MEXICO. The Mexicans form a mestizo nation, born of the intermarriage of Spaniards and Native Americans, and their foods reflect this mixed heritage. Before the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the indigenous people created a sophisticated cuisine based on the staple grain maize (corn), which they cooked in a multitude of fashions, from everyday tortillas (griddle cakes) to festive tamales (dumplings). The conquistadors, hoping to establish a New Spain in the Americas, transplanted their familiar foods, particularly wheat bread, which was the foundation of the Mediterranean diet and the only grain accepted by the Catholic Church for the Holy Eucharist. Royal officials attempted to segregate Hispanic and native societies throughout the colonial period (1521821), but widespread race mixing occurred nevertheless. Ethnicity became a function more of culture than color, and eating corn or wheat, like speaking Spanish or Nahuatl, denoted a person's status. While the staple grains
In addition to class and ethnic divisions, Mexican cuisine contains tremendous regional variation. Perhaps the simplest classification consists of three complementary pairs: the mestizo foods of the central plateau and the indigenous center of Oaxaca in the south; foods of the frontiers of the Maya in the southeast and of Spanish settlement in the north; and the distinctive foods of the Gulf and Pacific coasts. Although Spanish influence tended to prevail in the north while the Indians better retained their culture farther south, no simple formula can capture the disparate topographies, climates, and settlement patterns that combined to produce these rich regional cuisines.
This diversity notwithstanding, a number of characteristics, common throughout Mexico, compose an identifiable national cuisine. As the original site of the chili pepper's domestication, Mexico has both the greatest botanical wealth of chilies, with some ninety different varieties, and the highest per capita consumption, since virtually no Mexican considers a meal complete without some kind of peppers. The structure of the meal, with a succession of individual courses, unifies the Mexican dinner table and distinguishes it from the combination plates found in restaurants north of the Rio Grande, which jumble together the riceroperly eaten before the main courseith the beans that should follow. A common calendar also exists, combining religious feasts such as Christmas and Easter, secular holidays like Independence Day, and community and family celebrations of saints' days and weddings, each with their own traditional foods. The Mexican diet has been changing recently as a result of globalization and the spread of both junk food and haute cuisine, but these influences represent merely the latest in a long series of culinary encounters.
José Vasconcelos helped define the Mexican national identity in La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race, published in 1927), which rejected Social Darwinist views about the problems of race mixture and instead proclaimed mestizos to be the highest form of human evolution. This new nationalist ideology, called indigenismo, brought about the revalorization of Mexico's native heritage, including the indigenous cuisine based on corn. But embracing the pre-Hispanic past did not imply a rejection of Spanish contributions to Mexico's development, especially wheat bread and European livestock. Many other ethnic groups also contributed to Mexico's "fusion" cuisine, from African slaves and clandestine Jews in the colonial period, to European and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century and Lebanese and North Americans in the twentieth century.
One of the most fundamental cultural clashes between Native Americans and Spaniards in the colonial period revolved around the staple grains, corn and wheat. Maize not only provided the nutritional basis of pre-Hispanic civilizations, accounting for as much as 80 percent of the caloric intake of common people, it also served as the basis for religion and identity. Spanish missionaries therefore sought to substitute the European wheat as part of their work of extirpating the idolatry associated with indigenous corn gods, but their evangelical mission was undermined by economics as well as taste. Corn made an ideal subsistence crop, growing well in all manner of ecological niches from the tropical forests of Yucatán to the mountains of the central plateau. Wheat, by contrast, was here a fragile plant, susceptible to disease, requiring lavish irrigation, and offering comparatively low yields even under the most favorable circumstances. As a result, corn remained the staple crop of the rural masses in both native and mestizo communities, while wheat was grown as a market crop for wealthy Hispanic city dwellers. The price differential between wheat bread and corn tortillas persists to the present day, as do many of the stereotypes formed during the colonial period. Affluent Mexicans invariably keep wheat bread on the table, even when serving dishes such as mole, which is more properly eaten with corn tortillas.
The greatest European influence on Mexican cuisine came from the introduction of livestock. Before the Spanish arrived, the native inhabitants consumed a basically vegetarian diet incorporating only two domesticated animals, turkeys and dogs. The deaths of millions of Native Americans due to Old World diseases such as smallpox and measles, against which they had no natural immunities, opened up large amounts of formerly cultivated land for grazing. With no competitors, the cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, and chickens brought by the Spanish reproduced at a fantastic rate, although their numbers soon declined through overgrazing. During the colonial period, the elite retained the Spanish preference for mutton, and only the poor consumed beef. Over the course of the nineteenth century, with the adoption of French fashions, the consumption of beef surpassed that of mutton. Mexicans also developed an elaborate art of tocinería (sausage and other pork products), and pork fat became the invariable cooking medium, despite European preferences for olive oil and butter. Culinary blending occurred through the incorporation of chili peppers into Spanish dishes such as chorizos (sausages) and adobos (marinades). Although Native Americans initially rejected the taste of lard, they eventually learned to add it to tamales and beans, improving their taste and texture.
The complexity of culinary blending can best be seen in the debate over the origins of the national dish, mole poblano, an elaborate festival food of turkey served in a deep brown sauce of chili peppers, diverse spices, and a small amount of chocolate. Anthropologist Margaret Park Redfield, who studied the foods of a native community near Mexico City in the 1920s, at the height of the indigenista movement, described mole as an essentially pre-Hispanic legacy of chili cookery. Fifty years later, disillusioned by the Mexican government's refusal to respect indigenous rights, anthropologist Judith Friedlander examined a neighboring village and reached the opposite conclusion: that mole, with its numerous Asian spices, had been imposed by Spanish missionaries. A third interpretation, based on popular legend rather than scholarly analysis, attributed the complexity of mole poblano to the Baroque artistry of the city of Puebla, where colonial nuns supposedly combined Old World spices with New World chilies to symbolize the mestizo "cosmic race." The lack of pre-Hispanic and colonial culinary literature makes it impossible to resolve the question definitively, but all three versions probably contain an element of truth.
Successive waves of immigrants, despite their relatively small numbers, have added significantly to the culinary blending of Spanish and Native American. Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition came to the colonies, particularly
More recent immigrants have also left their mark on Mexican cooking, although none more so than the fast-food invasion from the United States. Large numbers of Chinese settled in northwestern Mexico in the late nineteenth century after the United States passed exclusion laws forbidding them entry. Then in the 1920s Lebanese immigrants began arriving, particularly in Puebla and Yucatán, and the gyro became the inspiration for tacos al pastor (shepherd's tacos). By the 1940s industrial processed foods from the United States had acquired enormous popularity among the rising middle class. Aunt Jemima pancakes became a favorite breakfast food, while Coke and Pepsi battled for the soft drink market. Moreover, these imports had to compete with domestic products such as Pan Bimbo, a Mexican clone of Wonder Bread. The spread of junk foods to even the most remote indigenous communities by the 1970s further complicated Mexico's diverse gastronomic geography.
Of the many culinary regions in Mexico, none exhibit the mestizo blending to a greater extent than the central highlands. The city of Puebla, legendary home of mole poblano, illustrates Iberian cooking techniques used on native ingredients through the production of camotes (can-died sweet potatoes). Toluca is known for superb chorizo sausages combining pork with chili peppers. In the state of Hidalgo, shepherds pit-barbecue lamb wrapped in the leaves of the maguey to make a local specialty called mixiotes. Nahua Indians in the states of Mexico and Morelos cook nopales (cactus paddles), squash blossoms, and cuitlacoche (corn fungus) in quesadillas (corn pastries fried in pork fat). All of these different foods, and indeed the culinary traditions of the entire country, can be found in cosmopolitan Mexico City, with its countless markets, restaurants, and street vendors.
Oaxacan cuisine. In contrast to this cultural blending, indigenous communities such as the Zapotecs and Mixtecs in the southern state of Oaxaca have preserved their traditional foods. Unlike the complex blend of spices in mole poblano, the Oaxacan mole verde (green mole) derives its pristine taste from a few simple chilies and herbs, most notably the anise-flavored hoja santa. Oaxacan cooks wrap tamales in banana leaves instead of the corn husks common farther north, and they have raised tortilla making to a high art with the large, soft blanditas and tlayudas as well as the crisp totopos. The tiny grasshoppers known as chapulines, another local specialty, are flavored with smoky chipotle chilies and eaten in tacos with guacamole.
The Gulf Coast. Cooks along the Gulf Coast prepare seafood in both Mediterranean and pre-Hispanic styles. The snapper Veracruz (huachinango a la veracruzana) served in the eponymous port city contains olives, olive oil, tomato, capers, and only the mildest green peppers. Farther up the coast, at Tampico, one can sample the fiery hot crab soup called chilpachole. In the northeastern tropical forest of the Huasteca, ethnic groups such as the Totonacs make more than forty different types of tamales, including the legendary meter-long zacahuil, which can feed an entire village. Other seafood special-ties of the region include baked pompano, robalo al mojo de ajo (snook cooked in garlic), and various seafood soups, cocktails, and escabeches (pickled seafood).
The Pacific Coast. The most typical food of Pacific Coast states is not from the sea at all, but rather pozole, a hominy stew made with pork. This dish comes in a number of different varieties, red in Guadalajara, green and white to the south in Guerrero, and with tripe in the northern state of Sonora. A common street food, eaten late at night, pozole is served with chili powder, oregano, chopped onion, sliced radishes, shredded lettuce, and limes for squeezing. In port cities such as Acapulco, the citric acid of lime juice is used to "cook" fresh seafood into ceviche. The Purépecha Indians of Michoacán prepare a variety of distinctive tamales, most notably the triangular corundas and fresh-corn uchepos.
Yucatán. Mexico's southeastern frontier, the Yucatán peninsula, is home to the ancient Maya civilization, whose pre-Hispanic traditions can still be found in dishes such as papadzules, the "food of the lords." These enchiladas, made entirely of native ingredients, require the freshest possible tortillas, to avoid the need for frying with pork fat. They are stuffed with chopped hard-boiled eggs in place of cheese, then covered in two sauces: a green pipían made of pumpkin seeds and a tomato sauce lightly flavored with habanero chilies. Yet the Maya have also adapted to the latest trends of globalization with the queso relleno, a large Dutch cheese, imported duty-free at the port of Chetumal, and stuffed with picadillo (chopped meat filling).
Northern cuisine. The Mexican foods best known in the United States, wheat flour tortillas and beef fajitas,
Daily Bread and Tortillas
The foods eaten daily by rich and poor Mexicans differ significantly, but there is nevertheless a common structure to their meals. Work in the fields governs the eating habits of campesinos (rural laborers), who generally take two meals, a small breakfast before men set off in the morning, and a more substantial dinner when they return in the evening. To have fresh tortillas ready for breakfast, women traditionally had to awaken several hours earlier to grind corn on a basalt metate (concave grindstone) and pat it out by hand into thin disks. Because tortillas grew hard and stale after a few hours, they had to be cooked on a comal (earthenware griddle) before each meal; the nixtamal (dough) likewise kept poorly, so the laborious grinding had to be repeated each day. One of the most significant social changes in Mexican history came in the first half of the twentieth century with the spread of mechanical mills capable of grinding the moist nixtamal. Freed from this onerous daily burden, women had the time to engage in commerce and craft production and thus begin to challenge the male domination of society.
In contrast to the austerity of the working class, wealthy Mexicans traditionally ate large amounts of food. The day began with desayuno, a simple breakfast consisting of a bread roll and coffee or hot chocolate, followed in midmorning by a substantial brunch, almuerzo, consisting of perhaps mole poblano or an omelette. The main meal, comida, began about two o'clock in the afternoon and progressed through an invariable sequence of four courses: a wet soup such as chicken broth, a dry soup of either rice or spaghetti, a main plate of roasted or stewed meat, and then beans. The elite accompanied their meals with imported wine, while members of the middle class drank the native pulque in the nineteenth century, and more recently beer. After awakening from an afternoon siesta, Mexicans took a merienda or snack of sweets, then returned to work for several hours. The cena or supper was taken quite late at night, often in cafés, with street foods such as enchiladas or tacos.
