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Chicken necks and chili queens

by Susan Bell
Armando De La Torre, left, serves up his fiery chiles toreados garnished with five types of chili peppers to USC student John Buderwitz and USC lecturer Sarah Portnoy. (Photo/Susan Bell)
Photo: Armando De La Torre, left, serves up his fiery chiles toreados garnished with five types of chili peppers to USC student John Buderwitz and USC lecturer Sarah Portnoy. (Photo/Susan Bell)

Daniel Arellano, a senior majoring in Spanish at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, picked morsels of sizzling meat from the delicate bones of a fried chicken neck and stuffed them into a warm tortilla, garnishing the taco with freshly chopped onion and cilantro and spicy red salsa.

With obvious relish, he then took a large bite.

“Mmm, this is good,” he said. “They’re a little hard to eat because of all the bones, and I wish there was a bit more meat because it’s so rich, but I really like them.”

Nearby, several of his classmates observed his culinary daring with expressions that ranged from anxiety to admiration. A short distance away, the rest of the class eagerly lined up outside a food truck emblazoned with the words Santa Rita, Jalisco and Pescuesos de Pollo in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Sarah Portnoy, a lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese at USC Dornsife, had taken her students there to sample the chicken neck tacos as part of her Spanish-language class, “The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles.”

The course teaches students to develop their oral and written Spanish-language skills by visiting Los Angeles’ food trucks, markets, restaurants, street vendors and community gardens. Students then document and analyze their experiences on blogs and in short videos that are presented in Spanish and posted online at losangelesculinaryculture.wordpress.com.

“The class isn’t just about food but the whole community that forms and supports that culinary culture,” Portnoy said. “We consider ourselves culinary anthropologists.”

Neither the instructor nor her students had ever tried chicken neck tacos before.

“I think that’s part of the beauty of this class,” said Portnoy, who encourages students to step outside their comfort zones. “They may never have them again, but it’s exposed them to something new, and it’s made them broaden their horizons.”

Now in its third semester, her class has proved to be very popular. She got the idea for the class three years ago while listening to radio host Evan Kleiman talk to food writer Jonathan Gold on the KCRW show Good Food.

“They were discussing whether West Los Angeles institution Tito’s Tacos serves authentic Mexican food,” Portnoy said. “Gold said that he considered Los Angeles to be a region of Mexico unto itself. I thought that was an outrageous comment, but it got me thinking.

“Every region of Mexico and every country in Latin America is represented in LA,” she continued. “You’re not going to find that anywhere else in the country. You can walk a couple of blocks from campus and find 25 Salvadoran pupeserias. Just two or three miles away, there are maybe a hundred Oaxacan restaurants.

“And yet we’ve got these students who are barely leaving campus, who are practicing Spanish only in the classroom or on their study abroad semester in Spain and are missing this palpable opportunity to use the language in a real cultural context without going too far from campus,” she added.

Since taking Portnoy’s course, many of her students have become dedicated foodies, eagerly consulting Yelp and Chowhound to discover LA’s most obscure and interesting Latin eateries. Portnoy encourages her students to venture further afield by declaring trucks parked within a mile of campus off limits.

Her students examine issues such as obesity, diabetes and lack of access to fresh produce or so-called ‘food deserts.’ They discuss organics and farmers markets and who can shop at them and whether shoppers can use Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

“Students even write a first person blog as if they were a local resident near USC detailing their food challenges,” she added.

Speakers invited to the class have included chef John Rivera Sedlar of Rivera Restaurant; William Deverell, professor of history at USC Dornsife and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West; and Erin Glen, founder of the Asociación de Loncheros La Familia Unida de California, an association that protects the rights of food truck owners and operators.

The most recent visitor was Jeffrey Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Pilcher’s book traces the history of how the now ubiquitous taco — which was still virtually unknown outside Mexico and the southwestern United States as late as the 1960s — has “conquered the world.”

The book investigates Mexican taco carts; Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris; tamale vendors in LA; and the legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio — a 100-year tradition in which women cook chili over open fires at the plazas of San Antonio.

The eagerly anticipated class finale is a cooking lesson from chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu from La Casita Mexicana in Bell, Calif.

“Last winter because it was holiday time, they taught us to make different kinds of tamales and serve them in the husk with a variety of different salsas,” Portnoy said. “We learned how to make and decorate tortillas by pushing flowers into them. They were beautiful.”

Until then Portnoy steers students toward modestly priced meals.

“I keep in mind they are on a student budget,” she said. “The only really high-end place I take them to each semester is Rivera Restaurant downtown.

A meal at the sleek, modern restaurant would normally cost $80 a person at least, but owner Rivera Sedlar, lauded as one of the top 10 chefs in America, gives Portnoy’s students a special deal.