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Esther Cepeda / Politics

Even in Elder Care, We Are What We Eat

CHICAGO -- As a lifelong super-duper picky eater, one of my favorite stories of first-encounter culture clash is about when Hernando Cortés landed at Vera Cruz near Moctezuma's palace in Tenochtitlan, now present-day Mexico.

After mirrors, gold collars and ornaments of quetzal feathers were given to the Spanish conquistador, the Aztec king's messengers returned with strange tales of what they'd observed. According to written and artistic accounts of Cortes' invasion, the strangers ate "large and white" food -- which the messengers described as sweet and "something like straw, but with the taste of a cornstalk."

The accounts related: "Moctezuma was astonished and terrified by their report, and the description of the strangers' food astonished him above all else."

This detail sprung to mind last weekend as I finished touring my Uncle Juan's new nursing home. Now a very skinny figure who's lost much of the appetite that kept him at a jolly weight for most of his midlife, my uncle didn't have any real complaints about his new residence except for one thing: the food.

Unlike my grandmother, who lived in a nursing home catering to Spanish-speaking patients, my Uncle Juan was one of few people of color I saw on our visit. And though he's perfectly comfortable in the company of Caucasians who only speak English, it was clear that even on only his second day in his new surroundings, the daily menu was grinding him down.

"Please bring me salt. And Pepsi," he asked me, before I ran to the corner store to fetch his favorite cookies. My dad, I mused, would have asked for hot sauce and cans of jalapeños pickled in vinegar to help choke down the bland, mostly "typical American" institutional food. Imagining my own turn in a nursing home, I wondered if I'll starve to death for distaste of meatloaf, green bean salad and flavorless mashed potatoes.

"Don't worry," said Joseph Roberts, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania-based Nutrition Management Services Co., which has operated food service to nursing homes in most of the 50 states for the past 33 years. "Since I've been in the business, I've seen menus change dramatically as likes and dislikes change. By the time you're in a nursing home, you'll see a blend of food itself. In other words, there won't be a 'Mexican' dish per se, but you'll see something that might look like a burrito but it's stuffed with vegetable fried rice -- it'll be a fusion of menus."

Well, I don't eat burritos now -- there's that pickiness -- but I do love fried rice. And there's no question I'll land in a nursing home someday because, due to rapidly changing cultural norms, more Hispanic and other minority elderly people will no longer live at home until they die. According to a recent report from researchers at Brown University, nursing homes in the U.S. are becoming proportionately more black, Hispanic and Asian, and less white.

And unlike my grandmother, I wouldn't want to live out my years in an ethnically specific facility.

Roberts told me that nursing homes for populations with unique language and cultural needs -- such as Chinese elderly in New York City or German seniors in Pennsylvania -- already provide traditional comfort foods to their residents as their primary diet. But when I'm elderly, the current multiethnic cuisine ethos will have caught up to general care facilities where the residents will be as racially and ethnically diverse as our city streets are.

Having been raised primarily on a rice and potato-heavy Ecuadorean diet, I eventually thrived on Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Japanese cuisine and good old U-S-of-A comfort food, so I wouldn't want it any other way.

Roberts told me that while it will take some time for nursing homes and long- term care facilities to adjust to what will soon be a crush of diverse, multicultural baby boomers, the future of golden years' diets is evident in what has become popular in our grocery stores.

"Jicama, hummus, flatbreads -- these weren't widely available 10 years ago and now they're considered mainstream foods," he said. "As food providers, we're focused on colloquial tastes -- we're compelled to design healthy menus around foods people will like and will consume."

Well, the progressive nursing home menus haven't yet reached my uncle's taste buds, but time is on his side. On the flip side, I'm considering working toward a new post-retirement career path: Multi-culti-fusion nursing home chef to super-duper picky eaters.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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