A woman's quest for the perfect tortilla, and what it says about newcomers' relationships with food

·5 min read
Diana Gomez working in her garden (Submitted by Diana Gomez - image credit)
Diana Gomez working in her garden (Submitted by Diana Gomez - image credit)

A tortilla is easy to find on P.E.I.

An authentic, fresh tortilla as it's been eaten in Mexican households since pre-Columbian times, not so much.

"They have many additives and the flavour — it's not good," said Diana Gomez, who's currently working as a baker in Charlottetown.

"It's very different. And if you want to make tortillas you have to prepare your own tortillas with flour. But the flour is the same, they have additives."

Gomez, who came to P.E.I. with her family four years ago, said she was craving that authentic Mexican flavour so much she decided to take matters on her own hands. Last year, she planted her own maize in a shared garden plot to make her own flour from scratch.

This kind of personal experience inspired Gomez to research how other Mexican newcomers to the Island maintain a connection to their traditional culture through cooking, and how the immigrant experience may change their dietary habits.

Submitted by Diana Gomez
Submitted by Diana Gomez

Gomez wrote an anthropological study based on her research after interviewing other migrant women on P.E.I. Her report will be presented at a Latin American sociology congress she is participating in later this year in Mexico .

"I understand now that the culture is dynamic," she said. "The food is nourished by other cultures and by the environment ...

"Our options about what to eat can't be the same, because the environment is different, our resources are different, we have many cultures around us, we have many options."

Chilies, Chicharron, Chayotes

Most people Gomez interviewed told her they still made Mexican dishes at home, though they often have to pick up ingredients that are pricier or of lower quality, or just replace them with something else.

Submitted by Diana Gomez
Submitted by Diana Gomez

Karina Cervantes has been on P.E.I. for only about a year. She's a resident care worker who lives in Victoria-by-the-Sea.

"I'm getting familiar with more of the stores around me so I can prepare like chilaquiles, enchiladas, things like that. The food that I used to cook back in Mexico," she said.

While Cervantes said she can find some stuff in large grocers and more specialized stores, she said sometimes she has to be creative — particularly when it comes to vegetables and other plant-based ingredients.

For example, having to substitute chayote, a green, pear-shaped gourd with the not-so-green, very much potato-shaped potato for certain soups.

"Some of the chilies I can't find here, so that's why I order them from the internet. And if we eat something like cow's tongue ... [to buy it] in here is hard," she said.

"[For a dish like] Enchilada with mole and hot sauce ... they use Parmesan cheese instead of Mexican cheese, because we can't find the same cheese here," Gomez said.

"Chicharron [pork rinds] for example, we can find chicharron from the Chinese stores and Walmart, but it's not the same kind."

Cultural exchange

Social factors impact dietary habits as much as the resources available.

Gomez said in many cases diets change because the people are being exposed to cuisine from other parts of the world.

For example, she's found a lot of the people she interviewed gravitate toward Indian food, which is not as commonly available in most parts of Mexico as it is on P.E.I.

Submitted by Karina Cervantes
Submitted by Karina Cervantes

"You can find a lot of Chinese restaurants, but [not] Indian food," she said. "It was amazing for me to discover that cuisine because the flavours, it's not the same, but they have a lot of spices and it's similar to Mexico. It is complex and it is healthy."

Cervantes said she's started incorporating some Indian spices in her own cooking.

'I created new recipes because I start using all kind of spices," she said.

"Some of my partners at work, they teach something and I think 'OK, I can make like meatballs with these ingredients, I can use their ingredients.'"

Searching for home

Submitted by Patricia Calzada Lorenzana
Submitted by Patricia Calzada Lorenzana

Patricia Calzada Lorenzana came to P.E.I. as a student and graduated last year. She said she misses a lot of things about her home in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, but perhaps nothing more than her family's cooking.

"I never knew about depression in my life until I get here, and it was mostly because of food," she said.

Calzada Lorenzana grew up eating her grandmother's recipes as they were passed down to her mom and her "nana," one of her mother's cousins. But she was on her own on P.E.I.

She said during her first years on the Island, she mostly ate fast food and easy-to-make meals because she was too tired or too lazy to cook after returning home from school.

"I got tired of that, to be honest, because first I just started gaining weight," Calzada Lorenzana said. "So I started cooking for myself like adapting sometimes dishes from here or easy ones and added some Mexican flavours. And then I started craving for real Mexican food."

Calzada Lorenzana asked her mother for her recipes and started working on her skills. Though she's found it challenging to deal with problems such as not having the right ingredients she said she's getting there — even if her cooking is still not as good as her mom's.

"It's not bad now. At least I don't burn anything now. Not too salty," she said.

In the conclusion to her study, Gomez wrote that memories lie at the heart of the search for authenticity in a dish. She said that when the body emigrates, the "soul" is fed by evoking the positive emotions felt in the past, maybe those felt while eating a particular meal with friends or family.

"Whenever you cook for someone is because you show them love," Calzada Lorenzana said.

"For me tasting a recipe of my mom, it reminds me how she cooked for us and [how she] expressed her love to us, you know what I mean? So it's more than just a flavour... You feel your heart warm, is how we call it. It tastes like home."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting