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Hispanic hot spots

Amy Rogers, left, and Olivia White
USC Dornsife senior Amy Rogers, right, and classmate Olivia White sample a few flavors at Mateo’s Ice Cream in Los Angeles. (Photo/Courtesy of Amy Rogers)

When the plate was set before her, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences senior Amy Rogers timidly placed a piece of meat into her mouth and awaited a reaction from her taste buds.

The verdict: Barbequed goat, Oaxacan style, was muy delicioso.

“The meat was so tender,” said Rogers, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in neuroscience and minors in natural science and Spanish. “Ordering goat taught me how fun it is to try new dishes, especially when the food is from a different culture.”

Asking students to step outside their comfort zones was a main objective of “The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles,” a course taught by Sarah Portnoy. The lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese took students to restaurants and street vendors in neighboring cities throughout Los Angeles, such as East L.A. and Boyle Heights, where they struck up conversations with managers, employees and other workers. The interactions gave students a chance to improve their Spanish skills while experiencing Hispanic cultures, using food as a learning tool.

The course also examined immigration, nationalism, regionalism, business and economics, among other social issues.

“Hispanic food is all around us in L.A.,” said Portnoy, who established the class in spring 2011 with a grant from the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching. “This is an exciting way to connect with cultures by thinking about the meaning of food for each culture. It also allows students to explore the histories and values of these cultures. It’s like going abroad without going abroad.”

Nearly every region of Mexico is represented in Los Angeles, a hot spot for food from that country, as well as parts of Spain and Latin America. Through visits to food trucks, small family-run eateries and high-end restaurants, students learned how the establishments made a name for themselves.

Students documented their experiences in blogs that featured short videos and photographs. Writing in Spanish, they discussed each eatery’s surrounding neighborhood, ambiance, decor and the region the food represented. The students also wrote about their impressions of class visitors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold and Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

Rogers’ experience at Gish Bac, a Oaxacan restaurant in Mid-City where meat is slow-cooked over an open fire, whet her palette for new foods. Talking to the restaurant’s owner taught her about Mexican culture.

“I really enjoyed hearing the owner’s stories and the reasons they cook the food as they do,” she said. “It was interesting to learn how they established themselves in L.A.”

In the classroom, students watched presentations from food bloggers, chefs and Asociación de Loncheros La Familia Unida de California, an association dedicated to protecting the rights of food truck owners and operators.

For Jason Duong ’11, the class was much more than sampling food.

“We looked at food and its complex interplay with culture, community-based politics and society,” said Duong who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Spanish from USC Dornsife and health promotion and disease prevention from the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “The course allowed me to break out of the USC bubble and experience L.A. for what it really is — a vibrant city.”

Prior to the class, Duong would not have dared to eat at an East L.A. food truck. But after food truck owner Raul Ortego visited the class, Duong decided to take the drive and try the offerings at Marisco Jalisco.

“Just being there helped me get a real feel for the people in East L.A.,” he said. “It was definitely an enriching experience. I enjoyed the sense of community.”

As they tasted food from Argentina, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico and Spain, students became versed in some of the history of these countries. At each eatery, they discussed the authenticity of the dishes and learned about the owner’s immigration to the United States.

Duong appreciated the fusion of Asian and Spanish food offered at Komodo in West Los Angeles. He found it interesting that the chef used a tortilla in an Indonesian taco filled with pork, lemon grass and Indonesian spices.

“We could see the interaction and commingling of races in L.A.,” Duong said. “Different ethnicities are adopting each other’s cuisines.”

The class also raised awareness of obesity.

Walking in neighborhoods surrounding USC, the students documented low-income, mostly Hispanic communities located amid “food deserts” — areas inundated with fast-food places but lacking grocery stores or famers markets that supply fresh vegetables and fruits.

“The obstacles put up between families and healthy food are really substantial in some areas,” Rogers said. “It makes sense that they would get trapped in unhealthy eating habits.”

Trojans were inspired by a visit to a community garden in Boyle Heights, where residents plant their own food gardens.

Along the way, the class had far-reaching effects on students. Rogers, for example, decided to buy locally from farmers markets.

An aspiring physician, she knows speaking Spanish will allow her to communicate with many of her patients.

“Learning about what people are eating and having a cultural understanding of the Hispanic community will be very helpful in my career,” she said.

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