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Culinary Art and Anthropology
Oxford • New York
First published in 2008 by Berg Editorial ofﬁces: 1st Floor, Angel Court, 81 St Clements Street, Oxford, OX4 1AW, UK 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, USA © Joy Adapon 2008 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of Berg. Berg is the imprint of Oxford International Publishers Ltd. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Adapon, Joy. Culinary art and anthropology / Joy Adapon. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-84788-213-4 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-84788-212-7 (paper) 1. Cookery, Mexican. 2. Cookery—Mexico—Milpa Alta. 3. Cookery—Social aspects—Mexico—Milpa Alta. 4. Food habits—Mexico—Milpa Alta. I. Title. TX716.M4A35 2008 394.1'20972—dc22 2008017019 British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 978-1-84788-213-4 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-84788-212-7 (paper) Typeset by Apex CoVantage, Madison, WI, USA Printed in the United Kingdom by Biddles Ltd, King’s Lynn
Illustrations Preface Introduction Milpa Alta, DF Organization of the book 1 Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine The Cultural Signiﬁcance of Chiles The Range of Mexican Foods Home Cooking by Profession Cooking Tradition On Learning Techniques Food and Love Recipes Chiles Stuffed with Simple picadillo with Potato, How to Peel chiles poblanos, How to Achieve a Perfect capeado 2 Cooking as an Artistic Practice Food and Culinary Art in Anthropology Gell’s Theory of Art A Meal as an Object of Art On Edibility, Hospitality and Exchange Flavour and Value Conclusion: The Meaningfulness of Food Barbacoa in Milpa Alta Eating barbacoa Barbacoa Makers in Milpa Alta The Process of Preparing barbacoa in Barrio San Mateo, Milpa Alta Conclusion Recipes 29 29 32 36 39 43 47 49 49 50 54 66 68 vii ix 1 4 5 7 7 8 11 12 15 18 22
vi • Contents
Commercial Green Salsa for barbacoa, Salsa pasilla—‘la buena’— for Eating barbacoa on Special Occasions at Home, Commercial Red Salsa for barbacoa, Barbacoa 4 Women as Culinary Agents The Value of Cooking and Other Work Marriage and Cooking Work, Motherhood and Virtue Suffering, Love Affairs and the Morality of the Meal Culinary Agency Recipes Huevos a la mexicana, Taco placero, Batter for Coating Fish, Carnitas Mole and Fiestas Compadrazgo and the mayodomía Hospitality and Food Mole and mole poblano Mole and Celebration The Development of a Tradition Fiesta Food The Presence or Absence of Mole in Fiestas Recipes Tamales de nopales for the Barrio Fiesta, Buñuelos de lujo, Ensalada de betabel ‘sangre de Cristo,’ Pescado a la vizcaína al estilo de la abuela, Torrejas The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life The Function of Flavour The Importance of Cooking in Social Life Fiesta Food in the Culinary Art Corpus Food and Love, Chiles and albur Daily Meals, Home Cooking and Street Food Appetite, Morality and Taste Recipes: Variations on a Theme 71 71 75 76 78 82 85
89 90 93 97 98 102 106 108 109
113 113 115 118 120 122 124 127 137 149 159
Notes Works Cited Index
Tables 2.1 Terminology Employed by Gell, and Corresponding Food Terms 2.2 The Art Nexus as Food Nexus 5.1 Feast Food in Milpa Alta, Arranged According to Type of Celebration Figures 5.1 Linear Progression from Green Chile to Complex Guacamole 5.2 An Example of Some Interrelations among Recipes, Shown as Families 103 104
34 35 100
– vii –
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I love to eat. So I had to learn to cook. During a period of culinary experimentation when I was into peppers of all colours and types, I visited Alfred Gell in his ofﬁce and told him, ‘I’m thinking of maybe doing a PhD, if I can focus it on peppers.’ ‘Of course you can,’ he said. ‘Go to Mexico.’ Despite my hesitation, he repeated that if I was interested in chile peppers, then Mexico was the place to go to. So I went off to read up on Mexico and Mexican food before deciding for myself. This book is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Gell. I was fortunate to be one of his last students before his untimely death in 1997. I wish I could thank him personally for all his understanding and encouragement, especially for taking me seriously whenever I came up with odd ideas. His advice to enjoy ﬁeldwork and take note of any ‘interesting trivia’ kept me going and looking forward. Without him I would never have begun this investigation, nor would I have even thought of going to Mexico. He was my inspiration, guide, supervisor and, most of all, friend. In Alfred’s absence, I am grateful for the continued friendship and support of Simeran Gell. Even just thinking of her is always encouraging and reminds me time and again to live in the present. She shares her and Alfred’s love for life with all those who are fortunate to know her. Back in London, several more people helped me to bring this project to completion with incomparable patience, kindness and academic rigour. Maurice Bloch was always inspiring and warm, particularly important to me before my ﬁeldwork. I am grateful to Peter Loizos, who taught me that there are ‘tram-line’ people and ‘zigzag’ people, that they all eventually arrive at their destination and that the different routes are equally valid. Fenella Cannell was especially helpful in grounding me during the period immediately following Alfred Gell’s death. Charles Stafford was consistently most reliable, thoughtful, thorough and frank. Peter Gow always provided timely encouragement and helped me to learn how to see. Their sensitive comments and insight were invaluable as I waded through the process of writing my dissertation on which this book is based. Looking back, Sally Engle Merry ﬁrst introduced me to anthropology and instilled in me an immediate devotion to the subject during my undergraduate years. Through her patience and understanding I discovered a new ﬁeld of study as well as a different direction for my academic life. She gave me my ﬁrst opportunity for ﬁeldwork and supported my initial shaky steps into anthropology.
– ix –
x • Preface
In Mexico I owe a great debt to many whose generosity and presence made my stay both pleasant and stimulating. I was in Mexico City for 24 months from 1995 to 1998 and within a few weeks of my arrival, I met Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. I was eager to learn all I could about Mexican cooking and to taste everything; he was eager to share with someone his favourite eateries and his love for the cuisines of Mexico. Even before my tiny ﬂat in Coyoacán became ﬂooded and unliveable, we had become inseparable friends. ‘Now I guess you have to move in with me,’ he said. Ricardo was my ‘Muchona the Hornet’ of Mexican food. Other friends of his who were also chefs repeatedly told me that with my interest in traditional Mexican food, I didn’t know how lucky I was to have met him. He is now internationally acknowledged as an authority on Mexican cookery and has published ﬁve books of renown. He welcomed me into both his professional and personal lives and was a constant friend even during the most awkward of times and strove to accommodate my every possible need. The people with whom I lived in Milpa Alta, especially Yadira Arenas and Luis Enrique Nápoles, Ma. Primitiva Bermejo, Doña Margarita Salazar, Alejandro Enriquez and Guille Arenas, took a strange foreigner into their homes and shared much more than their lives, homes and food with me. I wish for the time when they can come stay with me, in Manila, Berlin or wherever I may be. Conmigo siempre tienen su casa. Iván Gomezcésar shared with me thoughtful insight about Milpa Alta as well as several texts, which I would have not found on my own. Andrés Medina welcomed me to the Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA) in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) with a sense of humour. He was the ﬁrst person to really understand what I was getting at when I arrived in Mexico for the ﬁrst time. With his warmth, constant moral support and generous interest in me and my work, he helped me to eventually ﬁnd my way during ﬁeldwork. It was he who introduced me to Luz del Valle, who offered me valuable friendship and a link into Milpa Alta. Leticia Méndez was the second person I met in the UNAM who understood me both academically and emotionally. Her premature death in 1996 was one of the great shocks that I encountered in Mexico, and I have missed her ever since. Janet Long-Solís generously shared her books and her contacts with me. She introduced me to José Luis Curiel in the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. He in turn allowed me to sit in some classes of the gastronomy program and get to know the students and faculty. It was through him that I met other scholars of Mexican cuisine who inﬂuenced my understanding of Mexican gastronomy, including José Luis Juárez and Ricardo Muñoz. Other friends in Mexico—Patricia Salero and her family, Ileana Bonilla, Ricardo Bonilla, Gabriel Gutierrez, Fabiola Alcántara, Antonio Rivera, Abdiel Cervántes, Juan Carlos López, Juan Manuel Horta and the rest of the staff of the Executive Dining Room in the UNAM—opened their hearts and homes to me. Their friendship and thoughtful conversations constantly provided me with security and fruitful ideas.
Preface • xi
My occasional meetings with Chef Rick Bayless were always inspiring. His openness and offers to help encouraged me in the academic path that he himself chose not to take. Michael Schutz provided valuable technical support at short notice. Anonymous readers of an earlier draft of my manuscript gave me something to chew on, providing much constructive criticism and tipping me onto certain crucial references that have helped me improve this book immensely. I would also like to thank Tom Jaine at Prospect Books for his always quick and witty responses to queries, and for permission to reuse my material published previously in Petits Propos Culinaires 67, and the Proceedings of the Oxford Food Symposium 2001. Thank you also to Simon Lord at Oxford University Press for granting unhesitating permission to use and modify Gell’s table of the Art Nexus. And of course many thanks to Hannah Shakespeare at Berg, who showed humanity and equanimity at every blip along the way. Good friends and peers, especially Yuehping Yen and Anja Timm, commented on drafts of this manuscript at various stages and were immeasurably helpful and intellectually stimulating, critical when necessary, as well as willing eaters of all my culinary experiments. Yuehping was the ﬁrst and staunchest supporter of my using Alfred’s theory of art in my analysis. Anja’s editorial eagle eye never failed to impress and amuse me. Thank you! Uta Raina read through a chapter at a critical time and, like Liese Hoffmann, helped me to reach bibliographic sources that I had difﬁculty accessing. Marilya and Scott Reese supplied me with timely stocks of Mexican ingredients and new cookbooks, keeping up my interest in Mexican food when I was distracted by other things. Most importantly, David Sutton was endlessly patient, enthusiastic and supportive. Without his belief in my work this book would not have been published. My family, especially my parents and sister, have supported me in all possible ways, even when they did not understand what I was doing. My survival and sanity depended on their constant presence and love. Saskia ﬁlled my days with such happiness that working at night seemed a fair enough exchange. And ﬁnally, much love and gratitude to Kai Kresse, for all the reasons mentioned above and more, and for his astounding commitment to my work and to me.
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As a once aspiring chef, I had always believed that anthropological studies of food were overly concerned with staple crops, ignoring the fact that food had ﬂavour and was enjoyed and relished by those who ate and prepared it. When I began this research, I was struck by the fact that many ethnographies of food failed to take into account that cooking was a creative, even artistic process, that spices were as important as staples, and that individual dishes could be as meaningful as symbolic ingredients. One dish that was personally meaningful for me during my time in Mexico was chilaquiles. Chilaquiles is typical Mexican breakfast food. It is made of fried pieces of day-old tortillas bathed in a chile-tomato sauce and garnished with mildly soured cream, white cheese and onions. Before going to Mexico, I had never tasted or cooked anything like it. My interest in and knowledge of cooking came mostly from my own research, reading, tasting, exploring, experimenting. So for me, experiencing chilaquiles, not just preparing or eating it, was a key ethnographic moment. (Some readers may be aware of Meredith Abarca’s (2006) recent book on Mexican and Mexican American women and cooking, where she begins metaphorically with her mother’s chilaquiles.1 I will discuss Abarca’s work elsewhere, but I am still compelled to begin with chilaquiles, for I have my own story to tell . . .) One morning I arrived early at the kitchen of my friend, Chef Ricardo Muñoz. In a pot Ricardo had boiled green tomatoes (tomates verdes, tomatillos), a bit of onion and garlic, serrano chiles and epazote. He poured this into a blender with some of the cooking liquid, liqueﬁed the mixture thoroughly and strained it into hot oil. The salsa sizzled for some moments, and then he lowered the heat for it to simmer with some salt. The day before he had cut up leftover tortillas into eight wedges each and left them to dry overnight. That morning he deep-fried them till crisp to make totopos and set them aside for the excess oil to drain. When the salsa was ready, he tossed in the totopos, quickly coating them evenly and warming them up. ‘I like to keep them crispy,’ he said. He arranged a mound of chilaquiles onto each plate, topping them with thin slices of white onion, crumbled white cheese (queso fresco or de canasto) and a dollop of thick cream (crema de rancho, like crème fraîche). He told me that he sometimes liked to put a bit of fresh coriander on top but that it was not really necessary. With or without, it was delicious, and it also looked beautiful. ‘This is a typical Mexican breakfast,’ he told me.
2 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
My immediate reaction was to say, ‘No way!’ and this set him off laughing. ‘La china no me cree,’ he said (‘The Chinese girl [as he affectionately called me] doesn’t believe me’), and his entire kitchen staff laughed with him. They all agreed with him that this was a commonly prepared dish that any family might have on a regular day throughout Mexico. I found it hard to believe that something so complex and laborious could be typical for breakfast. Ricardo was a well-known chef who specialized in traditional Mexican cooking. Perhaps, I thought, this was food for restaurants or for special occasions. Eventually, after asking several people and later living in different Mexican households, I realized that it was true. Variations of chilaquiles were normal everyday fare, and no one thought twice about it or found it particularly difﬁcult to make. Many families had their chilaquiles with extra side dishes as well—beans, eggs, meat, chicken, bread. This was Mexican home cooking, the food that women prepare for their families on any given day, to use up leftover tortillas or simply for the pleasure of eating. Busy families made it a point to have delectable dishes for daily meals, even if there was little time to linger over them. They were only cooking the kind of food that they always ate. Abarca’s mother is quoted referring to it as the food of the poor (‘la comida de uno de pobre’; 2006, p. 71). Even those who were not culinary professionals delighted in, and even insisted on, from my perspective, high gastronomic standards. Since I did not have the beneﬁt of growing up in a Mexican home, when I watched or helped people cook I was naturally impressed with the methods of preparation that were so foreign to me and therefore often difﬁcult for me to emulate. Though it looked easy, my ﬁrst attempt at making chilaquiles at home was barely edible. The salsa was too thick and not smooth enough, and I worked too slowly, letting the totopos go soggy. The textures and ﬂavours were wrong, and it looked like a sorry heap of nicely garnished mush. Clearly I lacked the skill and knowledge to prepare chilaquiles properly, and I had not had it or practised enough times to really know what to do. This event reﬂected my worries—would I ever be able to acquire any true knowledge of or expertise in Mexican cookery, if that were indeed possible? Would learning to make chilaquiles teach me something about Mexico? Or did I need to learn about Mexico to be able to make chilaquiles? The answer was yes on all counts. My introduction to Mexican cuisine was inevitably by way of recipes and cookbooks. However, learning the culinary techniques needed to make Mexican food did not work as simply as following a recipe, even if done to the letter.2 I felt that my cooking improved, and it certainly seemed easier, the more I got to know Mexico and the more I understood about the culture and cuisine. Conversely, I also felt that I developed deep relationships with people because of my interest in their food and my respect for their expertise in matters including but not limited to cooking. Living in Mexico City, among professional chefs in the centre as well as among barbacoieros in Milpa Alta at the outskirts, I began to absorb culinary and gastronomic knowledge, in my body as well as in my mind. I learned to feel the
Introduction • 3
point of readiness when something was cooked ‘until it’s done’ or to discern how much water or broth to put into the rice pot until it was ‘enough’. I had come to Mexico interested primarily in chiles but found that there was so much more to consider. Chiles could not be examined without the context of the whole cuisine. Even before my ﬁrst visit to Mexico, reading cookbooks convinced me that Mexican cooking could be thought of as a form of art, and that this art was to be found in everyday home cooking rather than in restaurants. ‘The imagination at work in the use of local ingredients means that eating is not the domain of the rich in Mexico. Culinary tradition here is really peasant food raised to the level of high and sophisticated art’ (Cowal, 1990, pp. 1–2). From what I read, Mexican cuisine was also considered a particularly ﬁne art in relation to other cuisines.3 Food-as-art easily rolls off the tongue, but what might it mean to take this idea seriously analytically? This study focuses on cooking as a deeply meaningful social activity, on food as a form of art. If we think of cookery as art, we recognize the creative skill needed to produce good food. The people we study care about the ﬂavour of the food that they eat, so I speciﬁcally use the word ‘ﬂavour’, rather than ‘taste’, more often throughout this book. Flavour has more sensual than sociological connotations, which I prefer to emphasize (see Howes, 2003; Korsmeyer, 2005; Stoller, 1997). Though my analysis is based on ethnographic practice, this is not intended as ethnography of Mexican foodways, in the ﬁrst instance. Rather, my aim is to explore how we can use a theory of art to analyze food anthropologically. My concern with Mexico is secondary to this consideration of a cuisine as an art form. Alfred Gell’s theory of the art nexus is the theoretical basis of this book. Using Gell’s notion of art as a technical practice highlights the social as well as gastronomic virtuosity that is embodied in skilful cooking. Approaching cooking as artistic activity is most salient when what is under scrutiny can be deﬁned as an elaborate cuisine, or, in Jack Goody’s terms, a ‘differentiated’ or ‘high’ cuisine (1982, pp. 97–9). In fact, Goody counts Mexican cuisine among other ‘haute cuisines’ such as those found in China, France, Italy, Turkey and India (Goody, 2006, pp. 510, 514). As he deﬁnes it, a ‘high’ cuisine depends on ‘a variety of dishes which are largely the inventions of specialists. But by no means entirely. For the higher cuisine also incorporates and transforms what, from the national standpoint, is the regional food of peasants and the cooking of exotic foreigners’ (1982, pp. 104–5). What can be inferred from this is that any good cook is a ‘specialist’. Such a situation is what has existed in Mexico since before the Spanish arrived (see Coe, 1994; Corcuera, 1981; Cowal, 1990; Sahagún, 1950–1982). Since then, throughout Mexico’s history, there has been continuous adjustment, development and innovation of culinary techniques; new foodstuffs have been introduced and incorporated, enriching the cuisine through the sharing of culinary and cultural knowledge.4 Food in Mexico is a richly satisfying topic, for thinking as well as for cooking and eating. My discussion of the art of Mexican cooking is based on the gastronomic
4 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
life I experienced in Mexico City, mostly in the homes of barbacoa makers and other families in the district of Milpa Alta. With this perspective, I address questions such as these: why is it that no one cooks better than my mother? Or, in other words, why does food taste better when it comes from home? Also, why—seemingly contradictorily—does street food have such an appeal? Why are ﬁestas incomplete without mole? And so why is barbacoa, pit-roast meat, served instead?
Milpa Alta, DF
Milpa Alta is the smallest municipality of Mexico City (Federal District), in the southeastern edge, adjacent to Xochimilco.5 Yet Milpaltenses talked of Mexico City as a separate entity, and they were self-consciously attached to their land and traditions. Milpa Alta is a semi-rural, mountainous area spoken of as the ‘province of Mexico City’. The name literally translates as ‘Highland Cornﬁeld’ in that it is a region of high elevation, formerly dedicated to maize and maguey (agave/century plant) production.6 The word milpa refers to a maize plantation, whose borders were traditionally delineated with a border of magueys. The maize was planted in rows and intercropped with beans, chiles, squash and sometimes tomatoes. Plantations were organized like this since before the Spanish came to Mexico, and Milpa Alta began to produce less maize only since the latter half of the twentieth century. The population was fairly young; 79.8 per cent under 40, and those in the most active productive ages made up 61.9 per cent of the population (Departamento de Distrito Federal (DDF), 1997, pp. 15–64). According to the ﬁgures for 1990, among the 45,233 who were over the age of 12, 43.4 per cent were economically active. Among them, three-quarters were men and a quarter were women (p. 77). Three-quarters of the economically inactive were women, more than half of whom were classiﬁed as housewives (dedicated to housework; p. 83). As I later explain, a large proportion of these people may actually contribute their labour to the family business, although they did not ofﬁcially represent themselves as wage earners, consciously choosing to deﬁne themselves as dedicated to their homes and families rather than as businesswomen (comerciantes).7 Around half the inhabitants of Milpa Alta lived in Villa Milpa Alta, the municipal capital. Villa Milpa Alta has seven barrios called San Mateo (the site of this research), La Concepción, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, San Agustín, Santa Martha and La Luz. Barrio San Mateo is one of the largest barrios, with around 1,000 families residing there. Following the census of 1990, each household contained an average of 5.2 occupants (as opposed to 4.6 for the whole Federal District; DDF, 1997, p. 83), making the population of Barrio San Mateo an estimated 5,000–6,000.8 Milpa Alta’s barrios are each dedicated to a particular trade. In Barrio San Mateo, most people prepare barbacoa de borrego, pit-roast lamb, for a living. Barbacoa is usually eaten on special occasions since it is a dish made in large amounts because
Introduction • 5
whole sheep or goats are cooked overnight in an earth oven. There are restaurants in Mexico City which serve only barbacoa, but it is more commonly prepared like a cottage industry by families called barbacoieros. Unofﬁcially, barbacoieros earned an estimated Mx$3,000 per week (equivalent then, in the mid-1990s, to around £214 per week). Several families earned more, because the barbacoa business can be very lucrative, but since all transactions were in cash, they needed not declare all their earnings. This meant that though they enjoyed considerable economic comfort, at least on paper they were consistently portrayed as among the poorest of Mexico City.
Organization of the Book
Chapter 1 focuses on Mexican cuisine and how it is commonly thought of as art in published material as well as in casual conversation. I also discuss the issues of skill and learning techniques and the key notions of sazón and love. In Chapter 2 I describe the theoretical framework of this book. I outline my perspective that cooking is an artistic and technical practice and therefore Mexican cuisine can be analyzed as a body of art. Gell’s theory of art premisses that almost anything can be deﬁned as an art object, anthropologically speaking. Indeed, I am not the only one who has been inspired to use his theory in areas that we normally think of as non-art (Pinney and Thomas, 2001; Reed, 2005). The next three chapters provide perspectives of how people in Milpa Alta cook and eat informally, at home, in the street and during private or local ﬁestas. I describe the process of preparing barbacoa in detail in Chapter 3. The work is shared between husband and wife and is one demonstration of how culinary practices are a means by which actors construct their social world (cf. Munn, 1986). Weekly and daily life is structured by the rhythms of the kitchen, and the production of barbacoa as a trade also dictates the spatio-temporal forms of barbacoiero social interaction and relative status in Milpa Alta. In Chapter 4 I explore the notion of culinary agency as powerful and meaningful by looking at women’s social and physical boundaries. Women do most of the cooking in the household, and in some ways it seems that a proper woman is thought of as one who knows how to cook, especially if she cooks well. Because of this ideal of womanhood, there is a saying about marriage and cooking in Mexico which takes the form of a criticism: No saben ni cocinar y ya se quieren casar (‘They don’t even know how to cook and yet they already want to marry’). I describe society’s expectations of women to assess how food and cooking are related to marriage and to a woman’s sense of identity and morality in Milpa Alta. This chapter demonstrates how the agency that effectuates social interaction and change is a culinary agency. As any book about Mexican food should do, I also discuss mole, the famous sauce that combines chile and chocolate, which is complex in both preparation
6 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
and meanings. Chapter 5 is about feast food, the coerciveness of hospitality and the static or dynamic nature of cuisine. Although ﬁestas are releases from daily routine (Brandes, 1988, p. 1; cf. Paz, 1967) and recipes of ﬁesta dishes are more elaborate than any everyday meal, the food consumed during festivities is actually controlled and bound by a set of rules. For ﬁestas, a strict menu needs to be followed (i.e. mole, tamales, rice, beans); otherwise the meal is not properly perceived as festive. I use the example of mole to illustrate how food can have meanings which transcend time (cf. Mintz, 1979). Festive dishes can easily be thought of as culinary works of art, but if artistry is determined by action (see Chapter 2; Gell, 1998), then the greatest culinary artistry characterizes the domestic or quotidian sphere. Though much work goes into the preparation of food for ﬁestas, women cook relatively elaborately every day in Milpa Alta for their regular family meals. Daily domestic culinary activities can be thought of as preparatory sketches or training in the culinary arts, without which the production of culinary works of art would not be possible. Thus the artistic nature of cooking is embedded in domestic activity, in food preparation, and is appreciated in its consumption.9 Chapter 6 concludes this study with a discussion of the difference between snacks and home-cooked meals, the centrality of gastronomy to social life and thus the power of cooks as culinary agents.
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine
Mexican cuisine is something like a historical novel which has a gorgeously wanton redhead on its dust jacket. —Richard Condon, The Mexican Stove (1973, p. 13)
This chapter introduces the cuisines of Mexico in general, largely drawing from what I learned from reading food history and cookbooks and from my early ﬁeldwork in the centre of Mexico City among chefs, students and researchers of Mexican gastronomy. This served as thorough preparation for the culinary life that I encountered later in Milpa Alta, on which most of this book is focused. Food writing colours our perceptions of other cuisines, and in my case, I became enamoured of Mexican cooking from what I had read prior to my ﬁrst visit. In what follows I describe some of the ways that people think of and write about the cuisines of Mexico, starting with the all-important chile.
The Cultural Signiﬁcance of Chiles
After the usual introductions, the ﬁrst thing asked about me when I was brought to anyone’s home in Mexico was invariably, ‘Does she eat chile?’ The second question was usually, ‘And does she eat tortillas?’ Complemented with beans, chile and corn (most often in the form of tortillas) are the main ingredients of Mexican cuisine. The most culturally meaningful of the three is the chile. ‘Food and cuisine can characterize a culture, and ours has been and continues to be characterized by our daily and widespread consumption of chiles’ (Muñoz, 1996, foreword, my translation). In Mexico, chiles are used primarily for their distinct ﬂavours and not only for their heat. It is in Mexico where the most extensive variety of chiles is used. In their green, ripe or dried states they have different ﬂavours which are cooked or combined for different effects.
The chile is the heart and soul of Mexican food. To each broth or stew that does not contain chile, we add some hot salsa at the table. A very complex dish begins by roasting and/or grinding chiles, and it is the chile that gives the peculiar and deﬁnitive accent to
8 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
many meals. It is the ingredient that can determine the ﬂavour of a dish. (Muñoz, 1996, p. 10, my translation)
Some writings on Mexican cooking state that the ancient Mesoamerican victuals were based on a ‘holy triad’ of corn, beans and squash. The image of a basic culinary triad is tempting, except that with the exclusion of the chile, it fails to adequately describe Mexican cuisine. Food historian Sophie Coe (1994, pp. 38–9) asserts that ‘[t]his triad was invented by foreigners and imposed on the high cultures of the New World, and the proof of this is to be found in the omission of chile peppers, which the outsiders viewed as a mere condiment, while the original inhabitants considered them a dietary cornerstone, without which food was a penance.’ The possible reason that squash was included is because of the traditional style of planting milpas, cornﬁelds, with beans and squash. Clearly these three crops are basic foodstuffs in the Mexican diet, but any Mexican interested in eating would place the chile above the squash in a list of priorities for the dining table. The power of the chile in this Mexican ‘culinary triangle’ is wonderfully described by Zarela Martínez, a New York restaurateur, who enthuses that
Chile is history. It has outlasted religions and governments in Mexico. It is part of the landscape, literally ... It belongs to the holy trinity that has always been the basis of our diet: corn, beans, and chile. Without each other, none of the three would be what it is. Corn is an incomplete protein, beans are difﬁcult to digest. Together they would be good basic sustenance, but hopelessly monotonous. Chile makes the gastric juices run for a dinner of beans and tortillas. It also provides the vitamins they lack, especially vitamins A and C. The combination of the three makes a nutritionally balanced meal. It’s magic. (1992, p. 218, emphasis added)
Mexican cuisine uses many kinds of chiles in diverse ways, too numerous to list here,1 but even a brief perusal of Mexican cookbooks indicates that chiles are signiﬁcant in Mexican life, and not just in their use as ﬂavouring for food.2 Diana Kennedy echoes Bartolomé de las Casas, who wrote in the sixteenth century that without chiles Mexicans did not believe they were eating. ‘Indeed the chile has played such an important role in the economic and social life of the country that many Mexicans feel their national identity would be in danger of extinction without it’ (Kennedy, 1989, p. 460).
The Range of Mexican Foods
Since pre-Hispanic times, the cuisines of Mexico have been based on corn, beans and chiles, and we know that even then they were prepared in a number of ways to make them palatable or even edible.3 In the sixteenth century when the Spanish ﬁrst arrived, there was agricultural abundance. The Aztecs of central Mexico had
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 9
sophisticated farming techniques (chinampas4 and milpas) and more sophisticated gastronomy. They also had military and political power over other groups in the region from whom they demanded tribute, mainly of foods, which added variety and breadth to their diet with comestibles that they did not grow themselves. Not all indigenous groups were equally afﬂuent, but the availability of various foods impressed the conquistadors who came and saw the great markets of Tlatelolco, where all sorts of plants, animals and insects were being sold for food as supplements to the basic diet of corn, beans and chiles. As the Spanish established themselves in what they called New Spain, they also established ﬁrm roots for the Catholic church. The Spanish friars were the ﬁrst to learn the local languages for the purposes of evangelization, and it is through their writings that we have any knowledge of the social and culinary systems of the precolonial period. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1950–82 ), a Franciscan friar who came to Mexico in the sixteenth century, meticulously collected material to describe the Aztec (Náhuatl) way of life, including everything that they ate. Sahagún recorded that along with maize and beans, the ancient Aztecs ate turkey, ﬁsh, small game, insects and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, seeds, tubers, wild mushrooms, plants and herbs that they collected or domesticated for food use. There are various accounts of how the Spaniards were impressed with the beauty and abundance of the Valley of Mexico, and also of the feasts that the emperor Moctezuma offered to them and ate himself. Cowal’s unpublished study, Food in the History of Central Mexico (1990), further shows how the Spanish who came during the Conquest were only partially forced to adjust to the foods of Mexico (pp. 90–9). The settlers eventually accommodated themselves within the existing culture. She states that ‘at ﬁrst the civilization was too highly developed and the populace too numerous for the Spaniards to ignore the native cooking. Soldiers, used to a modest, bland diet of bread, mutton, lentils and a few vegetables, adapted to the Mexican diet, partly out of necessity and somewhat because of taste choice’ (p. 93). Food historians assert that Aztec cooking was developed to high art, and this notion is reiterated by writers until today, though there is some disagreement amongst researchers and cookbook writers. Spanish sources of the period attest to gastronomic abundance, but Sonia Corcuera (1981) points out that the basic ingredients were still limited, so the variety of foods recorded by Sahagún was actually a result of culinary expertise.5 The foods still boiled down to being variations of chiles, tortillas and tamales. Without question there was creativity, imagination, and culinary artistry (Corcuera, 1981, p. 30). Cuisines evolve as cooks experiment with ingredients and learn new ways to process and combine their raw materials for different occasions and effects. New foods and cooking techniques are incorporated, tasted and tested during meals. Those ﬂavours which are favourable are repeated and remembered, and culinary knowledge and expertise grow. The repertory of Mexican cuisine expanded with the addition of ingredients and cooking methods which were introduced during the Spanish colonial
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period. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, milk and its products were unknown, as were cooking methods using fats, such as frying. The Spaniards introduced pigs, cows, chickens and sheep to Mexico. They also brought onions, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and many other herbs and spices that are widely used in Mexican cookery today. At the same time, within the convents, Spanish nuns had to learn to use the local products, as much of what they were used to cooking could not all be imported from Spain. The idea of an ‘emerging mestizo cuisine’ (Valle and Valle, 1995, p. 62) or of ‘baroque cuisine’ comes directly from the convents. The convents were wealthy laboratories of gastronomic experimentation where the sharing of culinary inﬂuences ﬂourished during the colonial period. ‘The excesses and inventiveness of convent cooking reﬂected Mexico’s diverse ﬂora and fauna, the omnivorous appetites of its inhabitants, and, above all, the power and wealth of its religious orders’ (Valle and Valle, 1995, p. 63). Yet in spite of this, the basis of Mexican cuisine remained the same as it had always been—corn, beans and chiles.6 ‘But among the Aztec elite maize appeared in so many forms that it is hard to imagine them suffering from the monotony which we envisage when told of a culture which has a single staple food and eats it every meal of every day’ (Coe, 1994, p. 113).7 Given the sophistication of both the native and foreign colonial cuisines, the process of mestizaje is not a simple fusion of Indian and Spanish, therefore.8 Cowal points out that ‘Spanish cooking was already a mixture when it got to the Americas. Eight centuries of Arab inﬂuence had left their mark’ (1990, p. 90). What exists in Mexico is what food historian Rachel Laudan deﬁnes as a local cuisine, made up of different components that
have now blended together to form ... a new and coherent cuisine ... That is, not by the gradual evolution of some original cuisine rooted in the soil (though that does happen) but by the shocks and changes of immigrants ... Not just the Spanish but the French, the Lebanese, the Germans, the later Spanish refugees from the Civil War, the Mennonites, the Italians, have all had much more impact than the usual indigenous/colonial story would lead one to believe. (Rachel Laudan, personal communication)
By the nineteenth century, Mexican cooks sought the essence of their art in popular traditions rather than in formalized techniques (Pilcher, 1998). These popular traditions partly consist in the culinary techniques and gastronomic knowledge that have been passed down the generations through the family kitchen. Historian Cristina Barros states that contemporary Mexican cuisine is 90 per cent indigenous and 10 per cent other inﬂuences. ‘The most delicious cuisines [in Mexico] are those with more indigenous inﬂuence.’9 She asserts that the indigenous cuisines of Mexico did not undergo the miscegenation that most people claim. There were few Spanish who arrived during the Conquest, and though they did inﬂuence the local cuisines, which integrated the new ﬂavours and foodstuffs, the bases remained Mexican. On the other hand, Juárez López (2000) argues that the bases of much contemporary
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 11
Mexican cuisine are European, and Laudan (2004) makes a strong case for Persian inﬂuences. Regardless of a recipe’s origins, a look at the recently published books on Mexican cooking suggests that the contemporary popular Mexican cuisine is as complex and sophisticated as those cuisines that are better known internationally, such as the Chinese, Middle Eastern and French. Aﬁcionados travel to Mexico just to discover the richness and variety of the local cuisines. There are subtle as well as forceful ﬂavours, encompassing all kinds of ﬂowers (like ﬂor de izote) and local vegetables (like huauzontle), ranging from the simplicity of ingredients best eaten raw (like pápaloquelite or small avocados criollos, whose edible skin tastes subtly of anise) to complex stews or preparations made of dozens of ingredients (like moles and stuffed chiles). Diana Kennedy, the most well known writer on Mexican cookery, states that ‘[t]he foods of regional Mexico are in a gastronomic world of their own, a fascinating and many-faceted world’ (1989, p. xiii). Kennedy, as well as other cookbook authors, many non-Mexican (e.g. Bayless and Bayless, 1987; Gabilondo, 1986; Gilliland and Ravago, 2005; Kraig and Nieto, 1996; Zaslavsky, 1995), have worked hard to dispel the idea that the foods of Mexico are anything like the food of popular Tex-Mex restaurants abroad. All of them draw this conclusion from their exposure to regional home cooking rather than to restaurant food. Indeed, many restaurants in Mexico offer home cooking as their specialities.
Home Cooking by Profession
Soon after I arrived in Mexico for the ﬁrst time I met Chef Ricardo Muñoz. He was teaching a class on beans in traditional Mexican cookery. About thirty different recipes were covered, and this was only a sampling. Much later Ricardo told me that he was miffed that I did not seem too impressed. This was because I expected there to be dozens of beans and ways to prepare them in Mexico, after having read so much about Mexican food before my trip. What did impress me, very much, was when we next met and Ricardo showed me the ﬁrst draft of the Mexican gastronomic dictionary he had written (now published, Muñoz, 2000). There were two thousand single-spaced pages describing what people cooked, planted, hunted, and collected and what they ate at home, out at street stalls, in small eateries, in restaurants and on regular days or during ﬁestas; as well as culinary tools, techniques and customs related to food from all over the country. At the time, Ricardo was not yet 30 years old, and he had already devoted seven years to travel, research and writing for this book. The project was a self-motivated labour of love, because Ricardo believed that there was so much about Mexican gastronomy that people in Mexico and abroad should be aware of. Ricardo had had a modest upbringing in southern Mexico in Tabasco and Veracruz. He grew up with a passion for food because of his mother, who is an excellent
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cook. To be able to afford to send her seven children to school, she set up a fonda, a small local eatery selling popular home-style dishes. Ricardo grew up hanging out in the fonda, watching his mother cook, occasionally lending a hand, often shopping for their supplies. By the time he moved to Mexico City as a young adult and began formal culinary training, he was attuned to the subtleties and diversity of Mexican regional cooking. For a couple of years he lived in California, where one of his sisters had migrated, and there he took a course on international cookery. What the cooking school taught as Mexican cuisine was nothing like the cuisines that he knew from growing up and living in different regions of Mexico. He recognized that many delicacies of Mexican gastronomy are wild ingredients or dishes produced only in people’s homes, on such a small scale that they remain local and unknown even in other areas of the country. This was part of what instigated him to embark on his intense research of what and how people eat and cook in all the pueblos10 of Mexico that he could visit. Despite his training as a chef that taught him the basics of French cuisine, he was continually drawn back to the ﬂavours and culinary cultures of home. Ricardo became recognized for his knowledge of traditional Mexican cookery, and with his delicious cooking, and later also his teaching and publications, he has been actively inﬂuencing others to share his appreciation of Mexican gastronomy. One friend of Ricardo’s was a chef at a sophisticated Mexico City restaurant serving nueva cocina mexicana, Mexican nouvelle cuisine. He had had a relatively afﬂuent urban upbringing, without the experience of growing up in a pueblo as Ricardo had done. Dissatisﬁed with a complex green sauce that he intended to serve with duck, he asked Ricardo for advice. The latter suggested adding a bit of this and that, recommending other cooking tips. After following these suggestions, the resulting sauce was so much better that he called up Ricardo right away to thank him and to ask him how he knew what to do. ‘I just told you how to make a traditional green mole!’ was Ricardo’s response.
Ricardo is one among many other researchers whose passion for traditional Mexican food inspired an investigation that to some extent is like ‘salvage ethnography’.11 To me it seems he is like a contemporary Sahagún, in his data collection and awe of the foods of Mexico. Recording food customs and recipes (lest they fall into disuse) is an active part of cultural revival given that the books where they are recorded inﬂuence readers’ activities, discovery or rediscovery of these things. But even without books, sometimes home cooking is reproduced in restaurants, then in turn is re-reproduced in people’s homes, ultimately expanding, redeﬁning or reﬁning the cuisine. An example is a traditional soup from central Mexico known as squash blossom or milpa plantation soup, sopa de ﬂor de calabaza or sopa de milpa. The soup
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 13
is made from the products of the milpa, that is, with fresh maize kernels, squash blossoms, the herb epazote, poblano chiles and sometimes nopales, green beans, courgettes, and huitlacoche (corn fungus). The soup may be thickened with masa (nixtamal ), dough for making tortillas. This soup is home cooking (comida casera), but it is now also served in posh restaurants serving nueva cocina mexicana. I had considerable contact with professional chefs in Mexico City, some of whom had trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris or the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Whether they were specialists of French cuisine or California cooking, they often talked about Mexican food, and of the new and exciting Mexican cookery that was emerging. However, in spite of their support of experimentation and fusion, they still had great appreciation for what they sometimes called the ‘simple’ food, the food of the pueblo or of the market. A great cocktail party could turn into a brilliant party if there were a few dishes of quesadillitas or taquitos (mini quesadillas or tacos) amongst the other hors d’oeuvres. In the 1990s professional cookery had become as fashionable and prestigious as it was in the USA and UK. The cooking schools in Mexico City were growing, and it was even possible to obtain a university degree in gastronomy, which included international cooking skills and culinary history among other subjects. Moreover, the greatest interest amongst young student chefs was in studying traditional Mexican cookery, recovering the recipes of their grandparents, and the remote (‘authentic’12) recipes of the provincial towns, of the pueblos. There were many more Mexican food festivals aimed at wealthy urban mestizos than ever before, and more and more books were being published about ‘real’ Mexican food. The number of restaurants in Mexico serving Mexican cuisine has been rising in the past twenty-ﬁve years, directly related to the growing interest in reclaiming a sense of what is Mexican, and an awareness that their cuisines are unique, ﬂavourful, something to be proud of.13 Long and Vargas (2005, p. 113) trace the initial interest in preserving and promoting ‘traditional’ and ﬁne regional and local Mexican food to 1981 when the Mexican Culinary Circle (Círculo Mexicano de Arte Culinario), was formed in Mexico City. This was set up by a group of women who were distinguished chefs or otherwise specialists in Mexican culinary culture. Long and Vargas suggest that the tendency to focus more on traditional cookery in restaurants and other gastronomic arenas arose from a recognition of traditions being lost. As a nationalistic reaction to foreign inﬂuences on Mexican food, culinary traditions were self-consciously being revived (p. 138). Ricardo’s work slots into this movement, still under way, of recuperating and renovating (or even reinventing) ‘traditional’ foods and practices.14 Hountondji (1983) reminds us that the root word of ‘tradition’ is the Latin word tradere, to transmit, which implies movement.15 Etymologically, then, traditions should not be thought of as static or frozen in the past. Traditions are the ‘habits and values [of a culture that are transmitted] from one generation to another’ (p. 139). In relation to gastronomy and ﬂavours, which may seem very personal and ephemeral,
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it is difﬁcult to pin down what precisely is transmitted. We learn gastronomic habits and values by growing up within the contexts that give rise to what we later deﬁne as ‘traditional’, in addition to gleaning what we can from books and other means or media (cf. Sutton, 2006, n.d.). These habits and values, combined with creativity, culinary knowledge and skill, will affect the outcome of the dishes cooked. This kind of knowledge and skill required to reproduce such ‘tradition’ is something that grows with the cook as he or she matures and gains dexterity, in a physiological, social and/or professional sense; or as Ingold describes other kinds of skill, it ‘develops with the growth of the organism’ (2000, p. 361).16 Unlike artefacts in an ethnographic museum, traditions are dynamic living practices that are ‘inﬁnitely adaptable’ (Sutton, 2006, p. 106). As with any other sort of skill, cooking is something that is enacted and embodied, not usually articulated. I will return to a discussion of culinary skill below and to the mutability of so-called traditional cooking in Chapter 5. For now, it is enough to be aware that the multiple origins of each component or technique used in a dish are easily overlooked or forgotten in everyday life, and these dishes are often thought of simply as being ‘traditional’, if they are labelled at all. Certainly most people’s vast culinary knowledge is never written down. Knowing how to make certain dishes or how to combine foods is learnt by repeated observation and practice, from consulting with others, from the experience of growing up within a particular gastronomic culture.17 A surprise gift or passing comment might spark off a memory from which a cook can recreate or reproduce a dish that may be or become part of ‘tradition’. Once I mentioned to friends in Milpa Alta that in the main market of Mexico City, La Merced, I had seen egg-laying hens for sale. They were cut open down the middle and their unlain eggs were on display. These unlain eggs are called the huevera and my friends were able to tell me about different ways of preparing them. Miguel proceeded to relate how his mother would slaughter the hens, saving the blood and tripe to cook with the huevera, the recipe for which he described in detail. Doña Margarita and Primy told me how they would usually make tamales with them, and they ordered an egg-laying hen from the butcher and prepared the tamales de huevera for my next visit. My friend Yadira, in Milpa Alta, came home one day with calostros de vaca, the curds made from the colustrum of a cow. She herself had never tasted or cooked it before, but her friend who had given it to her told her to prepare it with onions, tomatoes, chile and epazote. This is how culinary knowledge is often passed on— without recipes or precise measurements. Rather, fellow cooks are expected to be able to draw upon a ‘stock of knowledge’ (Keller and Dixon Keller, quoted and discussed in Sutton, 2001, pp. 128–30) that is stored in their heads, hearts, hands, noses and mouths. Rather than strictly following a recipe, when people need to do things quickly, they improvise with the food they have at hand, with a little imagination. ‘It is not because we want to stop following traditions’, it was explained to me, ‘it is so that we can use up what is in the fridge’.
