Mexico’s Early Cookbooks

Mexico’s Early Cookbooks

This essay is published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History

Summary and Keywords

During the Spanish conquest of Mexico (1519–1521), gastronomic literature was already prevalent in Europe, yet not so in Mexico. The use of the printing press in Mexico was limited to print and disseminate ecclesiastical and legal documents; it was not used for subjects as seemingly superfluous as recipes and food. This is not to say that food was not a source of fascination, or a means of social control.

Kitchen manuscripts written before Mexico became independent of Spain (between 1810 and 1821) show that there was an abundance of food writing before Independence, especially by nuns in colonial convent kitchens. However, the earliest printed cookbooks did not make their debut in Mexico until 1831, a decade after Independence.

Mexican cuisine can be examined beginning from the diaries of conquistadors and missionaries to colonial kitchen manuscripts to the cookbooks published after Independence through the Porfiriato (1876–1910) and Revolution (1910–1920). Reading between the lines of the recipes in these sources, one sees the shifting attitudes toward food, as it ceases to be a status marker and a divider of classes and becomes a tool for unifying the country.

Keywords: cookbooks, kitchen manuscripts, Mexican cookbooks, national identity, Porfirio Díaz, culinary history, women in the kitchen, Mexican Independence, Mexican Revolution, colonial cooking

Two Worlds Meet

At the time of the Spanish conquest (1519–1521), livestock, rice, wheat, citrus, sugar, cilantro, and countless other spices and ingredients that had already made their way to Spain when it was under Moorish rule (711–1492) traveled to Mexico. The Manila Galleons sailed once a year across the Pacific Ocean between Manila in the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, and the port of Acapulco, connecting Mexico to Asia. It was the world’s first global trade route, and it ended in 1815 with the Mexican War of Independence. For 250 years, these ships provided the means of a rich cultural exchange that would forever change the culture and cooking of Mexico, not to mention Europe and Asia.

Along with silks and the decorative arts, in came foreign foods, spices, new ways of preserving food, and cooking techniques. European cookbooks also entered Mexico and were available for sale to the literate classes as early as 1584. Out went native foods, among them chocolate, vanilla, tomatoes, squash, corn, chiles, avocados, beans, exotic fruits, and many culinary traditions. Flavors changed. Taste buds adapted.


Figure 1. Maris Pacifici, by Abraham Ortelius. Published in 1589 in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. This is not only the first printed map of the Pacific, but it also showed the Americas for the first time.

Although no recipes from precolonial times exist, culinary observations were recorded in the diaries and letters of conquistadors and missionaries after the conquest. On first seeing what is now Mexico City, in 1521, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote, “We were astounded . . . Itwas all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.” He described a meal for Emperor Moctezuma of more than three hundred dishes, among them, “Pheasants, native partridges, quail, domestic and wild ducks, deer, peccary, reed birds and doves and hares and rabbits . . . so numerous I could never finish naming them.” Dishes were presented on over one thousand plates made of red or black Cholula pottery. After the meal “fruit of every sort available” was brought to him in addition to “cups of fine gold with a certain drink made of cacao.”1

In a letter sent to King Charles V of Spain, the conqueror Hernan Cortés described the market of Tlateloco (in modern Mexico City) as “much grander than the one in Salamanca . . . with quail, deer, hare, pheasants, turkey eggs . . . terracotta cooking pots . . . an abundance of fruits and vegetables . . . honey from bees, honey from cornstalks as sweet as sugar, and honey from the maguey plant [agave syrup] that they also make wine [pulque] from.” Cortés also wrote of Emperor Moctezuma’s lavish banquets that included elaborate dishes of spiced fish and wild game.2

The Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain), more commonly known as the Florentine Codex, written by indigenous artists and intellectuals under the supervision of Fray Bernardo de Sahagún, mentions crab tamales in green chile sauce and lobster with tomato sauce. It describes the process of making chocolate from cacao beans and its preparation as an exclusive drink reserved for the upper classes. An economy based mainly on agriculture, especially maize, the life force of the Americas, is illustrated as is the growing, harvesting, and cooking of maize.


Figure 2. The Florentine Codex. Book X: The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations, byBernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590). Bound as partof volume 3, ink on paper, 1577, Library of Congress.

For all of this newness and sense of awe, the first meeting of Native American and Spanish cuisines was marked by mutual distaste. Bernal Díaz del Castillo referred to the “misery of maize cakes.” Indians described wheat as tasting “like famine food.”3 Although the early settlers preferred European foods, particularly wheat bread and meat, they eventually acquired a taste for many indigenous foods, especially beans and chocolate. As the Old World and New World cuisines began to merge, the cultural mixture became so complex that at times it is hard to tell exactly where particular traditions originated.

Considering that the native people had been forcibly converted to Christianity during the conquest and then became second-class citizens in their own country, food became politicized and was a divider of classes from the outset. The maize of the native people, which they had for millennia thought of as a life force, imbued with many religious connotations, was considered inferior to European wheat, the body of Christ. Bread eating distinguished criollos (Mexicans born of Spanish parents) from the poor Indians and the half-Spaniard, half-Indian mestizos, who ate corn tortillas. There was a perception that the more European you were, the closer to the top of the social and racial hierarchy you belonged. Dishes made with corn and chiles—with a spicy sensation not before experienced by Old World palates—were not something to be ingested by gente decente (respectable people).

To keep indigenous and European foods—and people—further separated, the governmentof New Spain placed restrictions on the Indian markets, which outside Mexico City were only allowed to sell indigenous foods such as tortillas, corn flour, tamales, and local fruits. Spaniards were prohibited from shopping in native markets.4 Social divisions of this type delayed the emergence of a national cuisine and slowed the unification of the Mexican nation itself.

