by Marion Nestle
Dec 3 2021

Weekend reading: Caribeños’ Comida

Melissa Fuster.  Caribeños at the Table: How Migration, Health, and Race Intersect in New York City.  University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

My former NYU colleague, Melissa Fuster, now at Tulane, has written a book length report on her research investigating the eating preferences of immigrants to New York from Puerto Rico, the Domincan Republic, and Cuba.

She used qualitative methods—interviews—to come to some reality-based conclusions about immigrant foodways.  She did not find deep longings for traditional Caribbean diets.  Instead, she also identified class, race, and gender as major influences on dietary preferences.

 Hence, with this work I aim to change ongoing scholarly conversations on the immigrant food experience and health outcomes in the United States, which tend to overemphasize the importance of culture when addressing immigrant communities.  This overemphasis on culture dimishes the role of the structural factors (class, race, gender) that intersect to shape the experiences of these communities, overstates the uniqueness of specific cultural groups, and risks blaming culture for the health inequities observed in these communities. (p. 5)

She has interesting things to say about how dietitians view the traditional diets of the Caribbean—as unhealthy and unsophisticated.

These racialized descriptions of comidas, including those made in nutri-speak [talking about foods strictly in terms of nutrient content]…are laden with meanings that reflect the cuisines roots in slavery and colonization—institutions that are built on oppression through racialization.  Despite the stigma attached to foods that emerged out of slave and colonial foodways, these foods traveled with their communities from the Caribbean to the United States.  (p. 96)

And she urges us to think about migrant eating patterns in the broader context of everyone’s eating patterns:

The prevalent focus on culture in the food and migration scholarship minimizes the struggles immigrants face in the home-making process and the political forces surrounding such processes…Moreover, this emphasis often carries an implicit assumption that traditional foods are  important for immigrant or ethnic communities, and that these foods are always healthier than the “new’ American foods.  We must also rethink this dichotomy.  All diets have a range of healthfulness, and in migration contexts, this depends on the interpretation of what traditional comidas are, and how frequently they are consumed.  As found in other studies, migrant communities engage in both healthful and unhealthful dietary practices upon moving.  (p. 128)