Culinary Art and Anthropology

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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. 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.

They all agreed with him that this was a commonly prepared dish that any family might have on a regular day throughout Mexico. I found it hard to believe that something so complex and laborious could be typical for breakfast. Ricardo was a well-known chef who specialized in traditional Mexican cooking.

Perhaps, I thought, this was food for restaurants or for special occasions. Eventually, after asking several people and later living in different Mexican households, I realized that it was true. Variations of chilaquiles were normal everyday fare, and no one thought twice about it or found it particularly difficult to make.

Many families had their chilaquiles with extra side dishes as well—beans, eggs, meat, chicken, bread.

Culinary art and anthropology

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. 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.

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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.

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My introduction to Mexican cuisine was inevitably by way of recipes and cookbooks. However, learning the culinary techniques needed to make Mexican food did not work as simply as following a recipe, even if done to the letter. 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 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. From what I read, Mexican cuisine was also considered a particularly fine art in relation to other cuisines. 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. Flavour has more sensual than sociological connotations, which I prefer to emphasize see Howes, ; Korsmeyer, ; Stoller, 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.

But by no means entirely. With this perspective, I address questions such as these: why is it that no one cooks better than my mother? Or, in other words, why does food taste better when it comes from home? Also, why—seemingly contradictorily—does street food have such an appeal? Why are fiestas incomplete without mole? And so why is barbacoa, pit-roast meat, served instead? 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; According to the figures for , among the 45, who were over the age of 12, Among them, three-quarters were men and a quarter were women p. Three-quarters of the economically inactive were women, more than half of whom were classified as housewives dedicated to housework; p.

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As I later explain, a large proportion of these people may actually contribute their labour to the family business, although they did not officially represent themselves as wage earners, consciously choosing to define themselves as dedicated to their homes and families rather than as businesswomen comerciantes. Barrio San Mateo is one of the largest barrios, with around 1, families residing there. Following the census of , each household contained an average of 5. In Barrio San Mateo, most people prepare barbacoa de borrego, pit-roast lamb, for a living.

There are restaurants in Mexico City which serve only barbacoa, but it is more commonly prepared like a cottage industry by families called barbacoieros. Several families earned more, because the barbacoa business can be very lucrative, but since all transactions were in cash, they needed not declare all their earnings. This meant that though they enjoyed considerable economic comfort, at least on paper they were consistently portrayed as among the poorest of Mexico City. Organization of the Book Chapter 1 focuses on Mexican cuisine and how it is commonly thought of as art in published material as well as in casual conversation.

In Chapter 2 I describe the theoretical framework of this book. I outline my perspective that cooking is an artistic and technical practice and therefore Mexican cuisine can be analyzed as a body of art. 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, ; Reed, 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, 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. Women do most of the cooking in the household, and in some ways it seems that a proper woman is thought of as one who knows how to cook, especially if she cooks well.

This chapter demonstrates how the agency that effectuates social interaction and change is a culinary agency. 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, , p. Paz, 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. I use the example of mole to illustrate how food can have meanings which transcend time cf.


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Mintz, Festive dishes can easily be thought of as culinary works of art, but if artistry is determined by action see Chapter 2; Gell, , then the greatest culinary artistry characterizes the domestic or quotidian sphere. Though much work goes into the preparation of food for fiestas, women cook relatively elaborately every day in Milpa Alta for their regular family meals. Daily domestic culinary activities can be thought of as preparatory sketches or training in the culinary arts, without which the production of culinary works of art would not be possible.

Thus the artistic nature of cooking is embedded in domestic activity, in food preparation, and is appreciated in its consumption. This served as thorough preparation for the culinary life that I encountered later in Milpa Alta, on which most of this book is focused. Food writing colours our perceptions of other cuisines, and in my case, I became enamoured of Mexican cooking from what I had read prior to my first visit. In what follows I describe some of the ways that people think of and write about the cuisines of Mexico, starting with the all-important chile.

The most culturally meaningful of the three is the chile. In Mexico, chiles are used primarily for their distinct flavours and not only for their heat. It is in Mexico where the most extensive variety of chiles is used.

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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. It is the ingredient that can determine the flavour of a dish. 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 , pp.


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  • 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. 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. 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.

    They also had military and political power over other groups in the region from whom they demanded tribute, mainly of foods, which added variety and breadth to their diet with comestibles that they did not grow themselves. Not all indigenous groups were equally affluent, but the availability of various foods impressed the conquistadors who came and saw the great markets of Tlatelolco, where all sorts of plants, animals and insects were being sold for food as supplements to the basic diet of corn, beans and chiles.

    As the Spanish established themselves in what they called New Spain, they also established firm roots for the Catholic church.