Food Historian Maite Gomez-Rejón Discusses Ancestral Foods, Food History & Colonization

Texas-native Maite Gomez-Rejón thought she’d become an artist when she grew up but what she didn’t realize almost until it actually happened was that her medium would be food

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Photo: Maite Gomez-Rejon

Texas-native Maite Gomez-Rejón thought she’d become an artist when she grew up but what she didn’t realize almost until it actually happened was that her medium would be food. Gomez-Rejón is a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in the border town of Laredo, Texas, raised by free-spirited parents. When she decided to study studio art at the University of Texas, it seemed like a natural extension of how she was raised that would turn out to evolve into a career dedicated to cuisine through the arts.

Gomez-Rejón minored in art history, and after getting a masters degree from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she eventually moved to New York City where she ended up working in education at both the MET and MOMA, and eventually going to culinary school at the famed French Culinary School. It was during culinary school she realized that food is where her passion truly lies.

While her Mexican mom gave her a head start by introducing her to a wide variety of cuisines from different cultures as a child, it was a random connection with a cookbook she came across in a museum, that helped her fully understand that food and art and history are inextricably entwined.

“Food is a perfect way into a culture,” Gomez-Rejón tells HipLatina. “I love the social aspect of sharing a meal with people, the togetherness it brings. But I’m equally fascinated by exploring centuries of trade routes and policies just by picking apart individual ingredients on one’s plate or reading between the lines of historic cookbooks. There’s always so much to learn and to eat.”

She founded ArtBites, in 2007 to teach people about food and cooking by “exploring the nexus of art and culinary history” through lectures, cooking classes, and tastings at museums across the nation. Gomez-Rejón regularly writes essays and articles on culinary history for various publications including the food publications, Life & Thyme and Eaten.

She ties together specific works of art, time periods, and even historic cookbooks that she’s come to view as works of art, including the first-ever cookbook by a Mexican woman — Vicenta Torres de Rubio’s Cocina Michoacana (1986). Gomez-Rejón digs deep into history to uncover why people cooked and ate the way they did at various periods in history. She finds the connections between food trends and preferences to what was going on in society and uncovers how societal and cultural norms influence how and what people eat.

“The food we eat is intricately intertwined with our culture. Culinary history can give us a deeper understanding of our roots as well as a sense of community and identity.”

Over the course of the past 15 years, Gomez-Rejón has made quite a successful career out of ArtBites, working on various series with museums including LACMA and The Huntington Library in California. Most recently, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which is located in Los Angeles, and is entirely dedicated to honoring Mexicans, Mexican Americans and all Latinx communities in L.A.

“It’s so important to learn about history. To celebrate history. There are so many ingredients from Latin America that changed the world. It gives such a rich story to understand native ingredients and to understand colonialism and the horrors of colonialism.”

“The bad stuff is the stuff that was introduced post-conquest. The more you know the more you understand and the more open you are,” Gomez-Rejón says of the perception that Latin American food is unhealthy. It’s an idea that has led many, especially in the U.S., to abandon their cultural and ancestral foods in attempts to eat “healthier” when in reality our authentic, traditional cuisine is nutritiously rich.

During the pandemic, Gomez-Rejón was able pivot her business model and started offering online lectures and cooking classes, which ended up broadening her audience and has enabled her to share her vast knowledge and expertise with far more people.

While she’s happy to be teaching in-person again, Gomez-Rejón recognizes that she’s now equipped to make her classes more accessible to people who don’t necessarily have the time or even the money to attend in-person demos and lectures. She’s doing this in part by connecting to other cooks, artists, and historians, with similar missions. In fact, she recently worked on a project with baker and activist Melanie Lino who spoke with HipLatina about her involvement in the Bakers Against Racism initiative back in February 2022.

Now Gomez Rejón can actually reach some of the marginalized communities that have incredibly rich food cultures and histories by offering online and private classes. In fact, she currently offers a kids’ cooking class all about the history of corn and Mexican cuisine, a class on chocolate and vanilla from Mesoamerica, and a course on food and the Harlem Renaissance.

But her work isn’t just getting the attention of food lovers, artists, and historians, she’s also taught and collaborated with the likes of Acadamy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Latinx TV star, director and producer, Eva Longoria. She’ll be co-hosting a podcast with Longoria on food history titled, Hungry for History beginning in the fall of this year.

As a food historian, Gomez-Rejón believes that food — cuisine — is something that can truly unite all of us, because, of course…we all have to eat. Food is the way, because through it we can come to an understanding, an appreciation even, for each other’s history, culture, and experiences: the things that make us who we are, can all connect to food, and we can learn about those things together, over an amazing meal, and that is something truly special. We here at HipLatina, can’t help but agree. Food — food art, food history and just, well…cooking and eating good food, are totally worth the time and effort.

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ancestral food art art history culture Featured Food food history History indigenous food Latinx history
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