Academics and Research / News

Professor researches meaning of food in Quechua culture

Alison Krogel recently published a book on food in Quechua culture.

Eating a meal with Alison Krogel is never just about the food.

Krogel, an assistant professor of Spanish at DU, recently wrote a book that explores the way food and cooks appear in various art forms — oral narratives, photographs, poems, songs, novels — among the Quechua, the rural people indigenous to the Andean regions of South America. And to hear Krogel tell it, the imagery in these tableaux have significance that extends far beyond the tales of the table.

Krogel, whose expertise is in Andean studies — and more specifically, contemporary Quechua oral narratives — started noticing a pattern among storytellers in Peru.

“I work with women who are deemed to be the best oral narrators within their community. I take these narratives, transcribe them into written Quechua, and translate them into Spanish or English. In a lot of these narratives, female cooks were using culinary magic to manipulate situations or make themselves more powerful in the community,” she says. Often, the women used their magic to retaliate against husbands or lovers who had angered them.

In every case, though, food was the medium for their magic — whether they practiced it in their homes, or in their roles outside the home as “market women” or restaurant help. That’s because, for most women, food was the only path they had to power.

Krogel’s book, Food, Power, and Resistance in the Andes: Exploring Quechua Verbal and Visual Narratives (Lexington Books, 2011), “float[s] between the fictive realm and the real world of the cook,” she says. “Basically my argument is that outside the magic realm, women who are cooks have the socioeconomic power in their families and community. If I’m a cook in a restaurant or I’m a market woman, I’m bringing a certain amount of money into the household and I can make decisions, because I’m an economic player in this household.” That, she says, gives women a voice in deciding where they live, where their children go to school, what they’re going to eat.

The notion has proved threatening for centuries.

“This idea of women using magic in their cooking is something we see in the colonial Andes right up through the present day — the fear that women are going to manipulate food and serve it in the market or a restaurant, and there’s danger associated with it.”

Krogel says the anxiety is particularly acute when older or single women are involved.

“Women past menopause who are no longer sexually fertile are more dangerous as cooks,” she notes. “This whole idea is that if you’re not paired with a man who’s controlling you, you’re more likely — or free — to create havoc in your community.”

And when the concept shows up in verbal and visual narratives, it’s not accidental, Krogel insists. Storytellers routinely use portrayals of food and cooks as metaphors.

“When we are reading, or watching a film, or walking through a market or eating at a restaurant, we should seek to understand all the different subtleties and messages and meaning that are performed on the plate.”

These might include ideas about racial, ethnic and even gender identity. For instance, there are certain kinds of tubers that a woman might eat when pregnant or after giving birth, Krogel explains, but a man would never ingest because they’re thought to provoke impotence. But that’s the low-hanging fruit.

“Is the cook trying to convey a message that she has great respect for us, or that we are not welcome guests, by who is served first or what kind of plate is used?” Krogel asks.

Krogel says the Quechua — who number somewhere between 8–12 million and have spread from the mountainous regions of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador to Wyoming and Idaho — aren’t the only ones who communicate using the symbolism of food. Even in modern-day America, we perceive information about a meal’s significance as soon as we’re given either a paper napkin or a cloth napkin, she says.

“All these things are conveyed in novels, short stories and real life,” Krogel says. “[It’s about] looking at something that is as quotidian and mundane as lunch, and understanding all the different layers and meaning that can be viewed in that food experience. And women are creating these messages.”

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