Folklorists study a range of beliefs, practices, and expressions that communicate community and individual values, and one focus area within Folklore Studies is foodways. In their book Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, Linda Brown and Kay Mussell explain that “Foodways bind individuals together, define the limits of the group’s outreach and identity, distinguish in-group from out-group, serve as a medium of 'inter-group' communication, celebrate cultural cohesion, and provide a context for performance of group rituals.” Even though food is such a basic element of daily life, or perhaps because it is, the foods we grow, prepare, consume, and share with others provide significant symbolic value as well as physical sustenance.
In summer 2006, folklore field researchers traveled across Ohio collecting interviews, taking notes, and documenting various foodways as part of the Key Ingredients project sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council and the American Folklore Society. Their study included a stop in Montgomery County, where they specifically sought an interview with Dolores Quiñones, owner of Las Americas Specialty Foods. Visitors to the National City 2nd Street Public Market (located at 600 East 2nd Street in Dayton) have a chance to sample some unique elements of Puerto Rican foods at Las Americas.
Born in Puerto Rico, Dolores Quiñones grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and settled in Dayton in 1960. She established Las Americas originally as a merchandising shop on 1st Street until a friend encouraged her to join the downtown farmer’s market called The Cannery. Beth Duke, who worked on development for the market, asked her to come up with something for people to eat that they could carry around as they shopped. Dolores agreed and started selling empañadas, (described on the menu as "High quality beef, vegetables, Spanish and aromatic traditional seasonings make our signature dish a unique and delectable treat — NOT spicy, fried in canola oil, robust in flavor"). She explains that in Puerto Rico, these are called empañadigas, but since there are so many people from South America in the area, she decided to label them as empañadas because that is a name more people would recognize. Soon after, she began selling rice and beans, a Puerto Rican staple. When Las Americas moved to the 2nd Street Public Market, she began to focus more on the food than on the merchandise.
In naming her business Las Americas Specialty Foods, Dolores intentionally did not attribute the foods she makes to a specific country. In fact, one of her goals is to educate people about many different Latin American cuisines — Cooking for Las Americas, Dolores recognizes the hybridity of her creations as she incorporates elements of Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican culinary traditions in her dishes. For example, the black beans she serves at Las Americas are typically recognized to be a Cuban dish, but she fixes it with a Puerto Rican flair. Combining onions and tomatoes sautéed in a savory base made of Sazon (a commercially produced Spanish seasoning), oregano, basil, and bay leaves, she creates a delicious sofrito or sauce to accompany her beans. According to Dolores, "The seasoning in my mouth is Puerto Rican, so that is how I'm going to cook."
The dishes sold at Las Americas Specialty Foods demonstrate clearly how as people move, their cultural practices and traditions do as well, and how both people and their customs change along the way. According to folklorist Barre Toelken in The Dynamics of Folklore, cultural traditions have both conservative and dynamic features. The conservative features keep traditions consistent with group expectations and conventions of genre, maintaining a sense of continuity across time and space. This continuity keeps a bit of the “old way” or the “homeland” alive for the group who has moved and underscores ethnic origins. The dynamic features may stem from individual creativity, where an individual may alter a custom or tradition in order to personalize it according to his or her own tastes. Also, as traditions move to new geographic locations or come into contact with new groups of people, they are adapted to these changing contexts and availability of raw materials. Sometimes, as in the case of the foods Dolores serves, individuals may self-consciously adapt their traditions so that they appeal to a more diverse audience. Places such as Las Americas Specialty Foods are valuable sites for exploring how emergent forms of expressive culture can render visible cultural interactions in Ohio.