Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Many Tastes of Salsa

Every winter/early spring at my library is marked by our participation in a community-wide initiative, Coming Together in Skokie and Niles Township*. This year, the initiative is called ¡Viva! and the overall goal is to explore and learn about the diverse Latino cultures and experiences in our community.

Latino culture is not monolithic--there are myriad cultures, traditions, allegiances, and values underneath that larger term. And so in creating a program for youth that could begin to reflect this reality of nuance and multiculturalism, we looked to a concept shared by all: food. Here's the program that resulted.

The Many Tastes of Salsa


Photo by Skokie Public LibraryCC BY-NC-SA 2.0
I kicked off this program (aimed at elementary-age children and their families) with a bit of introduction. I asked attendees what types of foods they really like, what foods and flavors make them think of home and family. This line of conversation set the stage for the read-aloud for the program: Salsa: A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta. The gorgeous text, accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Duncan Tonatiuh, is the story of one child's family traditions around salsa--of making it every weekend, and of dancing to salsa music during the process. The short, lyrical book provides a basic introduction to what salsa is and how it is made, and along the way the reader/listener gets to learn the family and cultural significance of the dish in the child's life.

After the read-aloud, I projected some images onto our big screen to show many of the common elements and ingredients of making salsa. We talked about the common tools--molcajete and tejolote--and most common ingredients--tomatoes, onions, chilies, lime. Then we also explored other ingredients that go into the salsas of folks from different geographic and cultural Latino backgrounds. We talked about difference in spiciness; tomatoes versus tomatillos; additional flavors like garlic, corn, and fruit. We talked, in short, about how different folks have different go-to salsas, and how a single type of recipe can be adapted and embraced by lots of different people.

Photo by Skokie Public Library, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Then the largest chunk of the program, and the part during which there was most natural social discussion: the salsa tasting. One of the major benefits of living in an area as diverse as Skokie and its surrounding towns and cities is the availability of great foods. For our tasting, we used a range of types of salsas, all made in-house by a local international produce shop. Using Chicago-made tortilla chips, kids tried a mild red salsa; salsa roja, with a bit more heat; a salsa with corn and beans added in; salsa verde made with tomatillos and dried chilies; a mango salsa; and a hot red salsa.

Photo by Skokie Public LibraryCC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Now, if you've never done programs for kids that involve food tastings, let me tell you two things I've learned: 1) kids who attend are by and large willing to try just about any foods; and 2) breaking bread--or, in this case, scooping salsa--together is the single best way I've found to nurture comfortable, kitchen table-style conversations among kids in the library. This program was no exception. Some kids came knowing a friend or a family member, but once the food was out at the tables, everyone was congenially talking to their tablemates--about favorite foods, family traditions, preference for spiciness, etc. Food can facilitate those social connections by providing us with shared experience and an opening for talking about something we have in common.

So that was the program: an exploration of how different cultural groups within a larger cultural identifier embrace a food and make it their own. Our conversations were rich, and our taste buds satisfied.

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*For a bit of quick back story on Coming Together in Skokie and Niles Township: Skokie is extremely diverse (think 70+ languages spoken in our elementary schools), and the community currently includes, and has historically included, high numbers of immigrants. About 25 years ago, members of the community put together an annual initiative called the Festival of Cultures to celebrate this diversity. More recently--in 2010--community leaders wanted to add a large community initiative that would have more of an education component. That is, where the Festival of Cultures celebrates all the community's diversity, Coming Together focuses on an ethnic or cultural group with a major presence in Skokie to allow all community members opportunity to learn more about that group--their neighbors. 2015 was something of an outlier year, where instead of focusing in on a single culture or cultural group, we tackled race.

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