Still, however strong the attempt to keep Indian and Spanish lives separate, people intermarried and their foods became integrated. There were never enough Spanish women in New Spain to match the number of male settlers, and by the late 16th century, Mexico had become multicultural and multi-ethnic, home to Indians, Spaniards, Asians, Africans, and every racial mixture in between, all bringing their unique flavors and culinary traditions. This cultural mixing is evident in kitchen manuscripts of the 17th and18th centuries, a time when New Spain—though not yet independent from the motherland—was coming into its own as a country.

Colonial Mexico, Kitchen Manuscripts, and the Origins of a National Cuisine

During the colonial period, the convents of New Spain were powerhouses that occupied whole city blocks. Their gardens were lush, and their kitchens were like laboratories, equipped with balances, graters, pots, pans, metates, and comales; they were stocked with the finest local ingredients alongside those entering the country from the Manila Galleons. The church and the viceroy had first claim on all goods coming into the country, a privilege that benefited convent kitchens immensely. Nuns stirred up mestizo flavors in their clay cauldrons, giving birth to Mexican cuisine in their kitchens.


Figure 3. Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Miguel Cabrera, circa 1750. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico.

Native to Asia, limes and tamarind brought a sourness that is connected to modern Mexican food; cinnamon, pepper, and cloves met chocolate and chiles to form a perfect marriage in mole, the sauce invented in 17th- century convent kitchens. The combination of sweet and sour flavors characteristic of Asian cuisines was incorporated into Mexican cooking. Sugarcane, a crop indigenous to India, introduced a type of sweetness that was different than honey, which led to the creation of unique desserts.5

The initial mission of nuns in the Americas was to educate native girls who had been converted to Christianity. The first convent in Mexico, Nuestra Señora de Concepción, had been established by 1540. Between 1550 and 1811, sixty convents were founded.6 As more Spanish families settled in the New World, the convents, which had long been places for elite white women, who safeguarded the spiritual well-being of the viceroyalty through their “purity,” became a type of boarding school for upper class young women, who brought servant girls with them. Besides teaching religious doctrine, reading, and writing, some convents offered classes in sewing, embroidering, painting, and cooking.


Figure 4. Tin-glazed earthenware chocolate jar, 1700, from Puebla, Mexico. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

The nuns had had a sweet tooth ever since the 8th century, when the Moors introduced sugarcane to Andalusia in Spain. The sweet grass was brought to New Spain in the early 16th century, along with peaches, apples, figs, grapes, plums, quinces, bananas, and oranges. All flourished in the New World, making the early Andalusian nuns eager to bring their dessert-making traditions and experiment with native ingredients. Baking became common practice in the convents of the viceroy. The confections developed in the convents in cities such as Puebla, Morelia, Querétaro, and Jalapa include custards; candied fruits; sweet potato marzipan (camote); caramelized goat’s milk called cajeta, jamoncillo (goat’s milk fudge); and mamón, a type of sponge cake. Some of the desserts have baroque names, such as bocados de cielo (bites of sky), suspiros de monja (nun’s sighs), huevos espirituales (spiritual eggs), and suspiritos de María santísima (little breaths of the most Holy Mary).7 These confections were offered as gifts, served during festivities, or sold to the public to supplement the convent’s income. Though the nuns rarely—if ever—ventured beyond the convent walls, their sweets traveled miles.

One of the earliest kitchen manuscripts in existence is attributed to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, an accomplished scholar, philosopher, and poet, whose work was published and widely read in Spain. The manuscript is undated, but Sor Juana lived and worked in the Mexico City’s Convent of San Jerónimo between 1669 and her untimely death in 1695. A reluctant cook initially, she eventually found intellectual comfort in the kitchen and once declared, “If Aristotle had cooked, he would have written much more.” Sor Juana used poetry and philosophy to talk about the transformation of ingredients and philosophized about the sensory pleasures of food. Of the thirty-six recipes attributed to her, many are for the confections of the day and highlight the Moorish and Spanish influence in early Mexican cuisine.8


Figure 5. Kitchen of the Ex-convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, Mexico.

Not merely passionate for sweets, Sor Juana also ventured into savory dishes, leaving us with an early recipe for manchamaneteles (meaning literally, “get the tablecloth dirty”), a type of mole that blended New World chiles, turkey, and sweet potatoes with African sesame seeds and Old World apples, plantains, and lard. (Pork fat was New Spain’s substitute for olive oil). Her recipe for gigotes de gallina (chicken legs) highlights the early French culinary influence in New Spain merely by using the word gigot rather than pierna, respectively the French and Spanish words for “leg.” The dish included tomatoes, onions, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, cilantro, garlic, parsley, saffron, ham, vinegar,chorizo, raisins, almonds, olives, chiles, and capers—ingredients that had entered the country on the Manila Galleons—cooked over two fires in one pot.9

Sor Juana includes custards, buñuelos (sweet fried fritters), and corn-based recipes, among them an unusual recipe for turco de maiz cacaguazintle. Cacaguazintle is a Nahuatl word for a cacao-bean-sized hominy used in pre-Columbian pozole. Her recipe is a cake that calls for preparing the maize “in the precolonial style” and then grinding it in a metate (grinding stone). The resulting corn flour is then beaten with lard, sugar, and eggs to form a masa (dough) that is filled with ground beef or pork, raisins, capers, pine nuts, almonds, capers, and eggs. Sweet and savory, Old and New.

The recipes in Sor Juana’s manuscript are written for those skilled in the culinary arts, with pre-assumed knowledge. The instruction to prepare maize “in the precolonial” style would have been clear to the 17th-century reader. Unlike modern corn, maize needs to be boiled with cal (lime) to release its nutrients, a process called nixtamalization. The maize was then ground in a metate, made into a masa, flattened into disks, and then cooked on a comal (griddle) to make tortillas, steamed in a corn husk to make tamales, or made into the beverage atole. Sor Juana used the ancient process to make something entirely new. Though her culinary manuscript was not intended for publication, it preserves thegastronomic memory of her life and times and reflects the country’s early cultural mixing.

