Academic journal article Diálogos Latinoamericanos

Gastronomy and Conquest in the Mexican-American War: Food in the Diary of Susan Magoffin

Academic journal article Diálogos Latinoamericanos

Gastronomy and Conquest in the Mexican-American War: Food in the Diary of Susan Magoffin

Article excerpt

The Mexican-American war has never been analyzed from the perspective of gastronomy and eyewitness reports focus on military aspects as well as on the exotic side -and the "colorful" mores- of the invaded population. Since the late 1980s, the New Historians of the West2 have been writing from the viewpoint of those left out by traditional history, nevertheless food is not their focal point. I discuss (colonial and post-colonial) gastronomy and conquest as seen through the eyes of an 18-year old woman, Susan Magoffin following her husband, a 42-year old trader in a caravan along the Santa Fe Trail on the heels of the conquering army. Along the way she kept a diary.3 Not food, but an insider's view of conquest made her diary a "minor classic"4 worth publishing in 1926 and reprinting in 2000. The Magoffin's 14 wagon outfit left Independence, Missouri, less than a month after the start of the war -an event that remains largely unmentioned in the diary- and followed the "natural highway for wheeled vehicles across the Great Plains that linked New Mexico to the United States."5 Gradually other wagon trains joined their party until it reached 75 or 80 wagons (42),6 then 150 (43) explaining why De Voto stated that in New Mexico "Manifest Destiny took the shape of a large-scale freight operation."7

The young woman undertook the trip out of curiosity and was offered luxurious transportation by her husband, a carriage, a maid, three servants, and a prototype tent that had all the amenities of home. She was freed from the usual chores a woman was expected to do on the trail, such as repairing clothes, wagon covers, tents, cooking on a fire on the ground, gathering "buffalo chips" to be used as wood, washing clothes.8 She had the leisure to read, sew -for pleasure and she definitely did not mend wagon covers-, knit, pick flowers, throw them away, start anew; she saw herself as a "a wandering princess" (7, 11). The only occupation that looked remotely like work was her learning Spanish on the way, which seemed sensible, not only because it was the language of the destination of the trip, but also because she had married into an international trading family.

Susan Magoffin is a rare female voice on the Santa Fe Trail; in 1846, the best-selling guide of the trail was Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies, published a year earlier. In his chapter on the geographical position of Santa Fe, listing mostly the interesting natural resources of an area that was not yet part of the United States, he devoted a few lines to New Mexican food.9 But his report on exotic food is ethnographic matter, not the heart-felt subject it becomes in Susan Magoffin's diary. Her gender-colored view of foreign cultures is based upon an affective relationship to the person making and/or serving the food, transforming the request of a recipe into a private endeavor.

Females in gender-coded societies tend to avoid fields traditionally assigned to men and find niches of their own. Molly Mullins, in her work on New Mexican culture in the 1920s, found such an enclave in a the (then) newly created field of collecting American Indian and Spanish Colonial arts, because "white women stepped into that opening more easily than they could have in art fields with a more established institutional and masculine structure."10 When Mrs. Magoffin commented upon Mexican and Native American food, she might have been doing the same thing, investing a field that was not dominated by male authority and where her knowledge was respected.

Gender is also the determining element in Susan's appreciation for interior decorating in the homes visited along the road; it is also a factor in obtaining information through female gossip, an experience that remained unknown to male travelers. Therefore food descriptions in the diary are typical of the "female frontier" defined by Glenda Riley.11 Susan Magoffin's frontier was recorded through "the little circle of her vision" (112) and comprised the usually insignificant elements that are absent from traditional history writing. …

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