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New study reveals more about our relationship to food
by Staff Writers
St. Louis MO (SPX) Apr 19, 2014


Plazas de mercado (open-air markets) in Puerto Rico, such as the one shown here in San Juan (Rio Piedras), are highly diverse. The crops, grown in Puerto Rico or neighboring tropical countries, play a major role in Puerto Rican cuisine. As Puerto Ricans have migrated to many areas of the continental U.S., including the city of Hartford, Connecticut, which is climatically, agriculturally and culturally very different from Puerto Rico, they have carried their cuisine with them. In "Key plants preserve elements of culture: A study over distance and time of fresh crops in Puerto Rican markets in Hartford, Connecticut, 'A moveable feast,'" Taylor and Anderson studied the conservation of Puerto Rican cuisine through surveys of Puerto Rican fresh produce markets in Hartford over time, 18 years, and space, by comparisons with source markets in Puerto Rico. In this transmillennial study, 84 plant crops (64 species; 32 families) were recorded for seven categories. The largest category was viandas (fresh, starchy "root" crops and immature fruits), followed by saborizantes (flavorings). The Puerto Rican community of Hartford demonstrated an extraordinary conservation of fresh crops, with most conserved in Hartford over the nearly two decades of this study and between Hartford and markets in Puerto Rico. The results led to two new concepts. The persistence of these largely tropical foods in a temperate market far removed from insular, tropical Puerto Rico shows the importance of basic foods as an element of cultural identification. The authors recognize this stability as an example of their newly coined concept of "culinary cultural conservation." Second, their analysis of these fresh produce markets led to the conclusion that viandas, such as those highlighted in the cover image, are the most prominent in diversity, persistence over time and distance, volume, and in terms of consumers' "willingness to pay." Accordingly, they consider the viandas as a good example of their second new concept, a "cultural keystone food group," a food group that is emblematic of a community's culinary conservation. Image courtesy David W. Taylor.

Tucked away in Hartford, Connecticut, a Puerto Rican community is creating a tropical home away from home through cuisine that is so authentic it has caught the attention of scientists. David W. Taylor (University of Portland) and Gregory J. Anderson (University of Connecticut) took a close look at the fresh crops in the Puerto Rican markets of Hartford and uncovered evidence that gives new meaning to a phrase that food lovers have been using for years: home is in the kitchen.

"Culinary preferences tell us a good deal about human culture, what is important, and what constitutes a feeling of well-being," explains Taylor. "As biologists, and specifically as botanists, what really struck us was the diversity of fresh plant crops, mostly of subtropical/tropical origin, that were available in ethnic markets in the northern U.S."

Like their ancestors who traveled from Europe, Africa, and Asia with favorite plants in tow, the Puerto Ricans of Hartford have maintained cuisine as an important component of their identity. Such a strong relationship to food has had a profound impact on human health by reshaping environmental biodiversity, influencing the diets of neighbors, and preserving elements of culture.

"The similarities between the market foods in temperate Hartford and tropical Puerto Rico demonstrate the great cultural value that the Puerto Rican community places on its cuisine-which they have recreated after moving to a climatically, culturally, and agriculturally different environment," Anderson explains. "This shows that everyone has a commitment to cultural foundations, and food is one of the most important."

Over the course of nearly two decades, Taylor and Anderson carefully and patiently measured the diversity of crops in the marketplace, their availability over time, the proportion of market space dedicated to each, and the willingness of consumers to pay for preferred items.

The study, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Botany, includes the analysis of nearly 100 tropical crops and offers a new approach to understanding their meaning.

Results showed that consumers were often willing to pay more for culturally significant crops despite the availability of less-expensive nutritional equivalents. Fresh starchy plants, called viandas, were the most essential food group for re-creating a sense of home. Examples include true yams, cassava, breadfruit, and malangas. Their preparation, such as fried, mashed or boiled, was also important.

These observations inspired two new scientific concepts. The first is "Culinary Cultural Conservation," or the preservation of cuisine over time and distance. The second is "Cultural Keystone Food Group," or food groups that prove to be more vital to the cuisine than others, like the viandas in this study. Taylor and Anderson designed these concepts to help scientists analyze the cuisines of different communities and draw important comparisons between them.

According to Taylor, a major challenge in the study was the long wait period. "Our first market survey studies showed what was important. By continuing these studies nearly two decades later, and 'ground truthing' them with markets in Puerto Rico, we were able to see trends and behaviors that could not be perceived with our first study alone."

In between collecting data and analyzing results, they overcame the long waiting periods by being patient, encouraging each other, and savoring the rewards of getting to know a rich culture, including the delicious cuisine.

"One of our favorite dishes was Mofongo, a meal composed of green plantain mashed to form a hollow ball that is then cooked with a filling inside." Taylor shares. "We also had a side-by-side taste-testing of the three, boiled, cultivars of yautia (yellow, white, and pink), a 'root' crop, found in the Puerto Rican markets, and the yellow was definitely the creamiest and most delicious!"

Anderson adds, "We highly recommend diving in and exploring!"

Their strong interest in plants and people is driving an impressive body of work. In addition to continuing their research in Hartford, Taylor and Anderson are investigating the market crops utilized by migrant communities worldwide. They are uncovering the foods that shape our identity and create an essential connection to home.

David W. Taylor and Gregory J. Anderson. Key plants preserve elements of culture: A study over distance and time of fresh crops in Puerto Rican markets in Hartford, Connecticut, "A moveable feast" American Journal of Botany April 2014 101:624-636.

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