Tag Archives: historic cookbooks

‘Tis Tamales Season

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‘Tis Tamales Season

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

The Time and Tradition of Mexico’s Holiday Dish.

I walk into Downtown L.A.’s Broken Spanish on a December day to a bustling kitchen prepping for evening service and a warm welcome from chef/owner Ray Garcia. It’s easy to be distracted by the array of dishes being built around me in the sunny restaurant—the aromas of braises and sofritos, heirloom tortillas, and mole sauces—all building blocks of the dinner menu so many guests will enjoy in just a few hours. But I’m here for something very specific: the tamal.

I join Garcia in the kitchen along with his cook, Rosario, who is smearing masa (corn dough) with admirable precision onto corn husks laid out in perfect rows. I am mesmerized by her skill. Having grown up in a Mexican household on the Texas/Mexico border, the Christmas tamalada—the assembly line of family and friends who gather around the holidays to whip up tamales—is familiar. Tamales were never lacking in our household; ours were purchased from the tamalero who still makes his requisite rounds to sell his homemade goods, of which my mom buys dozens. Although they’re enjoyed year round, in Mexican culture, tamales are mainly considered a holiday food.

Traditional pre-conquest tamales were filled with beans or squash, but there were also variations made with duck, turkey, venison, lobster or crab with some sort of chile or tomato-based sauce. Post conquest, Old World ingredients like pork, beef, chicken and cheese make an appearance, including sweet variations, as well as tamales wrapped in banana leaves, a plant native to Southeast Asia. French-style cookbooks of nineteenth century Mexico describe tamales as a type of delicate stuffed bread made of corn that Spaniards ate with gusto.

Today at Broken Spanish, Garcia introduces me to an intriguing new filling: braised lamb neck. A lamb tamal is new to me, but once he puts it on the griddle, the edges of the masa begin to caramelize and crisp, and the aroma rises to meet me; I’m totally in.bs tamales prep

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On Household Management

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On Household Management

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

Cookbooks Capture the Eccentricities of Former Eras

My fascination with historic cookbooks knows no bounds. It jumps from country to country and century to century. Most recently I’ve been intrigued by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British cookbooks, partly because I’ve spent quite a bit of time in England this year and partly because these books are about much more than just cooking. They are part of a genre of books on household management that give us an insight into the daily lives of the middle class and those striving to climb the social ladder.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, household management books—historically written by men—were popular all over Europe. By the seventeenth century, England had a higher literary rate than elsewhere in Europe and a new market emerged—books written by women for women. Femininity suddenly acquired a feminine voice. Household management books became as big business among women as lifestyle books and blogs are today (and in theory, not entirely different).
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Tamales, Tortillas and Time

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Tamales, Tortillas and Time

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

My fascination with cookbooks began when my mom gave me a copy of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Cookbook: Favorite Recipes from Mickey and His Friends when I was six years old. Through food, I would get closer to my favorite characters. Tinker Bell’s Spaghetti Sauce? I loved spaghetti too! Cinderella’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich? Yes, please! Bambi’s Garden Salad, Pluto’s Hot Dogs, and Mickey’s Sugar Cookies were a few of my other favorites. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, Peter Pan’s Pasta and Caterpillar’s Corn on the Cob are quite possibly where I learned my love of alliteration.)

Although I graduated from Mickey long ago, it was at that young age when my voracious appetite for cookbooks—and for reading in general—began. But it wasn’t until many years later that I started to make the connection between food and history. Most recently, I’ve spent countless hours perusing the Huntington Library’s collection of rare cookbooks to gain a deeper understanding of history. Through the language of food, cookbooks give us insight into a culture and a time period that bring us way beyond a recipe, ingredient or trend; they add personal insight—“personal” because we each have our own relationship with food.

One such cookbook, and the subject of my most recent obsession, is Mexico’s first, El Cocinero Mexicano (The Mexican Cook), published in 1831. Yes, the first Mexican cookbook doesn’t appear until the nineteenth century. Crazy to think, given the fact that the roots of Mexican food go back way beyond modernity. The reason for this involves colonialism, politics and identity.

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