Sarah Portnoy

Professor (Teaching) of Spanish
Sarah Portnoy
Email portnoy@usc.edu Office THH 266 Office Phone (213) 821-2138

Research & Practice Areas

documentary films as a tool to share women’s food stories, women’s food stories on the borderlands, food and social justice as a tool to look at inequities in Latinx communities of Los Angeles, Latinx food cultures of Los Angeles

Biography

Executive Producer, Author, Documentary Filmmaker, Professor of Latinx Food Studies, Curator, and Activist. These are some of the different roles I have taken on in the past 16 years at USC through my teaching, writing, newspaper articles, and extensive work with community based organizations.  

How did I get into teaching tacos and all things Latinx food related, you might ask? I took a rather circuitous route. After graduating from Emory University in the mid 90s, I moved to Spain where I supported myself teaching English. During this period, I enrolled myself in graduate courses at the University of Seville. One course I took on oral traditions in Andalucía changed my life’s course. We went to distant, dusty villages recording women who sang ballads from oral tradition—songs that told stories they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. I found this fascinating and decided to go to graduate school in the US to study the Pan-Hispanic ballad tradition known as the Romancero with Prof. Sam Armistead.

So, how does one get from ballads to tacos? In 2007, I got a job in the Spanish Department at the University of Southern California. I left my home in S.F. and moved to Los Angeles where I began commuting to USC. As I’d get closer to campus, I’d see a wealth of Latine food culture—panaderías, pupuserías, yet my students studying Spanish were locked on campus just blocks away. I started to think about some way to give them an opportunity for community based learning—ways to interact with the community, use their Spanish and learn about the culture first-hand. In 2011 began teaching “The Culture of Food in Latino Los Angeles”—a class in which students blog about their culinary and cultural adventures as they visit markets, food trucks—loncheras, restaurants, and more.

This class –and the many since—have led me on my path to teaching and writing about Food Studies and, more recently, producing a documentary film and curating a museum exhibit entitled “Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories.”

Education

  • Ph.D. Romance Languages and Literatures, UC Berkeley, 5/2005
  • Research, Teaching, Practice, and Clinical Appointments

    • lecturer, USC ,

    Visiting and Temporary Appointments

    • Visiting Assistant Professor, Oberlin College, 2005-2006
  • Summary Statement of Research Interests

    Over the past few years, I have been conducting ethnographic food-related research for a documentary film project that I created. I created the documentary film, “Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories” in 2021-2022 for a museum exhibition I curated at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles.

    Since 2010, I have been researching the culture of food in Latinx Los Angeles and the health inequities that occur in underserved Latinx communities. I have worked closely with many community-based organizations, chefs, activists and journalists. I have published on the intersection of food and identity, food and immigration, food and community/family celebrations, and food and political/social issues, particularly as they relate to the Latinx population of Los Angeles.
    I have been visiting loncheras (taco trucks), restaurants from various regions of Mexico as well as Spanish-speaking countries, and eateries that range from street carts to high end cuisine to study how these locales relate to the topics mentioned above (food and globalization, immigration, identity, social issues, community, etc.)
    I am particularly interested in food and health/policy issues. I have been researching about issues of diabetes and obesity in the Hispanic community and discussing the issue with experts in the field at USC in order to bring this knowledge to my class.

    My past research was on various forms of Hispanic folklore that originate in medieval Iberia. I have done fieldwork in Spain, Cuba, and Mexico since 1997. I wrote a dissertation on the Hispanic ballad of Delgadina and how it evolved as a Spanish romance, Cuban children’s song, and Mexican and Mexican-American corrido.

    I have incorporated my background in Folklore into my current research on food and culture by viewing each chef, cook, customer, and so on as an informant with an interesting and important story to tell whose history is a vital part of the dish itself. Thus, my interest in folklore continues in a new and exciting field.

