Culinary Art and Anthropology

Culinary Art and Anthropology

Culinary Art and Anthropology

Culinary Art and Anthropology

Excerpt

As a once aspiring chef, I had always believed that anthropological studies of food were overly concerned with staple crops, ignoring the fact that food had flavour and was enjoyed and relished by those who ate and prepared it. When I began this research, I was struck by the fact that many ethnographies of food failed to take into account that cooking was a creative, even artistic process, that spices were as important as staples, and that individual dishes could be as meaningful as symbolic ingredients. One dish that was personally meaningful for me during my time in Mexico was chilaquiles.

Chilaquiles is typical Mexican breakfast food. It is made of fried pieces of day-old tortillas bathed in a chile-tomato sauce and garnished with mildly soured cream, white cheese and onions. Before going to Mexico, I had never tasted or cooked anything like it. My interest in and knowledge of cooking came mostly from my own research, reading, tasting, exploring, experimenting. So for me, experiencing chilaquiles, not just preparing or eating it, was a key ethnographic moment. (Some readers may be aware of Meredith Abarca's (2006) recent book on Mexican and Mexican American women and cooking, where she begins metaphorically with her mother's chilaquiles. I will discuss Abarca's work elsewhere, but I am still compelled to begin with chilaquiles, for I have my own story to tell…)

One morning I arrived early at the kitchen of my friend, Chef Ricardo Munoz. In a pot Ricardo had boiled green tomatoes (tomates verdes, tomatillos), a bit of onion and garlic, serrano chiles and epazote. He poured this into a blender with some of the cooking liquid, liquefied the mixture thoroughly and strained it into hot oil. The salsa sizzled for some moments, and then he lowered the heat for it to simmer with some salt. The day before he had cut up leftover tortillas into eight wedges each and left them to dry overnight. That morning he deep-fried them till crisp to make totopos and set them aside for the excess oil to drain. When the salsa was ready, he tossed in the totopos, quickly coating them evenly and warming them up. 'I like to keep them crispy,' he said. He arranged a mound of chilaquiles onto each plate, topping them with thin slices of white onion, crumbled white cheese (queso fresco or de canasto) and a dollop of thick cream (crema de rancho, like crème fraîche). He told me that he sometimes liked to put a bit of fresh coriander on top but that it was not really necessary. With or without, it was delicious, and it also looked beautiful. 'This is a typical Mexican breakfast,' he told me.

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