Archiving healing, ritual, and transformation with spices

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UCLA professor David Delgado Shorter has launched The Archive of Healing, one of the largest databases of medicinal folklore from around the world. The collection includes hundreds of thousands of entries that address a broad range of health-related topics, from midwifery and menopause to common colds and flus. The site aims to preserve Indigenous knowledge about healing practices, while preventing that data from being exploited for profit. Much of the entries involve food with healing properties, from traditional remedies involving ginger and turmeric, to others using salt cod and goosegrease.

Shorter speaks with Good Food about the archive’s history, the conversations it has sparked, and the herbal discoveries within.  

KCRW: What is the Archive of Healing, Ritual, and Transformation?

David Delgado Shorter: “The archives started as a means for a previous professor at the university to collect sayings, colloquialisms, we used to call them folktales. There's a very gendered way to say it, which is ‘old wives’ tales,’ things that people used to talk about that were related to healing, health, wellness, or curing. 

And so he was really documenting things like incantations. ... But within this process, he actually started collecting information about not just spices, but food ways, rituals. These ways that, in a broader sense, I've come to call ‘the archive of healing,’ rather than what they previously called something like ‘traditional medicine.’”

What is the time span and the geographical reach of the materials in the archive?

“The materials were collected from published sources, as well as university archives, and then from anthropological field notes. So depending on when the source was covering its own material, we have materials that date back to the 1700s and 1800s, because that was the oral tradition that was being collected by the anthropologist at the time. 

A lot of the published materials come from the early 1900s. If you do a search, for example, by geography, like Southern California, there were a lot of people collecting information from communities between 1920 and 1950. Of course, there are gaps. And then there's also a large amount from particular moments in time.”

How did you get involved?

“I got involved when I received a phone call from a librarian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who said that they had found this archive of material, and that they did not know if the database was of use anymore, and that it hadn't really been used much. In fact, it was on a server that was called a ‘cold server,’ meaning that they didn't know if anyone ever actually went to the links anymore. 

I looked at that, and I was blown away. This was unbelievable. And this was in 2012. I started asking myself, ‘Well, how can this material be protected, first and foremost?’ And then also, ‘How can we open it up to be a living archive, one that people contribute to as well as learn from?’”

Can you speak to your awareness that the data in the archive was not what we would now call neutral, and it was somewhat free floating, that it had been taken from somewhere, from someone?

“That may be the most important question that I was wrestling with. A lot of people have asked me what my research has been over the last decade, and it's not at all what I thought it would be. This in some ways captivated me. It took me away from what I thought I'd be doing, because of this central question of, ‘What is data? Who does data belong to? Who has the right to benefit from data?’ 

I think we often think of data in terms of quantitative or numerical terms, rather than the communities that actually provided some anthropologist or some ethnographer this information. So if you ask me what I've been doing for the last nine years, I've been having students and colleagues and advisory board members, and myself, going through hundreds and thousands of data points, and asking ourselves, ‘Do we know where this data came from? Do we know how this data was taken? And is there a way for the life of the archive to exist in such a manner that we can benefit those particular communities?’”

How do the materials in the archive allow us to investigate our collective identities or a specific heritage?

“The amazing aspect for me, as a person who's seen hundreds and hundreds of people request access to the archive on a daily basis, is just simply the geography from where these people are asking for accounts from. All over Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, people are asking for accounts. And I have to say, the really interesting aspect as the director is to see how that is a mirror reflection of the data that's actually in the archive. 

If a person were to go into the Archive of Healing and put in something as simple as ‘clove,’ which is a common spice that many people have inside their kitchen, they might be surprised to see that clove was a common approach to fixing a toothache. The thing that's amazing to me, and I think that a lot of people, for example, academic researchers, or people who are interested in the culinary arts, might find is that clove was an approach to toothaches in Ireland, London, Nova Scotia, Cleveland, Amsterdam, North Carolina, Sicily, Spanish speaking communities in New Mexico, Santa Clara, California. ... How did this become an approach to thinking about a spice that's in everyone's kitchen that has a very close sister to what we think of as wellness, healing, or approaches to health?”

The spice cabinet that we use today sits at the intersection of history and culture, and what you would call “traditional wellness,” before it got co-opted by marketing brands and capitalism. Can you talk about this push to decolonize our diets and pantries?

“I am familiar with the ‘decolonize your diet’ movement. I teach a class … about colonization and how people are responding to colonization. One of the materials that we've looked at in that class is this book called ‘Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing,’ written by professors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel. And they were trying to better understand how what we call ‘Mexican cuisine’ dates back from practices around food, thinking about the creation of what we might call a recipe, from pre-Hispanic times in Mexico. 

[Looking] at the ways that food systems or diets can be colonized, you run the gamut of political movements, you're looking at the ways that there are food deserts, in particularly Southern California, or we might say those places where it's becoming very impossible to get healthy food for some people. But you're also looking at people who are just simply trying to ask questions … [like] what herbs or spices were used in particular cultures for what particular reasons. 

… One of these things that I think the ‘decolonize your diet’ movement can do is help us understand that there were knowledge bases, and there are ways of sharing knowledge that have been disrupted through the colonization process. And so you don't have to subscribe to a wholesale need to revamp the entire food system of the United States to at least get some of the benefits from what it means to decolonize a diet.”

What are some of the conversations that have emerged among your students?

“One of the benefits from the classes that I'm seeing students walk away from is the classic college experience of just opening your mind to histories you didn't know about. A lot of women were pushed out of the knowledge-sharing community in Europe, and were then labeled witches. And those alleged witches were sharing information in places that we call gardens … about the pharmacy of the community and ways of helping their children or their relatives. To learn that those people were pushed out of knowledge-sharing practices, and that that continued into the beginning of what we call American history, that's something that from the very beginning most of the students walk away from not knowing. 

I think a lot of people did not know that these recipes or simple dishes like, say, a mole from Mexico, actually had properties that we can now look at as good for the body. It's not just good for your sense of identity, it was actually good for your health. And I think that's something that a lot of people are now taking back to their families and asking their parents and their grandparents, ‘Hey, can you teach me that dish that I loved?’ and then they start collecting those stories.”

Is there any other individual spice or food you'd like to tell us a story about?

“I keep coming back to one that was interesting in my household. I grew up at the apron strings of my mother and my great grandmother. And due to whatever reason, I was often at home watching them cook. And my great grandmother was a sort of woman who had a garden in the back, and she had people come to her house and would prepare tinctures, potions, or teas for them from her garden and talk to them for hours.  

… She made this stew that many people know as pozole. And I didn't understand why hers tasted so differently than all the ones that I tried in restaurants. And I found out from my aunt that she used epazote, which literally translates from the Aztec word ‘stink weed.’ It's really pungent. And when I started looking [at] how epazote traveled across Latin America, and what people were using it for, and how different preparations lead for it to have different effects on the human body, it just blew my mind. 

Because what we're then recognizing are not these plants, these inanimate objects see in our gardens, but they start to become personalities, they start to have characteristics that you recognize not just by sight, but by the finer senses like taste and palate. And also now I'm starting to think that some of these planet relatives, they're like the people that we can go to for help with our health as well. So, for me being a foodie, I just love anything that you know has to do with digestion and nutrition. And all these different aspects of food and healing are now being brought to the table.”



Evan Kleiman