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 15
Some traditional Mexican cooking techniques are complex or involve long processes, and much effort and time are needed to prepare almost anything that people eat daily. Before industrialization (and now, in some households, in spite of industrialization), women had to spend several hours a day boiling dried maize kernels, then grinding them on a metate, or basalt grinding stone, to make a soft dough before patting them out into tortillas, ﬂat round cakes, and baking them one by one on a comal, a metal or clay griddle.18 Sauces had to be prepared with the stone mortar and pestle called the molcajete and tejolote. The grinding action of the stones produces a more even, textured salsa than an electric blender, which slices, rather than grinds, the ingredients, making a choppy and more watery sauce. Most people I came across in Mexico would still insist that a salsa made in the molcajete tastes better than one made in a blender. Some restaurants even serve salsas from molcajetes whether or not they actually make the sauces in them. This is one reason that a sincere interest in cooking, in the ﬂavours, the raw materials and the ﬁnished dishes, is necessary to cook well. As one cookbook aptly expresses, ‘The pervasive fact about Mexican food is that it is not only for people who like to eat; it is, even more so if such a thing were possible, for people who like to cook’ (Condon and Bennet, 1973, p. 16).
On Learning Techniques
Before my ﬁrst visit to Mexico, I bought or read a number of Mexican cookbooks, hoping to try out some recipes. It was intimidating, to say the least. Some cookbooks suggest sample menus or traditional accompaniments, which are helpful, but this does not compare with having the experience of cooking and eating in Mexico with Mexican people to give you a feeling for the cuisine. Often recipes looked deceptively simple, but in fact they were full of parenthetical references to other recipes or basic techniques. Here is an example from the cookbook of a well-known restaurant in Texas that has been known for serving ‘authentic Mexican food of the interior’, Fonda San Miguel. Inspired by a recipe from Diana Kennedy, these are the three ingredients of their recipe for Pescado Tikin Xik: 6 6- to 7-ounce red snapper ﬁllets, skinned Achiote Rub (see recipe for Cochinita Pibil) Cebollas Rojas en Escabeche (see separate recipe) (Gilliland and Ravago, 2005, p. 134) In addition, they recommend serving the ﬁsh with arroz blanco (white rice) and frijoles negros (black beans), or with chipotle mayonnaise, recipes for which are found on other pages of the book. The rice and beans would be the most common accompaniments for this ﬁsh in the Yucatán where the recipe originates, so it is good advice to follow. (Thank goodness we can ask the ﬁshmonger to ﬁllet and skin the ﬁsh for us!)
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For another example, these are the ingredients of Diana Kennedy’s recipe for one of the most well-known dishes outside of Mexico, Huevos Rancheros (Ranch Eggs). Note that this dish must be prepared at the last moment and served immediately: safﬂower oil for frying 4 5-inch corn tortillas 4 extra large eggs 1⅓ cups salsa ranchera (page 338), approximately, kept hot, or 1⅓ cups salsa de tomate verde, cocida (page 337), approximately, kept hot rajas of 1 large chile poblano (see page 471) 4 tablespoons crumbled queso fresco or añejo (Kennedy, 1989, p. 318) Turning then to her recipe for salsa ranchera on page 338, it lists the following ingredients: 2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped 2 pounds (about 4 large) tomatoes, broiled (see page 450) 5 chiles serranos, broiled (see page 472) 2 tablespoons safﬂower oil 2 heaped tablespoons ﬁnely chopped white onion ½ teaspoon (or to taste) sea salt (Kennedy, 1989, p. 338) What appeared straightforward at ﬁrst glance seemed actually more like the endless subordinate clauses of a German sentence. My impression was that short recipes were either composites of several others, or were side dishes or basic preparations that ultimately constituted an ingredient for another recipe. They were only some of the essential components of a complete or proper meal. It took me several months of living in Mexico before I could look at a typical recipe such as the above and not need to take a deep breath before beginning. I recognized that I needed to reach a comfortable level of self-conﬁdence when I thought of chiles or of making a Mexican salsa. But home cooks surely did not think in terms of recipes, which are, after all, abstract formulae that need to be selfconsciously recorded. A recipe is merely an intellectual prototype like a blueprint of the dish that eventually is prepared by a cook according to his or her skill or mood. Ingredients are chosen, touched and manipulated, assessed by sight, texture and smell, tasted and savoured. A cook needs to make myriad decisions before ﬁnally producing not just a dish, but a full meal, and it is this type of discernment that also needs to be learnt, along with the culinary techniques. According to Ingold (2000), expertise is enacted as a symbiosis between a skilled practitioner and his or her environment within a system of relations (in our case social, gastronomic, and material). Once in a material or physical state, an artefact (or
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 17
in our case, a dish or meal) does not actually come into being in the exact way that it was previously imagined (Ingold, 2000, p. 343). When two cooks prepare food following the same recipe the food comes out differently. The hands of the cook and other bodily sensory factors play a role in the outcome. Because of these very individual actions, the coming-into-being of any product (artefact, food, meal) is as much a part of the creative process as its pre-conceptualisation. This is because ‘the artefact engages its maker in a pattern of skilled activity’ (p. 345). Sutton (2001) notes that written recipes are ‘memory jogs’ that cannot actually teach someone how to cook. They serve as reminders so that a cook can prepare a dish using previously learnt skills acquired through experience (see also Sutton, 2006). To prepare basic Mexican dishes some unique culinary techniques need to be learned, preferably by demonstration and practice. Making raw salsas and different kinds of cooked or part-cooked salsas with fresh chiles or dried chiles requires different methods. In my case, following a Mexican recipe required learning culinary skills to which I had had no prior exposure. Even watching my friends cook on occasion was not enough for me to pick up the skills in a short time. When a Mexican friend told me that to make enchiladas I had to ‘pass the tortilla through hot oil’, I had to confess that I did not know what that meant, even though I comprehended the words individually. Before going to Mexico for the ﬁrst time, I did not dare to put a chile directly on the gas ﬂame of the cooker to blister the skin before steaming and peeling it. After some weeks watching and helping people cook in Mexico, I stopped thinking twice about it. In all my time in Mexico, I rarely cooked on my own, but I had plenty of opportunities to observe, participate, practise and articulate my questions about Mexican culinary techniques so that some of the cooking skill could grow within me, too. Yadira insisted that it is better to use too much oil to fry rice well before adding water or broth, even if you must drain off the excess oil, rather than use too little oil and sacriﬁce the ﬂavour and texture. Another friend, Toño, who used to cook for a fonda in Veracruz, showed me how he makes refried beans, frijoles refritos. It took him almost forty-ﬁve minutes to fry and mash onions with the frijoles de olla, boiled beans. He said that he learned to cook by watching his sister cooking as he grew up. Though she did not set out to teach him to cook, he loved to watch her, and he noticed how she respected food, and that it is important to allow foods to take their own time to reach their optimum points. Among chefs who specialized in Mexican cuisine, I garnered knowledge of technical terminology and processes much more systematically than I did from women in Milpa Alta. That is not to say that the techniques of one group were any more or less sophisticated than the other’s. The women of Milpa Alta and the chefs of the centre differed in social class and social context, and to my understanding each group held the other in great respect for their presumed culinary mastery. Yet when it came to the way in which they talked about Mexican cuisine, they used a very similar discourse.
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Food and Love
There is a rhetoric of food and love in Mexico, which is exempliﬁed by novels such as Like Water for Chocolate (Esquivel, 1992). Different kinds of culinary specialists subscribe to this popular discourse on the connection between love and cooking. Professional chefs have a technical language in which to express themselves about gastronomic matters, but when we talked about Mexican cuisine, they almost always took up this popular discourse of love and gave an emotional value to the topic. Friends from different backgrounds have told me their culinary secret, saying, ‘I cook with love’ (‘Yo cocino con amor’ ). Throughout my ﬁeldwork I was confronted with these statements—both from trained chefs and from home cooks. The latter often added that love was the ‘secret ingredient’ that made their dishes special. This was a phrase they volunteered. I never asked anyone directly, ‘What’s your secret?’, but oftentimes, when I complimented people on their cooking, which I did often, the cook sometimes dictated me a recipe, and sometimes said that her secret was ‘love’. At some point I wondered whether this might be a clever culturally sanctioned means of hiding culinary secrets, but after further experience I decided that attributing their success in cooking to ‘love’ was a deliberate and apt conceptualization of producing good ﬂavour in their food. The rhetoric of love is not something that is unique to Mexico, of course. If pressed, good cooks from any culture might say that the reason they cook well is because of some kind of love. When people talk of love (amor), they refer to many facets of love, including the attention and care that goes into cooking well. This love may be interpreted as an affection for the people who will be eating or as the desire to eat well. It may be that a good cook treats ingredients in a particular, loving way to bring out each ingredient’s best qualities. Knowing how to develop the ﬂavours of a food depends on an interest in understanding it and how it reacts with other foods. It involves understanding the history of a dish or an ingredient, knowing how or why certain things are used together, what ‘marries well’ or not. It may also be that a good cook cares about following a recipe or doing a technique properly, because of a love of cooking. And of course there is the correlation between food and romance. Wooing couples of different cultures often practise courtship or romance with private meals (out or in) as preludes to other things. Relating food to love in Mexico may not be unique, but I believe the prevalence and variety of its expression is pertinent. A young banker once tried to explain to me his relationship to food, saying, ‘La cocina mexicana es para él que siente, él que ama’ (‘Mexican cuisine is for he who feels, he who loves’). There are three types of orgasms, he told me—the carnal, the spiritual, and the gastronomical—and these three are encapsulated in mole. This comment may sound exaggerated, and I was unable to elicit a clear explanation from him. But my banker friend was not the only person I met who talked of food in this manner. It also appears that you need not be born Mexican in order to feel so strongly about their cuisine. Richard Condon
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 19
(Condon and Bennet, 1973, p. 3), possibly the most effusive writer on Mexican cuisine, described it as
the most exalted food ever to appear in the Western Hemisphere, ... it becomes evident, when the glorious plunge is taken, that to cook and eat Mexican food is to celebrate sensuality in every great chamber of this textured, perfumed, delicious, beautiful, and memorable gastronomic antiquity. Mexican food is an aphrodisiac which excites the passion for living. It courts, seduces, ravishes, then cherishes all ﬁve senses (as well as the sense of most worthy accomplishment) by treating each as if it existed alone, as if all satisfaction were dependent upon this one sense, while it orchestrates all ﬁve into complex permutations of sensation.
Some professional chefs ascribed the source of their success to things other than ‘love’. They talked of having a passion for food, in general, but they were also likely to relate their cooking skills to ‘art’ or to their being ‘professional’. Ricardo says that he cooks with love, and also with passion. Chef Abdiel Cervantes says he is a lover of Mexican cuisine (‘Soy un amante de la cocina mexicana’), and his success is because of his genuine fondness (cariño) for Mexican cuisine. Chefs like Ricardo and Abdiel, who were singled out as specialists in Mexican cuisine, each had profound childhood memories or training that inﬂuenced their cooking. They grew up cooking Mexican food, helping their mothers, who sold local food commercially or who often prepared food for large parties. In fact, Abdiel was a self-taught chef who became successful in Mexico City without any formal culinary training. Ricardo tried to explain to me his idea of love when cooking Mexican food: ‘You don’t cook just for the hell of it; there’s something to transmit through the food. It is something very very personal, so hard to explain that the only way to express your feelings is through action.’ He continued, ‘Every single thing you do in the pot, you do because it has a reason.’ When a salsa comes out very hot (muy picosa), the explanation often given is that the cook was angry or that she lacked love. When the salsa is watery, the cook was feeling lethargic, lazy or dispirited ( ﬂojera, sin ánimo, sin amor). As Ricardo always emphasized, the emotional state of mind of the cook is always revealed in the outcome of the cooking. Cooking with love was Ricardo’s favourite topic of discussion. ‘La comida es una verdadera manifestación del amor,’ he said (‘Food is a true manifestation of love).’ He explained that when you truly love someone, not necessarily in a romantic sense, with pleasure you might say, ‘Te voy a cocinar un mole para tu cumpleaños’ (‘I will make you a mole for your birthday’). It is a way to assure your friend that you will provide the best for him or her. Saying, ‘Te voy a cocinarte algo’ (‘I will cook something for you’) means ‘Te quiero mucho’ (‘I love you very much’), but not necessarily in a sexual sense. Ricardo emphasized the Mexican saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, un hombre se enamora por el estómago, or un hombre se conquista por el estómago. A cook invests many hours in preparing food for others, he added (his emphasis). It is a way of expressing how much you
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love someone, because all dishes denoted as special take a very long time to prepare. This is why the time it takes to prepare food is an ‘investment’; it is an investment in the social relationship between the cook and the intended eater(s). Cooking with love combines the pleasure of cooking with the pride of culinary knowledge and the sentiments that are transmitted to the eaters. Several others stressed to me that this personal aspect is vital to understanding Mexican cuisine, both for cooking and for eating. A student of gastronomy told me that her greatest complaint about many publications on Mexican cuisine is that they are recipe books with few explanations. Descriptions of how and why the recipe came about or is used in this way for a particular occasion or in a particular place, or the feelings and choices that are involved in the preparation, or the positioning of the people who are cooking and eating, are all part of Mexican cookery and ought not to be edited out. What Mexican people eat signiﬁes much more than ﬁlling their stomachs (Fabiola Alcántara, personal communication). Aída Gabilondo (1986), a Mexican cookbook writer, wrote about the importance of love for good cooking. She recalled the teachings of her mother, who
was a loving cook: no rough stirring or pouring. She insisted that food resented being rudely handled and that ﬁnished dishes would show any mistreatment ... Years later when I started teaching cooking in my home town, I remembered her words, and when I wrote a recipe on the blackboard or dictated it to my students, I always ended the list of ingredients with the words, ‘Sal, pimienta, y amor’. Salt, pepper, and love. (p. 5)
Another student of Mexican gastronomy explained to me that Mexican cuisine could never truly be accurately or well transferred to a professional restaurant kitchen. Mexican cuisine requires an emotional investment from the cook, and casual observation reveals that careless cooks produce careless results. ‘Mexican cuisine is very personal, very human. [When cooking] you are always thinking of your family or of the person for whom you’re cooking. When you remove the personal aspect from Mexican cuisine its ﬂavour changes; it cannot be commercialized’ (Ricardo Bonilla, personal communication). One Mexican chef who herself does not specialize in Mexican cuisine says that you need to be born with it in order to cook it properly, to understand and to reproduce it. This is why there are few good Mexican restaurants in Mexico and abroad, she said, ‘because they are just chefs; they learn to reproduce the food—but not from home—without love’. Ricardo Muñoz says, ‘You have to love la tierra [the land]. You have to be involved with the culture.’ In a way, the same can be said if you wish to cook well in any cuisine. You need to care enough to ﬁnd out about proper techniques, as well as about the history and culture of the dish and the people. The most well-known US chef who specializes in Mexican cooking, Chef Rick Bayless, takes his restaurant staff to Mexico every year so that they can experience the cuisine ﬁrst-hand. Out of respect for Mexican culture and cuisine, he considers
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 21
it necessary to stay in touch with the country to be able to better reproduce the traditional cooking back in Chicago. For him, as discussed further below, this attention is how a restaurant can compensate to approximate the love that emanates from home cooking. Bayless was invited as a keynote speaker at a festival of Mexican cuisine held at the Ambrosia cookery school in Mexico City (2 September 1997). His talk was on his ideas about Mexican cuisine and how to ‘translate’ it for use in restaurants outside of Mexico. He said that to properly cook ‘authentic’ Mexican food, it is necessary to cook with the passion, security (conﬁanza) and generous spirit of Mexican cuisine. In his speech, exalting the traditional regional cuisines of Mexico, he also mentioned the impossibility of making real Mexican food in restaurants. The ﬂavours of Mexico cannot be fully achieved unless the human factor is there, but failing that, attention to top-quality ingredients and meticulous workmanship may compensate. He said,
Home cooking must be transferred to the restaurant kitchen, and it must be part of the curriculum in cooking schools, the way it is, instead of trying to copy the European model. It must be prepared properly from the beginning, as it is done in your grandmother’s home; but in restaurants, of course, without the sazón of love. Therefore, the best ingredients must be used. To imitate other more famous cuisines will not do.19
When Bayless mentioned love, he called it a sazón, referring to the impossibility of restaurant chefs having the kind of personal connection to their customers as home cooks have to their families. The word sazón literally means seasoning or ﬂavour but is used to connote a special personal ﬂavour which individual cooks contribute to the food to make it come out well. This word is used to explain why no two cooks ever produce the same ﬂavour, although they may follow the same recipe or were taught to cook by the same person. ‘Cada persona tiene su sazón,’ every person has his own personal touch. Someone can have good sazón or none. ‘Está en la mano,’ it is in the hand, people also say. A person’s sazón is something inexplicable that cannot be learnt but must arise from within, from a person’s heart. It is a talent or knack for cooking, and this particular kind of personal touch that is necessary for good Mexican cooking is love. Both Ricardo and Primy, who makes barbacoa (see Chapter 3), have curiously noticed that when they personally get involved in the cooking, using their hands (mano, sazón), their diners/customers somehow notice the difference. Each told me that when they merely supervise the cooking but do not have direct contact with the food, diners may still think the outcome is very good, but when they are in direct contact, diners sometimes comment on just how good the food turned out that day. The central importance of sazón is examined in depth by Abarca (2006), who considers it to represent a ‘culinary epistemology’. She very accurately describes it as being ‘like a gardener’s green thumb’ (p. 51). The women she interviewed, whom she calls ‘grassroots theorists’, provide several examples where they demonstrate
22 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
their sazón in their ability to prepare particularly delicious food. This can range from something as common as boiled beans in their broth, frijoles de olla, to more challenging dishes such as pipián verde. Sazón, Abarca writes, ‘captures the notion of saber rather than conocer’ (p. 54), that is, ‘to know’ at a sensory epistemological level rather than ‘to know’ in a technical way, though in sazón they are not mutually exclusive. Her grassroots theorists tend to cook without measuring, without recipes. They are guided by their memories, personal histories and taste, as well as by their internal embodied knowledge, or sazón.20 Drawing from the work of Giard (2002), Abarca further suggests that modern kitchen appliances such as electric blenders interfere with a cook’s sazón because they reduce the need to use all one’s senses. She describes women who have good sazón who avoid pressure cookers and grind their moles on their metates. For my part, I would hesitate to connect sazón too much to ‘traditional’ kitchen equipment. When cooks are singled out for their ability, it is not only a recognition of their culinary knowledge, embodied or otherwise. Similar to what Abarca notes, I have heard people describe sazón as something like a blessing or a gift, un don. It is precisely this inexplicable quality that sets some cooks apart from others. When someone has sazón, that someone is rarely able to pinpoint what her actual trick might be, and it is possible to have sazón even when cooking with modern appliances. I suggest, instead, that the sazón is what differentiates a good cook from a particularly ﬁnely talented one. In other words, it separates artists from craftspeople, and to this I now turn in the chapter that follows.
Though I have just explained at length that it is difﬁcult to reproduce Mexican cooking without demonstration and practice, I provide recipes throughout this book to give readers an idea of Mexican home cooking (comida casera). The recipes and cooking tips in this chapter are taken from Ricardo’s ﬁrst book, Los chiles rellenos en México (1996). Because of his training as a chef, instructions are meticulously written. I have abridged it only a little as I translated it. I hope that Ricardo’s detailed explanations will compensate for the lack of his presence. When I ﬁrst began my own research, my working title was Chiles rellenos a la mexicana, ‘Stuffed Chiles a la Mexicana’. From reading cookbooks I was charmed with the idea of stufﬁng chiles and on my ﬁrst visit to Mexico I was naturally most eager to taste this very special, yet also very humble and everyday dish. All kinds of chiles are stuffed and are served in people’s homes, but what is most commonly found in Mexico City, and in market stands and fondas, are poblano chiles stuffed with chopped or minced meat ( picadillo), or cheese. In the market the chiles are sold wrapped in a tortilla like a taco, but in a fonda or at home, stuffed chiles would be served with a thin tomato sauce, caldillo. The picadillo ﬁlling for the chile recipes
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 23
here can be substituted with cheese, especially the kinds that melt. Panela, Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheeses are commonly used.
Chiles rellenos de picadillo sencillo con papa Chiles Stuffed with Simple picadillo with Potato (Muñoz, 1996, pp. 51–2)
Serves 15 María Elena Trujillo This is a typical home-style preparation of chiles stuffed with picadillo that is served in any house on any day of the year in Mexico City. María Elena was born in Coahuila, but she came to live in the capital when she was very young, and she soon learned to make local dishes. Few families have recipe collections, and everyone learns to cook according to the regional style, just by watching. Formal classes of authentic Mexican cooking are never taken, but a mother or mother-in-law knows that her daughter or daughter-in-law should someday inherit her culinary secrets.
15 chiles poblanos, ready for stufﬁng • See ‘How to Peel chiles poblanos’, below.
3 cups potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-cm (⅛-inch) cubes ½ cup corn or canola oil 1 cup white onions, ﬁnely chopped 1 tablespoon garlic, ﬁnely chopped 300 g (11 oz) minced beef 350 g (12 oz) minced pork sea salt to taste black pepper, freshly ground, to taste • Blanch the potatoes in water and set them aside. They should be cooked but not very soft. • Heat the oil until it smokes lightly and fry the onions until soft and golden. Add the garlic and as soon as it is fried, stir in the beef and pork. Cook until the meat is crispy, stirring from time to time to separate the lumps and to avoid it sticking to the pan.
24 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
• Add the potatoes and pepper and cook for a further 2 minutes. Adjust the salt. • Leave to cool and stuff the chiles.
8 eggs at room temperature, separated sea salt to taste ﬂour, as necessary corn or canola oil for frying • See ‘How to Achieve a Perfect capeado’, below.
¼ cup corn oil 2 cups white onions, sliced into thin segments 4 cloves garlic, peeled 1 cup tomato, chopped ½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds sea salt to taste black pepper to taste • Heat the oil in a pan until it smokes lightly, and fry the onion until golden. • In a blender, liquefy the garlic, tomato and cumin. Strain the mixture and pour it over the onions. • Allow the caldillo to cook for about 15 minutes, and season with salt and pepper to taste. • Serve the chiles with this sauce, accompanied with white rice and/or brothy beans and corn tortillas or bread.
Alternative caldillo ( from picadillo especial recipe; Munoz, 1996, p. 53)
2 kg (4½ lb) tomatoes ½ cup white onions, chopped roughly 6 cloves garlic, peeled 6 black peppercorns sea salt to taste chicken broth or water, as necessary ¼ cup corn oil sugar to taste
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 25
• Boil the tomatoes with the onion, garlic, pepper, and salt in enough broth or water to completely cover them. Cook until the tomatoes are totally cooked, almost falling apart. • Pour it all into a blender jar and liquefy to form a smooth sauce. Strain it. • In a deep pot, heat the oil until it smokes lightly. Pour the sauce into the oil and let it cook about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If it is a bit sour or tart, add a little sugar. Set aside to serve with stuffed chiles.
How to Peel chiles poblanos (pp. 48–9)
Almost every family has their own technique for peeling and cleaning chiles. These are the most common ways, with their respective differences. • Place the chiles directly over the ﬂame on the stove, turning them with tongs from time to time until they are roasted and the skin bubbles and lightly burns (the skin will ﬁrst turn white and then dark brown). This can also be done on a griddle (comal ), or over hot coals or a wood ﬁre. When the skin is charred well and evenly, immediately transfer the chiles to a plastic bag and close it. Leave the chiles to rest for around 15 minutes so that they can sweat, and the skin will slip off more easily. • It is unnecessary to scrape the chiles, because they may break. If they will be coated in capeado it is all right if some bits of skin remain. If they are not to be battered, you may return them to the ﬂame to burn off any remaining skin. • Place the chiles on a chopping board, keeping the stem facing upward. With the tip of a knife cut a slit down the length of each chile, starting 2 centimetres (¾ inch) from the stem, and stopping at least 1 centimetre (⅓ inch) before you reach the bottom tip. If the cut is made from end to end it may be difﬁcult to stuff and then close the chiles. • Remove all the veins and seeds from the chiles. This is best done with your ﬁngers, but if you have very sensitive skin you may wish to wear rubber gloves. It is at this stage when the chiles are most easily broken, so it is good to roast and peel a few extra chiles. The inside of the chiles should be cleaned with a damp cloth. Check that the part attached to the stem is completely clean because some veins and seeds often remain, making the chiles hotter. Many people ﬁnd it easier to remove the seeds under cold running water, but this makes the chile lose some ﬂavor. It is necessary to dry the chiles with a dry cloth or to drain them very well. Try to peel the chiles just before stufﬁng and coating them in batter, because if they are peeled too far in advance they may become too soft and lose their texture and visual appeal. • This same technique may be used for other fresh chiles like the de agua of Oaxaca, jalapeños, and chiles ixcatic.
26 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
How to Achieve a Perfect capeado (Muñoz, 1996, pp. 112–3)
• For the egg to stick well to the chiles, the chiles should be totally dry inside and outside. Pay special attention to drying the inside very well. • Roll the chiles in sifted ﬂour (make sure to shake off the excess). This also helps the egg to adhere to the chile and not slip off when you fry it. • The ﬂour should be sifted because lumps remain raw and give a bad taste to the capeado. • The eggs must always be at room temperature because cold egg whites do not rise sufﬁciently. If the eggs have been in the refrigerator it is necessary to remove them two hours before using them. • Beat the egg whites only until they form soft peaks ( punto de nieve, just stiff ). To determine whether they have reached this point, overturn the bowl; if the egg whites move or slip, they are not yet ready and should be beaten some more, but not too much because it is easy to overbeat them. Add one or two tablespoons of sifted ﬂour if you wish to have a thicker batter. • Never beat egg whites in plastic bowls, because these bowls retain ﬂavors and odors and often cause the egg whites to collapse.21 A copper bowl is ideal, since it helps the whites to reach the required or ideal point, though copper bowls are expensive and difﬁcult to ﬁnd. Metal or glass bowls will also give good results. • As soon as the whites have been beaten to the required point, incorporate the yolks one by one with folding movements. At this stage you may add salt. • When stufﬁng the chiles, avoid overstufﬁng them, because they are difﬁcult to handle if they are too heavy. • The stufﬁng should be cold or at room temperature. It should also be dry so that no liquid will spill out; moisture will deﬂate the stifﬂy beaten eggs. • Do not stuff the chiles too far in advance since the juices of the ﬁlling may spill out, even if it has previously been strained. • Coat the chiles in the batter quickly; if not, the batter will separate. • If you need to coat large amounts of chiles, prepare the batter in small amounts, in stages. It is very difﬁcult to beat many egg whites stiff at the same time. They very easily collapse or separate. • Before placing the chiles in the oil, make sure that the oil is hot enough; it should smoke lightly. Do not heat it too much or the batter may burn. • When placing the chile in oil, lay it with the opening facing up, and with a spatula, splash the oil over the top of the chile to seal it. Afterward, turn the chile to cook the other side. • If the batter spreads beyond the sides of the chile, use a spatula to push it back to stick to the chile so that it remains uniform and without drips.
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine • 27
• With practice, you can splash the top of the chile constantly with oil so that it will no longer be necessary to turn the chile to fry the other side. Yes, it is possible! • When frying small chiles and those that do not have a heavy ﬁlling, you can hold them by the stem to turn them without using a spatula. • If you are inexperienced, you may need two spatulas to turn the chiles without breaking the egg coating, though it may be better to turn them by holding the stem. • The batter should cook until it is lightly golden (never brown), though the bottom part will always be a little darker. • Once you remove the chiles from the pan, place them on paper towels to absorb excess oil. You may need to change the paper towels two or more times as you continue frying.
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Cooking as an Artistic Practice
Recognizing the cuisines of Mexico as culinary art is in fact a recognition of the technical virtuosity entailed in their production. Chefs and home cooks both perceive and appreciate the knowledge acquisition of each other, which ultimately results in their producing food (artwork/artefact) that is successful in its rendition (that is, delicious, meaningful, memorable). This is because of the perceived skill involved in its execution. Though the results are comparable, the means by which each of these groups acquires this skill are completely different. Chefs acquire skill by professional training in schools or working with masters; home cooks acquire skill by growing up under certain conditions considered ‘traditional’ and also by working with masters who are other home cooks known for their buen sazón. In this chapter I put forth the argument that we should think of food as art in order to analyze it productively anthropologically. I propose that we can better get at the meaningfulness of food in everyday life ﬁrst by considering cooking as an artistic practice (and recipes as artworks), and second, by taking into account the production, consumption and exchange of foods within social networks. I develop these ideas by ﬁrst establishing how food has been treated previously, for my approach to food differs from that of Bourdieu and Goody, who focused primarily on class distinction and social hierarchy. I then move on to examine Gell’s broadly deﬁned notion of art, creativity and agency, the ‘technology of enchantment’ and his notion of the ‘art nexus’. I use Gell’s theory of art as a model, and a point of departure, for a fruitful anthropological examination of food and ﬂavour, in the sensual/social relations (Howes, 2003) of life in Milpa Alta.
Food and Culinary Art in Anthropology
Chefs and gastronomes talk passionately about food, cookery and cuisine. Yet many people, including culinary professionals, often ﬁnd it difﬁcult to articulate their reasons for preferring some foods over others, or to describe and discuss ﬂavours.1 This may be why there are few attempts to analyze ﬂavours anthropologically.2 Though much has been written about food in anthropology, there has been more focus on issues such as gender, poverty, identity or symbolic staple foods, and often in the context of ritual occasions (e.g. see Brown and Mussell, 1985; Caplan, 1997a; Counihan
– 29 –
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and Kaplan, 1998; Counihan and van Esterik, 1997; Lentz, 1999; Lupton, 1996; Macbeth, 1997; Wiessner and Schiefenhövel, 1996).3 The topic of food in anthropology has historically been subsumed into these other areas and contexts, which are deemed of higher theoretical relevance. In fact, little is written about cooking as a form of art, especially from the perspective of the anthropology of art. Instead, the artistic aspect of food production has often been ignored in favour of its shock value; or, as Sidney Mintz put it, food and eating ‘were more interesting [to anthropologists] if they offended the observer, bafﬂed him, or were ceremonialized, than if they simply pleased those who were doing the cooking and eating’ (1996, p. 3). Mintz encourages anthropologists to study food in its social context as a ‘cuisine’, and not food as a means of deﬁning what else it can be used for in the social order (e.g. Malinowski, 1935).4 In other words, analysing cooking in its domestic quotidian context is as important as studying food in ritual contexts. There is a growing trend to consider the everyday, not only in food studies (e.g., see Sutton, 1998) but also more generally in anthropology and sociology (see Highmore, 2002). However, taste in terms of ﬂavour seems to be particularly resistant to sociological analysis, perhaps because, like aesthetics, it is considered to be subjective and too personal for scrutiny. Yet it cannot be denied that whether food is discussed in ritual or quotidian occasions, it has ﬂavour and the taste is important to the people who eat and cook the foods. It is what matters most immediately to us when we eat and is difﬁcult to isolate as a subaspect of food. Whilst we may subconsciously appreciate very good food as superior craft, anthropologists are not used to thinking of it as art. The distinction between art and craft is a question of skill, discussed further below. Yet thinking of a cook/chef as an artist, albeit lightly, is a connection that is so easily made in societies where most anthropologists come from.5 Gell observes that ‘the neglect of art in modern social anthropology is necessary and intentional, arising from the fact that social anthropology is essentially, constitutionally, anti-art’ (1996, p. 40). The same could be said about ﬂavour in food. In Goody’s (1982) analysis of hierarchy and the development of elaborate cuisines, he supports the observation and study of cooking at the domestic level, stating that
there is a tendency to spirit away the more concrete aspects of human life, even food, sex and sacriﬁce, by locating their interpretation only at the ‘deeper’ level, which is largely a matter of privileging the ‘symbolic’ at the expense of the more immediately communicable dimensions of social action … a neglect of the ‘surface’ in favour of the ‘depths’, especially in areas as closely tied to the whole domestic domain as that of cooking. Without the consideration of such related areas, comparison and contrast within and between cuisines lacks an essential dimension. (p. 25)
Strangely enough, he discusses ‘the art of cooking’, using this label without questioning its meaning. But his interest is in comparative analysis over a broad historical,
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 31
political and economic framework. He argues for the need to contextualize social theory in ‘the total process of production, preparation and consumption of food’ ( p. 2), yet in his own work he neglected the aspect of preparation.6 Nevertheless, from his topic of enquiry it seems logical to observe ‘the art of cooking’ itself in the context of its social dimensions. As Sidney Mintz says, ‘Because people act in terms of understood meanings, meaning can be said to effectuate behaviors of certain kinds. And power and meaning are always connected’ (1996, p. 30). It is the active element in food preparation, the creative activity, combined with the fact that raw materials need to be bought or collected from different places and then prepared and combined well, within the constraints of a cook’s daily life, that make good food meaningful and thus give cooks greater social value, hence power. The active agency of art is the conveyor or mediator of social meanings, which are powerful enough to lead to social changes in other levels in the matrix of cultural forms. It allows women to change their social spaces and thereby expand their social network outside of the home.7 Goody (1982) and Mintz (1979) each insist that meaning (in food) is salient beyond the immediate place and time of its production and consumption; meaning is temporally extended and extendable. Furthermore, ‘[N]either social relations nor social structure “express” or “symbolise” the acts of individuals because the former are necessarily derived from and totally encompass the latter’ (Goody, 1982, p. 30). Although I do not contest the analytical advantages of a structural framework,8 an artistic approach may provide greater scope for an analysis of an elaborate cuisine, like the Mexican. While it is true that Mexican eating habits can be placed into classiﬁcations and then encoded, illuminating their structure may lead us no further than etiquette when it is also possible to observe complex and varied culinary techniques which inform cooks and eaters about other social meanings. At least from my ﬁndings in Mexican cuisine, there is no ‘language of food’ which can be learnt via a grammar of eating habits or cooking techniques. To illustrate this point, an example from my ﬁeldwork is helpful. When I ﬁrst went to Mexico, I was interested in learning the ‘language of chiles’ that I had been led to expect existed from reading Mexican cookbooks. Some cookery writers, fully trapped under some kind of gastronomic spell, describe Mexican culinary mastery as analogous to the control required to manipulate poetic language or magic. Having succumbed, myself, to this ‘enchantment’, I was surprised to ﬁnd that real Mexican people, both professional cooks and women in Milpa Alta, simply did not have a clue about what I was getting at when I talked about culinary manipulations of chiles and other foodstuffs. It makes more sense, therefore, to talk about a body of knowledge—a culinary corpus or art corpus, if you wish—or a socially developed system which is employed in the preparation of foods for consumption. The communicative aspects of cooking and eating lie in the meanings that actors (or agents; both cooks and eaters) place in the food within their social context; that is, within the complex of intentionalities that Gell talks about in his work (1998, 1999b).
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Technical mastery is what deﬁnes the art object, and recognizing this puts due emphasis on the ﬂavour of food, which is the efﬁcacious aspect, or repository of social meaning. Rather than direct metonymic expressions of foodstuffs standing for other social structures, then, the perspective of food as art may help us understand some of the meanings that foods carry. Another way of looking at it is Munn’s deﬁnition of meaning, as being
the relational nexus that enters into any given sociocultural form or practice (of whatever order of complexity) and deﬁnes that practice. The anthropological analysis of cultural meaning requires explication of cultural forms—a working through or unfolding of these culturally speciﬁc deﬁnitions and connectivities in order to disclose both the relational nature of the forms and the signiﬁcance that derives from this relationality. (1986, pp. 6 –7)
Put into context, the cultural meanings of culinary activity as part of women’s work is different from a semiotic analysis of foodstuffs. Thus I avoid analysis of semiotic relations such as corn with blood or chiles with penises (in the wordplay albur). Instead, my research focuses on the meanings of interrelating cultural forms—the corpus of cuisine, women’s domestic and extradomestic roles, and social interaction and hospitality in ﬁesta and quotidian occasions. Thinking of food as art which is based on action (Gell, 1998) allows for using Nancy Munn’s conception of ‘meaning’ that is not static: ‘actors construct this meaningful order in the process of being constructed in its terms’ (1986, p. 6). What Mexican cooking actually appears to ‘mean’ is a harmonious family and socio-cosmological life. Women do the cooking, and the cuisine demands a certain discipline and lifestyle which partly structures the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly timetables of women as well as men. These are important points which could lead to further investigation, and my approach attempts to respond to such a gap. So, rather than trying to explain why one foodstuff may ‘stand for’ something else, my position with speciﬁc regard to food is to locate the source of meaning in the social relations between cooks and eaters and in culinary agency. If foods are full of meaning, and therefore meaning ful, the social meanings or meaningfulness of foods can be better understood if we analyze cuisine as a whole, focusing on culinary practice, but also acknowledge the artistic quality of the act of cooking. To help in thinking about food anthropologically, therefore, I mainly draw upon Alfred Gell’s theory of art, as he developed it in several publications (e.g. 1998, 1999b). Thus, I am taking cuisine as art in the way that Gell sees art, ‘as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it’ (1998, p. 6).
Gell’s Theory of Art
Gell (1996) suggests thinking of art as a ‘vast and often unrecognized technical system, essential to the reproduction of human societies’ (p. 43, emphasis added) which
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 33
performs an aesthetic effect by what he calls ‘the technology of enchantment’.9 Art objects, in particular, ‘demonstrate a certain technically achieved level of excellence … as made objects, as products of techniques’ (p. 43, original emphasis). We as art lovers are enchanted by our perception of the technical virtuosity entailed to produce these works of art. Although many objects may be thought of as beautiful, art objects are those that are ‘beautifully made, or made beautiful’ (p. 43). They also are thought of as having higher value. This value is given to them by humans because of a perceived superiority, which is seen as artistic excellence or exemplary craftsmanship, what Gell calls captivation (1998, p. 68ff). The agency of the artist, the person or thing depicted in the artwork, or the mastery of the artwork itself as an entity, affects the spectator in a way that may be called aesthetic. But aesthetics is as abstract as taste and cannot easily be put into context anthropologically unless we consider the social relations of the actors who perform these judgements of taste or aesthetics, whether from the position of producer, consumer, or both. The solution to this problem, therefore, would be to take on Gell’s emphasis on agency and intention in the social milieux of works of art.10 David Parkin (2006, p. 84) succintly glosses Gell’s theory as ‘a social anthropology of how objects, including art-objects, become personiﬁed and persons become objectiﬁed, sometimes through art-objects, and how these processes are part of the larger process we call society or the network of social relations’. Put very simply for visual art, in Gell’s terms, the artwork is an ‘index’, produced by an ‘artist’, based on a ‘prototype’ (whatever is depicted), and viewed or consumed by a ‘recipient’ (spectator). Each of these entities exerts agency upon others, sometimes directly, sometimes via the index/artwork. Likewise, every ‘agent’ has a corresponding ‘patient’, upon which/whom agency is exerted. Gell uses the simple symbol of an arrow to indicate the direction in which agency is ‘abducted’ or the direction of the ﬂow of agency. The capacity of the art object to inspire the awe or admiration afforded it is a direct result of this active agency. If we transpose this terminology to the study of food, we may think of the artist as cook, the index as the food, meal or dish, the prototype as recipe, and recipient as eater (see Table 2.1). Gell emphasizes action, the doing of art rather than the simple observation of semiotic meaning. It is art as an activity, or as a social actor, acting as the nexus of interrelating social networks. The action performed by any of the four variables in Table 2.1 is also caused or put into effect by intention or the network of intentionalities in which it is enmeshed. The index ‘abducts’ agency within its social milieu to mediate social interaction. There is another sense in which the nature of art production is active. Some objects of art are produced with the intention of capturing the viewer’s (eater’s/recipient’s) attention, which thereby facilitates a perceptual change in the recipient. This may be effected and experienced as aesthetic awe, gastronomic bliss, or (eventually) the development of personhood, for instance. Foodwriters Dornenburg and Page (1996, p. 7) provide an example that illustrates how a cook’s agency affects eaters abducted by
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Table 2.1 Artist Index Prototype Recipient Terminology Employed by Gell, and Corresponding Food Terms Artist Artwork Object or person depicted by artwork Spectator, patron Cook Food, dish, meal Recipe Eater
the food consumed. They categorize cooks as ‘burger-ﬂippers’, ‘accomplished chefs’ or ‘culinary artists’. Food prepared by a culinary artist makes diners feel that ‘Life is wonderful’ rather than ‘That was delicious.’ Therefore we recognize culinary artistry by the power of the food to perform a perceptual change in the eaters, physically enhancing their experience of life. The perception that ‘Life is wonderful’ would be something that eaters would experience through their senses, even extra-sensorially. It is the ﬂavour of the food, encompassing taste, texture, smell, sight, hearing and that extra-special something (sazón?), which chefs/culinary artists are able to manipulate to make the eater’s experience transcend the moment. Thinking of it in this way, however, the notion of culinary artistry remains elusive, difﬁcult to describe. An artwork has the power not only to inspire awe, but also to inform the spectator’s relationship with the represented image (or the artist himself ) as a node of the relation between the two. This is because, following Gell (1998, p. 153), an art object can be thought of as equivalent to a person, a social agent, which belongs to families, lineages and so on. It is an extension of a person whose biography can be traced via the whole body of art, the art corpus (its family, its lineage). Crudely put, that means that the construction of an artwork is like the construction of a person. By its artistic nature, an object has the power (agency) to act, to produce social effects on or conduct social relations with other social beings (patients). In effect, the artist’s technical mastery gives the object of art this social ability.11 It is helpful to use Gell’s terms to understand the active nature of bringing out the ﬂavour in food, in the way that I use the term ‘culinary artistry’. Gell constructs a table (1998, p. 29) of what he calls the ‘art nexus’, wherein he demonstrates the differing relations among the previously mentioned four entities, and their effects, depending on which is the primary agent (with the sufﬁx ‘-A’) and which is the primary patient (with the sufﬁx ‘-P’). For my purposes, we can think of the art nexus as a food nexus, replacing the corresponding terms that Gell uses with food-related ones. This allows us to construct a table based on his (see Table 2.2), which will become clearer as this book progresses. Our interpretation of a food event depends on the perspective we take, and these interpretations can change with time or the position we take in relation to the social actors involved. The relations directly involving the index (in our case, food) are the primary transactions, though examples can be given for the other instances of when agency is abducted via the index. Of course, I am not expecting a perfect ﬁt between the terms of this table and the tangle of relations that make up Mexican cuisine or Milpaltense social life. What is important to keep
Table 2.2 The Art Nexus as Food Nexus Agent→ Patient↓ Artist Cook Artist Cook Cook-A→Cook-P Cook shares meal, eats own cooking; as witness to act of preparing food Cook-A→Food-P Basic act of cook making/preparing dishes, e.g. following tradition Index Food, dish, meal Food-A→Cook-P Food dictates cook’s action with it, e.g. avocado; making barbacoa bestows prestige Food-A→Food-P Prototype Recipe Recipe-A→Cook-P Recipe dictates what cook does; controls cook’s action Recipe-A→Food-P Recipient Eater Eater-A→Cook-P Hired cook prepares food; food is ordered in restaurant or at street stand Eater-A→Food-P Ordering food or asking cook to make particular dishes
Index Food, dish, meal
‘tamales needing special care Recipe dictates form taken by not to anger them so dish/food that they can cook’. ‘tamal as- a made thing’. food-A→recipe-P Recipe constrained by physical characteristics of food/ingredient, e.g. chile Food-A→Eater-P Eater response dictated by food’s magic power (not primarily by power of external cook) recipe-A→recipe-P Recipe as cause of food, and affected by food/ingredient; e.g. barbacoa/mole as feast food Recipe-A→Eater-P Concept of mole controls eaters’ experience, makes/deﬁnes meal as special
Prototype Recipe Cook-A→ Recipe-P Cook ‘invents’ recipe Recipient Eater Cook-A→Eater-P Captivation by cook’s skill;‘Life is wonderful’ effect by chef; diner in awe
eater-A→recipe-P Rejection of food; eater dislikes food or does not ﬁnish what is served Eater-A→Eater-P Hiring a cook; host eating food prepared on his/her behalf
Source: Table 1 from Gell (1998). © Oxford University Press. By permission of Oxford University Press. Modiﬁed/Adapted.