Outside the viceregal convent walls, the tradition of recording written recipes has its origin in the late 18th century. (Previously, recipes were passed on orally from mother to daughter.) As the nuns busied themselves creating a dynamic fusion cuisine, cultural mixing spread through society, much to the chagrin of those in power. The new cuisine that was beginning to simmer would eventually, two centuries later, make its way onto the printed pages of cookbooks.

Early European Cookbooks and New Spain in the 18th Century

The turn of the 18th century coincides with a dynastic change in the Spanish monarchy.Charles II (r. 1665–1700), the last of the Habsburgs, died without heirs, and the crown went to Philip V (r. 1700–1746), a French Bourbon. The new French dynasty arrived atthe Spanish court with a modernizing impulse that lasted throughout much of the century.10 Among the innovations Philip V brought to Spain from France were those in the culinary arts.

In late-17th-century Europe, French chefs had begun to replace the sugar and spices that were prominent in medieval cooking with the simple salt, pepper, and fresh herbs that are characteristic of modern European cooking.11 France published at least 255 books between 1650 and 1789; François La Varenne first put these innovations in writing in 1651 in his cookbook Le Cuisinier françois (The French cook). At the end of the century, François Maissialot introduced Cuisinier royal et bourgeois (The court and country cook), which featured folding pages devoted to table settings. Great chefs wrote treatises on the arts of carving and serving and the complexities of gastronomic etiquette. Food was not merely sustenance. Food was an indicator of power and performance. By the 18th century, French cookbooks had become grand productions. The most spectacular was Vincent La Chapelle’s Cuisinier moderne (The modern cook) of 1742—five volumes thatincluded thirteen folding pages one of which measured over three feet when fully open. Luxury ware for the dining room went hand in hand with these theatrical innovations.12

Spain published fewer than a dozen cookbooks in the same time frame. Of note were Diego Granado’s Libro del arte de cocina (Book on the art of cooking), in 1599; Francisco Martinez Montiño’s Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería, y conservería (Art of cooking, pastry, biscuits, and conserves), in 1611; and Juan de la Mata’s Arte de repostería (The art of pastry), in 1747. Montiño was chef to various Spanish kings. De la Mata’s book on pastry introduced turrónes, confection made of sugar, egg whites, and toasted nuts derived from a Muslim recipe that had been popular in Spain since the 15th century. Granado’s was the first cookbook published in Spain, though most of its recipes were lifted from Bartolomeo Scappi’s monumental Opera: L’arte et prudenza d’un maestrocuoco (The art and craft of a master cook) of 1570 Italy. (The first Spanish cookbook is essentially an Italian one.)13



Figure 6. (Left) Opera: L’arte et prudenza d’unmaestro cuoco, by Bartolomeo Scappi, 1622 edition. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; (center) Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería y conservería, by Francisco Martinez Montiño, 1732 edition. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; (right) Le cuisinier francois, by Francois la Varenne, 1652 edition.

European cookbooks such as these were for sale in Mexico City. Spanish, French, and Italian culinary influences and techniques wove their way into colonial kitchens that were staffed by Indian servants, who brought their own traditions. Gallic influences are seen in 18th-century colonial manuscripts in recipes such as sopa francesa (French soup), which used French bread as a main ingredient. The Italian influence appears prominently in early handwritten manuscripts in the form of fideos or tallarínes (noodles). One of the main differences was that the heavy use of spices that had long since disappeared from European cooking was alive and well in New Spain.14

Along with a new cuisine, the 18th century invented new iconographies. The genre of casta paintings categorized and ranked the colony’s different socioracial groups in anattempt to impose order on what Spain perceived to be a mostly hybrid (and thus unruly) society. The paintings were designed to prove that a stratified society existed in New Spain—with the light-skinned European standing firmly at the top. Foods constituted animportant part of this categorization. Lighter-skinned subjects were lavishly dressed and depicted in lush landscapes, full of Old World grapes, apples, and pomegranates; whereas darker skinned people were painted with avocados, prickly pears, and other native foods. It was this division of classes that for centuries kept the country from unifying.15


Figure 7. VII. From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino [VII. De español y morisca, albino], Patricio Morlete Ruiz (Mexico, 1713–1772), circa 1760, oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Mexican Independence and the Country’s First Printed Cookbooks

Printing, a technology developed by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany around 1450, allowed texts and images to circulate in large numbers across great distances. In Europe, cookbooks quickly became among the most popular printed books, second only to the Bible. By the time of the conquest, a flourishing cookbook culture existed all over Europe. The printing press arrived in New Spain in the 16th century, but it was first used to print ecclesiastical and legal documents, not something as seemingly superfluous as recipes. It took over two hundred years for the first cookbooks to be printed in Mexico, but as is demonstrated by the attitudes to food depicted in manuscripts and the visual arts, food was an endless topic of discussion.16

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and began to spread its wings, asserting itself as a country with an identity of its own. For the newly independent nation, cuisine became a way to claim an identity that was culturally distinct from that of themother country—an identity that reflected three centuries of cultural mixing.

The three-volume El cocinero mexicano (The Mexican cook), bound in leather and printed on durable rag-pulp paper, made its debut in 1831 with recipes that reflected a strong colonial lineage. Since cooks in upper-class households were likely illiterate servants, the cookbook reads more like an instructional manual for managing a wealthy household than a modern step-by-step cookbook. Many subsequent cookbooks followed the same format. El cocinero mexicano would become the most influential Mexican cookbook of the 19th century. It was even printed and sold in France, made the rounds throughout Europe and Latin America, and would set the tone for Mexico’s national cuisine.17


Figure 9. El cocinero Americano—one of the manytitle variations of El nuevo cocinero mexicano—1883.Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

The book stands out because it documents Old World capers, cloves, saffron, pork, and beef merging with tomatoes, chiles, corn, fruits, herbs, and greens native to the Americas. The anonymous author stresses the importance of stock (one of the foundations of French cuisine) but, surprisingly, makes little mention of tamales, enchiladas, or quesadillas.

