Knowing your food is knowing your neighbors.
Considering Fresno’s cultural diversity, along with its agricultural abundance, everything is on the table here, food-wise. A foodie might feast on flavors from around the world without ever leaving the city limits. And while everything we eat has a story attached to it (where it came from, how it made its way to our plate, and who was involved in sourcing and preparing it), we don’t usually know what that story is. By discovering the people behind the kitchen doors, we can enrich our appreciation of the food on our plate, as well as of the folks who made it for us.
Fresno Foodways is born
This spring semester, two professors along with their students and assistants set out to tell the stories of the immigrant and refugee cooks of Fresno. Fresno Foodways, a project conceived by Dr. Dvera Saxton and Dr. Henry Delcore, embedded Fresno State anthropology students in the kitchens of non-native Fresnans who’ve come to town bearing the culinary gifts of their countries of origin, and seeking to make a living here in the food industry.
The collected results of their ethnographic research and writing can now be seen on the Fresno Foodways website, alongside mouthwatering imagery and vivid descriptions of the food that’s at the heart of it all.
The Fresno Foodways project aims to counter negative attitudes about Fresno’s immigrant communities and instead “present people not as ‘problems,’ but as valued members of communities and families, and as cultural innovators and entrepreneurs.” In addition, it seeks to provide detail-rich context for the food on our plate, considering the many different human experiences and societal conditions that brought it there.
I sent Dr. Dvera Saxton some of my most burning questions about Fresno Foodways, and she generously responded as follows.
FresYes: What was the inspiration for the Fresno Foodways program?
Dr. Dvera Saxton: A lot of different things inspired this project. When I first moved to Fresno, we were given these brochures from Fresno County that are sort of like tourism guides. They have sections about things to do, nightlife, and food and dining.
When I turned to that last section, the first restaurant I saw was Denny’s. This struck me as odd. While certainly, Fresno is known for its plethora of chain restaurants, and has historically served as a testing ground for new franchise restaurant concepts, the list in the brochure was not a good representation of food in Fresno. I felt kind of embarrassed or ashamed actually, to arrive in this new city for my new job in the Anthropology Department at Fresno State, knowing that one exciting benefit of the job was that I’d be living in this really diverse region of the country with lots of really delicious food, and my official introduction is a pamphlet with a list of chains!…
Not many people know about Fresno’s cultural richness and hidden histories. The city is often written about in the mainstream press (and also in the local press) in the abstract, based off of statistics that deem it one of the most polluted, impoverished, criminal, unhealthy, food insecure, agriculturally productive, and least educated places. No one ever asks the hard questions: how and why are these things so? What are the relationships between these different things? And also, what is life like for the people who live and work there? These are the kinds of questions anthropologists ask when they do their research, and these are the kinds of questions we want our students at Fresno State to be thinking about regardless of their chosen topic or area. We train our students in how to answer these kinds of questions using tools and methods such as interviews and intense periods of observation and participation with the communities of focus–always, of course, with the informed consent of the people we’re working with to answer our questions.
Also, around the time Dr. Delcore and I conceived the Fresno Foodways Project, Donald Trump had just been elected. We wanted to respond to the very vocal and palpable anti-immigrant sentiment and policies that came not only from the administration but also, explicitly and tacitly, from local leaders and individuals. We wanted the Fresno Foodways project to highlight the different values and contributions that immigrant communities bring to Fresno. There is the value of their roles in building various institutions and economies. In our case, we’re focusing on the myriad ways that immigrants enable the vast wealth generated through the agricultural and food economies in the Central Valley.
But, we also wanted to challenge the narratives, used on both sides of the political spectrum, that focus solely on economic costs or benefits that immigrants, refugees, and diasporic peoples bring to industry and business. Immigrants are people too, and when they arrive and settle, they bring other kinds of wealth with them: cultural knowledge, agricultural practices, language, and foodways. These things are both visible and invisible…You might see a Mexican restaurant, but you don’t necessarily see what your neighbors are cooking at home. That’s why we include not only the stories of restaurant owners and food truck businesses, but also home cooks, and youth groups like the Freedom School that are experimenting with growing and preparing food.
Fresno Foodways helps to tell some of these other stories and to value and honor the presence and many contributions immigrants, refugees, and diasporic communities bring to the Central Valley and to help others make those connections through food and eating. These are universal human practices, but also distinct human experiences! We hope the project will inspire new ways of thinking about the people of Fresno, about immigration and human movement and settlement, and that it will also challenge people to engage with these communities, who bear the brunt of so much scorn, in new and more humane ways.
Can you say a little bit about the meaning of the name?
In anthropology, foodways are the cultural, social, economic, political, and environmental values and practices that shape food production—from farming to cooking—and eating. Fresno and the Central Valley more broadly host a lot of different immigrant, refugee, and diasporic communities—from the early Mexicanos who colonized California and merged Spanish, and indigenous Californian and Mexican ingredients together to create Californio cuisine, to refugees from Southeast Asia who settled in Fresno following the Secret War. Foodways, as parts of cultures, are always changing. While many groups who have settled in California bring their foodways and other beliefs and traditions with them, they also change with new surroundings and influences.
For example, It reminds me of the pho-rito I saw at Hmong New Year a few years ago, that took the solid ingredients of pho, a Vietmanese soup, and wrapped it up into a flour tortilla. Clearly, Hmong folks and Mexican folks are hanging out in their neighborhoods in Fresno, eating food together, and inspiring one another. You also see Mexican folks eating dishes at B&K, a Lao restaurant near First and Olive, enjoying different kinds of spicy and savory flavors. This cannot be reduced to labels like fusion food—instead, these foods and foodways are the result of different communities living and working together, and learning from one another.
So the name “foodways” has this anthropological meaning related to things that anthropologists study when they are doing research on food, but I think the word “ways” also captures the idea of human movement really nicely, like freeways or walkways. People and food, and foodways are constantly on the move.
Did you find any common threads running through all the various stories?
None of the participants’ stories is identical, even when they may share regional origins or languages. That makes it even more important to resist hateful rhetoric and dominant narratives about immigrants, refugees, and diasporic peoples…you don’t know someone’s story until you’ve sat down to listen to it. Another common thread is that even though these folks really love what they do, they love cooking and feeding people, they’ve faced and continue to face a number of challenges in their work and personal lives. This really conflicts with narratives about immigrants coming to the U.S. for “a better life” or to pursue “the American Dream.” In reality, their lives and desires are far more complicated.
What would you like Fresnans to know about the immigrant, refugee and diasporic cooks and food entrepreneurs in town?
I’ll share that we asked a similar question during the interviews with the entrepreneurs, and almost all of them said, come on by, we’re open for business. If someone ever feels paralyzed or apathetic about what they can do to challenge the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric and policies of the current moment, they should know that the least they can do is get to know their neighbors. Learn their names and how to say “hello, how are you?” in their languages. Break bread (or tortillas, or sticky rice, or injera) with them. Listen to their stories and don’t let your own ideas or stories interfere or interrupt. Support their businesses and hustles. Resist the single-story narratives that we’ve been told in school, in the news, or from elected officials. Let your conscience and gut guide you to new friendships, new ideas, and new culinary experiences.
To learn more about the people behind Fresno’s diverse food offerings, visit Fresno Foodways at https://fresnofoodways.wordpress.com/. For further information on the project, contact Dr. Dvera Saxton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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