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in mind is that objects and persons are connected in a nexus of intentionality, hence the focus on the agent-patient relationship.12 When we as eaters perceive of food as art, we are in a patient position in relation to the cook-agent (cook-A→eater-P), though within this relationship there may be several subrelationships of action. For our purposes it is sufﬁcient to focus on the simplest and most direct relations of agency and intention. Gell details how each relationship occurs, but put simply, to explain the mediation performed by an artwork, he poses the example of the work of an (anonymous) artist commissioned to produce a likeness of a ruler or a religious ﬁgure. The spectator’s perception of the person whom the image represents is directly related to perception inspired by the artistic quality of the art object. A similar effect occurs when a person hosts a catered dinner party gets the credit for the quality of the food, enhancing his or her social relations by means of the occasion and its success, and the hired cook is overlooked (recipient/eater-A→ artist/cook-P). Regardless of who actually did the physical labour, the agency of the artwork can be mobilized by another person for social relational inﬂuences. This can also be observed in Milpa Alta, Mexico, in public feasts such as weddings. Part of the requirement for a proper wedding is a proper feast. Whether the special meal is prepared at home or not, it is offered to guests in abundance. Without a sufﬁciently elaborate or festive dish, the celebration loses some of its meaning, and this directly affects the families of the bride and groom (food-A→eater-P). So, ‘[T]echnical virtuosity is intrinsic to the efﬁcacy of works of art in their social context’ (Gell, 1996, p. 52).
A Meal as an Object of Art
So far I have assumed that a food or a particular dish can be taken for granted as a work of art. I am not assuming this only for the purposes of analysis. In Milpa Alta and other parts of Mexico City, cookery is commonly spoken of in terms of artistic practice. In fact, food is often the subject of conversation among all kinds of people, and many times I found myself listening to grandmothers telling stories about other women, now dead, who were legendary cooks, whose renditions of classic recipes were equivalent to art. Such women gain fame in the community, and their daughters and daughters-in-law, and close women friends, try to learn their craft by proximity. Working with or for a ‘master’ (or culinary artist), a woman hopes that some of her magic/skill will rub off on her as she observes, ingests, and employs those skills on her own. Culinary knowledge or skill, therefore, is based on practice which can be learnt, and a particularly skilful cook is casually thought of as an artist, cooking is an ‘art’, and being known as a good cook is socially valued in Mexico. The practice in itself is not restricted to publicly acknowledged culinary masters, although those who stand out as particularly talented are given recognition. Learning to cook is actually part
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 37
of every girl’s domestic training as she develops into a grown woman. She begins to learn by observing her mother, and later also from her mother-in-law and other women. Like any other type of skill, good cooking is learnt by training and imitation of masters, who are usually other women in the community. But the learning process is not simply a matter of imitation and reproduction of the same.13 Not all of a master’s apprentices produce equivalent works. With a change of the hand that prepares the dish, the ﬂavour changes. Thus, the difference between great food and good food, between art and craft, is attributed to the hand of the cook, la mano, or the sazón. Also, a sazón that works to produce spectacular ﬂavours is commonly called un sazón de amor, the ﬂavour of love. It is a talent or ﬂair which is physically exhibited but not copied. Culinary knowledge, then, can be developed with practice, but what is learnt is a bodily discipline like other artistic skills (cf. Gow, 1999). Although cooking can be conceived of as artistic practice from a native point of view, food is not necessarily thought of as art in the same sense as Mexicans or Milpaltenses would think of visual arts, such as the works of Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo. Nevertheless, thinking of food as art makes it easier to understand why it is that ﬂavour and cooking mean so much to Mexican people. In trying to deﬁne what art is anthropologically, Firth’s (1996, p. 15) characterization of art can lead one to interpret food as a form of art: ‘To an anthropologist, the formal qualities of a piece of sculpture or music are signiﬁcant. But from an anthropological standpoint, even the simplest naming of an object—as mask, or anthropomorphic ﬁgure, or funeral song— indicates an awareness of a social, ritual, and economic matrix in which the object has been produced.’ In other words, art objects are produced within social, ritual and economic dimensions, within an artistic dimension of their own (within an ‘art world’; cf. Becker, 1982), all of which interrelate to make up the texture of social life. Another way of looking at this is by thinking of Simmel’s notion of the ‘sociology of the meal’ (1994). Simmel describes what in his terms would be a gastronomic paradox, since he considers eating and drinking as unfortunately necessary lowly activities that ultimately culminate in ‘society’. The ‘egoistic’ and individual act of eating in fact unites people when they come together to share a meal. (I will return to this idea below.) As he puts it, ‘This is because when, in addition to the satisfying of the appetite, an aesthetic satisfaction is also expected from eating, not only can a community of several afford more easily the necessary effort than the individual, but also the former [the community] rather than the latter [the individual] is its [the aesthetic level’s] rightful carrier’ (p. 347). ‘High’ qualities such as culture or society can almost only develop out of the ‘low’ ones, such as food, via the ‘aesthetic’ that comes from meal sharing. When food is transformed (artistically, I might add) into the meal shared, this signiﬁes a transformation of the carnal to spiritual, substance to art, individual to society. In other words, the artistic nature of food when it is served as a meal comes about partly because of the coming together of a community of people, but it also causes the togetherness of the social actors. ‘Socialization’ of food consists of cooking it into a delicious meal enjoyed by a discerning group of
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members of society, and the food as a social meal both has more ‘aesthetic worth’ and is more meaningful because of it. Socialization is ‘mediated’ by eating a meal together (p. 350), such as the mediation that a work of art performs in Gell’s terms among social beings. Gell’s anthropology of art does not focus solely on analyzing works of art as deﬁned by an art public per se. Potentially almost anything can be considered as an art object, so long as it fulﬁls certain prerequisites. ‘The nature of the art object is a function of the social-relational matrix in which it is embedded. It has no “intrinsic” nature, independent of the relational context’ (Gell, 1998, p. 7). Gell’s deﬁnition of an art object is perhaps easier to grasp from his essay ‘Vogel’s Net’ (1999b ), where he convincingly argues that traps can be artworks and, at the same time, artworks act as traps to the viewers/victims.14 Confronting a trap is like confronting a person, as the hunter’s intentions and ingenuity are present in his handiwork. At the same time, the hunter constructed this particular trap for that particular animal, using the knowledge he possesses about his victim’s habits and sociality. If we think in terms of food, confronting a meal can also be thought of as confronting a person. The meal presents a subset of the cook’s culinary knowledge, and the food itself is the outcome of the cook’s intentions to provide nourishment, ﬂavour, hospitality, family warmth and, potentially, history, empowerment, and other kinds of intentionalities, depending on her relationship to the people she cooks for. This is the sort of play of ideas that Laura Esquivel used in her successful novel and ﬁlm, Like Water for Chocolate (1992). Using folk remedies, typical sayings with culinary themes, and recipes, Esquivel’s novel constructs a Mexican world in which the heroine’s emotions, convictions, and unverbalized intentionalities are infused in her cooking and later are literally embodied in those who eat her food, with sometimes alarming physical effects. In real-life Mexico, food does not have quite the same powers, though it can be personiﬁed, and there is no doubt that complex belief systems surround matters of cooking and eating. People in Milpa Alta continue to believe that ‘angry’ tamales will never cook (food-A→food-P), for example. A tamal is a steamed bun made of coarse maize meal beaten with lard and enveloped in corn husks (or, in other areas, banana leaves). Tamales are eaten for breakfast or as a snack for supper, on any occasion, and are also made for nearly every ﬁesta. There are many kinds of tamales: sweet ones, ﬂavoured with fruits; savoury ones, ﬁlled with meat, beans or ﬁsh, with red salsa, green salsa or mole, or with strips of roasted chile, onions and cheese; nopales; and many others. Without a ﬁlling, they are called tamalates and are a traditional accompaniment to mole. In Milpa Alta I learned certain rules which must be followed so that the tamales will cook properly. First, the person who arranges the tamales in the earthenware pot or aluminium steamer may not leave the house until the tamales are cooked. He or she may or may not be a member of the family, but what is important is his or her presence in the house. Second, the pot or steamer, called a tamalera, must also
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 39
have its bow. This is a piece of corn husk which needs to be tied on the handle of the tamalera. Without it the tamales will not cook. Third, no one in the house must get angry. If anyone in the house loses his or her temper the tamales will not set because they will be angry, as well. An angry tamal opens up or the lard drips out of the wrapping. To remedy this, the angered person has to spank the tamalera and then dance around it to make the tamales happy again. Another option would be to throw dried chiles into the ﬁre so that their seeds burn, as the smoke emitted removes anger.15 I never saw an angry tamal myself, because I witnessed these rules followed whenever we made tamales in Milpa Alta. People swore that these methods were true, although no one could give me an explanation for them.16 Some people also told me that certain foods cause stomach upsets (food-A→ eater-P), such as too much rice or the soft centres (migajón) of crusty bread rolls (bolillos, teleras). In a similar way, many said that they are never full unless they have eaten tortillas, or that they need their chilito (chile, salsa) in order to fully enjoy eating (also food-A→eater-P). These ideas and beliefs that inform social practice relate to what some Milpaltenses perceive as being ‘traditional’ or ‘truly Mexican’ or even coming from Milpa Alta.17 For this reason, I think Gell would agree that his theory could be applied to Mexican food, since his anthropological deﬁnition of an object of art is as follows:
objects that are scrutinized as vehicles of complicated ideas, intended to achieve or mean something interesting, difﬁcult, allusive, hard to bring off, and so on. I would deﬁne as a candidate artwork any object or performance that potentially rewards such scrutiny because it embodies intentionalities that are complex, demanding of attention and perhaps difﬁcult to reconstruct fully. (Gell, 1999b, p. 211)18
He also wrote, ‘Artworks can also trap eels … or grow yams. The “interpretation” of such “practically” embedded artworks is intrinsically conjoined to their characteristics as instruments fulﬁlling purposes other than the embodiment of autonomous “meaning” ’ (1999b, p. 211). For the purposes of this analysis, that means that artworks can also satisfy hunger or fulﬁl gastronomic desires. A food, a meal or a special dish can be thought of as an art object, a social nexus embedded within a culinary system, which is in itself a social system within a matrix of other interrelated social systems.
On Edibility, Hospitality, and Exchange
One of the main differences between food and visual art is, of course, that food is eaten. Food that is considered as artwork happens to have two fundamental qualities—it has (superior) ﬂavour (as opposed to bland or mediocre), and, like other works of art, it is a physical thing which, like other art objects in theory, can be owned and exchanged. The ﬂavour aspect is analogous to artistic decoration, which seems to lie in the realm of aesthetic pleasure. Gell’s insight into decoration is pertinent at
40 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
this point: ‘[Decorated objects] are not self-sufﬁcient sources of delight, but vehicles of personhood, to be owned, exchanged and displayed’ (1998, p. 81). This is not to say that the decorations are not important; in fact, these decorations perform an important function, and in the case of food, the functional and ‘decorative’ aspect is its ﬂavour. Eaters remember who prepares superior ﬂavours in certain dishes and return to those cooks. They depend on them sometimes gastronomically, and also sometimes socially. It must also be remembered that when it comes to food and eating, a crucial element of sharing is involved.19 Generally, food is cooked for more than one person, for the family or for non-family members who are guests. This aspect of food giving and receiving implies an element of exchange, although there is a different quality to commensality that seems not to ﬁt with art ownership and display. Display and food presentation (how it appears on the plate) can be seen as equivalent, but the ownership needs further explanation. In hospitality, there are always at least two people involved in the transaction—a donor (the cook/artist) and a recipient (the eater)—and the object being offered or transacted is the food.20 If it is an object of exchange in a Maussian sense, then it is an extension of a person, it contains his or her ‘essence’ or ‘spirit’ by nature of being the product of a cook’s invested and creative labour. This product is then materially ingested by the recipient, resulting in a literal communion of persons, which will be reciprocated in some unspeciﬁed way at an unspeciﬁed time in the other direction (that is, from eater to artist).21 What, then, does this mean? The eating of the food implies that the ‘spirit of the gift’ that Mauss describes is ingested as well. But I think that food is not merely an object of exchange in the same sense, and the temporary possession of the ‘spirit’ which must be reciprocated is not enough to explain the kind of social contexts in which food is shared. Food has particular physical and sensual qualities which differ from other types of objects which are exchanged, although Mauss argues that they are all homologous. Recognizing the sensory aspect of food, and tying this with its artistic nature, reveals to us, as David Howes explains for kula shells, that ‘they are no mere “objects” of exchange. It is rather as if they were the agents of their own circulation’ (2003, p. 113, original emphasis). Abstracting the process of food hospitality ignores another fundamental aspect of food that is offered to others. This is its (the food’s) necessity of having a good ﬂavour and being made with culinary technical mastery, which is what makes it analogous to a work of art. If we account for that, then we can think of ingesting food as equivalent to the consumption/acceptance/possession of a work of art. Following Simmel, it is precisely the communal ingestion of food that ‘releases a tremendous socializing power’ (1994, p. 346) from which its aesthetic and meaning arise. So the captivation described above that an eater experiences when confronted with spectacular food (food-A→eater-P) manifests the expertise of a talented cook/chef (cook-A→eater-P), which the eater recognizes (as art) by experiencing its ﬂavour.
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 41
What the eater also recognizes is the socially meaningful network of intentionalities surrounding the meal, whether it is a special ﬁesta, a meal at a restaurant, or the warmth of home cooking. The skill that the cook reveals through the food likewise reveals other things of social salience. For example, a girl is said to be ready for marriage when she demonstrates culinary mastery, knowing how to cook, how to make tortillas and salsas. In this vein I must emphasize that food giving is a basic form of generosity in Milpa Alta, just as neglecting to offer food when hospitality is pertinent is considered to be selﬁsh and greedy (envidioso/a). Eating food on one’s own, therefore, is the opposite of sharing food with others (cook-A→cook-P). If sharing is a positive act, then not sharing (that is, the act of eating) can be thought of as a negative act (cf. Munn, 1986; and as mentioned previously, Simmel perceives of eating as negative and ‘low’). If we think of the things (artworks, dishes) that a person makes as the products of her agency, this infers that corresponding to the agent (donor) there must be a patient (recipient). If we further accept that these things are extensions of the agent’s personhood, they are material repositories of that person and that person’s intentions, which are given, shared and distributed to others. As Nancy Munn describes for kula exchange in Gawa, the act of sharing is a value-enhancing, positive extension of the agent’s ‘spacetime,’ which transforms the patient’s relationship with the agent, ensuring an ongoing relationship which may be based on exchange at another level of social interaction, and thus also ensures community viability. Food is shared with speciﬁc others as a means of exhibiting respect for an existing or future relationship of reciprocity, with the expectation of future reciprocity of a similar or different kind (e.g. Mauss’s time lag). The offering of a meal is a spatiotemporal event transacted by the host to the guest with an underlying intention of reciprocity at another level within the nexus of transactions that make up social life. Munn explains that in Gawa, ‘[T]he exchange of comestibles in hospitality is the dynamic base, and condition which underlies kula shell exchange between partners’ (1986, p. 56, original emphasis). Food sharing is dynamic and self-extending, whereas eating is socially static and self-collapsing. So cooking is an inherently social act, and so, conversely, eating what one cooks oneself is antisocial, unless one is sharing the food. ‘[T]he shared meal lifts an event of physiological primitivity and inescapable commonality into the sphere of social interaction and thereby suprapersonal meaning’ (Simmel, 1994, p. 346). This notion of cooking and eating also explains why a lone person in Mexico almost never cooks for oneself to eat alone.22 Within the corpus of Mexican culinary culture exists a vast subset of street food and market food, some of which is the same as home cooking, prepared by vendors (señoras) to serve commercially. As in food hospitality, there is an agent (cook, vendor) and a patient (eater, customer). This is food which follows the logic that it should be prepared for an other, since food transactions are inherently social activities. In this case, though, there is an immediate exchange between the social actors. Food is exchanged for money. The
42 • Culinary Art and Anthropology
transaction begins and ends there.23 Also, the cook prepares food to the taste of the eater/customer, so the agency actually lies with the customer, and this can in turn affect the kind of product that the cook produces (eater-A→cook-P). Food selling is a social activity, but it does not carry the fundamental persuasiveness of food giving, which provides the cook with an agency that contains the powerful potential to demand social reciprocity. With this perspective, we can think of food as both a work of art as well as an object of exchange. Now the ﬁnal problematic issue to explain is its possession. Possession of food-as-art is not anything like the possession of an object which sits on the mantelpiece for personal admiration, nor is it like the intellectual possession of a famous painting beyond a consumer’s (ﬁnancial) capacity to take it home and own it, as Gell has described (1996). The possession of food-as-art seems to take the form of having eaten it, and perhaps also having the possibility (or controlling this possibility) of eating it again. In one sense, its true possession can be thought of as possession of the know-how to be able to reproduce it (to know how to cook), or at least to know where to go in order to reproduce it (to know how or where or with whom to eat). Perhaps it is also possible to say that the ‘inventor’ of a dish, a cook or chef, for example, with his name labelling the cuisine he produces, remains the owner of that dish (cook-A→recipe-P). But this is only a perspective among many possible ways of interpreting this situation. It also is inapplicable to the anonymous cook who cooks ‘traditional’ foods, rather than self-consciously ‘invents’, and who solely produces these dishes within the family sphere (cook-A→food-P). The fact that most women in the community know how to prepare similar dishes following similar recipes (with the same ‘index’), makes it seem ludicrous to try to pinpoint any ‘owner’ of a dish. Having eaten something once or twice, and having enjoyed it very much, does not really make an eater the ‘owner’ of that dish, either, even temporarily; neither does the memory of the ﬂavours of a particular gastronomic occasion which was somehow touching or marked in the eater’s life experience (food-A→eater-P). A heightened awareness of artistic or culinary expertise does not in itself constitute possession or ownership of the work. Not only this, once the dish is produced, the eating of it makes it disappear, yet it can be reproduced ad inﬁnitum. Possession is a more complex issue because the dish can be reproduced, but it may not necessarily be reproducible in exactly the same way or in the same context, or within the same transactive nexus, or its reproduction may depend on the actions of a speciﬁc cook. We remember once more that as soon as the supply of the food is depleted it can be constantly renewed; it can never truly be completely consumed, and therefore it can never be truly owned. Parallel to this, opening an exchange relationship by offering food to a guest or family member likewise opens the possibility for reciprocity in some form (Mauss, 1990; Munn, 1986). On two levels, therefore, food hospitality consists of ‘unﬁnished business’ which is the essence of the endurance of social relations (Gell, 1998, pp. 80–1). As the outcome of a recipe, an index of
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 43
the dish/work of art, food is an object of exchange. However, since food is eaten and virtually disappears, and yet it can be cooked again and regenerated, it ‘is never fully possessed at all, but is always in the process of becoming possessed’ (p. 81). In other words, possession of food-as-art is a dynamic of eating that is dependent upon the social relational matrix in which it is embedded.
Flavour and Value
This brings us back to ﬂavour. At the beginning of my discussion of Gell, I mentioned that art, here cuisine, should be thought of primarily as a technical system. Cooking techniques are learned by apprenticeships to masters, which in Milpa Alta translates as girls learning to cook from their mothers and other women. Knowing the proper techniques for peeling chiles, making tortillas, or wrapping tamales does not necessarily mean that the results are always uniform from cook to cook. What distinguishes an extraordinary cook from an ordinary one is perceived as technical skill which can be judged by its ﬂavour. Although judgement of ﬂavour seems to be an aesthetic judgement, and technical mastery appears to be more objective or scientiﬁc, I would like to explain how the two can in fact be thought of as one and the same. To begin, I turn to Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) analysis of taste judgements. The starting point of Bourdieu’s argument is that our perceptions of taste have little to do with the inherent qualities of the things on which we place value. What we learn to discern as valuable is due to our accumulating ‘economic capital’ and ‘cultural capital’ which is learnt via social class, education and upbringing. Along with this cultural capital, a person learns the kind of taste that he needs for social belonging, so by his choices of what deserves value, he can be distinguished among others of different classes who would value other things. Taste is a subconscious kind of knowledge, a part of habitus, ‘history turned into nature’. This means, for example, that a preference for red wine rather than beer is really a matter of class (and education) and ultimately is not an issue of personal taste. A person’s taste becomes the mark of distinction between social classes and is revealed by an individual’s possession of an ‘aesthetic disposition’. This is the capacity to recognize artistic characteristics in anything, whether a purposely made work of art or not. Recall that the artistic quality of an object is not inherent in the thing; its social value is derived from its social use. As Bourdieu puts it, ‘[T]aste classiﬁes, and it classiﬁes the classiﬁer’ (p. 6). This would explain why an element of prestige and (class) distinction is involved in the choices of serving, cooking and eating certain foodstuffs. ‘[A]rt and cultural consumption are predisposed consciously and deliberately or not, to fulﬁl a social function of legitimating social differences’ (p. 7). Taste is a sociological phenomenon rather than a question of a person’s passion or individual discernment.
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To some extent this perspective helps to explain why barbacoa began to be accepted as feast food in Milpa Alta (recipe-A→recipe-P).24 Although I cannot determine exactly where or when it began to be served during ﬁestas, having observed its widespread use I found that its acceptance is related to the prestige attached to barbacoieros, at least in Milpa Alta (food-A→cook-P). This can be explained more fully after an examination of the social dynamics surrounding the cuisine, and not just the isolated dishes (see Chapter 5). So although Bourdieu’s perspective can be applied convincingly to the context in Milpa Alta, it also has limitations. Focusing exclusively on classiﬁcations, he does not analyze particular ‘works of art’ in relation to their own ‘art world’. Because of his deﬁned concern with judgement, class and hierarchy, he is, in fact, aware that he deliberately ignores the cooking aspect of cuisine. But the cooking is crucial to the achievement of its artistic status, and as Goody has argued, judgement of something cannot be separated from an understanding of the process of its production (for food, that is, cooking). In an analysis of taste and aesthetics, this should also be observed, and if the topic is an ‘art world’, then some constituting artworks should be discussed as well. Bourdieu approaches artworks by arguing that value is allocated through the ‘stylization of life’ or ‘the primacy of forms over functions’ (p. 5).25 He separates form from function by associating ‘art’ with form (and luxury), and ‘life’ with function (and necessity). In contrast, I argue that form is necessarily related to function. In a sense, the link between form and function can also be concluded from Bourdieu’s own concept of habitus and self-presentation. He explains,
Taste, a class culture turned into nature, that is embodied, helps to shape the class body. It is an incorporated principle of classiﬁcation which governs all forms of incorporation, choosing and modifying everything that the body ingests and digests and assimilates, physiologically and psychologically. It follows that the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste, which it manifests in several ways. (p. 190)
Thus, form and function are merged when externally exhibited in bodily action via the ‘aesthetic’, which he describes as a dimension of habitus and systematic choices produced in practice. So in the case of food, if form is constituted by ﬂavour, then ﬂavour is socially functional. Perhaps this is better explained with Gell’s method of analyzing art, as he approaches art from another perspective. Following Gell, therefore, rather than beginning with social classiﬁcations, I suggest focusing primarily on the art world (cuisine) and the artists, and then considering the audience and how this informs an artist to modify an artwork; in other words, how it comes about that a society places value on an object and judges one thing to be in better taste, or to taste better, than another. The skill required in culinary labour is the kind of technical mastery which Gell refers to as necessary for the production of an artwork, and also for the homologous
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 45
technical systems which bring about the (re)production of society.26 This is illustrated by his example of the Anga eel traps (1999b). These traps are constructed to be far more sturdy and complicated than is actually necessary to trap an eel. The trap, therefore, reveals the Anga belief that the eel is so powerful that its trap must be particularly clever. Thus, the trap is a repository of eel-power, and at the same time is the source of the eel’s power. With regard to Mexico, for example, this is very much like what is considered to be men’s restrictions on women. Strict regulations of women’s movements, often glossed as machismo, actually reveal the high value placed on women’s chastity, which has been suggested to be a means of containing and curbing women’s power over men (Melhuus and Stølen, 1996). The social efﬁcacy of an elaborately prepared meal performs a similar function. As I will discuss further in chapters 4 and 6, at ﬁrst glance, the requirements to cook dishes from an elaborate cuisine may appear oppressive, tying women to home when they would rather be out (also cf. Mintz, 1996). In fact, culinary artistry or agency may be a source of women’s power over men (see Abarca, 2006; André, 2001). Women as well as men value ﬂavourful food and what they consider to be ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ methods of preparing it. It thus appears as if the motivations for producing good ﬂavours are as simple as personal satisfaction combined with the desire to satisfy others (family, spouse, friends). Preparing what is considered a proper meal is analogous to proper nurturing, and this is empowering in the sense that family ties are tightened when food is shared. A good wife would then strive to cook well for the sake of her husband, her in-laws, her children and, ultimately, her own satisfaction. The correlation between a woman’s desire to cook food with good ﬂavour and her love for her family is not such a simple thing, however.27 Skilful cooking does not lead to social empowerment so directly. In Chapter 4 I discuss how women talk of their skill in cooking in social situations where their power and value are questioned. Control over feeding the family becomes the nexus of meaning regarding women’s social and moral values. If cooking is artistic practice, then a cook has the creative freedom to make decisions at this level, which may have wider signiﬁcance at other social levels. She does not have to cook herself, but at least she has the intention to provide good food somehow. Related to this, there are marked dishes, different from the daily fare, which are served when there is a special occasion, such as a birthday, wedding or funeral. Invariably, this used to be mole, a complex-ﬂavoured sauce made of up to two dozen or more ingredients, which is also complex to prepare. Serving an elaborate dish commemorates an occasion as special by transferring its value (recipe-A→recipe-P).28 Mole may be considered one of the culinary treasures or works of art of Mexican cuisine, but the principle of applying the highest standards of technical mastery and excellence of ﬂavour is in practice when a person interested in good cooking prepares any food. In Mexico, many everyday dishes are complex to prepare, and they are deﬁned by the sauce rather than by the meat or vegetable which is in it. This is
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why salsas are the most important part of a Mexican meal. There must be a salsa or at least some chile on the table for people to enjoy their food (tortillas, beans, vegetables, meat). Chile is equivalent to salsa, which is also equivalent to mole (see Chapter 5).29 A famous quote is: ‘Without chile, Mexicans do not believe that they are eating’, and one of my informants also spontaneously told me the same: ‘Sin chile no come uno.’ Good food means good ﬂavours, and in many ways this depends on women (good cooks) who make good sauces.30 This is why a special occasion meal is served with a ﬂavourful, highly valued, elaborate sauce (mole) rather than a regular salsa. For all meals in general, it is not enough for the food to provide nutrition and to be edible. It is also important for it to be palatable, for there to be salsa, that is, ﬂavour, which results directly from the culinary mastery that a skilful cook possesses. In Mexico, the culinary matrix of intentionalities involves the planes of social organizations such as the mayordomía and compadrazgo, and also the family sphere which is based on love (discussed further in chapters 4, 5 and 6). Rather than being fed, one is eating a meal prepared by someone caring or is eating a meal with particular social signiﬁcance. I describe in Chapter 4 how in Mexico the ideal relationship between a man and a woman is that between husband and wife; by extension, the ideal food is a meal cooked by a woman (wife and mother) for her husband and children. Since women’s virtue and moral value are also attached to her ability to suffer for her loved ones, both men and her children (Melhuus, 1992), the efforts of her labours (her cooking) are also highly valued. Also, food that is thought of as ‘very Mexican’ are usually dishes which use autochthonous utensils or ingredients, or ingredients which are grown or bred on local land.31 In particular, these dishes are considered to have the best ﬂavour. Mexican street food is another highly valued part of Mexican cuisine and is also considered to be ﬂavourful. In Milpa Alta, there are no cinemas, theatres or any other public venue of entertainment other than the market. This, I was told, makes eating tacos in the market a major source of fun: ‘La mayor diversión es ir a comer tacos en el mercado.’ This appears to contradict the value placed on home cooking, but in fact, the logic of love and lovers symbolically makes street food an illicit delight, because it lies within another social dimension of family eating (see Chapter 6). The preceding discussion should help as a guideline for thinking about the social processes which revolve around food preparation and food sharing. What I hope to have conveyed here now is the idea that ﬂavour is actually the most functional aspect of food, and its nutritive beneﬁts are secondary. If it has superior ﬂavour, good food ﬁxes the eater’s mind to the cook (or host). We can say that the ﬂavour performs a sensory trick which makes the eater believe that he is attached to the maker of the food.32 In a way, the power of the cook is highlighted by chefs or non-professional individuals who become known for their cooking and who make a living or make a social life (respectively) out of this fame (cf. Munn, 1986). It is also expressed in the importance and the forcefulness of hospitality in Mexico (or in Milpa Alta, in
Cooking as an Artistic Practice • 47
particular). Accepting food offered to you, whether you like it or not, is so important in Milpa Alta that many people attend parties with a plastic bag or piece of Tupperware hidden in their handbags, so that they can take home whatever is served to them that they are unable to eat. The food transaction takes precedence over the particular food served, if it must be received regardless of personal taste. This suggests that ﬂavour is irrelevant to proper social behaviour, but in fact it is most relevant. This actually recalls Simmel’s gastronomic paradox mentioned earlier, that the ‘aesthetic stylization’ (1994, p. 347) of the meal manifest in ﬂavour is part of the social nature of food transactions. The relevance of ﬂavour is evident because whether or not a cook is successful, a cook tries to serve only foods of superior ﬂavour to a guest, that is, foods prepared with the highest technical skill possible. If a guest leaves food, it is an insult to the host, indicating that the food had poor or no ﬂavour and was therefore inedible (eater-A→ cook-P). Failing that, if a guest comes without warning, a host/cook serves what there is at home, and what is served at home also is prepared with technical mastery and love, that is, the cook continues to aim for the ideals of ﬂavour. Furthermore, prestige is allocated to a cook and her family when she is known to be an extraordinary cook. For this reason, some good cooks hide their culinary secrets viciously. In turn, however, the emotional outcome of keeping culinary tricks or recipes secret is that a cook would be considered to be ‘greedy’ (envidiosa), a concept which is taken to be the opposite of loving in Milpa Alta (see Chapter 6). An eater’s appreciation of a masterfully prepared dish can be summed up once more with a quote from Gell (1996) which describes how the ultimate meanings of a work of art may be embedded deeper in social processes than the initial aesthetic effects: ‘In reconstructing the processes which brought the work of art into existence, [the spectator] is obliged to posit a creative agency which transcends his own and, hovering in the background, the power of the collectivity on whose behalf the artist exercised his technical mastery’ (pp. 51–2).
Conclusion: The Meaningfulness of Food
Food carries meaning, and foodstuffs can be social or cultural symbols. In this book I aim to illuminate some of the deeply symbolic meanings of food by focusing on cooking and cuisine rather than on direct metaphorical connections between foodstuffs standing for other things. I follow Gell’s theory ‘to explore a domain in which “objects” merge with “people” by virtue of the existence of social relations between persons and things, and persons and persons via things’ (1998, p. 12, original emphasis). Food and eating constitute such a domain wherein social settings exist for people to eat together, making social relations between persons via the meal, and with the food literally ‘merging’ with these persons as they eat it. By thinking of cooking as an artistic practice, neither the artwork and the ideas and meanings surrounding
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it, nor the social relations that are generated, are ignored. ‘[T]he anthropology of art cannot be the study of the aesthetic principles of this or that culture, but of the mobilization of aesthetic principles (or something like them) in the course of social interaction’ (p. 4). By nature of being artistic, cooking is creative. This means that it is not a predetermined, externally controlled activity. It is controlled, but the one in control is the artist, or the cook, herself. Thus, cooking is an activity which depends upon creative liberty, and this liberty extends beyond the walls of the kitchen. In pursuit of culinary ideals, women (and culinary professionals, including barbacoieros) are willing to make sacriﬁces which others may not understand. It may seem irrational for a family to hold large-scale ﬁestas when there is not enough money to ﬁnish building the house. Or it may seem to be too much effort for a woman to spend two days preparing maize and ﬁllings to make a few hundred tamales for the family when it is also possible to buy the dough for tamales already prepared. Easier or cheaper alternatives seem to be unacceptable when superior ﬂavours are the goal and this goal is attainable. In pursuit of this goal, women also have license to move beyond their restricted spaces, and they have the autonomy to make important decisions for their family’s social life. A work of culinary art can act as a trap, attracting others to the food and to the cook, securing a husband, actively mediating between social members to make (proper) social interaction possible. Thus, with their (proper) cooking, women exert power over their men, their families, their communities, society. With this in mind, it is possible to explore a cuisine, in this case, Mexican, through the technical processes of cooking as well as the technical processes of social life and social reproduction. In short, with the perspective of cooking as an artistic practice, we can effectively investigate the social relational matrix surrounding the achievement of ﬂavour and the development of cuisine.
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta
In this chapter, I wish to portray the daily pursuit of gastronomic quality in ordinary life by describing how a typical week might pass in the lives of barbacoa makers in Milpa Alta. Barbacoa refers to a preparation of pit-roast meat which has been used in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. It is a method of slow cooking whole animals by burying them for several hours or overnight in a pit lined with aromatic leaves and ﬁlled with hot coals, herbs and spices. The word barbacoa is of Caribbean origin, but the corresponding cooking methods used all over Mexico are based on the Mayan pib or earth oven. In the central states the meat is ﬂavoured with the ﬂeshy leaves of the maguey. The meat typically used is lamb (borrego, usually 1- or 2-year-old sheep), pit-barbecued in a cylindrical clay- or brick-lined oven. Depending on the region and tradition, there are also barbacoas of other meats such as rabbit, chicken, turkey, beef, pork or goat (kid). Since the whole animal is used, including the head, and because of its long, labour-intensive preparation and cooking process (described below), it is considered to be festive food, reserved for special celebrations or weekends.
Whilst it is more commonly prepared as a cottage industry by families called barbacoieros, there also are restaurants in Mexico City which exclusively serve barbacoa with its traditional accompaniments. These barbacoa restaurants offer a complete celebration with the meal. Urban families who avoid eating in the marketplace frequent these restaurants for family celebrations such as birthdays or anniversaries. There is usually space for at least 400 diners, although smaller parties are welcome. A cultural show with dancing and singing of ranchera music gives the place the festive air of a cantina or countryside ﬁesta. Customers can order traditional snacks such as gorditas or chalupitas as their starters. Although these are antojitos, typically eaten in the streets, restaurants offer them because a large part of their clientele rarely eat street food. Ordering them would be indulgent, however, because barbacoa is tasty and complete enough the way it is normally served and requires little more to be satisfying. It is common to start with a bowl of the consomé de barbacoa, a ﬂavourful broth consisting of the meat drippings which have amalgamated with herbs and spices
– 49 –
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during the long cooking process in the pit. This is served with boiled rice and chickpeas stirred in, and the eater has the option of squeezing in a little lime juice and adding chopped onions, coriander leaves and salsa to mitigate the richness of this intense soup. The soup is followed or accompanied by tacos or ﬂautas of the succulent meat. Flautas are long tacos that are rolled closed and fried, usually served with a drizzle of green salsa, crema espesa, and a sprinkling of grated white cheese. Salsas are offered on the side, usually a red and a green one (often either a typical guacamole or one made with avocado and green tomatoes; or sliced avocado may be served), and salsa borracha made especially for barbacoa. The salsa borracha, meaning ‘drunken sauce’, is a black sauce whose colour comes from pasilla chiles, and it is drunken because it is traditionally made with pulque, a mildly fermented drink made of maguey sap. The salsa is served in a bowl decorated with crumbled fresh white cheese and green olives. Sometimes there is also a side dish of nopales compuestos, cooked prickly pear cactus paddles dressed with onions, oregano or coriander leaves, tomatoes, salt and vinegar or lime juice. The meal is served with warm corn tortillas and can be eaten as a late breakfast (almuerzo), as the main meal at lunchtime or as dinner. For eating barbacoa in the market, the busiest time of day is the late morning. Customers ﬁnd a space in front of the stalls and order consomé de barbacoa and tacos or ﬂautas, which are ordered by the piece. Stalls typically offer bowls of both red and green salsas (but not the black salsa borracha), sliced limes, chopped onions and coriander, and sometimes dried oregano. Some customers order their favourite cuts of barbacoa by the kilo instead of by the taco and are given a stack of warm corn tortillas on the side. Others order the meat to take home with a small plastic bag of the accompaniments. In Milpa Alta, as I have already mentioned, many families prepare barbacoa de borrego for a living. Barbacoieros can be commissioned to slaughter and cook the lambs that another family has bought or reared, but they regularly prepare several animals to sell in markets every weekend. Around three thousand sheep are slaughtered and prepared in Milpa Alta each week, although the livestock are raised elsewhere (Departamento de Distrito Federal, 1997, p. 22). Other areas in the region famous for making barbacoa are Texcoco in the state of Mexico and parts of the state of Hidalgo. Cooking styles and ﬂavourings vary regionally, but the methods are basically the same. For the Federal District of Mexico, the main provider of barbacoa (as served in the markets) is Milpa Alta.
Barbacoa Makers in Milpa Alta
Many Milpaltenses have middle-class professional jobs or higher education, but the vast majority of residents are still somehow involved in the family trade. As already mentioned, the particular trades in Barrio San Mateo, Villa Milpa Alta, are nopal
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 51
farming, pork butchery (tocinería) and especially the cooking and selling of barbacoa de borrego. On Friday nights the streets of the barrio are infused with the aromas of the meat and spices which manage to escape from the sealed pit ovens in the backyards of barbacoiero families. The smell begins to fade as the sun rises and the barbacoa is transported to markets in all reaches of Mexico City. The barrio appears almost deserted as most people are busiest during the weekend, and those who remain behind are at home preparing for the sales of the following day. Since most of the houses are surrounded by walls, it is impossible to see what is going on behind the gates, although locals know which families live in which houses and what their trades are. The ﬁrst family in Milpa Alta to produce barbacoa for a living in the 1930s was the Jurado family.1 Doña Margarita, a barbacoiera with whom I lived, told me that they raised their own sheep which they would leave to graze in the mountainous pastures of Milpa Alta. She had memories from the 1940s of how the Jurados brought their ﬂock down from the mountains once a week. They scattered the whole street with salt from one end to the other and fed the animals with salt and water. In those days there was no running water in the houses, and at every corner and in areas where maize was grown there were taps so that water could be collected for home or agricultural use. The barbacoieros built corrals around these watering taps so that their sheep could graze there and leave their droppings. This way, when water was needed for the ﬁelds, the dung could be easily collected for use as fertilizer. Now that few people cultivated maize and fewer still reared their own sheep, this practice has died out, as running water has become normal in most homes. Almost all nopal growers now use cow dung to fertilize their ﬁelds. In Milpa Alta over the decades the barbacoa business boomed. Economically, Milpa Alta began to blossom and its residents began to send their children to school to become professionals in other careers rather than stay home to help with the family business. Pork butchers (sometimes referred to using the derogatory word chiteros) continued to earn a good living both selling raw meat and chicharrón (crisp fried pork crackling) and making carnitas, but most people looked up to barbacoieros. As mole became more and more expensive to prepare for large ﬁestas, carnitas and barbacoa grew in popularity as typical ﬁesta favourites, and barbacoa ranked higher in prestige than carnitas.2 Preparing barbacoa is more laborious and also has more ﬂavourings, and thus is valued higher. (This is an example of Gell’s ‘halo effect of technical difﬁculty’; the greater the difﬁculty of access to an object [of art], the higher its value. [1996, pp. 46–9].) Barbacoa became the trade of highest honour (above butchery and nopal farming), not only because of the value of the product, but also because of the ﬁnancial prosperity associated with its sales. Because of this, barbacoiero families could afford to build their own houses, sometimes quite large, to accommodate an extended family. They had modern kitchen appliances but often had an extra outdoor kitchen with simple industrial gas hobs, where they did most of the actual cooking. The modern stoves were used more for heating up food and tortillas.
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It was still common in Milpa Alta for three generations to live in one household, although many young couples aspired to build their own houses separately from their parents or in-laws. When women married, they usually moved to their husbands’ house and lived there until they could afford to build their own.3 Some built their houses adjacent to the husband’s parents’, whilst others bought a new plot of land in another area of Milpa Alta. It was rare for Milpaltenses to buy land outside of Milpa Alta, although they might resettle in a different barrio or town.4 Families remain close nonetheless and visit often, at least to the husband’s family. Upon marriage, women were expected to loosen their ties with their natal families. It was not that they no longer belonged to their natal households, but rather that they must try their best to assimilate to and prioritize their husbands’. An elderly lady told me, ‘A woman always changes her profession or trade (oﬁcio) to that of her husband.’ This is not exactly true, as some women are already working in a similar sort of business as their husband’s before they marry. Also, some men learn the trade of their wife’s family if it is more lucrative, such as barbacoa, for example. Whatever the precise statistics may be, it is acceptable and even expected, at times, for a woman to give up her job and dedicate herself to housework and children or to change her profession to match her husband’s.5 Doña Margarita’s compadre was a barbacoiero and his wife was a primary school teacher, but on Saturdays she sold the barbacoa in the market because he had to stay home to prepare the meat to sell on Sundays. Despite having her own profession, Doña Margarita said, she was expected to help her husband in his line of work: ‘Siendo profesionista, la mujer tiene que ayudar a su esposo.’ Elena was a similar case in point. She met her husband, Mario, when she was 18, studying to be a teacher. Although she had not wanted to get married until she ﬁnished her studies, he did, and they eventually married when she was 22. She added, ‘I don’t know if it was because I did not take care or if I don’t know much about these things, but oh! surprise—I was pregnant!’ She never ﬁnished her degree because of the baby, but she had no regrets. Elena got a job in a primary school and Mario continued studying accounting, but when his father took ill he decided to help with the family barbacoa business. By this time Mario’s older brothers had married and set up their own households in land that their father had given to them. Mario was left to take over the business. He told me that he earned more working in barbacoa than by being an accountant. Since he chose to dedicate himself to the barbacoa, he was occupied from Friday to Monday, but he had time for other work on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (see detailed description of barbacoa work below). He tried to supplement the family earnings by getting a part-time job in accounting but had to give this up. The ofﬁce often wanted him to come in on Fridays, but his priority was his barbacoa. After Mario’s father died, the business was his main inheritance. Though there used to be a lot of land in the family, as the generations passed the pieces of land inherited became smaller and smaller. Mario’s father decided to divide his share of
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 53
land among the older siblings when they married, and to Mario, the youngest, he left the house, barbacoa market stall and business. This arrangement worked reasonably well, but Elena and Mario truly desired a plot of land of their own. Not only was land of high value in Milpa Alta, but they also wanted land so Mario could work on it during his free days midweek. To reach this goal, Elena worked doubly hard so that they could save up enough money to invest in land. Until then she did not want more children. She taught two shifts at the primary school and also helped with the barbacoa when she was at home. She had most of her free time on Saturdays, when she did housework and laundry (although I suspect that she hired help for this as well), and she chopped vegetables for the business. On Sunday she helped to sell because it was the busiest day in the market and they had a second stand on this day of the week. She rarely had anything to do with the meat or with stacking or unloading the oven. This was men’s work, she told me, although I know that she could do the same work and sometimes helped Mario with the oven when necessary. Apart from inheriting the barbacoa profession, it is rare, though not unheard of, for men to learn the trade from non-family members. Alejandro told me that he taught his compadre how to prepare barbacoa when he was 39, but few men start out in a new business like this at an older age. In his own family, Alejandro’s grandfather’s brother ﬁrst learned to make barbacoa. He was illiterate, but with his business he maintained a comfortable lifestyle, and so he taught his younger brothers the process, thus beginning the tradition in their family. Typically, children learn the process of preparing barbacoa from their parents. Their skills are built from a young age, so they become knowledgeable specialists early on. The trade has been described to me as ‘a tradition that one passes down to the new generations’.6 In other words, the business (or technical skill) is left to one’s children as an ‘inheritance’, as in the case of Mario. From the age of about 5 or 6, children are taken to the market to help in the sales, buying more tortillas when they have run out or helping to wash up the plates and cookware at the end of the workday. As soon as they reach puberty (from around 12 years of age) they begin to help with the preparation work as part of their family chores. Already as children, boys are trained to help their fathers with the meat and girls are trained to help their mothers with the vegetables and salsas. Boys learn by helping their fathers to remove and clean the entrails (despanzar), but not to slaughter. At 15 or 16 they begin to cut the raw meat, and a few years later they learn to kill. Single men do not make barbacoa for a living, however. Until they marry, young men might help their parents with the family business, but they usually go to university or might take on another job elsewhere.7 After marriage, it is not uncommon for young men to set up their own barbacoa business apart from their parents’. Their new wives then begin apprenticing themselves to their mothers-in-law. Until they marry into the family, however, these women never get involved. As the girlfriend of the son of a barbacoiero, a woman might sit with her future mother-in-law as she
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is busy cleaning or chopping vegetables, and she might lend a hand, but nothing is expected of her. As soon as she is married, though, she must take over as much of her mother-in-law’s work as she can. Should a barbacoiero wife become widowed or abandoned, she can still carry on with the business, even if she has no sons. There are men who dedicate themselves solely to slaughtering animals, playfully called matadores or otherwise referred to as trabajadores (workers). These men may also be hired if a barbacoiero has little space in his backyard or if he routinely prepares large amounts and has no sons to help him. The matador-workers are in charge of the matanza, the slaughter. They are also responsible for washing the entrails and chopping them. This is the same work that is done in the ofﬁcial slaughterhouse, the rastro, but many barbacoieros prefer to do the slaughtering at home where they can control how the meat is cut and how well it is cleaned. In barbacoa preparation, as well as for many other culinary techniques, the traditional means of food preparation are generally preferred over modern shortcuts in spite of modern conveniences and new regulations. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to live with a family who took pride in the ﬂavour of their product. With Primy and Alejandro, I learned to prepare barbacoa in what they considered the traditional manner. They sometimes varied their methods of preparation, depending on availability and price of ingredients, but they tended to always return to the traditional. The description that follows is based on the ﬁrst time that I witnessed the entire process, but it is representative of how families make barbacoa at home. It illustrates some of the compromises that might be made for the sake of the business, but also how daily meals can still be rather elaborate. The following section is a rundown of how barbacoa is prepared at home by professionals in the trade.
The Process of Preparing barbacoa in Barrio San Mateo, Milpa Alta
Primy and Alejandro used to farm nopales, but a few years before the death of Alejandro’s father in the early 1990s, they began to help with the barbacoa to carry on the family business. Yadira introduced me to them as a foreigner who had come to Mexico to study chiles and who was fascinated with Mexican food in general. This, as always, elicited a positive response, and Primy embarked on a detailed description of the salsas that she made to serve with barbacoa. ‘What would you like to know?’ she asked me, ‘¿la comercial o la buena?’ (‘the commercial sauce or the good one?’). She described different forms of service, different dishes that can be made with barbacoa meat, and then invited me to watch her remove the meat from the oven the next morning. She continued explaining the cooking process before she interrupted herself and said that no, this was all wrong. ‘¡Este es como empezar con el postre y terminar con la sopa!’ (‘This is like starting with the dessert and ﬁnishing with the
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 55
soup!’) she exclaimed. One cannot learn about barbacoa without seeing everything from beginning to end, she continued. I must come, she insisted, and stay with them to observe the whole process, starting from la matanza. Only after I have seen it all can we talk about salsas and chiles.
Thursday: La matanza (The Slaughter)
For the family whose trade is to make and sell barbacoa, the workweek begins at seven o’clock every Thursday morning. This is almost considered a late start by Milpa Alta standards, since most people are up and working by 5 a.m. Alejandro and Primy dressed in old jeans, short-sleeved shirts and long rubber boots. It must have been around 10 degrees Celsius outside but they knew they would not feel cold. They were prepared for a physically demanding and dirty job. Alejandro led a young sheep to the centre of the covered concrete and brick slaughter yard behind the house. The slaughter area was separated from the rest of the patio by a low wall reaching halfway up toward its roof. The space was about 3 by 6 metres in area. From the ceiling hung eight large hooks fastened to a wooden beam with thick twine. The ground was paved in concrete; in one corner there was a water tap with a long hose attached, and along one wall there was a low concrete-lined drain. Alejandro placed a large aluminium basin in the centre of the space. Beside this he positioned a rough-hewn wooden stool. He then sharpened his knife with his sharpening steel and lay the lamb on its side, its head resting on the stool. Holding its muzzle shut, he deftly punctured its throat with the tip of his knife. For about ﬁve minutes he squatted by the lamb, allowing it to bleed into the basin. It bucked its hind legs once in a while in silent protest, so Alejandro held its body still until it stopped bleeding and lay limp. He sharpened his knife once more and after feeling for a soft spot in the neck joint, he sawed off its head and set it aside. He then proceeded to saw off one lower hind leg, scraping away the fur to reveal the bone with its characteristic hole, and then he hung the body by the leg bone on one of the ceiling hooks. Hanging the carcass this way makes it easier to clean the whole animal, allowing all the remaining blood and whatever may be left in the oesophagus to drip out onto the ground. Alejandro then went to get another lamb among the group huddled at the far end of the slaughter area, and the process was repeated. Although the actual killing was ﬁnished, la matanza could also be interpreted to refer to all the proceedings of the day. Apart from the slaughter, it consisted of taking apart and cleaning the animals, work which is shared between husband and wife. While Alejandro continued to slaughter the rest of the livestock, Primy took the steel and sharpened her own knife. She stood by the decapitated animal and felt for the soft cartilage in the joint of the other hind leg. She cut off the other three feet and tossed them toward the drain. She scraped away the fur of the other hind legs so that the carcasses could be hooked through and hung by both legs. Then she cut
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more of the fur and peeled it down so that it hung in a thick fold just below the hip. The hide is heavy and toughly attached to the ﬂesh, so she stood aside and waited for her husband. When Alejandro was ready he tugged the coat off each animal, pulling it inside out with all his strength and using his body weight for the ﬁnal yank. A soft popping noise was made as the body separated from its skin at the neck. He slung each hide on the low wall and carried on with the slaughtering. Primy brought a small plastic pail of water toward each animal and washed the blood from the neck, el pescuezo. From the pail she pulled out a rectangle of gauze and wrung out the excess water. She tore off about a half metre’s length and carefully wrapped the pescuezo with the gauze, covering the hole and tying it well. She explained how important this was because when the meat is still fresh, the blood and bile that may remain in the throat attract large ﬂies which enter the pescuezo and may become embedded there. This can ruin the meat, giving it a bitter ﬂavour. She could not explain why they tended to enter the small neck hole rather than the large opening she made through the abdominal area when she gutted them, but in any case the pescuezo must be protected with gauze. Having clariﬁed this, she proceeded to slice a long vertical hole through the centre of the skinned carcass, and she began to pull out the entrails. This is the start of the real cleaning process, despanzar. I offered to help, but Primy and Alejandro told me that this job was not for me and recommended I keep my distance to protect my clothes. First Primy pulled out the stomach, la panza. The panza is one of the most important parts of the sheep. It is cleaned and later stuffed with the tripe and other innards mixed with herbs and spices. It is tied closed and cooked in the pit oven along with the meat to be later served in tacos. The panza was much bigger than I expected it to be, about half a metre long and 20 centimetres wide, and it was a grey-green colour. It was covered with a layer of fat, the caul, el redaño, which Primy described as being like a cloth, ‘como una telita de grasa’, and in fact it looked like a square of pale pink lace8 and could be peeled off the stomach in one piece. Primy warned me to get out of the way, and she carried the panza to the far corner of the slaughter area where there was a large metal rubbish bin. There she emptied the stomach, squeezing out the part-digested fodder and gastric juices. The odour was rancid and repulsive as the contents of the panza splashed onto the ground. Primy hosed the panza inside and out and tossed it into another aluminium tub before returning to the carcass. Primy proceeded to unravel the small intestines, la tripa delgada. These were at least 12 metres long, and she pulled them out as if she were measuring yarn, swaying from side to side, catching each arms’ length in either hand. As soon as she had all the tripe looped in her hands she cut one end, keeping grip of the other end, thus holding the centre of several separate lengths of intestine. She knotted them together at the centre, securing them to keep them under control lest they slip away and get tangled and lost amongst the rest of the innards. Then she squeezed out any waste that may have remained before tossing them into the aluminium tub with the panzas.
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 57
Next to remove was the large intestine, la tripa gorda. Primy positioned the pail in front of the animal and pointed the large intestine toward the pail. Alejandro placed the hose in the anal passage at the top of the animal and sprayed a strong stream of water, which went straight through the intestine and ﬂushed out most of the suciedad, dirt. Without this gush of running water it is more difﬁcult to extract the waste products from the intestine. Primy then cut it off and dropped it into the pail with the rest of the offal. Each part of the animal was systematically removed in its turn—the uterus, la matriz; the gall bladder, la vesícula billar; the liver, el hígado; lungs, pulmones; heart, corazón; the bladder, la vejiga. The uterus was quite small, about the size of the palm of my hand, but when we got to the last lamb slaughtered I witnessed the discovery of a pregnant one. Such a ﬁnd is considered lucky, because pregnancy causes the uterus to develop, and one stuffed with a developed uterus tastes much better than one with an undeveloped uterus (each of the entrails is chopped up and used to stuff the panza). The developed uterus forms nutritious pink bolitas (these ‘little balls’ actually look like tiny pink donuts). They are attached to its inner lining and make the stuffed panza tastier and juicier. Pregnant sheep are particularly special because usually when the stockbreeder knows that a sheep is pregnant, it is not sold for slaughter as it will eventually provide young (i.e., business). Primy slit open the uterus to show me the foetus, telling me that she used to collect them in jars of alcohol whenever she came across them because a friend of hers used them for the science class she taught at a local school. The foetus was fully formed and ﬂoated in its amniotic gel which could be removed like a little ball and preserved in alcohol or formalin. After saving the foetus Primy rinsed the uterus inside and out and then threw it into the tub of entrails. The ﬁnal step was to slice open the hearts and lungs to remove all traces of blood from the veins and arteries. This is extremely important because when blood is cooked it becomes a dark, unappetizing colour and although this does not affect the ﬂavour of the meat, it may put customers off. While Primy was completing this process, Alejandro carried the cleaned carcasses, now referred to as being en canal, to an airing room, where he hung each by one leg to dry the meat overnight. The meat needed hanging so that it matures a little and can be cut cleanly. Primy rinsed everything quickly, then it was time for breakfast. Later each offal meat was cleaned thoroughly with cold water to remove all traces of dirt. Primy stressed to me that each section must be well cleaned individually. Any dirt that remains gives an unpleasant bitter ﬂavour to the meat and panza when cooked, and so must be expunged. Cold water must be used even if the weather is freezing because using warm water risks spoilage. Furthermore, cleaning must be done with bare hands; otherwise it is impossible to reach the inner folds of the meat. The heads are left to soak and the panzas must be blanched so that the bitter stomach lining can be removed. Only then were we free to sit in front of the television to watch the football.
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Friday: Mise en Place (Preparations); sancochando la carne (Pre-cooking the Meat)
Alejandro told me that Friday is the heaviest day for women in the barbacoa trade. Indeed it is the most labour-intensive because all the preparations for the cooking and serving of the meat are done on Fridays, and almost all of this work was done by Primy. Her mother-in-law helped as well, but Primy was in charge. The day began early, as usual. Primy went to the market to buy vegetables, chiles and herbs for the cooking process and also to make the salsas that would accompany the meat. I arrived at their house before 7 a.m. and Primy was already away at the market while her mother-in-law was at home preparing breakfast. I stayed and helped make breakfast in the airing room, where a simple industrial gas cooker was set up. The cooker was like those found in food stalls in the market, made of a metal frame, about waist height, that supports two large gas rings that can accommodate very large pots and pans. We were having chilaquiles verdes for breakfast that day. For green chilaquiles, Doña Margarita made a green salsa with the chiles and green husk tomatoes (tomates or tomates verdes) that are also used for the barbacoa. Primy returned from her shopping with sacks of white onions, green tomatoes, carrots, chiles, coriander and various other foods. After breakfasting on the chilaquiles with teleras (a type of bread roll) and hot milk with coffee or chocolate stirred in, we got back to work. Primy put all the tomatoes to soak in a plastic basin to soften the husks for easier removal. She brought out three little painted wooden chairs with wicker seats for me, her mother-in-law and herself. We all sat outside in the patio with the tomatoes and three plastic strainers and set to peeling off the husks as we rinsed them. Primy separated them into the three containers, one for the panzas, the other two for the green and red salsas that she would make. Meanwhile, Alejandro was at his butcher block chopping all the menudencias, the innards, that the women had cleaned so thoroughly the day before. (I do not think he did much else that day.) Primy rinsed out the coriander and epazote and left the herbs to soak in water. We carried on preparing the vegetables, chopping onions and carrots, removing stems from the fresh and dried chiles and just chatting away. At the same time, Primy and her mother-in-law began to prepare lunch. We roasted green poblano chiles over coals to peel and slice them for rajas con crema (strips of roasted chiles with crème fraîche and onions). When this was done it was time to pick up the children from school. As we walked home from the school we passed by a tortillería, a small shop selling machine-made tortillas. There we bought a kilo of masa, the maize dough used to make tortillas, so that we could make gorditas pellizcadas when we got home. These gorditas (also called sopes) are a type of snack food that is often eaten in the street. Alejandro asked Primy to prepare them for me so that I could taste as much typical Mexican food as time allowed. Primy kneaded the dough and with the help of a tortilla press and her two small sons, we made thick tortillas. After baking them on
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 59
a hot comal, we pinched them several times on one side ( pellizcar means to pinch), rubbed them with melted lard, and topped them with refried beans, crisply cooked crumbled longaniza (a type of sausage), green salsa and crumbled white cheese. This was our starter for lunch on that day. Alejandro pounded chicken breasts to make milanesas and his mother hauled out the heavy stone metate to make breadcrumbs for the chicken. She used saltine crackers instead of bread because, she said, she preferred the effect of crushed crackers to that of breadcrumbs. She knelt on the ground behind the grinding stone and in a matter of seconds reduced the crackers to ﬁne crumbs. I asked her if she always used the metate, a tool that dates to pre-Hispanic times. I had heard that some people still used it, but nowadays, especially in cities, few people did so because of the effort and physical force that was required. She told me that for small tasks, such as grinding these crackers, she would use it. Otherwise, unless there was a power failure, they used an electric blender for making sauces and for larger tasks. Lunch was a feast for me, although it was standard fare for them. We had gorditas to start, then breaded chicken with boiled carrots with cream, and rajas con crema. As always, there were tortillas and a lovely tomato-chile-based salsa to accompany, and beans in their broth at the end. The meal was washed down with an agua fresca de limón, water ﬂavoured with a variety of sweet lime that they picked off the tree in the garden. Although I would have the tendency to linger over such exquisite food, in a busy barbacoiero household such as this one, there was a lot of work to be done after eating. We returned to the vegetables we had been cleaning and divided the tomatoes and chiles for the salsas. For the green salsa we peeled avocados, chopped coriander and combined them with the green tomatoes, chiles serranos, onions, garlic and salt. Primy processed them in the blender in stages because she was making large amounts for the business. She then proceeded to make the red salsa in which she used three types of dried chiles—chile morita, árbol seco, and pulla or guajillo angosto. She toasted these on a hot comal and warned me to keep clear of the smoke since the chiles always made her cough and sneeze.9 The red salsa was more popular than the green in the stand where they sold barbacoa, so Primy had a 30-litre pail for this. She boiled green tomatoes and put the toasted chiles to soak in the cooking water. She ﬁlled the pail with the tomatoes and chiles along with salt and other ingredients. Since she needed to make a larger amount, far beyond the capacity of a domestic blender, we took the pail to a salsa mill, molino de salsas, a short walk away. When we returned home Primy had to prepare the stufﬁng for the panzas. Preparing the panza is always the women’s responsibility, as are chopping and cleaning vegetables and herbs. Women look after the softer and more complex cooking, like making the panza ﬁlling and the salsas. Men in the barbacoa trade are responsible for the slaughter and preparing the meat, as well as ﬁlling and unloading the oven. Primy approached the now-dried carcasses (canales) and cut off the udders and kidneys to chop up and add to the rest of the menudencias. She also had procured some pork fat to add to the ﬁlling mixture so that the panza would not get too dry during
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the cooking. Into the mixture she threw chopped green tomatoes, epazote and onions, and she beat all of these together with her forearm (in the same way that one beats lard for making tamales). When these were well incorporated she added powdered chile guajillo and salt and beat it some more. The panzas were now ready to be stuffed, and she commented to me as she ﬁlled them that to her each one looks like a human foetus since it is shaped like a head and body. At the same time she had been boiling rice and chickpeas, which are traditionally served with the consomé de barbacoa. She drained and separated them into two containers, mixing the grains, one for Saturday’s sales and another for Sunday’s. She also prepared the herbs and spices that go in the tub for the consomé. Whilst Primy was doing all of this detailed work, Alejandro pulled out his chainsaw and cut the lamb into pieces—the leg, pierna; ribs, costilla; the backbone or loin, espinazo or lomo; the shoulder, espaldilla; and the neck, pescuezo. He lay these out on the work table in the middle of the room and decided which pieces would be cooked for Saturday, which for Sunday, and which for Monday. Primy marked them with string which she tied around small bones so that she would be able to distinguish amongst them when the meat was already cooked. Then she stacked the perol. The perol is a large aluminium bin, around 75 centimetres in diameter and 1.5 metres tall. This is used to steam the meat over a gas ﬂame, sancochar la carne (literally, to parboil the meat), a method developed because of the shortage of ﬁrewood in recent years. For the sake of ease, most people these days ﬁnish cooking the barbacoa in the perol rather than use the traditional pit in the ground or brick oven (horno). There is, however, a notable difference in ﬂavour between the barbacoa de perol and barbacoa de horno. To save ﬁrewood, Primy and Alejandro part-cooked the meat in the perol and then ﬁnished the process in the oven so that the meat obtained the smoky ﬂavour of the coals. On Saturdays they sold barbacoa de perol, but on Sundays, Mondays and special occasions they prepared the barbacoa de horno. The pieces of meat must be arranged in a speciﬁc order so that they cook properly. First the tub for the consomé is placed at the bottom so that the juices drip down into the herbs and spices. In the perol the meat is steamed, so water is added to the basin at the bottom. Then an iron grille is positioned above the tub with some special cooking ﬁlm to prevent bits of meat from falling through. Next, the panzas are set down, then the heads and necks, since these all take longest to cook and need to be nearest to the heat source. The rest of the parts are stacked in accordingly, and the perol is closed and left over a strong gas ﬁre for about twelve hours.
Saturday: Prendiendo y llenando el horno (Lighting and Stacking the Oven)
At four o’clock on Saturday mornings it was very important for Primy to get up and check the meat in the perol. She checked that there was sufﬁcient consomé and that
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 61
it had not overﬂowed and the meat was cooking nicely. By ﬁve o’clock the meat should be ready. She removed what would be sold by her husband in the town that morning and put in more meat to pre-cook for the barbacoa de horno to be sold on Sunday and Monday. By the time I got up at seven o’clock, Alejandro had long gone to the centre of Mexico City to sell and Primy had gone with her two sons to watch their football match in their playing ﬁeld nearby. Alejandro’s mother gave me a sandwich for breakfast and a pint of hot milk in which I stirred some café de olla, coffee boiled with abundant water and ﬂavoured with cinnamon and, if available, crude sugar, piloncillo. She accompanied me with a sandwich of her own, which she made of sliced bread ( pan bimbo) spread with cream and ﬁlled with ham, avocado and pickled jalapeño chiles. Then she asked me to accompany her to do her errands. For women in the barbacoa trade, Saturday morning may be spent doing any sort of tasks and chores. While waiting for Primy and the boys to return home, I helped Doña Margarita wash the dishes from Friday and we went to buy food with which to prepare lunch. Before all this, however, we attended to the oven. Alejandro had brought home pencas de maguey, the succulent leaves of the maguey plant. Each of these leaves, or pencas, can reach up to 2 metres in length and about 30 centimetres wide at the base. They are thick and spiny at the edges, tapering to a ﬁne point like a needle. In fact, all parts of different varieties of maguey plants, both pencas and sap, have been used extensively and have been exploited all over Mexico since pre-Hispanic times, for preparing food, weaving cloth, and even making alcoholic drinks (like pulque, and different varieties are used for tequila and mezcal ). They are essential in the preparation of this type of barbacoa as they both protect the meat from burning, as well as add ﬂavour and help to seal in moisture. The pencas must ﬁrst be shaved at the base so that they are evenly thick and pliable. Then they must be toasted to mellow their ﬂavour and bitterness. So we proceeded to light the oven by the side of the house. Doña Margarita lit the coals that had remained in the pit with scraps of cardboard and burnt pencas. When a bright ﬁre was smoking in the oven we laid the fresh pencas across the top, turning them and even hanging them halfway into the oven so that they roasted evenly. This step took a good hour or so, and meanwhile we carried on with other household chores. Primy came home and prepared the comida quickly. This time it was less elaborate than on the Friday before. We had sopa casera de tallarines con crema, a typical homestyle soup with short noodles in (red) tomato broth, served with a swirl of cream. To follow was a guisado de jitomate, a (red) tomato-based stew with chicken, courgettes and strips of roasted and peeled poblano chiles. All of this was served with warm corn tortillas, and there were beans to follow if anyone wanted some. Primy and Doña Margarita were not the ﬁrst to comment that it was so nice to feed me because I ate everything without trouble and I obviously truly enjoyed the food (‘Come de todo, y además come ¡con gusto!’). This last point seemed particularly impressive to them, because Mexican food was thought to be notoriously difﬁcult for foreigners
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to eat. My ability to enjoy their food, and therefore understand the ﬂavours, made me seem less foreign to them and more easily assimilated. Just before lunch, Primy lit the pit-oven with ﬁrewood. She ﬁlled the cavity with dry logs, and with old newspaper she grabbed a ﬁstful of tallow that she collected every week from the meat. With this she ignited the wood and left it to burn while we ate. Afterward, we unloaded the meat, la carne sancochada, which had been pre-cooking in the perol for a few hours. Primy showed me how to wrap the panzas in pencas of maguey to protect them from burning as they cook. Each panza is placed individually in the centre of a toasted penca. The sides are folded inward and the lot is tied with string with the edges turned in so that none of the panza is exposed. Then we checked the oven, and by now the logs were reduced to red-hot embers, la pura brasa. It was 5.30 p.m. It was time to stack the oven. Primy and Doña Margarita did this in the same order as in stacking the perol, only this time the sides of the oven were lined with pencas, no cooking ﬁlm was necessary and no water was added for the consomé. When all the meat was properly arranged, Primy lay the caul on top to cover all the meat so the fat could drip down as it melted and keep the meat moist. Last, more toasted pencas were lain, and then they slid the heavy steel cover over the opening. The two women pulled out a square of canvas ﬁlled with sand to shroud the cover. They spread the sand evenly to block any cracks so that absolutely no steam escaped the oven; otherwise the meat would fail to cook properly. Finally, an old cover and empty basins were arranged on the edges to secure it and weigh it down. Then we left the barbacoa to stew in its own juices all night.
Sunday: Sacando la carne (Taking Out the Meat)
At ﬁve in the morning I was awakened for the ﬁnal stage of preparing barbacoa. Primy was already unloading everything, separating the meat into plastic crates lined with wax paper and the toasted maguey pencas from the oven. She placed the heads and pescuezos into separate pails and when she ﬁnished pulling out the panzas, she waited for Alejandro to come and reach into the oven for the tub of drippings, now full of consomé. They loaded everything into the back of their truck and by 5.30 a.m. they were on their way to their barbacoa stall in a market near the centre of Mexico City. Alejandro’s stall had been in the family for three generations, and he and his wife expected, or at least hoped, that both of their sons would maintain it when they came of age.10 Already they took their 7-year-old son with them to sell. Their second son was still too young to accompany them, but he told me that he was dying to go. On a Sunday the children considered this to be a special treat. Both Alejandro and Primy would go to the market together as it was always their busiest day. Alejandro sold meat, heads and panzas by the kilo, while Primy made and sold tacos and consomé and also usually acted as cashier. She picked the meat from between the neck bones
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 63
and used any other loose meat to ﬁll tacos. They stayed in the market all day until all their products were sold and sometimes returned home only at seven or eight o’clock at night.
Saturday, Sunday and Monday: A vender (to sell)—How Lucrative is barbacoa?
Monday is usually a fairly light day for selling in the market, but several barbacoieros sell nevertheless. Primy, like other wives of barbacoieros, might or might not accompany her husband on these lighter sales days. This depends on her mood and other commitments. The best days for selling barbacoa are Saturday and Sunday. Since barbacoa is a heavy dish and is expensive, few people eat it in the market midweek. Preparing it every day would be too much work to be worth the earnings. If a holiday such as Christmas or Easter happened to fall on a weekday, however, all the barbacoa stalls open. These are the days when most people decide not to cook at home, and there is good business for barbacoieros. Otherwise, another opportunity to sell or eat barbacoa midweek is to go to a nearby tianguis (roving market) on the day when it is designated in a certain area. To increase their sales, barbacoieros ﬁnd themselves in a competition of ﬂavour. To improve the quality of their product, however, economic constraints weigh heavily. In the mid-1990s, because of the unstable Mexican economy (la crisis), as the value of the Mexican peso fell to a fraction of its worth against the US dollar, the price of livestock multiplied, particularly since much of it is imported live from Australia and New Zealand or from the US. The market price of barbacoa, however, could not increase at similar speed because wages failed to keep up with the falling peso. Thus customer spending reduced and luxury goods such as special foods became less frequent expenses. Discussing the vendor-client relationship with me, Primy explained that certain people become regular clients and thus are given special treatment. She would recognize them and know what they usually ordered or consumed at one sitting. Sometimes she gave them slightly larger tacos, or if they ordered to take away, she would give them a pint of salsa without charge. After the economic crash in 1994, she noticed that some of her regular clients no longer came every week as they used to. When they did come, though, they retained the same consumption pattern as before. The increasing price of her product did not make customers buy or consume a smaller amount of barbacoa each time they came to eat at her stall, but rather it decreased the frequency of their visits.11 In this way, the price increase affected sales. So if barbacoieros charged a fair price for their product, taking into account the rising prices of their raw materials, their selling price would be beyond the reach of their customers’ spending power. Whilst the supply of barbacoa might remain the same, the demand would decrease considerably in that fewer would be able to afford
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it. This has forced the price of barbacoa to remain low despite higher production costs, thus reducing the proﬁt margin for producers and forcing them to tighten their belts. Barbacoieros will not stop making their product, as it is their trade and means of livelihood. Doña Margarita told me that her husband used to make barbacoa in the perol, but it was Alejandro who insisted that they switch to the pit oven because the resulting ﬂavour is so much better. During my last visit to Milpa Alta, Primy and Alejandro stopped using the perol altogether and tended to buy slightly younger sheep so that they could cook exclusively in the oven. They did so despite the increased physical labour and expense required when using ﬁrewood rather than gas. Their greater investment of work and money increased the quality of their product, making it less commercial, more of a luxury good and of course more expensive. Still, they were not willing to compromise anymore and go back to making barbacoa de perol, as that would be lowering their standards. They might lose some of their regular clients who were accustomed to a superior product, although it was likely that newer clients would not mind the difference. Though using the perol would greatly increase their proﬁt margin, they were unwilling to produce an inferior product. This attitude, naturally, did not make the most sense ﬁnancially. Primy explained to me her perception of how household spending had changed since the crisis of December 1994. Until the eighties, to sell barbacoa was very lucrative and many men in Milpa Alta and especially in San Mateo learned the trade in order to better support their families. This is why, she pointed out, there are many big houses in San Mateo. Most of the money they needed to build their houses came from high barbacoa profits. On the other hand, several houses were left unﬁnished. In the 1950s most families lived in simple one- or two-room dwellings (Madsen, 1960), but by the 1980s many families began to build larger houses as they became more prosperous from selling nopales and barbacoa. Some later found themselves unable to buy all the materials necessary to complete building because of the economic crisis which upset their ﬁnancial planning and expected earnings.
Tuesday: La limpieza (Cleaning) and a marcar el ganado (Marking Livestock)
Tuesday is when women do the major cleaning of the oven ( perol ) and all containers, as well as all the work areas and utensils used. Sometimes Primy, as did many others, hired another woman to help. Tuesday is dedicated to cleaning and returning everything to normal. In the meantime, the husbands go to the ganadería, the ranch where the livestock is sold, to choose and mark the sheep that they will later buy for slaughter. Few raise their own livestock since land and labour have become more scarce in recent
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 65
years. It is also cheaper to buy the animals that are brought over live from the US or Australia. For the sake of ﬂavour, some barbacoieros are willing to pay a little more to buy borregos criollos, locally reared sheep. These graze freely and eat what they wish instead of enriched industrial feed. The local sheep are smaller and leaner than foreign livestock and also have better ﬂavour because of how they are raised. They are more difﬁcult to prepare because of their size and expense, but all barbacoieros agree that they are worth it. For personal consumption, all barbacoieros prefer pit-roast borregos criollos. This is indisputably the tastiest and best-quality barbacoa that can be made. For the sake of business, however, some compromises are necessary to increase the proﬁt margin. Although goat meat can be used as successfully as lamb, with a similar preparation process, most barbacoieros ﬁnd goats more difﬁcult to work with. Since they are much smaller, they need to be treated more gently, and they render less cooked meat per kilo of raw. They also have a singular odour, which remains if the meat is steamed in the perol, although it disappears when it is cooked in the oven. Whilst both male and female goats and sheep may be used, sometimes male goats retain their odour (‘the smell of a man’, as Doña Margarita described it) even after cooking in the perol. Thus, vendors prefer sheep, and they must be neither too fat nor too thin. If they are too fat there will be a huge lump of fat behind the kidney or distributed throughout the meat. During the cooking much of it melts away, resulting in less kilos of meat to sell. Up to ﬁve kilos of fat can be extracted, meaning ﬁve kilos less proﬁt. Also, clients prefer meat to be less fatty. But if the lambs are too thin, the meat does not come out well after cooking. It becomes too dry and does not look good. When I talked with Primy about the desirable qualities of barbacoa, she always stressed how the meat must be physically appealing, without unappetizing dark spots, splinters of bone or irregular cuts. She also insisted on absolute cleanliness. The meticulous elimination of all the suciedad from the entrails of the animals, and later scrubbing down the work areas and the regular weekly cleaning indicate how essential this step is. The quality of the meat depends on the quality and cleanliness of the ingredients. Other women married to barbacoieros emphasized this to me as well. To uphold this value and control quality, many families in San Mateo slaughtered their own livestock themselves in a walled area in their yards rather than at the rastro (slaughterhouse).
Wednesday is the day of rest for barbacoiero families. This is spent like a typical Sunday for anyone else, unless there is a major holiday midweek, in which case they would prepare more barbacoa to sell on these special days. Otherwise they are free
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to relax and hold their own or attend other ﬁestas which mark life cycle events in the family.
From the ﬁrst time that I observed and participated in the preparation of barbacoa I was fascinated with the process. There was a distinct division of labour between men and women, with the main responsibility lying with the marital couple, particularly the wife. When I later learned, as mentioned earlier, that only married couples prepare barbacoa for a living, whilst single men and women only helped their parents but had separate careers, it was evident that this was an industry that had signiﬁcant social effects. But I had not realized how much the preparation of the dish affected the way that barbacoieros interacted socially with others. When a couple decides to dedicate themselves to barbacoa, they commit themselves to working excessively hard during weekends and having free time in the middle of the week, when most people are very busy working. Whatever the weather, they have to work long, disciplined hours to continue to earn a living and not disappoint their customers. As indicated in this chapter, discipline, order, cleanliness and frugality are necessary to perform the culinary technique. After slaughtering, all parts of the animal are used either in the cooking or for other purposes. The sheepskins are sold to make into jackets and rugs, the bones are sold to make detergents, and the tallow is sold to make soap. All other parts of the animal are eaten. Nothing is wasted. Their work rhythm dictates some of their values as well as their timetables. Having the opportunity to socialize at the same times, it makes sense that people of similar occupation should group together. This proximity to one another also encourages competition, so unsurprisingly, issues of trust and envy are highly relevant in the community of all those who are involved in the same business. Families carefully protect their belongings and social standing. Since Milpa Alta is ofﬁcially an area of Mexico City of relative poverty, barbacoieros seem to be both more attractive as well as more cautious when dealing with others. The recent prosperity associated with barbacoa has made the wealth of barbacoieros a new value to protect. The fact that they are concentrated in Barrio San Mateo gives the barrio a reputation of being excessively proud and stingy. Those from San Mateo are said to be much less friendly than those of other barrios. Women who married into San Mateo often commented to me that they had not been used to how people in San Mateo rarely greet one another in the streets, nor do they share with each other unless there is a particular ﬁesta. It is uncommon to borrow ingredients from the neighbours as they are expected to pay for whatever foodstuff they require, even if it is only a bit of sugar or a few tortillas. This behaviour is attributed to wealth, and wealth in the area is attached to barbacoa.
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The production of the dish encompasses all aspects of their lives, and vice versa. Social values and behaviour seem encapsulated in the process of cooking or making barbacoa. For example, motherhood is a well-known value in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. For barbacoa, references to motherhood seem related to the achievement of better ﬂavours, as in using the developed uterus for the panza, although consumers themselves are unable to determine the cause of the difference in taste. Meat preparation can be socialized, or at least socially interpreted. So it is tempting, at ﬁrst, to analyze the preparation of barbacoa as if it illustrates a process of social conversion and acculturation.12 A living animal changes from a natural state to a controlled, socially malleable, edible object. The matanza seems more than a slaughter; it seems the beginning of this social transformation. There is a problem with thinking of it in this way, however, because preparing barbacoa is not a ritual; it is a culinary technique, a craft whose product depends on physical labour, economic constraints and technical capabilities. Making barbacoa is both a source of livelihood and a pursuit of culinary excellence. The goal is to achieve the best possible taste in the most pragmatic way for commercial and gastronomic success. Barbacoieros feel little or no attachment to the animals they slaughter. The animals are simply a source of meat, another ingredient. As with any work of art, though, the resulting dish is greater than the sum of its parts. Before I met Primy for the ﬁrst time I had known that barbacoa was difﬁcult and laborious to prepare, and that it had complex ﬂavours. It was precisely the complexity of the ﬂavours and the preparation which made it more than just meat. This is why it is a dish typically eaten at special occasions or weekends. As Gell has argued in differentiating between decorated objects and non-decorated objects, the decoration is just as functional as the object itself (1998, p. 74). Likewise, it can be said that the purpose of eating food is not simply for nourishment. Food requires ‘decoration’—ﬂavourings or elaborate preparation—just as much as it requires nutrients. The function of the elaboration is to mark the dish, that is, the occasion in which it is eaten, as special. Since barbacoa is an elaborately prepared dish, it can be thought of as a work of art, which is decorated or considered more special or beautiful than other objects/dishes. Because of the technical mastery necessary for its production and the acknowledgement of this virtuosity in its consumption, barbacoa can be thought of as an artwork within the corpus of Mexican cuisine. The technical activity of, in this case, cookery is both a source of prestige from an object (dish) and a source of efﬁcacy in social relations. ‘The work of art,’ Gell states, ‘is inherently social in a way in which the merely beautiful or mysterious object is not: it is a physical entity which mediates between two beings, and therefore creates a social relation between them, which in turn provides a channel for further social relations and inﬂuences’ (1996, p. 52). Barbacoa ranks high in the hierarchy of dishes in Mexican cuisine, although it is by no means the highest.13 Even so, it is exemplary of how social behaviour is affected for the sake of concerns over taste and economy. On small scale, the food preparation is a sensual experience, both for men and for women. The actual ﬂavouring and
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elaboration is often the responsibility of women, since they generally are the ones in charge of the panza and the all-important salsas. If the appropriate pleasurable ﬂavour is achieved in the many parts of the dish, a barbacoiero will have greater economic success, which could later lead to greater social success. More customers will buy the product for their own consumption as well as to share with others, either in small groups or in large ﬁestas. On large scale, barbacoa has affected the community of San Mateo in Milpa Alta. Before the concentration of barbacoieros and their technical and ﬁnancial success, San Mateo was like any other barrio of maize farmers among many. San Mateo became special because of a special dish (or a special ﬂavour). This higher status then has had ramiﬁcations on the social relations of its residents with one another as well as with residents of other barrios and towns (the perceived rise in greed and protectiveness, but also in celebration and large-scale sharing). If we accept that the nature of the art object is deﬁned by its social use (Gell, 1998), then in this way barbacoa is an art object whose preparation both deﬁnes and is deﬁned by the social relations between the different people who prepare it (together or in competition) and the projected consumers. Daily food similarly inﬂuences adjustments in behaviour. Women, or cooks, invest measured amounts of time, effort and money in the everyday production of meals, which could be thought of as minor works of art or craft. As shown in the earlier description of a typical week for barbacoieros, women put in much effort and creativity in daily cooking, even though there is little time to relax and savour the ﬂavours of their meals. The success of their cooking affects their relations with the people they are feeding, both with themselves and with one another. Worth noting now is that I did not arrive in Milpa Alta with the intentions of observing gender relations, but I could not help being struck by the organized cooperation that I observed during my ﬁrst few weeks there. In the chapter that follows, women’s labour, ideals and relations with men will be explored further. In particular, I will describe their roles as wives and cooks, and how the activities prescribed as appropriate for them, and the technical skills they must acquire, affect the way they socialize with others.
Recipes Commercial Green Salsa for barbacoa
Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez green husk tomatoes, raw green chile de árbol, stemmed garlic avocados
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 69
onion salt Grind all together in a blender or with a mortar and pestle.
Salsa pasilla—‘la buena’—for Eating barbacoa on Special Occasions at Home
Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez chile pasilla, cleaned, stems and veins removed oil for frying garlic, peeled orange juice, freshly squeezed green olives salt olive oil queso canasto (a fresh white cheese) Heat oil in a frying pan. Pass the chiles through the hot oil once, then drain. In the same oil, fry the garlic cloves until golden. Blend together chiles, garlic and orange juice. Add olives, salt and a drizzle of olive oil to taste. Mix well. Pour into a serving bowl. Decorate with crumbled cheese.
Commercial Red Salsa for barbacoa
Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez 6 kg green husk tomatoes, boiled ¼ kg each of dried chiles: chile mora, chile de árbol, and chile guajillo angosto ( pulla), stemmed, toasted on comal, soaked 3 medium onions 10 small cloves garlic salt to taste Blend all ingredients together.
I used to think it inconceivable to prepare barbacoa at home unless I dug a pit in the garden and grew my own magueyes. Then one day I decided to try making it and was
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pleasantly surprised that the ﬂavour I achieved approximated the real thing, although there was little consomé. Banana leaves may substitute maguey leaves, since some forms of barbacoa are prepared with them, but there is no real substitute for epazote, which I do grow on my windowsill. The following recipe was the result of my culinary experiment. Serves 3– 4 1 metre banana leaves 1 kg lamb shoulder (or leg) 3 bay leaves large handful of epazote handful of coriander, chopped 6 –8 dried red chiles (de árbol, ancho, morita, guajillo) 1 onion, sliced 1 leek, sliced 3 cloves garlic, sliced 2–3 tomatoes, preferably green (tomatillos), chopped roughly • Preheat oven to 180ºC (gas mark 5/375ºF) for about 1 hour. Meanwhile, wash the banana leaves and then pass them over a ﬂame or dry griddle to soften them. They will change colour slightly and become more pliable. Use them to line a heavy casserole with a lid, where the piece of meat will ﬁt. • Combine the rest of the ingredients and place in the casserole. The meat may or may not be raised on a wire rack. Rub the meat with the garlic, herbs and chiles, if desired, and pour a little water into the pot so the meat does not dry out when cooking. • Wrap the meat with the banana leaves before securing the lid, and place it in the oven for about 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender. • Sprinkle with salt after cooking is complete, and serve with hot corn tortillas, chopped onions, chopped coriander, limes, avocados and salsas.
Women as Culinary Agents
Although many men in Milpa Alta are involved in food industries, home cooking is considered women’s work. This chapter focuses on the role of women in the network of Milpa Alta society. Maintaining the leitmotif of cooking as an artistic practice, we can think of women’s agency as a culinary agency. Women are the key actors in the culinary system, and just as their agency is mobilized by the family during ﬁestas in community-wide sociality1 (see Chapter 5), they can also mobilize the agency of others, such as when they hire domestic helpers.2 I begin by describing local social relations and different kinds of women’s work in Milpa Alta, referring to the sazón de amor that is responsible for good ﬂavour, and go on to develop my argument in relation to how women and—or via—their cooking are valued in Milpa Alta.3
The Value of Cooking and Other Work
Some feminist sociological studies argue that when cooking is regarded as women’s work, it can lead to women’s subordination (e.g. Beardsworth and Keil, 1997; Delphy, 1979; Ekström, 1991; McIntosh and Zey, 1998; Murcott, 1983).4 By focusing on meal production as a household chore, these studies take food production to be directly symbolic of the reproduction of a social order where women, as wives, inevitably play a subordinate role to men, their husbands. The root of the problem, they argue, is how women’s skills, which include cooking and other domestic tasks, are devalued ‘or not regarded as skills at all’ (Charles and Kerr, 1988, p. 47). In her insightful and critical discussion of how ‘feeding a family’ is a complex, often ‘invisible’ skill that women take upon as ‘natural’, DeVault writes, ‘The underlying principles of housework must be made visible. The work must be seen as separable from the one who does it, instead of in the traditional way as an expression of love and personality’ (1991, p. 142). Though I agree that feeding a family is a skill and responsibility easily taken for granted in Mexico and elsewhere, I would differentiate cooking from other forms of housework. Cooking is a complex and artistic practice, different from other kinds of housework because of the creative component involved. Crucially, I hesitate to separate the act and skill of cooking from the cook. Separating the act of cooking or providing a meal for the family from the ‘love and personality’ of the one who provides it (usually the wife/mother) is in contradiction
– 71 –
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with the existing ideology of Mexican cooking (see also Abarca, 2006, p. 108). It cannot be denied that many women assume the role of wife, mother and cook whether or not they enjoy it, and this is not to downplay or ignore ongoing social change in terms of gender relations. In fact, several recent studies document how family and gender ideologies are more dynamic than static.5 Rather, I suggest that accepting cooking as a way of expressing love and personality can explain why many women take on roles that to outsiders may appear as subordinate to their husbands but in fact may not be so. In one of the earlier collections of essays published on gender, Ann Pescatello (1973, p. xiv) claimed, ‘The Latin American family, integral to the historical schema … provides much latitude and legitimization of behavior in terms of social status, prestige, marital-compadrazgo alliances, and the like. The extended family, still widespread and potent in countryside and city, affords the female an extensive amount of inﬂuence on the members of her family.’ Pescatello questions the applicability of ‘Western-style women’s liberation’ with research showing that women in Latin America have more movement and autonomy built into their social organization than their US counterparts. Thus, when DeVault states that ‘women learn to think of service as a proper form of relation to men, and learn a discipline that deﬁnes “appropriate” service for men’ (1991, p. 143), applied to Latin America, at least, this does not necessarily imply a master-servant relationship. I would emphasize further that there is also nothing wrong with having deﬁned gendered roles in the family, since power need not be publicly displayed in order to be enforced. As Gudeman and Rivera (1990, p. 101) write about Colombia, although women serve food to their husbands or bring them meals in the ﬁelds, ‘[T]he people see nothing servile in this’. In Milpa Alta, I found several women to have such an attitude. Doña Delﬁna told me that before she married she used to take lunch to the peons who worked on her family’s land. This was one of the parts of the day that she enjoyed most, leaving the house and socializing a little. Servile status was held by the labourers who worked the ﬁeld, and not by the wives or daughters of the landowners who prepared food and served it to those men. In Milpa Alta cooking is indeed embedded in the domestic realm, subsumed as women’s work or women’s unpaid labour. Though this might be taken as indicative of women’s subordination to men, as I explained in Chapter 1, knowing how to cook Mexican food is actually thought of as a skill worth learning, if not a talent. Some women in Milpa Alta say they cook to satisfy their own cravings or desires, and whether or not they cook regularly, women take pride in their cooking. Many have told me that they enjoy it, although they may hardly cook at all. For others, of course, cooking is a chore, but they can ﬁnd other ways to provide a delicious meal whether they cook it themselves or not. In such cases, or when women work away from home, they meet the challenge of providing good food to their families by depending on cooperation with co-resident women, relatives, in-laws and comadres. Women, therefore, are not always forced to prepare elaborate meals for their husbands. On the
Women as Culinary Agents • 73
contrary, they take on extradomestic work and still ﬁnd a way to feed their families (cf. Williams, 1985, on Tejanos). Women in Milpa Alta have a reputation in Mexico City for being hardworking. People commonly say, ‘While Mexico sleeps, Milpa Alta works’ (‘Mientras México duerme, Milpa Alta trabaja’). Juanita, a journalist, told me that if I were to walk around Milpa Alta at 3 or 4 a.m., I would ﬁnd many women awake, checking the barbacoa in their pit-ovens. By four or ﬁve in the morning the market is alive, teeming with women setting up their stalls and peeling nopales. Women remain at work for twelve hours or more, returning home well after dusk, and get up again the next morning before dawn. Juanita and other women repeatedly told me that Milpa Alta women never rest; they are very hardworking (‘La mujer milpaltense no descansa … es muy trabajadora’). They admirably sacriﬁce sleep and other comforts for the sake of their work, including domestic tasks. Rather than talk of a doble jornada,6 they speak with pride of how able and productive their women are. Supposedly, Juanita told me, women in Milpa Alta are ‘submissive’,7 but that is only how it appears on the surface. They are the ones who maintain the economic control in the family. Indeed, Milpaltense women present themselves as having various opportunities for release from oppression, sometimes deﬁning themselves against this notion of submissiveness. The reasons for these competing discourses of power and submission are multiple and complex, involving changing gender relations resulting from women’s entrance into the labour force, among other issues.8 Yadira told me that most women around her work hard at home but also invest time in labour that could be better described as extradomestic. They are not simple housewives but are the drive of the family businesses. The example of a barbacoa household (Chapter 3) illustrates how women assume the domestic household duties along with helping in the family trade. Both are also valued as work. This must be why several women described themselves as ‘housewives’ although if asked again, they would say that they were barbacoieras, market vendors (vendedoras) or businesswomen (comerciantes). It was as natural for them to portray themselves as mothers and cooks (‘Me dedico al hogar’) as it was to call themselves barbacoieras. Lulú, a single woman in her mid-twenties still living in her natal household, said that women generate sustenance; they also go to sell and create business (‘La mujer es la que genera el sustento … La mujer es la que se va a vender, que crea el comercio’). Hard work seems to be deﬁned as commerce and extradomestic labour, and both paid and unpaid domestic and extradomestic work is acknowledged and valued. Even when domestic work may appear to be devalued, the cooking and providing of meals is not (cf. Stephen, 2005, pp. 260 –1). As I discuss further below, proper provision of tasty food reﬂects good motherhood, and likewise, good womanhood. Abarca’s (2006) recent study also argues that Mexican and Chicana women use the kitchen as a space of agency and empowerment in creative ways, often by means of their cooking. Her sensitive discussion of feminist kitchen politics is a
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convincing critique of the kitchen as a site of female oppression (see also André, 2001). By stressing complementarity between the sexes, women’s independence and the dynamism of relationships between individuals of both or either gender, much work in Latin America and elsewhere dismantles the notion of women being in a rigid oppressive condition (e.g., Fowler-Salamini and Vaughan, 1994; Johnsson, 1986; Melhuus and Stølen, 1996; Rogers, 1975; Suárez and Bonﬁl, 2004, among others). In Milpa Alta, I observed that for women who are interested in cooking well, one way that they stretch their boundaries is in pursuit of culinary ideals. Though they live with some social restrictions, their everyday lives are not necessarily limited. One of the secrets of Mexican (and any good) cooking is having top-quality ingredients at hand. Many women go to great lengths to collect the right foods for the dishes they wish to prepare. They go to particular vendors or even other towns. In Milpa Alta it is normal to make frequent, almost daily trips to the market or to different shops for fresh ingredients. For culinary errands, women do not need to be accompanied, whereas they are usually chaperoned for social outings. When I accompanied one or another friend or acquaintance on a visit to the market, it was often a journey with frequent stops to chat with others passing on the street or those working in their perspective stalls or shops. Sometimes we would detour for an ice cream, taco, licuado or other snack bought on the street or in the market. Trips to the market are as much a social event for exchanging news and gossip as for stocking up the larder.9 This is not only acceptable, but expected. Once when Doña Margarita was making tamales and her dough came out a little too thin, she needed someone to go to the tortillería to buy some prepared masa so that we would not have to soak, boil and grind more maize (nixtamal ), which would take too long. I offered to go instead of Primy or one of the children, and I set off without stopping, because Doña Margarita told me not to take too long. When I returned to the house, I was surprised at her surprise at how quickly I had been, because I had done exactly as I was told—go to the tortillería and come back. Primy mentioned that it was because I walk very fast, but I suspect that it was more unusual not to spend more time chatting with passersby on every outing. Only then did I understand the joke (evidently based on truth) that men ask (usually single young) women at what time they are supposed to go out to buy bread every day. Since unmarried daughters in the family are often asked to buy fresh bread in the evenings for supper, this is a time when they can linger and meet illicitly with their lovers under cover of nightfall and the excuse of a culinary errand.10 Thus, women are not quite as conﬁned to the domestic sphere as it might appear. Even in cases where women appear to be subservient to their husbands (‘Es él que manda’), they are not imprisoned in their kitchens or completely engulfed in household chores (cf. Abarca, 2006; Roseman, 1999; Williams, 1985). Working hard in the pursuit of ﬂavour encourages a malleable boundary between domestic and extradomestic spaces, or between staying home and being out in the streets.
Women as Culinary Agents • 75
Marriage and Cooking
When a girl knows how to cook, she is considered to be ready for marriage and, by extension, motherhood. This hints at the connections between food, love and sex, which I discuss further below. Yadira told me that a woman can win a man through his mouth (‘Un hombre se conquista por la boca’). In other words, if a woman appeals to a man’s oral/gastronomical desires (taste), she can entice him to her to fulﬁl his sexual desires. This is just like how Ricardo told me (in Chapter 1) that a man falls in love with his stomach (rather than his heart). It is also not unlike Gell’s notion of artworks as traps, as I discussed in Chapter 2. With skilful cooking, food with good ﬂavour, prepared with a sazón de amor, a woman can trap a man. If a man is satisﬁed with the way a woman cooks, she will always have him in the palm of her hand. Perhaps it is for good reason that married women spend so much time preparing proper meals, and their husbands are expected to eat what they serve them. Married women are expected to know how to cook, and proper women prepare food at home from scratch. If a single woman does not know how to cook, she learns as soon as she gets married, either from her mother, her mother-in-law or other female friends and relatives. Guille told me conspiratorially that she only learned to cook several years after she got married. She was able to keep this secret from her husband because she used to collect prepared food from her mother’s or sister’s kitchen before her husband arrived home to eat. At the time, she had been ambitious about her academic and later professional career and had little patience for the kitchen. She should have been ashamed of herself, she said, for not knowing how to cook, but she managed to keep her husband from ﬁnding out. Since her mother and sister taught her to cook little by little, she acquired a similar ﬂavour or sazón in her cooking so that there was not too drastic a difference when she eventually took charge of her own kitchen. Some women quit their extradomestic jobs after marriage, although, as I explained previously, homemaking and extradomestic work are not mutually exclusive. If they used to dress seductively when they were single, some women begin to dress conservatively and stop wearing makeup, out of ‘respect’ for their husbands. Yet far from being housewives who solely cook, clean and raise their children, they usually help their husbands in their businesses by providing the necessary culinary labour (making salsas, etc.), and then enter into small commercial ventures on the side. Deciding to stay at home and raise a family is a choice that many (though not all) women make, and those who do, do so largely because of the high value placed on motherhood and family life in Mexico (cf. García and Oliveira, 1997). In other words, the correlations amongst cooking, motherhood and family life correspond to ideals of womanhood. We can also extend this to say that attaining culinary expertise is equivalent to attaining complete womanhood. Conversely, culinary knowledge is not expected of men. Men could depend on women to provide them their meals and could expect to be well-fed once married. Alejandro sometimes
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teased his cousin Kiko that he could do nothing without his wife: ‘¡Ni sabe calentar tortillas!’ (‘He doesn’t even know how to heat up tortillas!’). At this most basic level, married men depend on their wives, and unmarried men depend on their mothers. Miguel and Coty provide another example of the social signiﬁcance of cooking within marriage. Early one morning, as we drove to the market where they sell their barbacoa, they talked lightly about their skills and roles as husband and wife. Miguel said that he knew how to cook as well as how to clean and wash clothes, boasting that he could look after himself on his own. ‘¿Entonces, pa’ qué te casaste?’ (‘So what did you get married for?’) Coty taunted him. ‘Para mis niñas’ (‘For my daughters’), he replied. Cooking knowledge (and practice) is almost meaningless without a family, and a man needs a woman to bear children.
Work, Motherhood and Virtue
Based on their investigation of motherhood and extradomestic work, García and Oliveira (1997) found that motherhood is still the main deﬁning characteristic or source of identity for women in urban Mexico. Their study shows how motherhood is considered to be a source of fulﬁlment for women regardless of social class, although some women also feel ambivalent about their roles as mothers. For women who feel that their duties as mothers are a burden or hindrance, motherhood has been suggested to be another cause of women’s subordination, tying women to their homes and children when they would rather join the labour force. Yet, neither the desire for a professional extradomestic career nor the desire to remain home to raise children (and cook and clean) are ‘natural’ for women. Economic considerations play a signiﬁcant role in women’s activities. García and Oliveira demonstrate, and my ﬁndings in Milpa Alta agree, that motherhood does not actually stop women from taking on extradomestic work. In fact, it is often necessary for working-class women to work extradomestically to supplement the family income. Levine (1993) also notes that urban Mexican women in the 1990s were more likely to encourage their children, especially their daughters, to pursue more education so that they would have better chances of ﬁnding work should they be deserted by their husbands in future and be left to look after children on their own. Several Milpaltense women mentioned to me that they engaged in commercial or professional activities to earn money so that they could ﬁnish building their houses, buy a plot of land or provide things for their children. Finding child minders during their working hours was not usually a problem because of the proximity of relatives or links of compadrazgo in a woman’s kin network. Working-class women taking on jobs outside the home do not think of this freedom to work as any sort of liberating agency, but rather seem to consider it as an unfortunate necessity. Many women consider extradomestic work to be detrimental
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to the development of their families despite their capitalist productivity. Although some did talk of professional fulﬁlment, a larger percentage of both women and men in Milpa Alta neglected to practise their professional careers in favour of ‘traditional’ Milpaltense occupations. Other women told me without any indication of shame that they stopped working after marriage, or in particular after having their ﬁrst child, because they and/or their husbands thought it best for them to dedicate their time to child rearing. For the sake of their children, then, women may stop working outside the home or engage in work that can largely be done from home. The virtues, values and ideals of motherhood and domestic work, including good cooking, can also be demonstrated by the following example. Women who wish to pursue extradomestic activities can use a discourse of homemaking and cooking to subvert moral and social criticism. Villareal’s (1996) analysis of women beekeepers in Jalisco, Mexico, illustrates how attempts to restrict women’s social spaces may draw on gender imagery that plays upon male ideals and women’s morality. Yet women can also use these notions to their advantage. The dominant discourse of male power and female weakness is used often in reference to Latin America, and Villareal (p. 184) argues against this assumption: ‘In overemphasizing “dominant” imagery, researchers tend to assume that ideas pertaining to those in hierarchical positions are oppressing passive victims. This can lead to black-and-white pictures which portray the notion of a discourse which is almost solely responsible for the exercise of power and subordination.’ In Jalisco, she describes that the government encouraged peasant women’s participation in an entrepreneurial scheme which required the allocation of ejido land, a scarce resource for the community.11 Eventually land was grudgingly given to the women beekeepers, largely because of the governmental support of the project. In the community’s reaction against this, these women were attacked in an indirect expression of community dissatisfaction over giving up this land. The boundaries of women’s accepted movements were threatened by gossip that labelled them as libertina (loose, free) or their husbands as mandilón (tied to the apron strings, henpecked and in effect, therefore, with wives who are loose and free). Eventually the women were able to circumvent and even subvert some of the powerful images of being good women and good wives (or women vis-à-vis men). They did so by emphasizing their exemplary behaviour with respect to other images of womanhood, such as motherhood and being good homemakers (which includes cooking). It is helpful to quote at length here to illustrate this point:
None [of the women beekeepers] claimed explicitly to be a model housewife, but Petra, the president of the group, often boasted about her cooking skills and was proud of the way she had reared her children, despite problems with her husband, who wanted her to spend more time in the house. Sara (another member of the group) spoke with satisfaction about how good her sons were, the way they went to church on Sundays, but also about her kind and faithful husband, and how she walked kilometres across the
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ﬁelds to take him a hot lunch, then stayed a bit to help out with his chores. She proudly showed her sewing and embroidery to her visitors. Socorro bragged quietly about how she cooked for her family, which was now composed of only boys, since the girls had married out. The idea of keeping their household in ‘good order’ was often conveyed. (Villareal, 1996, p. 195)
A similar kind of dynamic exists in Milpa Alta, and probably in other parts of Mexico as well. Villareal’s case study clearly demonstrates that women are not passive. They can take an active role in modifying their social spaces. They do not necessarily succumb submissively to the dominant discourse, but actively use the ideals of cooking and motherhood to avoid forcing direct confrontation. Melhuus and Stølen (1996) argue that gender ideology is in constant ﬂux, yet it continues to organize and perform functions in society. They write, ‘Neither the fact that women often comply with practices that subordinate them nor the fact that they resist the exercise of such practices can be understood in terms of the exclusively repressive view of power common in women’s studies’ (p. 20). Some cases cited in their volume indicate a certain complicity among women, as well as resistance, which undermines the power of the accepted gender imagery.
Suffering, Love Affairs and the Morality of the Meal
When Yadira’s ﬁrst child was born, she told me, she cried because the child was a girl. Girls grow up to have difﬁcult lives, she explained. When I asked Doña Delﬁna, who had two sons, if she had wanted a daughter, she replied that at ﬁrst she had not thought about it, and since her sons always helped her at home, she never felt the desire to have a daughter. She then added, ‘It was better, knowing how a woman suffers, better not [to have a daughter]. God gave me two sons, and thanks to God, with them I am happy’ (‘Ni, mejor, por conocer que una como mujer sufre, ya no. Dios me ha dado dos hijos, y gracias a Dios, con esos estoy contenta’). Women’s suffering came up in conversation in a surprisingly casual manner, as did the topic of physical abuse. An elderly lady told me that her husband was a womanizer and a drunk, but he never hit her. Then she added, ‘No, he only hit me once or twice, but it was because I had done something to deserve it; but apart from those occasions, he never hit me!’ Some people spoke so openly about wife-beating that I was led to believe it was commonplace, though I have no hard facts to prove it. I was also told that if a woman fails to cook or clean, her husband may beat her (or at least she fears that he might, even if he never has given her reason to believe he really will). If he does beat her, she suffers through it. Domestic violence rarely results in separation. In fact, at the time of ﬁeldwork, there were few divorces and separations in Milpa Alta (though there were other reasons for this as well, as I mention below). Melhuus (1992) suggests in her study of Toluca, Mexico, that women have the tendency to attach virtue to suffering. The greatest form of suffering for a married
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woman is if her husband is having an extramarital affair.12 At some point in marriage, a husband is thought likely to be unfaithful to his wife, and not the other way around. Alejandro once said to me very bluntly, ‘El mexicano toma mucho y le gusta divertirse con varias chamacas’ (‘Mexican men drink a lot and like to have fun with lots of girls’). Not all men are like this, but this is the expected image. Some people would even say that a man who has no lover is not a real man (‘Él que no tiene una amante no es hombre’) and also that if he does not beat his wife, he is henpecked (‘Él que no pega a su mujer es su mandilón’). A married man may be envied or admired among his peers if he is known to have a lover on the side, especially if she is young and pretty. With amusement Kiko told me his reaction to a man who showed off his affair in the following manner: Toward the end of a ﬁesta, Alfonso approached Kiko, supposedly to ask for advice. He said that he was 50 years old, married with children, and he had fallen in love with a 25-year-old beauty. He did not know what to do. Kiko mischievously decided not to respond in the way expected of him. He offered to seduce Alfonso’s mistress so that she would lose interest in him, thus relieving Alfonso of his guilt and his ‘problem’. After hearing of this incident, I began to enquire about men’s and women’s love relationships, about men who have affairs and why they stay with their wives. Yadira said that men who had affairs surely did love their wives, though she could not say for sure that Milpa Alta had many machos. They loved them as mothers, and as ‘slaves’ to their children (‘Sí, las quieren, pero como mamás, y esclavas para sus hijos’). Motherhood being the centre of domestic life kept men with their wives even if they were tempted by others. Women were tempting when they dressed up, wore makeup, high heels and short skirts, and cut their hair or left it loose in the modern fashionable hairstyles. Both single and married men found this attractive, so this was why many men forbade their wives to cut their hair or wear makeup—to prevent them from attracting other men. Decent women plaited their long hair and did not use makeup. Doña Delﬁna used to say that only women of the streets wear makeup (‘Sólo las pirujas, las mujeres de la calle, se pintan’). What Yadira interpreted as a sign of women’s subjugation to men’s ideas or tastes Doña Delﬁna saw as a moral issue. With their appearance, or at least on the surface, women could protect their morality, and likewise that of their husbands. The discussion so far suggests that men might have the upper hand over women when it comes to power and permissiveness. But what it also indicates is the centrality of women in the judgement of both men and women, and that this is the source of women’s power. But my friends, such as Yadira and Lulú, also said that women who are beaten by their husbands for not fulﬁlling domestic tasks (with or without hired help), or for not dressing ‘appropriately’, were partly responsible for those consequences. They allowed their husbands to play the macho role. As Lulú put it, ‘It depends on the woman; if she becomes submissive, it’s because she allows it’ (‘Depende en la mujer; si se vuelve sumisa, es porque se deja’).
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Doña Delﬁna herself wore her hair in two plaits only after marriage, but though she appeared to defer to her husband on the surface, she ultimately had the last word when it came to family decisions. Early in their marriage her husband wanted to move to another municipality of Mexico City so that both of them could avoid their long commutes to work. He arranged a ﬂat for them to rent and only needed Doña Delﬁna’s signature. She refused to sign the tenancy agreement, preferring for her children to grow up on their land. Years later, Don Felipe was grateful for Doña Delﬁna’s decision in that the family was happy to have remained in Milpa Alta. So although Doña Delﬁna talked generally of women’s suffering, this did not imply a lack of authority. Melhuus (1992) discusses how women’s actual power over men is subtly hidden by a moral discourse linked to the merit of ‘suffering [as] a way of life’ (p. 160) or suffering as a female virtue. The labels puta (whore) and hijo de puta (son of a whore) are insults which highlight this paradox of honour and value in Latin American societies. While men appear to hold honour and represent their families as the household head, the greatest value in society is placed on women, and it is women’s behaviour and morality (their shame) which reﬂects upon men. Women are a threat to men as ‘bearers (if not keepers) of their honour’ (p. 80) and men are the ‘guardians of women’s virtue’ (p. 159). Of central importance is women’s role as mothers in relation to men. This is why calling a man hijo de puta is a very powerful insult, whereas calling a woman the daughter of a whore (hija de puta) is ambiguous and virtually meaningless. Her morality is better insulted directly by calling her puta. But two other terms, pendejo/a and güey, are more commonly used in Milpa Alta for insulting men and women. These express two key concepts of moral judgement, complementary to the labels of puta and hijo de puta. They are related to the victimized wife of the macho man who has other lovers or more than one family, and to the cuckolded husband of the woman who sleeps around. When someone is called pendejo/a, it usually means hacerse tonto/a, to act stupidly. A woman described as pendeja is one whose husband has one or more lovers, and she accepts it. She pretends that either she does not know or that she does not care so much. When a man’s wife has a lover, he may be described as being pendejo, but he is more likely to be called güey. It is one of the biggest insults for a man, although it is also used among close friends to profess admiration, as swear words are used in English as well. The word güey is derived from the word buey, which means bull (toro). More speciﬁcally, it was explained to me, when you describe a man by saying, ‘Es un buey’ (‘He is a bull’), it is because his wife is deceiving him (‘porque su esposa le engaña’). When you say, ‘Se hace güey’ (‘He is acting güey’), it is because it seems that he takes no notice, because he is acting stupid (‘porque parece que no se da cuenta, porque se hace tonto’). Furthermore, since bulls have horns, a man who is called a güey has horns. So by cheating on him with another man, his wife gives him horns (se pone los cuernos). In Milpa Alta, a man who moves into his wife’s house after marriage or who is henpecked
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may be teased by others as a ciguamoncli or ciguamoncle. Although it may not necessarily be the case that his wife dominates over him or that she has an extramarital lover, since it is the norm for the wife to move to the husband’s house, the man appears to be acting güey. Men and women are conceived of as having differing motivations for lenience over the sexual behaviour of their spouses. The explanation was phrased to me in this way: ‘Generally a man who acts tonto does so because of the depth of his love for his wife. A woman who acts tonta does so because she is pendeja, so that people will not speak ill of her, to keep up appearances.’13 The implication of the preceding explanation is that a man acts ‘stupidly’ and allows his wife to ‘give him horns’ because he refuses to acknowledge that her behaviour is making a fool of him. He allows her to dominate, in effect. A woman who acts ‘stupidly’ is just ‘stupid’ because she allows her husband to do as he pleases and does not complain so that her marriage appears intact. Inversely, if she was not stupid ( pendeja) and was overly concerned with others’ opinions, she would take advantage of her right to demand her husband’s ‘respect’ and full sexual attention. Most people with whom I spoke made jokes and ‘naughty’ innuendos when they talked of sexual opportunities, both extramarital or premarital, real or imagined. On the much rarer occasion of a woman telling me that her husband had had an affair, or a second family, she either couched the story in terms of woman’s suffering or told me of her little revenge, as in the following anecdote:
Doña Marta told me of her jealousy when she discovered that her husband had a lover. She had already suspected it when he would repeatedly come home after midnight without letting her know of his plans to stay out late. As a dutiful wife, she prepared proper meals for him every day, often cooking his favourites or requests for his comida. When he failed to return home to eat, it frustrated her, but her relatives and neighbours told her she simply had to accept that he was a man and that is how men were. In retaliation, she would wait until he got home, whatever the time, and she would insist that he have his comida. She would rush to the kitchen to warm up the food and would purposely give him large servings, saying that he must be hungry since he was home so late. Although he would have been very full and quite tired, since he had already eaten a full meal with his lover, he was unable to refuse the meal. Doña Marta would not allow him to leave the table until he cleaned his plate, as he ought to do since it was served to him. Since she had fulﬁlled her duties as a wife by cooking for him, he had to fulﬁll his duties as a husband by eating what she had so lovingly cooked.
I hinted at the coerciveness of Milpaltense hospitality in Chapter 2 and discuss it further in the next chapter. Doña Marta’s culinary revenge was effective against her philandering husband partly because of the Milpaltense imperative to eat everything served on one’s plate, regardless of the eater’s true hunger. It was also Doña Marta’s subtle way of insisting that her husband recognize his sexual obligations to her, by enforcing his gastronomical obligations to eat her home-cooked meals. As one
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Mexican saying goes, ‘A la mesa y a la cama, una sola vez se llama’ (‘To the table or to bed, you must come when you are bid’). Although not common, another form of ‘revenge’ that a woman may undertake if she ﬁnds out her husband has a lover is for her to take a lover of her own. On the other hand, a married woman having an affair is usually scolded by her female friends and relatives. Among those women who have extramarital lovers, Yadira said that they prefer to leave their lovers before they are found out, in order to protect their virtuous image in the eyes of their children. The same does not apply for men. She generalized that for men, to be in love means sex, and for women, to be in love means submission to men or society’s rules (at least in appearance). Although a single woman having an affair with a married man ought to be looked down upon, she may still be respected in her own way, if her married lover acknowledges her (and their children) and thus demands her respect. Otherwise, in Milpa Alta, divorce and single motherhood is worse than having or being an extramarital lover. Therefore, though interpretations may vary, the most important point to note is that many women do feel that they are responsible for themselves as well as for their families. They can provide for family needs through nurture as well as by wage-earning work. Being able to blame themselves for some unpleasant aspects of domestic life indicates that women can be powerful and autonomous agents. They run the family, and by extension the greater social sphere. Women’s power is drawn from the domestic realm, from the venerated role they play in the family, epitomized in the mother-child bond. They are ready to make great sacriﬁces for the sake of their children; they would even leave their lovers. As Lulú and Yadira often said, women are the hub of the family; they support as well as beneﬁt and depend upon their family and children. For this reason they are willing to suffer and to work twice as hard as their husbands.14 Good women suffer for love of their husbands, and they also cook for love, in multiple ways. Women, in sum, are portrayed as the ideal providers of sex and food, who suffer for the sake of husbands, children and culinary ideals. The intimacy of these social relationships makes home cooking the best—somehow construed to be the highest in prestige. As Wilk describes it, ‘Metaphorically, home cooking means a cuisine grounded in familiar shared history and in common knowledge of places and people. Home cooking is always concerned with quality, because people you care about will eat the meal’ (2006, p. 202, original emphasis). Home cooking is not only the ideal food, it is ideally also the most ﬂavourful. Well-prepared and delicious food is food cooked ‘with love’, with the sazón de amor of a talented cook who loves her husband and her children, or with love magic cooked in to ensnare a man or keep him at home.
The material I have presented thus far suggests that women can gain empowerment through cooking or can draw it from their culinary agency (cf. Abarca, 2006). This is
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given further credence by other related studies in Latin America and elsewhere that demonstrate that gender roles are not necessarily constitutive of power relationships and identity, but that gender is in ﬂux and power is not intrinsic to its constitution (González Montes and Tuñon, 1997; McCallum, 2001; Melhuus and Stølen, 1996; see also Moore, 1994; Ortner, 1996; Roseman, 1999; Sanders, 2000). Furthermore, by focusing on food, the existing ideal of gastronomy makes culinary artistry a possible goal that women may strive to achieve, whether or not they consider it the main source of their public esteem in general. In fact, as I have described previously, women in Milpa Alta are proud to be known as hardworking, and they provide good food for their families however much or little they cook. Nevertheless, some may choose to emphasize cooking as part of their gender identity, depending on the social or local political situation in which they ﬁnd themselves. That is, women may choose to deﬁne themselves as loving individuals who cook for their husbands or other family members, whether or not they actually do so regularly because they are food vendors, barbacoieras, or have other incomegenerating activities that keep them busy away from home. Whether a woman cooks for her family or has someone else do the cooking, she may take the credit for providing a meal (abducting the culinary agency of the food/cook). Women’s culinary agency is not limited to cooking but may also extend to creative methods of meal provision. This emphasizes the importance of cooking in family life. By virtue of its artistic nature, cooking is a creative activity which requires a basic freedom to perform. Not only this, elaborate cuisines may in fact be a means of escaping the varied existing restrictions that are already embedded in social life. In Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, Sidney Mintz (1996, Chapter 3) describes how freedom from slavery may have been partly achieved by the development of a local cuisine. Mintz’s ‘taste of freedom’ is in direct contrast with Bourdieu’s. Bourdieu deﬁnes the ‘taste of luxury’ as the ‘taste of liberty’ or a distance from necessity (1984, p. 177); it is associated with economic success (economic capital). In contrast, although Mintz does not speciﬁcally engage himself with Bourdieu, Mintz describes how something judged to be of good taste can emanate from the necessity and poverty of the slaves of the American South, who were low in class hierarchy. Rather than good taste (at least in food) being deﬁned according to the habitus of the dominant class, the pursuit of ﬂavour and culinary mastery allowed some slaves to be elevated from being treated like beasts in the ﬁelds to exercising their creative agency through their cooking. By constructing a cuisine of their own, Mintz suggests, they ultimately attained freedom.
In these differing tasks (and in eating), they were able to exercise the human potentiality to taste, to compare, to elaborate their preferences. To be sure, they did so under terrible constraints; often, just staying alive was the sole challenge. Yet the ability to render judgements of food, to develop comparisons, to calibrate differences in taste—and to be prevented from doing so—help to suggest that something of the taste of freedom was
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around before freedom itself was. The tasting of freedom was linked to the tasting of food. (Mintz, 1996, p. 37)
As I describe for Milpa Alta, the dependence on ﬂavour, or a devotion to culinary works of art, gives women the legitimacy to expand their social and physical boundaries, forms of autonomy, morality and domestic power and may even help them to trap a husband. Although women’s socially acceptable spaces may have appeared limited, cooking was one signiﬁcant way around it, which eventually led to the development of an elaborate cuisine, an idea also formulated by Mintz: ‘[W]orking in the emergence of cuisine legitimized status distinctions within slavery, both because the master class became dependent on its cooks, and because the cooks actually invented a cuisine that the masters could vaunt, but could not themselves duplicate’ (47–8). In effect, by recognizing that cooking is active and creative, its outcome (food, dishes, recipes) should be thought of as having social agency, or as being social actors in their own right, as works of art (Gell, 1998). Then, an elaborate cuisine is not simply a creative escape valve for otherwise restricted women. It is a license for social action in the pursuit of technical or culinary artistry, and it can even be thought of as a means toward women’s liberation. Looking more closely at cuisine and the social relations surrounding its production can be illuminating, therefore. While it is arguable that women’s subordination was exacerbated by the demands of the kitchen, in the case of Mexico, this was speciﬁcally the demands of making fresh tortillas (see Pilcher, 1998, pp. 99–121). Before wide industrialization and the spread of mechanical tortillerías, Mexican women used to spend up to a third of their waking hours making tortillas (pp. 100–6). At the same time, there was resistance to machine-made tortillas, because machines produced inferior ﬂavours and quality in comparison to handmade tortillas (Marroni de Velázquez, 1994). Abarca (2006, pp. 31–2) also notes that in some ways the factory-made tortillas were more of a burden than a blessing to rural women because of their need to earn money to buy them. She also describes how her mother’s skill in making tortillas by hand was a source of pride and self-assurance in confrontation with her in-laws (Abarca, pp. 80–1). Gradually, with technological advances and political changes as women entered the extradomestic labour force, machine-made tortillas gained acceptance (Pilcher, 1998, pp. 106–10).15 With the tortillas sorted out, women were left with more time and energy to devote to other activities, culinary or otherwise. The elaborate cuisine was not the restrictive factor of their lives per se. To summarize, then, it is as a provider of sex and food that women’s power becomes evident. Both sex and food lead to the continuance (and reproduction) of individuals as well as of society. Ideally food is cooked at home, by a wife or a mother, in the way taught by generations of women who nourished their families as wives and mothers. A woman should be able to satisfy her husband both sexually and gastronomically, or, put another way, she is in control over these two fundamental
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desires (cf. Gow, 1989). Taggart (1992, pp. 80–1) also describes a link between hunger for food and desire for sex among the Sierra Nahaut of Central Mexico. In fact, among other Náhuatl-speaking groups, the only men for whom women prepare food are their husbands. Furthermore, in Náhuatl, the word for ‘to eat’ has the double meaning of eating food and having sex (Taggart, 1992, pp. 80–1; Vázquez García, 1997, p. 182). Women’s agency, therefore, can be both culinary and reproductive. Whilst I cannot claim to have a formula or list of criteria for determining who is a culinary artist or who is an ordinary cook, I believe that such a thing as culinary agency, or potential to culinary artistry, is accessible to anyone who cooks (see Chapter 2). If she is a skilful cook or can mobilize her culinary agency, a woman can have actual power over her husband, the domestic sphere and, by extension, the greater social realm. Women use their culinary agency in the cycle of festivity (described in the chapter that follows), when, Stephen (2005, Chapter 9) argues, it is precisely women’s cooking that is most highly valued.16 The preceding discussion has indicated how home cooking is highly valued in Mexico, and many more examples can be given to corroborate this. Women are arguably the most highly valued half of society (Melhuus, 1992), and they use this status in imaginative and subtle ways to assert their power (over men). It is important to remember now that a proper meal prepared at home according to traditional techniques is considered to taste better than anything commercially produced. Many people, in Mexico and elsewhere, say that no one cooks better than their mothers. This perception hinges on the connection between the value of good cooking—of good ﬂavour—and the value allocated to women, as wives and mothers, or in the nature of the two most important desires, for food and for sex (see Gow, 1989; Gregor, 1985). In fulﬁllment of these desires social relations are made or unmade. And fulﬁllment of these desires requires imagination, skill, creativity—in a word, artistry.
Recipes Huevos a la mexicana
A typical recipe for almuerzo. oil ½ onion, ﬁnely chopped 1 green chile, ﬁnely chopped 1 large tomato, ﬁnely chopped 4 eggs salt
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Over a medium ﬂame, heat oil in frying pan and sauté onions and chiles until soft. Add tomatoes, raise the heat and cook until well-done and almost dry. Break the eggs into the pan, add salt, and stir until all are well blended. When just ﬁrm, remove from the heat. Eggs should still be soft. Serve with beans ( frijoles de olla), pickled chiles or salsa, and hot tortillas or bread.
When there is little time to make a proper meal, some women buy various foods in the market to serve taco placero or tacos de plaza. This is a combination of foods that can be bought in the market or tianguis and eaten right there in the plaza as ﬁllings for tacos; hence its name. Some people buy food and combine it with what they have at home for making any kind of tacos. Some or all of the following foods are offered for taco placero, with the essential ingredients marked with an asterisk (*): *tortillas *queso fresco *avocado *chicharrón *pápaloquelite *pickled chiles salsa cebollas desﬂemadas nopales compuestos tamal de sesos tamal de charales pascle salpicón barbacoa carnitas cecina lime spring onions beans
Batter for Coating Fish (pescado capeado)
Yadira Arenas Berrocal 1 egg 1 clove garlic salt and pepper
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Blend all ingredients together or crush garlic and scramble with eggs, salt and pepper. Dredge ﬁsh ﬁllets in ﬂour. Dip in egg mixture. Fry in hot oil.
José Arenas Berrocal Yadira’s brother, José, learned to make carnitas by watching others. The ﬁrst time he prepared carnitas was for a ﬁesta that I attended. The food turned out so well that his sisters congratulated him as if he were a young girl, saying, ‘Now you are ready to marry!’ (José was divorced and had two adolescent sons.) One whole pig (about 20 kg) serves around 140 people. For this recipe José used two medium-sized pigs. • The pig must be cut into large pieces—legs, loin, shoulders, ribs, skin—and marinated in vinegar for several hours to overnight. • In a large cauldron, heat abundant lard until boiling. Add meat in this order: ﬁrst legs, then shoulders, loin, ribs, with skin on top, covering all the meat. • When the lard comes to a boil once more, add around 5 large cans of evaporated milk, the juice from around 40 oranges, and the peels of 5 oranges. You may add garlic, but this is optional. • Allow the meat to boil until it is very soft. Add saltpetre to redden and ﬂavour the meat. • Serve with hot tortillas and red or green salsa.
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Mole and Fiestas
This chapter analyzes the social meanings of the food served during ﬁestas in Milpa Alta—that is, mole, barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes. Fiesta food, like daily food, is also prepared or organized by women, although we have seen that barbacoa is a product of men’s and women’s complementary labour, and carnitas is a similar dish. Whichever ﬁesta food is chosen, it is prepared in large amounts, usually to serve at least around ﬁve hundred guests, and thus also requires more than one cook to prepare it. These celebratory dishes are repositories of the value of social actors as groups rather than as individuals. As described in the previous chapter, the high value of culinary elaboration is interwoven with the social value placed upon women’s (sexual and gastronomic) virtue as wives and mothers within the domestic sphere. Women are also valued in the community speciﬁcally for their role in rituals, that is, ﬁestas (cf. Stephen, 2005, Chapter 9). One of Stephen’s Zapotec informants is quoted to have said, ‘The men respect our work and say that we work hard. They know the food is the most important thing about a ﬁesta, and we do that. So our work is most important, but it’s hard’ (p. 261). This is similar to Milpa Alta, where food preparation is recognized and appreciated as work in family as well as in community contexts. What I found striking about ﬁestas was the predictability of the menu; in Mexican cuisine, feast food is mole, and likewise having mole makes eaters feel that they are celebrating something. This is signiﬁcant, but not just as an indication of the symbolic power or value of foods. Special occasions require elaborate dishes so that they can be marked as special,1 but there are other features of a ﬁesta apart from the food that together characterize celebration. The ﬁesta incorporates local social systems (the mayordomía and compadrazgo), including music, ritual and convention, which will be explained in this chapter. The mayordomía organizes the town ﬁesta (la ﬁesta del pueblo), one of the most important public festivities. During this time the community cooperates with the local mayordomía to hold a large-scale celebration where all are welcome. Similarly, compadrazgo (the system of ritual kinship or co-parenthood) helps families cooperate to organize and celebrate their private life cycle rituals. Fiestas of varying scales require greater or lesser individual involvement, depending on family and community demands and whether they are personal celebrations of life cycle events or local or national holidays. In the following pages I describe some aspects of the ﬁesta of
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Barrio San Mateo and the systems of reciprocal exchange in hospitality, concluding with a discussion of mole, the quintessence of Mexican culinary artistry.
Compadrazgo and the mayordomía
It is helpful to have a basic understanding of compadrazgo and the mayordomía, though much has already been written by others on these systems of reciprocal exchange.2 As already mentioned, both systems function around feasts and hospitality at the levels of the family and the barrio, respectively. Their main responsibility is to organize ﬁestas, the most important aspects of which are the food and the music. Mayordomos also arrange the salvas/promesas (gifts) that their barrio takes to others’ town/barrio ﬁestas.
Compadrazgo3 is the system of ritual kinship, which at its most basic is the relationship between a couple and the godparents ( padrinos) of their child. When a couple chooses their compadres, it is because they hold them in high esteem and would thus be honoured if they would accept the role of godparent for their child. Compadrazgo ritualizes these close social relationships between families based on their mutual respect. The ties bound by shared responsibility over the ahijado (godchild) provide a social assurance which may be necessary in future, although not necessarily for economic assistance. Apart from baptism, there are other kinds of compadres for marriage, house blessings and almost any kind of inaugural or life cycle event. Both husbands and wives choose their compadres, sometimes jointly, sometimes singly. Compadres, especially baptismal compadres, are couples married in church with whom they wish to maintain a lifelong relationship. By extension, other family members on both sides call one another compadre/comadre or padrino/madrina, and the families maintain commitments as of kinship into future generations. The respect that characterizes compadrazgo relationships implies personal affection, mutual admiration and also social distance. To speak with respect, therefore, is natural under these circumstances. Thus, friends who become compadres may change the form of address that they use with one another and begin to use Usted when they used to call each other tú (cf. Lomnitz, 1977). Accompanying heightened respect, the actual relationship between compadres may be characterized by competition, envidia (greed) and initial distrust, and these also extend throughout the families of the compadres. Indeed, each family thereafter maintains this bond between them, and one would begin to address the mother of one’s comadre, for example, as ‘comadrita’. The way Yadira explained it, she said that compadres (and friends) are ‘inherited’ in Milpa Alta. They are ritual kin.4
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In the realm of the family ﬁesta cycle, compadres assist in preparing the ﬁestas and are also the most honoured guests, deserving special treatment. As will be discussed in greater detail in this chapter, when they leave a ﬁesta compadres are given extra food to take away with them, called an itacate. These parcels of food are also given to compadres when they cannot attend a ﬁesta, thereby continuing to nourish the social relationship despite their absence. If compadres cannot attend, to avoid offense they must let their hosts know in advance. Like the images of saints who ritually visit one another during town ﬁestas, compadres are expected to visit one another on occasions of special family events and can expect to be welcomed with a mole de ﬁesta.
The ﬁesta del pueblo and the mayordomía
In Milpa Alta every barrio and pueblo is named after a Catholic saint, although most pueblos have both Catholic and Náhuatl names. Since San Mateo is a barrio of the pueblo Villa Milpa Alta, it is only called San Mateo, but nearby pueblos have double names like San Pablo Oztotepec or San Salvador Cuauhtenco. Throughout Mexico, towns may be referred to solely by their indigenous names, but they almost always have a Catholic saint’s name as well. We can say that the Spaniards ‘baptized’ each town with a new Catholic name, installing a church in honour of that saint in the centre. According to the Catholic calendar introduced by the Spanish, each saint corresponds to a certain day in the year, his or her feast day. People used to be named after the saints on whose day they were born, and for this reason, one’s birthday is also referred to as one’s saint’s day (el día de su santo). (Most people are now no longer named after the calendar name, and it is not unheard of to celebrate both one’s birthday and saint’s day, although this is not the norm.) Likewise, barrios and pueblos celebrate their saint’s day with a ﬁesta. Town or barrio ﬁestas are a combination of feasts, performances and religious ritual. They are organized by the socio-political institution called the mayordomía or ‘el sistema de cargos’, the cargo system. The mayordomos, one or more couples (who have married in church) from the barrio/pueblo, are responsible for caring for the church. They take on this charge for a determined length of time before passing on the role to other members (married couples) of the community. Mayordomos are like human go-betweens amongst the patron saints of the barrios and pueblos, taking charge of the ritual visits to other pueblos on their feast day celebrations. For the ﬁesta del pueblo, local families are expected to help, either ﬁnancially or with their labour. The mayordomos go to everyone’s houses collecting donations, as large sums of money are needed (cf. Brandes, 1988). On the whole, most families in Milpa Alta regularly give whatever economic, material or physical aid that is asked of them, even if it is not always easy. In San Mateo the amounts that each contributed are announced one week after the ﬁesta. The names of those who
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did not contribute are also made public, and they are often ridiculed. Sometimes people give more money than they really can afford. ‘But you have to contribute to continue with the traditions,’ Yadira said. In fact, it is to one’s personal beneﬁt to give to the community, especially in the role of mayordomos, and also for the sake of comfortable relations and status within the social network (Brandes, 1988; Lomnitz, 1977; Salles and Valenzuela, 1997; Stephen, 2005). Many families eagerly look forward to the ﬁesta del pueblo, planning and saving money months in advance. Some host their own private banquets during the barrio ﬁesta, offering the expected ﬁesta foods in abundance. Cata, a single mother who washes clothes and does general cleaning for a living, buys a pig every year which she tends and fattens so that when it is time for the ﬁesta she can have it slaughtered to prepare carnitas for at least a hundred guests. As Chelita once said to me, ‘No tenemos para el calzón, pero para la ﬁesta . . .’ (‘We don’t have enough [money] to buy underwear, but for the ﬁesta . . . [we do]’). The ﬁesta ofﬁcially starts on the eve of the feast day when several other barrios and pueblos of Milpa Alta, and nearby Morelos, begin to arrive with statues of their patron saints, bringing their promesas of ﬂowers and music. After singing the mañanitas, a Mexican birthday song, the visiting barrios are hosted by local mayordomos to share in a feast of mole, barbacoa, carnitas or mixiotes, with the usual accompaniments. Mariachis play throughout the day while people eat, and into the night there is dancing, live bands, and ﬁreworks.5 Family events are celebrated in the same way, without the ﬁreworks, though they are organized amongst compadres, who help in cash or kind. Both compadrazgo and the mayordomía are systems that structure social relations, closeness and distance in the community among families or pueblos. In compadrazgo, individuals representing family groups engage in long-term, indeﬁnite bonds of reciprocity that last a lifetime and beyond. The mayordomía engages in similar long-term contractual exchange relationships with the corresponding mayordomías of neighbouring barrios and pueblos. Though mayordomos typically ‘reign’ for one to ﬁve years in Milpa Alta, they are continually replaced by future mayordomos who maintain the ongoing reciprocal exchange relationships amongst other barrios, standing in for the communities represented by the patron saints.6 Stephen (2005) explains how, amongst Zapotecs in Oaxaca, the form and content of community-level celebration has been appropriated into life cycle celebrations, especially weddings. She also argues that women are critical players in ritual life, because they are the ones who prepare the food, the most important aspect of any ﬁesta. My observations in Milpa Alta are comparable. Weddings are also the largest and most important family life cycle celebrations. However, apart from funerals, life cycle rituals are sometimes combined and celebrated together. For example, some couples delay their church weddings, and thus their obligation to provide a wedding feast, until they have children. When they ﬁnally do have a church wedding, it can be held jointly with a baptism (when a baby turns 1 year
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old) or presentation (when a child is 3), or may be held on the day of the barrio ﬁesta. All occasions require the same menu for the banquet to accommodate hundreds of people, and there is an abundance of food, live music and dancing. Since each ﬁesta should have the same kind of feast food, it is acceptable to celebrate them together with a single feast, however long overdue the wedding may be. What would be unacceptable is to have a wedding or baptism without the mole de ﬁesta to offer to guests. As I explain in the section that follows, there are forceful fundamental rules of food hospitality in Milpa Alta, in both ﬁestas and everyday settings, which are crucial to social interaction.
Hospitality and Food
When guests arrive at the house, the ﬁrst thing that a host says is, ‘¡Adelante! ¡adelante! ¿Qué les ofrezco?’ (‘Come in! Come in! What can I offer you?’). Hospitable and well-mannered people offer their guests a full meal if it is available or if they themselves are in the middle of a meal. What is served depends on the time of arrival. Before noon a guest is offered breakfast, from around noon to about six it is lunchtime, and after six is suppertime. Since someone might arrive for whatever reason at any time, however infrequent, something to eat or drink must always be available, even if it is only a piece of fruit or agua fresca. People take it seriously and remember hosts who do not offer a soft drink or a glass of water (‘¡Ni siquiera te ofrecen un refresco o un vaso con agua!’), a complaint expressed with derision toward the subject of conversation. The main meal of the day, la comida, is usually served between two and ﬁve in the afternoon. It starts with a soup or sopa aguada, often chicken broth with pasta, and/ or sopa seca (dry soup), which is either pasta or rice ﬂavoured with onions and garlic and sometimes tomatoes to which carrots, young corn kernels, peas and/or potatoes may be added. The main course is often meat served in a sauce or with some other hot salsa on the side. It may be as simple as breaded chicken breasts accompanied by cooked vegetables, or chicharrón en chile verde (pork crackling in green sauce), or it may be something rather more complex such as mole verde con pollo (green mole with chicken). This would be followed by beans and all accompanied by tortillas, as well as agua de frutas, sweetened diluted fruit juice. In the evenings a guest may be served leftovers from the main meal or perhaps some sweet rolls accompanied by café de olla or hot milk into which one is invited to stir instant coffee or chocolate and sugar. In the mornings a guest may also be served leftovers from the day before, such as a bowl of pancita accompanied by tacos of broad beans or nopales compuestos, or perhaps enchiladas or thinly sliced beef steaks with a salsa and potatoes sautéed with onions. Whatever is for breakfast is served along with beans, sometimes refried, teleras and hot milk. If they have run out of milk the hosts apologize and ask if coffee would be all right, because this is all
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that they have left. The host must share whatever food is at hand, and the guest must accept the food offered, as the following anecdote illustrates:
It was the feast day of Saint Francis, and I was staying in Primy’s house. We were breakfasting on chilaquiles served with two fried eggs each and teleras. To prepare the chilaquiles Doña Margarita had used the green sauce from the carne de res con nopalitos en chile verde (beef with nopales in green sauce) that we had eaten for lunch the day before. She would normally prepare a new sauce to make chilaquiles, but, she said, one uses whatever one has at hand. Since Doña Margarita had served herself last and there was an odd number of eggs, she had only one egg. Just as we started to eat, at around 9.30, Yadira and Kiko came to pick me up for the day. They were taking me to visit the town ﬁesta of nearby San Francisco Tecoxpa. Since their nopalera was in that area of Milpa Alta, she and Kiko needed to pay their contribution to the local mayordomía. Doña Margarita immediately passed her plate to Yadira and said that she was not very hungry, so Yadira should have her share. Yadira protested that she had already had breakfast and that Doña Margarita should eat, but Doña Margarita insisted. She then asked Kiko if he would like some barbacoa en chile verde because they had run out of tortillas and could not make more chilaquiles. He accepted the offer, and she heated some barbacoa in the same sauce and served it to him with some beans. Since Primy had not yet touched her eggs, she passed one of them to Yadira’s plate, saying that she really did not feel like having two eggs that day. After eating, we went to visit Yadira’s compadres, whose son was ill. There we were offered tacos dorados de pollo. This was what they had eaten for lunch the day before, and they had several left. We told them that we had just that moment come from Primy’s house, where we just had breakfast, but our hosts insisted, ‘Un taquito, ¡nada más uno!’ (‘One little taco, just one!’). So we each had one, and then were pushed to have more. After this, we were served some sweet rolls and coffee, then we were offered apples and bananas, which by this time were simply impossible to force in, so they gave us the fruit to take away with us. After visiting San Francisco and walking around the fair, we returned to the compadres’ house and helped them cook nopales, which they sell in the market already prepared with onions, tomatoes and herbs. We were invited to have a few tacos of nopales with cheese, cebollas desﬂemadas con rajas de chile jalapeño (sliced onions tamed with lime juice and salt and mixed with strips of jalapeño chiles), fresh sprigs of coriander and slices of avocado. This was a very informal and impromptu meal and Chelita, their compadre’s sister, heated tortillas one by one and gave them to each of us straight from the comal rather than wrapping a stack in a napkin inserted into a chiquihuite. Yadira and Kiko then took me back to Primy’s house. It was four o’clock and they had just served their comida. Since we arrived just in time, we were each given a plate full of milanesas with a simple cucumber and avocado salad and fried plantains with cream, accompanied by a tomato and pasta soup, beans and tortillas. We explained that we had just come from eating and that we were very full, but Primy, Alejandro and Doña Margarita would not accept this and again insisted we eat. So with difﬁculty we cleaned our plates, and then Yadira and Kiko left.
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The preceding description demonstrates that hospitality is a coercive system, both for the hosts and for the guests. The perfect guest accepts everything offered to him gratefully, eats it all with relish and possibly asks for more, in appreciation of the superior ﬂavours of the food. As soon as his plate is near empty, the host offers the guest a reﬁll. Especially when there is a certain closeness between host and guest, a guest should not be surprised if his refusal is answered with, ‘Es que no te gustó’ (‘It’s because you didn’t like it’), uttered in an offended tone of voice. If a guest leaves food on the plate a host may say disapprovingly, ‘No desprecias a la comida’ (‘Don’t undervalue food’) or ‘No desperdicias la comida’ (‘Don’t waste food’). Food offered in hospitality appears to be treated as an extension of the host and/or cook (if they are the same person). In this way food embodies the agency (of welcome, gift) of the host in a material form. For this reason the social pressure to eat everything placed in front of a guest is high. Rejecting food is tantamount to rejecting the host. This same basic system of food giving and receiving is also in action when families are invited to large-scale ﬁestas. Attendance to a party is a social commitment. An invitation to a ﬁesta must be honoured with its acceptance and also requires reciprocity in the form of future invitations to family ﬁestas. Refusing an invitation without good reason may be taken as an insult or a break in the ties of trust (conﬁanza) which keep families together. Lomnitz (1977) deﬁnes the Latin American concept of conﬁanza as more than just ‘trust’ or ‘conﬁdence’. It is a trusting relation between two individuals in social, physical and economic proximity, what she calls ‘psychosocial distance’. This implies a willingness to engage in reciprocal exchange because of perceived parity in an ‘equality of wants’. Also inherent is Mauss’s notion of ‘the gift’, which allows for the continuance of social relations. ‘[A]s part of this behavioral model, gifts require counter-gifts; invitations to meals beget counter-invitations; and lending a hand at work obligates the recipient of the favor to reciprocate in kind at some later date’ (Brandes, 1988, p. 85). Thus, when there is conﬁanza between two families, it is like being part of the same family, although if family members live physically far apart, Lomnitz shows that psychosocial distance is a more important factor in reciprocal exchange networks than blood ties. The concept still applied in Milpa Alta in the 1990s. When one family is particularly close to another family, they must expect not to receive an invitation. They know that they are always invited to any family celebrations, and if they fail to show up on a special day, such as the town ﬁesta or a birthday, it can be interpreted as a breach of trust. If, however, they have spoken to the hosts to let them know they cannot make it, this is ﬁne, and a food parcel (itacate) will be sent to their home after the ﬁesta is over. Stephen (2005) describes a similar coerciveness in ﬁesta hospitality amongst compadres in Teotitlán. While people are sometimes too busy to attend public ﬁestas organized by the mayordomía, ‘[I]nvitations to life cycle rituals cannot be turned down’ (p. 258). She states that the obligation is so great that one risks being disowned by one’s compadres if one skips a private ﬁesta. People would talk and say that the offenders
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think they are too important to attend or that they think they do not need others in the community. I observed a similar sense of this in Milpa Alta. As Yadira explained, ﬁestas are important social commitments that need to be honoured with family participation: ‘Son tradiciones pero imposiciones muy fuertes por parte de la comunidad’ (‘They are traditions but at the same time very strong impositions from the community’). Fiestas, therefore, are pressured food events, as shown by the case of Barrio San Mateo in Villa Milpa Alta. Amongst the seven barrios and eleven pueblos of Milpa Alta, Yadira told me, Barrio San Mateo is the most ﬁestero,7 but this does not mean that the people of this barrio are idle. They are still as hardworking as other Milpaltenses and are up before six o’clock every morning to tend to their cactus ﬁelds or other occupations. All the ﬁestas could be thought of as a sort of diversion from the monotony of daily labours at a social or community level. More importantly, ﬁestas are the primary occasions when kin, compadres and community come together to socialize and exchange news at greater leisure, making ﬁestas a source of social cohesion (Perez-Castro and Ochoa, 1991). Parties and festivals in San Mateo are more than simple seasonal markers partly because of their frequency and also because of their obligatory force. Personal ﬁestas are taken so seriously that it is not unusual for some Milpaltenses to take a day off of work on their birthdays to properly attend to their celebration. In Milpa Alta there are so many ﬁestas that Doña Margarita told me that sometimes when she has a craving for mole, she need not go through the effort of making it because she knows there will always be another party soon and her craving will be satisﬁed. Every month there is at least one ﬁesta at barrio level. There are private parties every week.8 One’s energies are easily depleted, especially when one tries to juggle family, profession, education and traditional industry. To go from one party to the next, Yadira said, can become tiresome (llega a aburir). Nevertheless, she respected the importance of the festivities, and explained:
The people of Milpa Alta are very, very hardworking because nature gave them few resources. So it is a luxury to be able to stay home to eat, because there is no time. It is necessary to work from dawn until late at night in order to progress [ﬁnancially]. And it is because of this that the community is so festive—to show others that yes, they do have money to celebrate, and to do it well.9
Her statement is telling in that she mentions eating well at home as a ‘luxury’. Holding large parties, serving mole, barbacoa, or carnitas, is socially enjoyable and beneﬁcial, but the deepest pleasure, of highest value, is eating a meal at home, surrounded by loved ones (close family members). Since her wedding day, Yadira told me, she had gained quite a lot of weight. This was mainly because she then moved to Milpa Alta, where parties are taken so seriously and where hospitality requires a guest to eat everything she is offered. If a guest cannot eat it, she can surreptitiously take it away to eat at home later. As I
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mentioned in Chapter 2, some people attend parties with a plastic bag or Tupperware in their handbag so that they can unobtrusively take home the food they are unable to eat. Some also use the plastic cups on the table which are there for serving drinks, or they wrap food in tortillas and tie it into a napkin to take home. The most important thing is never to leave anything on the plate. Leaving food is a great insult; it is a breach of the spirit of the gift (of food, a culinary work of art) which allows for ongoing social relations. Since during the ﬁesta cycle people regularly reunite over special meals, the festive life ultimately sustains community life, catalyzed by the food. In other words, crucial to these ﬁestas is a proper feast. Mole is the dish that usually deﬁnes a feast, which I will discuss in the remainder of this chapter.
Mole and mole poblano
Eres ajonjolí de todos los moles. (You are the sesame seed of all moles.) —Mexican saying
The most famous dish in Mexico is the mole poblano, the Pueblan mole, formerly called mole de olor, mole of fragrance (Bayless and Bayless, 1987 p. 196). Considered to be the ultimate Mexican dish, it is eaten primarily for celebrations. There are several different kinds of regional recipes for mole, but generally speaking, it is a richly ﬂavoured, thick sauce which incorporates up to thirty ingredients, both native and non-native to Mexico. The name for this dish is a Hispanicization of the Náhuatl word for sauce, molli. The word now connotes a combination of dried chiles, spices, nuts, herbs, fruits, seeds and starches (like bread and tortillas). It is often misrepresented as a combination of chiles and chocolate, but it is more complex, and chocolate is not an essential ingredient, although it is commonly included. Each ingredient requires individual preparation before all are ground together into a paste, then diluted with broth and cooked. There is some disagreement about what makes a mole poblano distinct from other moles. Some cooks say that the mole poblano is distinguishable by the chiles used— mulato, ancho and pasilla. Others believe it is particular in its incorporation of chocolate, although many other moles may contain chocolate. The majority say that its most characteristic difference is that Pueblan mole includes a lot of sesame seeds and typically is strewn with more as a garnish. Even in artistic images, such as paintings, photographs, or the sculptural sweets made for the Days of the Dead called alfeñiques, the mole poblano is recognized as the thick dark brown sauce with sesame seeds sprinkled on top just before serving. The popular Mexican saying above, ‘Eres ajonjolí de todos los moles,’ draws upon this common knowledge about festive food in Mexico. Since
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parties are considered incomplete without mole, and mole (poblano) is incomplete without its sprinkling of sesame seeds, to say that someone is like the sesame seeds of all moles implies that that someone is highly social and attends all parties. The mole poblano is considered the Mexican national dish, although it is popular and well-known only throughout the central area. There has been much speculation about its origin. It is often portrayed as a mestizo dish, with strong indigenous Mexican roots. The most popular story is that mole poblano was invented at the end of the seventeenth century by Spanish nuns, although it is improbable that a Spanish nun would kneel on the ground in front of a heavy stone metate to grind out a thick sauce. Given the difﬁculty of obtaining Spanish ingredients in New Spain, what the Spanish could not make the native Mexicans grow, they had to import. The scarcity of these ingredients led to the Spanish Creoles adopting and adapting to the local foods available. Thus they would necessarily have had to hire native women to help them and to teach them how to use these ingredients which were so different from anything with which they were familiar. The only ones who could have taught the nuns or any non-natives to make such a sauce, or a molli, using the metate, would have had to be the local women. These local women therefore had the easiest access to the newly introduced foodstuffs that the Spanish brought with them to the New World. Thus, the culinary learning was a mutually enriching education for the Spanish and the locals. It is known that there were native Mexicans helping in the convent kitchens, so it is more likely that they did the most strenuous manual labour, especially if they were already experienced and indeed expert at the exercise of grinding a sauce on a metate. So, while it may be more poetic to think of mole poblano as an invention of inspired religiosity, surely the development of the recipe was a slower process of culinary incorporation and experimentation rather than a Catholic miracle. Laudan and Pilcher (1999) argue that the mole poblano is actually the New World version of Creole interpretations of eighteenth-century European cooking, and Laudan (2004) further convincingly argues that at the base of many Mexican dishes there is a Persian element. Furthermore, as Wilk discusses, creolization in cooking cannot be a simple process of ‘effortless mixing’ (2006, p. 109), as the crafting of ‘tradition’ is as dynamic as the manufacture of ‘modernity’ (Wilk, 2006, esp. chapters 6, 8). Whatever the case may be, in Milpa Alta the debate on the recipe’s origin or authenticity is not considered relevant. For Milpaltenses in the late 1990s, mole was thought of as a celebratory dish of family tradition. The quintessential festive dish is mole, whether it is in Pueblan style or a family recipe.
Mole and Celebration
It goes without saying that mole is quite a difﬁcult dish to prepare, and its presence at a meal usually indicates that some sort of occasion is being celebrated, such as
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someone’s birthday or saint’s day. All over Mexico, mole is served every Christmas, Easter, and Days of the Dead and at birthdays, baptisms, weddings and funerals. The classic accompaniments for mole are turkey (mole de guajolote, deliberately referred to using the Náhuatl-derived word guajolote and not the Spanish word pavo), rice (usually red, especially for dark moles), beans, and tortillas. For most families, chicken is now more commonly used instead of turkey, because chicken is cheaper and more readily available. Sometimes as a ﬁrst course, consomé, or the broth of the chicken or turkey, is served with rice, chopped onions, chopped coriander, fresh green chile and limes. In Milpa Alta, they also serve tamalates (plain tamales) or tamales de frijol or alberjón, tamales with beans or yellow peas. To drink there might be pulque, though it is no longer widely available despite Milpa Alta being in a zona pulquera. Since not everyone develops a taste for this sour, viscous alcoholic drink, it is also common to have a glass of tequila with mole, or beer. Friends from outside of Milpa Alta told me that it is important to accompany mole with tequila or a ﬁzzy soft drink; otherwise it causes an upset stomach. But in Milpa Alta and in professional kitchens, I was told that this happens only if it is a badly prepared mole. Properly prepared, as at home, mole would not have any ill effects. The commercial moles, which are prepared in bulk with less attention to detail, are those which may be dangerous. This was because the chiles used in commercial moles were not cleaned well, and the bad chiles and stems were not discarded, as would be normal practice at home. Apart from Puebla, where mole poblano is from, famous regions for mole are the southern province of Oaxaca and the municipality of Milpa Alta in Mexico City, speciﬁcally the town of San Pedro Atocpan. Every year they hold a weeklong mole fair, La feria del mole, and I have been told that San Pedro moles are exported as far as Israel. Mole is everyone’s family business in San Pedro, and not only do they sell prepared pastes or powders to later be diluted with chicken broth or water, they also sell the necessary spices, dried fruits and chiles so that women can make their own moles at home. In the roving markets (tianguis) that are set up in the streets every day in all reaches of Mexico City, there is always a stand supplying mole and dried groceries set up by a resident of San Pedro. While Mexicans from all over go to San Pedro to shop for ingredients, there is hardly a clientele of people from Milpa Alta for moles prepared in San Pedro. All over Milpa Alta, as well as Xochimilco, it is more common for mole to be homemade, although in other parts of Mexico City it is almost unthinkable to attempt it. Relatively few urban dwellers have the time or the skill to make their own moles for birthdays or other celebrations, and so it is easier to buy a good-quality paste from the market than spend several days toasting, frying, drying, grinding, stirring, cooking and recooking the sauce. It is precisely this elaborate effort and the number of ingredients required that make mole an expensive dish reserved for special occasions. Not only this, leftover mole is sometimes made into enchiladas10 or mixed with shredded chicken to ﬁll bread rolls (tortas or hojaldras de mole), or even used
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to make tamales at home. Some people prefer the varied preparations made with leftover ﬁesta food to the feast itself, and these variations are easily available in inexpensive eateries throughout Mexico City, like cafes and fondas. So, although it is possible to eat mole every day without spending too much money, it is not always easy to ﬁnd a well-made mole, and it remains a dish highly imbued with celebratory meanings. It is not a symbol of celebration in a semiotic sense, though its presence at a meal indicates that there is a signiﬁcant event which has caused the host (cook/ wife/mother/artist) to prepare (or even buy) and serve it as an action of respect for the occasion. Mole never appears on the table by accident, because it happened to be in season and available in the market. It appears because its presence carries the collective intentions of the community to commemorate a life cycle or ﬁesta cycle event with kin and non-kin. Some people deliberately stain their shirts with mole so that their neighbours or colleagues see the mark and think to themselves, ‘Hmm, he must be rich or lucky because he obviously ate mole today’ (Luis Arturo Jiménez, personal communication). Different kinds of moles and other dishes typically are served during the different ﬁestas of the year. These are listed in Table 5.1.
Feast Food in Milpa Alta, Arranged According to Type of Celebration Speciﬁc ﬁesta Birthdays, weddings, quinceaños, town ﬁestas, Christmas, Easter Sunday, ninth day after funeral Holy Week, Christmas Eve, funerals Typical food served Mole con pollo o guajolote Tamales de alberjón or de frijol or tamalates Arroz rojo Barbacoa, mixiote or carnitas Revoltijo (meatless mole with shrimp fritters) Tamales con queso or tamalates Tortitas de papa Pescado capeado Mole con pollo or guajolote Tamales verdes, de rajas Atole Arroz rojo Dulce de calabaza, local sweets, candied fruits Pescado a la vizcaina Chiles rellenos de queso o atún Ensalada de betabel ‘sangre de Cristo’ Capirotada or torrejas Buñuelos, calabaza en tacha
Type of ﬁesta/practice Life cycle celebrations, Catholic, anniversaries, rebirth of dead souls (quintessential Mexican feast food) Very Catholic practices
Festival with clear pre-Hispanic origins (dishes with pre-Hispanic origins, or those considered very Mexican) Catholic seasons (most dishes with clear Spanish origins, all meatless)
Days of the Dead
Mole and Fiestas • 101
Mole and tamales of different kinds are associated with speciﬁc ﬁestas and seasons, whether they are festivals of Spanish or indigenous origin. What is interesting is that Spanish or Catholic customs of avoiding meat during Lent and Advent are adhered to, but for personal ritual events and the Days of the Dead, which have their roots in pre-Hispanic customs, the food served is what is considered to be ‘very Mexican’ or ‘traditional’. Mole, in short, is a complex and socially powerful dish. It is a good example of an object of art within the art corpus of cuisine (following Gell, 1998, 1999b). Mole is never made in small amounts, so cooks need skill and practice to prepare it well. Chiles and seeds are easily burnt, fruits may be underripe, spices may be old and ﬂavourless and nuts may go rancid if the weather is warm. The value attributed to mole is related to an awareness that it requires a certain technical mastery to prepare well. When it is so delicious that it impresses the eaters as a gastronomic climax, the eaters are succumbing to an enchantment grounded in their knowledge of what it takes to make a mole. So what Gell (1996, p. 44) succinctly writes about art in general is true for mole in particular: ‘The power of art objects stems from the technical processes they objectively embody: the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology.’ The ﬁrst time I went to Milpa Alta and met Yadira and her family, Doña Delﬁna, her mother-in-law, had prepared mole for us as a special welcome. It was the time of the Feria del Mole in San Pedro Atocpan, but Doña Delﬁna proudly told us that she had made the mole herself, and that she had some of the chiles sent over from Puebla. I understood that since this mole was not commercial, it was better than moles from San Pedro,11 and these extra little attentions made quite a difference to the outcome of the dish. On another occasion, Guille told me that to make a good mole she would toast her chiles in the sun for a week rather than use a ﬂame and comal. This way the chiles would toast gently and were in no danger of burning and therefore becoming bitter. She also showed me another detail which indicated her special care in producing a good mole. When serving, after pouring a generous amount of mole over the piece of chicken, she said it was important to take a little of the oil rendered on top of the mole, and a sprinkling of this added a sheen and extra ﬂavour to properly garnish the dish.12 Almost everyone I met had a commentary or opinion about mole. Several women gave me culinary tips, and, as I mentioned in Chapter 1, mole was also described as a ‘gastronomical orgasm’. No doubt mole deserved its status as quintessential ﬁesta food. Yet my observations in Milpa Alta showed that it was more common for ﬁesta food to be barbacoa, carnitas or mixiotes. This change in the traditional menu for feasts had probably begun to occur only since the 1980s. The changing or loss of such tradition may seem to indicate a decreasing signiﬁcance of mole. But as I will explain below, rather than detract from its meaningfulness, its replacement as ﬁesta food emphasizes and even reinforces its social meanings.
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Like mole, in Milpa Alta, barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes are usually made at home, or by relatives or compadres who know how to make it. There are also some women who are well-known in the community for their cooking, and they can be hired to prepare certain dishes for the ﬁesta, such as tamales, pickled chiles, salsas and vegetables. Even when mole is not the main course of the ﬁesta meal, many families still prepare a small amount of mole to serve as a second main course after guests have ﬁlled themselves with barbacoa. They offer it for their guests to eat with tamales and beans. At other times, mole is not served, but a small portion is given to special guests (family and compadres) as an itacate. Mole and its accompaniments, therefore, were still almost always present during any sort of celebration in Milpa Alta. There may or may not be mole, but the meal remains sufﬁciently festive. To explain why this is so, it is necessary to understand something about the role of social memory in how a cuisine or any other traditional art develops.
The Development of a Tradition
Richard Wilk (2006) provides a general model of how ‘traditional cuisine’ develops as a result of the kinds of ‘shocks and changes’ of different inﬂuences mentioned by Laudan in Chapter 1. Wilk explains how a ‘Belizian’ style of cooking emerged from the particular history of Belize, how what is now considered ‘traditional’ came about through the complexity of culture contact that existed. Examples of dishes that developed into what we now recognize as Belizean food resulted from culinary methods that have made local things global and global things local (Wilk, 2006, pp. 113–21). These methods are blending, submersion (absorbing a foreign/global ingredient into a local dish), substitution of ingredients with local or available ones, wrapping and stufﬁng, compression (a simpliﬁed classiﬁcation of foods, lumping together categories with emblematic dishes) and alternation and promotion. Examples from current conceptions of the ‘traditional’ cuisines of Mexico can easily be found that ﬁt into Wilk’s categories of culinary methods, which I ﬁnd entirely convincing. Yet I also wish to offer a way of thinking about how a traditional cuisine may develop if we maintain our engagement with the notion of food as art, as I have been promoting it in this book. We can begin by thinking of a cuisine developing in a linear progression from simple to complex. As an example, let us consider salsas in Mexican cuisine. A prototypical salsa (chilmolli in Náhuatl) is one made of chiles ground into a sauce. In Milpa Alta, the words salsa and chile are often used interchangeably. Carne en chile verde refers to meat in green salsa (which usually includes green husk tomatoes, onion, and spices, and perhaps other chiles as well). It is not meat in green chile only. At its most basic, salsa is conceptualized as a whole green chile (in Milpa Alta, usually de árbol or sometimes serrano) which accompanies a meal, to be bitten into whenever desired. At its most complex, a salsa can be a mole.
Mole and Fiestas • 103
A green chile can be elaborated on to develop it into a simple salsa, such as salsa mexicana cruda (pico de gallo), which is a mixture of roughly chopped green chiles, red tomatoes, onions and salt. Adding avocado to this mixture makes the salsa into guacamole, and adding more ingredients makes varieties of guacamole of increasing complexity (see Figure 5.1). Although chile is no longer the main ingredient of the salsa called guacamole, it can still be seen as a precursor to the development of the recipe. In Figure 5.1, the arrangement of recipes may look very much like a family tree, or a lineage of guacamoles. This is not accidental. Following Gell’s theory of art, an artwork (or salsa, in this case) should be thought of as just like a person. It has relations with other persons (salsas), it can ‘marry’ and ‘have offspring’, and thus forms a lineage. Conceived of in this way, there are extensive families of recipes (different types of guacamoles, for example, or different types of barbacoas). Some of these are related to each other; others seem to have nothing to do with one another as they are completely different and do not mix. I illustrate a simpliﬁed plan of this in Figure 5.2. Reasoning that one recipe develops into another makes sense, but what of other dishes with different ingredients? It is not surprising, of course, that a linear progression or family tree is an inadequate means of mapping out all the recipes in a cuisine. This would be too simplistic and does not illuminate how quite different recipes
green chile | pico de gallo (green chile + tomato + onion + salt) | guacamole 1 (green chile + tomato + onion + salt + avocado) ┌──────────┴───────────┐ guacamole 2.1 guacamole 2.2 (green chile + tomato + onion (green chile + tomato + salt + avocado + lime juice) + onion + salt + avocado + pipicha + guajes) | guacamole 3 (green chile + tomato + onion + salt + avocado + lime juice + coriander leaves) | guacamole 4 (green chile + tomato + onion + salt + avocado + lime juice + coriander leaves + garlic + olive oil)
Figure 5.1 Linear Progression from Green Chile to Complex Guacamole
beans + lard (+ onion)
maize + lime (CaOH)
┌───────┴───────┐ lard + masa tortillas + salsa 1 salsa 2 … salsa x │ ┌────┴────┐ refried beans + masa preparada + salsa x ┌─────┼─────┐ │ chilaquiles enchiladas pastel azteca mole
– 104 –
tlacoyos huaraches tamales tamales de frijol de chile
Figure 5.2 An Example of Some Interrelations among Recipes, Shown as Families
Mole and Fiestas • 105
develop at the same time or how similar recipes may develop in different regions, or even in different households in the same community. Traditional cuisines appear to develop as spatio-temporal wholes that change and move forward historically, from the perspective of the present looking back toward all past developments. A cuisine is actually an ideal example of a ‘distributed object’ as deﬁned by Gell. As a single unit, it is a set made up of many parts, one body of cuisine made up of many recipes. Each part can be very different from the others, but put together the parts make sense as a whole. Each part has some quality which deﬁnes it as belonging to the whole, although this quality may not be easily deﬁneable. This quality is what Gell calls ‘style’ (1998, p. 166).
[A]rtworks are never just singular entities; they are members of categories of artworks, and their signiﬁcance is crucially affected by the relations which exist between them, as individuals, and other members of the same category of artworks, and the relationships that exist between this category and other categories of artworks within a stylistic whole—a culturally or historically speciﬁc art-production system. (p. 153)
Pinpointing exactly what it is that makes barbacoa like mole, for example, is not as obvious as the similarity between a basic salsa and a mole (that is, both are salsas, made with chiles and other ingredients). But my purpose here is not to examine the deﬁning style of what makes one dish Mexican and another not Mexican.13 What is necessary is to accept the logic that there is something called ‘style’ which allows certain recipes to be grouped within the corpus of Mexican cuisine, and from this, we can observe the interrelations of this level of meaning (culinary) with other levels of meaning in social life (much like Munn’s value transformations, and somewhat like Levi-Strauss’s culinary triangle/tetrahedron). As far as Mexican cuisine is part of Mexican tradition, its history (or ‘biography’) can be understood as having come into being by the work of many persons (mostly women) simultaneously in separate households. It continues to be modiﬁed and improved as each cook prepares each meal every day. Cooking is activity in two ways, as a physical activity and as a creative activity of continuous innovation. What is considered to be ‘traditional’ cooking has emerged and continues to emerge out of the domestic sphere and as a part of local social life. As a distributed object, each of the varied recipes which make up a cuisine may develop in its own way, spread out over space and time (see Gell, 1998, p. 235, Figure 9.4/1, ‘The Artist’s Oeuvre as a Distributed Object’). The recipes are separately reﬁned by a collection of individuals who interact with and inﬂuence one another, leading to further innovation and growth. This, in essence, is how all traditional arts develop. Thus, a cuisine is a collective work, constructed by the efforts of individuals who prepare dishes based on recipes. The recipes are drawn from their memories, or they learn them from other individuals in the community,14 who may have greater skill in using the ‘traditional’ knowledge of the culinary arts, and who are in turn
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drawing from their own memories or inﬂuences. At the same time they incorporate new inﬂuences, ideas and ingredients as well as experiment and improvise. In Gell’s terms, a recipe is the prototype of a dish that is prepared. The dish is the result of the agency of a cook who prepares it with speciﬁc intentions for a particular reason and for particular other persons, or herself. I am aware that the development of cuisine cannot be fully explained by focusing solely on recipes (see Wilk, 2006). Historical and social factors play a role in how and when ingredients and techniques are incorporated, modiﬁed or discarded. Meal structure is another area which requires analysis and incorporation. We may also think of recipes developing into the dishes that make up a cuisine as ‘variations on a theme’.15 Within the limits of the style of cooking that one learns by imitation of masters/mothers, individuals maintain their own creative input, into which they introduce variations on what they have learnt, to produce similar but different dishes. I may learn to make salsa with tomatoes, onions, green chile and salt, and then tomorrow try out using dried chiles, or a combination of chiles, or add garlic, to make another salsa that still tastes as Mexican as the salsa that I ﬁrst learned to make. If the salsa is successful, I may take note and repeat what I have done on another occasion, and eventually this may become a regular part of my recipe repertoire. If others like my salsa, they may try making a similar salsa, implementing for themselves the changes I made. Eventually this particular combination of ingredients may become widespread and embedded in local/regional cooking and thought of as ‘traditional’. Innovation, therefore, may be planned or can happen by accident,16 yet as much as there is innovation and change, there is also repetition and constancy.17 Dishes have a recognizable quality that can be thought of in relation to the cuisine, in a way similar to Becker’s ‘art worlds’ (1982) or Gell’s notion of ‘style’.
To return to the question of how barbacoa, carnitas and mixiote came to be accepted as ﬁesta food, it is ﬁrst interesting to note some of the similarities amongst these dishes. Barbacoa is made by roasting a whole lamb in a pit lined with maguey leaves and left to cook overnight over hot coals and aromatics. It is always served with particular salsas accompanying it. Mixiote is made of meat (rabbit, pork and/or chicken) which is rubbed with an adobo (a mole-like) paste, then is wrapped in a mixiote, the skin of the leaves of the maguey (the same plant used to line the pit for making barbacoa). Carnitas is made by stewing a whole pig in its own fat. It is ﬂavoured with oranges and garlic, and, like barbacoa, it is always served with salsas and tortillas. The relative costs of preparing these dishes are also relevant. The high-quality ingredients for mole (chiles, nuts and spices) are expensive. One kilo of mole costs more than one kilo of barbacoa, carnitas or mixiote. Also, mole is prepared at home even though it is available commercially, and it is always made as a special effort for
Mole and Fiestas • 107
a special occasion. But barbacoa or carnitas can be bought already made, or it may be the family business to prepare these dishes anyway. So in money and in labour mole is more expensive, technically difﬁcult and valuable. It appears that the substitution of mole with these three other dishes occurred only since the 1980s, which is the time of great economic crisis in Mexico, when the value of the peso dropped phenomenally in relation to the US dollar (see graph on the exchange rate in Meyer and Sherman, 1991, p. 687). Before then, as far as I know, the menu of a feast had been more or less consistent over time and space, i.e. within the region. The adoption of these other dishes as suitable festive foods must have been gradual. But if the prices of all the accompaniments are added up and put in relation to cost of food per head, the fact that mole is made as a paste and then diluted, one kilo of mole is enough for more people than one kilo of the meat dishes. In effect, to prepare mole for ﬁve hundred people costs less than it would to prepare barbacoa, carnitas or mixiote for ﬁve hundred people. In 2000, it cost around Mx$10,000 (approximately £700) to make mole for ﬁve hundred people, Mx$15,000 (£1,050) for carnitas, and Mx$20,000 (£1,400) for barbacoa. Since the costs of hosting a ﬁesta are high, as mentioned previously, many people delay holding their weddings until they have enough money to hold a proper feast. Since mole is feast food par excellence, it would then make more sense to serve mole rather than barbacoa at a wedding banquet. Not only because of the costs, but also because of the social values, it would seem more logical to serve mole during a ﬁesta. Recalling that honour and value are sometimes related to Simmel’s notion of resistance as a source of value, the more an object resists our possession (because, for example, it is very expensive), the greater its social value. For this reason, a dish like barbacoa becomes more desirable as festive food, in that it bestows value on the occasion being celebrated, and on one’s guests. In addition, the acceptance of barbacoa as feast food can partly be explained by Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘aesthetic disposition’. The aesthetic disposition is associated with economic capital (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 54). So if barbacoieros in Milpa Alta have the greatest economic capital locally and constitute the dominant class, if they decide to serve barbacoa during their ﬁestas, it can be considered to be in good taste. It is therefore deﬁned as appropriate, and can replace mole in value as a tasteful alternative, ‘only because choices always owe part of their value to the value of the chooser, and because to a large extent, this value makes itself known and recognized through the manner of choosing’ (p. 91). The aesthetic point of view or aesthetic intention is ‘what makes the work of art’ (p. 29). He continues that ‘[I]n fact, this “intention” is itself the product of the social norms and conventions which combine to deﬁne the always uncertain and historically changing frontier between simple technical objects and objets d’art ...’ (p. 29). In short, serving barbacoa became prestigious for ﬁestas because of the prestige (or ‘distinction’) associated with being a barbacoiero in Milpa Alta. Barbacoa is a luxury food, although it has a different ‘taste of luxury’ from how Bourdieu deﬁnes it. In spite of its status as an appreciated artwork in the cuisine,
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this is not enough to explain why mole is still served during ﬁestas, especially to the hosts’ compadres, whether or not there is mole for the rest of the guests. Then, in the cases when mole is not served, there is an apparent contradiction in mole being necessary for ﬁestas and yet not being present. There must be another reason why barbacoa has become acceptable feast food in Milpa Alta. If, as is the case in Milpa Alta, mole continues to be described as having the ultimate ﬂavour, as being the ‘mole de ﬁesta’, how can barbacoa be served at a feast in its stead?
The Presence or Absence of Mole in Fiestas
I described previously how certain dishes—mole, barbacoa—as culinary works of art are imbued with meaning as they form the nexus of the social networks of normal food hospitality, compadrazgo and the mayordomía in Milpaltense society. In this chapter I have attempted to demonstrate how thinking of these particular dishes as works of art can help us to understand their social meaningfulness. They are art objects within the culinary system that are circulated as gifts/offerings of food in the cycle of festivity that maintains social ties amongst family or community groups. I have examined mole as an artwork within the context of the art world to which it belongs, that is, Mexican cuisine. My analysis of mole indicates its social salience as a nexus of the interrelating social, ritual and economic systems within the matrix of Milpa Alta social life. Yet because of the notions of style (Gell), synecdoche, resistance (Simmel) and the aesthetic disposition (Bourdieu), other speciﬁc dishes (barbacoa, carnitas, mixiotes) have become socially salient as acceptable substitutes for mole in Milpaltense ﬁestas. Though mole is the quintessence of Mexican cuisine, there is perfect sense in barbacoa (or carnitas or mixiote) acting as its replacement at feasts. To understand this, cuisine must be thought of as a distributed object, as described previously. To reiterate, as a conceptual whole, cuisine is an ‘object’ which can be divided into its constituent parts, which are different dishes of varying kinds and complexity. Some recipes can be shown to have developed directly from others, as modiﬁcations of previously successful (ﬂavourful and pleasurable) dishes. Others can be offshoots of preparatory recipes, which, when combined with other recipes or other techniques, produce another dish or innovation. Still others may have been born of improvisation, using a cook’s knowledge of recipes she has followed in the past or learnt from others while applying her skill to the limited ingredients or situation that she has at her disposal. Although not all the parts of the whole cuisine are similar (a salsa has nothing in common with a tortilla, in either preparation or ingredients), there is no denying that they are equally valid parts belonging to the same whole; that is, they are of the same style (Mexican). So while a simple part-for-whole synecdoche does not exist, there is still a relation between two dishes which allows them to represent or replace one another if they both maintain ‘the relative capacity ... to create potentialities for
Mole and Fiestas • 109
constructing a present that is experienced as pointing forward to later desired acts or material returns’ (Munn, 1986, p. 11).18 Provided that a dish is conceived of as needing a certain amount of technical mastery in order to prepare it, what occurs is Gell’s ‘halo effect of technical difﬁculty’ (1996) so that the dish can be designated as special, or special enough to commemorate a special occasion. Barbacoa is special enough to be a Sunday treat for the family, it requires labour and skill to prepare, the meat used is expensive, and it is somewhere in the range of special dishes, although it may not rank as high as mole. In fact, barbacoa is a luxury to be indulged in with the family, and the family as a unit hosts ﬁestas on grand scale. Since any recipe can be representative of the whole cuisine (synecdoche), barbacoa can be taken as a representative of Mexican cuisine (as a distributed object) and can be demonstrated to have some equivalence to mole. Thus it makes sense that barbacoa could be served at a ﬁesta, provided that there is a little bit of ‘mole de ﬁesta’ offered as a second main course to complete the social transaction of value. Eventually, the meal structure could be modiﬁed by the preparation of a smaller amount of mole and accompaniments for a ﬁesta, only to give as an itacate to the hosts’ compadres, close friends and family. The menu gradually shifts from a festive meal being deﬁned as ‘mole’ to ‘mole after barbacoa’ to ‘mole as itacate for compadres only, after barbacoa’ to only ‘barbacoa’. With time, therefore, barbacoa is made able to effectively carry similar meanings to those of mole, when served as the meal of a ﬁesta. In effect, mole is still omnipresent in ﬁestas. Its actual presence or absence does not indicate its conceptual absence. The menu transformation reveals a transfer of value from mole to these three speciﬁed dishes, each of which requires a relatively high level of technical skill for its preparation. This makes them legitimately pertain to the style of a Mexican ﬁesta because of their recent relation to mole and the omnipresence of salsa/chile. In effect, because of its deep social signiﬁcance, mole is present at the ﬁesta in people’s memories, whether or not it is actually served to them on their plates.
Recipes Tamales de nopales for the Barrio Fiesta
Doña Margarita Salazar Fry chopped onions in butter. Add chopped nopales. Toast chile de árbol in lard and crush roughly. Mix chiles with nopales and queso oaxaca. Fill prepared corn husks as if they were tamales but without masa, placing a stick of double cream cheese in the centre as if it were a piece of meat. Steam.
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Buñuelos de lujo
Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez In Mexico buñuelos are broad, crispy fritters served in stacks, dribbled with a light ﬂavoured syrup or honey. They are served at Christmas parties or during posadas and are said to represent the diapers of the Baby Jesus Christ. This is how Primy always makes buñuelos. I began calling them her ‘luxury buñuelos’ or ‘buñuelos de lujo’ because they were so different from the kind that you ﬁnd being sold at fairs all over Mexico during Christmas, Easter or Carnival. The measurements are approximate because, like most home cooks, Primy just throws in whatever amounts ‘feel’ right to her. Makes 50 to 60 buñuelos. a pinch of aniseed, boiled in a little water 2 kg plain ﬂour 9–10 eggs ¼ kg butter, melted zest of 2 oranges, ﬁnely grated orange juice, freshly squeezed 2 ﬁstfuls of lard 3 cups of sugar abundant oil for frying • Combine all the ingredients, except for the oil, in a large bowl, adding enough orange juice to make an elastic dough. Knead it well to develop the glutens, occasionally throwing the dough forcefully onto a metate. Do this several times and make sure that you hear a loud slapping noise with each throw. (Primy said that sometimes she would ask Alejandro or any available man to do the kneading for her because it is physically quite difﬁcult.) • When the dough is elastic, ﬂour a work surface and pull off walnut-sized balls. Flatten or roll each ball into a rough circle. Sitting down, cover your knee with a clean tea towel. Place the circle of dough on the rounded surface and very gently pull the dough from the edges in small increments, turning it constantly and sustaining it on your knee. The dough can be stretched to a very thin disk about 25 cm in diameter. If the dough breaks easily it is not elastic enough and may lack kneading. • Fry each circle in hot oil, making sure to press the centre into the oil so that it cooks evenly. Turn to brown the other side, and do not worry about it breaking, as the dough is strong. Drain on absorbent paper and allow to harden.
