FINDING COMFORT IN AREPAS; Medellín, Colombia
Catalina Pastrana Acosta, Textile artist and Menstrual Cycle Researcher

Photos and writing by Cassidy Westjohn

Documented in Fall 2021

A story about a Colombian woman’s growth that took place when she migrated to the US during a global pandemic and attempted to reconnect with the foods that brought her comfort.

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Catalina Pastrana Acosta, 2021 | Photo Credit: Cassidy Westjohn

In 2017, Catalina Pastrana Acosta made the decision to relocate with her partner to the United States from Medellín, Colombia. The journey started in 2019 with much anticipated excitement as they embarked on this new journey together. Her partner was destined for Harvard’s MBA program, while Catalina aimed to further her skills as an artist through the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University’s Post-Baccalaureate program. Catalina worked as a fashion designer for six years before deciding to further her artistic practice both as a menstrual cycle researcher and a textile artist. Their adventure in Boston hit some turbulence when the pandemic hit just a couple of months after they had arrived. While the country was stirring with fear, Catalina and her partner were unsure about their ability to stay in the U.S. as international students, but they knew they were unable to go back home. Fear and trepidation about their place in the U.S. quickly took hold, as they stayed home and quarantined. Catalina often spent her time streaming different shows on Netflix the first couple of months, when she came across the show Julie & Julia on Netflix. Immediately, she found great comfort in the movie’s portrayal of the celebrated American cook, Julia Child. Her passionate and imaginative way of cooking sparked something in Catalina during the pandemic. Soon, she started reading Julia Child’s famous cookbook, learning much about the French and American cuisine.

Cooking has always been a large part of Catalina’s life since she was a child and made candy salads with all the snacks in her pantry. It would always end in a stomachache, but she relished the chance to use her imagination in the kitchen since her mother never allowed her to make a mess. She had a slightly unusual childhood where her mother was a dedicated feminist and vowed to never learn how to cook, but her father enjoyed cooking as a hobby. Growing up, Catalina loved watching her

father move around the kitchen, unbothered by the mess he created. He worked often but loved to spend time with his family through his cooking. Catalina still vividly remembers making bread with her father as a child. After the dough had slowly risen in the bowl, they would work together to make wild shapes with the dough, put it into the oven, and laugh at the bread that had completely lost its shape. Her family even bought a bread-maker after a trip to the U.S., but it still sits in the corner of their pantry, untouched.

“During the beginning of the pandemic, cooking helped remind her of home when she felt so far away and out of touch.”

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Catalina Pastrana Acosta, 2021 | Photo Credit: Cassidy Westjohn

Her father’s mentality of cooking for fun had been instilled in Catalina. Since it is common in Colombia to have señoras del servicios, women who cook and clean for families, she didn’t grow up with the pressure of having to cook as a woman. This mentality allowed her to revisit it in a more positive light. She now looks back at her younger years growing up in Medellín and remembers going to restaurants with her father in attempt to guess what they used to make the dishes. She always loved watching the Gourmet Channel (cooking show in Colombia) and still enjoys watching people cook on shows like the Great British Bake-off. During the beginning of the pandemic, cooking helped remind her of home when she felt so far away and out of touch.

Even when Catalina was 18, she reached out to food as a source of inspiration when she lived in Vancouver, Canada for a couple of months. At the time, she was maybe thinking about going into the culinary arts and took on a dishwashing job at a local restaurant. She kept her notebook near while washing dishes and would take notes as she watched people cook around her. This initiative and curiosity was quickly noticed by the owner.

He asked if she liked to cook and if she would want to start making the desserts as well. She quickly said yes and dived into the work. Catalina saw it as a chance to learn, but also a way to remind her of the fun times she shared with her father in the kitchen.

 

For a lot of us, food provides a close connection to home. It can be used as comfort, but it can also be a source of struggle. This is something Catalina is no stranger to after seeking help from a therapist for an

eating disorder associated with a hyper focus on healthy eating. Upon reflection, she realized that her childhood in Medellín felt rooted in Western standards of beauty. In order to be worthy, women must be extremely thin, have straight hair (often requiring chemical treatments), and be seen as beautiful. This was taxing on Catalina. Shortly after moving to the U.S., she realized she needed to seek professional help to improve her relationship with food and her body.

