The Arias family gatherings are about food. The tamales, roast pork, rice, beans and other foods served at birthday celebrations, Mother’s Day and weddings are the dishes Javier Arias and his seven siblings grew up eating in rural northern Mexico. Decades after moving to the United States, the 58-year-old construction project manager and his brothers continued their paternal grandfather’s tradition of killing the pigs and cows they barbecue.
“That’s what unites families,” said Javier. “Eating.”
Javier and his siblings are a tight-knit bunch. Starting in the 1970s, they followed each other to North Texas from their hometown of General Terán. But over the past nine years, food has been a source of conflict.
Back then, Aurelio Arias, the youngest of the clan, announced he was becoming a vegan, meaning he’d no longer eat meat or dairy. His wife Lily and their eldest son, Aurelio Arias Jr., became vegan about three years later. Aurelio’s sister Andrea Alaniz and mother became vegetarian, and Javier stopped drinking soda and started eating mostly fruits, beans and vegetables.
It was about getting healthier and living longer for their families, they said.
But their new food choices have come at the expense of family harmony. Holidays and weekend barbecues have never been the same. Relatives who still eat meat feel rejected when the siblings and their mother don’t eat the food they serve. Aurelio and Lily often offend relatives when they bring vegan dishes.
Aurelio and Javier have been left out of weddings and quinceañeras, the coming-of-age celebration when girls turn 15. Sometimes, they’ve chosen not to go.
Older brother Concepcion Arias said the separation hurts.
“I’ve grumbled about it because they can’t share in the experience [with everyone else],” said the 61-year-old father of five.
The Arias’ conflict doesn’t surprise two longtime food and culture historians who say the foods we eat are more than nourishment. They are loaded with meaning about love of family, friends, classes and heritage, the academics said.
“People do believe we pass along culture through food,” said Alice P. Julier, Ph.D., the director of the food studies program at Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainability and the Environment. “Language often goes away. But food is something that people supposedly can maintain and celebrate.”
And eating the same foods together is one way people strengthen their heritage and relationships with relatives, said Amy Bentley, Ph.D., a professor of food studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Changing what we eat — even if it’s for health reasons — could be interpreted as making a break from family unity, she said.