants, purchase imported foods, and to buy and read texts that advertised and described those culinary experiences. Immigration, increasing openness to free trade, and the growth of a middle class, coupled with the prevailing interest in European and Anglo-American lifestyles as harbingers of modernity and national progress, helped foster food cultures in which Latin Americans ate imported foods and emulated European dining styles and customs, activities which were then re-packaged by writers and thinkers as emblematic of the elite. 

This talk examines some of the ways in which European styles of serving and eating food in public and private settings were represented in sources ranging from newspaper articles and advertisements to city guides and directories and works of fiction.  In fictional and non-fictional texts alike, writers described French restaurants as offering the most desirable dining experience; noted that particular table settings and manners were used in Europe; and advertised exclusive imported delicacies.  The message was such food experiences offered Latin Americans a way to practice being European, as Latin American politicians turned to British and American models of government and economics as offering the brightest future for their new nations.  

Yet such texts also needed to navigate the complexities of national identity consolidation; following the European and Anglo-American lead was important, but so was creating a strong sense of shared national identity among each country’s citizens.  In food cultures, this dynamic manifests itself as a sometimes contradictory explication of national cuisine side-by-side with international cuisine; “comida criolla”, or regional cooking, made frequent appearances in works of fiction as well as cookbooks and household manuals.  In the conclusion to this talk, I tease out the implications of these two strands of thought and representation of the highly-charged experiences of cooking and eating.  

Topic Area: