Review of Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s “¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the making of Mexican Identity”

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Jun 022011

Are you interested in the geography of Mexico’s regional cuisines or the historical relationships between food preparation methods and gender roles in Mexican society? If so, add ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the making of Mexican Identity by Jeffrey Pilcher to your “Books Wanted” list.

Pilcher’s lively and entertaining account analyzes how the history of food in Mexico has been intimately tied to the country’s evolving national identity. The connections have become widely recognized, so much so that UNESCO recently conferred Intangible Cultural Heritage status on traditional Mexican cuisine, especially that of the state of Michoacán.

Pilcher cover of Que Vivan Los TamalesIn every chapter, Pilcher delves into the details. He explains how Mexico’s elites strongly preferred dishes based on wheat (first introduced into Mexico by early colonists) to those based on corn, one of Mexico’s many contributions to world cuisine. Indeed, they went so far as to argue that, across the globe, societies based on corn or rice would never rise above those based on wheat.

True appreciation of Mexico’s indigenous foods developed only slowly, mirroring the gradual development of nationalism, before coming to be considered a key component of the national identity. The advent of the railways in the 19th century allowed exotic foodstuffs to be marketed throughout the country for the first time. National cookbooks began to appear, highlighting the distinctive dishes of different regions, a trend continued to the present-day.

Technological developments have brought many changes. With industrialization, the time-consuming preparation of traditional corn tortillas was gradually superseded, especially in urban environments, by machine-made tortillas, whose taste is considered by connoisseurs to be greatly inferior to that of their hand-made equivalents, now increasingly restricted to relatively remote rural areas. Each step in the industrialization of tortillas brought massive social changes. Traditionally, the production of tortillas was the preserve of womenfolk, one of their numerous daily household chores. When mechanized tortilla presses were introduced, the making of tortillas quickly became an acceptable occupation for men. Freedom from the arduous work involved in making tortillas daily from scratch allowed women time to pursue other activities and to enter the formal workforce.

Gender, race, social class, dietary preferences, the fusion of indigenous cuisine and techniques with ingredients and methods imported from Europe and elsewhere… all are explored in this fascinating book.

Mexico’s cuisine is justly famous for its extraordinary regional variety; in just a few decades, the essential ingredients for Mexican food have become global commodities, appearing on supermarket shelves in dozens of countries around the world. Pilcher’s book puts this success in context, making it an essential read for anyone interested in the geography and history of Mexican cuisine.

Details (link is to ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the making of Mexican Identity by Jeffrey M. Pilcher (University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Related posts:

For more about Mexican cuisine, visit the amazing award-winning blog Mexico Cooks! and also browse the huge selection of recipes, articles and tips about all aspects of Mexcan food and cooking in the “Cuisine” section of MexConnect. ¡Buen provecho!

Preserving the genetic diversity of corn in Mexico is essential for future world food security

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Sep 242010

Corn (maize) originated in Mexico, and has long been the staple subsistence crop among Mexico’s campesinos, as well as being one of the essential ingredients in Mexico’s varied cuisines, from tortillas to tamales, and pozole to enchiladas.

Corn poster

"Without corn there is no nation" (Poster from a 2008 conference at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua)

It was recently announced that Mexico’s federal Agriculture Secretariat is financing a germoplasm bank to preserve the genetic diversity of Mexico’s native varieties of corn. The facility is located in the Antonio Narro Autonomous University of Agriculture (UAAAN) in Saltillo (Coahuila), and will eventually house up to 100,000 samples of 60 distinct varieties of corn supplied by farmers  from all over the country. The first seeds have already been deposited in the germoplasm bank by farmers from the state of Puebla. The University plans to add an interactive museum of corn and a seed-production division at a later stage.

Helping to ensure that corn’s genetic diversity is preserved for future generations is an invaluable contribution towards future global food security.

Mexico’s corn-based cuisine, specifically that of the state of Michoacán, was recently accorded status by UNESCO as a vital part of the country’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Further reading:

Classic recipes related to corn (all from MexConnect’s astounding Mexican cuisine pages):

Our grateful acknowledgment to Cristina Potter of MexicoCooks! and MexConnect for bringing much of this material to our attention.

Soil science and Mexico’s ancient kitchens

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Jun 212010

In an earlier post, we saw how archaeologists have gradually unraveled the history of the domestication of Mexico’s most important food plants.



Other archaeologists, working at Teotihuacan, close to Mexico City, have been turning their attention away from how the upper classes lived (and ruled) to focus on the lives of the ordinary residents of suburbia fifteen hundred years ago. At its height (500 AD), Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world, with an estimated population of 200,000. Its elaborate water supply and drainage systems and a precisely aligned grid demonstrate masterful urban planning. The city was so prominent that it became a magnet for craftsmen from other far-away regions like Oaxaca and the Gulf Coast (Veracruz). These migrants would have brought their own food ideas and preferences with them, making Teotihuacan an excellent choice for a cosmopolitan eating experience.

What most visitors to this ancient city today do not appreciate is how the average Teotihuacanos lived, how they cooked, and what they ate. But, between 1985 and 1988, cleverly conceived and executed fieldwork by a team directed by Linda Manzanilla of the National University (UNAM), unearthed a wealth of information about ancient food storage, preparation methods and kitchens. Manzanilla has demonstrated that age-old kitchens in Teotihuacan can be located by a combination of traditional archaeological methods (collecting artifacts, debris, pollen and food remains) alongside the microscopic and chemical analysis of the stucco floors in the multi-room apartment complexes used as residences and workshops.

It was already known that the stucco used on floors can absorb, over time, trace amounts of chemicals that serve as indicators of the predominant activities carried out in the room. Soil samples were taken from each square meter of floor and then analyzed for certain key indicators.

High levels of phosphates revealed areas where organic refuse was abundant. This could be a place where food was consumed, or where refuse was discarded. An elevated level of carbonates was assumed to reflect either a place where stucco was processed, or somewhere where tortillas were prepared. The tortilla-making process today still involves the liberal application of lime. A localized higher alkaline reading from the stucco floor was correlated to the location of heat or fire. The color of the soil samples was also checked for any indication of the limits of a particular activity.

Once an outline of the distribution of particular activities had been sketched out, the presence of sodium and iron was investigated. High levels of iron, for example, probably indicate where agave was processed, or where animals were butchered.

The end result? By correlating the various lines of evidence from this particular sixth century apartment, Manzanilla was able to pinpoint the precise locations of many everyday household functions. For instance, three areas where ceramic stoves once stood were distinguished. Each had a dark red stain on the floor, with relatively low carbonate values, relatively high alkalinity, and some ash. Significantly higher phosphate values in a band around this zone suggested an area used for eating. Higher phosphate levels were also encountered outside the dwelling where any refuse had been swept or accumulated.

And what was cooked on these stoves? We can not be certain, but evidence suggests that the residents of Teotihuacan had a varied diet of plants and animals. They not only prepared corn, beans, squash and chiles, but also ate cacti (prickly pear), hawthorns and cherries. For additional protein, rabbits, deer, duck, dogs, turkeys and fish were all on the menu, at least occasionally.

And, lest you think their likely diet sounds too bland, the locals also had access to potatoes and a plethora of herbs and spices, as well as chocolate, chewing gum and tobacco to satisfy their cravings, and various exotic hallucinogens to stimulate their imaginations!

So, next time you savor Mexican food, pause for a moment and remember that your meal may be startlingly similar to a banquet eaten thousands of years ago in any major Aztec, Toltec or Maya city…

Further reading

Manzanilla, Linda (1996) Soil analyses to identify ancient human activities. Canadian Journal of Soil Science.

The original article on MexConnect

Mexico’s first cooks and the origins of Mexican cuisine

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Jun 182010

Mexican cuisine has been one of the country’s most successful cultural exports over the past twenty years or so and most large towns in North America and Europe now boast at least one Mexican restaurant, even if the menu is not necessarily “authentic”. For those wanting to experiment, the basic ingredients for Mexican meals can now be bought virtually everywhere. The increasing popularity of Mexican food has been rivaled only by an extraordinary increase in the consumption of Mexican drinks, including Corona beer and tequila.

Ingredients for guacamole. Photo: Chef Daniel Wheeler. All rights reserved.

Archaeologists have also taken much more interest in Mexican food in recent years.

By 1970, studies carried out at various locations, ranging from Tamaulipas in the north of the country to Oaxaca in the south, had gradually led to the conclusion that the earliest plants to be domesticated in Meso-America were corn, beans and squash, and that all three had been domesticated between about 7000 and 10,000 years BP (Before Present, not British Petroleum…).

Further research subsequently led most archaeologists and palaeo-botanists to believe that squash was actually domesticated much earlier than corn. Re-evaluating cave samples, originally collected in the 1950s, using an improved carbon-14 dating technique, anthropologist Bruce Smith found that the squash seeds from one location were between 8,000 and 10,000 years old, while the oldest corn and bean seeds were much younger, less than 6,000 years old.

While Smith’s study does appears to confirm that squash was domesticated first, it does not necessarily mean that this squash was domesticated for its food value. Many experts think that early varieties of squash may have been domesticated primarily for their gourds, which could be used as ready-made drinking vessels and fishing floats.

The domestication of squash may have improved life, but it did not fundamentally change it. On the other hand, the eventual domestication of corn, about 7,000 years BP marked a true watershed in pre-Hispanic life, enabling the abandonment of a nomadic hunter-gathering existence in favor of settlement in semi-permanent villages. How important was this? In the words of renowned archaeologist Michael Coe, “it was the cultivation of maize, beans and squash that made possible all of the higher cultures of Mexico.”

With the passing of time, the ancient peoples of Mexico domesticated and cultivated many other native plants, including tomatoes, chiles, potatoes, avocados, amaranth, chayote (vegetable pear), cotton and tobacco.

The original article on MexConnect

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Cuisine has changed as Mexico has experienced a nutrition transition

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Cuisine has changed as Mexico has experienced a nutrition transition
Apr 072010

Mexico has passed rapidly through a “nutrition transition”.

Ingredients for guacamole. Photo: Chef Daniel Wheeler. All rights reserved.

The traditional Mexican diet was based on corn and beans, supplemented by fruits and vegetables with relatively little meat and dairy products. Over a 15-year period the average Mexican ate 29% less fruits and vegetables and 6% more carbohydrates while consuming 37% more soft drinks. In fact Mexicans now enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s greatest consumers of soft drinks, downing 160 liters a year on average.

White bread is replacing tortillas, fast food is replacing home cooking.

This nutrition transition, together with a more sedentary lifestyle, fueled a “disease transition”, characterized by a shift from high mortality due to infectious diseases to high mortality from non-communicable chronic diseases.

To see how Mexico compares with other countries—USA, Spain, France,  Japan, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, China and India— in terms of eating habits, see this recent graphical comparison:  New York Times Business section article of April 3, 2010, entitled “Factory Food” Mexico’s per person consumption of vegetables is lower than any other country on the chart except South Africa. Mexico’s consumption of “processed, frozen, dried and chilled food, and read-to-eat meals” is lower than any country except China and India, but Mexicans make up for this with a consumption of “bakery goods” that is more than double that of any other country on the chart.

This post includes edited excerpts from chapter 28 of of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

The geography of Mexican cuisine

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Feb 102010

Mexican cuisine is extraordinarily varied and has become one of the most popular in the world. Diana Kennedy, the foremost authority on the subject, has devoted her life to researching the regional variations in ingredients, cooking methods and typical local dishes.

The ingredients used reflect different climates and ecosystems (see Geo-Mexico chapters 4 and 5). For instance, corn (maize) tortillas predominate in southern and central Mexico while wheat tortillas are more commonly found in the north of the country.

Pork and hominy stew (pozole) is largely restricted to the Pacific coast states of Jalisco and Guerrero. The grilled beef of cattle ranges in the northern interior of Mexico contrasts with the seafood found along the coast.

Cuisines are strongly influenced by trade routes and migration, especially the arrival of immigrant groups. Mexican cuisine is a fusion of  ndigenous and Spanish cooking, influenced in some regions by Cuban, Italian, French and other migrants.

On a more local scale, miners from Cornwall in the UK who came to work in the silver mines of Real del Monte in the state of Hidalgo brought with them their meat and vegetable-filled pastries called Cornish pasties. These were quickly assimilated into the local cuisine, and pastis, admittedly with some chilies added, are still sold in the town.

[Note: This post is an edited extract from chapter 13 of Geo-Mexico]

For more about Mexican cuisine, visit the amazing award-winning blog Mexico Cooks! and also browse the huge selection of recipes, articles and tips about all aspects of Mexican food and cooking in the “Cuisine” section of MexConnect. ¡Buen provecho!