“For a lot of us, food provides a close connection to home. It can be used as comfort, but it can also be a source of struggle.”

The catalyst for her to seek help came from living with her partner, who ate very different foods from her and noticed her harmful habits. She found herself cooking two meals, one for herself and one for her partner, and becoming too preoccupied with continuing her very specific diet. Not only this, but she felt torn from the foods she was used to eating in Colombia. Catalina was used to traveling and living in different places, but she had never lived away from home for this long. She found herself craving certain foods from home for comfort. Food was the hardest adjustment for Catalina upon moving to the U.S. All the foods she was used to consuming with ease, were no longer to be found. Especially in Boston, she found it difficult to find fruits and vegetables that weren’t overly watery. Even the Latin American food

brands were ones she had never heard of. She ended up spending a lot of time researching all the different brands to figure out which ones were comparable to the Colombian brands she was used to. Even down to the packaging, American foods were very different. Despite all of this, she was able to manage; however, the one food that she was unable to ignore its absence was arepas.

Arepas are a common food staple in Colombia, but notoriously difficult to find in Boston. Some grocery stores have them, but they’re usually obscure brands and in limited quantity. Catalina decided to take matters into her own hands and learn how to make them herself. She  remembered her grandmother making them

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Arepas, 2021 | Photo Credit: Cassidy Westjohn

when she was little, but other than that, had no experience making them homemade. There was never a need to, until now. She soon learned how to make them homemade from a Venezuelan woman she had met through the Harvard Business School. She now makes homemade arepas regularly eventhough they are different to the ones she grew up with. She still keeps an eye out at every grocery store she goes to for arepas and buys them out whenever she finds them.

Arepas are an extremely versatile food mostly made from corn flour specifically made for arepas, called Harina Pan. They can be topped or stuffed with cheese, ham, beef, eggs, avocado, butter, etc. Colombian arepas, which tend to be thinner and sweeter, are generally different from Venezuelan, which are smaller and thicker. Arepas are commonly compared to tortillas in Mexico by their cultural prevalence. It is inconceivable for a Colombian to go without arepas!

After learning how to make arepas and spending time with a therapist, Catalina felt more comfortable with her relationship with food.  She now uses an intuitive eating food model and relies on her body to tell her

“Food is an important way to connect to the feeling of home, whether it is the home we grew up in or the place we currently reside.”

what she needs. It took some time, but she is finally creating new food pathways to feel more at home in the U.S.

Food is an important way to connect to the feeling of home, whether it is the home we grew up in or the place we currently reside. It brings us comfort when we feel out of sorts and scared. As we slowly come out of the pandemic that shook the whole world, it is important to look to the foods that remind us of home, no matter where or what that is. Below is a recipe for the arepas

that Catalina was taught to remind her of home. Maybe upon making this recipe there can be a new discovery of comfort. So, turn on some music to dance and sing to while you use your hands to make the arepas. Get creative and let loose!

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Recipe for Arepas
by Catalina Pastrana Acosta

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 cups of Warm water (plus more as needed)

  • 1-2 tbs of Ghee or butter (butter/ghee will soften on its own because of the warm water)

  • 2 cups of Corn flour (white or yellow) – Harina Pan brand works well, which is a corn flour specifically for arepas

  • Salt to taste (start with a tsp and work your way

Directions:

  • Mix all the ingredients together in a medium sized bowl until all lumps are gone – stop once the dough begins to come away from the sides of the bowl when you tilt it. Let the dough rest for 3 minutes.

  • Grab a little ball of dough with your hands and squish it together into a circular patty that is about half an inch thick or thinner, repeat until out of dough (can make any size, but most commonly the patty is a little bigger than one’s hand)

  • Place uncooked arepa into a greased pan on medium to high heat and brown on both sides for about 5-6 minutes (can eat at this stage if you want the arepa to be a bit pastier)

  • Optional: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and put all the arepas into the oven so the insides of the arepa get crispy for about 10 minutes.

  • Serve with anything! Some common items that are placed on top or inside are ham, beef, eggs, cheese, avocado, or butter. If the arepas are made thick enough, they can be cut through the middle to place toppings inside.

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Making Arepas, 2021 | Photo Credit: Cassidy Westjohn