The entrance of “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” the new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, opening November 20, 2012. (Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

[PHOTOS] New Smithsonian exhibit shows how Mexican food revolutionized what we eat

Steve Velasquez has had food on his mind for years.

He is the co-curator of “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” the new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., which opens today. The 3,800 sq. ft. exhibition includes 70 years of Latino food history such as, a 1940 tortilla press to California vineyard tools used by the Robledo Family. It also features a Bracero farm labor collection and explores how Latinos helped shape some of the major social and cultural shifts in food and eating in America.

Velasquez started as an intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1995 and officially started curating two years later. He was co-curator for the “Bracero Oral History Project” and “Julia Child’s Kitchen,” to name a few. He says he started thinking about a show about food in America in 2009.

“What I wanted to show is that Latinos have been instrumental in shaping what we eat,” he says.

For example, he explains that the Bracero period brought two million Mexican guest workers to help pick crops in the Southwest in the 1950’s, and then changes in technology and production led to a larger distribution of food and people exploring different foods, ultimately leading to the development of Tex-Mex cuisine.

“My goal was to see how this was occurring and what were the biggest touchstones,” says Velasquez about how Tex-Mex food exploded in the U.S. in the 1970’s. “Lots of these restaurants started opening as people became a little more adventurous.”

He further explains changes in technology led to social changes. He says less time to prepare meals led to changes in preserving food and different kinds of foods.

“One section is called the ‘Mexican Food Revolution,’” says Velasquez about the part of the exhibit housing a corn grinder and tortilla press from the Sanchez and Bermudez families who migrated in the 40’s-60’s and made tortillas in the local markets.

In the 50’s the Cuellar family, from Texas, started making canned foods for regional stores, says Velasquez, and in the 60’s they started opening El Chico restaurants.

“The Velasquez family in California was the first company to add preservatives to the tortillas to give them longer shelf-life in the late 60’s, early 70’s,” says Velasquez.

He says Nordic Ware was an American company which took advantage of this new Tex-Mex market and developed a Mexican dinner kit in which you can make your own tortillas with a tortilla press. Cookbooks of different types of cuisines also started getting popular around this time.

During the Chicano civil rights movement, Velasquez says activists also started reclaiming their roots, including their food. He says this led to the farm worker labor movement, fighting for food for the poor and fair wages, and the organic movement. He says this is happening again, as history is cyclical.

“A few examples in the wine section looks at technology changes and social changes in the 70’s – when California wines burst onto the scene,” says Velasquez, explaining the Braceros first came in the 40’s and 50’s, but a new wave of migrant farm workers came in the 70’s. “Some of those families have been doing this their entire lives, then they started to produce their own wineries.”

He says there are about 30 Mexican-American families that own their own wineries, becoming the changing the face of wine, including the Robledo and the Ceja families.

“I’ve interviewed a handful of Latino winemakers, and in this section there’s also a video monitor showing a number of people in the wine business…how planting is done and how wine is made,” says Velasquez who hopes to do another exhibit on Latinos and wine in the near future. “This exhibit just tells the stories about a small slice of Latinos, but we hope to get the public aware of the contributions and history of Latinos and food in U.S. history.”

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