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Immigration event brings Mexican food traditions to the surface

Rarely do people consider the role that food plays in the lives of immigrants, but Ohio State’s anthropology professor Jeffery Cohen, spoke to a crowd of about 100 on Wednesday about how food traditions travel with immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants.

Cohen worked closely with the indigenous population from the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.

“It’s all part of the process of moving, because people just don’t go from one place to another. They carry language, religion, tradition, food-ways,” Cohen said.

The event titled “From Mexico to Ohio: How immigration changes our food ways,” took place at the Physics Research Building and was hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Ashley Zelina, a first-year in anthropology and history, said the topic of the event was what encouraged her to attend the event.

“I’m really interested in U.S., Mexico relations and you never think about it until you hear it,” Zelina said. “(And) you never really hear about it.”

Helene Cweren, assistant director for the Office of Undergraduate Education, said the event was meant to “enrich” the lives of students.

Cohen said immigrants from the rural parts of Mexico bring some interesting food traditions with them.

For instance, the indigenous population living in the central valley region of Oaxaca, Mexico, bring cooked grasshoppers when they migrate to Columbus.

Cohen also said although indigenous immigrants could find the grasshoppers in Columbus, the reason they choose to bring it with them is probably because they are not farmers in Ohio.

“They could easily produce them here but they don’t,” Cohen said. “Probably because they’re not farmers here and they don’t have access to them.”

Aside from grasshoppers, these indigenous immigrants bring with them two different kinds of cheese, one being a Wahacan string cheese called “quesillo,” and a type of cheese similar to feta known as “queso fresco,” corn-based tortillas and a special sauce made of chiles and chocolate.

Although Mexican immigrants tend to bring a large amount of traditional foods, they are not always accepted by the U.S. border.

“It’s very easy to bring grasshoppers across the boarder because they’re cooked so they’re safe,” Cohen said. “But if it’s queso-fresco, it’s illegal to bring across the border because it’s not pasteurized.”

Another issue which arises is the possibility of food contamination, Cohen said.

“Some of the foods that are coming up from this region in Mexico is contaminated with lead,” Cohen said.

In his research, Cohen found the lead in some grasshoppers was due to the cooking utensils used to cook them.

“A lot of the contamination comes out of the cooking process and that’s a very hard thing to deal with,” Cohen said.

Cohen said immigrants bring traditional foods with them when they travel because it connects them to their heritage and it reminds them of home.

“It’s a connection to home, it’s a connection to identity,” Cohen said. “It’s a sense of worth and value. It’s a way to feel like here’s a little bit of my home right here.”

Cweren said the event was organized as a means to engage students in future research projects on food and immigration.

“The question that a lot of students don’t think about in terms of this is a question that becomes a research project,” Cweren said.

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