As part of its National Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) celebration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Galveston District held a special presentation—and tasting—on Hispanic cuisine, October 12.
Galveston’s Hispanic Employment Program Manager, Carlos Gomez, gave a brief history on the influences of Hispanic cuisine and—with the help of several District employees—treated attendants to a sample tasting of several traditional dishes from throughout Latin America.
“Hispanic cuisine is the byproduct of centuries of encounters between people from across multiple continents,” Gomez said. “It comes from the migrations and mingling of a variety of cultures from the Americas, Africa, and Europe.”
Groups representing the Americas included the Aztecs of Central Mexico, the Incas of the Andes region, and the Tainos of the Caribbean islands, Gomez continued.
The Spaniards from Europe also brought several distinct identities such as the Basque of the Pyrenees Mountains, the Galicians of northwestern Spain, and the Andalusian cultures, he added.
Africans brought over to the Americas via the Transatlantic slave trade came from a variety of tribes, nations, and kingdoms across the continent, Gomez continued. Among them were the Kongo, the Chamba, and the Yoruba—one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa.
“Each of those distinct cultures brought their own native foods and ingredients to the ‘New World’ along with their respective culinary traditions,” Gomez said.
Fruits and vegetables native to the Americas included tomatoes, squash, avocados, corn, potatoes, cacao, pineapple, and guava, said Gomez. Chili peppers and achiote—or annatto—seeds provided bursts of heat and flavor to indigenous diets. Although many of their diets were mostly vegetarian, natives also consumed a variety of fish and game, like trout, salmon, venison, and alpaca.
Africans carried over many indigenous plants and cooking from their respective regions of the continent. This includes starchy favorites like plantains, rice, and yams. Collard greens, black beans, okra, watermelon, and coffee were also staple African crops that took root in the many plantations and farms across Latin America. They also brough many of their cooking techniques to the Americas, like the deep frying of fish and barbecuing of meats.
“While indigenous and African cultures gave Latino food local variety and a basis for preparation—respectively—Spanish traditions provided continuity across the region,” Gomez said.
The Spanish transported the hallmarks of their Mediterranean diet—wheat, wine, and olives—and planted them whenever possible, Gomez continued.
“Food was a significant social status marker in the hierarchical social structure of medieval Europe, and the conquistadors went out of their way to eat like the nobility of back home,” Gomez said. For example, the weather and climate conditions of the Caribbean weren’t good for growing wheat, which often meant Spanish settlers would have to pay lots of money to have it imported.
After the presentation, Gomez invited attendants to enjoy a variety of typical Hispanic dishes, including: arroz con gandules, a combination of rice, pigeon peas, and pork hailed as Puerto Rico’s national dish; tortilla Española, a Spanish omelet made with eggs, potatoes, and onion; tostones, twice-fried plantains traditionally served as a side dish in the Caribbean; tamales; and pozole, a traditional Mexican stew of hominy and meat—typically pork or chicken—seasoned and garnished with chili peppers, radishes, onions, garlic, avocado, and lime.
The United States celebrates HHM annually from September 15 through October 15. During this time, we celebrate and learn about the contributions of the 60.5 million Americans who trace their ancestry to Spain and Latin America. This observation started back in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a month and made it official with the approval of Public Law 100-402. September 15 is significant because five Latin American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—celebrate the anniversary of their independence from Spain that day. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and 18, respectively.
For more news and information, follow us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/GalvestonDistrict, Twitter, www.twitter.com/USACEgalveston.