Cooking Up a Cultural Renaissance

Spinach rolls were out. Fried doughnuts didn’t make the cut either.

After much debate, mussels with garlic and parsley survived. So did bok choy salad and lemon basil shrimp kabobs.

A group of about a dozen older Chamorro adults gathered around a table at the Sons and Daughters of Guam club in San Diego deciding on which recipes will make the cut for a cookbook the group is producing featuring cultural and traditional Guamanian dishes prepared with a healthy slant. Chamorros are the indigenous people of Guam.

But the cookbook is more than just a collection of recipes. It’s an important cultural mission close to their hearts and their contribution to the current renaissance of Guamanian culture and heritage.

“The cultural movement is really very exciting,” said Benni Schwab, the coordinator for the group. “We’re just taking pride in producing this cookbook and it’s coming from our heart.

“It’s an opportunity to contribute to help our culture stay alive. That’s what I’m doing here.”

The group participates in the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education series. As part of SNAP-Ed, the seniors first took a four-week long Eat Smart, Live Strong class that encourages people to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and be physically active every day.

When that was over, they began a series of community improvement meetings to identify a project to improve healthy eating. That’s where the group eventually settled on the cookbook project.

“There’s a strong connection between food and culture, from what I’ve observed,” said Abram Vera, a graduate student worker from HHSA who helps facilitate the group. “Traditional Chamorro food is very healthy, but there’s been an Americanization of everything. It’s a loss of the cultural tradition and that’s where a lot of the unhealthy habits come in.”

“The kids these days eat different,” said Lou Lujan, a member of the group. “I don’t cook cultural food at home.

“I grew up here in the states, learning everything. Guam is my roots and I’ve learned a lot but this is where I actually grew up.”

That experience is the same for most of the Guamanians living in the United States, and it’s actually not that much different from those still living on the island. After Magellan stumbled upon the islands in the 1500s, the natives had Spanish culture forced on them, followed by American rule after the Spanish-American War. That was followed by harsh rule by the Japanese during World War II before being returned to the United States after the war.

“All those years, our culture had been destroyed,” said Schwab. “But now it’s a revolution with the younger kids wanting to bring our culture back – whatever they could find because much had been destroyed.

“This hunger for culture is what drives us to keep working on this cookbook and learning.”

The group is hoping that a couple of their recipes will make their way into the senior dining program that serves lunch Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the Club. They’re working with Wendy Shigenaga, the registered dietician for  HHSA Aging & Independence Services’ nutrition programs, on any modifications that would be necessary for the recipes to work for the dining program.

They are also planning to start a garden at the club with local youth that would grow the vegetables used in the recipes.

“You learn from your peers what your culture is,” said Lujan.” You never stop learning even when you’re aging, and this cookbook is about what we can give back.”

The recipes are being proofread now and the cookbook should be available shortly.








Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact