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Culinary Art and Anthropology

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Culinary Art and Anthropology

Joy Adapon

Oxford • New York

First published in 2008 by
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

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 vii

Preface ix

Introduction 1
Milpa Alta, DF 4
Organization of the book 5

1 Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine 7

The Cultural Significance of Chiles 7
The Range of Mexican Foods 8
Home Cooking by Profession 11
Cooking Tradition 12
On Learning Techniques 15
Food and Love 18
Recipes 22
Chiles Stuffed with Simple picadillo with Potato,
How to Peel chiles poblanos, How to Achieve a
Perfect capeado

2 Cooking as an Artistic Practice 29

Food and Culinary Art in Anthropology 29
Gell’s Theory of Art 32
A Meal as an Object of Art 36
On Edibility, Hospitality and Exchange 39
Flavour and Value 43
Conclusion: The Meaningfulness of Food 47

3 Barbacoa in Milpa Alta 49

Eating barbacoa 49
Barbacoa Makers in Milpa Alta 50
The Process of Preparing barbacoa in Barrio San Mateo, Milpa Alta 54
Conclusion 66
Recipes 68

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 71

The Value of Cooking and Other Work 71
Marriage and Cooking 75
Work, Motherhood and Virtue 76
Suffering, Love Affairs and the Morality of the Meal 78
Culinary Agency 82
Recipes 85
Huevos a la mexicana, Taco placero, Batter
for Coating Fish, Carnitas

5 Mole and Fiestas 89

Compadrazgo and the mayodomía 90
Hospitality and Food 93
Mole and mole poblano 97
Mole and Celebration 98
The Development of a Tradition 102
Fiesta Food 106
The Presence or Absence of Mole in Fiestas 108
Recipes 109
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

6 The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life 113

The Function of Flavour 113
The Importance of Cooking in Social Life 115
Fiesta Food in the Culinary Art Corpus 118
Food and Love, Chiles and albur 120
Daily Meals, Home Cooking and Street Food 122
Appetite, Morality and Taste 124
Recipes: Variations on a Theme 127
Notes 137
Works Cited 149
Index 159


2.1 Terminology Employed by Gell, and Corresponding

Food Terms 34
2.2 The Art Nexus as Food Nexus 35
5.1 Feast Food in Milpa Alta, Arranged According
to Type of Celebration 100


5.1 Linear Progression from Green Chile to Complex Guacamole 103

5.2 An Example of Some Interrelations among Recipes,
Shown as Families 104

– 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 comple-
tion 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 in-
stilled 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 gener-
ous 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 in-
troduced 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 Din-
ing 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 open-
ness 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. Anony-
mous 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 Shake-
speare 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 criti-
cal 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 hap-
piness 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 impor-
tant as staples, and that individual dishes could be as meaningful as symbolic ingre-
dients. 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 com-
pelled 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 labori-
ous 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 ev-
eryday 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 inevi-
tably 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
Approaching cooking as artistic activity is most salient when what is under scru-
tiny can be defined as an elaborate cuisine, or, in Jack Goody’s terms, a ‘differen-
tiated’ 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, develop-
ment and innovation of culinary techniques; new foodstuffs have been introduced
and incorporated, enriching the cuisine through the sharing of culinary and cultural
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 ques-
tions 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 tradi-
tions. 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 ac-
tive productive ages made up 61.9 per cent of the population (Departamento de Dis-
trito 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 business-
women (comerciantes).7
Around half the inhabitants of Milpa Alta lived in Villa Milpa Alta, the munici-
pal 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

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 de-
scribe 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 cook-
ing 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 expec-
tations 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 art-
istry 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 gas-
tronomy. 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 cook-
ing 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 ex-
tensive 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 sig-
nificant in Mexican life, and not just in their use as flavouring for food.2 Diana Ken-
nedy 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 im-
pressed 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 preco-
lonial period. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1950–82 [1590]), 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, in-
sects 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 Moct-
ezuma offered to them and ate himself. Cowal’s unpublished study, Food in the His-
tory 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 no-
tion is reiterated by writers until today, though there is some disagreement amongst
researchers and cookbook writers. Spanish sources of the period attest to gastro-
nomic 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, tor-
tillas 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 pro-
cess and combine their raw materials for different occasions and effects. New foods
and cooking techniques are incorporated, tasted and tested during meals. Those fla-
vours 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
10 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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, co-
riander, 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 Mexi-
can 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 pro-
cess 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 popu-
lar 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
Regardless of a recipe’s origins, a look at the recently published books on Mexi-
can 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 res-
taurants 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 gastro-
nomic 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 restau-
rants 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 writ-
ing 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 Vera-
cruz. He grew up with a passion for food because of his mother, who is an excellent
12 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 Mexi-
can 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 serv-
ing nueva cocina mexicana, Mexican nouvelle cuisine. He had had a relatively afflu-
ent 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.

Cooking Tradition

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 blos-
som 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 bril-
liant 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 in-
ternational 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 distin-
guished 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 na-
tionalistic 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,
14 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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’ (Sut-
ton, 2006, p. 106).
As with any other sort of skill, cooking is something that is enacted and embod-
ied, 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 consult-
ing 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 pro-
ceeded 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 or-
dered 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 dis-
cussed 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 pro-
cesses, 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 indus-
trialization), 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 decep-
tively 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 frijo-
les 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 accompani-
ments 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!)
16 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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

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 typi-
cal 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 self-
consciously 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 so-
cial, 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 dif-
ferent 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 oc-
casion 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 ques-
tions 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 tech-
nical 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.
18 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 con-
fronted 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 sanc-
tioned means of hiding culinary secrets, but after further experience I decided that
attributing their success in cooking to ‘love’ was a deliberate and apt conceptualiza-
tion 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 cui-
sine, 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 accomplish-
ment) 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 pro-
found 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 ex-
planation 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
20 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 ingre-
dients 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 obser-
vation 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 repro-
duce 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 tech-
niques, 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 tradi-
tional 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
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 grand-
mother’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 Mexi-
can 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 chal-
lenging 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 culi-
nary 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 cook-
ing 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 pep-
per 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 fin-
gers, 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
• 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 pos-
• 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
• The batter should cook until it is lightly golden (never brown), though the bot-
tom part will always be a little darker.
• Once you remove the chiles from the pan, place them on paper towels to ab-
sorb 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 pro-
fessional 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 distinc-
tion 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 fruit-
ful 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 rea-
sons 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 is-
sues such as gender, poverty, identity or symbolic staple foods, and often in the con-
text of ritual occasions (e.g. see Brown and Mussell, 1985; Caplan, 1997a; Counihan

– 29 –
30 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 anthro-
pology 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 con-
text 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 High-
more, 2002). However, taste in terms of flavour seems to be particularly resistant to
sociological analysis, perhaps because, like aesthetics, it is considered to be subjec-
tive and too personal for scrutiny. Yet it cannot be denied that whether food is dis-
cussed 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, an-
thropologists 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 anthro-
pologists come from.5 Gell observes that ‘the neglect of art in modern social anthro-
pology 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 communi-
cable 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. With-
out 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 question-
ing 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 mean-
ing 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 be-
yond 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 clas-
sifications 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 find-
ings 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 Mexi-
can 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 com-
municative 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).
32 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 defini-
tion 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 na-
ture 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 inter-
relating 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 struc-
tures 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 ap-
proach 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, there-
fore, 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 sys-
tem, 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 beauti-
ful, 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 mas-
tery 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, con-
sumer, 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 con-
sumed 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 intentionali-
ties 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 de-
velopment 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
34 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

Table 2.1 Terminology Employed by Gell, and Corresponding Food Terms

Artist Artist Cook

Index Artwork Food, dish, meal
Prototype Object or person depicted by artwork Recipe
Recipient Spectator, patron 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 ma-
nipulate 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 specta-
tor’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 con-
duct 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 dif-
fering relations among the previously mentioned four entities, and their effects, de-
pending 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→ Artist Index Prototype Recipient

Patient↓ Cook Food, dish, meal Recipe Eater

Artist Cook-A→Cook-P Food-A→Cook-P Recipe-A→Cook-P Eater-A→Cook-P

Cook Cook shares meal, eats own Food dictates cook’s action with it, e.g. av- Recipe dictates what cook does; Hired cook prepares food;
cooking; as witness to act of ocado; making barbacoa bestows prestige controls cook’s action food is ordered in restaurant
preparing food or at street stand
Index Cook-A→Food-P Food-A→Food-P Recipe-A→Food-P Eater-A→Food-P

Food, dish, meal Basic act of cook making/pre- ‘tamales needing special care Recipe dictates form taken by Ordering food or asking cook
paring dishes, e.g. following not to anger them so dish/food to make particular dishes
tradition that they can

‘tamal as- a made thing’.
Prototype Cook-A→ Recipe-P food-A→recipe-P recipe-A→recipe-P eater-A→recipe-P

Recipe Cook ‘invents’ recipe Recipe constrained by physical characteris- Recipe as cause of food, and Rejection of food; eater dis-
tics of food/ingredient, e.g. chile affected by food/ingredient; e.g. likes food or does not finish
barbacoa/mole as feast food what is served

Recipient Cook-A→Eater-P Food-A→Eater-P Recipe-A→Eater-P Eater-A→Eater-P

Eater Captivation by cook’s Eater response dictated by food’s magic Concept of mole controls eat- Hiring a cook; host eating
skill;‘Life is wonderful’ effect power (not primarily by power of external ers’ experience, makes/defines food prepared on his/her
by chef; diner in awe cook) meal as special behalf

Source: Table 1 from Gell (1998). © Oxford University Press. By permission of Oxford University Press. Modified/Adapted.
36 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 sev-
eral 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 wed-
dings. 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 con-
text’ (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 imita-
tion 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 eco-
nomic 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 ‘sociol-
ogy 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
38 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 [1996]),
where he convincingly argues that traps can be artworks and, at the same time, art-
works 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 con-
fronting 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 some-
times 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, fla-
voured 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 accompani-
ment 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 be-
cause 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 “mean-
ing” ’ (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 ele-
ment 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 owner-
ship 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. Follow-
ing Simmel, it is precisely the communal ingestion of food that ‘releases a tremen-
dous 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 intentionali-
ties 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 mar-
riage 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 in-
tentions, 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 exten-
sion 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 exist-
ing 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 part-
ners’ (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 so-
cial 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 supra-
personal 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 giv-
ing, 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. Pos-
session 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 reci-
procity 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 men-

tioned 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. Know-
ing 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 ob-
jective 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
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 ‘cul-
tural 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 belong-
ing, 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 educa-
tion) and ultimately is not an issue of personal taste.
A person’s taste becomes the mark of distinction between social classes and is re-
vealed 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 pres-
tige 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.
44 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 wide-
spread use I found that its acceptance is related to the prestige attached to barbacoie-
ros, 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 iso-
lated dishes (see Chapter 5). So although Bourdieu’s perspective can be applied con-
vincingly 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 ‘styl-
ization 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
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 par-
ticularly 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 ‘tradi-
tional’ 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 birth-
day, 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 pre-
pares 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
46 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 organiza-
tions 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 au-
tochthonous 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 Tupper-
ware 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, pres-
tige 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 food-
stuffs 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 empha-
sis). 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
48 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 pre-
determined, 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 techni-
cal 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 Carib-
bean 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.

Eating barbacoa

Whilst it is more commonly prepared as a cottage industry by families called barba-

coieros, there also are restaurants in Mexico City which exclusively serve barbacoa
with its traditional accompaniments. These barbacoa restaurants offer a complete cel-
ebration 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 –
50 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

during the long cooking process in the pit. This is served with boiled rice and chick-
peas 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 suc-
culent 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 an-
imals 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 basi-
cally 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 barba-
coa 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 bar-
bacoiero families. The smell begins to fade as the sun rises and the barbacoa is trans-
ported 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 sur-
rounded 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 mountain-
ous 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 dif-
ficulty’; 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.
52 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 (ofi-
cio) 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 barba-
coa, 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 Sat-
urdays 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 fin-
ished 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 pro-
cess, 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 work-
day. 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 moth-
ers 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 univer-
sity 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
54 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 tra-
ditional 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, depend-
ing 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 busi-
ness, 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 Ale-
jandro’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 bar-
bacoa 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 ani-
mal, 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
56 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 care-
fully 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 open-
ing 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 impor-
tant 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
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 sucie-
dad, 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 col-
lect 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 pro-
cess, 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 be-
cause 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
58 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 accom-
pany 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 chila-
quiles 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 sell-
ing 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 crack-
ers 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 corian-
der 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 an-
gosto. 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 ingre-
dients. Since she needed to make a larger amount, far beyond the capacity of a do-
mestic 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. Prepar-
ing 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 kid-
neys 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
60 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 tradition-
ally 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 bar-
bacoa 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 cook-
ing 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 foot-
ball 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, pi-
loncillo. 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 Mar-
garita 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 ma-
guey 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, taper-
ing 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 elabo-
rate 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 be-
cause 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
62 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 pan-
zas 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
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 barbacoie-
ros 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 heav-
ily. 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 be-
came 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 rec-
ognize them and know what they usually ordered or consumed at one sitting. Some-
times 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
64 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 Alejan-
dro 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 De-
cember 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 prof-
its. 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 contain-
ers, 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 through-
out 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 slaugh-
tered their own livestock themselves in a walled area in their yards rather than at the
rastro (slaughterhouse).

Wednesday: Rest

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
66 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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, particu-
larly 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 par-
ents but had separate careers, it was evident that this was an industry that had sig-
nificant 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 them-
selves 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 dis-
appoint 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 sheep-
skins 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. Hav-
ing the opportunity to socialize at the same times, it makes sense that people of simi-
lar 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 repu-
tation 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.
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 67

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 mak-
ing 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, al-
though 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 bar-
bacoa 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 differ-
entiating 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 acknowledge-
ment 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 be-
tween 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 prepara-
tion is a sensual experience, both for men and for women. The actual flavouring and
68 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 be-
came 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 protec-
tiveness, 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, in-
vest 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 rela-
tions, 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.


Commercial Green Salsa for barbacoa

Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez

green husk tomatoes, raw
green chile de árbol, stemmed
Barbacoa in Milpa Alta • 69


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
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
70 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 culi-
nary 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; Del-
phy, 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, in-
evitably 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 un-
derlying 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 differ-
entiate 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 –
72 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 appli-
cability of ‘Western-style women’s liberation’ with research showing that women in
Latin America have more movement and autonomy built into their social organiza-
tion 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, teem-
ing 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 trabaja-
dora’). 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 oppres-
sion, 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 busi-
nesswomen (comerciantes). It was as natural for them to portray themselves as moth-
ers 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 com-
ercio’). 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 provi-
sion 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
74 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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; Johns-
son, 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 ingredi-
ents 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 (usu-
ally 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 ap-
peals 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 no-
tion 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 prepar-
ing 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 fe-
male 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 ambi-
tious 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 ex-
plained previously, homemaking and extradomestic work are not mutually exclu-
sive. 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, cu-
linary 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
76 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 prac-
tice) is almost meaningless without a family, and a man needs a woman to bear

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, al-
though 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 moth-
erhood does not actually stop women from taking on extradomestic work. In fact,
it is often necessary for working-class women to work extradomestically to supple-
ment 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 commer-
cial 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 free-
dom 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
Women as Culinary Agents • 77

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 par-
ticipation 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 liber-
tina (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
78 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 pas-
sive. 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 ex-
ercise 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 suf-
fers, 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
Women as Culinary Agents • 79

woman is if her husband is having an extramarital affair.12 At some point in mar-

riage, 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
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. Ya-
dira 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 discus-
sion 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’).
80 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 mo-
rality 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 stu-
pidly. A woman described as pendeja is one whose husband has one or more lov-
ers, 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
Women as Culinary Agents • 81

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 extra-
marital 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 explana-
tion 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 with-
out 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 Mar-
ta’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
82 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 sin-
gle 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 exten-
sion 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 sup-
port 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 relation-
ships 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 fa-
miliar 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.

Culinary Agency

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
Women as Culinary Agents • 83

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 pos-
sible 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 income-
generating 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 pro-
viding 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 con-
trast, although Mintz does not specifically engage himself with Bourdieu, Mintz de-
scribes 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 sug-
gests, 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
84 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 bound-
aries, 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 devel-
opment 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 ac-
tors 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 produc-
tion 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 (Mar-
roni 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 be-
comes 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
Women as Culinary Agents • 85

desires (cf. Gow, 1989). Taggart (1992, pp. 80–1) also describes a link between hun-
ger 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 can-
not 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 skil-
ful 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 fol-
lows), 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 impor-
tant 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,


Huevos a la mexicana

A typical recipe for almuerzo.

½ onion, finely chopped
1 green chile, finely chopped
1 large tomato, finely chopped
4 eggs
86 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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.

Taco placero

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 (*):

*queso fresco
*pickled chiles
cebollas desflemadas
nopales compuestos
tamal de sesos
tamal de charales
spring onions

Batter for Coating Fish (pescado capeado)

Yadira Arenas Berrocal

1 egg
1 clove garlic
salt and pepper
Women as Culinary Agents • 87

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 evapo-
rated 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 ac-
tors 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
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 sym-
bolic 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 impor-
tant public festivities. During this time the community cooperates with the local
mayordomía to hold a large-scale celebration where all are welcome. Similarly, com-
padrazgo (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 commu-
nity 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

– 89 –
90 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 ex-
change.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 relation-
ship 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 bless-
ings and almost any kind of inaugural or life cycle event. Both husbands and wives
choose their compadres, sometimes jointly, sometimes singly. Compadres, espe-
cially 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 affec-
tion, 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 compe-
tition, envidia (greed) and initial distrust, and these also extend throughout the fami-
lies 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
Mole and Fiestas • 91

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 dis-
cussed 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
According to the Catholic calendar introduced by the Spanish, each saint corre-
sponds 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 birth-
day 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 dona-
tions, 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
92 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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; Lom-
nitz, 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 bar-
rios 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 may-
ordomos 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 rela-
tions, closeness and distance in the community among families or pueblos. In com-
padrazgo, 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 mayor-
domías of neighbouring barrios and pueblos. Though mayordomos typically ‘reign’
for one to five years in Milpa Alta, they are continually replaced by future mayor-
domos 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 con-
tent of community-level celebration has been appropriated into life cycle celebra-
tions, 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
Mole and Fiestas • 93

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 hun-
dreds 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! ¡ad-
elante! ¿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 lunch-
time, 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 remem-
ber 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
94 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 break-
fasting on chilaquiles served with two fried eggs each and teleras. To prepare the chila-
quiles 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 compa-
dres’ house and helped them cook nopales, which they sell in the market already pre-
pared 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, ac-
companied 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.
Mole and Fiestas • 95

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 invita-
tions 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 net-
works 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 com-
padres in Teotitlán. While people are sometimes too busy to attend public fiestas or-
ganized 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
96 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 Mil-
paltenses 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, fi-
estas 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’. Hold-
ing large parties, serving mole, barbacoa, or carnitas, is socially enjoyable and bene-
ficial, 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
Mole and Fiestas • 97

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 impor-
tant 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 fes-
tive 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). Consid-
ered 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 choco-
late, 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 typi-
cally is strewn with more as a garnish. Even in artistic images, such as paintings, pho-
tographs, 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
98 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 specula-
tion 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 food-
stuffs that the Spanish brought with them to the New World. Thus, the culinary learn-
ing 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 expe-
rienced 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 Lau-
dan (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 ‘tradi-
tion’ 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
Mole and Fiestas • 99

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 re-
ferred 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 ef-
fects. 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 home-
made, 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, cook-
ing and recooking the sauce. It is precisely this elaborate effort and the number of in-
gredients 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
100 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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.

Table 5.1 Feast Food in Milpa Alta, Arranged According to Type of Celebration

Type of fiesta/practice Specific fiesta Typical food served

Life cycle celebrations, Birthdays, weddings, Mole con pollo o guajolote
Catholic, anniversaries, quinceaños, town fiestas, Tamales de alberjón or de frijol
rebirth of dead souls Christmas, Easter Sunday, or tamalates
(quintessential ninth day after funeral Arroz rojo
Mexican feast food) Barbacoa, mixiote or carnitas
Very Catholic practices Holy Week, Christmas Revoltijo (meatless mole with
Eve, funerals shrimp fritters)
Tamales con queso or tamalates
Tortitas de papa
Pescado capeado
Festival with clear Days of the Dead Mole con pollo or guajolote
pre-Hispanic origins Tamales verdes, de rajas
(dishes with pre-Hispanic Atole
origins, or those considered Arroz rojo
very Mexican) Dulce de calabaza, local sweets,
candied fruits
Catholic seasons Lent, Advent Pescado a la vizcaina
(most dishes with clear Chiles rellenos de queso o atún
Spanish origins, all meatless) Ensalada de betabel ‘sangre de
Capirotada or torrejas
Buñuelos, calabaza en tacha
Mole and Fiestas • 101

Mole and tamales of different kinds are associated with specific fiestas and sea-
sons, 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 fla-
vourless 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 enchant-
ment 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.
102 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 ingre-
dient into a local dish), substitution of ingredients with local or available ones, wrap-
ping 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 pro-
totypical 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 gua-
camole, and adding more ingredients makes varieties of guacamole of increasing com-
plexity (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 rela-
tions 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 progres-
sion 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) chile
lard + masa tortillas + salsa 1 salsa 2 … salsa x
│ ┌────┴────┐
– 104 –

refried beans + masa preparada + salsa x chilaquiles enchiladas

┌─────┼─────┐ │
pastel azteca mole
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 belong-
ing 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 relation-
ships 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 im-
proved 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, Fig-
ure 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
106 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 focus-
ing 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 to-
morrow 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 occa-
sion, 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’.

Fiesta Food

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 par-
ticular 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 bar-
bacoa). 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 (ap-
proximately £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 excel-
lence, it would then make more sense to serve mole rather than barbacoa at a wed-
ding 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 associ-
ated 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 alterna-
tive, ‘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 un-
certain 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,
108 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 nor-
mal 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 previ-
ously successful (flavourful and pleasurable) dishes. Others can be offshoots of prepa-
ratory 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 mas-
tery 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 com-
padres 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 legiti-
mately 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.


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.
110 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 posa-
das 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 approxi-
mate 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, oc-
casionally 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 knead-
ing 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.

To Serve

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 cook-
ing 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.
112 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

• Add parsley and mix well, cooking until fish completely falls apart into small
• Let rest until cool and decorate with olives and chiles. Serve with crusty


Ma. Primitiva Bermejo Martínez

Torrejas are a Lenten dessert typical of the state of Michoaca΄n. 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.

Spiced Syrup

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 ar-

tistic 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 func-
tional, 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 –
114 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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, ba-
nanas, 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 oth-
ers. 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 genera-
tion to generation via cooks in the family and community. The cooks are specifi-
cally 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
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 115

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 com-
mercial 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 ele-
ment, 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 fla-
vours 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 re-
lated 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 de-
sired 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
116 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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), cook-
ing 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 complemen-
tary 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
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 117

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 com-
munity, 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 hus-
bands 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 an-
other 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 delib-
erately 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 al-
ways 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 (cu-
linary agent) and the expected recipient of the food, the dead. Although other living
118 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 divis-
ible 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 competi-
tion 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 entertain-
ment 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
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 119

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 co-
madre (cf. Sault, 1985). In the same way children and unmarried adults are not re-
sponsible 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 co-
habitation and the birth of several children. But while women are in charge of cook-
ing 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 ac-
tors 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 encap-
sulated 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 distrib-
uted 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
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
120 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 spe-
cial 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 cu-
linary techniques and ingredients that women have adopted and adapted into ‘tra-
ditional’ 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 interac-
tion 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 Mex-
ican 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 ingredi-
ents, 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 be-
tween 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: house-
work 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
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 121

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 homo-
sexual. 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 in-
nuendo. 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
122 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 spe-
cific 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 relation-
ships 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
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 123

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 encapsu-
lates 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 deli-
cious, 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 eat-
ers. 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 en-
vidiosa, 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
124 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 tech-
nical 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 obliga-
tion 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 ear-
lier, 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 activ-
ity 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 mari-
tal 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 be-
cause of the social relationship that exists between them, though of course, a cook’s
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 125

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 in-
volved 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 suf-
fering 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. Con-
versely, other cooking, presumably prepared for selfish, economic ends, is mean-
ingful 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, com-
mercially 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 reciproc-
ity 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
126 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 in-
tention 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 suc-
cessful 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 appe-
tite 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, buy-
ing and selling street food would constitute a food transaction of supreme reciproc-
ity. 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 ex-
change 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 quantita-
tive 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 with-
out 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,
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 127

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 quali-
ties 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 digres-
sion 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 at-
tached 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; Mc-
Callum, 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 through-
out 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 ap-
peal 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 reci-
pes, 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.
128 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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 mexi-
cana, 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 neces-
sary. 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 any-

Variations to Add or Substitute

chopped coriander
olive oil
lime juice
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.

1.2 Guacamole

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)
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 129

• 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
• 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 (cro-
quettes) are cooked into or served heated in thin, smooth cooked salsas or caldillos.
Variations are endless. Examples follow.
130 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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.

2 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 sur-
face. 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.

2.2 Tostadas

Fry whole day-old tortillas until crisp, keeping them flat—these are now called tosta-
das. 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
sliced onions
crema espesa
crumbled, grated or shredded cheese
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 131

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 bar-
bacoa. They are usually bought in the market or in a street stall.

2.4 Tlacoyos

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
132 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

• 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.

Typical Toppings
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)

3.2 Enchiladas

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
• 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
• 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.
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 133

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) in-
stead 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

• 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
• 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 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.
134 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

• 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

Optional ingredients to add, before or after blending

to a smooth soup:
dark or crispy fried onions
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
chopped coriander
chopped onions
The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life • 135

4.3 Enfrijoladas

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. Some-
times, 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
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
• 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.
136 • Culinary Art and Anthropology

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. Some-
times 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. tejo-
cotes, 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 empower-
ment. 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 out-
sider 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 Estadis-
tica 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).
6. 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. Pul-
que used to be a common drink in this region, and it had religious significance
during Aztec times.
7. 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).
8. 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.
9. Goody (1982) highlights four main areas of investigation for studying food,
based on household and class. These are production (economic factors), dis-
tribution (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 distribu-
tion 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).

Chapter 1 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
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 care-
fully, 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 creoliza-
tion, 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 con-
text. 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 some-
times 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), espe-
cially chapter two on sazón. For a critical discussion of how culinary knowl-
edge 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 meta-
phorical, 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.

Chapter 2 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 ana-
lyzing 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 clas-
sification (such as Douglas, 1966; Khare, 1976). There are some exceptions, of
course, which focus interest on cuisine or on eating particular foods for (gas-
tronomical 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, globaliza-
tion 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, in-
cluding perfumes, describing the interconnections among sensory experience,
aesthetics and body rituals among women. She argues that aesthetic satisfac-
tion 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 aes-
thetic 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
5. 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).
6. This is possibly because the two cultures in which he did fieldwork, the LoDa-
gaa and the Gonja, both had ‘simple’ cuisines. For them, the main difference
between feast food and daily fare was abundance rather than special prepara-
tions of dishes.
7. See Chapter 4, and Mintz (1996, Chapter 3).
8. 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).
9. 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).
10. Gell was also neither the first nor the only one to ascribe agency to objects or
artworks (see Latour, 1993; Layton, 1981, 2003).
11. ‘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 pro-
vides a channel for further social relations and influences’ (Gell, 1996, p. 52).
12. 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).
13. See Sutton (2006).
14. ‘[A]nimal traps … might be presented to an art public as artworks. These de-
vices 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).
15. 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 (Clendin-
nen, 1991, p. 53).
16. 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 inves-
tigators, 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
17. Wilk (2006) discusses the construction and recuperation of ‘traditional’ cook-
ing 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).
18. Raymond Firth recognizes art in a comparable way, as having human involve-
ment 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).
19. ‘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).
20. The case of the cook as eater is discussed below.
21. 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
22. Cf. Abarca (2006, pp. 92–3).
23. In fact, the transaction may continue if a customer becomes a regular and
then becomes recognized by the vendor as deserving of occasional special fa-
vours. 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
Notes • 143

