Alder Keleman, PhD

2011 TRI Fellow in Bolivia

How Many Ways to Peel a Potato?: Native Crops and Urban Food Culture in the Bolivian Andes


This pre-dissertation research in Bolivia, undertaken in summer 2011, explored two questions: With what symbolism are native and “traditional” crops and foods imbued in the contemporary Bolivian public sphere? And how does this symbolism articulate with current public narratives of modernity, indigeneity, and nationalism? I gathered information through a variety of qualitative methods, including semi-structured interviews, oral histories, and participation in public where “typical” Bolivian fare was being discussed, consumed, and prepared. These experiences generated three major findings:

  • The consumption of particular native foods, in particular forms (dishes) is associated with broader patterns of class-based and ethnic identity-making. Although “rural” foods and ingredients are sometimes eaten by wealthy Bolivian consumers, they typically must pass through particular culinary transformations to be appealing to an upper-class, European-descended 
  • For many indigenous Bolivians, the change in diet that occurs when migrating from the countryside to rural areas is experienced as a traumatic rupture. This is experienced not only as a change in ingredients, but also in how food is served, where it is consumed, when, and with whom.
  • For many individuals, a relationship between “food culture” and “food security” is a non-intuitive concept. An assumption exists that a “culture of food” must exist only in households or communities which are not lacking in food. This contributes to the pervasive “invisibility” of Bolivia’s high levels of food insecurity within popular discourse.

I will further explore these research findings in long-term fieldwork in Bolivia in 2012 and 2013. These topics contribute to my larger dissertation project, which explores the relationship between agrobiodiversity, food security, and food culture in the contemporary Bolivian context.