Class and ethnic distinctions were manifested less in the foods themselves than in their place within the daily routine. Native Americans in Oaxaca and elsewhere introduced European foods at the periphery, for example, by eating wheat bread for breakfast, while retaining the
Celebrating Saints and Feeding the Dead
The festival foods of Mexico are as extravagant as the campesino diet is meager. Pre-Hispanic calendars contained numerous feasts dedicated to indigenous deities, which were replaced by Catholic holy days after the Spanish arrived. Each native community adopted a patron saint, and the inhabitants dedicated their meager savings to celebrating the saint's day with lavish abandon. Women worked for days with little rest to feed the entire community with dishes such as mole, tamales, and chocolate. These same elaborate foods were also prepared for family ceremonies including weddings, christenings, and funerals. The wealthy Hispanic society also feasted on such occasions, although their foods tended to feature more imported goods from Europe. In recent years, traditional festival foods have even replaced French cuisine in the most fashionable restaurants.
The primary feasts of the Christian calendarhristmas, Easter, and All Saints' Dayre celebrated throughout Mexico. The traditional Hispanic Christmas Eve feast includes an elaborate salad of lettuce, fruit, nuts, and beets, followed by bacalao a la vizcaína (Biscay-style cod), made with tomato, olive oil, olives, and capers, and served with wheat bread and wine. Indigenous and mestizo families celebrate the Nativity with tamales and mole instead of imported luxuries. Good Friday features fish, lentils, romeritos (dried shrimp fritters with greens) and capirotada (bread pudding). All Saints' Day is stretched out over three evenings, from 31 October to 2 November, known as the Days of the Dead. Families decorate the tombs of deceased relatives and construct altars incorporating salt, water, candy skulls, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), decorated with strips of dough resembling human bones.
The most important civic holiday, Independence Day, celebrated on the eve of 16 September has no definite culinary traditions. There are many tricolor dishes, most notably chiles en nogada, stuffed green chilies with white walnut sauce and red pomegranate seeds. Nevertheless, the essence of the holiday is the grito or cry of independence repeated by public officials in plazas throughout the country, which lends itself not to elaborate cookery but to simple street foods: tacos, fritters, beer, and tequila.
Traditional festival foods have provided the basis for the latest trend, la nueva cocina mexicana, which combines Native American ingredients with the techniques of international haute cuisine. This "new Mexican cuisine" actually began in the 1950s, with dishes such as corn fungus cuitlacoche served in crêpes with bechamel sauce, invented by Jaime Saldívar to make a lower-class indigenous food acceptable for elite tables. By the 1990s hybrid dishes like huauhzontle pesto, pistachio mole, and cuitlacoche mousse had become ubiquitous on menus, and no fashionable Mexico City restaurant could avoid offering some version of the rose petal sauce invented by Laura Esquivel for her best-selling novel, Like Water for Chocolate. Many of these restaurants were owned by women, who thereby rejected the male dominance of Mexico's traditional society. Meanwhile, in the town of Tequila (Jalisco), firms such as Sauza and José Cuervo had improved their distilling technology to a level equal with that of the finest Scotch whisky and French cognac.
The nueva cocina represents simply another example of Mexico's ongoing gastronomic blending. Ever since the Spanish Conquest, cooks have combined native and European ingredients and techniques to create a sophisticated and original cuisine. It was only after the revolution of 1910 that Mexicans embraced their mestizo heritage, including the indigenous foods made of corn. The acceptance of diverse regional culinary dialects came, moreover, just as many rural cooking traditions began to be lost because of migration to urban areas and the arrival of mass-produced foods from the United States. Despite the spread of soft drinks and snack crackers, the elaborate tamales and moles prepared to celebrate festivals remain a vital source of identity within families, communities, and the Mexican nation.
See also American Indians: Prehistoric Indians and Historical Overview; Chili Peppers; Day of the Dead; Iberian Peninsula; Inca Empire; Maize; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian; United States, subentries on Ethnic Cuisines and Southwest.
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Jeffrey M. Pilcher
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