1
Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine

Mexican cuisine is something like a historical novel which has a gorgeously wanton
redhead on its dust jacket.

—Richard Condon, The Mexican Stove (1973, p. 13)

This chapter introduces the cuisines of Mexico in general, largely drawing from what I learned from reading food history and cookbooks and from my early fieldwork in the centre of Mexico City among chefs, students and researchers of Mexican gastronomy. This served as thorough preparation for the culinary life that I encountered later in Milpa Alta, on which most of this book is focused. Food writing colours our perceptions of other cuisines, and in my case, I became enamoured of Mexican cooking from what I had read prior to my first visit. In what follows I describe some of the ways that people think of and write about the cuisines of Mexico, starting with the all-important chile.


The Cultural Significance of Chiles

After the usual introductions, the first thing asked about me when I was brought to anyone's home in Mexico was invariably, 'Does she eat chile?' The second question was usually, 'And does she eat tortillas?'

Complemented with beans, chile and corn (most often in the form of tortillas) are the main ingredients of Mexican cuisine. The most culturally meaningful of the three is the chile. 'Food and cuisine can characterize a culture, and ours has been and continues to be characterized by our daily and widespread consumption of chiles' (Munoz, 1996, foreword, my translation). In Mexico, chiles are used primarily for their distinct flavours and not only for their heat. It is in Mexico where the most extensive variety of chiles is used. In their green, ripe or dried states they have different flavours which are cooked or combined for different effects.

The chile is the heart and soul of Mexican food. To each broth or stew that does not
contain chile, we add some hot salsa at the table. A very complex dish begins by roasting
and/or grinding chiles, and it is the chile that gives the peculiar and definitive accent to

-7-

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Culinary Art and Anthropology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1: Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine 7
  • 2: Cooking as an Artistic Practice 29
  • 3: Barbacoa in Milpa Alta 49
  • 4: Women as Culinary Agents 71
  • 5: Mole and Fiestas 89
  • 6: The Centrality of Gastronomy in Social Life 113
  • Notes 137
  • Works Cited 149
  • Index 159
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