NOTES ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION AND CALIFORNIAN-MEXICAN FOOD: Homemade Carnitas and Salsa de Chile Catarina y Miltomate.
Guest contributor: Catalina Hallinan Mueller.
When talking about cultural appropriation, appearances can be tricky. It is less likely, for example, for a Mexican chef to be accused of it —even if he is a Western-educated white male, extracting fame and profit from the recipes of indigenous women that he didn’t even know how to cook himself in the first place— than it is, let’s say, for a white-American female, who artisanally produces Mexican inspired salsas in California. The reason for this might seem obvious at first sight: he’s Mexican, she’s not. Though there is more than meets the eye to these equations; a few unconsidered details that can disguise our perception of what is fair and what isn’t, and furthermore, about the kind of chain reaction that these two approaches can produce in our societies, based on the hierarchical structure that each sustains, gender mentality, personal ethics, ego, and the cultural context that surrounds them.
Catalina Hallinan Mueller’s love for wholesome food and cooking comes from her family —her father is a chef and one of many people who have inspired her— and also, from her hometown. She grew up in California, in the heart of the Wine Country: with valleys of vineyards surrounding us, small farmers growing seasonal crops, and the Pacific Ocean only miles away. A spectacular and abundant place to live, as she recalls. Due to the cultural environment of this predominantly agricultural area, Mexican flavors and ingredients have always been a part of Cata’s culinary education: We have a large Latinx community and Mexican influence which lends itself to a beautiful and particular food culture in California. I grew up eating Mexican food at our local taquerias, food trucks, and sometimes at home. My parents had been taught recipes by friends and cooked us meals like chiles rellenos, caldo de pollo (con chile serrano), sopa de frijoles, and although it was a rarity, I remember homemade tortillas on a few occasions of eating fish tacos.
Though it was not until Cata moved temporarily to Guadalajara, México, with her aunt Nella —after working both in the Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Summerfield Waldorf farm school— that she completely got immersed in Mexico’s food and culture: During my first few months in Guadalajara, my exposure to Mexican cuisine and gastronomy was life-changing. I fell in love! The street food, the smells of cacao and café and chiles toasting, the central de abastos that covered blocks and blocks of the city filled with food and produce, the hand-tied escobetas that the street cleaners make to sweep the leaves, the cocineras cooking breakfast for people traveling to work, and the food you can eat on almost every street corner. I felt an immediate connection to the culture of México. I was deeply inspired by everything I saw and tasted.
Today, Cata runs Tienda Salsita, a small business located in Sonoma County, CA, that sells handmade, stone-ground salsas and artisanal goods from México, through a website and in local farmers’ markets and shops. She sources from a combination of local and Mexican producers: We support local agriculture and small farms by using seasonal produce and work with artisans in Mexico to bring beautiful, traditionally handcrafted, and ethically-made goods. Behind every product Cata offers, there is a human connection: Food is my craft and passion, community and connection are very important to me. Food is powerful and I embrace it as a complex and ever-changing system of relationships that can be a path towards a better future for everyone. I am consistently trying to do better in the way I present the products to my customers, how I share their stories, the stories of the people who produce them, my story with salsa, and my passion for México. It is incredibly important to me that small farmers, small producers, and small business owners, like myself, are supported in the ways they need to succeed.
Cata started her salsa company by chance, organically, as she recounts. She learned to make molcajete salsa with her aunt Nella while living in Guadalajara: she made a fresh batch every week to keep in the fridge and serve with every meal. She showed me how to toast the chiles, how to cook the tomatoes to perfection and grind it all together in the molcajete. Oh my, I had never had anything so divine as that Salsa Chile de Árbol, not even at our Mexican restaurants back home. When I returned to the United States, I couldn’t find any fresh molcajete salsa like that, so I started making my own and exploring the world of chiles further. Of course, I had the memory of the salsas I tasted in puestitos, and of the way some señoras told me they made their salsas. So, I experimented until I came up with my own recipes. That’s how Tienda Salsita was born. I love to eat salsa. I love that salsa brings people together and is a staple in so many family homes.
Cata’s business has had a lot of support from friends, family, customers, and suppliers both in México and the US. Though last year, Cata was accused of cultural appropriation by a follower on social media, after her salsas were portrayed in a Vogue Magazine feature about 21 Mexican Designer Finds by Mexican Vogue editor, Karla Martínez de Salas. But what does that really mean? And why is it bad? Well, Cata’s case is a good example of how our collective understanding of this susceptible concept can breakdown.
Not long ago, I listened to Mexican Chef Enrique Olvera (of Pujol restaurant in Mexico City), as he was being interviewed about his thoughts on cultural appropriation during an interview on a podcast called Lost in Mexico (produced by a young Australian couple who spontaneously decided to emigrate to Mexico City a little before the pandemic), answer with a counter-argument that arises from what seems to be a common misconception; he said: Well, Mexicans are great at cultural appropriation, talk about tacos al pastor...
Tacos al pastor are the result of a typical case of cultural assimilation, not cultural appropriation, and, while these two concepts aren’t precisely opposite, their meanings do run in perpendicular lines: a group of Lebanese migrants comes to Mexico, they bring with them a brilliant traditional way to cook grilled meat called shawarma, the Mexican culture happily absorbs it and enriches it furthermore with its own cultural elements: it paints it with new condiments, serves it in a corn tortilla, covers it with minced vegetables, adds a small dose of acid, dresses it with spicy salsa, and, with a gracious and precise finishing movement, tops it with a sweet-and-sour bite of pineapple perfection. That is the geniality of human interchange. The taco al pastor is like a hug between cultures. It is the food of the people. It is the result of a horizontal process of acculturation. What people tend to ignore, overlook, or avoid altogether because it does not fit their grandiose culinary narratives, is that cultural appropriation has to do with privilege; with white, male-oriented, Western-minded, vertical privilege, that in the context of México, by definition includes the white/mestizo dominant class. As referenced by a simple search in Wikipedia, cultural appropriation becomes controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures. And, this kind of opportunistic relationship has remained an everyday “uncomfortable silence” within Mexican society since colonial times.
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This carnitas recipe is a classic in Cata’s family; It’s her mother’s and it reminds her of her trips as a child with her and her sisters to the Trinity Mountains. You can find it on her website (she accompanies it with a delicious salsa verde). I followed her directions but adapted the quantities; I used 1 can + 500 ml of water for 1 kg of meat. I also incorporated a tip that I saw from other carnitas experts on the web: I dissolved the salt into the water, it is supposed to be absorbed better. Cata’s mother’s recipe uses pork shoulder, which is a very nice and juicy cut, but since I like a bit more fat and texture in my carnitas, I asked my butcher (who specializes in pork and is located at my new favorite market: the Mercado de La Bola in Santo Domingo Neighborhood in Mexico City) for a combination of maciza, costilla, and cuerito.
I also added a salsa roja below.
SALSA DE CHILE CATARINA CON MILTOMATE
50 g of chile catarina
200 g of miltomates (or tomatillos)
2 medium cloves of garlic
Salt to taste
Seed the chiles and toast them in a comal or a pan and let them rest in hot water.
Toast the tomatillos and the garlic cloves unpeeled.
Grind everything in the molcajete, first the chiles with some rock salt, and then the cloves of garlic and the tomatillos. *If you feel that the chiles are too dry, you can blend them with a splash of water and add them to the molcajete.
Season to taste.
Serve it with the carnitas (along with Cata’s salsa verde) or put it over anything you want.
It keeps in the refrigerator for a week.