Immigrant cooking in Mexico: The Mennonite kitchens of Chihuahua
In recent years, immigration has become a topic of intense focus, not only in the United States and Mexico, but worldwide. Although generally seen as a political question, there is no doubt that the movement of immigrants also falls into the cultural realm, of which cuisine is a significant part. Much of the history of the world reflects culinary interchange, from Alexander the Great's expedition to India that brought rice to Europe, to the Europeans' trans-Atlantic quest for spices, which led to the discovery and colonization of the Americas.
What is known today as Mexican cooking is generally considered to be a fusion of pre-Hispanic techniques and ingredients with those of the Spanish colonists. (Spanish cuisine was itself a fusion of European and Arabic before it even reached Mexico's shores.) The French influence on Mexico's cooking during the Porfiriato era was also important. However, several other groups, many of them early twentieth century immigrants to Mexico, contributed dishes that are now part of the national culinary repertoire.
The tacos árabes and tacos al pastor of the Lebanese and the Chihuahua cheese and sopaipillas of the Mennonites, along with the contributions of Italians, Welsh and other immigrant groups, form part of Mexico's gastronomic identity. These dishes have come to be considered Mexican rather than "foreign" or "international."
During 2007, this column will, from time to time, examine the culinary influences of some of Mexico's immigrant groups. This month, readers get a look into the kitchens of los menonitas, the Mennonites of Chihuahua….
For most Mexicans, the Mennonites are tall, light-skinned people, dressed in overalls, who produce their famous cheese. They are seen in several Mexican cities, including the capital, selling their cheese, butter and cookies from grocery carts to eager buyers. But where do they come from and how do they live?
The Mennonites are a religious group that has preserved its cultural identity nearly intact since its formation at the end of the 16th century in what is now Holland and Germany. Their lives are structured around their religious beliefs, which include non-participation in government and conscientious objection to service in the armed forces. Persecuted because of their beliefs, they dispersed throughout Europe, particularly Russia, and later to Canada.
In 1920-22, a group of Mennonites migrated from Canada to Mexico at the invitation of President Alvaro Obregon, who recognized their agricultural skills. They settled on the land that had formed the Hacienda de Bustillos, which had been founded in Chihuahua in 1868. Some Mennonite colonies were founded in other parts of Mexico, including Yucatan and Campeche, but the Chihuahua settlements, concentrated around the town of Cuauhtemoc, were the most numerous and longest-lasting. (For more background information on the Mennonites in Mexico, see " The Mennonites: A Dutch Heritage In Mexico," in the June 2003 issue of Mexico Connect.)
After so many migrations, it would be easy to assume that the culture of the Mennonites had changed, but their religious tenets and Lowland Dutch language remained intact. Their cooking, however, while retaining many of its Dutch-German characteristics, had been influenced by that of Russia and was to become further influenced by Mexican techniques and ingredients.
The production on their farms of such Mexican ingredients as beans, chiles and tomatillos had a significant impact on the dietary habits of the Chihuahua Mennonites, who were producing record crops of corn and beans by 1935 and including Mexican staples, such as chiles and tortillas, in their everyday menus. An important culinary exchange started to take place between the Mennonites and the other inhabitants of the region.
The hearty European soups that played a significant part in Mennonite gastronomy began to be flavored with the local chiles, and the cuisine of Chihuahua was greatly enriched by the Mennonite cheese, called queso menonita and, later, queso chihuahua. This pale yellow cheese, now duplicated in other parts of Mexico in versions ranging from mild to sharp, is still considered a specialty of the region, where the best Chihuahua cheese is found.
The farming lifestyle of Mexico's Mennonites has not changed drastically since their initial migration, and continues to be centered on the fields, orchards and kitchen, making it food-centered, in both domestic and commercial terms. Due to Chihuahua's extreme climate, with a more marked difference between summer and winter than found in other parts of the country, there is only one harvest season. Everything needed for the rest of the year is either canned, dried or preserved for winter.
Each family grows its own vegetables, including tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, potatoes, onions, corn, beans and herbs. There are also family orchards, with cherries, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, and the famous Chihuahua apples, a specialty of the Mennonites. Some continue to use plow horses to work the fields of wheat, beans, corn and oats, although the modern Mennonites, who live in the same communities as the Old Colony groups, now use tractors. (Many of them are also now bilingual and conduct business in Spanish as well as Lowland Dutch.) A number of these families also choose to use electricity, replacing part of the canning chores with freezing.
Every family has at least one cow that produces the milk, cream and butter for daily use, as well as chickens for meat and eggs. Pigs are primarily raised for home-cured hams, cold cuts and bacon. The homemade garlic beef sausage has become popular in the region, where people know that the Mennonite products are made from all local ingredients, using traditional methods.
While the Mennonite dairy industry has been largely modernized, the cooking, canning and preserving recipes and techniques have been passed down and remain nearly the same as they were when the group first arrived in Mexico, as have the home kitchens. The description of a contemporary kitchen in Recetario Menonita de Chihuahua (part of the Indigenous and Popular Cooking Series of CONACULTA, Mexico's National Council for Culture and the Arts) reads like something from a hundred years ago.
Large, simple, painted white, and unadorned except for a clock and a calendar, the kitchen centers around a large wooden table with benches on either side. Cooking utensils are like those seen in rural kitchens throughout Mexico, with huge clay pots and wooden spoons and spatulas in every size imaginable. Something that sets the Mennonite kitchen apart from those found in other homes is the traditional churn, still used to produce butter for home use, apart from the commercially sold product, and the hand-carved wooden butter molds.
The kitchen, at the center of the house, opens onto the granary on one side and the bedrooms on the other, and is the hub of domestic activity. Although modern life and its influences on young people threaten the Mennonite social structure, meal preparation and food preservation still require family participation. Meals are served family-style, from large bowls and platters brought to the table at the same time, rather than the pre-plated course-by-course servings customary in most Mexican homes.
Food and its production, preparation, serving and dining customs shed light on human beings as a whole, and cultural and ethnic groups in particular. For the Mennonites, as with immigrant groups everywhere, it serves as away of connecting with the ancestors.
For simple home cooking with a Mexican touch, the food of the Chihuahua Mennonites, with its hearty soups, seems particularly suited to the winter season. Their addition of chiles to these European soups adds depth of flavor and a pleasant warmth. The recipes below are easy, satisfying and perfect for family meals or large gatherings.