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Knives, Pen, and Paper

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

When personal history helps uncover culinary history.

Knives? Check. Pen? Check. Paper? Got it.

As a chef and former food stylist, that checklist ran on a constant loop in my mind, reminding me to pack the indispensable for work. It didn’t matter whether I worked at a restaurant, styled a cookbook, or prepped for a live appearance. Knives and writing tools were essential.



And they remain important tools. Of course, phones are indispensable, but those continuous alerts turn me into a cat playing with a laser pointer. Writing by hand helps me learn and retain information much better, a notion science supports.


But I've also always been an overly curious nerd. I've always wanted to know the answer to why. As a culinary researcher, my job is to answer a very simple question:


Why do we eat the foods we eat?


And so this blog is my outlet, the home for those ideas and subjects whose stories I find compelling enough to research and write about. As a native New Yorker with Mexican roots who grew up on the Upper West Side during the 1980s, I often wondered if my family were the only Mexicans in New York. That sounds silly today since it’s impossible to miss the presence of the many Mexicans whose daily contributions keep New York running. But as a kid I wondered, were my cousins and I the only Mexicans in the city? Of course not, but where were the other Mexicans? When I became a chef and later a researcher, I grew more curious about the history of the Mexican community in New York. And I want to learn more about our history in this city. That’s the seed of this blog.


NYC-MEX-NYC

Bucolic as the Upper West Side is today, growing up during the crack epidemic of the 1980s the neighborhood was almost the opposite. Crack dealers on every street corner were a common sight. From 1980-1989 Amsterdam Avenue from 87th-96th Streets lacked the Nora Ephron treatment.


Summers were different, because we spent at my grandma’s in Jojutla, my mom’s hometown in Morelos in Central Mexico. Summer camp just never occurred to my mom. Go figure. My best memories of those summers were the morning shopping trips. Every morning, Oralia, a neighbor who ran errands for my grandma, and I would do the grocery shopping at the tianguis, or market, for the day’s provisions.


It was everything you'd imagine a bustling market in a small Mexican city was: the sounds of butchers sharpening knives mingled with the shouts of the vegetable and fruit sellers who showed off the greenest tomates and yellowest nanchis nestled in sardinas (sardine cans were the preferred unit of measure) atop the neat stacks of produce in front of them. Fragrant tomatoes, cilantro, and even onions remain Proustian for me. The tianguis is where I learned to shop for fresh, local ingredients in season.

Knives, Pen, and Paper

These memories of growing up in New York City and spending summers in Mexico shaped much of who I am today, the seeds of curiosity that have yet to be appeased. My mom's storytelling, whether of myths, legends, or history were as influential as the history I learned in class. I also remember a book I read in grade school. The title escapes me, but it told the story of two kids who rode the first wagon on a downtown-bound train that instead of stopping at South Ferry, took them back in time to New Amsterdam, the city’s earlier Dutch settlement at the foot of Manhattan. That got me hooked on the local lore and I've been in love with New York since then.


As a researcher focused on culinary history, I want to continue exploring food and history. Cooking is technology but it's also material culture. Gastronomy—the connection between food and culture—is a living, breathing thing, always waiting to teach us something new about our world.


I hope you'll join me on this journey. And if there are any topics, foods, destinations you'd like to learn more about (origins, history, lore), please feel free to drop me a line.


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3 Comments


Hello, Diana! Your description of shopping for today’s food at the local tianguis brings vivid images to my mind’s eye. I look forward to reading more of your blog! Lauran

P.S. I’m curious about the children’s book you described. Was it _The Magic Tunnel_ by Caroline D. Emerson?

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Thanks, Diana, I’ll see if I can find a copy to read at the library. — I’m also looking forward to trying the strawberry shortcake ice cream pops recipe I saw in your CV. Those were always my favorite treat as a child in NYC. I live far away now, and have missed them! Thanks for putting together a recipe that looks doable and delicious!

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