Drizzle with a light syrup made of crude sugar ( piloncillo) and water (this may be ﬂavoured with aniseed or guava).
Mole and Fiestas • 111
Ensalada de betabel ‘sangre de Cristo’
Yadira Arenas Berrocal ‘Sangre de Cristo’ means the blood of Christ, represented by the water in which the beetroot is boiled. It is important to keep the orange and banana peels on the fruit so that the bananas do not fall apart and the beet water is infused with their ﬂavours. This is a very refreshing dish that people prepare only during Lent and Advent. Serves 8–10. 1 kg beetroot, leaves removed and well-scrubbed 500 g (1 large) jícama, cut into thick sticks 200–250 g peanuts, peeled 5 oranges, sliced in ½-cm rounds, with peels 3 ripe bananas, in 1.25-cm slices, with their peels ¼ –½ iceberg lettuce, shredded sugar to taste The beetroot must be very clean and boiled in abundant water with the skins. When cooked, peel them and discard the skins, cut into cubes and reserve the cooking water. Allow to cool. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients with the cubed beets and cooking water, adding the bananas half an hour before serving. Serve in bowls with abundant broth.
Pescado a la vizcaína al estilo de la abuela
Chef Abdiel Cervantes
¾ kg salt cod (bacalao), soaked several hours, drained, shredded ½ –1 L extra virgin olive oil ½ kg (about 3 cups) onions, ﬁnely chopped 2–2½ cups (about 4 large heads) garlic, ﬁnely chopped 1½ cups parsley, ﬁnely chopped 1½ –2 kg tomatoes, ﬁnely chopped 300 g almonds, blanched, peeled, ﬁnely chopped To serve: 1 jar green olives 1 tin chiles güeros (or any pickled yellow chiles) crusty bread (teleras or bolillos, or baguettes)
• In abundant olive oil, sauté onions until golden, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and let brown. Add tomatoes and cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until the oil surfaces, about 20 minutes. • Add ﬁsh and almonds. Cook 5–10 minutes.
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• Add parsley and mix well, cooking until ﬁsh completely falls apart into small bits. • Let rest until cool and decorate with olives and chiles. Serve with crusty bread.
Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez Torrejas are a Lenten dessert typical of the state of Michoacan. This is the way ΄ Primy makes them, which is a bit unusual in that they are coated in the egg batter called a capeado, like the capeado for chiles rellenos. Most recipes for torrejas are reminiscent of Spanish torrijas, like French toast. Primy’s version contains no milk, and it probably would not matter if the bread used was very fresh. This is something that she rarely prepared because her mother-in-law, Doña Margarita, did not like the idea of a sweet made with spices. When Doña Margarita was persuaded to try these torrejas, she liked them so much that she had seconds. Serves 12. 4 slightly stale teleras, each cut into 3 pieces, or 1 baguette, cut into 6-centimetre slices 250 g queso cotija, or use an aged white cow’s milk cheese like Romano or Sardo 3 eggs, separated vegetable oil for frying Hollow out each piece of bread by removing some of the central crumbs, leaving an open pocket. Fill each space with cheese and proceed with the capeado as for stuffed chiles.
1 cone of piloncillo (crude sugar) or 1 cup ﬁrmly packed dark brown sugar 8 cm of Ceylon cinnamon (not tough Cassia) 5 whole cloves 5 whole allspice berries around 750 mL of water
Boil all the ingredients in enough water to make a light syrup. To serve, warm the fried bread pieces in the syrup to impregnate them with the ﬂavours and to heat them through. Serve in low bowls with lots of syrup.
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life
The conjunction of a member of the social group with nature must be mediated through the intervention of cooking ﬁre, whose normal function is to mediatize the conjunction of the raw product and the human consumer, and whose operation thus has the effect of making sure that a natural creature is at one and the same time cooked and socialized. —Lévi-Strauss (1994, p. 336, original italics)
In this book I have approached Mexican cuisine by thinking of cooking as an artistic practice, situating this in the context of Milpa Alta. I offer an interpretation based on the point of view of food as a form of art to argue the following points: ﬂavour is functional in an active sense; ﬂavour is achieved via love (the sazón de amor necessary for good cooking); observing cooking shows how actors are acted upon by their actions (following Munn, 1986); gender is not intrinsically hierarchical (cf. McCallum, 2001) and women are able to use cooking to exert power and enact their social value (Abarca, 2006; Melhuus and Stølen, 1996); and social organization can be understood as a social-relational matrix with food as indexes within the active art nexus (following Gell, 1998). This means that we can understand different social levels (family-compadrazgo-mayordomía) by analyzing food in terms of cooking, from everyday hospitality to ﬁesta hospitality. In the following sections I will explain these conclusions.
The Function of Flavour
There are many physiological, cultural and social reasons that people eat and drink certain foods, but ﬂavour, its artistic nature, is always a concern. I argued in Chapter 2, and in other ways throughout this book, that ﬂavour is the most important and functional, active element of food. It is not a superﬁcial, physical characteristic which carries semiotic meaning. If food, or a dish, is thought of as an artwork, the ﬂavour is not simply the decorative aspect—or rather, it is decorative, and this decoration is precisely what makes food powerful or meaningful. Rather than as an aid to help humans ingest nutrients, the presence of ﬂavour, and the mobilization of different ﬂavours in a cuisine, via cooking, effectively creates social relations. In other words, form and function, surface and depth, are interlinked. Given that any kind of cooking
– 113 –
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and eating are food transactions, ﬂavour constitutes the surrounding social relations of the actors (cooks and eaters, family, compadres and the wider community). Or, borrowing Tim Ingold’s deﬁnition of an artefact, food/artwork is ‘the crystallisation of activity within a relational ﬁeld’ (2000, p. 345). In the case of Mexican cuisine, ﬂavour is chile, and chile is salsa. Many dishes are deﬁned by their sauces or chiles rather than the accompanying meat or vegetable that is eaten with the sauce. Examples of this are chicharrón en chile verde, entomatados, adobos or adobados, pipiánes, moles, and by extension, chilaquiles, enchiladas, and chiles rellenos. The varieties of pozoles (hominy soups made with pork, especially a whole hog’s head) are differentiated by colour (red, white and green), and the variations are prepared by the addition or omission of a red or green salsa in the cooking process. The same can be applied to most tamales which are differentiated by the salsa used in the ﬁlling (such as tamales verdes, rojos, de rajas or de mole), or by the salsa’s absence (tamalates, sweet tamales). Otherwise, there are also many Mexican dishes that are inconceivable to eat without an accompanying sauce, or a pickled chile or fresh green chile to chew on at the side. This includes all sorts of tacos, barbacoa, and also soups (including rice and pasta dishes), and street foods like sopes, tlacoyos, gorditas and sincronizadas. Even fresh fruit, like mangoes, bananas, jícamas, and pineapples, are sold with a sprinkling of powdered chile piquín and lime juice. A foodstuff can be eaten on its own, as it is, but when combined with chile or some sort of sauce, ﬂavour is added, and hence value is added. Mole, for instance, is the ultimate recipe, combining more ingredients and culinary techniques than most others. It is one of the most laborious and technically difﬁcult dishes to prepare, thought of as representing the best of Mexican cuisine, and not only in terms of ﬂavour. When mole is served to guests, in some ways it can be thought of as representing the whole cuisine in the way that one person represents his or her family (part-for-whole synecdoche). Mole epitomizes some of the best qualities of Mexican cuisine, or it is an example of excellence amongst other salsas. It also carries other meanings when it is served or eaten. It is considered to be ‘very Mexican’ and ‘very traditional’, so much so that sometimes foreigners are warned that they may not like it when they try it for the ﬁrst time, or they may never learn to like it. Otherwise foreigners are expected to like it right away, and to fully appreciate the honour bestowed upon them if they are served mole in someone’s home. In Milpa Alta, the deeper social meanings inherent in the serving and eating of mole are related to ideas of this dish being historical and passed down from generation to generation via cooks in the family and community. The cooks are speciﬁcally women, who are highly valued in Milpaltense society as wives and mothers, as producers and reproducers. As I described in greater detail in chapter 4, women’s morality is circumscribed by their knowledge of cookery and their domestic and extradomestic labour, as well as by their sexual behaviour. When women prepare mole from scratch, using family recipes, and for family ﬁestas, mole acts as the
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quintessence of women’s hard work, as well as the most ﬂavourful dish in a woman’s culinary repertoire. Yet in spite of this, the technical knowledge necessary to produce quotidian dishes or daily family food is in some ways more complex than what is necessary for large ﬁestas. Of course there is no denying that mole is a complex and sophisticated dish, but in an area like Milpa Alta its preparation is common knowledge. Everyone knows how to make mole, though some moles are better than others. Not everyone is considered a good cook or has the same range of culinary expertise which is fully explored only in the familiar sphere. This discussion indicates that there is greater creativity involved in domestic cooking, and therefore more culinary agency and freedom in daily life. Particular ﬂavours are not just the guiding principles of social events and their organization. By preparing particular dishes for personal or commercial reasons, cooks deliberately produce certain ﬂavours (chile/salsa/mole) for their own social ends. They might prepare mole for a ﬁesta, barbacoa to sell in the market or family favourites for loved ones. Depending on who cooks what, when and why, the production of particular ﬂavours is the primary concern in food preparation. Rather than an incidental characteristic of food, ﬂavour is a central and active element, cooked in for speciﬁc reasons and for speciﬁc others/eaters.
The Importance of Cooking in Social Life
So if chiles appear to be symbolic ingredients in Mexican cuisine, it is in a deeply meaningful way because there is a sophisticated gastronomic technology that actors learn and can mobilize via their cooking. The manipulation or mobilization of ﬂavours in cooking is as much a social activity as human agents interacting (cf. Gell, 1998). That is, we can make sense of the culinary system of Milpa Alta only in relation to other local social systems, and how Milpaltenses use their cuisine, or the moral notions surrounding cooking, in their social interaction. Together chapters 3, 4 and 5 addressed this topic. Discussing barbacoa in Milpa Alta, I showed that the production of this culinary work of art is an all-encompassing social activity. The barbacoieros of San Mateo enjoy a social position and value related to their economic capital in comparison to the other barrios or towns of Milpa Alta. This value was achieved only by means of skilfull production of a socially desired ﬂavour that ultimately produced successful business and sociality. Conversely, to some extent the taste judgements or values placed on certain ﬂavours within the cuisine (or certain dishes) are determined by the social values of the dominant actors (Bourdieu, 1984). The traditional methods to prepare barbacoa involve a commitment to a way of life that is ordered by the demands of the market economy and the elaborate recipe. It also requires cooperation within the primary social unit, the nuclear family, or, more speciﬁcally, the ideal relationship between a man and a woman, that of husband and
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wife. The production of barbacoa provides a good example of what Munn refers to as ‘intersubjectivity’. ‘[A]gents,’ she writes, ‘not only engage in action but are also “acted upon” by the action.’ Practices form types of social relations and also form the actors who engage in them (1986, pp. 14 –15; cf. Ingold, 2000). A ﬁnal observation is that only married men prepare barbacoa, but (previously married) women without husbands are also able to prepare barbacoa. If a woman’s husband dies or abandons her, she may continue to rely on barbacoa as her means of livelihood, by hiring men to perform the slaughter and disembowelling for her (the ‘matador’ already mentioned). What is less common is for a man to continue to prepare barbacoa without his wife. It must be reiterated that the wife’s basic role in preparing barbacoa is to prepare the salsas and the panza. These are the most culinary activities of the whole process. Since one of women’s domestic roles is to be a cook, it is not accidental that women are expected to perform these tasks. In this way, women are related as much to men as wives (or lovers) and mothers as they are related to the preparation of food, which is represented by the preparation of salsas/chile/ﬂavour. When widowers do continue with their businesses, some hire women to help them with the salsas and anything else that their wives would have normally done. I was told that generally a barbacoiero widower’s business does not ﬂourish the way it did when his wife was alive. This occurs unless he remarries, which is more likely than it would be for a barbacoiera widow to do. It is said that only then does his business regain similar success as with his late wife. Perhaps he needs the support of a wife’s loving touch to produce salsas for a successfully ﬂavourful barbacoa.1 The preceding and my discussion in Chapter 4 indicate that cooking is not part of housework as invisible labour, but it is a creative task based on culinary agency and skill, on the value placed upon the home, and on women as lovers and mothers, as providers. The cuisine is a material embodiment of a woman’s role in the family, as a sexual partner for her husband and as a mother and nurturer for the next generation. But though cooking is embodied and gender is embodied (McCallum, 2001), cooking is not an activity of performative gender roles per se. They are not necessarily causally linked, although food is used as the nexus of social meaning by which cooks (women as individuals or as representatives of their families) construct their social world. As my material on Milpa Alta shows, as a loving dimension of women’s (house)work, good cooking can lead to the development of a ‘traditional’ cuisine as much as the production of social relations. Culinary creativity can therefore be seen as the outcome of quotidian domesticity and the social dynamics of men and women, as individuals or groups. Women and men have roles and expectations which seem to dictate the limits of their behaviour, but which also allow them to achieve social and material ends through complementary action. For men this includes working in the ﬁelds, as pork or lamb butchers and/ or in another professional job (such as teaching). For women it includes cooking, housework and caring for children, as well as extradomestic labour (such as selling
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in the market). Whilst the unit of wife and husband is crucial to the establishment of links of compadrazgo, and to the fulﬁllment of the mayordomos’ role for the community, in Milpa Alta, this unit is also thought to be at the core of business success.
Agency and Intention
Thus cooking is an activity performed for the sake of social interaction (cf. Simmel, 1994) as much as for making food edible or tastier. The technical mastery required to cook is also socially learnt and socially salient. Married women cook for their husbands and children, and other (usually unmarried) members of the household. They also cook particular dishes during ﬁestas for compadres and the wider community. In other words, women cook with particular eaters in mind. Although the way that they prepare some dishes may be nuanced by their own taste and pleasure, they still are cooking with the intention of feeding (or offering food to) someone else (a recipient). What they prepare is dependent upon their relationship with the eaters. Hence, they use their culinary agency according to the network of intentionalities in which they are entangled as social beings. Gell’s conception of intentionality is based on deﬁning the nature of causation. ‘[I]ntentions cause events to happen in the vicinity of agents’ (1998, p. 101). Rather than searching for a chemical or physical explication of why something caused another thing to occur, ‘[T]he explanation of any given event (especially if socially salient) is that it is caused intentionally’ (p. 101). So this is why food has ﬂavour, that is, why ﬂavour is a social (and also cultural) aspect of food. It is not because of inherent biochemical properties in the foodstuffs themselves, rather it is in the deliberately induced reaction of foodstuffs when cooked or combined in a particular way. Food served to be eaten has ﬂavour because a cook intends to bring out or produce these ﬂavours in the meals that she prepares for other people with whom she has speciﬁc social relations. The idea of a cook/artist’s intentions can be better understood when applied to feast food, in the example of the Days of the Dead. Food set out on the family altar, the ofrenda, is offered to the dead relatives of the family. Mole with chicken is always present, as well as yellow fruits, tamales, sweets and some favourite foods of the dead. The dead are believed to eat the essence of the food when they come, and afterward, when the living eat the food that had been set out, it no longer has any ﬂavour. Although not everyone says that they believe it, it is thought to occur in this way, and this is how it has been reported to me by people in Milpa Alta (see also Lok, 1991; Long and Vargas, 2005, p. 150). In this case of food for the dead, although it may have been prepared with the same culinary principles as always, the food loses its ﬂavour because of the presence of the dead who come to eat its essence. The explanation for this is no more mystical than the relationship between the cook (culinary agent) and the expected recipient of the food, the dead. Although other living
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people, related to the cook, eventually may eat the food, the food was cooked with the intention of feeding the dead, and not to feed the living. Therefore the ﬂavour was cooked in for the dead to take away, and the acceptance of this offering within this network of intentionalities is conﬁrmed when the food is eaten by the living the next day and they can verify that the food has lost its ﬂavour.
Fiesta Food in the Culinary Art Corpus
It is appropriate now to recall the theoretical basis of food as art as I have been using it.2 Gell’s theory of art uses a conception of a body of artworks as if it were a body of a person. The entire art corpus of a single artist or a collective style of art can therefore be looked at as if it were pieces of one body distributed over time and space, a ‘distributed person’. Anything that comes from a person, including visual appearance and things he or she produced, is detachable from that person and can be physically touched as well as seen. Part and whole, individual and group, are divisible and indivisible. In effect, art objects are exuviae, which are detachable and also exchangeable, and can link social beings in the way that Mauss’s hau or Munn’s kula valuables transform value from one person to the next. With respect to Mexican cuisine, this means that food is involved in interrelating social networks amongst individuals or groups. During ﬁestas, individuals act on behalf of social groups (families, neighbours, towns) to maintain the circulation of value (food/virtue) in the indeﬁnitely enduring cycle of festivity. Food giving and receiving occurs in different directions amongst individual actors who perform the roles of hosts or guests on speciﬁed days during the year. These gifts of food are offered by obligation and their acceptance is obligatory as well, so much so that even those who do not attend are given food in their absence. Guests may even be reluctant recipients, but they accept the food nonetheless.3 Hospitality begets further hospitality, and actors expect an ultimate balance of give and take, though competition and one-upmanship exist as well. This means that special foods are signiﬁcant, but only in relation to how they compare with other dishes in the cuisine, and with the social relationships of the cooks and eaters. The ﬁesta cycle revolves around the religious timetable and notions of respect, social distance and hospitality amongst the relevant actors. Whether compadres, mayordomos or other guests, no one need demand to be fed upon arrival at a ﬁesta. Rather, all assume that they will be, and they expect elaborate food and entertainment at these events. Not only this, the same kind of food—effectively, the same gift, the same personhood—is awaited on each occasion. Mole, or a socially approved substitute, is coercively given and received, in a sort of Maussian social contract. Competitively bigger and better versions of the same meal are circulated endlessly amongst compadres, mayordomos, relatives and neighbours and thereby maintain community viability.4
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Children and unmarried adults do not formally participate in these systems of reciprocity, except for the occasional unmarried woman who is asked to be a comadre (cf. Sault, 1985). In the same way children and unmarried adults are not responsible for food provision, though they may help married women who are. In the ﬁesta cycle, they are treated as extensions of their families, on whom they depend for their food and on whose behalf they are expected to perform minor duties such as shopping, fetching or delivering things, including gifts of food. The individual actors who take responsibility as ofﬁcial representatives are highly respected church-married couples, morally recognized as capable of cooking the mole de ﬁesta and able to legitimately reproduce the next generation. Indeed, the desire to participate in the mayordomía or to engage in relations of compadrazgo is sometimes an instigation for couples to hold a church wedding, even after many years of cohabitation and the birth of several children. But while women are in charge of cooking for feasts, current popularly served dishes like barbacoa are prepared jointly by women and men. In fact, ﬁesta hospitality and the corresponding food are products of gender complementarity and family cooperation, although women are thought of as the family cooks. So in other words, in the ﬁesta sphere, women’s culinary agency is distributed and shared amongst her family, vis-à-vis the wider public. When people in Milpa Alta talk of ‘el mole de ﬁesta’, the mole of the feast, or ‘el lujo de barbacoa’, the luxury of barbacoa, the dish that they speak of is a nexus of interacting social relations within the cuisine as well as among the human social actors who perform value transactions via food hospitality. A particular recipe is placed in a hierarchical relation to the indexes of other dishes in the corpus of its cuisine (cf. Gell, 1998; Goody, 1982). The dish can be judged as delicious or ﬂavourful because it is accepted with gastronomic awe from the perspective of the eater, who can imagine the complexity of the production of the dish from his or her informed culinary knowledge. As should be clear by this point in this book, this effect is encapsulated in Gell’s notion of the ‘technology of enchantment’(1996). Finally, the hosts’ decision to serve these dishes to others in formal hospitality bestows value on their guests, while at the same time it allows the hosts to mobilize the value of the dish (or vice versa) because of the social prestige connected with the preparation of the dish (Bourdieu, 1984; Munn, 1986). As an example, then, mole, in fact, becomes representative of the whole distributed object of Mexican cuisine. The whole cuisine, produced through daily cooking, mediates the domestic realm with the public sphere, or the everyday and the ritual, similar to how Simmel (1994) allocates value to daily meals. As the relational node of a culinary matrix of interrelating social spheres, the power and value of women (or cooks) are transformed into ongoing social relations. In short, the value of mole can be understood as effectively equivalent to the value of women in Milpaltense society. In the wider social context, family honour can be distributed and properly enacted only with ﬁesta commensality, serving mole, or its substitutes, which all effectively
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represent the whole cuisine. This means that social interaction is effective when food is offered, cooked with culinary artistry (or technical mastery). Mole as a special dish indicates celebration, but it is special not only because it is difﬁcult to make. Other dishes in Mexican cuisine are difﬁcult to make. Mole differs from other dishes within the cuisine because its preparation epitomizes the wide variety of culinary techniques and ingredients that women have adopted and adapted into ‘traditional’ Mexican cuisine. Its complex history involves the invasion of foreigners who brought ingredients and technical knowledge to Mexico, and who inﬂuenced the religious and domestic realms, altering social interaction while simultaneously altering women’s relationship with food and cooking. In one recipe the interrelating value systems and complex of intentionalities that exist in Milpa Alta are found: ‘tradition’; land; compadrazgo; sexual, religious and maternal love; women; and especially ﬂavour. Mole represents salsa, which represents ﬂavour, which represents women, who are ultimately governed by an honour code of giving and respect to their children, partners, loved ones. In effect, women are representing the family, although men may be the public or ofﬁcial representatives. Therefore social interaction circulates around women and women’s culinary labours, via women’s culinary agency. In this way, the fulﬁllment of gastronomical ideals or desires is central to social life in Milpa Alta. If the preceding are the ingredients necessary to successfully prepare mole (or any other recipe), then how do professional chefs achieve culinary mastery in Mexican cuisine? In Chapter 1 I described some of the ways that chefs thought of proper Mexican cooking.5 The teaching of cultural events and Mexican history were included in the curricula of some cookery schools. Urban students were encouraged to go back to the pueblos to search for unwritten recipes and culinary tips from anonymous mayoras and señoras who were unrecognized culinary artists. According to them, superior ﬂavour could be achieved by technical culinary skill, top-quality ingredients, an understanding of traditions and Mexican culture and, as a ﬁnal garnish, a sazón de amor (a sprinkling of love).
Food and Love, Chiles and albur
In different ways throughout this book I have discussed the interconnections between notions of love and food in Milpa Alta, which revolve around women and their roles in the family. In the remainder of this book I would like to make a few ﬁnal comments on cooking and love and our perceptions of food and ﬂavour. To recapitulate, women in Milpa Alta have two kinds of responsibilities: housework and cooking (production) and family (reproduction). Equivalently, there are two kinds of human desires: for food and for sex. Recognizing the deeply symbolic value of cooking as a part of women’s work, we can take sex into account as part of the socialization of women as members of the community as well as in their relations
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with men. Once girls are able to cook, they are ready for marriage, or, put another way, they have acquired the skills necessary to participate in the community-wide systems of food giving as well as the skills necessary to demand and offer food and sex to a husband. In Chapter 4 I discussed the kind of sexual/gastronomical reciprocity that exists between husbands and wives. The marital relationship is both moral and imbued with social obligations. In Gow’s (1989) article on the Piro, he argues that the desires for food are linked to speciﬁc food providers, ‘systematically related to certain types of social relations’ (p. 568, italics added). He continues, ‘[R]elationships are predicated on the satisfaction of particular desires experienced by the partners in the relationship’ (p. 568). Home cooking is highly valued because of the moral value of women, who are the producers of this food. At the same time, food that is thought of as particularly delicious is food cooked with love. Thus an individual would be prone to prefer his mother’s cooking over others’, as a husband should also value and prefer his wife’s cooking, perhaps even more than his mother’s. In this way women are understood to be powerful agents within their local social spheres. The food sharing inherent in hospitality and family eating is considered to be moral and ethical and in a wider sense can lead to community viability. Yet one other dynamic of food and love is worth describing for a more nuanced picture of how ﬂavour and morality are intertwined. As I explained in Chapter 1, in Milpa Alta people use the words salsa and chile interchangeably, even if there is only a small proportion of chile in the recipe for the salsa. Chiles are central to Mexican gastronomy and are arguably the basic unit of the cuisine. They are also central to a variety of jokes in which the chile is spoken of metaphorically as a man’s penis, most used in albur. Albur is a kind of wordplay used almost exclusively amongst men (see Jiménez, 1991; Lomelí, 1991, pp. 20–6). It is very rare for women to speak using albur. If they do, it is amongst other women (not in mixed company) and is of a milder sort. This is because there are overt sexual connotations in the speech games in albur. Albur and derivative word games can be used in mild to increasingly aggressive ways, and yet also are considered funny. Men are able to speak with their friends (cuates, those en conﬁanza) in terms of sexually penetrating them without being considered homosexual. As long as a man is the one penetrating, rather than the one penetrated, he would still be performing within what is considered normal male behaviour. He can continue to consider himself to be heterosexual, even macho (see Gutmann, 1996). A man using albur plays upon these sensibilities, as well as on linguistic twists, and depends on speed and wit. One of the central metaphors used is the chile, which stands for the penis. Since chiles come in so many different shapes and sizes, there is ample opportunity for innuendo. However, people use other food metaphors in joking conversation to refer to male and female sexual organs. Usually it is obvious why they are chosen, though sometimes the analogy is more obscure. For the vagina there are words such as
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papaya, mamey (a type of fruit), panocha (crude sugar), pescado (ﬁsh), or mondongo (a dish made of tripe; Jiménez, 1991, pp. 82, 201). Some other food metaphors for the penis are longaniza (a type of sausage), camote (sweet potato), ejote (young corn on the cob) and zanahoria (carrot; p. 202). If these metaphors appear unsystematic, even random, that is because they are not used in an alternate discourse to encode another arbitrary symbolic structure. Rather, as Gow argues,
… these metaphors are not structured simply by direct reference to the objects themselves, whether foods or genital organs, but at the level of desire. The use of foods as metaphors for the genitals occurs only in joking, for native people have standard, non-euphemistic, names for the genitalia. The use of food metaphors in joking, I would agree, continuously draws attention to the metaphoric relationship between oral and sexual desire, rather than that between food objects and genitals as objects. (1989, p. 575)
Sexual food metaphors may therefore reveal notions about oral and sexual desire— or I would rather say ‘appetite’—and not so much about the relations between speciﬁc fruits or vegetables. The signiﬁcance of albur is that food, especially the chile, is subject to linguistic and conceptual manipulation by men, explicitly relating it to sex. On the other hand, more generally and among women, the chile is manipulated in another, culinary way, and is explicitly related to eating and ﬂavour. The relationships among food and cooking and love and sex can be understood through albur to have ramiﬁcations in the assessment of ﬂavour and morality in terms of eating a meal cooked at home or enjoying snacks in the streets.
Daily Meals, Home Cooking and Street Food
I have already explained at length that food prepared at home (i.e., with love) has connotations of being tastier and better for you (nutritionally and socially) than food prepared commercially. Having established that the values and virtues of women are materialized in home cooking, we can extrapolate from this that it can reﬂect badly on a woman if she fails to prepare a home-cooked meal and instead decides to buy ready-made food in the streets like tortas, tacos or tamales. Eating out in Milpa Alta is uncommon, partly because of the belief that food prepared at home is better. Local Milpaltenses go home for their meals, or, if they really wish to eat out, they travel to the centre of Mexico City. A few Milpaltenses told me, with some pride, that there are only two restaurants in Villa Milpa Alta. These restaurants serve comida casera, homestyle food, and they cater mainly to outsiders (from Mexico City) who work in the municipality rather than to locals. Those usually found eating in market stalls are youths having a snack after school or people who do not live in Milpa Alta and thus have no family nearby to go home to for their meals. I was told that eating out in the street indicates that the women of the house are lazy (‘son fodongas’ ), too lazy to prepare a meal at home. Though not speciﬁcally
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investigating Mexico, Tinker (1987) observes that ‘[i]n most countries the traditional foods eaten at home take a long time to make, so that busy housewives or working women will avoid this effort by feeding their families street foods’ (p. 55). She also notes that some street foods take longer to make than some typical daily meals. Mexican street food is one of the broadest-ranging parts of the cuisine. In Milpa Alta, most women know how to make many of the foods that can be bought in the streets, like different kinds of tacos, quesadillas, pambazos, tamales, huaraches, garnachas and various other snacks. Some things are not easily made at home, however, such as barbacoa, too cumbersome for the domestic kitchen or for daily cooking. Perhaps there is also an element of taste involved in the decision to buy food in the street. In Milpa Alta there is a speciﬁc verb for this idea of eating out that is used only in the region: chinaquear. Chinaquear means to eat snacks in the street and it encapsulates shirking one’s household, or even womanly, duties. So although there may be times when a woman is too tired, too busy or indeed too lazy to cook for her family, she tries to be discreet about it. If she decides to buy ready-made food in the market, she most likely will buy it to take away. She can then take it home to eat in privacy so that no one will see her and her family eating in public and later be able to accuse her of chinaqueando. Another instance when Milpaltenses might eat in the streets is when they eat alone or with only one other person. Cooking is almost never done for the sake of the cook alone, nor would this be normal behaviour in Milpa Alta. A complete Mexican meal requires much time and effort and is difﬁcult to prepare in single servings. Sometimes when Doña Margarita and I were on our own, for instance, she would suggest to me that we eat in the market. She would have a mischievous glint in her eye as she said, ‘Vamos a chinaquear’. At the stand she chatted guiltily with the food vendors as if they shared a naughty secret, because we could have or should have prepared food for ourselves. The food sold by the vendor might be particularly delicious, perhaps could not be the same if made at home, or was more work to prepare than we wished to do. Another eater makes a cook more willing to go through the trouble of preparing the several parts that make up a meal (cf. Abarca, 2006, pp. 92–3). A social activity by nature, food preparation entails an emotional commitment from cooks and eaters. Abarca (p. 93) also emphasizes this point, referring to Silva, one of her ‘critical thinkers’/informants: ‘The desire to have her family surround her table gives her the impetus to create laborious meals … The merit of culinary creation for Silva is inseparable from the participation of her audience.’ In other words, part of the social signiﬁcance of a meal prepared at home stems from the caring involved in cooking food with ﬂavour for speciﬁc eaters. In Milpa Alta, if a woman forgets to place salsa on the table, she may be teased as being envidiosa, keeping all the ﬂavour to herself, effectively failing to fulﬁll her obligation to feed her family or guests. The words envidia and envidioso are used to describe a range of characteristics from envy to greed to being overprotective over family
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members. In Milpa Alta, someone who somehow displeased another was often described as being envidioso.6 A person who is envidioso/a refuses to share or lend food or other material belongings. He or she lacks conﬁanza. Envidia is conceptually opposed to the notions of generosity, love and hospitality of home.
Appetite, Morality and Taste
In a perhaps simpliﬁed way, I have used the word love to explain how culinary technical mastery is achieved, and I have also described how love is the instigation for culinary activity. While community relationships are characterized by respect and social expectations, family relationships are characterized by love, moral obligation and gender role expectations. Within the family, on a daily basis, all different kinds of food are demanded and supplied, given and received. However, food in this case is not actually exchanged between culinary agents and recipients.7 Unlike in the ﬁesta cycle, in daily meals food is not circulated, and it is not exchanged for an expected return of food reciprocity on another occasion. This is partly because of the asymmetrical relationship between parent and child or married woman and her in-laws (see Gell, 1999a; Gow, 1989). Parents do not expect anything from children in exchange for feeding and raising them, at least not until many years later in old age. I think that that is far too long-term to establish an exchange relationship via food. Raising children is more simply a moral obligation and, as I mentioned earlier, children are considered as extensions of their parents in the community-wide systems of (food) reciprocity and exchange that do exist in ﬁestas. For daily meals, food is demanded by children, husbands and in-laws, a woman supplies it, and then all of it is eaten. I have already described how the full artistry of Mexican cuisine is explored daily in the family kitchen. Flavour and variety are sought after for everyday meals, and in this way good cooking works like a well-designed trap, enticing the family and ritual kin to maintain their ties to the cook. Ideally, women prepare food for their husbands and children and other members of the household. Women’s culinary activity is a source of social agency that gives deeper meaning to the home-cooked meal or the food prepared for family and relations of conﬁanza. Daughters rarely take full responsibility for meal provision, but if they do, it is only within the domestic realm. Once they marry, women’s culinary agency becomes directed to their husbands and their new households. Failure to feed their husbands can be judged as shirking marital as well as womanly duties, not because of some deep-seated subordination of women to men, but because of the centrality of the marital bond as the source of social (and sexual and gastronomical) fulﬁllment. It also then follows that when the relationship between cook and eater is very close, like family, the eater is more likely to judge the food as tastier and better because of the social relationship that exists between them, though of course, a cook’s
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talent must also be considered. A cook’s culinary agency and artistry can be seasoned by a sazón de amor that emanates from her feelings toward the intended eaters of her food; hence the importance of a home-cooked meal. This implies that in the case of home cooking, the food is exchanged for the love, loyalty and appreciation of family members, and not for a return of yet undetermined food hospitality in future. As I described in Chapter 4, this extends to the gastronomical and sexual loyalty of potentially unfaithful husbands. In other words, among family and friends, there is a moral obligatory force involved in giving and receiving food. Since giving food is as much an obligation as receiving it, the food given is not a ‘pure gift’ in the way that we would like to think of the freely offered love that stems from the intimacy of home. Rather, I dare say that home cooking is offered in a most complex bounded way, as a sophisticated culinary trap couched in the ideology of generosity and the virtue of women’s suffering and sacriﬁce. Understanding this, it makes more sense that the appeal of home cooking is based upon its intrinsic meaningfulness, as socially controlled, socially sanctioned sexual desires, instrumentalized for the production of legitimate members of society. Conversely, other cooking, presumably prepared for selﬁsh, economic ends, is meaningful in a different way. We can think of food-giving as generating positive social meaning (community viability) and eating as correspondingly negative (cf. Munn, 1986). Applying the same logic to cooking, home cooking generates positive social ends, whereas commercial cooking would then generate antisocial (individual) ends. A home-cooked meal should then taste better and should also be better than snacks bought in the street. Yet street foods are known to be desirable, marketable, commercially viable and delicious. This being the case, I now return to the question I posed in the introduction of this book: if mother’s home cooking is the best and tastiest food, then why is it that street food is considered to taste so good? Though any woman who cooks may know how to make the same antojitos, somehow, this food may seem to taste better in the streets. How can an anonymous food vendor prepare food with the ﬂavour of love that competes with the nourishment of home and the socially sanctioned marital bond? I will continue exploring the notions of exchange and reciprocity to explain how this can be so. Among other writers, Vázquez García (1997) describes the marital relationship as reciprocal in a Nahua community in southern Veracruz, Mexico. This reciprocity has material manifestations in access to land or other resources as well as in cooking: ‘[T]he activities of men and women are complementary in the sense of women depending on men for the corn, but men depend on women for the tortilla, the ﬁnal product’ (p. 171, my translation). Vázquez discusses the domestic economy of ﬁrst and second wives in both monogamous and polygamous unions. She notes that men inherit land and women receive kitchen equipment upon marriage. She also observes that many women who sell home-cooked food in the streets are unwed
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mothers or ‘second wives’ of men whose legitimate wives exert domestic (marital and gastronomical) rights.8 Recall now that cooking is an activity like building a trap-as-artwork, with the intention of constructing bait in a particular way to ensnare the loyalty of kin and ritual kin. This intention would be no different from the desire of a food vendor to entice customers with a certain taste to her own delicious food. So the culinary agency involved in preparing food for sale or for loved ones is actually one and the same. Abarca’s (2007) recent article on Mexican food entrepreneurs argues that some successful women recreate the spirit of home and cultural heritage when they prepare and sell their food. In Chapter 3 I also mentioned how Primy would proffer special treatment to regular customers, as the vendor-client relationship can blur over time to approximate friendship. There will always be differences in a cook’s activities depending on her speciﬁc intentions, or her intended food consumers, with respect to her agency. Both the vendor and the home cook wish to attract and appease the appetite of the same consumer, and so the vendor directs her agency to this competition. Yet more pertinent to this point than Gell’s discussion of artworks as traps, however, is how Gell (1999a) dismantles the idea that commercial activities should be less moral than non-commercial/gift-giving and gift-receiving. If we follow Gell’s (1999a) logic about commodity exchange, rather than being an unethical commercial venture in opposition to the ethical food-giving at home, buying and selling street food would constitute a food transaction of supreme reciprocity. A customer hands over money and the vendor hands over ﬂavourful food. Both the customer and the vendor indeed ‘sacriﬁce’ something of value (money/food) in exchange for something that they value more (food/money). This immediate-return exchange is instant gratiﬁcation. The goal of this and other kinds of commodity exchange is a simple transaction, completed on the spot, without any moral obligation on the part of the buyer or the seller. Things are exchanged for things, wherein each actor values the other thing more than the thing he or she gives up. There is quantitative equivalence, though each leaves the transaction happier with his or her newly acquired money or food than before. What is given over is a thing that the giver values less than what is received. What is given is not a gift, nor is it obligatory. I can choose to buy food from this or that vendor, and neither I nor the vendor I choose engage in any realm wherein either of us can be judged to be generous or envidiosa. In fact, the food is transacted in a mercifully simple, satisfying way. Brieﬂy put, then, food in the street provides the ﬂavour of Mexican cuisine without the effort or social investment. Indeed, especially if one eats alone at a street stand, there are no social relations involved to complicate one’s enjoyment of the ﬂavours. Street food is commoditized cooking, and its appeal lies in the link between eating and sex.9 It is as delicious and clandestine as an illicit love affair, akin to the pleasures of sex without the entanglements of love (amongst social relations). To conclude, then, there are two ways of experiencing food as delicious. Home cooking has the status of the highly moral marital bond, and the value of food sharing,
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even if under a coercive system. Because of the many rules of greed and generosity surrounding home cooking, interrelated with the social systems of compadrazgo and the mayordomía, the meal is heavily emotionally laden. In contrast, to snack in the streets is considered a pastime; it is an act of freedom, eating to satisfy appetite without emotional entanglements. Though different vendors produce different qualities of ﬂavours, and some things do taste better when prepared at home, there is no contradiction if it is accepted that we have preferences and opinions about food, just as we have preferences for and opinions about people with whom we socialize. To summarize, in Milpa Alta, married women prepare food for their husbands and the rest of the household as part of their domestic role. More speciﬁcally, if a woman does not cook at home for her family, she can be criticized, and if she chooses to eat in the streets, she is chinaqueando, naughtily enjoying someone else’s cooking as she shirks her own duties to cook. Likewise, being seen in the streets invites digression and the potential for extramarital love affairs. Chinaqueando is an occasional delight, an individual practice more commonly engaged in than openly admitted. Eating in the streets is thus an illicit pleasure, without the social signiﬁcance attached to eating in someone’s home. Because of the meanings attached to home cooking (food prepared by women, primarily for their husbands), to eat in the street is equivalent to having an illicit love affair—equally or arguably more delicious food prepared by others, not one’s wife. Furthermore, rather than there being a power struggle between genders (Gregor, 1985), Milpa Alta society is characterised by gender complementarity, as has been shown to exist in other Latin American societies (e.g. Descola, 1994; Gow, 1991; McCallum, 2001; Vázquez García, 1997). A man should ﬁnd the greatest pleasures with his wife, but of course, there are deviances from the norm, and men and women are known to have extramarital affairs. After all, given that I have been arguing throughout this book that we do not eat solely for the sake of nutrition, it would be naive to suggest that sex is solely for the sake of procreation. Likewise, food that is not cooked at home is also considered to be delicious in a different, almost sinful sense. The appeal of one is analogous to that of the other—the temptations of an extramarital affair are similar to those of the appetizing snacks sold on the street. Neither are necessarily offered for the purpose of nourishment or the propagation of society, but they both provide temporary satisfactions of desires fulﬁlled for the sake of pure pleasure.
Recipes: Variations on a Theme
Despite the apparent impossibility of learning to cook Mexican food with only recipes, I invite readers to experiment with some variations on the theme of basic dishes in Mexican cuisine, to join in the activity, or to cook tradition, as Ricardo says. Please note that this is just a sampling of recipes, and quantities can vary with every cook’s taste.
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1 Variations on Salsa 1.1 Salsa roja cruda (Raw Red Salsa)
2 large ripe red tomatoes, cut into pieces ½ medium onion, roughly chopped 2 small green chiles, chopped salt to taste • Chop all ingredients and mix well. If left chunky, this is the classic salsa mexicana, which is often used to accompany grilled ﬁsh or meat or eggs. In any case, this is a table salsa. • The ingredients can be more mashed or liqueﬁed and other ingredients added. • Mash in a mortar with a pestle or put all in a blender with a little water if necessary. Blend to desired consistency. • Fresh, raw salsas are nice left chunky. This is a perfect accompaniment for guacamole and tortilla chips as well as for eggs, grilled meats or ﬁsh, or anything.
Variations to Add or Substitute
chopped coriander olive oil lime juice garlic fresh red or other chiles or a combination of different chiles green husk tomatoes (tomates verdes or tomatillos)—in which case it becomes green salsa.
Raw red salsa with mashed avocado added. Variations or optional ingredients, as with raw red salsa 1.2.1 Guacamole 2 large ripe avocados 1 small tomato, ﬁnely chopped ¼ white onion, ﬁnely chopped 1 small green chile (serrano or jalapeño), ﬁnely chopped (optional) salt to taste coriander (cilantro), ﬁnely chopped (optional) lime juice (optional)
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• Mash all together with fork. • Serve with avocado pits in the sauce to prevent blackening—but a surer way to prevent blackening is to peel and pit the avocados and leave them in ﬁzzy water or iced water for 30 minutes before using. • Serve as a dip with tortilla chips (totopos) or alongside grilled or fried meat or ﬁsh, to roll into tacos or use in sandwiches.
1.3 Salsa Verde (Green Salsa)
Substitute green husk tomatoes (tomates verdes or tomatillos) for red tomatoes, and proceed as for raw red salsa.
1.4 Cooked Salsa
Blend salsa ingredients until fairly smooth. You may need to add a little water. Heat oil or lard in a saucepan, and when the oil begins to smoke, pour in the liqueﬁed salsa. Cook until it changes colour and the ﬂavour changes, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Variations for Cooked Salsa
• Add spices (use all): cloves, cinnamon (‘true’ or Ceylon cinnamon sticks, with soft thin bark; not cassia), allspice, cumin, black pepper. • Add herbs (use one): dried oregano, fresh coriander, epazote, marjoram. • Boil tomatoes (peel husks off green tomatoes ﬁrst) and fresh chiles before liquidizing, using some of the boiling broth in the blender. • Before blending, roast tomatoes, chiles, onions, garlic and spices on a dry griddle, comal or frying pan. • Tomatoes, fresh chiles, onions and garlic should be roasted unpeeled until the skin blackens (green tomatoes should have papery husk removed). It is not necessary to peel tomatoes or chiles after roasting them, as the charred skin contributes a nice smoky ﬂavour. • With dried chiles and spices, be careful not to let them burn or they will taste bitter. • If using dried chiles, soak them in hot water for a few minutes after roasting, to soften them. Use some of the soaking liquid in the blender.