    Research Keywords

    Food Studies, health inequities and food, access and food, diabetes, food and public policy, Mexican cuisine, Los Angeles, lonchera, Food and identity, blogs, technology and pedagogy, Food writing, food and social issues, Food trucks, Folklore, Food and visual representation, food and regionalism

  • Contracts and Grants Awarded

    • Abuelitas on the Borderlands, (National Endowment for the Humanities), Sarah Portnoy $536,000, 2022-2024

    Gifts and Endowments

    • Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories, (California Humanities, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes) $30,000, 2023-2024

    USC Funding

    • Center for Excellence in Teaching, Fund for Innovation in Teaching. The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles $5,000, 2009-2010
  • Conference Presentations

    • “A Quest for Authenticity: Teaching about the Tradition of Mexican Food in Los Angeles. , Future of Folklore, Western States Folklore SocietyTalk/Oral Presentation, Department of Anthropology, Invited, USC , 2011-2012
    • A Quest for Authenticity: The Tradition of Mexican Food in Los Angeles , Global Gateways and Local Connections: Cities, Agriculture, and the Future of Food SystemsTalk/Oral Presentation, New School and NYU, Invited, New York University , 2011-2012
    • The Situation of Sephardic Jews in Contemporary Cuba , UC IrvineTalk/Oral Presentation, Dept. of Jewish Studies and Spanish Dept., Invited, UC Irvine, 2008-2009
    • The Theme of Immigration in the Corridos of Los Tigres del Norte , Conference in Honor of Guillermo HernandezTalk/Oral Presentation, Dept. of Chicano Studies, UCSB, Invited, UC Santa Barbara, 2008-2009
    • La Decima on the Internet, in the Classroom, and Beyond , In Honor of Samuel ArmisteadTalk/Oral Presentation, UC Davis Dept. of Foreign Languages, Invited, UC Davis, 2007-2008

    Other Presentations

    • The Hispanic Ballad Tradition: from Medieval Iberia to Modern Day Los Angeles, Public Lecture, Pasadena, CA, 2007-2008
    • The Situation of Sephardic Jews in Contemporary Cuba, Conference at UC Irvine, UC Irvine, 2007-2008
    • The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles, Spanish, 2010-2011
    • Blog, “Los Angeles Culinary Culture”, Blog for my students, but I also use it to upload photos and describe class activities, share it with outside community, 2012-2013
  • Committees

    • Member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Caucus.
      Attended meetings during 2018-19 and helped draft the caucus report based on my work with a Working Group to address student housing and food insecurity on campus, 2019-2020
    • Merit Evaluation Committee for the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, participated in meetings to decide the evaluation for colleagues in the department.,
    • Member of the Housing and Food Insecurity Working Group made up of deans, staff and other administrators working on this issue. Provided input and participated in meetings to address the issue.,

    Media, Alumni, and Community Relations

    • Participating in the Los Angeles Food Policy Council , Street Food working group, working to legalize street food in the city of Los Angeles,
    • Article written about my course on USC website in June 2012, http://dornsife.usc.edu/news/stories/11,
    • helping to plan a Visions and Voices event for March 2013, asked to be a featured speaker on the panel,
    • Worked with many members of LA community (LA Times journalists, chefs, experts on food policy, etc) to participate in food and culture class, Spring Spri

    Other Service to the University

    • Organized a panel on Food and Housing Insecurity at USC for Diversity Week, Oct. 2018.,
    • Wrote promotion letter for colleague in another department,
    • Invited Hybrid High School Students to attend my class, 2018-2019
  • Media, Alumni, and Community Relations

    • Lectured at Occidental College on Latinx food culture,
    • worked with community gardens as part of Culture of Food class,
    • Worked with various journalists, chefs, policy experts, etc. to develop food course,

    Other Service to the Profession

    • Served on the dissertation committee for Claudia Hernández Romero of UCLA, helping her revise her dissertation and improve the content during the 2018-19 school year in order to file it before graduation. I also participated in her oral defense of her dissertation and have supported her research since. She reached out to me because of the nature of my research., 2019-2020
    • Gave a talk at Center for Excellence in Teaching on how I integrated service learning/community involvement into my class, 2010-2011