with food portions. The food product transacted remains the same, so the ‘soci-
ality’ produced is of the kind that McCallum (2001) describes.
24. Discussed further in Chapter 5.
25. In a way this seems to echo Simmel, though Bourdieu argues a different point.
26. 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).
27. See Miller (2002) on expressing love through food shopping.
28. 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).
29. Also adobo, which is used to make mixiote.
30. Cf. Stoller (1989, Chapter 1), where he writes of the social meanings behind
serving a bad sauce among the Songhay in Niger.
31. E.g. locally reared sheep, borregos criollos, for barbacoa.
32. Cf. for art, Gell (1996, 1999b).

Chapter 3 Barbacoa in Milpa Alta

1. Very little material is published on the history of barbacoa in Milpa Alta or

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 in-
creased economic prosperity in Milpa Alta.
8. In other parts of Mexico the caul is also called encaje, which literally means
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 po-
liceman 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 incorpo-
rate 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 engage-

ment 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, argu-
ably, those social relations that lead to sociality may be not only characterized
by food generosity, but also by food quality, that is, culinary technical superior-
ity 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 do-
mestic 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
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 abne-

gada 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 agrar-
ian 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 mari-
dos. 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
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

Chapter 5 Mole and Fiestas

1. Dissanayake (1995) argues that human artistic behaviour is a necessary, natu-

rally 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
3. For thorough analyses of compadrazgo as a principle for networking and recip-
rocal exchange, see Lomnitz (1977), Sault (1985, 1987), and Stephen (2005).
4. Stephen (2005, Chapter 9) also describes how relationships of compadrazgo are
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 se-
ñoritas 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 sym-
bolic 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 cui-

sine is growing in popularity.
12. 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’.
13. See Wilk (2006, Chapter 6) for a convincing attempt to define the style of
Belizean food.
14. See Sutton (n.d.) for a thought-provoking article on how culinary knowledge
and apprenticeship are not necessarily passed from mother to daughter.
15. 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.
16. 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’.
17. Wilk also notes that consistency is just as difficult to maintain as innovation
(2006, p. 122).
18. This is what Munn calls the ‘relative extension of spacetime’.