The book’s tortilla recipes for are not for the corn variety but are variations on theSpanish omelet. What we do see are twenty different recipes for mole, including a variation of Sor Juana’s manchamanteles, now made with chile ancho, tomato, sesame seeds, “spices of all kinds,” capers, pecans, pine nuts, almonds, turkey, and sweet potato. (The Nahuatl word for sauce is molli, and texturally speaking, mole is a creamy sauce, akin to many of the French sauces.)

Many of the recipes in El cocinero mexicano apply French techniques to the preparation of Mexican ingredients. The native squash blossoms, huitlacoche (corn fungus), and avocados took beautifully to use in French-style soups, crepes, and mousses. A new national cuisine was solidified that blended indigenous, Spanish, and French ingredients, traditions, and techniques; its place forever recorded and bound into printed books. The book opens with instructions on setting an elegant table and includes illustrated folding pages just like those found in French manuals of previous centuries. In the art-of-carving section, Maríano Galván Rivera, the publisher, cleverly uses the opportunity to plug another book he sold in his bookstore that contained more detailed instructions. He does not fail to mention the store’s address. (Galván also produced Mexico’s first almanac, women’s calendars, travel guides, and textbooks. His bookstore was a gathering place for the literary and political figures of the day.)18

El cocinero mexicano was reprinted twice, by different publishers and with slight title variations until, beginning in 1845, it was printed as Diccionario de cocina o El nuevo cocinero mexicano (Dictionary of cuisine or the new Mexican cook). It went through five editions under this title; the final printing was in 1909. Three editions were published in Paris.19

To organize a book in dictionary form was a novelty at the time, and the format would remain popular for decades. Later editions included color lithographs and sections on feasting. The 1888 edition, printed as El nuevo cocinero mexicano en forma de diccionario (The new Mexican cook in dictionary form) contained over one thousand recipes.20

More traditional Mexican recipes were included in each edition, though they were relegated to a section on light meals. The introduction of the 1834 version began by stating that since the first edition had been so well received, the publisher had decided to print a second one, “correcting some of the errors and abundance of unusual terms and names of things not known in this country.” A recipe for calabacitas de pobre (poor person’s squash) calls for native squash cooked with chile. Recipes for quesadillas, chalupas, chilaquiles, and atoles are abundant. (One quesadilla recipe is stuffed with ground chicharron (fried pork skin), chile, the anise-flavored native herb epazote, andqueso fresco). Even though eating spicy food was considered appropriate only by the lowest orders, numerous recipes use chile as an ingredient, though some instruct cooks to simmer the chiles in water to remove their heat before using.

There are a number of recipes for chiles rellenos, including one with a nogada (nut sauce) that consists of a green poblano pepper stuffed with ground meat, covered with a white walnut sauce, and garnished with red pomegranate seeds—the colors of the Mexican flag.Chiles en nogada is an iconic dish that has its origins in New Spain’s viceregal convents,though historical texts demonstrate its roots in Renaissance Italy. In 1599, Diego Granado, in his Libro del arte de cocina (Book of the Art of the Kitchen), offered a similar recipe for stuffed cabbage, which was copied from Bartolomeo Scappi.21


Figure 10. Chiles en nogada. Photograph by Maite Gomez-Rejón.

Another influential cookbook, also published in 1831, is Novísmo de arte de cocina (New art of cooking). It is dedicated tothe “Mexican Señoritaswith the best recipes, prepared simply and economically in the Spanish, French, Italian, or English way without losing the Mexican sazón(flair).” The prologue tells us that Alejandro Valdés, the book’s first printer, had a portrait of Johannes Gutenberg in his office. Novísmo de arte de cocina was reprinted nine times by different publishers under slightly different titles. One edition was printed in Philadelphia; two in Paris. The name of the author, Simon Blanquel, appeared for the first time in the 1853 edition. The last year of publication was 1893.22


Figure 11. Novísmo de arte de cocina, 1831. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

Novísmo de arte de cocina is divided into salads, meats and fowl, fish and lent dishes, cakes and cookies, custards and other desserts, drinks, ice creams and gelatins, and supplements of salsas, soups, conserves, and chocolates. The first recipe is for tallarínes (pasta). There are also recipes for fideo (noodles) with Flemish cheese or with chile ancho. In medieval Old World fashion, beans are cooked with cloves, cinnamon, and pepper. There are also recipes for sweet tamales and corn tortillas, which are to be “put in the oven after the bread has finished baking.” A nod to English cookery can be seen in the instructions for leche inglesa muy gustosa (tasty English milk).

Novísmo de arte de cocina also had practical tips on entertaining. At a wedding or other festive event, the pastel de paloma volando (cake of the flying dove) was sure to impress. The author instructed readers to place hollow pastries upside down with live doves or other small birds inside. In true celebratory fashion (and a nod to ancient Roman and Renaissance courtly feasts), after the toast guests would turn the pastry over and watch the birds fly away.23

Later 19th-Century Cookbooks

Mexican culinary literature flourished in the 19th century, and Europe was its greatest inspiration. Physiologie du gout (Physiology of taste), the 1825 masterpiece of culinary literature by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, was translated into Spanish and printed in Mexico in 1852, before its publication in Spain. Over the course of the 19th century about fifteen different cookbooks were published in Mexico, all in multiple editions in print runs of a few thousand copies each, for a total of as many as one hundred thousand cookbooks.24

Almost encyclopedic in its scope is El tesoro de la cocina: Diccionario de las familias (The treasure of the kitchen: The family dictionary). Published in 1866 with Spanish, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Italian recipes and serving techniques, the cookbook borrowed from the finest foreign and Mexican chefs. Some of its recipes were taken directly from El cocinero mexicano.25

In 1872 La cocinera poblana (The Pueblan cook), a two-volume cookbook that attempted to craft a more local, unified nation by combining simple and economical Spanish, French, English, and Mexican recipes made its debut. It criticized the tradition of cookbooks filling their pages with useless foreign recipes. La cocinera poblana was practical in its approach and contained proven, dependable recipes, including English biftek (beefsteak) and Provencal and Vizcayne bacalaos (cod fish).26 Its author, Narciso Bassols, was a Spanish immigrant.

In an acknowledgment of Sor Juana, Bassols included a recipe for Empanadas de San Jerónimo (named for her convent), which consisted of sweet masa filled with ground beef. The section on quesadillas gives us a sense of the vibrant culture of street food at thetime. “They [quesadillas] are so common that there is no street corner where they cannot be bought if you’d like to avoid making them at home. They are everywhere . . . and are delicious at breakfast time.” Mexico’s vibrant street-food culture is further illustrated inLife in Mexico, the diaries of Fanny Calderón de la Barca, first published in 1843. The Scottish-born de la Barca was the wife of Mexico’s first Spanish diplomat after Independence.27

Ever practical, La cocinera poblana also includes a section on household management. The secretos del tocador (toilette secrets) section suggests whitening teeth with the regular use of rosemary ash. The chapter on medicina domestica para conservar la salud y prolongar la vida (domestic medicine to conserve health and prolong life) advises rubbing pig fat and hazelnut oil on the head as a remedy for hair loss. A recipe for agua de colonia (eau de cologne) with grapefruit, lemon, clove, and lavender would be right at home in a modern-day perfumery. The cookbook’s final edition was released in 1913.

Cookbooks Under the Porfirian Regime

By the end of the 19th century, cookbooks had become more democratic and were being produced in mass quantities, for mass consumption. Reading between the lines of those early recipes can help us understand the attitude of the Mexican elites toward their own culture. Cookbooks would record culinary changes throughout a tumultuous chapter of Mexico’s history that would include rule by a French emperor, Maximilian I (1863–1867); multiple constitutions, most significantly the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1910); and the Revolution (1910–1920).

Just decades after Independence, conservative Mexicans and wealthy ex-patriots longed for the days of the European monarchy. With Mexico under French intervention between 1861 and 1867, Ferdinand Maximilian I, a Habsburg, was appointed emperor of Mexico in 1863. Though he and his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, favored the French cuisine embraced by the Mexican upper classes, they added national dishes such as tamales and enchiladas to the imperial table. (Side note: Mariano Galván Rivera, the first publisher of El cocinero mexicano, was jailed for supporting the French intervention.) Their reign lasted four short years; by 1876, Porfirio Díaz, a mestizo from Oaxaca, had gained power. He went on to rule until he was overthrown during the Revolution of 1910.

A lover of all things French, Díaz embraced the notion that maize had oppressed pre- Columbian people and that salvation lay in the adoption of European culture. French haute cuisine became fashionable among urban Mexicans. Specialty shops in Mexico City and other major cities sold gourmet patés, imported wines, and the like. Díaz’s efforts to expand foreign investments and modernize the country allowed businesses to prosper, but the common people suffered because of rising food costs.28 During his regime (also known as the Porfiriato) national cuisine became even more sharply divided along class lines. It was this type of Eurocentric thinking—a mindset prevalent in Mexico since the conquest—that eventually led to revolution.

Jules Gouffé’s El libro de cocina (The cookbook), printed in 1893, epitomized the Porfirian era. Gouffé had studied under Antoine Carême, the founder of French haute cuisine, and was the head chef at the exclusive Jockey Club in Paris. He wrote extensively on the art and practice of cooking, and his works were widely translated. El libro de cocina was translated and revised from his 1888 French edition.

Gouffé generally wrote for professional chefs, but in the introduction of El libro de cocina he said he wished to produce a cookbook that would be of practical use to home cooks. His audience consisted of elite Mexicans who identified with Europe, so many of the recipes are weighted toward French and Spanish foods, yet there are also instructions for making pulque and “barbacoa Mexicana.” Slow cooked in an earthen pit, his barbacoa recipe was taken directly from Diccionario de cocina.

El libro de cocina covered a wide variety of topics—from selecting foods at the market (nada de aves viejas, “no old chickens”) to stocking a kitchen with the correct cookwareand utensils to proper presentation. Its pastry section is the most extensive. A tour de force of 19th-century French cookery transplanted in Mexico, El libro de cocina included engravings by popular Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.29

It is no secret that historically in Mexico, as elsewhere in the world, professional chefs and cookbook writers were men, and that women were relegated to the domestic sphereof the kitchen. For centuries, women had been recording their recipes in manuscripts—a task in which they took great pride, especially since the cherished recipes had been handed down from generation to generation. Manuscript cookbooks had served as family albums, recording flavors and memories. Sometimes these manuscripts were compiled and published as community cookbooks to raise funds for charitable causes—a focus of many Catholic charities across the country.30


Figure 12. Libro de cocina de Esther Cuadra, circa 1864. Los Angeles Public Library, Special Collections.

The cookbook that bridged both past and present is the beautifully illustrated Cocina michoacana (Michoacan kitchen) of 1896. Written by the trailblazer Vicenta Torres de Rubio, it is not only the first cookbook written by a woman in Mexico, it is alsothe country’s first cookbook to showcase the diversity of dishes being prepared in all corners of the republic. Torres had a popular newspaper column through which she solicited recipes from housewives in her home state of Michoacán. Soon word spread and recipe submissions came in from home cooks across the country, broadening the scope of her work. By printing recipes from women throughout Mexico and interspersing them with her own, Torres provided the first forum for uniting regional cuisines. Through food, women found common ground and a universal language.31


Figure 13. Pages from Cocina michoacana. Los Angeles Public Library. Special Collections.

