An ancient medical elixir is the ancestor for a family of drinks.
Mexican horchata is the agua fresca that dreams are made of. While sweet and slightly creamy, it usually isn’t dairy-derived. Instead, it’s made by soaking white rice in water and cinnamon for several hours, straining, and adding sugar. Vaguely reminiscent of a delicate rice pudding, there’s nothing more refreshing than a cold cup of horchata on a hot summer day.
But long ago, horchata was more than just a refreshment. While the Mexican version of the drink first appeared in the 16th century, its roots date back to an ancient Roman medical elixir made from barley. In fact, the word horchata comes from the Latin hordeum (barley) and hordeata (drink made with barley). From its role as medicine in antiquity, the beverage took a circuitous route across Europe and across the Atlantic to Latin America. Along the way, horchata became a whole family of drinks made from various grains, nuts, and seeds.
This essay was first published in the inaugural issue of Life & Thyme Post , a limited edition printed newspaper for members. Join Life & Thyme.
Four individuals work across a spectrum of platforms to bring positive change to the coffee industry and its people.
Illustrations by Melanie Loon
When coffee made its splash in Europe during the seventeenth century, it was a mysterious and fashionable drink. Introduced to Europe from the Middle East via its native Africa, the warm caffeinated beverage provided a much-needed jolt from the daze Europeans had been under during the Middle Ages. Unlike ale, the beverage of choice at the time, coffee provided clarity of thought and quickly became the preferred new drink among scientists, philosophers, businessmen and politicians.
Coffeehouses that sprung up in cities like London and Paris provided fertile ground for revolutionary thought. Later in New York City and Boston, they continued as places to debate current events, and even shape the future. Thomas Jefferson is even rumored to have drafted the Declaration of Independence in a Parisian coffeehouse.
But as forward-thinking as coffeehouses and the people in them were said to be, women were not allowed entry.
Perhaps the strongest example in the twenty-first century of a woman securing a spot at the coffee counter is Norwegian-born Erna Knusten, who in 1974, founded the “specialty coffee” industry and coined the phrase. But centuries after the Age of Enlightenment, and decades after Knusten’s time, gender inequality remains the norm in the industry.
Today, some of the strongest voices within the specialty coffee industry are not founders or CEOs. They are women and members of the LGBTQ community who are working to make profound changes from within. We had the opportunity to speak with a few of those leading voices. Collectively, Laila Ghambari, Michelle Johnson, Umeko Motoyoshi and Ximena Rubio join countless others in forcing the industry to look inward and confront issues of inclusion, diversity and equity.
Editor’s Note: When developing this story, Chef Jeremy Fox was about to embark on a holiday trip to Ohio, where he grew up. Instead of dispatching a photographer of our own, we armed Fox with a Leica CL camera (courtesy of Leica San Francisco/Camera West) so we could see Ohio through his own eyes.
Imagine a restaurant where matzo ball soup coexists with rumaki (a Polynesian-style appetizer popular in post-war America), and Mongolian tri-tip. Legendary California chef Jeremy Fox will soon reveal what these seemingly unrelated dishes have in common on the tables of his upcoming dream restaurant Birdie G’s, which is set to open this summer in Santa Monica’s historic Bergamot Station.
Fox—the executive chef of Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles, and formerly of Manresa in Los Gatos and Ubuntu in Napa Valley—sat with me at Rustic Canyon to talk about the inspiration behind his multi-ethnic, yet wholly Americana menu. Birdie G’s will honor and celebrate food memories, past and present.
Raised on fast food and TV dinners, Fox never learned the basics of home cooking. Nonetheless, he enrolled in culinary school at age twenty and started working in fine dining restaurants. “I learned how to make fancy things, but I never learned how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, I never learned how to make macaroni and cheese or scalloped potatoes. I didn’t learn how to make stuffing until a couple of years ago,” he tells me. “I wanted to go back and be able to cook those things. I wanted to be able to cook real food.”
Birdie G’s will be all about real foods in every sense of the term. In it, Fox will redefine himself by looking to his past. Born in the Cleveland suburbs, Fox moved to Atlanta at age twelve and spent childhood summers with his beloved grandparents outside of Philadelphia. All of these places, in one form or another, have shaped the menu at Birdie G’s. Fox was quick to share food stories through pictures he took in his wife’s native Ohio. He was there for the Christmas holidays with his wife, Rachael Sheridan, and their three-year-old daughter Birdie, the restaurant’s namesake.
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