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

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Influential African Americans in Food History

Influential African Americans in Food History

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

A brief introduction to some of the most influential and inspiring African American figures in U.S. culinary history.

Throughout history, cookbooks have been active tools, offering their readers not only recipes but also insights into the time period and lives of their authors. The most successful have been text that impart a sense of intimacy that transcends the printed page. The following cooks accomplished all of the above and so much more. Using food to teach and heal, these strong, entrepreneurial African American women and men helped define American cooking.

 

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Behind Convent Walls: Sweet Habits

Behind Convent Walls: Sweet Habits

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

A long history of convent-based confectionary has bequeathed a tradition of sweets in Mexican culture.

During the colonial period (1521-1821) of New Spain—the term used to refer to modern-day Mexico—convents were powerhouses that occupied whole city blocks. Their gardens were lush, their kitchens like laboratories equipped with balances, graters, pots, pans, metates, and comales. They were stocked with the finest local ingredients, as well as those entering the country from the Manila Galleons, which sailed annually 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 the means of a rich cultural exchange that would forever change the culture and cooking of Mexico, not to mention Europe and Asia.

The church and the viceroy had first claim on everything coming into the country, a privilege that benefitted convent kitchens immensely. Native to Asia, lime and tamarind brought a sourness linked to modern Mexican food; spices like cinnamon, pepper, and cloves met chocolate and chiles to form the perfect marriage in mole, the creative sauce invented in seventeenth century convent kitchens. The combination of sweet and sour flavors characteristic of Asian cuisines became part of the Mexican diet. Sugarcane introduced a type of sweetness unlike that of honey, which led to the creation of unique desserts. To many, Mexican sweets may be less familiar than the country’s better-known savory dishes, but confectionary became common practice in the convents of the viceroy.

During the viceregal period, Mexico’s population was multicultural and multi-ethnic with indigenous populations, Spaniards, Asians, Africans, and every racial mixture in between. In order to be admitted into these early New World orders, young women had to be of Spanish or Creole (Mexican born with Spanish blood) descent and come with a dowry, a symbol of the family’s piety. Being admitted to a convent was considered a badge of honor among New Spain’s elite.

The first convent in Mexico, Nuestra Señora de Concepción, had been established by 1540. Between 1550 and 1811, sixty convents were founded. As more Spanish families settled in the New World, convents became a type of boarding school for upper class young women who brought mixed race servant girls with them. In addition to teaching religious doctrine, reading and writing, some convents offered classes in sewing, embroidering and painting. But cooking was the real stand out. Convents became places where unique flavors and culinary traditions quietly merged; their kitchens were the first area where women would make a mark on high cuisine.

European cooking was the primary influence on early convent confections and nuns found inspiration in cookbooks such as Los Cuarto Libros del Arte de la Confitería (The Four Books on the Art of Confectionary) by Miguel de Baeza (1592), and Francisco Martinez Montiño’s Arte de Cocina, Pastelería, Vizcochería y Conservería (Art of Cooking, Pastry, Savory Pastry and Preserves) of 1611, both published in Spain.

 

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