Many of the Cocina michoacana recipes begin with the words “My dear Vicenta” and read likepersonal letters. The cookbook offered readers and contributors the chance to experiment with regional dishes. A housewife in Chiapas could whip up a fish recipe from Veracruz. A mom in the Yucatan could experiment with a rustic hen dish from the northern borderlands of Tamaulipas.

Prior to Torres, Mexican cookbooks favored the tastes of an elite European-oriented audience, many of whom shunned the Mexican staples of beans, corn, and chile. Torres published Cocina michoacana during the Porfirian regime. She attacked the “irrelevant” recipes in European-style cookbooks, explaining in her introduction that Mexicans do not normally season according to European practices. Yet French haute cuisine appears in such recipes as the galantine, an exotic dish prepared by boning poultry leaving its skin intact, stuffing the bird, and then poaching it in broth. Referencing the 17th-century Spanish chef Francisco Martinez Montiño is a blood sausage recipe called Morcillas de puerco a la Montiño.32

In addition, Torres placed chayotes en pipian (the New World squash with pumpkin seed sauce) comfortably next to foie gras with aspic and creamy béarnaise and béchamel sauces side-by-side with spicy chipotle sauces. Torres was reassuring even the haughtiest of readers that native ingredients were welcome and appropriate on any dinner table. Her section on tortillas included both the corn and egg varieties. She devoted an entiresection to using the metric system to measure ingredients instead of “the old one that the Spaniards taught us” in an effort to increase the precision of recipes and cooking.

Understanding that European recipes had become an intrinsic part of Mexico’s cuisine, Torres placed pre-Columbian and colonial recipes right next to the European ones, and thereby propelled her cookbook across class and ethnic lines. She encouraged the use of the metate for making corn tortillas and included multiple recipes for tamales and moles. Although elite women seemed to worry less than men about the social stigma attached to native dishes, Torres made sure to label certain recipes—such as pozole, a hominy and turkey stew—as indigenista (indigenous). That deference to her Pofririan audience firmly planted her cookbook in time and place. Ultimately, she had to appeal to all in order to sell cookbooks.


Figure 14. Pozole. Although pre-Columbian pozole was made with the native turkey, the modern-day dish is commonly prepared with Old World chicken or pork. Photograph by Maite Gomez-Rejón.

By inviting women to share family recipes, Vicenta Torres de Rubio created a national community and defined a national fare. Her use of the familiar vocabulary of the kitchen influenced the collective consciousness of women and established a vital link between the past and the present. Unlike the men before her, Torres presented to her culture a pioneering work, written by a woman for women.

Her Cocina michoacana reflects the movement toward unity and the nationalism that was emerging in Mexico toward the end of the 19th century. Mexican women had acquired a strong voice in the home and hearth, and Torres paved the way for a new livelihood for them.

Revolution, Indigenismo, and Beyond

Under Porfirio Díaz, the relatively few elites were living the high life as most of the population struggled to make ends meet. Many people were hungry. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) overthrew the Díaz regime and kicked the foreign landownersout of the country. Fair distribution of land, a secular government, and expanded access to education were promoted. Mexican history was re-envisioned. The nationalist indigenismo movement revalued the country’s indigenous past yet looked to the mestizo for its future. Mexicans searched for their roots, not among the Spanish conquistadors or in European history, but in the heritage of the country itself. Artists and activists of the Mexican Renaissance, among them Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, looked at pre-Columbian rather than European art for inspiration, and used art to educate the largely uneducated public. Frida Kahlo dressed in classic Tehuana fashion and cooked traditional meals as an outward expression of national identity. She owned her mother’s copy of El cocinero mejicano.33


Figure 15. La gran Tenochtitlan, Diego Rivera, 1945, fresco. National Palace, Mexico City.

Notwithstanding the newfound respect for indigenous traditions, it is undeniable that old habits die hard. After four centuries of cultural mixing, European cooking traditions and techniques were deeply ingrained in the country’s cuisine, and the wealthy still preferred European dishes and cookbooks. Alejandro Pardo, a graduate of Parisian and Madrid cooking schools published Recetas practicas y escogidas de cocina, pastelería y repostería (Practical and selected recipes for kitchen, cakes and pastries) and Los treinta menús del mes (The thirty menus of the month) in 1917.34 Though the recipes are mostly European, the tone is practical and the recipes simple and affordable, reflecting the changing times.

In 1922, Professor Agapito Gomez Orta, a cooking instructor and author living in San Luis Potosí, published La perla del cocinero (The pearl of the cook) aimed at the upper and newly emergent middle classes. Among his French-inspired recipes are instructions forsalsa japonesa and salsa hungara (Japanese sauce and Hungarian sauce) demonstrating another international layer in the Mexican diet. His book includes a recipe for an egg soufflé with ham “a la Porfirio Díaz” and a soufflé “a la Limantour” (Díaz’s minister of finance) with peas and foie gras. Gomez Orta advertised his cooking school and baking products, including yeast for bread, quekis (cupcakes), and cookies.35

Many women became teachers, organized cooking classes, printed their recipes in magazines, and published cookbooks of their own. One such woman was María Ibarrola de Salceda who in 1929 published Moderno recetario de cocina mexicana (Modern Mexican recipe book).36 She began the book by saying that Mexican food might be “less substantial than Spanish food and not as complicated or elegant as French food (because Mexico has yet to produce a Vatel or a Brillat-Savarin),” but it is more diverse than any other and should be an element of pride. Following the format used by Alejandro Pardo inthe previous decade, Salcedo’s cookbook is divided into thirteen chapters, each with thirty-one recipes—one for each day of the month—to help women create healthy, flavorful, and budget-friendly meals.