1.5 Variations with Cooked Salsa and Other Ingredients
Often meat, vegetables, stuffed chiles, omelettes or vegetable or ﬁsh tortitas (croquettes) are cooked into or served heated in thin, smooth cooked salsas or caldillos. Variations are endless. Examples follow.
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1.5.1 Chicharrón en chile verde (Fried Pork Rinds in Green Salsa) This is very common in Milpa Alta. Break fried pork rinds into pieces. Heat in cooked salsa verde until soft. Serve with boiled beans and warm corn tortillas. 1.5.2 Calabacitas con queso (Courgettes with Cheese) Cook cubed courgettes and panela cheese in red tomato caldillo with fresh epazote. This is usually served with white rice, beans and corn tortillas.
Tortillas can be made by boiling corn with lime (CaOH), grinding it to a soft dough, masa, and patting out by hand, pressing out with a tortilla press, or putting masa through an industrial tortillería machine. Tortillas can be thick or thin, large or small, long or short. Well-made tortillas puff up as they bake and have two different sides, a front and a back.
2.1 Gorditas or Tortillas Pellizcadas
These are fat tortillas which have been pinched on the thin side to make a rough surface. The rough, pinched side is smeared with melted lard, then topped with refried beans and things like crisply fried crumbled longaniza, salsa, onions and cream.
Fry whole day-old tortillas until crisp, keeping them ﬂat—these are now called tostadas. They are served alongside pozole (hominy soup) with crema espesa, avocados, lime, onions, sliced radish, shredded lettuce and chopped coriander. Tostadas are also eaten on their own, topped with a variety of different things, always with some kind of salsa or chile on the side. Some other optional toppings that can be combined as you wish are as follows: refried beans shredded lettuce shredded boiled chicken or pork salpicón avocado sliced onions crema espesa crumbled, grated or shredded cheese
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chopped coriander crumbled, crisply fried longaniza or chorizo (sausage)
2.3 Tacos dorados
Roll shredded chicken in corn tortillas. Secure each roll with a toothpick and deep-fry. Serve drizzled with salsa and cream and with chopped onions, coriander and grated white cheese (all optional). 2.3.1 Variation: Flautas Make tacos dorados using shredded barbacoa de borrego as ﬁlling. Many people make thin, extra-long, oblong tortillas from fresh masa so that the ﬂautas will be long like ﬂutes. Drizzle the fried tacos with green salsa, cream and grated white cheese. Flautas de barbacoa are sometimes served alongside a bowl of consomé de barbacoa. They are usually bought in the market or in a street stall.
This is typical street food in Mexico City. Prepare masa for tortillas and refried beans. Before pressing out the tortillas, place a length of beans in the centre of a ball of masa and press it out into an oblong shape, about 10–15 cm long, 8 cm wide, and 1 cm thick. The beans should be encased in masa. Bake on both sides on a hot comal, dry frying pan or griddle. Top with cooked salsa, chopped onions, grated cheese, chopped coriander and cream. 2.4.1 Huaraches Huaraches are like tlacoyos but are much wider, thinner and crisper. Señoras sell them on street corners and outside metro stations in Mexico City. They can be up to 40 cm long and 25 cm wide and are served with the same toppings as tlacoyos.
3 Variations with Cooked Salsa and Tortillas 3.1 Chilaquiles
• The night before, cut leftover corn tortillas into 8 triangles each. Leave them out to dry overnight. The next morning, fry them in hot oil till crisp. • Make thin red or green salsa in any way you wish. You may use chicken broth or water to thin it out further. Make sure to liquefy it long enough to get it very smooth.
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• Strain into hot oil, fry and cook the salsa with epazote. • Toss the tortilla chips in the hot salsa. When they are well coated, place on plates, and put on toppings and side dishes before serving.
white onion, sliced into very thin wedges, rings or half-rings shredded or crumbled white cheese (queso oaxaqueño, queso fresco, mild feta) crema espesa/de rancho/crème fraîche chopped coriander/cilantro Variations: optional side dishes to place on or beside chilaquiles
• • • • • • fried egg fried or breaded thinly pounded chicken breast, pork or beef ﬁlet (milanesa) fried crumbled Mexican longaniza (sausage) shredded boiled chicken frijoles refritos (refried beans, see below) bolillos or teleras (crusty white bread roll)
corn tortillas thin cooked salsa, as for chilaquiles shredded boiled chicken, pork or beef or boiled potatoes chopped white onions grated cheese • Heat 1 cm oil in a frying pan beside the pan where the salsa is cooking. • One by one, dip each tortilla in the pan of hot salsa and pass it through to quickly coat it. Then pass it through the hot oil to soften it a bit and make it pliable. • One by one, lay tortillas on a plate or ovenproof serving dish, place about a tablespoon of ﬁlling in the centre and roll into a cylinder. Arrange rolls side by side. • Sprinkle with chopped onions and grated cheese. 3.2.1 For Enchiladas suizas Use green salsa, shredded chicken and yellow melting cheese and drizzle over crema espesa or sour cream. Arrange in ovenproof dish and bake till heated through and cheese has melted.
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3.2.2 Enmoladas or Enchiladas de mole For salsa, use leftover mole that has been thinned down with water or chicken broth; use shredded chicken as ﬁlling, and top with sliced onions, crumbled white cheese and crema espesa. 3.2.3 Enfrijoladas Use thin, very smoothly liqueﬁed beans ( frijoles de olla or frijoles refritos) instead of salsa, and either corn or wheat ﬂour tortillas (ﬂour tortillas need not be passed through hot oil); the ﬁlling can be shredded chicken, ham and/or cheese. 3.2.4 Pastel azteca Arrange tortillas in layers in an ovenproof dish like lasagna. The other layers: shredded boiled chicken, thin refried beans, crema espesa; place grated melting cheese on top and bake in oven till cheese melts and all is heated through.
4 Frijoles de olla (Brothy Beans Cooked in an olla)
• An olla is a traditional pot used in Mexico for cooking beans or preparing coffee. • The beans—black turtle or Veracruz beans, pinto or any other beans—should be rinsed and all stones and empty beans removed. They do not need to be soaked. • Put beans in a pot with about triple the amount of water, cover and simmer over medium heat with some onion and lard or vegetable oil. Stir occasionally, and after at least 2 hours the beans should be soft. Only after they are very soft may you add salt. If you add salt too soon, the beans will never soften. • If you need to add water, add hot water. Adding cold water will temporarily halt the cooking process. Traditionally, a small clay olla with water is placed on top of the big clay olla where the beans are cooking. If water needs to be added, the water in the small olla is at the same temperature as the cooking beans. • Beans are best prepared in advance since you cannot be sure how long they will cook (this depends on how old they are). They also taste better after they have settled. • Beans are often eaten after the main course, or with any sauce that remains on the plate after the meat or ﬁsh of the main course is ﬁnished. They are also served together with the main course or with rice as well.
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• For black beans, most people add a sprig of epazote to the pot toward the end of the cooking time. Chopped coriander also goes well with any beans.
4.1 Frijoles refritos (Refried Beans)
• Over a medium ﬂame, heat lard or oil in a frying pan. When it begins to smoke, add some sliced white onions. Stir these and cook them until they are dark brown and almost burnt. • Only then add the beans with some of their broth. Mash them continually in the lard and incorporate the onions until a smooth paste is formed. • Beans cooked like this go well with any dish with a sauce and are also used to spread into sandwiches made with crusty bread, a slice of avocado, some pickled chile and cheese and/or cured or roasted meat to make tortas. • You can serve these with scrambled eggs and salsa, or you can scramble them into eggs. They are also often served with crumbled white cheese (queso fresco or queso añejo, or substitute feta or white Lancashire).
4.2 Sopa de frijol (Bean Soup)
Prepare beans with a lot of water or add chicken or other stock before liquefying them.
Optional ingredients to add, before or after blending to a smooth soup:
dark or crispy fried onions garlic oregano or epazote roasted or raw tomatoes or cook them into the soup green, red, fresh or dried chiles
Optional ingredients for serving:
tortilla chips (totopos) or crispy fried strips of corn tortillas crumbled or grated cheese pickled chiles strips of roasted chiles crème fraîche (crema espesa) or sour cream chopped (skinned) tomatoes avocado chopped coriander chopped onions
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See 3.2.3 above.
5 Sopa seca (Dry Soup)
This is rice or pasta without broth, usually served as a ﬁrst or second course, often eaten on its own with salsa on the side. It is served after a vegetable soup or meat or chicken broth with hot corn tortillas, salsa, and sometimes avocado and lime. Sometimes, rice is stirred into the broth or eaten with the main course or with the beans after the main course.
5.1 Arroz blanco (White Mexican Rice)
1½ cups long-grain rice, soaked in hot water, drained well ¼ cup oil ½ white onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, chopped ½ cup each carrots (soaked in hot water), peas, corn kernels, cubed potatoes (soaked in hot water) (all optional) 2½ cups water or chicken broth salt sprig of coriander or epazote (optional) 1 whole green chile (optional) • Heat the oil until it begins to smoke. Fry the rice (and carrots) until it is lightly golden. • Blend onions and garlic with a bit of water until smooth. Add to rice. • Stir well and allow to cook. Add vegetables and salt and top up with enough water or broth to cook the rice well. Add salt to taste. Keep the heat high for a few minutes so that the veggies cook, then lower the heat to a very low ﬂame, cover and let simmer until the rice is cooked. • Cover the lid of the pot with a tea towel before placing it over the pot to absorb excess moisture, if you wish. • Add coriander, epazote or chile to the top of the rice toward the end of the cooking time. Note: This rice should be dry. It should not be soft and milky like risotto; rather it should be more like pilau, with separate grains.
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5.2 Arroz rojo (Red Rice)
Prepare arroz blanco (see preceding recipe). To make red rice, add 1 or 2 tomatoes to the garlic and onion mixture and blend well, like a smooth red salsa. Strain this into the hot oil and fried rice. Fry a bit before adding the optional vegetables, salt and water or chicken broth.
5.3 Sopa de ﬁdeos/Macarrones
Substitute vermicelli or pasta elbows (macaroni) for the rice and prepare as for arroz rojo, frying the dry pasta in oil until it browns a little, before stirring in the salsa and water to cook. The pasta should remain dry, without a sauce, when it is done. Sometimes dry pasta ‘soups’ are served with cream (crème fraîche) drizzled over.
6 Frutas en almíbar (Poached Fruits in Syrup)
Make a light syrup by boiling and simmering sugar in abundant water with some grated lime rind and a stick of Ceylon cinnamon. You might want to add a bit of lime juice so that it is not too sweet. When the syrup is ready, put peeled prepared fruits in to poach for about 10 minutes or until they are cooked. Allow the fruit to cool in the syrup and then refrigerate. Serve cold. This is good for pears, guavas, and other fruits that do not disintegrate (e.g. tejocotes, peaches, pineapples).
combine 2 or more types of fruit stir in chopped mint before serving serve with crema espesa/de rancho (crème fraîche)
1. Abarca (2006) takes a political and feminist standpoint to analyze the same topics of food in Mexico that had also struck me as most important—namely, sazón, food as art, and cooking as a source of women’s agency and empowerment. Any researcher of Mexican food would ﬁnd them to be part of the reality of Mexican culinary culture. Yet while her treatment of these subjects appeared to overlap with mine, in fact her approach is necessarily different, given our different disciplinary training and personal backgrounds. Abarca draws from literary, gender and cultural studies and is herself a native Mexican. She grew up with the creative artistry of Mexican cooking as part of her normal daily life. So for her, her experience was intellectualized before she revalued and reevaluated her appreciation of the Mexican kitchen. In my case, I approached Mexican cuisine with the curiosity, sense of adventure and discovery of an outsider or tourist, and indeed of an anthropologist. As can be expected, there are certain things which non-natives notice that natives may not immediately see or may take for granted, and vice versa. Our different perspectives can only further enrich our understanding of food and cooking and Mexican gastronomy. 2. ‘Where . . . food production depends on the skilled handling of tools, and indeed of one’s own person, the productive forces appear as the embodied qualities of human subjects—as their technical skills’ (Ingold, 2000, p. 318). Sutton (2006) also discusses how acquiring cooking skill is a matter of learning bodily habit memory and not simply following a simple set of rules. 3. The regional cuisines of the Middle East, India and China are comparable in their complexity of everyday cooking. 4. The mixing of cuisines and culinary culture is far from a simple matter, of course. This is very well explained by Wilk (2006, Chapter 6) in his discussion of the creolization of Belizean food. 5. At the time of my research in the nineties, the population was only about 1 per cent of the Federal District (81,102 for Milpa Alta and 8,489,007 for the whole city), though it occupied 19.2 per cent of its area. Most of this land was put to agricultural use, 3.5 per cent was inhabited, and 1 per cent was used for urban buildings and other purposes (Instituto Nacional de Estadistica Geografía e Informática 1997, pp. 21–2). The people of Milpa Alta rarely
– 137 –
138 • Notes
emigrated; 96.7 per cent of the population were natives of Milpa Alta and had never changed their place of residence as of the census of 1990 (Departamento de Distrito Federal, 1997, p. 15). The maguey is the source of pulque, a mildly fermented viscous drink made of the maguey sap. When unfermented, it is called aguamiel, or honey water. Pulque used to be a common drink in this region, and it had religious signiﬁcance during Aztec times. Lynn Stephen describes similar differences between how women describe their occupations as recorded in the national census and what they actually do (2005, p. 205). Unfortunately, for the barrio level there are no demographic ﬁgures in print, so my data here is reliant upon personal communication with Enrique Nápoles of Barrio San Mateo, Villa Milpa Alta. Goody (1982) highlights four main areas of investigation for studying food, based on household and class. These are production (economic factors), distribution (political factors, market, allocation), preparation and consumption. His own work focuses on production and consumption, and on a comparative perspective of cuisines since cultures must be situated within the world system. I draw my main conclusions from my data of the local system of Barrio San Mateo in relation to the rest of Milpa Alta. A comparative study of another group in a different, even neighbouring, community of Mexico City, or another community of central Mexico with Náhuatl roots, as Milpa Alta has, would surely provide a broader perspective than my limited research allowed. Also, while I have been unable to treat the topics of food production and distribution at a level beyond the barrio, and acknowledging that there is insufﬁcient space for me to include a comparative analysis with other cuisines or other cultures, my work does provide particular attention to the one aspect of cuisine that Goody was unable to discuss at length in his own work: food preparation, ‘the arts of cooking and the cuisine’ (p. 38).
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine
1. For an idea of the variety of uses of chiles in Mexican cuisine, see Muñoz (2000), Andrews (1984), Kennedy (1989, esp. pp. 459 –84), Bayless and Bayless (1987, esp. pp. 33– 49, 328–38), and van Rhijn (1993), to name a few. 2. See Long-Solís (1986), and also Coe (1994), Lomelí, (1991), Martínez (1992), Muñoz, (1996), among others. 3. See Sophie Coe’s brilliant book, America’s First Cuisines (1994), and Muñoz (2000).
Notes • 139
4. A chinampa is a very fertile type of artiﬁcial island, inaccurately referred to as a ‘ﬂoating garden’ (Long and Vargas, 2005, p. 3). 5. ‘The culinary merit is perhaps more if one considers, analyzing the texts carefully, that the variety [of foods] was not as great as it ﬁrst appears at ﬁrst sight’ (Corcuera, 1981, p. 29, my trans.). 6. See also Long and Vargas (2005) for an excellent overview of food in Mexico. 7. ‘The cooking of corn in Mexico with all its elaborations and ramiﬁcations is, and always has been, within the realm of the highest culinary art, beyond that of any other country’ (Kennedy, 1989, p. 4). 8. For an excellent discussion of culinary blending, culture contact and creolization, see Wilk (2006). For a comprehensive compilation of papers on different aspects of the cultural/culinary inﬂuences between the Old and New Worlds, see Long (1996). For a lighter account, see Sokolov (1991). 9. Public talk in Universum, Mexico City, 29 September 1997. 10. The word pueblo refers to a small town or village, usually in a non-urban context. In Mexico City, which is made up of several residential districts, these are called colonias in the central, more urbanized areas, and on the edges of the city the divisions of the municipalities are called pueblos (which may be further subdivided into barrios). Using the word pueblo to describe the residential area where you live actually has other connotations that living in a colonia does not. Coming from a pueblo implies a connection with a community of people who share a common hometown. Most people from the more central colonias of Mexico City are not quite as engaged with their neighbours and co-inhabitants in the way that those from the pueblos of Mexico City and other parts of the country are involved in one another’s lives. Furthermore, one’s life can easily be contained within the boundaries of one’s pueblo, in spite of work-related movement and interaction with other parts of the city. 11. Diana Kennedy’s work would fall into this category. See also Cruz Díaz (2000) and the regional ‘family cooking’ series published in 1988 by Banco Nacional de Credito Rural (Banrural). 12. In a thought-provoking article, Rachel Laudan (2001) questions the meaning of ‘authentic’ cuisine. She argues that depictions of traditional recipes as rural and natural is romantic nostalgia, and that the foods we think of as traditional and authentic actually depend upon the modern, industrial global economy that supporters of the ‘authentic’ criticize. See also Wilk (2006) and Hobsbawm and Ranger (1999). 13. National pride and identity are qualities which a people’s cuisine can sometimes help determine. See Pilcher (1998), Appadurai (1988), and Brown and Mussell (1985). See also Long and Vargas (2005). 14. See Wilk (2006), Pilcher (1998), and Hobsbawm and Ranger (1999). 15. I am grateful to Kai Kresse for pointing this out to me.
140 • Notes
16. There is much to say about Ingold’s theories of habitus, livelihood, knowledge and skill in relation to the topic of culinary knowledge and skill, which I am unfortunately unable to develop fully here. But see Sutton (2006). 17. For a discussion of cooking without written recipes, see Abarca (2006), especially chapter two on sazón. For a critical discussion of how culinary knowledge is transmitted, see Sutton (n.d.), who questions the linear transmission of cooking skill. 18. In some communities this is still the case. See Vizcarra (2002). 19. ‘Hay que trasladar la cocina casera a la cocina restaurantera, y debe ser un currículo en las escuelas de cocina, tal y como es, en vez de tratar de copiar el modelo europeo. Deben prepararlos bien de principio, como en la casa de la abuela, pero en restaurante, claro, sin el sazón del amor. Entonces, debe utilizar los ingredientes mejores. Imitar las cocinas famosas no sirve.’ 20. Abarca emphasizes what she calls the ‘sensory logic’ or ‘sensual, corporeal knowledge’ of sazón, which she also describes as a ‘discourse of empowerment’ (2006, p. 51). As I explain in Chapter 2, I rather prefer to avoid applying metaphorical, semiotic, textual or language-based models to food and cooking. 21. In Milpa Alta I have seen women beat their egg whites in plastic bowls and the capeado still worked. My friend Primy also overturned her bowl to check if the whites were ready.
Cooking as an Artistic Practice
1. For a description of how impoverished our language is to describe our experience of ﬂavour, see Fine (1996, Chapter 7, ‘The Aesthetics of Kitchen Discourse’). 2. Jonaitis provides an excellent discussion of how the sense of taste has been neglected in ethnographic writing. She suggests, ‘Approaching food without considering taste is like studying a mask without referring to its dance, or analyzing a drum without hearing the music it plays’ (Jonaitis, 2006, p. 162). 3. For a detailed overview of the treatment of food in anthropology and sociology, see Goody (1982, pp. 10 –39), Mennell et al. (1992, pp. 1–19), Caplan (1997b), Beardsworth and Keil (1997, pp. 47–70); see also Warde (1997). 4. Food-related ethnographies often privilege development issues (e.g. Lenten, 1993) or are more about economic issues and gender than cuisine itself (e.g., Babb, 1989). Some also base analysis on religious taboo or hierarchy and classiﬁcation (such as Douglas, 1966; Khare, 1976). There are some exceptions, of course, which focus interest on cuisine or on eating particular foods for (gastronomical or other) pleasure. Peter Gow (1989) analyzes the desires for food and sex in the construction of social relations in Amazonian Peru, and Richard Wilk (1999, 2006) examines food for understanding cultural change, globalization and local identity in Belize. Alicia María González (1986) does not write
Notes • 141
about art, but her thesis analyzes the symbolic meanings of Mexican wheat bread, focusing on the panadero, baker, and his craftsmanship in making bread with particular names and shapes. Kanafani’s (1983) ethnography of women in the United Arab Emirates focuses on the culinary arts, although not on cooks as artists. She emphasizes the artistic nature of foods and personal adornment, including perfumes, describing the interconnections among sensory experience, aesthetics and body rituals among women. She argues that aesthetic satisfaction enhances the experience of the senses, and is also used to avoid pollution and to restore oneself to a state of purity. Her analysis locates the source of aesthetic meaning on the recommendations of the Prophet Muhammad, because the aesthetic cannot be isolated from (Islamic) social or cultural values, and beauty is pleasing to Allah. This conclusion may seem unsatisfying, but at least there is an attempt to understand the artistic notions attached to cooking tasty food. See, for example, Dornenburg and Page (1996). It is also interesting to note that one of the chefs represented as culinary artists in this book is Chef Rick Bayless, who specializes in so-called traditional or authentic Mexican cooking (see Bayless, 1996; Bayless and Bayless, 1987). See also Abarca (2006, Chapter 3). This is possibly because the two cultures in which he did ﬁeldwork, the LoDagaa and the Gonja, both had ‘simple’ cuisines. For them, the main difference between feast food and daily fare was abundance rather than special preparations of dishes. See Chapter 4, and Mintz (1996, Chapter 3). E.g., Lévi-Strauss (1966, 1994), Douglas (1975); for a particularly effective and convincing ethnographic analysis, see Hugh-Jones (1979); and for a successful use of semiotics in analyzing cuisine, see Weismantel (1988). Gell was not the only one to emphasize the technical aspect of art, nor was he the ﬁrst. It is a received notion that one cannot assess art without looking at techniques (see Bateson, 1973; Firth, 1996; Ingold, 2000). Gell was also neither the ﬁrst nor the only one to ascribe agency to objects or artworks (see Latour, 1993; Layton, 1981, 2003). ‘The work of art is inherently social in a way in which the merely beautiful or mysterious object is not: it is a physical entity which mediates between two beings, and therefore creates a social relation between them, which in turn provides a channel for further social relations and inﬂuences’ (Gell, 1996, p. 52). As Andrew Martin describes Latour, ‘Objects are really the end result of a long process of negotiation between the material world, historical associations and people—who give things names and relationships’ (2005, p. 285). See Sutton (2006). ‘[A]nimal traps … might be presented to an art public as artworks. These devices embody ideas, convey meanings, because a trap, by its very nature, is a transformed representation of its maker, the hunter, and the prey animal, its
142 • Notes
victim, and of their mutual relationship, which, among hunting people, is a complex, quintessentially social one. That is to say, these traps communicate the idea of a nexus of intentionalities between hunters and prey animals, via material forms and mechanisms’ (Gell, 1999b, p. 203). The ancient Aztecs used chile smoke as a punishment for naughty children (Coe, 1994). They made them breathe it to remove their anger as well (Clendinnen, 1991, p. 53). In a talk at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana on 3 June 1996, Diana Kennedy said that she herself believes in these culinary methods. She said that you must sing to moles in the same way that you must talk to your plants. The reason, she explained, is because ‘the ancestors’ had more contact with food and so their wisdom must be respected. These practices must have come about because the ancestors had a deeper and more personal understanding of and relationship with their foodstuffs and therefore were able to work out the best ways to achieve optimal ﬂavours. Kennedy’s outlook and attitude toward cuisine is more holistic than many other cookbook writers or culinary investigators, in that she has built up an ecologically friendly oasis in her home in Michoacán. There she raises bees for honey and grows her own wheat, maize, mushrooms and all types of plants from the whole country. Her love of the art of Mexican cookery eventually led to her greater understanding of and care for environmental issues, which, when put into practice, render superior culinary results. Wilk (2006) discusses the construction and recuperation of ‘traditional’ cooking and other practices in Belize, questioning the dichotomy between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. For the general theme of invention of tradition, see Hobsbawm and Ranger (1999). Raymond Firth recognizes art in a comparable way, as having human involvement with the material: ‘Art is a product of human commitment, determined by man’s social existence. It is essentially form; but only when the form is mobilized for human purposes, given meaning in human terms by comparative associations, can one properly speak of art’ (1996, p. 18). ‘It is in the nature of food to be shared out. Not to share it with others is “to kill its essence”, it is to destroy it both for oneself and for others’ (Mauss, 1990, p. 57). The case of the cook as eater is discussed below. In a way, hospitality can be thought of as a form of sacriﬁce. See Lok (1991) for a discussion of sacriﬁce and exchange, with speciﬁc regard to the Days of the Dead. Cf. Abarca (2006, pp. 92–3). In fact, the transaction may continue if a customer becomes a regular and then becomes recognized by the vendor as deserving of occasional special favours. In this case there is a blurring of the boundary between commercial and non-commercial social reciprocity which is acted out in terms of generosity
19. 20. 21.
Notes • 143
with food portions. The food product transacted remains the same, so the ‘sociality’ produced is of the kind that McCallum (2001) describes. Discussed further in Chapter 5. In a way this seems to echo Simmel, though Bourdieu argues a different point. Ingold also considers practical knowledge to be embedded in a social matrix of relations, as ‘links in chains of personal rather than mechanical causation’ (2000, p. 289). See Miller (2002) on expressing love through food shopping. Nowadays (within the last 20 years), instead of mole, many families who hold large celebration banquets serve carnitas, mixiote or barbacoa. These dishes are also technically difﬁcult to prepare, and the menu rarely varies beyond these three choices. However, since mole is to ﬁesta as ﬁesta is to mole, i.e. they mutually imply one another (mole ↔ ﬁesta), oftentimes people serve a small amount of mole with tamales after the main course so that guests do not leave without their ‘mole de ﬁesta’ (see Chapter 5). Also adobo, which is used to make mixiote. Cf. Stoller (1989, Chapter 1), where he writes of the social meanings behind serving a bad sauce among the Songhay in Niger. E.g. locally reared sheep, borregos criollos, for barbacoa. Cf. for art, Gell (1996, 1999b).
24. 25. 26.
29. 30. 31. 32.
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta
1. Very little material is published on the history of barbacoa in Milpa Alta or elsewhere. 2. See Chapter 5 for an examination of ﬁesta food. 3. If a husband moves into his wife’s house, he is often teased for being mandilón (tied to the apron strings) or called ciguamoncli (cf. Chapter 4). He is met not with disapproval, but perhaps with some ridicule at times. 4. For a clearer understanding of attachment to land, see Gomezcésar (1992). 5. As explained in Chapter 4, she often is also expected to change her cooking style in order to suit her parents-in-law and the rest of her husband’s family. 6. ‘Es una tradición que le va dejando a la nueva generación.’ Use of this phrase to describe something seemed to indicate its importance in Milpa Alta society. 7. Recall that going to university is a luxury only recently acquired with the increased economic prosperity in Milpa Alta. 8. In other parts of Mexico the caul is also called encaje, which literally means lace. 9. As mentioned previously in Chapter 2, Aztec children were disciplined by being made to inhale chile smoke as punishment (Coe, 1994, pp. 63 – 4).
144 • Notes
10. Alternatively, Alejandro hoped that one of his sons would become a trafﬁc policeman and Primy hoped they would study medicine. This does not necessarily mean, however, that they are supposed to stop making barbacoa! 11. This is an indication that people tend not to make gastronomic compromises. 12. The works of Ohnuki-Tierney (1993) and Rutter (1993) are examples of studies that deal with more symbolism and the power of speciﬁc foodstuffs to incorporate individuals into society. 13. Mole probably ranks as the highest.
Chapter 4 Women as Culinary Agents
1. McCallum deﬁnes sociality as ‘a temporary product of morally correct engagement in social relationships’ (1989, p. 11) which is characterized by generosity with food as a central virtue among the Cashinaua of western Amazonia. There are (immoral) actions that can lead to anti-sociality, and not all social relations lead to sociality, although they do lead to social organization. Likewise, arguably, those social relations that lead to sociality may be not only characterized by food generosity, but also by food quality, that is, culinary technical superiority or culinary artistry. 2. I did not know anyone who had live-in domestic help, but only cases where a woman was hired for a few hours a week or on an occasional basis. Most women who worked as domestic help in Milpa Alta were not natives, but migrants from the poorer states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz. It may not be the existence of domestic labour (or the existence of hierarchy) as such that leads to the development of cuisine (pace Goody, 1982). But because of the demands of culinary ideals, hierarchical relationships may be useful for effectively pursuing these ideals. 3. I recognize that I tread on the tenuous border between portraying culinary life as simply rosy and lovely and the dire reality of others. See Vizcarra (2002) for a comparable account of women and food in an impoverished community in the State of Mexico. Note that she describes how men believe that the only responsibility of women to their husbands is ‘dar de comer’, (‘to feed them’). 4. Note that most of their ﬁndings were based on white middle-class Americans or Europeans. 5. For example, Gutmann (1996), Melhuus and Stølen (1996), González Montes (1997), González Montes and Tuñón (1997), McCallum (2001). 6. The doble jornada, or ‘double workday’, is a term used in Latin America to refer to the labour of women who have paid full-time jobs and yet also do all the housework and cooking at home. This term has been used to criticize women’s entry into the capitalist labour force, where they were not only underpaid, but had to do another full day’s work at home for their families or husbands.
Notes • 145
7. In Milpa Alta the stereotype of self-sacriﬁcing women exists: la mujer abnegada is a woman whose husband controls family decisions. ¿Quién es él que manda? (‘Who is in charge?’) is a rhetorical question the answer to which is supposed to be ‘the husband’. Yet in practice, the response is not so clear. In an article called ‘¿Quién manda? … ’, Roseman (1999) describes a similar ambiguity in rural Galicia, where there is a discourse of gender hierarchy and women’s submissiveness but also of egalitarianism. 8. This is a large topic that goes beyond the scope of this discussion, but see, for example, Mummert (1994). 9. In some cases, this relative freedom can be seen as problematic in regard to relations between jealous husbands and wives. See Levine (1993, esp. chapters 2 and 3) for more on courtship and marriage. 10. A comparative case is what Stephen (2005, p. Chapter 7) describes for women in Teotitlán. Women had restrictions on their movements outside the house as any errand could be construed as an excuse for an illicit rendezvous. 11. Ejido land is distributed by the government in accordance with the law on agrarian reform. Like communal land, it is not privately owned and it cannot be sold. 12. For a vivid comparative account, see Levine (1993, Chapter 3). 13. ‘Regularmente cuando un hombre se hace tonto es por tanto amor que le tiene para su mujer. Una mujer se hace tonta por pendeja, para que la gente no habla mal de ella, para guardar las apariencias.’ 14. Lulú’s words were, ‘La mujer es el eje conductor, el timón de la familia. Debe a su familia, a los hijos, y tiene que sufrir. Mujeres trabajan el doble de sus maridos. Si no sufren, no son buenas personas. Son persinadas.’ (See also Melhuus, 1992; J. Martin, 1990). 15. There was apparently also a compromise on taste. Almost everyone I met still maintained that handmade tortillas taste better than factory made, and I also agree. 16. Stephen (2005, Chapter 9) explains that unlike in business, which is conducted in Spanish and requires mathematical skills, Zapotec women play a strong role in ritual decision making, conducted in Zapotec, wherein planning the food is foremost. In other words, women’s culinary agency gives them their ritual power.
Mole and Fiestas
1. Dissanayake (1995) argues that human artistic behaviour is a necessary, naturally selected, practice which aided the survival of the species. The power of human artistry hinges upon the crucial aspect of making something artistic, decorated, ‘special’ and ‘extra-ordinary’ (cf. Gell, 1996).
146 • Notes
2. For a thorough history and description of the cargo systems in Milpa Alta, see Martinez R. (1987). For a theoretical analysis, see Greenberg (1981, Chapter 1). For more on compadrazgo and the mayordomía in Milpa Alta, also see Adapon (2001). 3. For thorough analyses of compadrazgo as a principle for networking and reciprocal exchange, see Lomnitz (1977), Sault (1985, 1987), and Stephen (2005). 4. Stephen (2005, Chapter 9) also describes how relationships of compadrazgo are ‘inherited’. 5. For a town or barrio ﬁesta in Milpa Alta the unmarried youths are organized to get involved in preparing for the ﬁesta. Particularly the single young ladies (señoritas) of the barrio hire mariachis or other musical groups (conjuntos) to sing the mañanitas in front of the altar of the church. They begin at around half past four in the morning of the feast day (21 September for San Mateo). The señoritas are also expected to provide typical breakfast foods, hot tamales verdes and atole champurrado, for members of the public who attend the singing event at this cold, early hour. 6. Just as Lomnitz argues that ‘compadrazgo strengthens social ties between equals, furthers social mobility and economic advancement, and affords a magic symbolic protection against latent personal aggression’ (1977, p. 160), ties amongst barrios are strengthened and aggression can be averted when mayordomías bring promesas to other town or barrio ﬁestas. For example, San Mateo and Santa Martha are rivalling barrios from within which there is much intermarriage as well as competition. Their ﬁestas are occasions when they can socialize freely when the residents of the barrios ritually visit one another bearing salvas. 7. The dictionary deﬁnition of this word, ﬁestero, is pleasure-seeking, fond of parties. 8. This is comparable to what Stephen (2005) describes occurring in Teotitlán, where some women spend their money on their compadrazgo gifts and obligations rather than on their daily meals. Because of how guests are fed during ﬁestas, especially the excesses of food given to compadres to take home, women, as central ﬁgures in ritual community life, juggle their ritual responsibilities with quotidian needs. 9. ‘La gente de Milpa Alta es muy trabajadora porque la naturaleza no les dió tanto, entonces es un lujo quedarte a comer en la casa, porque no hay tiempo. Hay que trabajar desde la madrugada hasta la noche para salir adelante. Y es por eso que es un pueblo tan ﬁestero—para mostrar a los demás que sí tiene dinero para festejar y hacerlos bien.’ 10. In Milpa Alta, and elsewhere in Mexico, this is commonly done at home for breakfast the day after a ﬁesta as part of the recalentado. 11. This idea of homemade products being better than their commercial counterparts is prevalent and put into practice more by suburban, rural or lower-middle-class people than central urban or upper-middle-class to upper-class people. In urban
Notes • 147
centres this is starting to change, as ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine is growing in popularity. If she were making mole poblano she would also sprinkle sesame seeds on top. She was one other person who conﬁded in me that her culinary secret was that she ‘cooks with love’. See Wilk (2006, Chapter 6) for a convincing attempt to deﬁne the style of Belizean food. See Sutton (n.d.) for a thought-provoking article on how culinary knowledge and apprenticeship are not necessarily passed from mother to daughter. This is a notion that Mary Douglas (1983) and David Sutton (2001) have both explored in different ways, and which I consider to be useful, though as a means to another end. This relates to an anecdote I mentioned in Chapter 1, when I was told, ‘It is not because we want to stop following traditions, it is so that we can use up what is in the fridge’. Wilk also notes that consistency is just as difﬁcult to maintain as innovation (2006, p. 122). This is what Munn calls the ‘relative extension of spacetime’.
13. 14. 15.
Chapter 6 The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life
1. I once went to a barbacoa restaurant in the city, where the spirit of the town ﬁesta is reproduced for tourists or urban dwellers. I brought the leftovers to Milpa Alta for my friends to try it and compare. In my opinion the barbacoa that Primy and Alejandro made was much better, more ﬂavourful and of higher quality, although the restaurant barbacoa was quite good. When we warmed it up and ate it, the whole family was unanimous in their opinion. The barbacoa was ﬁne, but it just was not as good as what they made themselves at home. Primy’s young son said that they must have used goat meat instead of lamb. Apart from this, they were also appalled at the price charged at the restaurant, which was double the price per kilo that they charged in their market stall. The meal concluded with the opinion that this was a commercial barbacoa, made for wealthy customers who did not eat it regularly and who were detached from it. 2. ‘[T]o write about art … is … to write about either religion, or the substitute for religion which those who have abandoned the outward forms of received religions content themselves with’ (Gell, 1998, p. 97). 3. As Parry (1986) explains it, persons, things, interest and disinterest are all merged. 4. Stanley Brandes analyzed the ﬁesta cycle in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán (Mexico), arguing that ‘reciprocal favors are critical to survival, and … in the long or short term these favors should somehow be balanced. These messages, whether in the public ﬁesta domain or the private daily domain, strengthen one another. They
148 • Notes
pervade all of social life and, through frequent repetition, persuade villagers to live according to prevailing contractual norms’ (1988, p. 87). Here I would also classify cookbook writers, who are involved in a wider discourse of taste than local Milpaltenses. Self-critical members of Milpa Alta society pointed out that their attitude to land is also envidioso. They discourage non-Milpaltenses from buying property in the municipality by keeping the prices high, but if a Milpaltense is interested in the land, they reduce the price considerably (see Flores Aguilar, 1992). See Woodburn (1998) for a view which refutes the idea of (food) sharing as exchange. In a study of seven countries in Africa and Asia, Tinker (1987) shows that in four countries street food vendors were usually middle-aged women (32 to 41 years old). Women vendors were often in polygamous unions or unmarried and were the primary earners in the family, or at least did not share their income with their husbands. Their income was mainly used for their children and school fees. Where vendors were mostly men, there were religious or customary reasons for this. In these cases, women still often contributed their labour from home, preparing the food for their husbands to sell. As mentioned in Chapter 4, Taggart (1992) also describes a link between eating and sex in his analysis of the Sierra Nahuat. His study is a comparative analysis of gender segregation in Mexico and Spain, which he bases on early childhood relationships with parents. His data on Mexico emphasize cooking as part of women’s role and link cooking and eating with the relationship between husband and wife, because of the links between Nahuat conceptions of eating and sex. ‘The public separation of women from men on family ceremonial occasions is understandable if one considers that all rituals involve eating and that the Sierra Nahuat connect eating with sex. A woman and a man eating together in public would make a Sierra Nahuat uncomfortable because it would suggest the unleashing of powerful and potentially destructive human emotions’ (p. 81, emphasis added).
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Abarca, Meredith, 1, 45, 84, 123, 126 on sazón, 21–2 on women’s empowerment, 32, 72–4, 113 agency, 29, 31, 32– 6, 41–2, 47, 71–6 passim, 95, 124 intention and, 31–3, 36, 106, 117–8 albur. See love art nexus, 3, 29, 34, 35, 113 barbacoa, 4–5, 49–70, 101–5 passim, 115–16, 119 as ﬁesta food, 44, 89, 92, 96, 106 –9 Bayless, Rick, 11, 20 –1, 97 Brandes, Stanley, 6, 91, 92, 95 cargo system. See mayordomía carnitas, 51, 87, 89, 92, 100–2, 106 –8 chefs, 7, 12–21 passim, 29, 34, 46, 120 chilaquiles, 1–2, 58, 94, 104, 114, 131–2 chinaquear, 123–7 Coe, Sophie, 3, 8, 10 compadrazgo, 76, 89–92, 108, 113, 117–20 passim, 127 conﬁanza, 21, 95, 121, 124 cookbook(s), 2, 3, 7–11 passim, 15, 20, 31 Corcuera, Sonia, 3, 9 Cowal, Victoria, 3, 9, 10 culinary agency, 5, 32, 71, 82–5, 106, 115–26 passim see also agency decoration, 39– 40, 67, 113 envidia, 90, 123, 124 see also greed Esquivel, Laura, 18, 38 expertise, 2, 16 culinary, 2, 9, 40, 42, 75, 115 see also technical mastery Firth, Raymond, 37 fusion, 10 see also mestizaje; miscegenation Gell, Alfred, 30, 51, 101, 106, 109, 113 artworks as traps, 75, 126 on commodity exchange, 126 on decoration, 67 distributed object, 105 intentionality, 117 style, 105, 106, 108 technology of enchantment, 29, 33, 101, 119 theory of art, 5, 29– 48, 103, 118 generosity, 41, 124, 125, 127 Goody, Jack, 3, 30, 31, 44 Gow, Peter, 37, 85, 121, 122, 124, 127 greed, 41, 47, 68, 90, 123, 127 guacamole, 50, 103, 128 home cooking, 2, 3, 11–13, 22, 125 restaurants and, 21 street food and, 41, 122–3, 124–7 value of, 46, 82, 85, 121, 126 women and, 71, 82, 121, 125 hospitality, 39– 42, 90, 108, 113, 119–25 passim as coercive, 46, 81, 93–7, 118 Howes, David, 3, 29, 40 Ingold, Tim, 14, 16, 17, 114, 116 intention, 41, 45, 46, 107, 126 intentionality and, 38–9 mole and, 100, 120 see also agency Kennedy, Diana, 8, 11, 15, 16 Laudan, Rachel, 10, 11, 98, 102 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 113 Lomnitz, Larissa Adler, 90, 92, 95 Long-Solís, Janet, 13, 117 love, 18–21, 45, 47, 71–2, 120, 124–7 albur and, 121–2 lovers and, 46, 78 – 82 sex and, 75, 122 see also sazón McCallum, Cecilia, 83, 113, 116 Mauss, Marcel, 40, 41, 42, 95, 118 mayordomía, 89–92, 95, 108, 113, 119, 127 Melhuus, Marit, 45, 46, 78, 80 –5 passim, 113 mestizaje, 10 see also miscegenation; fusion; Wilk, Richard miscegenation, 10 see also mestizaje; fusion mole, 18 –22 passim, 45, 46, 89 –109, 114 –15, 117–20 motherhood, 67, 73, 75, 76 – 8, 79, 82 Munn, Nancy, 42, 46, 108 –9, 113, 118, 119 concept of meaning, 32, 105 intersubjectivity, 116 on sharing, 41, 125 Muñoz, Ricardo, 1–2, 7– 8, 11–12, 13, 19–21 recipes, 22–7 nueva cocina mexicana, 12, 13
– 159 –
160 • Index
Pilcher, Jeffrey 10, 84, 98 Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de, 3, 9, 12 sazón, 5, 21–2, 29, 34, 75 love and, 21, 37, 71, 75, 82, 113, 120, 125 Simmel, Georg, 37, 40–1, 47, 107, 119 sistema de cargos. See mayordomía skill, 14–17, 29–30, 36–7, 41–7 passim, 53, 85 cooking and, 71–2, 84, 99, 101, 116, 120 women’s, 71, 121 Stephen, Lynn, 73, 85, 89, 92, 95 street food, 4, 41, 46, 122–7 Sutton, David, 14, 17, 30 tamal(es), 9, 14, 74, 114, 117 angry, 38–9 as feast food, 99–104 passim, 109 street food, 122, 123 taste, 3, 9, 22, 33, 75, 79, 123 agency and, 42 Bourdieu, 43–4, 83, 107, 115 ﬂavour and, 30, 34 judgement of, 124–7 Mintz, 83 technical mastery, 32, 34, 44, 47, 109 barbacoa, 67 culinary, 40, 43–7 passim, 101, 117, 120, 124 technique(s), 33, 54, 67, 85, 106, 108 on learning, 15–17, 43 see also skill tradition, 3, 13–14, 53, 92, 96, 120 development of, 14, 98, 102–6 traditional cookery, 12–15 and restaurants, 21, 120 traps, artworks as, 38–9, 45, 75, 126 food as, 48, 124, 125 Vargas, Luis, 13, 117 Wilk, Richard, 82, 98, 102, 106 womanhood, 5, 73, 75, 77 see also motherhood women, 2, 6, 17, 71–85 barbacoa and, 116, 119 boundaries and restrictions on, 45, 48, 74, 77 as cooks, 36, 46, 98, 102, 122 economic activity of, 4 expectations of, 75, 116, 124 power of, 45, 48, 72–3, 77–85, 121 roles, 71–2, 76, 80, 82–3, 89, 116 value of, 46, 71, 80, 85, 89, 113–14, 119–22 work, 52, 58–60, 71–8, 82–3, 89, 116
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