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).
5. Here I would also classify cookbook writers, who are involved in a wider dis-
course of taste than local Milpaltenses.
6. 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).
7. See Woodburn (1998) for a view which refutes the idea of (food) sharing as
8. 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 in-
come with their husbands. Their income was mainly used for their children and
school fees. Where vendors were mostly men, there were religious or custom-
ary reasons for this. In these cases, women still often contributed their labour
from home, preparing the food for their husbands to sell.
9. 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 rela-
tionships 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 power-
ful and potentially destructive human emotions’ (p. 81, emphasis added).
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Abarca, Meredith, 1, 45, 84, 123, 126 Goody, Jack, 3, 30, 31, 44
on sazón, 21–2 Gow, Peter, 37, 85, 121, 122, 124, 127
on women’s empowerment, 32, 72–4, 113 greed, 41, 47, 68, 90, 123, 127
agency, 29, 31, 32– 6, 41–2, 47, 71–6 passim, 95, 124 guacamole, 50, 103, 128
intention and, 31–3, 36, 106, 117–8
albur. See love home cooking, 2, 3, 11–13, 22, 125
art nexus, 3, 29, 34, 35, 113 restaurants and, 21
street food and, 41, 122–3, 124–7
barbacoa, 4–5, 49–70, 101–5 passim, 115–16, 119 value of, 46, 82, 85, 121, 126
as fiesta food, 44, 89, 92, 96, 106 –9 women and, 71, 82, 121, 125
Bayless, Rick, 11, 20 –1, 97 hospitality, 39– 42, 90, 108, 113, 119–25 passim
Brandes, Stanley, 6, 91, 92, 95 as coercive, 46, 81, 93–7, 118
Howes, David, 3, 29, 40
cargo system. See mayordomía
carnitas, 51, 87, 89, 92, 100–2, 106 –8 Ingold, Tim, 14, 16, 17, 114, 116
chefs, 7, 12–21 passim, 29, 34, 46, 120 intention, 41, 45, 46, 107, 126
chilaquiles, 1–2, 58, 94, 104, 114, 131–2 intentionality and, 38–9
chinaquear, 123–7 mole and, 100, 120
Coe, Sophie, 3, 8, 10 see also agency
compadrazgo, 76, 89–92, 108, 113, 117–20 passim,
127 Kennedy, Diana, 8, 11, 15, 16
confianza, 21, 95, 121, 124
cookbook(s), 2, 3, 7–11 passim, 15, 20, 31 Laudan, Rachel, 10, 11, 98, 102
Corcuera, Sonia, 3, 9 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 113
Cowal, Victoria, 3, 9, 10 Lomnitz, Larissa Adler, 90, 92, 95
culinary agency, 5, 32, 71, 82–5, 106, 115–26 passim Long-Solís, Janet, 13, 117
see also agency love, 18–21, 45, 47, 71–2, 120, 124–7
albur and, 121–2
decoration, 39– 40, 67, 113 lovers and, 46, 78 – 82
sex and, 75, 122
envidia, 90, 123, 124 see also sazón
see also greed
Esquivel, Laura, 18, 38 McCallum, Cecilia, 83, 113, 116
expertise, 2, 16 Mauss, Marcel, 40, 41, 42, 95, 118
culinary, 2, 9, 40, 42, 75, 115 mayordomía, 89–92, 95, 108, 113, 119, 127
see also technical mastery Melhuus, Marit, 45, 46, 78, 80 –5 passim, 113
mestizaje, 10
Firth, Raymond, 37 see also miscegenation; fusion; Wilk, Richard
fusion, 10 miscegenation, 10
see also mestizaje; miscegenation see also mestizaje; fusion
mole, 18 –22 passim, 45, 46, 89 –109, 114 –15,
Gell, Alfred, 30, 51, 101, 106, 109, 113 117–20
artworks as traps, 75, 126 motherhood, 67, 73, 75, 76 – 8, 79, 82
on commodity exchange, 126 Munn, Nancy, 42, 46, 108 –9, 113, 118, 119
on decoration, 67 concept of meaning, 32, 105
distributed object, 105 intersubjectivity, 116
intentionality, 117 on sharing, 41, 125
style, 105, 106, 108 Muñoz, Ricardo, 1–2, 7– 8, 11–12, 13, 19–21
technology of enchantment, 29, 33, 101, 119 recipes, 22–7
theory of art, 5, 29– 48, 103, 118
generosity, 41, 124, 125, 127 nueva cocina mexicana, 12, 13

– 159 –
160 • Index

Pilcher, Jeffrey 10, 84, 98 culinary, 40, 43–7 passim, 101, 117, 120, 124
technique(s), 33, 54, 67, 85, 106, 108
Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de, 3, 9, 12 on learning, 15–17, 43
sazón, 5, 21–2, 29, 34, 75 see also skill
love and, 21, 37, 71, 75, 82, 113, 120, 125 tradition, 3, 13–14, 53, 92, 96, 120
Simmel, Georg, 37, 40–1, 47, 107, 119 development of, 14, 98, 102–6
sistema de cargos. See mayordomía traditional cookery, 12–15
skill, 14–17, 29–30, 36–7, 41–7 passim, 53, 85 and restaurants, 21, 120
cooking and, 71–2, 84, 99, 101, 116, 120 traps, artworks as, 38–9, 45, 75, 126
women’s, 71, 121 food as, 48, 124, 125
Stephen, Lynn, 73, 85, 89, 92, 95
street food, 4, 41, 46, 122–7 Vargas, Luis, 13, 117
Sutton, David, 14, 17, 30
Wilk, Richard, 82, 98, 102, 106
tamal(es), 9, 14, 74, 114, 117 womanhood, 5, 73, 75, 77
angry, 38–9 see also motherhood
as feast food, 99–104 passim, 109 women, 2, 6, 17, 71–85
street food, 122, 123 barbacoa and, 116, 119
taste, 3, 9, 22, 33, 75, 79, 123 boundaries and restrictions on, 45, 48, 74, 77
agency and, 42 as cooks, 36, 46, 98, 102, 122
Bourdieu, 43–4, 83, 107, 115 economic activity of, 4
flavour and, 30, 34 expectations of, 75, 116, 124
judgement of, 124–7 power of, 45, 48, 72–3, 77–85, 121
Mintz, 83 roles, 71–2, 76, 80, 82–3, 89, 116
technical mastery, 32, 34, 44, 47, 109 value of, 46, 71, 80, 85, 89, 113–14, 119–22
barbacoa, 67 work, 52, 58–60, 71–8, 82–3, 89, 116