There are chapters on soups, eggs, fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, Mexican antojitos, salsas and salads, cakes, ice creams, gelatins, sandwiches, and even American cocktails. Capitalism north of the border made an appearance in the recommendation of Pullman bread and Kraft cheese in the sandwich section. Heart-shaped sandwiches for Valentine’s Day appear beside egg and Gruyere cocottes; chongos zamoranos (a colonial-era dessert of spiced curdled milk); and budín Azteca, a type of lasagna made with layers of tortilla and chile instead of pasta and tomato. Salcedo’s book was written for the modern middle-class woman who could get dinner on the table with ease, and sit back with a mint julep. In urban kitchens, the blender began replacing the metate, the gas stove replaced the brazier.

Alternately, in 1934, Ana María Hernández, a former teacher, writer, and activist, published various cookbooks, most notably Como mejorar la alimentación del obrero y campesino (How to improve the nutrition of farmers and laborers), written specifically for the working class.37 Hernández dedicated her book to then president-elect Lazaro Cardenas, a “socialist and great friend of revolutionary women.” She encouraged education by telling her female readers, aprendes y vivirás mejor (learn and you will live better). She stressed the importance of cleanliness and organization in the home and inthe kitchen and encouraged her readers to take advantage of Mexico’s rich farmland to grow fruits and vegetables. She also helped simplify rural women’s lives by fighting to increase the number of public mills for nixtamal.


Figure 16. Como mejorar la alimentación del obrero y campesino, by Ana María Hernández. Los Angeles Public Library, Special Collections.

Hernández included instructions for making a chicken coup because “hens give us eggs and meat . . . and produce a lot of food and money in the fields and the city.” On dairy, she wrote, “If you have a cow, take care of it so it can produce”; on mole, “There is no Mexican woman that does not show pride in making it . . . [It is served] by the fanciest woman in the capital to the most humble table.” There are many recipes, “each from your mothers and grandmothers.” Hernández included recipes for her favorites.

Taken directly from El cocinero mexicano is a recipe for Ensalada de nochebuena (Christmas Eve salad) with beets, chestnuts, lettuce, banana, peanuts, orange, jicama, and limes. There are also recipes for vegetable soups, beans, enchiladas, sweet and savory tamales, chicken with hollandaise sauce, vol au vents, buñuelos, and churros, to list only a few.

The recognition of indigenous dishes, which began with the community cookbook of Vicenta Torres de Rubio, culminated with the work of Josefina Velásquez de León. De León was an entrepreneurial author and teacher who traveled throughout the republic holding cooking classes and collecting regional recipes. From the 1930s to 1960s, she wrote and published over 150 cookbooks on topics ranging from cake decorating to cooking for the infirm to vegetarian cooking (an innovative move in a land of pork and lard). She ran a cooking school in Mexico City, hosted her own TV show when television was in its infancy, wrote a magazine column, and was regularly interviewed on the radio. At one point, you could find her books in nearly every middle-class home. She created a cooking empire that lasted into the 1960s.38

Her most important work, Platillos regionales de la República Mexicana (Regional dishes of the Mexican Republic), in 1946, gathered in a single volume the distinctive tastes of each state for the first time since Cocina michoacana did it in 1898. De León adapted her cookbook of regional recipes the next year and published a bilingual version of the book in the United States as Mexican Cook Book: Devoted to American Homes, making her the first person to proudly introduce the complexity of traditional Mexican cuisine to an American audience.

Her cookbook Antojitos mexicanos (Mexican Cravings) includes a 20th-century version of Sor Juana’s 17th-century recipe for manchamanteles with turkey, tomato, chile ancho, chile pasilla, pickled chiles, bread, chorizo, onion, almonds, pineapple, apple, plantain, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper—solidifying three centuries of cultural mixing.

The creation of Mexico’s national cuisine is a story of conquest and uprising. Diaries, letters, kitchen manuscripts, and cookbooks, from the Spanish conquest in 1519 through the country’s Independence in 1821 and the 1910 Revolution, convey a palatable sense of history, with all its changing attitudes toward food. Reading between the lines of a recipe’s ingredients and techniques helps to give us tangible insights into politics, race, class, status, and identity. For centuries, the voices of the indigenous population in Mexico were silenced. Their foods, once loaded with symbolism, were downgraded and used as a weapon of suppression. With time, as cultural awareness grew, that suppression, itself, became a unifier of the Mexican people.

Primary Sources

Codices from the 16th century—largely written by indigenous intellectuals under Spanish direction—give detailed lists of the culinary practices of pre-Hispanic people. Travel accounts, such as the letters of Fanny Calderon de la Barca, give us a rich guide to the foods, particularly of the lower classes, during the 19th century.39 For historic cookbooks, the best collections can be found in the Mexican Cookbook Collection at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, and the Rare Book Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library also have some gems. In Mexico City, the library of the Fundación Herdez is an excellent resource for cookbooks, and the Center for the Study of Mexican History (CARSO) contains many historical prints and documents from the 18th through 20th centuries. Some cookbooks and manuscripts can be found digitalized online.

Outside of books, prints, and manuscripts, an abundance of food history can be learned by looking at visual and decorative arts. Mayan terracotta drinking cups that once held foaming hot chocolate or plates that held tamales can help bring ancient rituals to life, as do stone and terracotta corn, fertility, and agricultural gods and goddesses. Functional Talavera pottery created to mimic the blue-and-white palette of the luxurious Chinese porcelain carried by the Manila Galleons give us a sense of colonial aesthetics. Casta paintings, many biombos (screens), and costumbrismo (scenes of everyday life) paintings can teach us about race, class, and attitudes to food. Museum collections with rich Latin American art collections include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the San Antonio Museum of Art. The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles is also a good resource for historic prints, drawings, and photographs.

In Mexico City, the National Museum of Anthropology, the Franz Mayer Museum, and Diego Rivera’s murals on the history of Mexico at the Ministry of Education are rich teaching tools. One can get a sense of the kitchen dynamics by visiting former convents, many of which are now museums. Among them is the Ex convento de Santa Rosa in Puebla, which claims the first mole.

Further Reading

Bak-Geller Corona, Sarah. “Narrativas deleitosas de la nación: Los primeros librosde cocina en Mexico (1830–1890).” Desacatos (September–December 2013), 31–44.

Barros, Cristina. Los libros de la cocina mexicana. Mexico City, Conaculta, 2008.

Calderón de la Barca, Fanny. Life in Mexico: The Letters of Fanny Calderón de la Barca; With new material from the author’s private journals. Edited and annotated by Howard T. Fisher and Marion Hall Fisher. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Coe, Sophie. America’s First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth Century Mexico. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Morán, Elizabeth. Sacred Consumption: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Novo, Salvador. Cocina mexicana: Historia gastronómica de la Ciudad de Mexico. Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1979.

Pilcher, Jeffrey. ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Pilcher, Jeffrey. “Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821–1911,” The Americas 53, no. 2 (1996): 193–216.

Reed, Marcia, ed. The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute, 2015.

Willan, Anne. The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook. With Mark Cherniavsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.


(1.) Sophie D. Coe, America’s First Cuisines (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 74–76.

(2.) Salvador Novo, Cocina mexicana: Historia gastronómica de la Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1979), 17–18.

(3.) Jeffrey Pilcher, “Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821–1911,” The Americas 53, no. 2 (1996): 196.

(4.) Elizabeth Morán, Sacred Consumption: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016), 83.

(5.) Sidney Mintz, “Convent Sweets,” in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, ed. Darra Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 180–182.

(6.) Morán, Sacred Consumption, 85.

(7.) Mintz, “Convent Sweets,” 180–182.

(8.) Monica Lavin and Ana Benitez Muro, Sor juana en la cocina (Mexico City: Grigalbo, 2010).

(9.) See “Manchamanteles” (p. 92) and “Gigotes de gallina” (p. 88), in Lavin and Benitez Muro, Sor juana en la cocina.

(10.) Ilona Katzew, “New Dynasty, Royal Patronage: Dignity and Ambiguity,” in Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici, ed. Ilona Katzew (Los Angeles, CA: LACMA, 2017),114–121.

(11.) Anne Willan, The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook, with Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 156.

(12.) Marcia Reed, “Food, Memory, and Taste,” in The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals, ed. Marcia Reed (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute, 2015), 11–25.

(13.) Ken Albala, “Papal Rome and the Spanish Golden Age,” in Food: A Cultural Culinary History, (Course Guidebook, The Great Courses, Teaching Company, 2013), 134–142.

(14.) Jeffrey Pilcher, “Many Chefs in the National Kitchen: Cookbooks and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Mexico,” in Latin American Popular Culture: An Introduction, ed. William H. Beezley and Linda A. Curcio-Nagy (Lanham, MD: Scholarly Resources, 2000), 131.

(15.) Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

(16.) Daniela Bleichmar, Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 1.

(17.) Socorro Puig and María Stoopen, Historia de la cocina mexicana a través de sus publicaciones (Mexico City: Museo Franz Mayer, 1997), 2.

(18.) Jeffrey Pilcher. ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 48.

(19.) Puig and Stoopen, Historia de la cocina mexicana, 2.

(20.) Nuevo cocinero mexicano en forma de diccionario: Reproducción facsimilar 1888 (Mexico City: Miguel Angel Porrua, 1992).

(21.) Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales!, 33; and Terrence Scully, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 269, sec. 2, recipe 199.

(22.) Puig and Stoopen, Historia de la cocina mexicana, 2.

(23.) Novisimo arte de cocina (Mexico City: Impreso en la oficina del C. Alejandro Valdés,1831), 67–68.

(24.) Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales!, 48–49.

(25.) Puig and Stoopen, Historia de la cocina mexicana, 3.

(26.) La cocinera poblana (Mexico City: H. Hermanos, Sucesores, 1907).

(27.) Fanny Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico: The Letters of Fanny Calderón de la Barca; With New Material from the Author’s private Journals, ed. and annotated byHoward T. Fisher and Marion Hall Fisher (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 109–110.

(28.) Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales!, 64.

(29.) Jules Gouffé, El Libro de cocina por Jules Gouffé, antiguo jefe de cocina del Jockey – Club de Paris (Mexico City: Ed. Rodriguez y Co.), 1893; and Barbara Feret, Gastronomical and Culinary Literature: A Survey and Analyses of Historically Oriented Collections in the U.S.A. (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979), 41–42.

(30.) Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales!, 66–67.

(31.) Pilcher, “Many Chefs in the National Kitchen,” 133–135.

(32.) Vicenta Torres de Rubio, Cocina michoacana (Zamora, Mexico: Imprenta Moderna, 1896).

(33.) Guadalupe Rivera and Marie-Pierre Colle, Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1994), 15.

(34.) Puig and Stoopen, Historia de la cocina mexicana, 4.

(35.) Agapito Gomez Orta, La perla del cocinero (San Luis de Potosí, Mexico: n. p., 1922).

(36.) María Ibarrola de Salceda, Moderno recetario de cocina mexicana (Mexico: Talleres Gráficos Michoacan, 1929).

(37.) Ana María Hernandez, Como mejorar la alimentación del obrero y campesino (Irapuato, Mexico: Imprenta Moderna, 1934).

(38.) Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales!, 122–124, 132–134.(39.) Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico.


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